Thursday, December 24, 2015

Searching for Vintage Whisky?

2015 -- my eleventh year of blogging -- is nearly finished. I've had some requests (from family members, but still) to link to my "best posts." I'll give it a shot come January, but it could be tricky.

It's all a blur, for one thing.
I've no idea what makes for a satisfying post for readers -- if I were to let stats determine content, I'd devote the entire blog to crokinole. The posts that satisfy me the most are usually a little long for the current attention span. Brief is better -- I'm certainly on-board with that sentiment. But I also figure this is a platform that allows for rambling where others do not, so . . . I ramble.

These are my "read this/skip the rest" selections for this year, ordered by date posted:

  1. The Contagion Spreads: Afterlife With Archie -- here -- still the best comic book running, IMO.
  2. Harrison Ford Shines Light On Leonard Nimoy -- here. With the new Star Trek trailer out, I'm missing Nimoy more than ever.
  3. A Walk Among The Tombstones -- here. Liam Neeson action flicks vary in quality. I watched this again the other night, and remain impressed.
  4. From The Forest To The Sea: Emily Carr In British Columbia -- here.
  5. Joining The Frygian Evangelists -- here. Is Northrop Frye experiencing an academic resurgence? I certainly hope so.
  6. Sex, With E.L. Doctorow -- here. My insight into the late author and his work is debatable, but I'm justifiably proud of my alternate lyric to "If I Only Had A Brain."
  7. Two posts on my experience of university in the mid- to late-80s, dovetailing with some thoughts on what higher learning appears to have become -- here and here.
And finally, special mention for the series of posts I most enjoyed writing (drum-roll, please):

I Will Make You Reapers Of Men: Jacobean Slapstick in Helfer & Baker's The Shadow -- a three-parter that begins here.

Am I off-base with any of these? Is there subject matter you wish I'd take a stab at? Got something else on your mind? Wonder what I thought of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? (I enjoyed it well enough, but strongly recommend against sitting in the third row from the IMAX screen) Hit the "comments" button below, and let fly.

Thanks for reading -- and please have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Rock 'n' Roll Concerts = My Weepie

It says something about the age I've reached, and the age I'm in, that the rock 'n' roll concert experience as recorded on DVD has become an invitation to retrieve the hankie and clear the eyes.

"Limp Bizkit?"

Roger Waters, The Wall.

Let's get the caveats out of the way. Sure, it chafes to see -- right in the title, fer cryin' out loud -- one man claim sole ownership to a set of songs that was the product of a group. But the man did, in fact, supply the thematic impetus for those songs, and producer Bob Ezrin freely admits he made it his job to sell Waters' vision to the rest of the band and marshal the project in a direction that ultimately pleased Waters the most. And this film is, finally, a synthesis of Waters' various artistic expressions launched by the initial project.

Let the baby have his bottle, in other words, and you may find the experience deeply affecting.

I did, and do, although the "documentary" elements that intersperse the concert footage frequently grate. Waters isn't an easy guy to be around, no matter how he's framed. But as prickly and as full of himself as he is, Waters still manages his project invitationally, with surprising equanimity. The flash and bombast of Waters' rock show is among the most sensational I've seen. Furthermore, it is interspersed with and informed by portraits of people killed in war, sent in by surviving family members. Thus The Wall, which has existed through the decades as "classic rock's" preeminent solipsistic yawp, transforms into a global howl against the brute stupidity of wars launched by people of "abject" personality.

RUSH, R40 Live. It's a stretch to call this epic-length concert a "weepie" -- unless you're not a fan, and you've foolishly agreed to sit through all three hours of it with a loved one who is -- but bear with me. All these songs from all these albums, through all these years -- if you are a fan, even a middling one, this performance conveys the striking depth of generosity that went into their formation.

I mention the "middling" fan, because I think I qualify. I have a total of four CDs and nine more studio albums via digital means. The CDs get regular play throughout the year, and the other albums are usually pulled up at least once in a given tour around the sun. I have clear favourites, in other words -- Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, plus one more.* Which distinguishes me as the least distinguished RUSH fan ever.

I do love their concert DVDs, however -- and this one in particular, for the way it highlights songs I give little-to-no airplay. By concert's end I was quite moved -- it's a joyous, celebratory affair.

Neal Peart: "How did I get myself into this?"
Devin Townsend Presents: Ziltoid, Live At The Royal Albert Hall. Another epic-length concert, the first third of which is the entirety of Townsend's demented space-opera, performed to spec with actual puppets.
It's a "Poozer," if you have to ask.
The final two-thirds is an all-request set, which he solicited via social media. To my surprise, not one of the songs sung has a spot in the "most played" column of my infernal device (though the performance of "Namaste" is sure to get there pretty quickly). The set-list swings from raucous to meditative and back again, until Townsend settles into "The Death of Music," a ten-plus-minute magnum opus he's brought to the mic for nearly 20 years of performing. It's a song that contains multitudes, and hearing it after everything that's preceded it brings into sharp focus the existential themes Townsend teases apart and knots up again through everything he does -- including, especially, the sophomoric puppet show: identity, longing, family, the ties that bind and check us from indulging our worst impulses.

He closes the night with his son's favourite song -- "Universal Flame" -- says "thanks" to mom and dad, who are in attendance, then puts down the guitar so he can give hugs to everyone who made the show possible, including his wife and kid, who were standing behind him and singing along.

Prog Metal as an act of familial gratitude? Count me in.

*Full disclosure: much as I enjoyed the R40 performance, I appreciated it most for sending me back to the Clockwork Angels concert -- the most beautiful of RUSH's stage performances, IMO.

Monday, December 14, 2015

While you were waiting for the new Star Wars movie to come out ...

