Friday, April 23, 2010

Doctor Who - "The Eleventh Hour"

I can't promise that I'm going to review every episode of the newest series, but I also can't promise I won't. That being said, I am going to take a look at the first episode of the Eleventh Doctor's era, and of Steven Moffat's first outing as show-runner.

In "The Eleventh Hour" the Doctor has regenerated and is still learning who he is. He crash lands the TARDIS in the backyard of a beautiful old house where a small girl is living seemingly alone. Her name is Amelia Pond and she takes the Doctor in and feeds him. He says he will take her on a voyage, in order to figure out what the scary crack in Amelia's wall might be, where a voice echoes that Prisoner Zero has escaped. However, the Doctor gets in the TARDIS and leaves for 15 years instead of 5 minutes. He then meets up with Amy Pond, and Prisoner Zero escapes. The Doctor and Amy must stop this mysterious creature, but the TARDIS is shut off due to self-repair and the sonic screwdriver. On top of that, Amy's anger at being left behind is making the Doctor's job even harder. It's all in a day's work for him.

Right from the start, the new series sets itself apart from the Davies era with a new visual style and a different sense of humour. Rather than focusing on what becomes of the humans the Doctor touches, Moffat chooses to focus on how the Doctor affects the people he meets. It's a subtle distinction, but important. Instead of showing Amy's life and what happens when she meets the Doctor, we watch the Doctor try to contend with the fallout of his actions when dealing with humans.

In terms of Matt Smith, the new Doctor, he is serviceable. He has the unfortunate and dubious honour of following one of the most popular Doctors ever. Instead of mimicking Tennant, Smith seems to play it as a mix between Tennant and the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, a madcap fun fellow. This is not the dreary mopey Ninth Doctor.

And of Karen Gillon, the new companion? She's certainly... um... feisty and flirty. I hope that her character doesn't just pout her lips through every scene. I hope, and I'm sure it will happen, but I hope she will develop and grow. It happened with Donna Noble, and she is my favourite companion of all time. If you give a character a decent and interesting arc, then viewers will emotionally invest.

The best bits of the episode were by far when the Doctor was doing his thing, making up plans, saying Doctor-esque technobabble. Essentially, when Doctor Who the show was having fun being Doctor Who the show.

I do have to note positively that this episode features some proper use of time travel, thanks to Moffat again. It seems he's the only writer of late to use time travel a fiction device in a clever and logical and fun manner. Need I remind my readers that he wrote "Blink", voted the second best Doctor Who story of all time?

I had a great time with "The Eleventh Hour" and I look forward to more fun with the Eleventh Doctor. He has some high expectations to fulfill of the audience, but I think he will do just fine. I'm eager to see more from him.

God I love Doctor Who.

White Noise

I wish I wish I wish I had read Don Delillo when I was in high school. Man, I would have absolutely adored his cosmopolitan, nihilistic, brainy style. I would have poured over every word and felt so much smarter than my peers for reading the great works of a postmodern master. Alas, I did not. Instead, I read Palahniuk, a pale imitator. I have finally rectified my mistake by reading Delillo's 1985 National Book Award winner White Noise.

Jack Gladney is a college professor in small town America, the creator and head of a new academic field called Hitler Studies. He is generally happy, living with his fourth wife, and their children from various previous marriages. They are constantly bombarded by never-ending crass commercialism and products and brands, all exemplified by the supermarket. A fellow professor, Murray, and Gladney have long interesting conversations about the meaning of America and American culture. This all changes (or doesn't) when a mysterious toxic cloud appears in the sky, with nebulous and enigmatic effects on humans.

The above plot summary is merely a superficial scanning of what happens in this novel, which is of the least importance, really. What is more relevant in talking about White Noise is the uncertainty of reality and the questions upon questions. The narrator, Jack, is never really sure about anything, and the narrative is peppered with constant questions about the nature of things, about the surface of things, about everything.

What strikes me most strongly about Delillo's novel is the sense of control I get. It feels like every single word, every single element of punctuation, of dialogue, of chapter breaks was carefully and meaningfully chosen. There doesn't seem a wasted moment in this novel as each scene presents the themes, or at least a variation of the multitude of themes present in this work.

The themes, of course, range from the fear of death, which haunts the novel's characters literally and figuratively, and apparent division between reality and artifice. Every major character's identity and sense of self gets questioned by themselves or another character. The idea of "self" is shifting and seems predicated on perspective. This protean aspect of self is paramount to the novel.

