Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Oversights of a Musical Nature

Yesterday, while doing the post-Christmas/pre-New Year's Eve tidy, I listened to the latest rock duo to capture the ears of the hip, and garnering a few cross-media raves to boot: Japandroids' Celebration Day. Midway through I wondered if I oughtn't to declare 2012 the year I gave up on Rock 'n' Roll. Japandroids fit in with the senior class of today's rock duos (see also: Sleigh Bells) which I have little-to-no use for. The Black Keys are the exception to this trend, and when Celebration Day was over I played the Keys' El Camino to see if my distemper with the Canuckle-head youngsters was just another example of me grumpily resorting to midlife obtuseness.

El Camino played like a breath of fresh air, I'm happy to report. Not that that exempts me from grumpiness, or midlife obtuseness. I could dissect what makes the Keys' music “work” for me (bluntly: formalist technique), and contrast that with what Japandroids do (or don't) but it's best for all parties if I simply surrender to the tides of change, and forward you to Philip Larkin's jazz criticism. College kids of the '80s thought the old poet gallingly square, but let's face it: he had a point. We may reach with some frequency for the “cool,” even the post-cool, but we don't spend much time with what came after that. The Great American Songbook is closing. The Global Songcloud is just beginning to billow out. So it goes.

I never gave it up to the Keys, did I? An oversight, and now the year is at an end. I meant to, and that's the important thing. Here are some other musical acts I meant to endorse and comment on. They put out some of my favourite albums this year, and deserve attending to.

RUSH, Clockwork Angels. Formalists and experimenters in equal measure, each new RUSH album is worth celebrating for its bush-clearing, sod-busting force of energy. But Clockwork Angels was also easy to listen to, and it produced the loveliest song yet in RUSH's considerable ouevre: “The Garden.” Further cause for celebration: a steampunk novel with the same title, written by Kevin J. Anderson, under the subtle direction of Neal Peart. For those of us who miss poring over gate-fold album art to better divine the true meaning of the music, this is fabulous fabulist stuff.

Meshuggah, Koloss. I hadn't heard, or heard of, “Djent”yet another sub-category of Metal — even though I'm a fan of the band that coined the term: Meshuggah. When I first gave Koloss a spin, I thought it a lesser effort to the previous album, obZen. Koloss grew on me, though, thanks (again) in no small part to the bonus material that came with the expanded CD (a “making of” doc, and some concert footage). This is textured, this is heavy, this is (dare I say?) meditative stuff. If you don't like Metal, you won't like this. But for those of us who do, there's nothing like Meshuggah.

Speaking of Metal, I think I was expecting something crunchier from Storm Corrosion — the most promising of this year's rock duos, Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) and Mikael Åkerfeldt (of Opeth). The album is certainly heavy, and has its sonic tensions that generate interest. A friend of mine talks about music that can't be played while washing dishes, because the dishes will never get done. Storm Corrosion certainly rests in this category, and consequently does not get much play. However, Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning and Insurgentes were both new to me this year, and received a great deal of taxi-Dad playtime.

Also enjoyed: the new Pat Metheny, and the new Charlie Hunter. And probably a few others that don't come immediately to mind, alas. But now I must tidy myself up and get ready for tonight's soiree. That's it for 2012. Let's hear it for 2013.

P.S. No, wait! Also Older Than My Old Man Now, by Loudon Wainwright III, and Sorrow & Smoke: Live At The Horseshoe Lounge by Slaid Cleaves.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Apocalypse: When?

William Kurelek's rendition of the Apocalypse,
as experienced in Hamilton, Ontario.

For those of us who don't have to take it seriously, this “Mayan” business is perhaps worthy material for mild amusement, but living Mayans are understandably pissed-off. Mind you, most of them are Christian, and it's not like ours is a religion innocent of fomenting public distress over The End of Days — a term we'd like to think we invented.

We didn't, of course. The human species seems genetically tuned in to the possibility — the certainty — of its final demise, and most religions wax rhapsodic about humanity's concluding episode, intimating there may be room for a sequel of sorts. We know we matter to ourselves, but what do we matter to the cosmos? The question launches us into the realm of speculation, dreams and nightmares, occasionally (rarely) wisdom. Poets assure us only that this is a world without happy endings. Your own personal apocalypse is unavoidable.

No surprise, then, that we turn for solace to music, the most ethereal and mathematical of expressions. I've recently been introduced — via this interview with Elaine Pagels, and the sublime writing of Alex Ross — to Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, The Quartet for the End of Time. I'll be giving that a spin as I tidy the house today. Ross recommends the Tashi Quartet, but I'll be playing the Gryphon Trio's recent recording.

And, as ever, I'll be playing Fagen and Becker's ironic (natch) paean to the end of time: “Everything Must Go.”

Indeed it must. But odds are I'll be back tomorrow, with further thoughts on All Those Angry Mennonites.

Howard Finster's rendition, as experienced 
just about anywhere.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher

Wishful DrinkingWishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Life is a cabaret" -- or perhaps more aptly, since Fisher wryly recounts how she failed as a chorus girl hoofer, "a comic monologue." Fisher skates lightly over thin ice and very dark water, covering conversational points that a prurient public is keen to hear embellished, but not gruesomely so: life on the Star Wars set; figuring out marriage in Hollywood; mixing it up with Paul Simon (twice); figuring out family in Hollywood (the insularity of family life in the fishbowl is remarkable to me: her mother remains her next-door neighbour); life as a very public mental health advocate; and waking up next to a dead friend, to name just a few. The book is essentially a transcript of her show from a year or two ago, and it's easy to hear her low, slurry delivery as you read it. I'd probably recommend a recording of this over the printed word, but since I had an hour to kill in a foreign library, this was precisely the item to ease the time.

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Old School, Tobias Wolff

Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Friday Big Jeff made it known that if his cousin got kicked out for cutting next afternoon's chapel, he was leaving with him. This was a curious and agreeable twist, Big Jeff spanieling after his cousin with tongue out, barking at phantoms as he followed him into martyrdom. It somehow put the whole thing in a farcical light, as Purcell must have understood, because he was furious.

The above passage comes late in Tobias Wolff's Old School. At this point the narrator and his other schoolmates are just weeks away from graduating their Exeter-like institution. Purcell has become that most insufferable of humans: an adolescent convert, in this case from an inherited, nominal Christianity to ardent atheist. Now he stands, alone, on principle. This being 1960, elite Protestant prep-schools require their students to attend daily chapel. Purcell is having none of it, and will soon be expelled for his insouciant variety of passive resistance. Alas for Purcell, “Big Jeff” has marched himself into a spotlight meant for one, and transformed a tragic drama of noble principle into a Laurel and Hardy comedy. Fraudulent motivations have been revealed — along with a great deal more.