...the trailer for the next Star Trek movie ("Beyond") was "leaked"/released. It looks like this:

Well. Somehow having 'Sabotage' become the de facto theme song for the Star Trek franchise seems . . . appropriate.

I'm disappointed, but hardly surprised. The previous movie lurched away from the patiently cultivated bonhomie in the first, in favour of inflating all the weaknesses and absurdities -- more running! more hanging from cliffs! etc -- so why should this outing veer off-course?

Other Trek fans are somewhat more perturbed. To wit: "The new Star Trek trailer is worse than Hitler" says Steven Lloyd Wilson.

"No! It's worse than ... Kodos, the ... Executioner!!"
All links via Scott Dagostino (live long and prosper, dude).

Friday, December 11, 2015

"What, exactly, did you sign up for, professor?"

"I wasn’t angry — not at all. Nor did I think it was their fault. Someone did this to them. And at bottom they were smarter than me about it because it was their world we were talking about and they knew its rules far better than I did. It was a complex moment in which I was trying to catch up with them, but also trying to persuade them to slow down and consider other possibilities. In other words, even then I was trying to teach them!"

That's Ron Srigley, describing his initial response to an epiphany he recently experienced regarding his university students. The whole thing Dear Parents: Everything You Need To Know About Your Son And Daughter's University, But Don't is here, and I highly recommend it as your weekend long-read.

I have a somewhat scattered reaction to it all.

It of course brought me back to my own university days, and one episode in particular. During the height of my interior drama I sat down to an early-term exam, and realized, as I wrestled with one question after the next, that I was bombing. In the space at the end of the exam I wrote a brief blurt to the effect that I found the professorially-imposed constraints of contemporary academia to be subjective and artificial and really, really frustrating, dammit. I can't recall whether I had any second thoughts as I handed it in. No matter -- there'd be plenty of time for those later.

The next week the professor handed back the exams. And, yes, I had indeed flunked it. Also, my professor wrote her own response to my rough rant -- to wit: these professorially-imposed constraints I railed against were something I'd agreed to work within when I applied as a student. Those constraints weren't going to change just because I didn't like them. If I had expectations that weren't being met, I'd have to pursue them elsewhere.

She added, "Book an appointment with me."

As loath as I was to face and possibly compound my embarrassment, I went ahead and booked that appointment. Then we met. She noted the lousy mark, and the blurt, and asked what happened. I acknowledged the bottom line -- I hadn't prepared. She pressed further and inquired about my emotional condition -- frankly, and in terms that didn't indulge it. I returned her candor. We discussed the syllabus, the timeline, and variations on the subject matter which I might potentially find the most engaging. She asked if I was up for it; I said I believed I was. She said I could book another appointment if that proved not to be the case. Otherwise, she and I were going to proceed as agreed-upon -- one assignment at a time.

I calmed down, I sat down, I did the work.

I am, of course, very grateful for this episode, and the adult charity I received as a foundering kid -- a profoundly formative experience, in fact.* But I disclose the episode for another reason.

First of all, reading Srigley has me wondering if the tables haven't turned so far that present-day impetuous-types like my younger self would be denied a similar chance to grow.

Secondly, my professor's initial response -- This is what you signed up for -- was absolutely right. And as weird and as awful as it sounds (to my ears, at any rate), I wonder if it isn't the most truthful response to Prof. Srigley as well. Coddling young "customers" who've enrolled in the Humanities -- maybe that's not what you signed up for in (I'm guessing) the early-80s. But that's where it's at now. If you have something you'd rather offer -- well, perhaps you'll need to pursue that elsewhere.

Only, where?
Someplace where students never leave their beds would be optimal.

*An act of mercy I've tried to reciprocate wherever possible -- Je vous adresse mes plus vifs remerciements, Linda Hutcheon.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Christmas Soundtrack 2015 -- Early Entrants

I've generally been in the habit of promoting new additions to our family's "Holiday Soundtrack" playlist. Last year seems to have been the exception -- sheer neglect on my part. I aim to rectify that oversight, so don your headphones, open a new tab to your streamer of choice, and let's get going.

The kids picked up on Pentatonix' That's Christmas To Me. It remains a favourite with the girls, while I'm a little lukewarm on the project. After all these years of driving from one family destination to another while listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber, High School Musical, then Glee soundtracks, anything that smacks of "It's a SHOW!" is a particularly hard sell for yours truly. But there's no denying this is an outfit with chops, energy and personality, and I do not begrudge the airtime they get in this house.

The stand-out addition to last year's playlist came via DarkoV -- Butch Thompson's Yulestride. Thompson infuses a sly New Orleans sensibility to seasonal standards, injecting pep and good humour without tipping the balance toward irreverence. I see he's got another seasonal CD, with Laura Sewell. I shall definitely take a closer look.

Standouts this year include Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings' It's A Holiday Soul Party. After all these years of artists bringing their own sleepy interpretations to the hipster playlist, it's a joy to hear Ms. Jones and the Kings blasting the cobwebs off the seasonal pantheon. Man, somebody needed to provide material for that hour in the Christmas party when the conversation and laughter reach peak decibels -- and this is definitely that material. I spoke earlier about "irreverence" -- not at all a negative, I should hasten to add. If you need persuading on that matter, go on and give "Big Bulbs" a spin.*

Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte's We Two Kings took a second spin to work its magic. Initially the Dick Dale approach left me a touch cool -- it'd been done (by the Dutch!). But these two cats have a great deal more going on than surfer-variations. Stand-out tracks include "Deck The Halls" and "The First Noel." It's sassy stuff that plays well paired up with Bela Fleck's Jingle All The Way.

