Monday, February 28, 2011

Where's the love for Toy Story 3?

Another year has gone by, and another opportunity for the Oscars to be relevant has been missed. I didn't watch the Oscars last night. Why bother? It's a boring spectacle of poorly written jokes, celebrities hamming it up for the cameras and constant self-satisfaction at another year, another job well done, another billion dollars in the pockets of the investors.

But this year, I'm actually mad. The King's Speech, a drab, unnecessary, poorly-directed movie swept the Oscars, getting Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Only one of those awards are justified.

I've written over a thousand words about how I dislike The King's Speech, and the more time goes on, the more that dislike turns into loathing. At this point, I loathe that movie. I have very few fond memories of watching it.

A movie that sticks in my mind, with more force than any other movie of 2010 was Toy Story 3. It is, unquestionably, a perfect movie. It was nominated for Best Picture, and there was no chance of it winning. Not at all. It's only the third animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, with the other two being Beauty and the Beast and Up.

Let's use some data here. The scores assembled by Rotten Tomatoes for The King's Speech put it at about 95 percent. The overview says that Firth's performance is masterful, but the story is predictable and yet stylish.

Well... stylish is one way of putting Tom Hooper's bizarre camera angles and forced perspectives of big heads.

Now, Toy Story 3 on the other hand sits comfortably at 99 percent. The overview says "Deftly blending comedy, adventure, and honest emotion, Toy Story 3 is a rare second sequel that really works".

So why is there no major love for Toy Story 3, one of the highest rated films of the year?

Because it's an animated kid's movie. The Academy tends to reward stuffy period dramas than comedies, horror or genre fiction. The Return of the King is one of the few exceptions. Otherwise, Best Picture winners are dramas that showcase dramatic acting. Almost as if drama is of higher quality than comedy or adventure. It's more serious and more adult.

Bullshit. If Toy Story 3 didn't bring you to tears, or close to tears, during the climax, then you have no emotions. There was more feeling and more maturity in the last twenty minutes of Toy Story 3 than the entire running time of The King's Speech.

Toy Story 3 says something profound and universal about growing up and leaving childish things behind. The King's Speech says something about how when you're rich and an outdated figurehead for a setting empire, with daddy issues because you're rich, then you can overcome them with the help of a quirky Australian.

They've given some serious awards to some questionable people and movies before, but this time, the Academy has lost me for good. How can I take them seriously when they won't take all movies seriously?

This isn't just a case of how my favourite movie was snubbed. I hate the winner as much as I love the loser. This is also a matter of mass delusion. Has anybody even fucking watched The King's Speech? There's no fucking way on Earth that Hooper deserved Best Director! It might be one of the most poorly shot movies I've ever seen. I Spit On Your Grave had better direction and better cinematography.

I mean, really!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

All-Star Superman

Dwayne McDuffie passed away this week at the age of 49. I'm not terribly educated in the man's work, but from what little I've read, he was an engaging writer not afraid to tackle subjects not appropriate for comic books. He also wrote for eons, and knew what he was doing. He was put in charge of adapting Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman for a direct-to-DVD release.

Morrison's comic about the last days of Superman is, in my opinion, the best Superman story ever written. I haven't read them all, but I have read a bit. Morrison takes a continuity-lite approach, but hits all the perfect notes about Superman - who he is, what he stands for, and why he really is a super man.

The adaptation is a bit slimmer and throws out a couple subplots, including Superman's visit to the Bizarro world, the only weak spot in the entire series, if you ask me. McDuffie's adaptation of Morrison's dialogue retains that crazy sense of wonder and bizarreness that highlights the bald writer's speech, with some exceptions, though. Since the movie version is a lot simpler in plot (not in emotion though), McDuffie does away with some of the crazier throwaway lines. It makes things a little simpler.

The emotional content still rings true, however. This is a specatcular Superman story because there's a heart beating underneath the fisticuffs. Also, Morrison's Supes tends to be a little bit more like Elliott S Maggin's Superman, that is to say, a man who uses his brain more than he uses his fists. The All-Star version is a thinking man's Superman, using planning and strategy to defeat his enemies, but isn't afraid to throw a monstrous punch. It's a refreshing take on the Man of Steel.

The voice acting is acceptable. I wasn't blown away by any particular cast member. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the previous voices of Superman and Lex were used, Michael Rosenbaum and that other guy. It's like when somebody other than Kevin Conroy voices Batman - it's just not right.

In terms of animation, the visuals use a lot of Quitely's designs and style, but uses a little bit more angular design to faces. Quitely's faces tend to be either round or skinny, never in the middle. The movie's version of Solaris, the Tyrant Sun isn't nearly as menacing as Quitely's.

It's hard to review this without thinking of the comic, if only because the comic was just that damned good. If you strip away the source material, are you left with a good movie? Surprisingly, yes. This is a fantastic Superman story, even without the complexity of the original plot. The ending still takes my breath away.

Anyway, if you like Superman, you're going to like this. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Yoga Journal Day Twelve

Energy Level: High
Enthusiasm: High
Body's response: Stiff
Afterwards: Felt great.

Comments: I had someone helping me this time. I missed the past two days because of school and work, but Jenwa offered to do yoga with me. She taught me some new moves and helped me continue my efforts with the modified handstand. That particular move evolves slowly.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Palo Alto

And speaking of debuts that are short story collections, here's James Franco's first book. Now here's an interesting guy. He has an MFA, he's working on two others, he paints, he draws, he directs, he acts, he dances, and he writes. Apparently he writes a lot. A good many people will have some fun tearing down Franco because he's doing all these things, trying his hand at everything. It's jealousy. We want the successful to fail. Well, I'm going into this with an almost open mind. I'm somewhat prejudiced because I admire Franco for being so multifaceted. If I was a celebrity, Franco is the closest kind I would want to be.

In Palo Alto, we follow a group of teenagers growing up, drinking, having sex, fighting, and being that stereotypical emptiness that characterizes literature from California. The stories range from short to medium, feature the same group throughout the book, and are all narrated in the first person.