It is a comic episode, one of many, elegantly framed by a writer who takes the comic imperative very seriously. The novel's school is quite the literary construct, a Hogwarts for young writers. The boys all compete for a private audience with the literary stars of the era (Frost! Rand!! Hemingway!!!). The fictions penned by these sprats are, in fact, masks crudely constructed to fit over their visages. Facade upon facade, painstakingly maintained to protect vulnerabilities — truths — from being revealed.

Wolff generates a beguiling self-awareness that is entirely unselfconscious — a precarious and breathtaking feat of balance. After all, this is a novel in which young writers concoct fiction upon fiction in a vainglorious effort to build themselves up into something they are not. Wolff's narrator, for instance, is attending the school on a scholarship, and in fact comes from a struggling household of modest means. He is understandably evasive about this with his schoolmates. He is also a Jew — a fact he is evasive about with himself.

Wolff's narrator's voice perfectly evokes the unfocused heat of youthful yearning, now regarded through a lens tempered by experiences that render a person either humiliated or humbled. Every character receives his comeuppance. Only the truest of them discover that their vulnerabilities are something not to reject, but embrace.

Earlier I made a comparison to Harry Potter. Had this been a novel of bold and inept measures, that is how it might have read. That so many readers regard Old School as a memoir is a testament to Wolff's fabulous powers of fictive persuasion. Perhaps there are a few “police court facts” thrown into the stew, but Wolff's compassionate exploration of life and truth is indeed novel, and finally an endearing and delightful work of fiction.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

A Cup Of Kindness Yet, hey rosetta!

This year's addition to the Christmas soundtrack comes via the spirited band of Maritimers, hey rosetta! A Cup of Kindness Yet finds the group in top form, giving us the original “Carry Me Home” (for free!) alongside three traditional pieces appreciably tweaked to get at the heart of their long-standing appeal. The free track is reminiscent of Paul Simon at his most focused. Download the whole shebang, and you'll also catch hints of Neil Young in Crazy Horse mode, and a larger sensibility akin to Over The Rhine (another seasonal favourite in this house). But of course it's all 100% hey rosetta! which, if you don't know it yet, is infectious and moving and all those things you want your music to be, regardless of the season.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

All The Angry Mennonites/Billy Graham - Take 2

On the recent ride down to Maine, during one of the silent periods (when we took a break from theaudiobook), a large bright bus sped past us. Painted on the emergency exit door, in large balloon letters, was, “HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS!”

“So are you going to honk?” asked my wife.

“I might,” I admitted. “If I knew which Jesus he's referring to.”

Why is this man laughing?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Template?

Hoo, baby -- those new Blogger templates look mighty fetching. I'm toying with trading this one in for one of the "dynamic" templates. If you click the link, then enter this site as the "preview," you get a pretty good idea what it would look like. It defaults to "sidebar" mode (yawn), but if you head to the upper-left corner you can see what the flashier "flipcard" "magazine" and "mosaic" modes look like.

In "dynamic" the preferred view is left to the visitor. If "classic" is your thing (as it is mine), you just set it to that. And I think -- I think -- I have the HTML chops to make the sidebar semi-interesting.

It's been nearly nine years with the current model. What think you, dear reader: reach for the flash, or should I back away from the light?

Update: in the comments Joel points out how to view the blog via the "Dynamic" template without trashing the trusty old HTML jalopy I've driven for the last nine years. Viewers who want the flash can click below YOWSA! on the upper right, and you'll get fed the "Magazine" view, which I'm rather partial to (it's flashy, but not burdensomely so, as it gives text preview the right of way). Once there, the viewer can select "Classic" "Flipcard" etc. Or just return here, for that beloved orange banner we've been loving this past decade.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Skyfall: Exactly Who, Or What, Outlived Usefulness? Because Something Sure Did

Word of warning: when this sentence closes I'll be ladeling out spoilers galore, so if that doesn't suit you leave now and come back after you've seen the movie and drawn your own conclusions.

M: You know the rules of the game. You've played it long enough. We both have.
BOND: Maybe too long.
M: Speak for yourself!

Played the game too long? It seems strange to have this assertion foisted atop the plough-horse shoulders of Daniel Craig's Bond, considering Skyfall is only his third cinematic outing. Sean Connery and Roger Moore both cantered with deceptive ease through no less than seven James Bond adventures apiece before contentedly trotting out to pasture and leaving younger, less capable mavericks to spraddle-leg the goads of legacy. Time and circumstance were perhaps unkind to Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan, but with Casino Royale there was never any question as to whether Craig had it in him to sustain the franchise. Even Quantum of Solace, which everyone now seems to regard as a colossal turd,* pulled in a king's ransom only a few million shy of the biggest Bond payout. So long as Craig kept away from the pasta table and didn't bitch too poisonously about the job, the role was clearly his for the taking.

But even if it is slow to cross the minds of moviegoers, the question, “Has Bond outlived his usefulness?” is certainly one the filmmakers must ask themselves. Pushing the question to the front and centre of Skyfall's story, however, made for an unsettling experience. Worse yet, events forced me to concede the unhappy affirmative. For the first time in my life, I left the theatre not wanting to be James Bond.

An overfamiliarity with Bond is certainly one formidable challenge to the enjoyment he offers. Critics speak appreciatively, for instance, of Skyfall's motorcycle chase across the rooftops of a Cairo market. But most reviewers aren't aware that Brosnan's Bond has already been there and done that. Are you scratching your head, trying to recall the scene? Then you haven't played 007: Everything Or Nothing. Take it from someone who has, it's even more exciting to successfully manipulate then it is to watch.

Seemingly aware of this divide, the filmmakers conclude their version of the chase by taking slow, deliberate aim at Bond, then firing a sniper's bullet through his chest and dropping him into the drink. Game over. Start again.

So far, so brilliant. The filmmakers had me in the palm of their hand and kept me there, as they hoisted the story high among the glass towers and neon signs of Shanghai, then down into the gambling dens where Bond meets the mysterious Sévérine (the most compelling scene in the movie, to my mind**), and finally onto the deserted industrial island where Anton Chigurgh — wup: Silva — awaits.

And then things fall apart. The scene sets up the rest of the movie, and, depending on where the viewer places value, either succeeds or fails robustly from this point on.

"What do you think, James: too late to turn around?"

Sévérine and Bond are in shackles, awaiting who knows what. Sévérine is clearly fearful of her fate, while Bond remains impassive in the face of the unknown. She is taken away, and he is seated in the lair, where he endures yet another, “We have much in common, you and I,” speech, this time from a villain who gives Fleming's implicitly gay subtext a hard nudge closer to the explicit. Bond quips his way out of his shackles, and the two repair to the courtyard, where Sévérine, still tied-up, awaits.

