Sunday, March 28, 2010

How Bret Easton Ellis made me a reader and a writer

It's been ten years since American Psycho hit theaters, shocking and appalling plenty of people. Certainly the novel, published in 1991, had been shocking far longer, and next year it celebrates 20 years (!), but I had never heard of it until the year 2000.

I was in high school, aged fifteen, and prone to reading Stephen King and Michael Crichton, and whatever else was pulpy. I had wanted to read American Psycho because of the controversy surrounding the movie (that I never ended up seeing until three years later). When I finally got my hands on the novel, I read the first two thirds very quickly, and gave up, as the violence and bizarre ambiguity proved too difficult for the fifteen year old me.

It took me another try to finish the novel a couple months later, and then, suddenly, I read all of Ellis' published material, loving almost everything, loving the cold detached feeling the prose gave me, loving the nihilistic depression it put me in, loving the sex, the violence, the trangressive nature of it all, even if I couldn't describe what it was that Ellis' fiction did to me.

The first thing I did after reading Ellis was to try on his rather unique voice in my own writing. I had only just started writing fiction at the time, and mostly I was sticking with science fiction or horror, but when I discovered Ellis, I discovered a whole new genre: satire. I started writing stories about detached pretty young people who did too much drugs and went from party to party, doing nothing but. I wrote an entire novel about a couple's monogamy threatened by a young coked out businessman with violent tendencies. It was the first full length novel I ever wrote. After that, I wrote another whole novel about a fashion model who may or may not be a terrorist.

Ellis' voice and themes simply haunted my writing. His shadow loomed over every sentence I wrote, and it didn't help that I kept reading more American fiction in the transgressive realm, starting with everyone's favourite, Chuck Palahniuk.

Oh how I wish Palahniuk had stopped writing after his first four books. I was totally behind the times when in 2001 I read Fight Club and then watched the movie. I loved that book so much, and I liked his next few books, but after that - blech. I wrote a couple stories that featured variations on Palahniuk's choral devices (I am Jack's blahblah). All of it was terrible.

Moving into university, I had sort of stopped reading all of that stuff and was focusing on other forms of American fiction, like hard sci-fi and Neal Stephenson, and what critics call "literature", like Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford. But Ellis' violent nihilism pervaded my sensibilities.

I wrote a novel about a young drugged out teenager who worked as a hitman, was betrayed by his employers, went on the run, and turned out to be a genetically engineered clone designed for military usage, created by an Evil Corporation. The whole thing was an exercise in adolescent aestheticization of violence, including the two-gun-akimbo John Woo ballet action. It was turgid.

I had also discovered proper metafiction at the time, and I wrote a zombie novella that featured tons of memetic theory and post-modernism. I finally put all of this together, everything I had stolen from Ellis and Palahniuk and Stephenson and King, and I wrote a really long novel about a failed writer with anger management issues.

It wasn't until I was almost done university, when I started to write proper fiction, in my own voice, about things that mattered to me. I wrote one short story that I consider my masterpiece, and nothing I've tried to write since has measured up to it. 

Ellis even began my complete obsession with California. Ever since I read Less Than Zero, I have wanted to visit that state so badly. The cover of my copy of Less Than Zero made me ache for Los Angeles. 

But Ellis also made me a real reader to. There's tons of obvious symbols and metaphors in American Psycho, or at least, obvious to me now. But at age fifteen, I had never encountered metaphors beyond what King used. The best example in American Psycho, the one I remember best, is when Patrick Bateman gives his girlfriend a urinal cake wrapped in the packaging for an expensive chocolate, and she eats it and loves it, even if it's a urinal cake, because it was in brand name packaging.

I also learned to question what the narrator was even saying. Unreliable narration was new to me, and Ellis introduced it to me first. I still get into arguments about whether or not Bateman committed the murders he so carefully details in the novel, and I've never actually chosen a side in the debate.

I was taught the importance of the first line. There's nothing more important, and I can still remember the first lines of Ellis' first four novels. That goes to show how much of an impact he had on me.

I am positive that I am not the only young person whom Ellis influenced so strongly. There's tons of us out there, infected by Ellis' unique brand of nihilism and existentialism. His novels certainly got me to learn what those words meant and where they came from.