Delillo shows this tension between real and not-real in an absolute devastatingly clever scene. One of the apparent side effects of the toxic cloud is déjà vu - the illusion that one has experienced something before, even if they haven't. Jack's daughter shows signs of déjà vu, but Jack wonders if she only has it because of the power of suggestion, that the radio announcer said she would get deja vu. Jack wonders if there is a problem with a "real" symptom of déjà vu or a "fake" symptom of déjà vu, which is an illusory and "fake" experience altogether. Is a symptom a sign or a thing, even?

One can see the problems faced by the characters already. This doesn't even touch on the themes of the pervasiveness of technology, over-medication, the symbols of Hitler, of sunsets, of even of the titular white noise.

This is a fascinating novel of ideas all shaped by Delillo's intense and, frankly, stylish prose. A large number of critics have complained that it is over stylized, that there is no substance to it, but I can't possibly agree with that charge based on White Noise alone. Rarely has a novel of ideas ever been matched to a perfectly pitched tone and voice. I loved Delillo's flat and spacey tone. I loved the way his characters only ever just talked at each other rather than to each other. I completely understand why Bret Easton Ellis is consistently compared to Delillo.

White Noise is a fantastic novel full to the brim with ideas, hilarious moments, brain-twisting moments of philosophy, and a style that matches the subject. I said above that I wish I had read Delillo when I was a teenager, but that isn't to say that White Noise is sophomoric or adolescent. Rather it is the opposite; this is a masterful novel, mature and intelligent beyond a lot of books I've read. I look forward to reading what is often considered his masterpiece, Underworld. Check back here for a review. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Appointment in Samarra

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It's all I ever seem to talk about when it comes to American literature. And there's a reason for it. Having an ear for real authentic dialogue is one of the most important parts of maintaining the audience's suspension of disbelief, or at least the reader's submersion into the work. Gaddis, Ford, Price, a bunch of other people, they're all good at dialogue, and all of them have often said John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is a classic example of the uncanny ear.

Appointment in Samarra chronicles the days after Julian English, car salesman, husband, drunkard, throws a drink into a rich man's face, a rich man with important business connections. After this defining moment, English sinks into a drunk haze, and makes a fool of himself.

Rather than being about booze, this novel, O'Hara's first, is more about the decline of civilized man, taking away pieces of him to get to his inner person. Of course, the removal of these pieces is being done by English himself.

This isn't the trendsetter crowd of the Roaring Twenties, the young, the rich, the moderately famous. They're the kids too old for that in the Twenties, who have now entered into the Great Depression. F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters would have just sauntered around unfazed by all of this, whereas O'Hara's protagonist is utterly stuck in his town of Gibbsville.

O'Hara convincingly portrays a small-to-medium town, replete with local figures such as the doctor, the undertaker, the proletariat, the floozy, the secretary, the prominent local businessmen, etc, etc, etc. All of them sketched through minimal lines of dialogue and description. It's O'Hara's journalism background coming through monumentally.

However, his sketches of the cast tend to give the novel a "made up of short stories" feel, something I am definitely attuned to and can't mistake. This gives the overarching plot of the novel a somewhat undercooked feel.

The inevitability of the main character's death is presaged in the epigram, a snippet of a play by W. Somerset Maugham. However, it doesn't make the novel terribly dreary in spite of the haunting spectre of death.

As aforementioned, yes, the dialogue is fairly good. This novel was written in the 1930's so who am I to say that the dialogue is accurate. Sometimes the slang and the wit sounded phony to me, but I'm willing to say it's because the slang is 70 years old. The emotion that the dialogue conveys is portrayed honestly, and that's what matters most.

Appointment in Samarra was a fantastic read: sad, touching, uplifting sometimes, and it was written by a writer with skill and control, a true sign of excellence. I really enjoyed this novel, but I didn't love it; the episodic nature of the plot detracted. Moreover, this novel makes me want to read more by O'Hara if only to see him grow into his skills.

I picked up an old paperback copy of his 900 page monster From The Terrace for a couple bucks and we'll give that a go. Thanks for reading.

Why didn't anybody tell me...

that there is a book by acclaimed "fantasy" author China Miéville called Kraken, about, yes, the legendary sea monster. Apparently the novel includes cults and secret histories and an assassin, and the probability that the kraken is a god?

For me, it is axiomatic that any book of a non-suspicious quality featuring a sea monster would be read.

Here's the cover art from the UK edition and the N. American edition, respectively.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Wapshot Chronicle

Upon receiving my income tax refund, I treated myself to a couple of books, specifically, the Library of America's extremely handsome two volume set of the novels and stories of John Cheever. I had previously owned "The Stories of John Cheever", but now I had the complete oeuvre. I decided to start with his first "novel" entitled The Wapshot Chronicle.