Now Silva forces Bond into a game of William Burroughs-Tell, placing a shot-glass of The MacCallan 50 on Sévérine's head and allowing Bond the first shot. Bond shoots too high (purposely? More later); Silva deliberately kills her. “Waste of good scotch,” says Bond. He then single-handedly defeats Silva's goons and holds him at gunpoint while British helicopters descend to the rescue — too late for Sévérine, alas.

At this point my emotional ties to the story disappeared. All I could see were B-movie tropes older than the pulp mill, and reheated leftovers from other recent blockbusters. Dodging machine-gun crossfire by sprinting in a straight line with head lowered? Check. Running away from, then jumping to the left of, a fiery explosion? Check. Helicopter swooping in on the attack while broadcasting ironically jaunty music? Check.

And how about the script? “He's been one move ahead of us every step of the way. It's time to change the game.” The “game-changer”: head to a familiar, abandoned shack to set up a defence and await the villain's final assault. Say, why not make the shack the hero's childhood home? While you're at it, why not make it a mansion? With a secret tunnel? And a gruff but affable groundskeeper? As M and Bond and Alfred — wup: Kincade — scoured the building for potential weaponry, I half expected them to stumble across a baffled Christian Bale, caught taking a mid-day mope.

But Skyfall is where we get the motherlode, quite literally. M dies within a stone's throw of where Bond's mum and pop have been laid to rest — yet another très tragique loss our increasingly Sisyphean hero must stoically endure. Was he crying as she breathed her last? It could be argued yes, it could be argued no.

As could so much of the movie. Getting back to poor Sévérine, why did he make the quip about the scotch? Was it, to spin it generously, an effort to non-plus the villain into distracted meditation, the better to catch him and his goons off-guard? Then why did he hand Silva over to M, when he'd promised Sévérine he'd avenge her death? Was Bond absolutely certain he could pull off a private vendetta in London? Or maybe he didn't mean what he promised. Maybe (yikes!) he really did feel badly about the scotch.

Or maybe he's grown too weary of women getting killed on him to give a toss one way or the other. Lord knows I have. Watching Sévérine get shot and forgotten I realized what had indeed outlived its usefulness: that dreariest and most predictable of adolescent fantasies, the perfunctory death of a lover who complicates things. Conversely, it also revealed what I had come to value most in Craig's iteration of the character: the patient revelation of unguessed-at depths, brought out solely by the women in whom Bond invests interest — Vesper Lynd, Camille, and once upon a time, M herself.

Sévérine was only given half a chance. Now, with M erased from the scene and Moneypenny corralled into office domesticity, Bond returns to the fustiest old boy's club imaginable. For “the Bond of the new Milennium” to regress any further he'd have to join Promise Keepers.

Feh. Game over. Start again.

*I saw the movie again the other week, and while the story is not as taut as Casino Royale, I'd still rate it as the second-best of the post-Connery Bonds. Even with Jack White's homework-at-the-last-minute theme-song, Quantum is leaps ahead of this movie.

**Nor am I alone: “The short conversation between Craig and Marlohe is perhaps the most realized sequence of the movie: The actress conveys both terror and vulnerability, and Craig comes across as concerned, competent, and empathetic.” Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Making Sense of THE News

The escalating events of the past few weeks have made it very clear that one American male is without question the most polarizing figure in the world. I honestly thought all the controversy had spun itself out, that the shameful past was behind us, that we, the global public, could move on to a better, shared vista of genuine hope.

The headlines, alas, reveal the sad truth. The way forward is ambivalent, and almost certain to be wrought with controversy. The minutiae of one man's vision, and all the little decisions — and his many duplicitous attempts to double-back and alter the official history — will continue to be pored over by historians of every conceivable stripe, while the man himself remains an inexplicable enigma.

I'm talking, of course, about George Lucas.

I didn't think the sale of Star Wars to Disney was particularly controversial. Lucas & Co. have had a creaky ride in the California theme-park for decades. The Saturday morning serial is certainly on par with, if not slightly above, Disney television standards. And with last summer's bloated, sluggish and nonsensical John Carter of Mars, Disney finally proved itself Lucas's cinematic equal. The time was ripe for a passing of the torch. As Yoda once said, “Be, you must let it.”

But I was just being naive (or too weary to pay attention and care). Tom Carson, who's spent his professional life sniffing with disdain at Lucas products, isn't so sure this is a good thing — for anyone. On the other hand, Dale M. Pollock seems to think this deal might have saved Lucas' life. Fans are all over the map on the issue. As for me, if my experience with the recent Star Trek reboot has taught me anything, it's best to keep the tomatoes holstered until I've actually seen the new product.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Farewell, Old Ironsides

I finally opened the door to our insurers. Remarkable how exposed the hapless consumer feels when the people he pays to stand up for his belongings come by to assay what those belongings are actually worth — to them.

Exposed: the bathrooms I've been meaning to gut and refurbish. The piles of books that don't seem to be getting any smaller, no matter how many I give away. And then there's the basement. “Sir, are those boxes of . . . comic books? (You realize they aren't worth anything, don't you?)”

It all went swimmingly enough. The worst news was exactly what I'd braced myself to hear — this charming, unregenerate smoker has got 30 days to shape up or ship out:

Old Ironsides doesn't have it in him to shape up — and has long been retired of course. Can't have any fires happening where they aren't wanted. Our insurers, however, have done exactly that, and lit one under my posterior. Beth has long wondered what it might cost to install something new, something small, something efficient and easier on the environment. At some point in the next 30 days I'll be able to say exactly what that expense will amount to.

More pictures to follow.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen

Fans of the 'Dan should be forgiven if they presumed Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos would expand upon the faux-cheerful post-apocalyptic landscape of 2003's Everything Must Go. There is some of that panographic perspective in this solo outing of his, most explicitly in “Memorabilia.” The singer excitedly catalogs a pedestrian inventory of trash, stowed away in the wake of America's Nuclear Dawn. In the main, however, the global signals of collapse are but a dim shadow of what is taking place inside the hearts and minds of Fagen's tortured male narrators. “They may fix the weather in the world,” claims one such, “but tell me: what's to be done about the weather in my head?”

This is an admittedly self-induced state for these fellas, most of whom seem to be desperately clinging to, or reminiscing about, failed relationships with energetic girls much too young for them — a not-uncommon motif running through the shared ouevre of Steely Dan/Fagen. The experienced listener expects this, along with the locked-down back-beat, the blues-piano progressions and the too-ironically-bright-to-be-comfortable (to my ears, at least) digital production. The experienced listener also tunes in for the subtle surprises, which Sunken Condos delivers in “Good Stuff” — another Cheerful Ode To The Hipster-Goon: a Prohibition-era enforcer in this case, who resolves his romantic troubles using the tactics of his profession.