And finally, I was a big fan of Nick Lowe's Quality Street. If you weren't, the live performance of that album (The Quality Holiday Revue), accompanied by Los Straitjackets isn't going to change your mind. But do give "Linus & Lucy" a spin -- you may well want to throw that into your playlist punchbowl.

And by all means -- introduce me to some swell new stuff in the comments below, woncha please?

Misheard Lyric Of The Year: my elder daughter asks, while "Big Bulbs" plays, "Is she really singing, 'Flashing innuendo tonight'?" Ha ha -- no, honey. But she may as well be (it's "flashing in your window" fwiw).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Gods Of The Hammer: The Teenage Head Story, Geoff Pevere

Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head StoryGods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story by Geoff Pevere

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is no shortage of "shoulda been great" stories lining the history of rock 'n' roll, stories of bands who seemed to have all the elements -- musical chops, unmistakable stage presence, killer work ethic, etc. -- but somehow, through a confluence of lamentable timing, bad management, substance abuse and tragic accidents, missed the moment of international super-stardom. Teenage Head qualifies on all these fronts -- anyone who saw them in '79 says they should really be mentioned in the same breath as The Ramones or New York Dolls. Alas, they are a strictly Canadian phenom, which adds some uniquely Canadian impediments into the mix. Geoff Pevere, who was in the audience for most of the whole sordid story, does an entertaining job of fleshing it all out. Best read between spinnings of Teenage Head with Marky Ramone.

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Conversation Starters

If you're my FB friend, you may have seen these links already, so apologies for the dearth of original blog content. I'd like to blame it on the past week -- there's something uninspiring about the lead-up to American Thanksgiving, especially this one. Who wants to talk politics, but how can you not? What do you say to skirt the subject?

Well, here are some alternative conversation starters (or enders, depending):

"I remember pulling up as fast as I can screaming, 'Get in, get in!' and I know that I am a clown and I had a car full of clowns, but these ladies ran and jumped into the back." Doo Doo the Clown, on the art of heroism.

"These are the ten most mentioned songs by the Vietnam vets we interviewed." Some surprises, among the familiar.

A stunningly bold caper took place, not too far from where I live. I was at home at the time, as witnesses will attest.

Trekkies: impervious fashion-sense aside, are we really as scary as all that?

"And to think, while Alan Moore was pitting Han, Leia and Chewie against devout disciples of unthinkable anguish, Star Wars' cinematic creative team was busy developing Return Of The Jedi and its decidedly less barbarous drove of Ewoks..." Ben McCool, on Alan Moore's brilliantly bonkers 1980s Star Wars comics.

Finally, which one of you guys turned me on to Warren Ellis? Joel? Y-man? It's somebody who's tapped into comics and SF. Anyway, I've subscribed to his Orbital Operations newsletter for a couple of years now, and I'm continually amazed by the man's seemingly ceaseless capacity to write interesting stuff -- even as he wrestles with the fella in the brite nightgown. Yeesh, what's my excuse?

If it applies, happy Thanksgiving. And here's a little bonus for you: the first issue of Frankenstein Underground -- just another round of insouciant genius from the sable brush of Mike Mignola.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Amsterdam Must-See Addendum

Actually, I'd add the Amsterdam Public Library ("Bibliotheek Amsterdam") to the "must-see" list.
Even if the spectacle of stacks and stacks of books (and DVDs! and video games!!) in artful "po-mo" display isn't your thing . . .

. . . the cafeteria on the seventh floor serves delish, reasonably-priced grub, with a terrific view of the city.

Amsterdam Must-See

I recently enjoyed a week with my wife in Amsterdam. She'd already been, a number of times, but this was my first exposure. It's an easy visit -- the populace has a fluency in English that could put NYC to shame, and everything worth seeing can be got to via their enviable public transit, or (better yet) bicycle.

The bulk of our time was spent on foot, walking the city. I've got dozens of oddball notes jotted down regarding remarkable places we visited, but nothing by way of an organizing principle. One month later, I still don't have one. I think this relates to the actual locale. People of Dutch descent might have a reputation for being fastidious to a fault, but if there's an organizing principle to contemporary Amsterdam, I failed to locate it. It's an endearingly kooky place.*

I tend to think just about everything in the "not-to-be-missed" category is, in fact, negotiable. But really, the Van Gogh Museum is not to be missed -- especially now, while it is still hosting the Munch : Van Gogh exhibit.

Vincent Van Gogh, eh? What to make of this guy's enduring popularity? When you're standing in line waiting to get in -- on an early, off-season Wednesday morning -- it's a mystery with no small element of vexation involved.

But seeing the actual work, as opposed to photographs of it, goes a great distance to explaining the appeal. For instance, a terrific photo of The Lover (Portrait of Lieutenant Milliet) (source) . . .

. . . can do a great deal to communicate the texture and visual effect of the painting. But seeing the actual painting, framed and sensitively lit, is more akin to facing an incredible piece of sculpture.

Mm . . . "facing" isn't quite the right word. "Being in the presence of," gets closer to the effect you experience.

This sort of pointy-headed musing can put a person off the habit of attending to anyone's paintings, but there is a considerable cache of charm associated with Van Gogh. The work alone is always accessible -- there's no question, ever, regarding exactly what you're looking at. It is also frankly and immediately emotional.

The emotional element really comes out, especially if you view Van Gogh after spending a day with "The Dutch Masters" in the Rijksmuseum. Rembrandt's massive group portraits -- commissioned, of course -- are terrifically impressive. But they are also of a piece with the times, when the recently wealthy princes of commerce were keen to be immortalized in paint. Ditto, the actual rulers and their military commanders. Powerful, opulent prigs, towering above the viewer for as long as paint shall last. In contrast, Van Gogh's pieces are small, punchy and immediate.

