Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lie Down in Darkness

Southern literature is something I'm "into" right now, although I admit that I've always been "into" it. Faulkner and McCarthy rank as two of my most favourite authors. William Styron, who wrote Lie Down in Darkness when he was 25, has always been on my "to read" list. I thought I'd start with his first novel, often hailed as a masterpiece of modernism and Southern literature. But does it hold up?

Lie Down in Darkness covers only a couple hours in the lives of Milton and Helen Loftis, parents of the recently deceased Peyton, their beautiful daughter. During the present, Milton and Helen, in different cars, drive to the cemetery, and remember so vividly their lives. The bulk of the novel is reminisces , and trying to piece together their broken lives in fragments of memories.

This is a very depressing and sad novel, but full to the brim with ideas and concepts and images and motifs and Styron's immaculate sense of phrasing. The very first scene in the book is a train traveling in the Deep South, and Styron takes his time and paints a vivid portrait of the South. This is a very old fashioned style opening that suits an old fashioned novel.

While Lie Down in Darkness takes its theme from Anna Karenina's opening lines, it transposes them to the Southern novel architecture, with its oppressive heat and oppressive religiosity. The stakes in Southern novels are almost always life and death, trying to decide the ultimate fate of mankind. Styron takes that mindset and puts to an intimate family portrait, one of unhappiness and tragedy at the Classical level.

The whole novel culminates in the virtuoso first person inner monologue of Peyton, the hours before she commits suicide. It's an obvious nod to the Penelope sequence of Ulysses, but that doesn't detract from the emotion. Styron, who has carefully set up all these background motifs that aren't apparent in the beginning, executes this whole background set for Peyton, creating what seems like new imagery, but isn't. It's also painfully emotional and provides the title of the novel.

Lie Down in Darkness is a masterpiece. There's really not much else to say about it. I loved this book, even if it was sometimes a little hard due to Styron's modernist touches. That's all outweighed by Styron's poetic sensibilities and -much to my surprise- extremely well-crafted dialogue. I am super excited to read another Styron novel, and now I can fully understand why people were so agog about this.

[I can't remember exactly what his position on it was, but Richard Yates, my literary hero, had some very strong opinions on William Styron. He either hated Styron, or loved him (there was no middle ground for Dick), but either way, I get some strong echoes of Yates in this book.]

Next up for this particular reader is Pnin by Nabokov, which looks like a mercifully brief novel. I'm consistently thwarted by Nabokov save for Lolita, and I really want to read something else of his (Also on the docket is Nabokov's The Defense). I'm also looking at Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (not the greatest title, is it?) and more William Gay. Join me, will you?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Couple movie reviews

Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
There's movies where they're so bad, they're good, and there's movies where they're just plain bad. Most of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels fall under the heading of just plain bad. Freddy is too busy quipping and mugging for the camera than he is being scary. The only exception is Craven's New Nightmare - a movie that hasn't aged well, it's still worlds better than the previous entries in the series.
Now we come to Platinum Dunes' remake of the original. I'm not opposed to remakes of classics. Certainly the Friday the 13th remake is enjoyable and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best looking movies I've ever seen (gorgeous cinematography). With this new remake, Freddy is recast, played by Jackie Earle Haley, one of my favourite "new" actors. He was the highlight of Watchmen and now he's the highlight of this movie.
That's about the nicest thing I can say about this movie. It's got this weird screenplay structure that puts Freddy right at the beginning, and slowly reveals why he's so front and centre. That's not a terrible choice, but this screenplay shift the focus on different protagonists as Freddy kills them off one by one. Very bizarre.
Once we come to the end, the final showdown has such a poor one-liner that I guffawed at the screen. I won't spoil it, but it's truly execrable.
The director does have a sense of flair for the visuals. There are some really neat sequences that show off this talent. It's a shame nobody thought to have a re-write on the dialogue.
Overall, it was just plain bad. Bad screenplay, horrible acting, the kills weren't ingenious, but Haley was great, and the visuals weren't too shabby.

Public Enemies
I'm a big Michael Mann fan. Huge. Heat and Collateral both make my Top 25 films of all time. I just recently re-watched Miami Vice and fell in love with it all over again. I finally got the chance to see Public Enemies, and again, I'm dumbfounded at Mann's amazing visual style. The digital camera work is toned down slightly, removing some grain, but increasing detail, which is nice. The handheld shots are surprisingly well composed, considering their implied improvisation.
Johnny Depp is whatever. I've always found him to be slightly overrated. When he's really good, he's stunning, like in Ed Wood or in the Pirates movies. But when he's average, he's just every other actor. With the exception of always being cool.
I'm tempted to compare this with L'ennemi public n°1, just because they came out around the same time and both deal with bank robberies. Public Enemies works a little bit better if only because of a tighter narrative structure, but the Mesrine movies have just so much more cool, which can't be helped as they're French. (Hell, even Depp realizes France is more cool - he lives there!).
The supporting cast is stellar, as usual with Mann movies, including Stephen Lang, better known for his role as the villain in Avatar. In that movie, and this, he's the stealer of scenes. His badass swagger, Eastwood-style squint, and his machismo always makes me think of Cormac McCarthy. Why doesn't this guy have more roles?
Public Enemies was good, but not great. It's a little cold, and at no point did I ever feel for Depp's character, a complaint I often level at Mann's films. Visually stunning, emotionally distant. Like a more edgy Kubrick.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Long Home

William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy loom over Southern fiction like mountains over plains. Any aspiring writer is inevitably compared to those two, and it's a shame. I absolutely adore Southern fiction, especially Southern Gothic. There's something so haunting and mythical about the Deep South. I only stumbled upon William Gay, and after reading a bunch of reviews, I decided to give his first novel a try, called The Long Home.