I gradually fell deeply in love with this album, so my take on it is closer to this guy's (he hears evocations of the criminally underrated Gaucho; “Good Stuff” is definitely in the lineage of “Glamour Profession,” another favourite of mine). But most listeners, I suspect, will probably pitch in with this guy. If you think that might be you, do yourself a favour and download “Good Stuff.” If that grabs you, try “Slinky Thing” and “Miss Marlene.” Sit with those three for a while, and see if you don't go back and hit, “Complete Album.” It's not a bad soundtrack to have, particularly for those of us getting into the habit of bailing out our basements.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Billy Graham's Endorsement Of Romney Gives Morally-Bankrupt Mainstream Christians A Reason To Hope!

I've avoided commenting on the American election because it's become clear to me I simply don't understand what's going on. There were a few pleasant months when that was not the case, when we had a President who worked out a fairly clear agenda voters could expect for another four years — a cautious tweaking of the Bush Doctrine, near as I could tell. And we had a candidate who argued that George W. Bush failed chiefly because he did not go far enough in his dismantling of market controls. Dramatic, unusual spectacle, this: someone whose take on things economic, military and religious was in true — but loyal — opposition to the President.

At this point it looks to me like the contender has altered his economic and military promises to more or less fall in lockstep with the President. The result, if polls are any indication, suggests the coveted “swing” voters want someone who will stay the course, so long as that someone is not the current President.

I don't understand.

I have to wonder: if the contender has undergone such a radical conversion in his economic and interventionist world views, what is to prevent him from kneeling before Billy Graham and reciting the Sinner's Prayer? Would this not net him a landslide win?

Ah, but as his personal Lord and Savior truly spoke: what doth it profit a man to win the election, but lose his soul? Or something to that effect.

Or maybe nothing to that effect. The candidate did, in fact, meet with Billy Graham and his son Franklin. And they prayed.

Although photographed and talked about, little has been revealed of this meeting, except that the 94-year-old “spiritual advisor” to US presidents of either party, came out of the room urging Americans “to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage.” No mention was made of the prayer's content, so we must assume Romney remains a professing Mormon. The clear take-away is, hey Evangelicals, do not vote for the (professing Christian) President, please and thank you.

This is only worth commenting on for three reasons: 1) Back in the '70s Graham sat down in Richard Nixon's oval office and engaged in a bit of mutual Jew-baiting, while the tape rolled on. Graham has since confessed remorse, and declared himself determined to steer clear of public political allegiances. 2) The only time Billy broke faith with this fast on political grandstanding was when, in his concern for the legacy he was leaving behind for his grandchildren, he stood before George W. Bush and declared that God was not at all ambivalent about nations who claim his blessing but torture their prisoners of war, and that waterboarding could not be considered anything but torture, so stop, for the love of God and America, please please stop.

Oh, hold on: wrong guy. Godless atheist Christopher Hitchens was the one who stood up and said torture was wrong, that America should stop because it was taking a toll on its very character — its “soul,” if you will.

Regardless, reason 3) is still pertinent, and gives us, just maybe, a little ray of hope: Billy Graham, the “World Evangelist” from North Carolina and the closest thing the Evangelicals of the USA have to a Pope, no longer declares Mormonism a “cult.”

Cult, schmult, you say. Who cares?

Well, Graham and his flock of Evangelicals care — or they did for many decades. Billy's website stated up until very recently that, “a cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith. It is very important that we recognize cults and avoid any involvement with them. Cults often teach some Christian truth mixed with error, which may be difficult to detect . . . Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists, Scientologists, and others.” According to this site, “That page went missing sometime between Graham's meeting with Romney last Thursday and the start this week.”

Here is where I see that ray of hope. I may be wrong — I've been confused by Graham's words before — but bear with me. It seems Graham recognizes that some “cults” have “Christian” values which Graham holds exceedingly dear — shared values, if you will.

Does he muse any further on that? If — if — Christian values are fundamentally concerned with the so-called traditional family, with unity of worship, with a vibrant faith community that unites to first address the complete needs of its flock and then the industry of its host nation, I would have to say that, at a superficial glance, the Mormons are doing a much better job of it than are the Evangelicals. Might Graham wonder how this can be, if the Mormons read fraudulant scripture and place their faith in Satanic lies that condemn them to Hell, while Graham's flock is blessed with God's revealed salvivic truth?

Maybe at the advanced age of 94 he's rethinking a lifetime of presuppositions which he has, for the most part, kept silent about. If so, there's still time for him to reconsider what the Bible does not have to say about a democratic state's definition and recognition of marriage — or if it even has any business concerning itself with those issues to begin with.

As for the rest of you Evangelicals now falling in step behind the Mormon, you know what this innocent bit of equivocating on your part means, don't you? That's right: you're the Mainstream now, baby! As a Moderate Christian feeling the heat on the lower slopes, let me be the first to welcome you to the fold.

We might not agree on much — we might not agree on anything. But we've got a catchy anthem everybody can sing along to.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I'll be posting my Menno-centric musings (like the one below) on Whisky Prajer (the page you're looking at), and archiving it here.

That's the plan for now. If it changes, I'll let you know.

Discomfort In The Pew

This particular preacher was quite a character. He liked to preach with the mic off, because he knew he could — and would — project to the back of the balcony without amplification.

And this particular listener was in his early-20s — just old enough to see with absolute clarity through the skein of some 2000 years of received wisdom. A perilous age, especially for men.

The preacher was going on and on about this truck he'd seen in some convention centre somewhere — this big truck, this monster truck, shiny with chrome and powerful beyond all reasonable measure. But it was in the showroom. It wasn't there to do anything, just sit there and look impressive. This truck looked like it could move mountains. But nobody bothered with even starting the engine.

And was this not the perfect metaphor for the Church — even our church — here, today? We look so good, but when are we going to start the engine and demonstrate what we can really do? When are we . . . .

Etc., etc.

The listener had his hands clamped on the pew below him, to keep from standing up and walking out — or worse. All that sap, running through such a green tree. He felt a sudden urge to spring up and ask, “Why? So we can have more suburban churches?”

Suburban churches — no, that wasn't quite what was bugging the listener.

“So we can keep killing art with our 'message'?”

 Here we go, now we're cooking.

“Look at our bookshelves.”

Preach it!

“Look at the movies we make. Look at what we've done to rock 'n'roll. Are we to do that with every vibrant thing on this planet?”