"Immediacy" and "punch" are qualities Munch's stuff has as well -- in spades. Though he tends to read a bit cooler, I think. Van Gogh could be guilty of "making a point" in his work, but nowhere near to the degree that Munch did.

Seeing the two side-by-side is quite the experience. If you can manage it, you should, because these cats drew the lines we've been colouring in ever since. On until January 17, 2016.

It's less busy when it's closed, of course.

*So long as you give the Red Light District -- or the entire city center, really -- a wide berth on Friday and Saturday night. Honestly, how is it the Scots and Irish haven't drunk themselves into extinction?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Oh my, what did I just buy?

Here's a recent impulse purchase I'm trying to make some sense of -- "Rey's Speeder" as rendered in LEGO:

There are some psychological pieces to my purchase that don't quite fit.

First of all, I'm not especially excited about this forthcoming instalment in the saga -- cautious optimism I'll admit to, but not excitement. I'm guessing it'll likely be the third-best movie, after Empire, but nowhere near as mind-blowing as '77, because how could it possibly be?

But why be a Debbie Downer about it? It's entirely possible, even likely, this movie will be at least as much fun as Abrams' first Star Trek flick. Should it hit this high-water mark, I shall take great pleasure in watching my daughters dig it.

So -- not exactly excited, and yet I bought the kit. Was it so freakin' cool-looking I just couldn't resist? Mm . . . nope. I doubt I'm alone in thinking it looks like she's riding a thumb-drive.

Or that it bears a passing resemblance to Luke's Speeder, turned sideways.

Now that was a vehicle that excited me -- as a 12-year-old, of course. Still, the residue of that excitement clung on into adulthood so that, when the first LEGO rendition of it came out, I went ahead and dumped the change for it. My mother must've taken note, because years later she gave me the later rendition -- the Mos Eisley Cantina -- for a Christmas present.

Alright, on to another impulse purchase -- this box of postcards:

They're distillations from these books . . .

"Priced out-of-range, these books are."
. . . and I have to say: they've left quite an impression on me -- particularly the stills from Lucas's lamentable prequels. They're breathtaking.

Had I not already attended these movies and experienced the prolonged irritation of a bad script filled with bad lines being delivered badly, I expect I could be forgiven for beholding these stills and expecting the trippy promise of Jodorowsky's Dune come to glorious fruition.

Jodorowsky's Dune -- I think we're getting somewhere, now.

Back to the latest LEGO speeder: putting these smooth and shiny pieces of plastic together, witnessing its carefully considered aesthetic taking shape beneath my fingertips, then feeling the heft of the completed item -- the LEGO brick is to this suburban brat from the '70s what the Madeleine was to Proust: the key to chambers of recollection and the endless possibilities of a stimulated, youthful imagination.

The new movie doesn't have to be anything. The LEGO is more than enough.
"Wait: X-Wing? Orange? Black?? I ... gurgle."

Friday, November 06, 2015

Books Are Dangerous

I was steered this morning to this Books Are Dangerous piece at Aeon. Reading it I suddenly realized that, in fact, I have some sympathy for these kids who are calling for "trigger warnings" before reading musty texts like The Iliad or The Great Gatsby.

I recall my years in university with pleasure, and frequently joke with my daughters that it's probably time I started attending classes again. But honestly? For those four years I was managing more anxiety than I've had to manage since.

High school was over -- nobody was going to praise me for just showing up, ever again. In fact, praise was going to be a sparse commodity, period. Grandparents were tumbling into the grave, and the parental unit was getting a bit giddy. And to the left and right of me friends' personalities were undergoing inexplicable sea-changes, leaving me to wonder what was (or wasn't) happening to me.

Meanwhile I was working on a degree with zero career prospects at the end of it. General Arts, I was assured, was "flexible enough" to qualify me for an endless variety of entry-level jobs. All well and good -- so long as you've got some idea what you're keen to do, and I hadn't the foggiest.

General Arts, with a major in English Literature. That translates to four years reading one super-depressing book after another. Most of those books had a fucking-goes-to-pieces moment near the end -- which scared me nuts, because I could relate. Hadn't gone to pieces myself, mind you -- not yet. But I seemed perpetually on the verge.

I probably should have been on medication, though that's easy to say now -- back in the '80s psychotropic drugs worked with all the finesse of a rubber mallet. I saw friends coping with them, and the cure seemed as bad as, if not worse than, the condition they were supposed to address.

Anyway, I can recall one morning in my final year when I was taking public transit to my classes. I was in my usual twitchy/jumpy/fear-foggy state, when a unique thought finally occurred to me: "You know, if this is how it's going to be for the rest of your life . . . so what? You've managed it for the last three years. You can manage it from here on out."

At that moment I started calming down. For me, fearing the fear was the worst of it.*

So, yes -- I have a great deal of empathy and even sympathy for kids requesting, at the very least, a word of warning before opening yet another graphic lament of our fragile humanity.

Are trigger warnings in college classes really the best way forward? I doubt it. But some consideration and compassion for the sprats who pay the bills is hardly a bad thing. Hey, Teacher -- leaven the syllabus with some levity, why don't you? Granted, it's a world without happy endings; entropy and death are inevitable. But the species has coped with, and even thrived beneath, these spectres for the length and breadth of our existence. Surely some exploration and celebration of that is what these times, and our kids, are calling for?

"Sure! Whatever! Just no more shitty papers -- please!"
*Another "A-ha!" moment: this novel. I picked it up while everyone else around me was carrying a dog-eared copy of Last Exit To Brooklyn -- "A scream looking for a mouth," to quote Lou Reed (not what I needed at the time, thank you!).