Dallas Hardin came out of nowhere to this sleepy area of Tennessee and promptly installed himself in the home of a dying man. From there, he started bootlegging and buying the local politicos. Nathan Winer, a local teen, starts working for Hardin, building a honkytonk. Unbeknownst to Winer, Hardin killed his father, and so begins a strange journey for Winer to avenge his father's death and rid the county of Hardin's presence.

The very first scene in the novel is a hole opening up in the ground, with fire and brimstone issuing forth. This sets the apocalyptic and biblical tone of the novel. The immediate comparison that my mind made was McCarthy, unfortunately. Gay certainly owes a huge debt to McCarthy, let’s not understate that, but he makes The Long Home his own.

This is a beautifully written novel about growing up, becoming a man, being in love, and getting into fights. Gay’s prose is gorgeous most of the time, even if he indulges a little in too many word mash-ups (like both Faulkner and McCarthy do). His dialogue is good, with very few clichés or tired phrases. Even when an idiom is used, Gay finds a way to twist it to the specific character speaking it (these idioms are rare, thankfully).

If a complaint could be made, it’s that Gay doesn’t trust enough in the power of his protagonist. I would have loved if Nathan Winer had just done the things he did rather than think about them, or talk about them. Any time I was offered a glimpse into his psyche, it was something I had already gleaned from Gay’s strong storytelling and plotting skills. The characters are strong enough to stand on their own, without Gay having to hold the hand of the reader. It’s very rare that I get to grumble about such a thing.

This novel could have certainly been set in another place, in another time, but The Long Home has the confidence to portray this setting as an atmosphere, instead of just simply a place where the plot unfurls. The environment, with its ever-changing weather, its oppressive forests, its vast skies, it sets a tone for the novel, and it always suits what’s happening.

Confidence and assurance are the primary traits that I think of about The Long Home. Even though this is a debut novel, it has the feel of a story told a million time, practiced and edited until it unfolds rather well. Other than a tendency to tell rather than show in regards to the protagonist, I really enjoyed this novel. Although it’s phrase overworked until it’s creaky, I must say this is a worthy heir to the legacy built by McCarthy. I look forward to reading Gay’s other novels.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stevie Wonder - "As"

What an amazing song. I searched for a couple covers, and they're all sung by "American Idol" style singers, going up and down the scale at the end of every phrase. Notice how in this track, Stevie only does it for emphasis, rather than showing off. He didn't need to: he played almost every instrument on the album!

Welcome to the new design

I was sick of the old design, and I decided to give Tumblr a try. Well... Tumblr was pretty cool, but Blogger has been my home for over 2 years, so I'm going to stick with them a little longer. Also, Blogger's template editor is so much better than Tumblr's. It's just too bad that there are not enough cool templates for Blogger.

Instead of photos stolen from the Web for my header, etc, all the photos I will be manipulating will be my own, or free under whatever that license is. That means that the background on this blog, as of today, is my own photo, tweaked and altered in Photoshop, of course. Bear with me as we try different backgrounds!

As always, thanks for reading!

Tilt-Shift photography

Here's my attempt at doing some fake tilt-shift photography, which is creating the illusion of miniatures. Here's Mini-peg....

And the original Winnipeg....

Click on each picture for high res versions. I'm learning. Still no expert though....

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Flanders Panel

As previously mentioned, I'm into chess right now. I decided to give Arturo Perez-Reverte another try, after reading The Club Dumas about a million years ago and enjoying it enough. He's a prolific writer, and not even all of his works have been translated. But is this novel any good?

Julia is a professional restorer of paintings. When she is entrusted with a medieval painting depicting a chess game, she uncovers a hidden message underneath the paint asking who killed the knight? So begins a mystery involving Flemish painting, art dealers, chess, and a deadly game of murder.

This book is exceedingly clever. Almost too clever. The game of chess at the novel's heart is complex and varied, with very specific patterns of movement, and the novel's action seems to follow the game, as the murderer's scheme. Perez-Reverte obviously researched the hell out of chess and medieval art in order to write this, and it shows. I'm not an expert in chess, but I've been studying enough to know that he devised a clever puzzle, but nothing a grandmaster couldn't solve in minutes.

As for the mystery? It has a nonsense ending, of course. There's no way any possible solution could live up to the expectations of an amazing setup like that. Even so, Perez-Reverte keeps the action moving, the plot brisk, the characters well drawn enough, and even in translation, some decent prose. It's a shame that the end is so trite.

As aforementioned, the novel is exceedingly clever. The ending is a complete, holistic one, like a locked-room ending. (For a modern example of this, see Seven, with its spectacular ending.) The problem with this style of ending is that I felt the author, while composing this denouement, was grinning like a madman, thinking he had come up with the perfect finish. As I said, it's nonsense, and detracts from the rest of the novel.