When I started reading these, I thought to myself, "wait how the hell did Franco get a hold of the stories I wrote when I was sixteen?" because once I had read Bret Easton Ellis, I wrote a thousand pages of this crap. Nihilistic empty vacuous teens doing terrible things and never feeling immoral for it.

The difference between Franco/me and Ellis is that Ellis is at his heart, a moralist. A pretty strict moralist, actually. Ellis uses satire, comedy, violence, heartbreak to get across that this shit will not stand, man. These people are empty for a reason.

I can't say the same about Franco's approach to his characters. They're clearly drawn from his own pubescent years, populated with shadowed versions of the people he hung out with. But Franco never scratches their surface deep enough. He just tells a story like it's a story that he's telling to his friends: "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened..."

Only a couple stories manage to dig past simply surface details. In one story, Lockheed, a frumpy girl with no friends makes a very quick connection with a bad boy at a party. That connection ends as soon as it begins because the bad boy gets into a fight and then gets run over by an SUV. The heartbreaking moment, where Franco achieves a moment of genius, is when the cop is questioning the girl.
I told her about when Ronny and I were talking on the couch. She asked if I was Ronny's girlfriend.
I said no.
Did I know him pretty well? No, but.
"But what?" she asked.
"Well, he told me I was smart. I mean, I think he liked me." She looked at me like she didn't understand what I was saying. Then she thanked me, and said she would call if she needed more information.
She never called.
That's perfect. The blurting of the detail to the cop is just fantastic. Without making the girl tell us how lonely she was, Franco shows. Showing, not telling. That's a really hard thing to do and Franco effortlessly pulls it off.

The other story that's pretty strong is April, a longish short story about a young man who gets forced into community service due to his reckless driving. He's particularly interested in this girl April. The story is split into three sections, with the first two narrated by the guy, and then the final section narrated by April. The final section details how April got into a sexual relationship with her soccer coach. It's distressing and quite nuanced, and it works with the other two sections as a way to show how April isn't okay. It's almost like a punchline, but it's not funny - it's fucking devastating.

Other than these two stories, the quality of the pieces range from acceptable to somewhat irritating, such as the one where the nerdy kid buys a gun to shoot a bully. The diction is just way off, moving from excellent to sub-human, and Franco never makes the reader wonder anything beyond, "I guess this kid's fucked up". A short story about a shooting at school has to be really ballsy and say something other than "both kids, both victims, one of bullying one of shooting, are the same".

Franco has a voice, but it's the same toneless voice that Ellis and his followers use. It's not a bad voice. It's been around longer than Ellis has, for sure. In certain spots, Franco wisely looses that cadence Ellis uses, and goes with more attention to physical details. Franco's voice is evocative of time and place, but not necessarily of character. These kids are all shadows who live in the dark.

Palo Alto is not a disappointment, but it's also not revelatory. While certain moments have their brilliance, the overall affect is one of reiteration. I've heard these stories before - Franco didn't add much to the canon. I'd prefer to see Franco write something other than his childhood. Maybe then we'd see him really stretch those literary muscles and give us something other than gangbangs and fleeting references to Faulkner.

The Fates Will Find Their Way

Ah, debut novels. If you're like me, you tend to find debut novels to be a collection of short stories that are tenuously linked by character and circumstance. The individual pieces are often great, but the collective whole is ragged and without form. This brings me to The Fates Will Find Their Way, a novel written by Hannah Pittard.

After a Halloween party, sixteen year old Nora goes missing, and is never seen again. She left behind Sissy, her younger sister, and a group of boys, all going through puberty and falling in and out of love with girls they barely talk to. The novel is narrated by a chorus, the first person plural, aka "we" instead of "I" as the group of boys grow up, get married, have kids, and have a life that Nora may or may not have had.

If you're thinking The Virgin Suicides, you're not far off. This is a re-write of the novel, but with the genders switched, and Pittard extends the timeline of the novel much farther. The results? The book absolutely struggles in the second half to maintain any reader's interest when the main characters reach middle age.

In imagining what happened to Nora, the choral narrator envisions a whole future history, including twins, an older Mexican husband, a move to Mumbai, a love affair with a female tattoo artist, breast cancer, and terrorist bombings. The scenes of Nora's imaginary future feel inconsequential and useless, but they're not. They fall under the edict of Alan Moore's "this is an imaginary story, aren't they all?" Which is to say it's hard to fault fiction within fiction for being fiction.

While the Nora scenes care clearly the weakest, the best parts of the book are the beginning, in which Pittard creates an utterly captivating and beautiful world of teenagers falling in love and being obsessed with girls. It's heartbreaking and uplifting and delicate. She completely nails writing a group of boys, and somehow manages to keep girls at arm's length, making them into creatures of beauty and mystery that the boys become obsessed with. Just like in real life.

But the novel is still a bunch of short episodes tied together by the missing girl. Each little scene, in the first half of the book, is exquisite, but it hardly adds up to anything other than here's a bunch of boys being creeps. Certainly a couple episodes feel like they were written prior to the novel, and then forced into the narrative, no matter how jarring the juxtaposition is. One particular episode last twenty pages, is never picked up again, and feels extremely left-field.

That's not the say that the novel is bad. Nor is it good. It's fairly middle of the road, to be honest. Pittard's prose is perfectly acceptable, and her dialogue is hit or miss. But there's potential here. Pittard could go on to write a fantastic sophomore effort, and I would gladly give it a try.

The Fates Will Find Their Way is a decent first novel, mostly a handful of stories tied together or forced together. There is a ton of potential here, and it is worth keeping an eye on Pittard.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tron: Legacy

Let's get this out of the way first... Tron, the original, is not a great movie. It looks amazing, and still does, but its story is bland, and it is damned slow. Extremely slow. And this isn't because I'm of the me-generation where everything has to be instantaneous. It's because the movie is just slow. I don't much care for it. But when I saw the trailers and the posters for the sequel, I was extremely intrigued. The visuals alone made me a fan. I knew I was going to like Tron: Legacy even if the story sucked. Then, someone told me Daft Punk was doing the soundtrack. Oh my fucking god that's perfect.