**Advice I would give my younger self -- get and keep a part-time job while you're getting educated. It'll calm you down, about a lot of things.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Post-Election Summary

American friends have asked me just how elated I am regarding this week's national election results.

Elated? Not at all. Relieved, certainly, although with major caveats.

I am relieved to see Stephen Harper decisively turfed from office.

I was, to be honest, similarly relieved when he got his majority. Now there'd be no more pussy-footing around with public expectations, doling out in grandiose measure while slyly taking elsewhere. Now we could finally see exactly what he was keen to do. And we did.

Boy, did we ever.

Here is the short tally. If you'd like shorter, I shall borrow from a friend on FB: there's the contempt his government has shown toward our democratic system, its subterfuge, its malfeasance, its bait-and-switch "budget balancing," its secret trade deals, its suppression of scientific research.

Also, its almost gleeful antagonism toward our First Nations.

So yes, this week I am relieved. I am relieved that voters who can be persuaded were indeed persuaded that what this guy was doing in office was so bloody awful that voting in his alternative couldn't possibly be worse.

That variety of relief doesn't even begin to approach the heady summit of elation. Though watching the man lose to the one person he absolutely did not want to lose to does have passable schadenfreude value.

Still, I am old enough and from-the-West enough that just having to say the words "Prime Minister Trudeau" will always tend to stick in the throat, just a bit. I could say more, but Michelle Dean (once again) best summarizes my discomfit with the entire national political scene.

But why not let our out-going Prime Minister have the last word? Here is his tribute to Trudeau Senior. Lessons to be learned in this -- for all of us, I am sure.

"Don't even try to duck, fella."

Addendum: Wait, I lied -- let's give the final word to Drew Brown, and his ribald summary of the election for VICE.

Friday, October 16, 2015

No Direction Home: Scott McCloud & Michael Cho Take On The Artistic Castaway

ShoplifterShoplifter by Michael Cho

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Those who can't do, teach." The first time I heard this canard was from a university professor of English, who punctuated it with a smirk. Comics artist Scott McCloud can certainly "do" -- but since he is best known for "doing" in aid of "teaching" in his trilogy, Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and  Making Comics, his narrative efforts attract closer scrutiny than others in his cohort might expect. It's been over a decade since McCloud published fiction -- has his capacity to "do" faded over the years?

Since the days of Zot!, a little, perhaps. McCloud will always be an artist of exuberant surreal expressiveness. In The Sculptor, McCloud's take on the Faustian "bargain" is unique and unexpected. Sure, the kid gets access to unimaginable power in exchange for his life, and sure, he falls in love with his muse as his expiry date draws close. But (mild spoiler) rather than keening the expected Faustian lamentations, the kid explains his plight to his now-girlfriend, and gets her on-board the enterprise.

Other surprises ensue, but their weight will vary, depending on the degree of empathy and sympathy the reader has developed for the characters.

The title character is insufferable, the way young male arty-types are prone to be.

His muse suffers from a bipolar condition, but as portrayed it's a remarkably "lite" variance.

I wasn't feeling much for either character, until the final third of the book. In 500 pages of prose, this deficit of appeal would be a deal-breaker, but a flashy comic can provide a different strain of narrative persuasion. I zoomed through pages of artful maundering and was finally grateful for the experience. If nothing else, the graphic pages give heft to McCloud's final statement at the end of the book.

Coincidentally, Michael Cho's first graphic novel, Shoplifter, appeared just months before McCloud's. Further coincidence(s): Cho also favours a tri-coloured palette (black, white and pink, where McCloud opts for black, white, and blue); and Shoplifter's protagonist is also a young arty-type with massive but wholly uninformed aesthetic ambitions.

But where McCloud embraces grand surrealist motifs to explore the human and humane, Cho zeros in on finely observed day-to-day details that most people recognize. Cho's hero is less keen to dazzle the world with her presumed ability and insight than she is to escape its pedestrian disappointments. The only time she breaks free of her torpor is when she indulges in a little shoplifting.

The path to self-discovery for Cho is perhaps more mundane than it might be for McCloud, but by highlighting the "ordinary" Cho makes unexpected kindness not just convincingly possible, but transformational. Cho understands that the great narrative challenge isn't to make the universal personal; it is to convey precisely how the personal can be universal. This is a brief and powerful work -- Cho could be the Anton Chekov of comic books.

I borrowed both volumes from the library, an appropriate and recommended choice for McCloud -- my shelves are too full to add a 500-page tome I'm not entirely in love with. If you've got a younger arty-type in your family, The Sculptor could be a worthy Christmas (or Seder) gift.

Cho's Shoplifter, on the other hand, is now a welcome addition to my library.

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Friday, October 09, 2015

Stuff I tell my daughters, as they prepare to vote for the first time.

(Stuff I tell myself, really -- sheesh, but the cage in this zoo is gettin' high.)

You haven't fallen that far from the tree (yet -- I try not to take any commonality for granted). Everything the current PM does rankles you pretty deeply. I get that (boy do I ever). Worse, you're living in a riding that is an absolute lock for the Conservative Party. Your vote isn't going to change that -- not in the least.

On the one hand, this is great -- you can throw your vote behind the wildest kook off the left end of the political spectrum, and never be held to account for your support. On the other hand, this sucks. It feels like your vote doesn't matter. But get into the habit of participating, and don't ever let up. It can be crazy-making, but there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind, just keep my head a bit (especially at campaign time).

The first is that disappointment just goes with the territory. It has to. If it doesn't, then you've become a dangerous person

The second is that people like us generally don't do too badly under governments like this -- governments of any stripe, really. We're white. We're straight-down-the-middle. We're also in a sub-culture that looks after its own, because it can. Our vote and political participation, such as it is, is mostly an attempt to ameliorate our moral sensibilities on this basic existential fluke.