Other than this, The Flanders Panel is an enjoyable romp through art history, Spain, and chess. The plot keeps moving, the chess is fun enough, and the characters seem to have a little more depth than a Dan Brown. While I don't think I would ever re-read this novel, I would recommend it to people looking for a quick summer read slightly more complicated than the usual fare.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Clara Callan

Once a novel has won a slew of awards, there's a expectation that follows it, one of excellence or beauty or perfection. Sometimes, novels live up to that expectation, or exceed it, becoming a masterpiece. Some novels don't quite meet the expectation. Franzen's Freedom, no doubt, will forever suffer for the hype attached to it. Another novel that seems to fit this bill is Richard B Wright's Clara Callan.

In 1936, Clara Callan, single schoolteacher, bids farewell to her ambitious sister Nora, who has left their rural Ontario village for New York, where she will follow her dreams in being a radio actress. What follows for the two sisters, the years leading up to World War Two, is a time of change and tragedy and love, all delivered in letters between them.

If I could sum up the Canadian literary identity, it would be an obsession with Toronto and the differences between the metropolitan and the rural, which is apparently the bee's knees for all these Canadian literary heavyweights. Clara Callan fits this bill perfectly. We even get two characters personifying the cultural differences, and the decline in the village as the rural character becomes more gentrified and cultured.

Clara Callan is a subtle novel where the reader is forced to read between the lines... some of the time. The basic idea of the book is to compare and contrast two sides of the same coin, two women, one who takes a chance and one who doesn't, and how that dynamic changes. The repressed emotions of the rural Clara Callan bubble to the surface and explodes when she finally tastes the forbidden fruit.

This is an imminently readable novel. The 400 odd pages just flew by for me. Wright does an amazing job of sustaining the different voices through letters, maintaining their individual voice and idiosyncrasies. It's a deft and subtle skill.

What doesn't quite fly is the often transparency of what Wright is trying to convey. One of the central images for Clara is of a homely English woman living a life of romance in Italy. It's painfully obvious to the reader what this is to signify, and then later, Clara all but admits what it means.

On the other hand, Wright performs an amazing feat with the backdrop of history. Usually when novelists use historical events and have fictional characters comment on them, it has the feel of Forrest Gump - it's irritating and knowing, undermining the importance of the event. However, Wright never ever sinks to sentimentality when it comes to the years leading up to the war. Rather, every historical reference has this sense of foreboding, like a storm, just sitting on the horizon, getting closer. So instead of the reader feeling smug that they know what happens in the future, the reader feels powerless to stop everybody and warn them. It's a powerful accomplishment.

Clara Callan is a very quick, readable novel that has some depth to it. Unfortunately, the author's inability to be subtle with images and motifs detracts from the subtle use of repressed emotions and historical events. How can one novel be so good at one element and frustratingly simple in another? This is still an enjoyable novel, but maybe not worthy of such crazed accolades foisted upon its feet.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I've been playing a lot of Chess recently...

...and I still suck a lot. The last time I played a lot of chess it was against my girlfriend who soundly beat me three times in a row. I felt the sting of that for awhile. But then I got my new laptop, and it comes with Chess Titans. This renewed my interest in chess. I still suck, but I've probably played at least three or four games a day! Inspired by this rejuvenated recreation, I decided to look at a couple books that involve chess... books I intend to read in the next couple weeks.

The Luzhin Defence by Vladimir Nabokov
A chess grandmaster falls apart due to his obsession with chess. One of Nabokov's obsessions was chess, and he imbued this novel with lots of technical knowledge. Plus, his trademark style and wit.

The Flander's Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte
I tried reading this a long time ago, and gave up if only because of the chess. I really like art history and chess and mysteries, so for somebody to combine them all... that sounds good to me. I've read a couple of his other novels, but that was a long time ago, and I don't trust my opinion from then.

The Eight by Katherine Neville
This is another book that I tried reading a long time ago, but gave up.... Now that I've read Name of the Rose and bested that titan, I think I can handle this. Although I've heard it's rather Dan Brown-esque, which fills me with loathing. Not a good attitude to take when starting a novel

I'm in college for computer programming right now, and I've been studying a lot of math and logic. One of my course is an introduction to logical reasoning, eg. logic gates (I've also taken binary and octal and hexadecimal numbers, but that's not related). My girlfriend has also experienced increased admiration for chess, so she's been playing too.

I'll keep you in the loop in regards to my reading! Tonight, at work, I think I'm going to barrel through The Flander's Panel and finish it in one night. But I am 130 pages from the end of Clara Callan(uhhh it's okay) and about 80 pages into Styron's Lie Down in Darkness (which so far is amazing).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hell House

I read I Am Legend, but that's about all I had of Richard Matheson. Reading Elsewhere merely made me thirsty for more haunted houses, so I decided to go with the novel that some people call the best (or second best), ie Hell House. I devoured the novel in one sitting.

A parapsychologist, a mental medium and a physical medium are hired to investigate the famed Belasco mansion. It seems the rich man who purchased it wants proof of either normality or supernormality.The parapsychologist brings his young wife, and the four of them attempt to stay in the house for 5 nights.

This wasn't as good as I thought it was going to be. I enjoyed it, and liked its approach, which was similar to I Am Legend - an attempt to rationalize supernatural events by science. It's a clever method, and Matheson's science is plausible (but incorrect). However, all this explanation serves to lengthen exposition. There's pages upon pages of infodumping.