I wanted to see it in Imax 3D, so I waited and waited and waited, and finally my stupid Imax theatre got themselves a copy of the movie. I went tonight, and it cost 15 bucks to see it in 3D.

So was it worth it? Let's start with the 3D aspects of the movie. Most of the movie was filmed for 2D, and only certain sequences were 3D. You'd think that a movie that's mostly digital wouldn't have that problem - that it would be entirely 3D, but alas, that's the not the case. Neither are the 3D sequences even that noticeable. The depth of image is only slight. The action scenes are filmed extremely kinetically, so there is almost no instance where the viewer can appreciate a depth of field. It's disappointing to say the least. This means I could have seen the movie in December in a regular theatre and had the same experience.

And what experience would that be? Was is good? Was is terrible? Did it live up to my exceedingly high expectations?

Yes and no. Visually speaking, this is one of the greatest looking movies I've ever seen. In fact, I'm going to say it right now. This is the best looking movie I've ever seen. Every frame in the digital world is soaked with gorgeous imagery, glowing lines and darkness so perfectly aligned. Even the scenes filmed in the real world are just simply stunning. I read somewhere that Tron: Legacy is filmed in an aspect ratio not often seen anymore, and it shows. Without any sound or text, I would have simply enjoyed the movie for its looks.

But that's not a whole movie. Does Tron: Legacy deliver in terms of story? Well, this is where the "no" answer comes in. Let me qualify that "no" and unpack it a bit. It's not the greatest story ever written. It's rather simplistic and takes its cues from numerous other sources, not including a scene lifted from The Matrix: Reloaded, another sequel using colons.

Some implications of the story are barely teased out, leaving me with moments where I was thinking of how I would have written the scene to expand on some concepts it touches on. For instance, one of the main elements of the plot are self-aware programs who were immaculately conceived and have data structured like DNA. At no point does Tron: Legacy find itself exploring that. Instead, we have Jeff Bridges lecturing how important it is - a case of telling rather than showing.

For a movie about the most important technological breakthroughs in human history, it's lacking in that fundamental futurism element that separates space opera from real sci-fi. The writers would have done well to consult with William Gibson or Neal Stephenson before delivering their final product to Disney. Both those authors come up with crazier shit on a daily basis than the elementary sci-fi in Tron: Legacy.

However, the story isn't a complete dud, which is why I wanted to unpack my "no" answer of quality. Flynn's son, Sam, enters the Grid to find his father, meets C.L.U. the evil avatar of Flynn, and then Sam, Flynn and a self-aware program must find a way to escape The Grid, defeat C.L.U. and save the world. Yes, it's basic, but it does entertain. The plot takes you on some familiar paths, but it does so with decent dialogue, and a good investment in character....

Save for Sam, the main character. He is as blank as characters come. We don't really get any sense of who he is. We're told a couple times by the screenplay and by other characters who he is, but we're never shown. He just does what he does because it's in service of the plot.

Jeff Bridges, in a dual role, plays Flynn and C.L.U. What's most astonishing about his performance isn't his acting skill at all, but the fact that Disney convinced him to come back at all. I'm being snarky - his performance is good, which echoes of automaton and echoes of The Dude, if you can believe that.

With a mix of CGI and old fashioned acting, his performance as C.L.U. works because C.L.U. is a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar - which is to say, psychologically speaking, the most frightening of all. We never get inside the program's head, and that's what makes him a good villain. He moves and talks like a human, but it's all a facade, and it works.

Indeed, the best parts of the movie are C.L.U. and the action scenes, which are just gorgeously filmed and coherently choreographed. Viewers will always know what is going on and they can follow easily. The action bits are also pretty intense. The light cycle sequence is thrilling and conveys a palatable sense of danger. Something that's tough to do when the entire screen is just zeros and ones.

Tron: Legacy is an odd film. It's a sequel nobody asked for. While the film is about computers and games, it seems oddly retro in its approach to technology. The craziest things are happening in computer science, and Tron: Legacy happily ignores them. It's also an odd film in this post-Matrix world. This sequel did a lot of what The Matrix trilogy did, and The Matrix did a lot of what Tron originally did. Echoes of each other reverberate through all of the aforementioned movies. I'm not going to start the "nothing's original anymore" argument, because frankly I think it's bullshit, but I am going to comment that Tron: Legacy seems to be without purpose, especially if The Matrix and eXistenZ did a lot already.

This doesn't take anything away from Tron's stunning visuals and great action scenes. I loved Tron: Legacy, even if I complained for half this review. I will no doubt purchase it on Blu-Ray and there's a chance I might go see it in the cheap theatres, if it's still there.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker has got to be one of the coolest professors ever. I read The Language Instinct when I was in high school thanks to Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Pinker's non-technical overview of linguistics, along with Stephenson, absolutely shaped my conception of words and writing and speech from then on. When I hear certain things, I wonder what Prof Pinker would say about it. Pinker holds a spot in my personal pantheon of science-gods, including Sagan, Hawking and Dawkins. That being said, I've only ever made it through that one book by Pinker. Until now. I finished reading The Stuff of Thought and I'm going to review it.

Before I do so, I have to say a word or two about the fact that I'm reviewing a nonfiction for this blog. This might be the first time ever. The last nonfiction book I read to completion was Blake Bailey's biography of Richard Yates (also the first biography I ever finished) and before that, in the pre-blog era, was Dawkins' atheist manifesto. I've never formally reviewed a nonfiction book, so this is my first stab at doing so.