This is the story of Leander Wapshot, an aristocratic WASP living the high life in a Massachusetts fishing village, and his two sons, Coverly and Moses, both of whom leave their peaceful life to try and make it in the real world, only to encounter tragedy, comedy, and everything in between.

I put novel in quotations above because Cheever's first novel is really just a bunch of short stories linked together. There's no overarching plot, just simply a bunch of humourous or sad tales strung together. The stories are still very entertaining.

Cheever has such a beautiful lyrical style, giving poetry to things sometimes simple as a cocktail party. It tends to make the subject matter seem more serious, but one has to remember that this is a fairly comic novel.

Cheever's lyrical style, however, can lend itself to obtuse verbosity, and since Cheever is no Nabokov, this can detract. This would be better suited to a short story than a full length novel, but I think most, if not all, critics agree that Cheever's true strengths were his mastery of the short story.

The Wapshot Chronicle is an enjoyable experience as each episode in the boys' lives are wrought with pathos, humour, and a clear understanding of how the specific character in question functions. This is a testament to building a whole world on three people.

The best parts of the books were the Wapshot boys falling in love with their respective wives. They are full of simple and beautiful moments captured, or drawn out during courtship, all done with an elegant hand.

What wasn't so elegant was Leander's journal excerpts, which are written in shorthand. It makes for a tiring reading experience. Luckily that style is balanced with an interesting and quite deep backstory and family history for the Wapshots. It's a credit to Cheever that this works in spite of the truncated and telegraphic journal style.

I'm going on and on about the style for this novel as opposed to meaning or theme because Cheever has such a beautiful and controlled style. There is a reason why Cheever is often compared to Chekhov. In his short stories, Cheever never wastes a sentence, using each one to convey meaning or atmosphere or character, all towards a common goal of "showing" not "telling". If anybody ever wanted how to write one successful type of short story, here it is, but in novel form.

The Wapshot Chronicle is good novel, or rather is a good series of short stories. While the episodic format does sort of try the patience of the reader, each individual episode is often better than some whole novels. Cheever's amazing controlled and lyrical style makes this novel worthy of its critical adoration, and its National Book Award win.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Random Classic Doctor Who Review

Okay, so I'm sort of a Doctor Who kick right now, which happens, so I'm still going strong with classic reviews. Let's go with a look at the Fifth Doctor's "Arc of Infinity"

The Doctor and Nyssa are called back to Gallifrey because some sort of anti-matter creature is attempting to bond with the Doctor. The possible destruction of this could be galaxy-wide devastating, so the High Council puts the Doctor to the death as to avoid any messy complications. At the same time, someone on the High Council is communicating with this bizarre creature. Is there a traitor in our midst?

The problem with watching Doctor Who out of order is that I get the chronology confused sometimes. Also, I have no idea who this Nyssa was. I recognized Tegan, who makes her re-introduction to the show in this serial, but otherwise, I was a smidge lost. It doesn't help that in the 20th season, every villain was a callback to the show's history. The mysterious creature in the anti-matter is a fairly specific reference to Gallifrean history.

Even with my lack of familiarity, I still found this to be an enjoyable entry in the Doctor Who series. Peter Davison remains a fantastic Doctor, full of energy and youth. He's extremely charming, which I understand is not always the norm for Doctors.

What impressed me most about this serial was the disparate plot points that slowly come together. I hadn't expected such sophistication from the mid-80's television. Usually it's plots rolled out of the factory for The A-Team.

However, the identity of the traitor is pretty obvious for anybody who has ever watched television. There's only one red herring, and it's the most apparent red herring ever.

There's also there's tons of running around, including a really long chase scene in the streets of Amsterdam. And tons of technobabble that, frankly, makes no sense. I'm not a physicist, but a lot of this is nonsense. I wouldn't say that the jargon detracts from the serial, but certainly the never-ending corridor chases slow the pace down.

And of course, the man in the rubber suit. There's a rubber suit design that's so garish and so outlandish that I thought it was a Muppet design.

I still really enjoyed "Arc of Infinity", but it's not the greatest thing ever. It doesn't reinvent the wheel for Doctor Who or science fiction television. It's decent writing and good acting, and that's all I can ask of one of my favourite shows ever.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jon Lajoie - Michael Jackson is Dead

While the song isn't the most spectacular, especially in comparison to Lajoie's other songs, the vulgar but hilarious comedian makes some extremely valid points about Jackson's death, and celebrity death in general. Lajoie sort of reminds me of the South Park boys: they make smart observations via crude and offensive humour. Listen to this not just for the funny, but for the thought-provoking. Although, caveat emptor, don't expect Plato-levels of philosophic discourse.