But is it scary? Not really. Matheson goes for brute force style scares rather than slow atmospheric. The result is not modern enough to scare the modern reader. Unfortunately, this novel suffers if only because it's a little out of date. Stephen King did this same thing with his short story 1408 and produced far more efficient results.

Although, I admit I read it in one sitting, so it can't possibly be bad. I enjoyed it, but perhaps my tastes run closer to Lovecraftian style horror rather than rationally based horror. I would have preferred a much more ambiguous ending to the novel, rather than the solution to the mystery that's laboriously explained by a surviving character.

While I enjoyed Hell House, I think my disappointment was a matter of Matheson and I having different tastes. The plot moves as a brisk pace, and it held my attention the entire time. His efforts at brute force scares are commendable, and was certainly pushing the envelope in his time, but unfortunately Hell House just isn't as good as it was back in the day. 

I'm still working on Clara Callan, which I think is as far from Hell House as possible, and I'm thinking of trying some Nabokov. I'll keep you in the loop.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I'd heard of Gerard Woodward through John Self's Asylum. It sounded interesting. So on a whim, I picked up the first book of a trilogy, called August, and read it.

Every August, the Jones family of London stay three weeks on a farm in Wales. There's Aldous, teacher and painter, his wife Collette, Janus, their eldest son, gifted piano prodigy, Juliette, James and Julian. Every year they go to this farm and every year, as people grow up, they drift apart as a family.

Woodward's background as a poet has saved this novel. His prose is beautiful, and every turn of phrase is light and clear. Often, he compares something, by description rather than direct comparison, and it is so simply done that it's obviously impressive. This is probably his greatest skill as an author.

His weakest? Certainly the plotting. This novel smacks of mash-up; it feels like interconnected short stories. This means the overall plot meanders and follows paths only to abruptly give them up. Janus, the eldest son, has the most interesting and alluring psychological profile. He's so angry and confused about life, but every time Woodward gets deep into Janus, he drops off to focus on Collette, the glue-sniffing mother. I never thought I would read a literary novel that includes glue-sniffing. It was weird.

Even though August feels like short stories strung together, there is one breathtaking sequence that could have worked perfectly as a short story, and functions fully as a piece of an overall picture. There is one chapter in which Collette takes a job as a bus conductor to pay for the transplant of her mother's grave. The setup is nonlinear, starting media res, and the short series of events are beautifully rendered and include a ton of information about the characters. It's wonderful.

On the whole, August was a good novel, but not the greatest. Woodward's skills as a plotter and a novelist, rather than just a writer, needed to be developed further. His prose is exquisite and a delight to read, and he has a sharp eye for images and details that stand out to the reader. I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.

I gave up on Strong Motion for the second time in my life - this time because I found the novel to be far too amateurish and self-indulgent. There's a bit where Franzen describes what's to be found when the snow melts in a park, and it goes on for 400 words. That's too much. So I gave up, and now I'm starting Richard B Wright's Clara Callan, which won a bazillion awards in Canada. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Walt Simonson news!

In the greatest news since the gigantic Garth Ennis Punisher omnibus, Marvel finally reads my mind and delivers the best run on Thor of all time in one volume!

Considered by many to be the greatest run on Thor ever, Walt Simonson’s classic tales of the God of Thunder are collected here—completely remastered from the original artwork and newly colored by Steve Oliff! And there are too many timeless tales to count: The Casket of Ancient Winters! The death of Odin! The origins of Asgard! The sacrifice of the Executioner! Thor as a frog! The Mutant Massacre! The curse of Hela! The debut of Thor’s body armor! Guest-starring Beta Ray Bill, Nick Fury and the Avengers! Featuring the threats of Fafnir the dragon, Loki, Lorelei, Malekith the Dark Elf, Surtur, Hela, the Titanium Man, Kurse, Zaniac, the Marauders, the Absorbing Man, Fin Fang Foom, the Destroyer and the Midgard Serpent! Collecting THOR #337-355, #357-369 & #371-382 and BALDER THE BRAVE #1-4.
1192 PGS./Rated A …$125.00
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4633-9

This is fucking fantastic. Since I am super close to the poverty line, I'm going to trade in as much as I can at my local comic shop.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Everybody has seen The Exorcist. A smaller number than everybody has read The Exorcist. An even smaller number than that has read Legion, the sequel (which is astonishingly good, by the way). An even smaller, more infinitesimal number than that has read some of William Peter Blatty's other works. Well, I count myself in that little group. I haven't read everything (as that's practically impossible due to books being out of print), but I've read all the major works. And now, finally, after waiting months for it from the library, I have read his 2009 novel, Elsewhere.

Elsewhere, the eponymous mansion, is supposedly haunted, and Joan Freeboard, realtor, is trying to sell it. She hires an English psychic, a parapsychologist from Columbia, and an outlandishly gay author, to stay in the mansion and prove it's not haunted.

The first thing that struck me about this novel is the sheer economy of description. In mere pages, Blatty sketches the character of Freeboard quite quickly, sketches tiny scenes that add up to a portrait. The overall feeling is one of professionalism. Here's a writer who's been writing for decades. However, Freedboard is the least interesting character among a small cast of uninteresting characters.