Yeah, well. I stayed seated and kept my mouth shut. Friends had dropped similar neutron-bombs of indignation in their family churches, and it helped to recall the unanticipated fallout zone of embarrassment that followed.

I asked myself different questions. Like, “Why get so worked up? If people want to shower and dress up for this sort of thing, why piss in their punchbowl? Why not, instead, take the hint and stay home?”

So that's what I did. Until I didn't — because every home is haunted . . .  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to Nina Simone, by Meshell Ndegeocello

There is a scene early in Point Of No Return where the assassin initiate, played by Bridget Fonda, informs her trainer-captor that if he wants her co-operation, he will have to provide her with a stereo and a library of Nina Simone CDs. In a movie riddled with curious ineptitudes (a Hollywood remake of Luc Besson's darkly hilarious La Femme Nikita being the first and foremost), this flat note is particularly memorable. Had the filmmakers indulged the conceit any further, Simone's tortured textures would have completely overpowered the fizzy confection at work.

Reflexive reach for Simone is certainly explicable. That woman had a voice that seemed thrown from a titanic collision of heartbreak and defiance. Her recordings were a tapestry of hurt and inner fortitude, strung with threads of insight, woven from a habit of scathing appraisal without and within. And she possessed a killer wit, but not one so self-protective it ever muted her frank expression. Who could blame Fonda & Co. for wanting to pay homage to the glorious Nina Simone, and possibly inject just a smidgen of such substance into the project at hand?

Caution, however, is called for. Simone made herself a study of contrasts. Anyone who willingly strikes a pose beneath Simone's large shadow runs the risk of drawing unintended contrasts of their own, and standing out as what Simone was not: a pretender, looking ridiculous. Most tributes to Nina Simone, however earnest and well-intentioned, contain traces of vanilla — or Fonda-ness.

No such worries for Meshell Ndegeocello, who is no small study in contrasts herself. Her many releases chart a vast domain of heartbreak, defiance and insight all her own. For the past five years, Ndegeocello has cultivated a particularly fertile field, with Devil's Halo and the Joe Henry-produced Weather standing as outstanding sonic and lyrical achievements. Now, with Pour une âme souveraine, Ndegeocello's tribute to Nina Simone, she invites a cast of other singers (including Sinéad O'Connor, Cody Chesnutt and Valerie June) to join her in a shared exploration of what drew Simone to particular material. The combined strength of character and smarts, teamed to Ndegeocello's restless depth of perception brings new light, not just to the current performers, but to the work of Simone as well.

Pour une âme souveraine is the first tribute to Nina Simone I recommend without reservation.

Meshell Ndegeocello.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Monks' Suspended Animation Best Left In Suspension

I really want to give the Monks' Suspended Animation a passing grade, because, like so many Canadians who came of age in the early '80s I am a drooling fan of their truly five-star first album Bad Habits. But honestly: Suspended Animation hits its marks too rarely for me to recommend it.

As I understand it, in their native England the Monks never surpassed one-hit wonder status (“Nice Legs, Shame About The Face”), so John Ford and Richard Hudson returned to their paying gig in the Strawbs and moved on. Across the pond in Canada, however, it was another story. Bad Habits attained a high cult status with its infectious hooks and sly lyrics that kept the artful balance of ironic observation without falling into easy parody. When the album went multi-platinum in 1981, management corralled Ford and Hudson back into the studio for another go as The Monks, exclusive to the rabid Canadian fans.

Suspended Animation is proof that sometimes you can only bottle lightning once. With the sole exception of the album opener, “Don't Want No Reds,” the album's song titles pretty much give away the game at first pitch. “James Bondage” “Don't Bother Me — I'm A Christian” and “King Dong” don't leave much room for the artist to surprise a listener with ironic insight, never mind clever turns of phrase. As for easy parody, the Monks often fail here, too, with subject matter that was never funny to begin with (“Ann Orexia” is a bad idea made worse by preachy finger-wagging).

There are flashes in the production that suggest these otherwise accomplished rockers were fishing for something meatier than what they were landing. “Space Fruit” is a nice reprisal of what “Skylab” first laid down. “Beasts In Cages” and “Lost In Romance” contain traces of the subtlty we heard in Bad Habits. But fans of the first album who haven't yet given this album a spin are best advised to resist the urge, and re-cue Bad Habits instead. Suspended Animation is for completists only.

Or maybe, as Van Morrison insists, "It's ALL spurr-chal!"

The other morning Beth asked me what I thought the interaction between spirituality, religion, and disability was. I was surprised. Most of our dialogs start with, “Remind me again: am I going to pick her up at 5:00, or are you?” But E___ at work was asking this question, so Beth brought it home.

I initially responded with my knee-jerk, “I don't like 'spirituality.' Spirituality = emotional state. Big deal.”

She responded that she disliked “Religion.” “Religion = dogma, piety, stiflement. Who needs it?”

By evening I had reconsidered the question. I said that “spirituality” as a concept didn't make much sense to me, until I read Erik Davis' meditation on Led Zeppelin's fourth album, which prompted me to reflect on my lifelong love of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here are my original thoughts on that, but the summary is: TOS engendered a longing for something that seemed almost attainable, yet remained always just short of actual reach. Perhaps spirituality was another word for that longing, that sense of a platonic ideal making a silent appeal to our imaginations.

“Religion,” on the other hand, strikes me as an organized group response to those urges and feelings. So many pious observations — the Eucharist, reciting the Lord's Prayer, tithing, prayer and thanksgiving (to cite the more obvious Christian examples) — have a rhythmic, ritual similarity to musical exercises that, when explored with sensitivity, turn out to be the foundation of our musical understanding and expression. Scales, chords, arpeggios: rearrange them a certain way and you get Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” or Howlin' Wolf's “Chocolate Drop.”

If you, as the average privileged First World resident, follow some combination of these two impulses while working in concert with the disabled, I think what you enable is the leisure — the space — for the disabled and their families and communities to attend to their own yearnings and to articulate their own responses in turn. Stretching the music metaphor, I think what we're after is a concert effect. You learn to play a few new notes, while dropping others. It is all, one hopes (as I hope in my own such attempts at response) a good thing.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Monks' ‘Bad Habits’: Joining In The Tribute

For this 16-year-old Winnipeger, circa 1980, life was chiefly what you heard and saw on the bus. And if you spent five days a week riding from west end suburbia to the Mennonite school just inside the east end of the city, you saw and heard a great deal.