The Stuff of Thought is concerned primarily with... ugh... the stuff that makes up thought and how that translates to the language we use in every day use. Pinker takes us through an overview, in which he examines the 3.5 billion dollar lawsuit over whether the 9/11 attacks are one event, or multiple events. Once he sets the stage, he goes through a lot of technical concepts about verbs and how important they are. Once he has that out of the way, he gets to the fun stuff, like swearing, metaphor, euphemism, whether or not the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is bullshit, and all sort of other things.

Reading something by Pinker is a guarantee of witty and crisp prose, intelligent discourse, and material taken from the most technical fields of academia to the most common and used parts of everyday speech. His interests are wide and he appears to be a voracious collector of phrases and words, tucked away and displayed later for amusement and didactism.

However, the same problems that plague The Language Instinct appear in The Stuff of Thought. Pinker loads the front of his book with a ton of technical linguistics, just like in the other book, except with less math. This is in violation of a stylistic rule that Pinker himself brings up, which is to stack the hardest material at the end of a book/paper/essay.

Pinker also tends to get bogged down in other people's pet theories, completely content to chip away at their work, until the point is belabored. When Pinker takes his hatchet to Whorfian concepts, it's a long road until Pinker feels satisfied. He uses a logician's tactics to dismantle the idea, and then proceeds to just keeping going and going and going. I got it. I was convinced that the Sapir-Whorf theory is bullshit in the last book, and it didn't take much logic and reasoning to further debunk advancements in the field in this book.

The best part of the book comes near the end when Pinker sinks his teeth in why we use metaphor or veiled phrases such as "Would you like to come up and see my etchings?" and why swearing has such a strong reaction in listeners. In order to get to this delectable section, you have to grit your teeth and make it through a long section on language's usage of time and space and causality.

Pinker gives an overview of Kantian concepts of causality and knowledge, and it's all very good, but it lacks sexiness. It's just not sexy science. I want to know why the etching line works and why fuck is so awesome. I don't need "correlation does not mean causation" repeated a hundred times.

He also debunks relativism with logic. Really? Relativism? I was taught not to use relativism in any argument in my first week of Intro to Philosophy. That's the first lesson.

The Stuff of Thought is a good popular science book. It's not overly technical, but it's also not an overview like a magazine article. One has to go into this book knowing something, anything, about modern psychology post-Freud and Skinner. Although there are a few missteps, Pinker's style is still the go-to style for linguistics. There are no other contenders to the heavyweight belt of contemporary nontechnical linguistics writer. Have you ever tried reading Chomsky? It ain't as easy as Pinker.

Yoga Journal Day Eight

Energy Level: Medium
Enthusiasm: Low
Body's response: Stiff
Afterwards: Meh

Comments: I didn't journalize yesterday cause I didn't care to. My enthusiasm is at its lowest right now. I need to do it with somebody for added motivation. My attempts at leveraging shame and guilt, to force me to go yoga, all of it is wavering. I need help.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


330 minutes. 5 and a half hours. That's a long time for a movie. I sat through 4 hours of Mesrine, so I thought I could do the same with Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas and starring Édgar Ramírez. Well, it took me awhile, but I finally did it.

Carlos is about Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a Venezuelan terrorist who went by Carlos, and then later, people added the Jackal to his name. The first part tracks his rise in the PFLP and ends with his team converging on the OPEC meeting in 1975. The second part follows, in exhaustive detail, the kidnapping of the OPEC representatives and then his attempts to form his own terrorist cell in East Germany. The third part charts his slow decline, with his wife's arrest, and the Western powers pressure on the Eastern Bloc to keep a lid on Carlos.

This is a super international movie with at least seven spoken languages throughout. The locations include Beirut, Paris, Budapest, Syria, Iran, and a bunch of other countries. The cast numbers in the hundreds. This is a big fucking movie and it requires a patient and determined viewer.

It's not just because of the size, but because of the speed. The movie moves through Carlos' life like a bullet. We skip through parts of his life so quickly that sometimes it's hard to keep track of who's who and what's what. His allegiance and his employers change frequently. The film helpfully provides text on screen for almost anybody important, but it's still hard to keep up.

It also doesn't help that we really never get inside Carlos' head. We are kept at a distance throughout most of the film, and only a few times do we catch a glimpse of the man, and not the reputation. We almost never know if Carlos really believes in his cause as much as he says, or if he does it for the fame, or if he did believe at first, but slowly became to enjoy the infamy. We never know if the women in his life are truly loved, or if there's only room in his heart for the cause.

This doesn't detract from the experience. It's Édgar Ramírez's bravura and bold performance that takes us through the movie. It's a complete performance, and maybe one of the most interesting acting jobs I've ever seen. Ramírez just throws himself in the role until you only see him as Carlos. I've seen Édgar Ramírez in other movies, but this is just an astonishing performance. And he does it in more than three languages: French, German, English, and Spanish. Why he isn't nominated for best actor at the Oscars is a question I'll never answer.

The rest of the cast are fairly good. I was never distracted by obvious "acting" and this runs into another reason why I enjoyed the movie so much: it's very gritty and realistic and filmed in the documentary style. It's not exploitative or fawning over Carlos. It's just a representation of the times, of the name (rather than the man) and of the politics.

But it's also damned long. Somehow, details, such as his early life and later life, are painfully missing where other details are head-scratchingly included. (Can you make scratching into an adverb?) I would have loved to have seen more of the formative years, and I could have done without some of the first part's slow pace.

Like I say, it needs a really attentive and determined viewer. It's a marathon of detail and violence and politics and bombs and guns. Overall, it's still pretty fucking good. It's hard to write a ton about Carlos because the movie kind of suffers from sameness. There's a slow progression for the main character, and there's just this sameness of Carlos yelling and preaching and whatnot.

The third mixes it up a little with a bit more in depth on Carlos the man, but still holds him at arm's length. He is no longer operational, and his attempts at safety in Syria, Tripoli, and Sudan are chronicled. He complains of his wife's bourgeoisie but then takes a job teaching, becoming fat and unimportant.