Once the cast gets to the house, the tension starts. Slowly but surely, Blatty creates an atmosphere, in the classic sense, and fills it with unmistakable dread. There's also some hints, and some references to quantum physics.

I figured out the end about halfway, and was disappointed once I had reached it. It's a fairly obvious ending, but the only thing that keeps it from being awful is Blatty's extremely clever twisting of the chronology.

The best bits of the novel are, of course, the atmosphere and the tension throughout the middle sections. Another highlight is Blatty's dialogue skills. Only a couple snippets of speech sounded clunky or unreal. As well, Blatty indulges himself in some fairly overwrought purple prose at the midway point.

Even though Elsewhere is fairly short, Blatty stuffs the novel to the brim. At no point is the reader bogged down in exposition, but always has enough to make sense of what's happening in the past and present. The juggling act that Blatty performs is worth experiencing in of itself.

Other than the disappointing ending, Elsewhere is a fantastic novel that creates and sustains an atmosphere of real horror, something many many many novels of the same genre cannot possibly do. I wish there were more haunted house stories worth reading like this one was. Recommended for horror fans.

Speaking of haunted house novels, here's a suggestion. Everybody should give Clive Barker's Coldheart Canyon a read. It's one of the most stylish and interesting horror novels I've ever read, and certainly ranks as Barker's magnum opus.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Name of the Rose

In my second year of university, I was ambitious, and tried to read Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and was swiftly defeated by it. It turned me off Eco for a long time, but The Name of the Rose has always been on my to-read list, and I finally got the courage to take it on. Now that I've read, I'm going to take a look at it.

The Name of the Rose is a whodunnit set in a 14th century monastery in Italy. A young monk, an illuminator of manuscripts, has perished, and it's up to William of Baskerville and his scribe to unravel the mystery.

That's the simplest plot summary that I can give. This is really a book about books, about semiotics, about the act of reading, and about the crazy things people do in the name of God. If one wanted a crash course on semiotics, this is certainly the book to do it with.

I'm not really going to delve too deep in this, considering this novel is practically critic-proof and considered a classic. It's also really complicated, and fun. It's also very difficult in that the sheer quantity of historical detail is staggering.

The best parts of the book, that which are most readable, are the scenes in which the detective character and his scribe discuss the case. It's always clever and fun. The hardest parts of the book are the lengthy dream sequences. I understand their purpose in the text, but that doesn't mean they are fun to read. I've never been a huge fan of long dream sequences.

The Name of the Rose is a big novel about big themes, and was enjoyable overall. I probably won't read it again, if only because it's just too much. But that's what I want from literature - this is a puzzle to be solved, in a myriad of ways.

I know this was a fairly fluff review, but what are you going to do? I'm sick. Next on my to-read pile is Gerard Woodward's August and Franzen's Strong Motion. Bear with me, friends.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Design Challenge

Here is my second draft of The Portrait of the Lady design sans lady. I went with a vintage ad, did some filtering etc and highlighted the empty stool. I added a choice quote to the quote, which ends up being ironic considering it's a kitchen. I like the concept behind this design, but I'm not sure if I love the final product. I'll try again.

Here's the original picture for reference, which I found through this link.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I had the nerdiest dream...

...last night, and I wanted to preserve for all time. I don't normally share this kind of thing, but this was just so nerdy. In the dream, I'm tasked with hunting down this thing, this entity, I'm not really sure what or even why. But to hunt it down, I had to follow it into virtual reality, using those old school virtual reality goggles. As I put the goggles on, the facilitator of the v/r tools gave me instructions on how to hunt him down, and the number one rule was not to fall asleep. Of course, within the dream, I fell asleep and entered what I thought was virtual reality. Once I woke up - in the dream - I couldn't figure out whether it was virtual reality or reality. Then for a brief moment before I woke up into the real world, I wasn't even sure if the v/r goggles were simulating dreaming. All within a dream.

To sum up, my dream simulated the effect of dreaming, and nested them in unreal worlds. 

Is that too nerdy?

Thursday, September 16, 2010


My obsession with Adobe Photoshop continues. I've been so far unsuccessful in blending two photos without a stupid line showcasing the borders. This picture above, is one I took a couple days ago off the balcony of my apartment, showing the traffic snarl on the Donald St Bridge, which backs up every weekday at around the same time. I added some pretty filters and text, and there you have it. This is probably my sixth completed photo manipulation. I'm still learning.

And this... is the book cover for Freedom that I designed. I'm not sure how much I like it, but it's certainly better than the first one I made.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


I waited 9 years for this novel, and everybody, including the hard to please Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is fawning high praise on this novel. This novel is surely worth spending the time on true critical investigation. I’m really going to dig into Freedom, so obviously, spoilers within. With that in mind, I’m going to start with the ending.

Freedom, of course, is about freedom in America, in the 21st century. Walter and Patty Berglund, and their two children Joey and Jessica, live a suburban life that has enough drama and money as to be normal, but not dull. As their children grow older, have problems of their own, Walter and Patty drift apart, each becoming focused on, respectively, conservation of songbirds, and wasted opportunity. Freedom is about their lives unravelling, in ways mirrored by America itself.

Firstly, the end is very unsatisfying, but not in the sense that it doesn’t finish things up, in that it presents a slight happy ending for the married couple. Considering the doom-laden hopelessness that runs throughout the entire novel, the happy ending seems to be a contradiction.