Roger Hodgson - Had a Dream (Sleeping with the Enemy)

Normally, when one of the band members goes solo, the results aren't up to par, as the whole is usually better than the sum of the parts. In this case, Roger Hodgson, who left the successful Supertramp, gave us an incredible solo album, and this is the lead track from it, a fantastic prog-rock, Pete Townsend-esque epic. Please do yourself a favour and listen to this classic piece of Seventies rock.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Random Classic Doctor Who Review

It's been awhile since I watched any Doctor Who, so I thought I would come back to this with one of the more critically acclaimed serials, Pyramids of Mars.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith arrive on Earth, in the UNIT building, but in the wrong time. It's 1911, and it seems some weird Egyptian is living in the house, owned by a missing egyptologist. The weird Egyptian guy manages to make some mummies walk around, and they let loose the Servant of Sutekh, imprisoned in the pyramids of Mars. The Servant and his mummies are building a rocket to destroy the prison and let loose the most terrible ancient god in the history of the galaxy, and only the Doctor and Sarah can stop them.

This is a fine serial worthy of the Fourth Doctor's era, filled with all the hallmarks of the time: the ridiculous scarf, Baker's aloof portrayal, the dodgy special effects, the inane pseudo-scientific jargon ("reversing the polarities should be child's play"), and of course, the stilted overacting from the British bit-players.

I jest, of course. I wouldn't watch these old Doctor Whos if those things bothered me in the slightest. Instead, it lends this serial a bit of charm. What does detract from my enjoyment is the bizarre pacing.

The first part of the serial is fairly quick, setting characters and plot up very briskly, putting our protagonists in increasing danger. It's in the second and first section of the third part where things deteriorate. The pace slows to a crawl as the mummies wander the grounds searching for humans to kill, and the Doctor and Sarah run from point to point with no apparent motivation other than running from mummies.

Until the Doctor tries a different, more ballsy tactic, the serial bogs down in chase scene after chase scene, and let me tell you, these chase scenes are boring and lifeless.

However, in the second half of the third part, and the fourth part, we resume a quick trot and the stakes get raised. It's supreme Doctor Who fun at its best. Without going into spoilers, the fourth part of the serial adds an Indiana Jones sort of aspect to it, as the Doctor navigates a series of puzzles and obstacles through the pyramid on Mars itself. Quite gripping.

All in all, I enjoyed Pyramids of Mars. Barring the crawling pace of the middle, this is an entertaining and often captivating classic Doctor Who. While the Fourth Doctor will never be my favourite, I still like Tom Baker's iconic portrayal. For fans of Doctor Who, I recommend this serial.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Miles Fisher - This Must Be The Place

This is an amazing cover version of a Talking Heads song. Not only does Fisher "get" the song, but he uses American Psycho as a launching point for the video. Ellis fans will remember that Talking Heads, specifically Byrne's lyrics are a huge inspiration for the author. It's also a very funny video. Fisher absolutely nails Christian Bale in that role. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Blind Assassin

Here's some exciting news. I've joined a community blog called The Complete Booker, in which people from all over the world are attempting to do exactly what I'm doing, which is read the entire Booker list. This means I'm going to by posting reviews of Bookers to that blog, rather than here, but I'll link to it every time.

My first post for this blog is my review of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, my personal favourite for best of the Booker. 

Click this link to read my review.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Large Hadron Rap

This does a decent job of explaining just what the hell the Large Hadron Collider does... you know, the thing that is going to rip the fabric of space-time, causing dimensional rift? Well, it ain't. This is a fun rap made by one of the employees at the complex. Enjoy.

The reality of kitchens

Pizzeria Gusto is one of my g/f's favourite restaurants in the city of Winnipeg. Well, it was shut down recently. The chef, Scott Bagshaw, gave an interview to Red River College about what chefs are like, and he gave details such as playing the "would you" game, or other such sexist and chauvinist stuff. The owner fired him, and the staff, in solidarity, walked out with Bagshaw. The astonishing thing about this is that it has made national news here in Canada, and on the Guardian website, it's made international news.

I work in a kitchen, and I can honestly say that the "would you" game that Bagshaw says he played is the least of the terrible things that the chef has said. In a kitchen, we say horrible things, insults, jibes, sexual humour, scatological humour, and everything we can possibly say. We've said every swear and a million variants. We come up with new offensive things to say all the time.