Winnipeg had Punks, for starters. No more than two-dozen of 'em, but they all rode the bus. I admired and envied their aesthetic. These days every five-year-old boy gets a mohawk and an earring for his first day of kindergarten, but back in '80 those choices invited censure and even violence. I never copped anything bolder than a mullet (as cut by my usually game mother, in the family kitchen), or wore anything more remarkable than a skinny tie, or Gorilla work boots, or a few band pins (most of them Christian) on my reasonably faded jean jacket.

The Winnipeg punks took pride in their 'dos. They wore outlandish gear — army surplus, the better to endure the cruel winters. And they took pains to scrawl or paint “The Monks” on their jackets.

Ah, The Monks: far and away the most accessible punk band on the Canadian Prairies. You could find Bad Habits — their one and only album* — in the sale bins of every K-Mart and Woolco store in the city. A mere two dollars got you immediate entrance into this dangerous-looking scene.

So, did I bite?


I'd heard punk described as “noise” and didn't yet have a threshold for anything without a reliable foundation of at least three chords. And then there was this business of lyrics. Just looking at the album cover, with its startled nun caught in the act of removing her habit for a night on the town, and the song titles (“Drugs In My Pocket”? “No Shame”?! “I Ain't Getting Any”?!?!) convinced me this was music that a) I'd have a difficult time squaring with my conscience, and b) would never fly in my parents house, so I left well enough alone.

A year or two later I was riding in a tour bus filled with band and choir classmates. We were coming home from Kenora, Ontario, and the boys from the volleyball team were holding down the back seats and playing Bad Habits on the team boom-box. I seethed — ostensibly for pious reasons, but truthfully because the music was inescapably fun. And these guffawing lunks had got to it first.

Thirty years after that, I'm told that The Monks were a uniquely Canadian phenom. John Ford and Richard Hudson, the Monks' creative duo, originally fronted The Strawbs, a soppy-stern prog-rock band that had something of a following in Britain. Ford and Hudson were closely watching the punk scene, and, on a lark, took to the studio to join in on the fun. Bad Habits was the result, and “Nice Legs, Shame About Her Face” rocketed to the top of the pops. At some point, the penny dropped that these jokers weren't even remotely punk, certainly not in origin, and they experienced that uniquely British backlash that occurs when the public thinks they've been had by a pop band.

Hold on: this is punk?!

None of this was an issue in Canada, where the album was being sold by the skid-load. Was the colony getting punk'd by a couple of wise-ass Limeys? Listening to the album now, I very much doubt it.

Musically, Bad Habits is a far cry from punk: the band members have clear mastery of their instruments, and the wordplay, regardless of all the “Oys”, is much too agile. “Nice Legs,” which almost sounds like a lark recorded in someone's garage, giddyups with a mid-song key change, and lyrically fits the attitude that informs the rest of the songs, with the incorrigible yob of a narrator receiving his comeuppance at song's conclusion.

In fact, the lyrics that so worried me actually have an Everyman sort of progression to them. Certainly the various narrators are keen on indulgence at every front. But theirs is a rigidly moral universe: the twit lamenting “I Ain't Getting Any” is clearly too daft to realize just what a revolting figure he cuts, and “Drugs In My Pocket” is anything but an endorsement of the lifestyle. You almost get the impression the nun on the cover might find her way back to the confessional.

Then there's “Johnny B. Rotten,” a dual-play on Chuck Berry's hit and the then-infamous singer of the Sex Pistols. It's the album opener, and strikes a super-fine balance between affectionate homage and taking the piss, while sustaining an infectiously energetic dance-ability. And as with all the album's songs, its turns of phrase demonstrate a subtlety of intelligence approaching that of two other über-clever musicians (ahem): Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.

Of course, “Out Of Work Musician” might not finally tap the tragicomic gravitas that “What A Shame About Me” draws upon. But that was never the goal. The goal, I think, was to have as much fun as two smart, accomplished musicians could have in a particular given moment. They achieved that with exceptional flare, and that's what won over the ears of Canadians — including Yours Truly, once he got over himself.

Thomas D'Arcy is the fellow responsible for this reminiscence.** This summer the Ontario-based singer and his cohort threw together a tribute album that attempts to preserve all the elements that originally won them over — which is everything, of course — while riffing off potential blank spaces. The end result is reverential, to say the least. And yet there is an unmistakable personal grit that sometimes polishes what was rough, and at other times texturizes what was perhaps a tad too smooth and shiny to begin with.*** Regardless of what you think of it, the price is way right, and well worth the listen — especially if this is your introduction to D'Arcy — or The Monks, Canada's favorite British “punk” band.


*The Monks had a follow-up album — In Suspension — that they released two years later, exclusively to Canada. It looked to me like it, too, went straight to the sale bins. Also, it's terrible. I'm serious — terrible.

**D'Arcy's history of the band and this album is succinct, and mostly spot-on. But “big in Canada, HUGE in Ontario”? Dude: if a bus-full of prairie Mennonite farm-boys, who didn't know Johnny Rotten from Johnny Walker, could bellow along to “Nice Legs” in the early 80s, I think it's fair to say Ontario's larger claim is to its predominant population base.

***D'Arcy's overall mix itself is a fabulous improvement on my old '93 CD, which is painfully bright on the ears.

Here is a recent interview with Monk John Ford, re: the tribute album, and The Monks' unique legacy in Canada.

Friday, September 21, 2012

All The Angry Mennonites, Part 1

During a recent visit, my father surprised me with a question: “Do you read any of the 'Angry Mennonites'?”

I asked him if this was a formally defined group, like Gertrude Stein's “Lost Generation” or Lauren Bacall's “Rat Pack,” and he admitted the term was amorphous, but commonly used among his peers. Who were the usual suspects, I wondered. He came up with the expected list: Miriam Toews, Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, Sandra Birdsell — basically the only Mennonites receiving what passes for prestige treatment in Canadian publishing. I said they could be difficult to avoid, but I somehow managed.

A bit of a dodge, that. The truth is I've read enough of all those guys to know I have no interest in the larger monologue. If asked about the moral/immoral legacy of the Mennonites and the psychic burdens their theology and pieties place on the individual, I can fill in the blanks pretty quickly all by myself. In fact, I have filled in the blanks.

Last winter as I prepared to attend my grandmother's funeral, my wife pressed a notebook to me and said, “You should start writing. Now.”

So I reminisced as I flew to the prairies. It was pleasant, for the most part, but there was no escaping the single largest fact in all this: I had physically removed myself from the environment I grew up in, putting considerable geographical and spiritual and “Lifestyle” distance between me and the clan that raised me. You want grievances? Scribner doesn't make a large enough notebook.

Which probably cuts to the heart of my father's concern. His question was likely a dodge, to begin with. The question he probably meant to ask was, “You're not an angry Mennonite — are you, son?”