Secondly, the political aspects of the novel were frustrating and one-sided. While I personally agree with a lot of what Franzen is saying, it does seem like the novel is but a soapbox. Walter is often nothing more than a mouthpiece for Franzen’s loathing of a modern world.

Thirdly, the setting of “this minute” and “this moment” is kind of annoying - especially Franzen’s express desire to seem “with it” and hip, ie the inclusion of Bright Eyes, a decidedly indie band. But I suppose the references could work in a hundred years, considering that Franzen gives enough information to understand the implications of the modern age reference.

There’s a dark side to Franzen’s wanting to a write a novel set in the here and the now. When characters of Franzen’s age speak of the previous generation, there’s nothing but contempt. Walter and Patty have such utter contempt for youth, with their sullen attitude, their self-absorption, their expectations that everybody owes them something. The vitriol is sudden and alarming, and it goes hand in hand with Franzen’s dislike of newer technology, such as BlackBerrys and iPods. When Lalitha, Walter’s assistant, is using her BlackBerry, it’s always in the context of interrupting something, or being distracting. When any iPod is being used, it’s in the context of blocking out another person.

On the flipside, Walter, Franzen’s obvious mouthpiece, is concerned with the encroachment of the technological world on his lakeside property. At the end of the novel, his life has been ruined and his dreams crushed, symbolized by a new development built and occupied by his property. His divorce from reality is symbolized in his kidnapping of a housecat that hunts the diminishing bird population in the area.

If one combines the theme of hopelessness and the theme of fear of technological progress, one has a very alarming picture of the psyche of the author: scared and angry.

While it isn’t a bad thing to be scared and angry, I personally find it irritating when people complain about new emerging tech or trends. Since technology is really here to stay, I can’t understand why people would so ardently struggle against it.

Fourthly, Franzen’s absolute mastery of the novel as a long form has to be admired. While each part could potentially stand alone as a short story (with some very specific editing and rearranging), the parts function together, in a strict linear sense. However, the timeline is slightly juggled in the middle part of the novel, but at no point was this confusing or impossible to follow. I wished this novel could have been longer.

Franzen has said in a couple interviews his admiration for the old style "big" novel, like Anna Karenina or War and Peace (which makes an appearance in this novel). He has made his version of that novel, but setting it in the here and now.

Of the storylines running through the novel, Joey’s seems to be the most interesting. His is most indicative of the strange subtheme of the poisonous nature of relationships. Freedom from each other, but including our own civil liberties seems to be impossible, as evidenced by Joey. He’s in an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship with Connie, a cipher, who is only understood by Joey.

Joey treats Connie poorly, makes her suffer, imprisons her within a circle of promises and sex. But he, himself, is imprisoned by Connie, imprisoned by his abuse of her. He can’t stop himself from treating her poorly.

Freedom, as a concept, is very important to American fiction as a whole. In early American fiction, the concept of asylum was extremely prevalent. Asylum from the Old Country, asylum from moral turpitude, asylum from a world the Americans wanted no part of. But, just like in Franzen’s novel, asylum works both ways, protecting you from the world, but also protecting the world from you. In Freedom, Franzen is exploring the illusion of freedom as experienced by people who can never be free. Walter will never be free of his love for Patty. Patty will never be free of Richard’s hold. Richard will never be free of his perceived inferiority to Walter. Joey will never be free of his mother’s oppressive love. Connie will never be free of Joey. And on and on and on. Everybody is stuck in this cycle, seeking asylum, but never understanding what they need to properly escape, like sex.

I’m sure somebody better with aphorisms said something about how all fiction is about sex, and Freedom certainly fits the mould. However, sex is used a tool of power, it seems. In this novel, intercourse isn’t an expression of any emotion other than control. Sex is a conquest, something to have achieved. Patty tortures herself over the course of a couple months, deciding whether or not to have sex with Richard, the rock star and former college roommate of her husband. Once the inevitable deed is done, it’s a tick in the box for adultery. It’s something Patty wanted so bad, she had to have it, divorcing the act from any emotional meaning beyond cheating on her husband. The sex means nothing, and she spends pages upon pages trying to convince herself of that.

For Joey, sex is also conquest. This journey that Patty takes is mirrored with Joey when he tries to sleep with a Jewish princess who has no interest in him other than his innate ability to make money (in shadowy ways, providing Franzen with an opportunity to wax sorrow on the state of American entrepreneurialism). Once Joey lies enough to Connie, and manages to convince the object of his lust to have sex with him, the deed means nothing. Adding to this is Joey’s metaphorical treatment of his marriage by literally eating, digesting, and evacuating his wedding ring, in a hilarious and disturbing scene.

The novel is funny and never boring. Franzen’s deft skill with characterization is the highlight of the novel. As with other expert sketchers of character, he can quickly establish an entire person with only a couple paragraphs. It’s an amazing and difficult thing to pull off. If you have made it this far in my review, you can obviously see that there is a lot going on in this novel. I’m sure better critics and analysts will see my thoughts as sophomoric, but it does reveal a much larger iceberg beyond the visible surface. Freedom is an excellent novel, and worthy of standing near his masterpiece The Corrections. It’s just too bad that Franzen’s fear of progress and criticisms of a younger generation slightly detract, but not fatally so. I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

High Rise

I've always wanted to read J. G. Ballard, and just never got around to sampling the famed British author. I started watching the Cronenberg adaptation of Crash, but gave up rather quickly. The weirdness of Crash is the primary reason why I was always intimidated by Ballard. I saw High Rise at the library, and I was drawn to do it due to its plot, but mostly due to its length, which is on the short side.