It feels like we can and should do more -- so do, starting with the immediate neighborhood. It doesn't matter where you live, things are freaky for someone. And people are trying to attend. Look for the attenders in your neighborhood, introduce yourselves and roll up your sleeves.

People are going to tell you that this (or some other) election is the most important one in your lifetime. It felt to me like the most important election of my life was '88, when Mulroney's "Conservative" Free-Trade-Agreement with the US stood in the balance. To my eyes the last 30 years have been nothing but chickens coming home to roost.

But here's a question -- who was elected Prime Minister 100 years ago? Robert Borden, that's who -- a Conservative who put the kybosh on Reciprocity, the attempted (Liberal-drafted) FTA of his day. One hundred years ago, if you were Conservative, you were pro-tariffs, and very much agin "free trade." Plus ca change, right?

So there you go. Don't get bent out of shape about it. Learn some breathing exercises, go for long walks, pray -- do whatever helps to keep your head from spinning off. Each day brings its own challenges. Lend help, and be gracious about accepting help, wherever possible.

Also: don't dwell on worst-case scenarios.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Tree Of Smoke, Denis Johnson

Tree of SmokeTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't claim any profundity of insight into Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. As I read it, the novel is a multifaceted portrait of the degree to which individuals require religious certitude in order to wage war, and the chronicling of how violence and compassion slowly disabuse some individuals of that certitude -- of, indeed, just about any certitude at all.

Johnson's book is deeply humane, in other words -- recommendation enough to take and read. But in my particular case I fell head-over-heels in love with the work as I read some 15 or so pages aloud, to my family, on summer vacation, while one of my kids sketched portraits of me into her notebook.

And though no-one in the room asked me to read the rest of the book to them (my wife would be game, given a long enough road trip), when I was finished with this particular passage all claimed to have enjoyed it. The voices were unique, easily identifiable as such, and utterly engaging as personalities with longings particular to themselves and in a life-and-death competition with the cosmos.

At my stage in life any author who takes more than 350 pages to make their point is tempting immediate rejection. But by the end of Tree of Smoke I found myself possessed by that increasingly rare frame of longing, wishing the experience hadn't ended so abruptly -- at 600-plus pages.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughts On My First "30"

The so-called "nightcap." When did this occasional indulgence become a nightly necessity? Nor was it, any longer, a Teutonic single glass accompanying a light supper. I was enjoying too much, too often. When the contemplation of thirty days without seemed too much to bear, it was clearly time to stop mulling it over and just do it.

"If you don't moderate you have to quit, and that's the sad story" - Jim Harrison

Some observations at the end of my sojourn:

Energy levels -- whipsawed crazily for the first week-and-a-bit, before levelling out to something more robust than what I'd experienced in quite a while (late 30s, early 40s, I'd say). My workout routine gradually surged back to what I was doing nine years ago.

Sleep -- the quality of it definitely improved -- when I was, in fact, sleeping. My insomniac tendencies, however, did not change in the slightest, except that now when I lay awake I was no longer beating myself up for having imbibed.

Weight -- something else that didn't change in the slightest. This was a surprise and a disappointment. Leading up to the 30 I would have, without hesitation, identified the bulk of my "empty calories" as alcohol. And, of course, alcohol also messes with the body's metabolism. During the 30, my eating habits were what they'd always been. What with my workout surge, you could argue that I've probably regained some muscle, which weighs more than fat. And sure, the shirts have indeed become a little tighter in the shoulders -- but alas, the pants are no looser.

My face looks a little leaner, though -- the encroaching jowls retreated somewhat.

Productivity levels -- shot up, almost immediately, especially in writing. This was the most pleasant surprise.

The "Witching Hour" -- will always be the Witching Hour, usually from 4:30 to 6:30 ("Cinq à Sept" the French call it). As you get closer to the Witching Hour's conclusion the fraught and freighted early minutes of its onset look increasingly absurd. But you will feel it all over again, just as acutely, next week Friday at the exact same time.

Related: social dos. The early moments of a nephew's wedding celebration were a little touch-and-go. But again, the absurdity of the anxiety did eventually sink in.

Final thoughts: I will certainly do this again. In fact, I can even envision a six-month break, something that would have seemed unimaginable two months ago. Mind you, I write this in the morning, and not at 5:30 on a Friday evening.

Regardless, I intend to do this again in March, 2016. Screw "Dryuary" -- I'm talkin' "Parch"!

Friday, September 18, 2015

While We're Young, Part 2 -- The Hangover

I now regret making this a two-parter -- it's all too slight to really engage in. But a promise is a promise, so here I go. With a little luck we can all leave this post with at least a smidgen of our dignity intact.

After Friday's viewing, I descended into slow roiling fit of crabbiness. When Saturday's paper arrived I pored through it, saving the Arts & Culture section for last because that's where I usually have the most fun. Not this time, however. The pages were devoted to Toronto's International Film Festival, and despite the various reporters' and essayists' best attempts, I just wasn't feeling the love. When I finally frog-marched the entire mess of newsprint over to the blue box, I thought, Honestly, who gives a $#@% about this -- any of it?

I didn't (obviously). Kids these days? Doubtful. They've got their own scene, and even the selfie-with-celebrity aspect of it tends to bypass Hollywood types on the red carpet in favour of YouTube stars occupying this side of the velvet rope.

No, I thought. Probably the only ones who care are the writers sent there by desperate newspaper conglomerates. "Theory Types," in their 30s and early 40s. A super small audience, to be sure.

So, yeah: Baumbach's flick definitely hit the sweet- (or sore-) spot for Yours Truly.