Bret Easton Ellis continues to be one of my favourite authors. I'm nervous that since I'm older and have read more widely, that when I return to Less Than Zero, to gear up for Imperial Bedrooms, that Ellis is going to seem adolescent or prurient. I'm certainly never going to forget the debt I owe to Ellis as a reader and writer, like King to Poe, or John Irving to Dickens.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I promise I will be back soon

But for now, here's a great video compilation of people doing that annoying "Enhance" thing in movies and tv.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Babel Tower

Readers of this blog will remember that I'm currently reading A. S. Byatt's Frederica Quartet, the first two have already been read. That leaves us with the third, Babel Tower, the longest, and the one I've put off reading for so long. I finally finished it, and I gather my readers are dying to find out how I felt about it.

Babel Tower continues the story of Frederica Potter, now Reiver, who has unfortunately married a man, Nigel her total opposite, and in true Frederica spirit, has rebelled against him, deserting him, taking their son. The bulk of the plot is the build up to two trials; the first is the divorce, a very Draconian procedure in English law, and the second is an obscenity trial over a novel called Babbletower, published by one of Frederica's new friends, and written by a weird obscure man called Jude Mason.

While the first two novels in the Frederica Quartet are funny, honest, clever, intuitive, and perspective, Babel Tower is inward-looking, by which I mean it is only concerned with itself as a structure, an edifice of fiction, rather than as a piece of art, or a novel. In fact, the novel is so concerned with its own artifice that it creates a trial to judge its own merits as a structure. Yes, it's judging Babbletower in the novel, but really, Byatt is doing something bigger than whether or not a book is obscene.

Babel Tower is preoccupied, to the point of distraction, with the deficiencies of language. All of the characters at some point comment that language is insufficient to explain their feelings, their connections. Relationships between people, and how they communicate remains one of the primary themes of the Frederica novels. This time, however, language, what makes up a novel, becomes wholly unacceptable.

Much of the descriptions in the novel are to the point, brusque and very simple. It is only the essentials that the narrator has to get across. However, the characters are interested the other senses. Imagery, smell and sound mean so much to this novel, because, as the audience is repeatedly told, language is not enough. Jude Mason, the enigmatic author of the alleged obscene work is only ever described in terms of dirt and smell, of rank and dust.

To write a novel about how language isn't useful is not a terrible idea. It's just not something that Byatt is suited to. She has crafted a novel made of other novels, real and imagined. At the heart of Babel Tower is Babbletower, Lady Chatterly's Lover, The Idiot, and a host of other fine European literature. As always, Byatt uses a sophisticated "cut-up technique" that she has Frederica become interested in. Byatt's "cut-up" is of other great works of art. Since all novels are made up of words that have already been created, Byatt is making a novel made up of other novels.

It's unfortunate that this thesis is in direct contrast to the idea of language's insufficiency. Byatt cannot have it both ways here. Either the novel is good enough to explain all of human nature, or a tragedy unable to convey real emotion.

Babel Tower is so interested in how clever it can be, that the plot and the characters take a backseat. Byatt revels in a gigantic lexicon, references to the Fibonacci sequence, how that relates to snails and their spiral-like shells, and how all of that relates to the spiraling splendor of the Tower of Babel. It's very fascinating and interesting, but it's cold.

And perhaps, returning to the themes of the novel, is what is meant. But this means nothing to me as an audience. I can appreciate if Byatt is aiming for this, but I cannot enjoy, and that is a grave sin in the world of the novel.

Much of Babel Tower is work to get through, and that is not a compliment. While I enjoy Byatt's extremely clever pattern recognition, I found I was bored with the characters and bored with the plot. I desired to find out what happens at the end, but I wasn't as emotional invested in the novel as I was with Still Life. It seems Byatt's Frederica Quartet is a still life, stuck with pretensions of unusable language. It is in dire need of shaking up, of electrifying, pardon the pun, and hopefully the fourth, A Whistling Woman, will do just that. I didn't hate this third novel, but the quality is diminished in comparison to the first two. 

Thanks for reading as always.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Face To Face - forgotten but loved...

Such a fantastic and upbeat and great SoCal punk band from the heyday of SoCal punk.