With more information on Carlos' contradictory nature, the third part stands as the best of the three full length movies. It's the most interesting, and features the best performances. It's a fantastic piece.

On the whole, Carlos is a good movie, if a little long. I really enjoyed it, which you would have to if you wanted to sit through 5.5 hours of it. It's exciting, interesting, fascinating, exhilarating and exciting. If you're a fan of Munich, you're going to want to watch this.

Yoga Journal Day Six

Energy Level: High
Enthusiasm: High
Body's response: Ready to go
Afterwards: Neck hurts due to modified handstand

Comments: I skipped the scalp exercise. The triangle, in its most extreme version, is still really hard, even after 4 days of it. Today started the first step towards the handstand. This version is babysteps, where my arms and legs are sharing the weight. I feel kind of woozy afterwards.

Vampire Detective who investigates supernatural crimes in a Gothic city

There, I just pitched a novel. Why don't you give me a deal for 3 books, the first few of a series, and I'll write them. I'll actually do it, too. If it means getting published, I will write this. And I'll make it my own by having a strange sense of humour, and as dark and nasty as the publisher will let me.

Vampire detective, investigating supernatural crimes in a Gothic city while falling in love and having steamy sex with any and all supporting cast members of the opposite sex. Also, serial killers. Illuminati conspiracy. And a feisty youngish Southern lawyer.

Sounds fucking good, doesn't it?

"Paranormal romance", as the genre's being called, is booming. Fucking exploding! Readers of a certain taste just can't get enough. Vampires are everywhere now. Do a search on Amazon for anything to do with vampires, and it'll return one billion products. They sell more vampires than they do John Grishams.

Yeah, vampire novels are turning derivative and stale. Yeah, they're being churned out at a rate that probably doesn't match the demand. But is it a bad thing? Is the vampire detective/paranormal romance a genre for us to sneer at?

Hell, no.

But yes at the same time. Here's the logic. When somebody reads anything, I mean, anything, that's commendable. Everybody reads shit every once in awhile. Almost everything I read in high school was a big pile of crap, and I was a huge Palahniuk fan (embarrassing!) but reading all this crap was at least a positive, and it led to me to the next step: developing a discerning eye.

The more crap I read, the less patience I had for it. I still read trashy novels occasionally. In 2010 I read a couple pulpy novels, a few space operas. But after high school, when I reached university, not only did my tastes develop, but my critical eye did too. I no longer swallowed what the author gave me. I challenged the author, asked them to improve. If they didn't, then I moved on.

But the thing of it is, unless you, as a reader, are developing and evolving, then you deserve to be reading shit and I'll make fun of you for it. If all you ever read is vampire books, then I cut you no slack.

It doesn't matter what the genre is: vampire shit, space opera, Irish murder mysteries - if you confine yourself to one thing, you're never going to evolve. You need to get out there and try something zany.

I used to never read anything that wasn't set in an English-speaking environment, like Canada, the US, England and Australia, pretty much exclusively. The reason being is that I didn't want to work too hard at learning a new world, a new way of doing things. Anything set in Eastern Europe, or Africa or China just put a terrible taste in my mouth. Their worlds were just so foreign as to be alien.

What a fucking dick I was. That's racist.

Why do I read other than to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life, new civilizations? Why was I reading? I asked myself this over and over when I started getting bored with the same New York Times style American fiction. I read a million clones of Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and whatnot. I picked up a book and was looking for disconnected vapid emotionally empty Preppy people with too much money. If there was anything middle class or lower class, I wasn't interested.

My tastes were so stuck to one thing. And I got bored.

Then I started reading anything and everything. Once I opened the floodgates, I saw that there were a billion books out there that I could read.

That's why I don't shit on the vampire thing anymore. Because it's a gateway drug to the right people. Some readers are going to consume a bit of derivative pablum and like it, and then consume more and get bored. That will send them off to something more and then even more. Other people will be content to read The Pillars of the Earth, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer for the rest of their lives.

Well, this blog isn't for them, is it?

So fellow genre-fans, my brothers and sisters in geekdom, don't denigrate other readers for their love of the vampire genre. If they're reading, then that's got to be a good thing, right? Nobody should ever be mocked for reading.

Unless you just fucking love Twilight and nothing else. If so, shame on you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Yoga Journal Day Five

Energy Level: Medium
Enthusiasm: Medium
Body's response: Ready to go
Afterwards: Pretty damn relaxed

Comments: Today was deep breathing and the half-lotus. Not too much of a challenge. I really tried to relax and concentrate and whatnot. I feel pretty relaxed. Ready for a nap, almost.

Concrete Island

Okay, right off the bat, let me get something off my chest. When you take a book out of the library, don't arm yourself with a pencil and make your notations or underline things. That might be one of the most distracting things to do to a book. Whoever took out J. G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island between the years 1976 and 2011, fuck you. First, don't underline words you clearly don't know as to remind yourself to look 'em up. Just fucking look 'em up at the time. Secondly, don't bracket "important" or "significant" passages that point out themes or imagery. And finally, for god's sake, don't fucking write "irony" in the margins so that I stumble across it and then I can't read it for anything other than irony. If you own the book, then by all means, write what you want. My copy of Ulysses has shit on every page. But, if it's a library book, stay the fuck out.

I feel a little bit better after that. I just hate when people do that because it's going to affect my reading experience in two significant ways: it's distracting, and it can colour my perceptions of what I'm reading. That's bad. I like to read and interpret a text for myself, not with the help of some uni student from 1982.

Luckily, this issue really didn't affect my overall opinion of the text itself. Concrete Island, my second Ballard novel after High-Rise, is an interesting animal of a book. Robert Maitland, a 30-something architect, crashes his car between two opposing pieces of a freeway, and becomes marooned on the little concrete island between the two parts. Like a modern day Robinson Crusoe, Maitland must live to survive on the contents of his crashed vehicle and try and find a way to escape.