Well . . . yeah, Pop: I'm afraid I am.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Wrinkle In Time, The Graphic Novel

As Disney was leading up to the release of its television mini-series of A Wrinkle In Time, an interviewer asked Madeleine L'Engle if the show met her expectations. "Oh yes," she said. "I expected it to be bad, and it is."

ON THE OTHER HAND, Hope Larson's graphic adaptation of the deeply beloved novel, due October 5, looks most promising.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Country Funk, 1969-1975

I can't recall which cheeseburger joint was playing it, but when I first heard John Rich's “Mack Truck” (YouTube) I thought, “Oh no: Nashville finally discovered Hip-Hop.” Then I thought, “Good Lord, that sounds as bad as 80s-era Christian Rock.” Which got me thinking of Hank Hill's jeremiad: “Can't you see you're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock 'n' roll worse!” Nashville has been taking the corner-kickers to rock 'n' roll for decades now, so it's finally moved on to Hip-Hop. And yes, Nashville is making it much, much worse.

It was not always thus, and the Country Funk 1969-1975 collection is a delightful reminder of more fecund cross-pollination. It seems the young country singers of the Age of Aquarius heard a sensibility they could strongly identify with in the funk records of their day, and thought, “I could do that!” It's a street-sensibility (“L.A. Memphis Tyler Texas” “Hawg Frawg”), a Gospel-sensibility (Link Wray's killer “Fire & Brimstone”), a “Leave me alone, I'm enjoying the Highway to Hell just fine” sensibility (“Stud Spider”). Add a light touch of twang, and boy-howdy if it doesn't all work (well ... with the possible exception of Dennis the Fox's “Piledriver,” which sounds a bit forced).

The download places offer this collection as “album only” but I wouldn't let that scare you off: I can't think of any other way I'd play these songs. Highly recommended for the last few car-washes of the Fall.

Links: Amazon, eMusic, (no iTunes, sorry).

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Postcard From Maine

Dear P____;

Greetings from the beaches of Maine, where the lovely Quebecois women smile when they catch you looking at them, or turn surly if they discover you are not.

We had rain the other day, and beat a short retreat to the city. When I staggered through the doors of the mall and into its frigid clime, the first sight to greet me was a large “entertainment” store, selling a now-unusual abundance of inexpensive CDs, DVDs and related tech. Assured of my place for the next few hours, the women of the family happily moved on to more promising commercial vistas.

I collected armloads of goodies, of course. The chap behind the counter read my credit card and said, “God bless you Canadian patriots!” I think he meant to say “citizens,” but I was so tickled at the thought of usurping Don Cherry from his singular post I didn't bother to correct. Instead I asked, “How's business?”

Oh, just abysmal,” he cheerfully assured me. He went on to say that in the heyday of his 23 years with this outfit, they'd had over 200,000 stores. That heady number had collapsed to just under 500 and he saw no reason to think he'd make the quarter-century mark as a company man. “Amazon has bought the state's old General Motors plant, and several empty hangars besides. They're offering same-day shipping, which I figure will pretty much close this entire mall.

How has Amazon flourished so brilliantly in this country of extroverts? In Canada, it makes perfect sense to have a shuttered, mercantilist hegemony like Amazon. We dislike leaving the driveway, and fear the larger consequences of doing so. Making eye-contact with strangers, or even (God forbid!) small-talk? No, it's much better to stay at home and turn on the TV. In America the only people who can be found at home are hosting someone else at their table. Americans live to engage, and removing them from the physical marketplace seems a deliberately cold and cruel irony.

But that's the way things have gone. As I tore the celophane off my newly acquired jewel-boxes I thought of a conversation I'd had the previous week with my friend K__. Through the 90s and into the Oughts, K__'s instinct for the bleeding edge of music kept me effortlessly abreast of who was who. Now when I ask him what he's listening to, he says he doesn't know. He downloads musical podcasts released by the hip young curators of teh interwebz and listens to them at work. If something catches his ear he takes note of the podcast playtime, and later excises the portion that tickled him and adds it to his own larger playlist. But song title, album, band name? Immaterial, when there is so much (too much?) yet to be discovered.

I abuse the metaphor, but cloud technology is where we are headed because that is where our collective consciousness already resides. Only occasionally within this sludge do genuine distinctives surface.

So, back to the solace of the beach. Young or old, Quebecois or Canadian patriot, male or female or something not so bluntly identifiable, here we all gather, nearly naked, padding about the same sandy shore, bobbing within the same churning waters. The smiles are welcome, but so are the shrugs, the studiously averted eyes and the unexpected blushes. Distinct in a sea of generalities, we are what we are: painfully, delightfully strange — to each other, and even to ourselves.

With regards,

- D___.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Going North To Alaska?

A public service announcement from my elder daughter, who had cause to remember an incident from last summer: If you are touring Alaska, do yourself a favour and do NOT book with an advertised "Salmon Bake." That is remarkably fresh fish, to be sure, but what those cooks do to it over an open flame is a desecration.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thad Ziolkowski's Worthy Addition To The American Picaresque

WichitaWichita by Thad Ziolkowski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lewis Chopik is in a bad way. He's just graduated with a perfectly useless literary degree from Columbia, while his feminist ex-girlfriend has graduated to a more prestigious boyfriend — a tenured professor. With his ego and libido in ruins, Lewis accepts an invitation from his New Agey mother to stay at her house in Wichita for the summer, while she gets her tornado-chasing tour business up and running.

Lewis wonders just how prepared he is for the scene that awaits him in Wichita. But how, exactly, does a guy prepare himself to be around his bipolar younger brother Seth, their erotically supple mother and her various off-the-grid companions? There is no preparation for this scene; best just to dive head-first into the maelstrom, and hope for the best.

Thad Ziolkowski's picaresque first novel reads somewhat like a hybrid of early Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers) and John Kennedy Toole (Confederacy Of Dunces). There are plenty of off-color, wryly-observed misadventures to be had in Wichita, but the cold undertow of Seth's genuine struggles with mental illness keeps the larger narrative from eddying into counter-cultural farce. In this regard, Ziolkowski's writing puts me in mind of another contemporary: Miriam Toews. Readers of Ziolkowski's earlier book, On A Wave (the best coming-of-age surfing memoir to hit the shelves), recognize Seth as a fictive stand-in for Adam, the author's late younger brother, to whom the novel is dedicated. As with Toews, there is a creative acknowledgement of the surprise adventures that arise from a chemically beleaguered brain. Unlike Toews, Ziolkowski has no religious bogeyman to which he can pin the ghastly collapse that punctuates these bipolar episodes.