I used to care about film festivals. I can recall when Pulp Fiction won the Palm D'Or at Cannes in 1994. Quentin Tarantino was the subject of a long night's excited discussion over pints at the pub. We had Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and now Pulp Fiction to consider -- what was this cat on about? Because he was clearly on about something.

I'm still friends with everyone at that table, and today I can't imagine discussing Tarantino for any longer than a few minutes -- one hour, tops. And I've got to the point where I'd prefer hearing Tarantino talk about movies to watching another one of his.

Has the scene changed, or have I? I expect the scene has -- I just can't be bothered to track where or how. And I've certainly changed, I know that. Most of my friends have, also.

Our conversation these days is devoted primarily to the concerns and well-being of children and surviving parents, then each other. After that we might talk film, and if Tarantino is the subject, the opening question would probably be, "Have you seen ___?" And if not, "So what's the last Tarantino flick you saw?"

That'd get discussion rolling, possibly even for a full hour. But it's hardly the purview of deeply invested aesthetes.

Anyway. No grand conclusion. Just me, getting older. Hoping you'll join me.

That is all.
"You in the right theatre, son?"

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

While We're Young, Part 1

With yet another Friday night to ourselves, my wife and I queued up While We're Young, Noah Baumbach's fairly recent entry to the "Comedy of Discomfiture" genre.

Watts & Stiller, comically discomfitted.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a New York couple in their early-40s -- artsy-fartsy types of more than modest means, if their flat and wine selection are any indication. While their peers slip into the befuddling aesthetic morass of early parenthood, they find themselves childless (by biology, not choice) and socially adrift, not least from each other.

A younger, prettier artsy-fartsy couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, drift into their orbit. Among other endearing characteristics, the youngsters make a reverent fetish of technology the older couple left behind without a second glance -- vinyl LPs, typewriters, board games, even movies on VHS cassette. Exposure to all this youthful enthusiasm for the arcane and the immediate is so appealing, so engaging, so reinvigorating it feels like a gift from the gods -- what could possibly go wrong?

Everything one expects, of course, plus a few surprises.

This is the sort of role Stiller seems to have been genetically bred and socially engineered for. Critics galore comment on the aura of anxiety, shame and childlike neediness that seems to emanate from the man's every pore, which he turns on to great effect in this flick. As for Watts, it's a temptation for Hollywood women and their directors to embrace the relatively more dignified "straight-man" role in comedy. Watts' performance is the antithesis of this trend -- she embraces and embodies the insecurities and desires of her character so fearlessly, the result is both hilariously comic and just this side of heartbreaking.

Critics reach for Woody Allen when talking about Baumbach, and I kinda get it, but I also don't. It's New York, the characters occupy the lower-upper-class and fixate on the ennui of it all. And maybe it's a side effect of the growing distaste that we, the hoi polloi, have for the capers indulged by Allen and his social circle, but I have difficulty recalling the last time I laughed out loud during an Allen movie (the exchange of glances at the opera in Love And Death, maybe, or reaching for Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall (mm . . . maybe not the latter -- self-conscious laughter shouldn't count)).

Anyway, suffice it to say my wife and I were engaged -- in fact, I was more deeply engaged than I originally suspected at the time of viewing.

More to follow.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The genetics of an unwelcoming mien.

My wife and I were tagged to greet at church yesterday. The usual drill -- stand by the entrance, smile, shake hands, pass out bulletins.

Old-timers usually hang out with me and chew the fat a bit. The youngsters ... not so much.

One young mother came through the door with her three daughters, ages six and younger. The girls took one look at me and immediately hid behind her skirts. "Ah, yes," said the mother, "the 'scary man.'"

Sigh. Angry eyebrows and a stentorian baritone voice. I am the Lloyd Bochner of church greeters.

"Girls. Welcome."

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What are we going to do about iTunes?

Seriously -- iTunes has become a problem. And it's only getting worse -- and I'm thinking Blackberry worse.

"I hate iTunes," writes John Patrick Pullen, "and I think Apple does, too ...Once the ultimate in music file management and the centerpiece to Apple's financial turnaround, this program has evolved from a simple, dependable music player into the biggest example of bloatware in computers today." Over at The Atlantic Robinson Mayer pretty much agrees.

Meanwhile all this fulminating puts Dave Sims in a nostalgic mood. He pines for that long-ago day when the iPod and iTunes actually solved a problem, with what now seems a seductive elegance.

Man, do I relate. I have an iPod Classic -- 120 GB, just about at capacity. It's all music and podcasts. I plug it into the home stereo and run one of my massive playlists as the day-long soundtrack to household contentment. Or I'll take it with me on car excursions. The newer vehicle allows it to plug right into the console, but I've worked things out just fine for the older one as well -- you don't need hi-fidelity to get the proper gist of most podcasts, so I just plug in one of those collapsible little boomer-speakers and hit play.

When my beloved Infernal Device finally wheezes its last, I'll shut off iTunes and resort to ... something else. But what? Streaming is all the rage, down in the US of A -- indeed, it's catching on north of 49 as well, albeit very slowly. Content availability, originally a sticking point, is improving but still noticeably short of what our southern neighbours enjoy. And Jazz and Classical, the two genres I do the most surfing for, are nearly non-existent in most streaming catalogues.

Also, streaming sound quality may be better than radio, but only just. More to the point, I've got plenty of fat sound files parked in two hard-drives as well as in my little corner of Google Play. I'd prefer those juicy files get to my (now vintage) speakers via as short a route as possible. Again, the iPod (with playlists!) was a nearly ideal unit. Mebbe I'll resort to plugging one of my hard-drives into my PlayStation, as is the wont of others who've made that box the centerpiece of their home entertainment unit.

So, yes, there are solutions to this problem. But they all seem somewhat improvisational and a little rough around the edges, in contrast to what Apple once offered not-so-long-ago -- alack, alas.