Ballard had an amazing imagination. The idea seems so simple, as if anybody could have come up with it, but they didn't. Maitland is marooned in a completely civilized area, where there are tons of cars and drivers, but no one will see him because, due to the accident, he looks like a bum. But he's also marooned in the modern day, isolated from the rest of the world by the modern marvels of the technical era. There's a reason why Ballard made him an architect.

There's also some Shakespearean overtones, as Maitland is not only Crusoe, but also performs a sort of Prospero-like role. Without spoiling anything, Ballard's version of Miranda and Caliban make their appearance in the second half of Concrete Island.

But a good setup does not make a good novel, so does Ballard use his setup properly or is he just a one-punch writer? Luckily, not so. Unlike High-Rise, I was enthralled the entire time during Concrete Island. Ballard's prose is clear and his propensity for haunting and ethereal imagery gives each page something memorable or disturbing. The sheer vastness of his darkened imagination comes off the page, and you have no choice but to follow him down every passage his twisted mind comes up with. Sort of like Lovecraft.

Ballard has also done something, which should be mandatory but often isn't. He's followed his own setup through each logical step. The things Maitland does, how he tries to escape, how he survives, it's all very clear and logical and makes sense within context. Maitland never misses out on something so exceedingly clear as to make the reader's blood boil. It's not til the halfway point, where Ballard's macabre interest in psychosis where things end up not quite so logical. The darkness and nastiness of High-Rise is presaged by the second half of Concrete Island.

Not everything is perfect with Concrete Island. The geography of the island itself isn't always clear, and it seems to be as big or as little as the plot needs it to be. I understood it was triangle shaped, but I never knew where all these abandoned buildings fit into the scheme. The second half also suffers from a bit of lagging. This might be because Ballard has to take his time taking Maitland from one point to another, psychologically speaking, and you can't rush such a thing. Because of the odd structure of the novel, with Maitland being the only character for 50% of the book, and then the second half where he is 33%, the novel appears unbalanced. It's a wonky structure, but then again, it's a really hard book to write, I'm sure.

Overall, I really enjoyed Concrete Island. It was a better experience than the last book I read by Ballard, and it makes to want to read more by him. Too bad, people had to scribble their bullshit in the margins.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yoga Journal Day Four

Energy Level: Pretty low, due to work and school
Enthusiasm: It was high all day but then just before, it dropped.
Body's response: Body is sore due to work (which is physically demanding) and yoga.
Afterwards: Dead tired

Comments: My back is kind of sore all day - I think it's from doing things it's not used to. I'm sure this will smooth out in the next week. Also, the scalp exercise coming up - I ain't doing that.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Yoga Journal Day Three

Energy Level: Medium. Kind of tired. Didn't sleep long enough. Again. Late night last night - thanks, Jenwa
Enthusiasm: Medium.
Body's response: Good. I really felt the pull in my ass and thighs today
Afterwards: Fantastic. I tried sitting straight at work and by doing so, my back didn't hurt as much as normal

Comments: So far so good. Day 4 is allegedly a review day. I think I'll be fine

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Yoga Journal Day Two

Energy Level: Medium. Kind of tired. Didn't sleep long enough
Enthusiasm: High, but not as yesterday
Body's response: Better than yesterday.
Afterwards: Felt great! More stomach and arm exercises this time means I can feel it in my stomach as I type this, only 10 minutes after

Comments: Today took me a bit longer. Definitely sweat more. I feel demonstrably better post-exercise. However, I feel like I didn't do the leg-back-twist properly, or that I strained a little. Overall, good day.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Yoga Journal Day One

Yes, I'm doing Yoga, get over it. I'm doing a 28 day regiment from this book. I'll post the details as I go. Each post will have a template.

Energy Level: High
Enthusiasm: High
Body's response: Body's very stiff. Back feels... hotter
Afterwards: Felt great. Sweat a bit. Even on easy exercises

Comments: Easy day. Flipped ahead on the book and saw some of the more... advanced exercises. They appear to be daunting. Asked for help from a friend who does Yoga. She said she'd be happy to. Hopefully when I wake up tomorrow, I'll feel more limber.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I have this boxset, published by Penguin UK, that has all of Ian Fleming’s work on Bond, all in handsome paperbacks. I’ve had it for years. Never read one. Not once. The thing is, I have a bit of a complex relationship to the Bond movies. For every fond memory I have of a Bond movie, I also have a bitter memory at the cheese, the comedy, the aged leads bedding women 20 years their age. When you really put your mind to it, how many excellent Bond movies are there? Four? Five? Some of the Bond movies rank as terrible and embarrassing for all those involved, but since it’s Bond, people tend to cut it some slack. Not me. If I don’t like something, I make no bones about it. With this in mind, I thought I’d give the literary Bond a try. I wanted to read one of the books that has an awful film counterpart. What better example than 1979’s Moonraker, adapted from the 1955 novel of the same name?

Bond has just come off two weeks’ leave after his tussle in Live and Let Die. M asks him to help ferret out a cheat at cards at the most exclusive club in London. The cheat is none other than Hugo Drax, a mysterious metal magnate who has indelibly helped Her Majesty by building a super rocket able to target any European city. Once Bond teaches Drax a lesson in cards, he becomes entangled in investigating a coincidental murder at Drax’s lair in the cliffs of Dover. Bond meets Gala Brand, a mole planted by Scotland Yard, and they try and figure out why there are so many damned Germans running around and who’s trying to sabotage the rocket.

What a weird novel. I have to say, right at the outset of this review, how difficult it so to read a James Bond novel and review it without all of the baggage and prejudices and assumptions that come with the brand of 007. It’s almost impossible to read this and not think of how the movies did it, or where his Walther PPK is, or his Aston Martin, or his signature drink, the vodka martini, shaken and not stirred. All of these iconic elements are missing from the book, and it’s quite disorienting.