High Rise is the slow and awful decay of society within a huge 40 storey modern apartment complex, with swimming pools, markets, and other high tech amenities. Robert Laing, a young single doctor, watches impassively as the skyscraper's utilities break down, and as social norms break down, devolving into violence and chaos.

There's not really not much to the plot of High Rise. What this book is concerned with is social norms, and how easily they fall away. Ballard's slow and methodical vivisection of the apartment building is captivating, albeit in a morbid "how worse can it get" kind of way.

Ballard is adept at using haunting images and similes. For example, when the swimming pool becomes unusable, Laing notices a newspaper floating on the surface of the water, its headline wavering like another world's message. I'm paraphrasing, but you can see how efficient this image is. A lot of these symbols underscore how alien this world is, while at the same time, being ironic - this alien apartment building is actually us in microcosm.

This isn't a book of character or plot, but of ideas, and they're certainly complex. For that time. It's a shame that I didn't read Ballard when he was new, because it would've seemed fresh when I read it. Unfortunately, a million authors have mimicked him, stolen his ideas, appropriated and adopted his themes. The end result is that I feel like I read High Rise before. Of course, a solid argument can be made that High Rise is just Lord of the Flies but urban in setting.

High Rise was an enjoyable novel, slight if only because of its limited setting. The familiarity with the plot and characters is a flaw not fair of leveling against Ballard, but it still hindered my reading. I gather that this was an adequate introduction to Ballard, and I'll probably read some more of his work. Maybe.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wonder Boys

The last time I tried to read Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon was just after I had finished watching all of The Wire, and why I gave up was because of relevance - as in why should I read this? The Wire was so immediate and serious and about the world that reading a novel about a bunch of drunk authors seemed so frivolous, so useless, so self-indulgent. After finishing Freedom by Franzen, I thought about giving it another try, as maybe I was in the right mindset for it.

Wonder Boys is the story of Grady Tripp, novelist and professor, James Leer, his bizarre highly talented student, and Crabtree, Tripp's sexually ambiguous editor, and visitor to the annual WordFest party that the college holds. Tripp is stuck in a two thousand page novel that doesn't seem to end, his wife left me due to the hot co-ed leaving in his basement, and his lover, the Chancellor of the college, has just announced she's pregnant. Will he be able to keep afloat during all this zaniness?

Surely Wonder Boys is the literary equivalent of the stereotypical indie flick, with calculated wackiness and characters defined only by their quirks. Except, this novel was published in 1995, so it can be forgiven for presaging the indie movement.

Chabon's writing style is clever enough, with clear enough prose, and crisp enough dialogue. The plot moves quickly, getting the wackiness from Point A to B and back again, and the use of motifs and symbols is adequate.

I wasn't really super excited about this novel the entire time. It starts out strong, and then derails slowly in the middle section when James and Tripp visit his ex-wife's family for Passover, a scene that goes on way too long.

Wonder Boys is so middle ground that I'm sure I will forget everything about it in a couple months. There's nothing that stands out, nothing that made me think this novel was fantastic or outstanding or impressive. Everything is so standard and workmanlike.

Going back to my opening statement, I was again plagued by questions of why am I reading this. Why does this novel exist? Why should I listen to Tripp and Chabon? There's nothing immediate and timely about this book, and nothing that screams for attention. This book seems only relevant to those in the know, those living on college campuses, those working on never-ending novels. I can't say this an accurate portrait of campus life, if only because I've never lived in this style of campus, and therefore Chabon could have either been super accurate, or have made it up completely.

I liked Wonder Boys only in that it entertained me for a few hours, but otherwise I don't think I'm ever going to read it again. I can't think of any outstanding or memorable element that will stand the test of a re-read. For literary insiders, I'm sure it's interesting or humorous, but for everybody else, it's merely an exercise in self-indulgence, quirkiness for its own sake, and workmanlike construction.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I saw a couple movies this past week...

...and here's what I thought of them.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
I'm a very casual fan of the Harry Potter series, in that I've only read the first book and seen all of the released films. They're enjoyable adventure films, chockablock with special effects and drama, grounded in a rather large (albeit derivative) mythology. In other words, they ain't bad.
This film, however, the sixth in the series, suffers from the bloated source material. There's just far too much happening in the book. The revelation of who is the Half Blood Prince is a wasted half second of screen time. It's robbed of all weight by the film's insistence on a breathless pace.
The best parts of this film (which can be said of all the films) is the character drama and interaction. But now, the relationships are influenced by the growing storm of hormones, which makes everything all the more interesting and hilarious. This is the funniest of all the Harry Potter movies.
However, just like in the previous three movies, the middle sags and drags. I was extremely bored with the slow reveal of the mystery. The plots of the movies are slaves to the school-year structure: every mystery has to be stretched, no matter how improbably, over the academic months. It's illogical and irritating. Combine that with the fact that Harry is always in the right place at the right time to eavesdrop and obtain crucial information. He never actually solves a mystery, he simply bumbles along until the end of school comes.
The pace, which is at time too fast and other times too slow, is a problem, but not fatally so. I enjoyed this movie, and it almost made me want to read the book. I won't though.