If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears.

Friday, September 04, 2015

"Hey Uncle Stevie, the forest called; they're running out of trees."

Know your meme.

Not our house -- yet.
Another tempest of letters and opining within the bookish teapot: Stephen King reacts to an "unspoken postulate" within literary criticism that "the more one writes, the less remarkable one's work is apt to be." Drew Nellins Smith retorts, with That's Too Much: The Problem With Prolific Writers.

I'm more sympathetic to Smith's argument -- except when I'm not. Jonathan Franzen, whose work I've occasionally enjoyed, is producing at an acceptable rate so far as I'm concerned. Charles Stross is more voluble, and I'd never dream of telling him to slow down.

Write as fast as you can, or care to. But if you're prolific, it's probably best you not expect to be deeply read.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Whither The Morally Serious Potboiler?

The Guardian has concocted some perfectly geeky click-bait. Jonathan Jones says life is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers, and throws Terry Pratchett into said pot. On behalf of outraged Pratchett fans the world over, Sam Jordison retorts.

"Don't I look morally serious?"

I read some Pratchett in my 20s. I enjoyed it well enough -- a shade more than I did Douglas Adams, actually. Both traded in absurdities, but where Adams flew around like a perpetually deflating balloon, Pratchett's tack was to treat absurdities with the greatest intellectual seriousness. If a world is flat, and the universe governed by sprites, etc., this is how the physics of it has to work. Add human foibles, and comic shenanigans ensue.

I might pick up another Pratchett book, before I finally join him as daisy fertilizer. Hard to say, really. Right now when I'm in the mood for the sort of thing Pratchett did well, I'm more inclined to pick up something by Charlie Stross.

He's younger, for one thing -- at this point youthful (and I'm speaking relatively, understand) writers serve the dual purpose of keeping me at least superficially informed of the contempo state-of-being, while assuring me I still retain some connection to the passions that drove me in my youth toward the person I am today. Plus, Stross is hip to the whole Cthulhu scene.

What I'm not going to do is make a case that both these guys should be avoided in favour of work less potboilery. Life is short, dammit. Read what excites you -- and let the rest of us know about it!

Charles Stross' site is here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Highly Recommended: LARB Long-Reads

Summer seems to bring out the best in the Los Angeles Review of Books. They've put out a bunch of long-reads that are composting in my consciousness, on topics of lifelong appeal.

Neal Stephenson is someone I've read and ... kinda ... enjoyed. Although, to be honest, he's someone I've returned to again and again out of hopes he'd grab me and scramble my view of things the way he did so thoroughly when I read Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, back in the day. Cryptonomicon retained some of that power, but in the tomes that followed I resorted to a whole lot of speed-reading. He seems like a writer in pursuit of something, though what that something is, I couldn't say. I read, but I clearly do not attend.
Not exactly "Captain Obvious"
"We hear a lot about how big [Stephenson's] ideas are," says Peter Berard, "but get little substantive engagement with these ideas, especially outside of science fiction circles." Berard takes a significant step to address this deficit, in Neal Stephenson's Ideal Forms, over here. In the process, he uncovers some peculiarly Stephensonian tropes, including "The armed WASP."
Madeleine L'Engle, with daughters.
"Madeleine L'Engle uses intergenerational encounters to complicate our sense of time," says Jonathan Alexander, who goes on to add,
"Recent work by queer theorists, such as Elizabeth Freeman and Jack Halberstam, traces how contemporary neoliberal understandings of time orient us toward productivity, watching the clock and our bodies (think biological clocks) to make the most of the time we have and contribute to the maintenance of society. L’Engle’s approach to time is not 'queer' in its questioning of normative orientations — after all, these are books concerned with the maturation of young people into pretty standard (and heterosexual) notions of functional adulthood. But time for L’Engle is queer in the sense that it hardly ever moves in a straight line in her novels. Everyone, no matter how old or seemingly 'mature,' is caught in time, dealing with the complexities of living and loving." 
Alexander's Late L'Engle: Wrinkles of Time, Redeemed is over here.
Striking a somewhat different note...
Grant Morrison's belief in magic is, I would say. a great deal less metaphorical than L'Engle's was. If you read his impassioned autobiography/history of comics, you'll see how it has prompted him to write some of the most remarkable and subversive comic book storylines of the past 30 years. The Multiversity, his latest for DC, has met with more than a few critical shrugs of dismissal -- e.g., Gregory L. Reece wishes he'd listened to the advert banner. William Bradley argues this is an egregious mis-read of what Morrison is up to, and hails The Multiversity as "the smartest book DC Comics has published in years" -- over here.
You will need help navigating this. Go here.
One of the tensions Bradley explores is whether a comic book can be both subversive, and a smashing commercial success. My inclination is to say, "Um, yeah," and move on. For some artists in the trenches, however, this is a soul-rending conundrum -- Bill Watterson, of Calvin & Hobbes fame, would be the poster-boy of this existential condition; Charles M. Schultz its antithesis. Not surprisingly, the two had a history of taking subtle digs at each other in interviews. Luke Epplin uncovers it all in a terrific piece, Selling Out The Newspaper Comic Strip, over here.
Enclosed: One (1) ACME Doof-Warrior Apparatus
And, finally, I am greatly chuffed to see Isabel Ortiz highlight the resemblance of Mad Max: Fury Road to Chuck Jones' Road Runner shorts, in her piece The Cartoon Bodies of "Mad Max: Fury Road" over here.

While composing this post I had to fight the urge to end every paragraph with, "Highly recommended." Yup -- they're all highly recommended. So put down that timeless classic you vowed to finish this summer, and read these timely distractions instead!