New Computer (sorta)

So my PC was a Frankenstein, made up of spare parts, and it was 9 years old! That's ancient in the computer world. I took it in to get repaired, and all the parts they had in stock wouldn't fit because my tower is so old. Ultimately, they fashioned me a new Frankenstein, which will last until I can afford a nice new Macintosh. This new computer has a better video card, a stronger processor, a DVD burner (which I was lacking), and all the ports are USB 2.0, while the old one only had some 2's and some 1's. I'm very excited and have been playing with the machine all day. Yay! Check back later for more content.

And, for your enjoyment, which has nothing to do with computers, is a funny dance from The Mighty Boosh

Monday, March 15, 2010

Desert Island Essentials: Music

In a somewhat recurring feature, I'm going to take a look at the ultimate in banal conversation: desert island survival kit, in specific mediums. To start, let's take a look at my ten desert island discs. Caveat emptor: I'm not sticking to rigorous rules; this is my blog, and I'll arbitrarily designate rules of my own.

The Beatles - The Beatles (aka the White Album)
While this isn't the best album by The Beatles, it is my personal favourite, if only because of emotional connections. I received this for my birthday when I was like 13 or something, and I stayed up until 2 am, listening to it over and over again. This is essential to me, because it represents all that I love about the band: masterful pop music, experimentation, introspection, and playfulness.

Pink Floyd - The Wall
Again, the same can be said of this album: not the band's finest, but my personal favourite. I used to listen to the second disc at work, over and over again, savoring each moment, even though I knew what would happen. The Wall remains one of the best concept albums ever, and some of David Gilmour's most impressive guitar solos.

Alexisonfire - Crisis
I thought Watch Out! was great. I loved it. Then Crisis came out, and I just stopped listening to the previous album. Crisis is just so fun, so sonically dynamic, so energetic. This is an album that could get me through any tedious task, any depression.

Atreyu - Lead Sails Paper Anchor
Almost similar situation. I loved The Curse, but dropped it as soon as Atreyu's fourth album came out. Almost the same compliments can be paid: dynamic, fun, anthemic, and never boring. Not a single skipper in the bunch.

City and Colour - Bring Me Your Love
I listen to this album almost daily. It's saved on my Playstation, and if I ever need to listen to something while cleaning or blogging, this is what I listen to. So emotional, so beautiful, and always makes me want to sing along.

Rocky Horror Picture Show - The Soundtrack
Fun fact about me: I can sing the entire soundtrack from memory without any cues or prompting, and I've proven it. I know every single nook and cranny, note and bar from this soundtrack. I've listened to this album a million times and I never, ever get tired of it.

Tool - Ænima
While I could do without the filler tracks, like the angry German cookie recipe, every instance of song is just so engaging. Maynard James Keenan's singing pulls you into whatever story or feeling; his emoting is, frankly, unmatched. I feel his pain and anguish in every line. It helps that he's backed by one of the strongest, technically speaking, bands ever. I love this CD.

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel (aka 4 or Security)
From the opening salvo of African intensity, to the hypnotic "Shock The Monkey" to the percussive stomping final track, this is such a cohesive and brilliant album. As always, Gabriel is prescient about rhythms and touches in music, always one step ahead of the curve. Easily his strongest collection of songs he's ever put out.

Moxy Früvous - Bargainville
This is almost embarrassing, this choice. I've probably owned this album longer than anything else on this list, and it remains forever a mainstay in my collection. The songs are fun, catchy, often upbeat, and sometimes political. Most people only remember Moxy Früvous for "King of Spain" but I remember them for the haunting "Gulf War Song" or the stunning "River Valley"

Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
This is a tough one for me. To select only one album from this artist is an exercise in frustration. But, I must go with his first double album, if only because it's complex, fun, and poppy often all at the same time. His voice had never been so crisper (he finally managed to learn how to properly sing falsetto), and the musicianship reached its apex for all band members. This is an essential and fantastic portrait of 70's era pop at its height. I love this album.

So there you have it, my ten Desert Island Essentials for music. Check back soon for Essentials on other mediums. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dear Penguin Books,

Dear Penguin Books,

Did you know that you are the current reigning champ as greatest publisher of books. When I go to a bookstore, used or new, I search for that orange or black or silver spine. I search for that little penguin symbol. Not only do you often print the finest literature known to mankind, but you also print the most handsome, and most unified books, so that they always look handsome on a shelf. As well, your books are often edited carefully by experts on the work itself, and have illuminating and clear introductions by scholars or other writers. Here are some examples of lovely Penguin Books that I own, that you've published, that I cherish. This represents medium size selection of all the Penguins I own, and an excellent panorama of the variety of designs, all handsome.