Ziokowski's strikes me as the more poignant approach. As the tornado closes in on the small community of off-beat but recognizable characters, the reader has to wonder if our society — or even our species — isn't possessed of a bipolar disorder. I mean, for Christ's sake: we've gone and changed the weather. Like Ziolkowski's tiny community in Wichita, we are lovable, contemptible agents of unmanageable change. What do we do — what can we do — in the face of the coming storm?

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gone Fishin'

Between the heat and the ramped-up family schedule ("What the ... those adolescents are home all the time!") and various off-line projects, I am not getting to the nitty-gritty of responsible blogging. My apologies. I'm hoping I'll have something ready for consumption by August 6. In the meantime, I hope you are having a lovely summer. If you need help in that department, get yourself a copy of Slaid Cleaves' live album, an extravaganza of raucous sorrow-letting (and value!).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Check out any time you like..."

The randomizer on That Infernal Device kicked up an unexpected result the other day: “Hotel California” by The Eagles. Really, Infernal Device? 30,000 songs and you still pick the most publically overplayed one of the bunch?

Not that I mind, really. The only radio I listen to is CBC, so when's the last time I've been subjected to the Hotel California? I'd say we haven't had that spirit here since 1999.

Hotel is tidily constructed, with some grimly evocative lyrics and a couple of controlled, properly-lauded guitar solos. It also brings back memories, chiefly of evangelists who, disturbed by what they heard the kids singing along to, took a good hard look at the lyrics and album art and concluded: it's about the Church of Satan, children!

Even in my pious youth that possibility never struck me as something worth worrying about. First of all, such high-falutin' subterfuge seemed unlikely. Secondly, even if it were the case, the generally despairing tone of the song was anything but an endorsement. Put the shoe on the other foot: what if the song were actually about Saddleback, or (more aptly) Westboro Baptist? What kid in his right mind would listen to those lyrics and think, “Kewl! That's a church I want to join!”?

Sigh. Misapplied intelligence: entertaining in hindsight, but grievously mischievous at the time. Here is Snopes on the matter. Better yet, here is Cracked.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Alec Baldwin: King of Celebrity?

Celebrity fascinates me. I marvel at how a person -- any person -- can manipulate public perception. I can remember a conversation with someone who'd seen Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-wife Maria Shriver being interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres. Something about that interview had persuaded the person I was speaking to that Arnold was a deeply devoted family man. He may not have won any Oscars, but anyone who'd followed the Austrian Oak since Pumping Iron knew the man was a consummate actor, but also an unlikely role model for anything so temperate and onerous as marital fidelity and parental self-control.

Most celebrities only have to be "on" for a few minutes of any given day, which is what makes following the paparazzi so beguiling. These are the guys who do anything they can to peek behind the curtain and pass along the news. We who consider ourselves "savvy" are sure the reality is not what we see. But where, exactly, lie the discrepancies?

The celebrities that blur that line the most are the ones who succeed best. Some do it by keeping the definitions clean: Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen. But others are somewhat more sophisticated -- adept -- at the art: Alec Baldwin, say.

Here are Lee Siegel's thoughts on the sharpest of the Baldwin Boys -- and some astute observations on the nature of American celebrity in general.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

A gentle word of warning: things get a bit explicit in this post.

Just over a year ago I noticed all the super-cool kids at the back of the class seemed smitten with Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? This was the first I'd heard of the Toronto author and her second(!) novel, published by Anansi, perhaps the most prestigious of Canada's small presses. Slated for US publication, the internet hep-cats were expressing irony-free enthusiasm for the book, signaling How as the next "it" novel — which has indeed come to pass — so I gambled a stamp and placed my order.

I dislike the book, but then I was hampered by several significant disadvantages going into it. If teh interwebz is any indication, the book's ideal audience is: A) female B) young C) not yet burdened with/enlightened by children. Dudes pushing 50 need not apply — especially if they are the fathers of adolescent daughters.

A tip of the hat, though, for all those widely acknowledged techniques that bring novelty to the novel — the first-person narrator named “Sheila Heti,” who interacts with and records the conversations of other similarly identifiable “real” people, the (Tina) fey tone of voice that either belies or connotes a formidable intelligence, the calculated use of extreme candor, and so on. I can see why these strategies have made this book the toast of the Global Village. Some of them even worked with me.

But, man oh man, did I ever hate the sex.

This is a problem, because this book meditates a great deal on sex. Just a few paragraphs into the first chapter, “Sheila Heti” announces this is the era “of some really great blow-job artists.” She's too canny to declare herself one of them, but she's also canny enough to let the reader know just how much she is willing to suffer for her art — quite a bit, apparently: “I just breathe through my nose and try not to throw up . . . I did vomit a little the other day, but I kept right on sucking.”

She soon takes up with a coked-up piece of work named Israel. A “9½ Weeks” scenario takes place, with some distinctions: Israel comports himself as a low-rent John Gray, under whose ministrations “Sheila Heti,” the would-be feminist playwright, is happy to play Elizabeth McGraw. She recognizes the absurdities of this and even comments on a few of them, but the relationship doesn't conclude until she willingly trumps his degradations, finally provoking his disgust. For readers wary of Sadeian extremes, if the passage quoted in the previous paragraph hasn't already removed the book from your “maybe” list, the scene in question won't either.

Taking these scenes at face value, it could be argued that when it comes to no-holds-barred sexual congress, a person is likely to discover “how to be” only after that person has gone too far and discovered how not to be. Not a jolly conclusion, to be sure, but also not a “bad” lesson to learn, either — especially for readers who haven't yet reached that point of no return.

There are other filters through which to view these scenes, but they don't make the sex any more joyful or ecstatic. Which might also account for the book's enormous appeal: sexual congress might not be an especially joyful or ecstatic business these days, particularly for young women. Heti may be the natural response to Houllebecq.

Jessa Crispin (aka, “Bookslut”), one of Heti's earliest champions, was recently gob-smacked by an unexpected addition to the “self-help” shelf: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz. Illouz dares to propose that when it comes to expectations of love, an individual's feelings of unhappiness or alienation within a given society might not be within the individual's purview of change — that those “negative” feelings might not, in other words, be that person's fault: it might be society that is to blame. Shortly after taking a survey of “Game” blogs (essentially platforms where “Israels” boast at length of their “Sheila” conquests), Mary Scriver came to a similar conclusion: perhaps the West has become a feral society.

These observations raise (or ought to) burning questions for everyone. “How should a person be?” is just one; “How should a society be?” is another. If that's the title of Ms. Heti's next novel, I will hand over the plastic. If it proves to be a further account of even-sadder-sex, however, I will forgo the pleasure of reading it.

Links: there are many worthwhile links to explore. I collected some here. Sheila Heti's website has plenty more. And of course there is always Google.