That’s not to say that this isn’t James Bond. It truly is. He’s got the same swagger, the same confidence, the same panache that makes Bond, well... James Bond. Other than his iconic elements missing, there are a couple things lacking in this literary Bond. He’s not having any fun.

I excoriate James Bond movies for being cheesy and including bits of camp and poorly staged comedy, but that’s part of the charm, I guess. Even the dour Daniel Craig Bond movies have their moments of levity.

Moonraker, the novel, is missing the quintessential factor of fun. Bond goes about his business in a businesslike way, even bedding the girl without any smile or joy. Now, this might be because of Fleming’s characterization of Bond, which I’m told evolves with the books. My father has read them all, and said reading them in order strengthens the picture of Bond as a man who wears the crown of 007 with a weary head. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. He's just a dour, sourpuss of a man pushing his way through a plot.

Maybe it’s because Moonraker is only the third Bond novel, and Fleming hadn’t figured out his voice or his leading man. That’s possible. It took the Bond movies about three tries before settling on a formula and a pattern.

It’s also difficult to review this because the lead villain is a Nazi. Spoiler alert for a 60 year old novel. In 1955, Nazis were still a perfect go-to villain. For awhile, there was no better enemy than the Third Reich. It’s too bad that in 2011, Nazis have become tired and clichéd as the opposition. It’s hard to take Drax’s scheme seriously because of his Nazi affiliation. It’s also not hard to figure out the scheme pretty much right from the beginning.

All of these things are just odd bits of a larger picture. Most importantly, the question remains – does Moonraker work as a novel? Yes and no. While Moonraker is consistently readable, there are a couple fatal flaws.

Firstly, Fleming is not a spectacular prose writer. His descriptions are flat and lack any spark of style. His characters all speak the same, and his grasp of characterization is fleeting.

Secondly, and this flows from the first, his choreography of action sequences is not very good. When things are happening, it’s not always clear what’s happening, and that’s just a matter of style and control of the narrative.

The other thing that bothered me about Moonraker, and this might be because of movie-related baggage, but I found the scale to be quite small. There’s really only a handful of characters with speaking parts, and the majority of the second half of the book is concerned with only four people. Plus, the location remains steadfastly in England - no globe-trotting. For a James Bond novel about a rocket that could blow up any European city, Moonraker doesn’t set its heights very high. Again, this might be because of the movie, in which there’s chase scenes all over the world and a climax featuring a space battle akin to Star Wars. The sense of disappointment is quite palpable.

I didn’t hate Moonraker, even though I’ve written 900 words so far about how I didn’t like it. I mentioned before that Moonraker is always readable. This is one of the fastest novels I’ve ever read, 300 pages just whooshes by. For all my complaints about the scale, the prose, and the coherency, one has to admire everything Fleming did right: namely, invent James Bond and all his crazy adventures.

Moonraker is just so damn cool. Even with the diminished scale, the novel oozes cool. Bond is cool, and he’s the man everyone wants to be. He’s sexy, scary, suave, professional and a total badass. It’s hard to fault Fleming for resting a entire novel on the shoulders of one character, let alone twelve novels, but he makes it work if only because Bond is such a perfect character. I’m sure tons of people have written about the popularity of Bond, so I won’t add my small voice to the deafening crowd. Suffice it to say that Bond rules because he’s Bond.

I liked Moonraker, despite my problems with it. I’m going to be charitable and ascribe the novel’s failings to my expectations, which are a very strong force in reading a novel. I’m definitely going to read another Bond book, but this time, I’m going to keep my expectations in check and try and enjoy the novel without the burden of a 007 movie playing in my head. It’s funny that in the first paragraph, I said that I cut no slack for things, but here I am apologizing for Fleming’s shortcomings. Like I say, the sheer force of the creation of Bond is almost enough to apologize for itself. We’ll see when I read the next Bond adventure, like they say at the end of the credits.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Yes! Finally did it! Finally finished reading a John le Carré novel. I bought this beautiful hardcover omnibus called The Quest For Karla about two and half years ago. After a few false starts, and an attempt at reading a different le Carré, I just plain gave up. For a bit, I even thought I had sold the omnibus. When I was cleaning out my storage closet, there is was, and I knew it was a sign from myself.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is concerned with George Smiley, a frumpy, middle-aged, cuckolded husband, who's also a decently high ranking spy for the British government. When his former boss screws up a mission, the house is cleaned, and George is forced into retirement. A mid level operative comes to George, thinking him one of the last trustworthy spies, and offers him a story about how there's a mole at the top of the chain. George must figure it out and flush out the mole before any more damage can be done.

I guess one of the reasons why I tried so many times and failed was that le Carré's style is just so... odd. It's hard to pin it down, but it has to do with le Carré's dialogue style, which is often circular and obtuse, as the spies rarely talk about things directly, and the sheer amount of jargon they use. This isn't a bad thing, but it was off putting at the beginning, as I had no fucking idea what was going on.

For a book only 250 pages, there is a ton of characters, a ton of backstory, and an exceedingly complex mystery that is unraveled in a good clear manner. The problem is that the complicated plot, combined with the jargon-heavy exposition causes a bit of grief with the uninitiated. However, the opacity of the narrative gives it believability, and thus makes it more entertaining.

Other than the suspense of wanting to know who was the spy, (the solution to which was spoiled in the biographical article of le Carré - thanks, anonymous writers of Wikipedia), the other enjoyment of reading this book is the writer's clear mastery of drafting characters. While there are a lot of them, and they all have multiples names, most stood out, not as a type, but as a fully fleshed character. To do so, le Carré gives them different dialogue, speech traits and tics. It's a classic author's trick, and le Carré uses it perfectly.

Another aspect that works well with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the ominous implications around the idea of a mole. The conspiracy is so vast and so dark that it just pulled me right in. I was excited to read this book. Pure unadulterated excitement. I wasn't thinking of technique, or imagery, or metaphor - I was enjoying the ride. But that isn't to say that there isn't technique with this book. It's just, le Carré knows his audience and puts the intrigue right at the forefront.