Is it right? No, not really. The jokes and comments are hurtful, antagonistic and frankly illegal considering the rights that employees have. But do they still happen in kitchens everywhere? Of course. To deny the jokes' existence is to plunge your head in the sand.

Bagshaw has now become the scapegoat for the culinary industry, a world that features such foul-mouthed icons and heroes like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey, both of whom are notorious.

Frankly, this whole debacle is bullshit. The chef surely deserved a reprimand from the owner, but not termination. To do so only brings more publicity to it. International coverage, in fact. Punishment should have been kept private.

The reality of it is that kitchens are not fun places to work. Kitchens are hot, stressful and full of angry testosterone-filled young men with knives. The game becomes one-upmanship, in order to make work a little more enjoyable.

To say that "this is the way things are" is an unacceptable excuse for sexist, chauvinistic, misogynistic and racist behaviour. We should strive to fix the kitchen industries. But it seems that the world is hungry for over-the-top personalities from kitchens. To succeed, television teaches us, we must be loud, foul braggadocios.

It is an uphill battle. I'm going to waffle a little bit here and say that maybe the publicity that this is afforded will lend itself to a self-reflective era in kitchens, which would always be a good thing. I will continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

William Gaddis - a prelude

Just like I did with John Fowles, when I started reading the last unread novel by him, I'm going to do the same with one of my favourite authors of all time, William Gaddis. I have for sure mentioned the man a bunch of times on this blog, in relation to favourite novels, best dialogue, and literary criticism.

I have gotten sick of reading English literature right now. I'm halfway through D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, and about 100 pages into Byatt's The Whistling Woman, and I can't stand either of them right now. I tried starting Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (because it's a Booker Prize) but I just couldn't stomach the sheer Englishness of it. It's just a phase, I assure you. My tastes are consistently mercurial, as paradoxical as it seems. This being said, I wanted to read something American, direct, and opposite to Englishness. What better author than William Gaddis? The last novel to read by him is the National Book Award-winning classic J R? Since I'm just at the beginning of this massive tome, let's take a look at his previous works.

The Recognitions
A 900 page monster of high-end literature about painting, forgery, and the commodification of art, a theme which is so intrinsic to Gaddis' works and life that to discuss him without that concept is to miss the point entirely. From the first two difficult chapters to the 150 page long cocktail party scene to the counterfeit 20 dollar bill that changes hands all throughout the entire novel to the constant never-ending allusions, this is a masterwork of American fiction. Gaddis isn't afraid of puns or jokes in his works, either; there's characters named Agnes Day and Recktall Brown. This is also an extremely difficult, but rewarding novel. It also confirms Gaddis' status as the master of dialogue, bar none.

Carpenter's Gothic
The shorter work, published after J R, this is a novel of a smaller cast, but still deep themes. It is concerned with a married couple in a rented house, and the bizarre man that comes to visit them, with schemes and ideas. This book is funny, and still made up entirely of dialogue, but it's more interesting as a work in context of the whole oeuvre. The litigiousness of J R, and this novel all plant the seeds for Gaddis' next book.

A Frolic His Own
Easily the funniest of all of the books I've read by Gaddis, this novel is about the law, justice and how much people sue each other over nothing. The plot is complication, but Gaddis' skill at mise en scene via dialogue is unmatched. This is a perfect novel, I would say. I was always excited to read it, and it's certainly worthy of further critical analysis. Very deserving of its National Book Award win.

The other published material by Gaddis include a collection of essays, A Rush For Second Place, which further articulates Gaddis' pet themes, and finally Agapē Agape, a novella written in the style of a monologue about the player piano, an invention that Gaddis was obsessed with.

The player piano for Gaddis represented everything that was wrong with art. It's a perfect example of taking the artist out of the art, allowing art to remain static and never changing. Gaddis absolutely loathed the idea of the commodification of art, the subjugation of art by anything other than art for art's sake. It's a primary theme for Gaddis, and almost a sourcepoint for any analysis or interpretation of his work.

All of Gaddis' work present similar features: realistic dialogue, puns, jokes, allusions, density, and a never-failing appreciation of art. His novels wallow in it, from paintings to music to other works of literature, Gaddis was always the first to applaud a real work of art.

I'm excited to read J R, which has often been considered his best, or his most difficult work, depending on who is asked. My revived interest in Ellis and Gaddis has also revived my interest in other great American postmodernists, like Pynchon and Delillo. I am going to try Gravity's Rainbow after this, and I'm going to give White Noise a try as well.

Check back here for my review of J R!