The Last Exorcism
Horror depends so much on its ability to scare that if a movie can't scare, it's considered a failure. This is a problem to a much larger degree than say a comedy. Horror movies live or die by the quality of their scares, whereas a comedy can survive even if all the jokes aren't hilarious. Therefore, horror movies are often victims of harsh judgement. After all this, it's nice to be pleasantly surprised by a horror movie (more so than being surprised by a comedy). The Last Exorcism is a mockumentary about a charlatan exorcist and a film crew, off to document his last exorcism as a fraud. But when they meet the girl who claims to be possessed, things take a darker turn.
Aided by a charming fantastic lead and a creepy girl, this movie succeeds up until the first last five minutes, when the very careful ambiguity is compromised. There are some great jump-scares, but overall it's an exercise in tension, and delivers on that promise.
I really enjoyed this movie, and one of its reveals features one of my all time favourite plot devices, which I won't spoil, but suffice it to say that things aren't what they seem (without being a stupid reality-altering plot-twist, which I fucking hate). I would recommend this to fans of real horror, not cheap Wal-Mart horror like the Saw franchise.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Design Challenge

I read on a blog the other day that it's very difficult to find a copy of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady without a picture of a woman on the cover. There exists some designs, but not a lot. This past year, I've been really interested in book design and I wanted to try my hand at it, but I had no inspiration. Well, now I do. Here, for the first time, is the first book design I've done. Bear in mind, it's my first, and it didn't take me long. It's just a prototype.

I started with the basic Penguin Classic set, which features a black bottom quarter, with the text in white and orange. Then, I really thought about what the source text actually means, and I came up with the idea of Victorian collars, which are restrictive and indicative of the era. I did some Clipart hunting and voila!

Caveat Emptor - nothing in this design belongs to me. It's all appropriated. So here, without further delay, is my first design.

Now it has begun. This post series, called Design Challenge, will feature my attempts at creating a great design for Portrait of a Lady without a lady. Continue checking back for further designs!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Thoughts on Jonathan Franzen

I'm more than halfway done with Jonathan Franzen's newest novel, Freedom. The release of this novel is a bit of a big deal for me, considering that his previous novel, The Corrections, remains the only book I've re-read since 2002. Freedom, published only last week, seems to be another monster sized "literary" novel, drawn on a huge canvas. This specific post relates to my relationship to Franzen as an author and as a critic (certainly not as a person, cause I have no idea what he's like).

The Corrections won the National Book Award, of course. It's one of the most famous novels of the past decade, and generates heated debate among the literati. Even though it was nominated for a bazillion awards, and won two of the biggest, people often deride the novel as being simple soap opera. Reading over some of the User Reviews, the major complaint leveled at the book is its propensity for sheer cleverness and wordplay. That it was cleverness for its own sake.

What some people didn't get out of the novel, that I certainly did, is Franzen's ability to draw his characters out so well. I can still remember the salient details of the main characters, and it's been about three years since I read the book.

The Corrections also fits into Franzen's narrow definitions of what makes a good novel. I've written scores of message board posts, blog posts, and even an academic essay on Franzen's belief that novels should absolutely not punish the reader. It was Franzen's experience and difficulty with The Recognitions and JR that introduced me to William Gaddis. My position in relation to perceived difficulty is that if I wanted novels to be easy, I would have stuck with John Grisham and never explored uncharted territory.

There's a new-ish movement in the American book scene to mine genre tropes for high-minded literature, like with Michael Chabon's oeuvre of the past decade, or Dave Egger's publishing empire. My stance is that genre-mining isn't a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. It's something that has captured the imagination of the writers, and the paying audiences as well. It's not specifically my cup of tea, but I won't turn my nose up at these books.

Franzen, on the other hand, seems to be looking further past these authors, going back to large social novels like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or to a lesser extent, D H Lawrence. Franzen's interested in his characters as being pawns in a larger social canvas, how they react and live within this world. Franzen wants to explore what the state of the world is, using his cast.

This can be said of The Corrections, and especially of Freedom, but I'll get to that once I finish the novel. Suffice it to say that one of the characters in Freedom even comments that they're living in a D H Lawrence novel.

I approach a Franzen work, whether it be fiction or not, with a grain of salt. Since I don't see eye-to-eye with him on critical matters, I have to keep that in mind when appraising his intentions or motives within a work.

So why then do I continue to read Franzen, if I don't like his (book) politics? Whether or not he acted a bit of a fool vis-à-vis Gaddis, his books are still excellent, important, and culturally relevant. Franzen is an amazing author, a gifted prose stylist, and has lofty ambitions. He is a great role model for aspiring authors (present company included).

Something I plan to correct in the next couple months is that I have yet to finish Franzen's first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. I started them back in my first year of university, and I'm not sure why I gave up. I think I was disappointed that Franzen hadn't repeated with The Corrections. Certainly these first two novels are their own beasts.

I'm really enjoying Freedom so far, with some small niggling issues, and I can't wait to share my thoughts on it. Keep checking back here for the review!