There's really not much to say other than I enjoyed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I found it confusing and disorienting sometimes, but other than that, I had a great experience. I wish the solution hadn't been spoiled for me, but what can you do? I'm probably going to read another le Carré soonish and maybe give a James Bond novel a try, just for contrast. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Dark

The blurb on the cover of my library's copy of The Dark says that John McGahern is one of the best stylists in prose now at work, which must be out of date because McGahern has been dead for 10 years. I find it very interesting that Penguin, the publisher of this edition, chose to put this specific blurb on the cover, which is of a muted misty hill, with a lone old man, probably a priest, his back to the photographer, pushing a bicycle. The cover conjures images of rural Ireland and family strife and loneliness, all of which appear in The Dark. It's a good fit. On the other hand, the blurb isn't quite the match for the content.

McGahern's prose isn't as stylish or modernist or fancy as the phrase "best stylist in prose" would have you believe. When I started The Dark, I thought I was going to read another author heavily influenced by Joyce, full of long bits of introspection and authorial playfulness. I can't say that I was disappointed by what I read, but I can't say I was pleased either.

The Dark traces the sexual and emotional development of an unnamed sixteen year old boy in rural Ireland, crushed under the thumb of his abusive widower father. There's also a ring of sexual abuse as well, but that's lightly touched. As the boy grows older, he seeks ways of escaping his father, either through the priesthood or through school. The priesthood doesn't quite fit the boy, as he struggles with intense (and natural) sexual desires, and an almost constant desire to masturbate. He imagines girls all the time, girls with pretty dresses and white thighs and heaving breasts, all described to us in sensual detail as he masturbates into a sock.

So instead, the boy chooses school, specifically University. Helped by a wise Brother Benedict, he studies and studies and studies until he passes all of his exams. It turns out he is one of the smartest people in the area, but his father disapproves. When the boy is finally accepted into University based on his scores and a scholarship, it seems that he has finally escaped his father. However, things do not end up where we think they will, in regards to the boy's future, and his relationship with his father.

It's a tragedy that all Irish authors toil under the utterly obliterating eclipse that is James Joyce. With The Dark, it's not an insult to compare it to Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Dark share some similarities, but almost none of them stylistically. No, instead, McGahern enjoys the gift of his own authorial voice, his mundane and ethereal style that fits in neatly with the mixture of the theological and the banal.

Scene after scene after scene, we sit in the protagonist's head as he struggles with his faith, his father and his sexuality. The torments of the Church and his own mind become prisons, when he's already in one of his father's devising.

I liked McGahern's prose. I thought it was a rare instance of style, content and form working together in tandem. What I could have done with, in terms of The Dark, was more of it. This is a short novel, with a leisurely pace, but there isn't quite enough of it. McGahern's doing some fairly complex things with imagery, such as the boy's bed, and when McGahern gets to the final page, the final stab in the heart for the reader, I was left wanting more. Not more after the final moment, but more leading up to it.

I thought The Dark was good, but it seemed small. A talent such as McGahern's should use a bigger canvas. I really enjoyed the book, but now I'm going to seek out what they think is his masterpiece, and then see what this excellent author can really do.

The Broom of the System

This whole reading classics and books considered the best and authors considered the best has reaped some amazing rewards. Delillo, Atwood, Paul Scott, Byatt, etc, etc have all been amazing experiences that I would have never had if I didn't try reading the craziest shit. And on top that crazy heap, the craziest of all, is David Foster Wallace. I can't fucking believe I haven't read this guy before. What stopped me?

The Broom of the System is Wallace's first novel, published in 1987. It's the zany misadventure of Lenor Beadsman in an alternate Cleveland, Ohio. She works the switchboard for a publishing firm that publishes nothing, she's dating the vertically-challenged and insanely jealous boss, her great-grandmother and twenty other patients have escaped from a nursing home and are probably headed to the Great Ohio Desert, and on top of all of this, her parrot, Vlad the Impales seems to have acquired amazing language skills overnight.

The novel is about language and words, and how meaning and meaningfulness are created from language. Wallace spends a long time setting up jokes that further the idea that our function and our context are only created by what we are told we are.

Wallace was a philosopher from a young age, apparently. His interest in language and meaning are fascinating, and when combined with the rather funny scenes, it works. It's a hard trick to pull off, combining philosophy and comedy, exposition and articulate explanations of concepts, but Wallace manages fine.

He's even able to include discussions on the nature of stories, and their power and effectiveness. He provides a short story written by one of the characters, then has the main character complain that it's too much of a short that knows it's a story. Extrapolate that up the levels, and there you have The Broom of the System.

It sounds tedious, what with all the philosophy and metafiction, but it never is. Wallace never tells the reader anything that the characters can't, so the novel is made up mostly of dialogue, kind of like William Gaddis. The playfulness and fun owes a lot to Thomas Pynchon, especially The Crying of Lot 49. But Wallace is his own writer, and nobody would ever say that he wasn't unique. The twisting sentences, the wackiness, the obfuscating choice of words, the humour: these are all Wallace hallmarks.

That's not to say that The Broom of the System is perfect. Wallace juggles quite a few balls in the air, and by the time the novel has ended, he's stumbled with a couple, and purposefully dropped a few in defiance of novel conventions. The trickery and metafiction comes at a price too - we gather from the text that Wallace is incredibly smart, and incredibly arrogant. I felt small when reading this, like Wallace wouldn't have given me the time of day. This is kind of important considering I'm the reader and he's the storyteller; he has a story to tell and the only way to do that is with an audience to hear it.

One of my challenges this year is to read Infinite Jest, and I wanted to start with a smaller Wallace task before beginning the big one. I'm glad I did. I really liked The Broom of the System. I loved its philosophy, I loved the simple scenes that were so effective, I loved the humour, I loved the wordplay. It's an astounding debut novel, one that puts others to shame. It's tragedy that Wallace left us at so early an age.