Click each one to embiggen

So, Penguin Books, you see that I am in love with you. Frankly, of all the books I've bought in the past year, you have sheer dominance over all other publishers. Your books are often cheap when purchased at used outlets. They're far too attractive to ignore.

Please keep publishing such fantastic books. I'm sure you will.


Daniel Martin

Readers of this blog will remember my esteem for Fowles, the details of which can be read here. I finally finished his last major novel Daniel Martin, and I'm ready to take a look at it.

Daniel Martin, the eponymous "hero" of the novel, is an English screenwriter, dividing his time between California, his girlfriend Jenny, and Thorncombe, the town of his youth, and finally London, where his adult daughter Caroline lives. Martin is suddenly summoned to Oxford, where his friend from his university days, Anthony, is dying and wishes to reconcile with Martin. He leaves Jenny behind, and re-enters the world of his ex-wife, Nell, and her sister Jane, who is married to Anthony. It seems that before the two couples were married, Martin and Jane enjoyed a sexual encounter, and Martin is haunted by the "what if" of which sister he should have married.

Daniel Martin, the novel, is a metaphorical journey into the past. The reader is treated to numerous flashbacks, one of which, when Daniel remembers his first love, to a farmgirl of a lower class than he, is a pure and simple masterpiece in of itself, a Hardyesque paean to the old English ways of doing things.

Likewise, Fowles himself admitted that Daniel Martin is a long novel about Englishness, what it means to be an Englishman living in the present (the Seventies).This is especially of interest to me, considering my current tastes and inclinations.

Fowles is a Janus of writers. Firstly, there is the consummate storyteller, eager to unravel the mysteries of existence with believable characters, engaging situations, and excellent machinations of plot. Secondly, there is the playful man of metafiction, constantly examining the parameters of a novel, examining the paradigm shift of narrative. Both of these authors figure into this novel of the inner journey.

The journey into the past is replete with constant imagery of greenery, botany, and lush fields of agriculture, while the modern world consists of imagery relating to masks, mirrors, and machinery. It is a credit to Fowles' skill as a novelist that the structure of metaphor is articulate and never oblique.

However, it is a discredit to the author's skills that this long novel is, in fact, quite boring, the most egregious crimes of all literature. Fowles has asked the reader to experience 700 pages of never-ending conversations and introspection.

Dan's skills as a screenwriter are commented on by other characters and by himself, consistently remarking that he is only able to create unrealistic women, that he has zero insight into the mind of a woman. But, Fowles treats us to paragraphs upon paragraphs of stilted 70's era psychobabble that attempts to divulge the motives and feelings of every character Dan meets. (Unfortunately, it's a matter of Fowles telling, rather than showing, a didactic trait very characteristic of all of his novels.) It is an inconsistent trait.

Among other inconsistencies is the metafictional aspects of the novel. Many reviews comment on the supposedly unaccountable switch between first and third person narration. It seems to switch paragraph to paragraph, with no logic. As the novel develops, we realize that Jenny, in California, is writing scenes of her life and of Dan's life; hence the third person voice, while Dan is the first.

Jenny tells Dan on the phone that he can't believe a word of what she writes, thus putting the entire novel into a different light, making the audience question the veracity of all that has transpired. I suppose it is left to the audience to determine which parts are true and false.

On top of this metafictional shakiness is Dan's aspirations to write a novel. He has always been a dramatist, rather than novelist, and he worries that he won't be able to exercise the proper muscles for such a task. He contemplates a semi-autobiographical approach, but then, in a wondrous blunder, comments that Dan himself is unsuitable as a protagonist in a novel. For me, this is an almost fatal mistake for the novel. To admit the faults of this novel does not, in no way shape or form, excuse them. In fact, it exposes them to a greater degree.

Perhaps I've outgrown metafiction, and Fowles to an extent. Dan the protagonist is a loathsome, selfish and detached person, and to point it out to the reader just makes the metafictional exercise quite sophomoric, which is unforgivable considering this is Fowles' fifth major novel.

Daniel Martin, the novel, is in dire need of editing, tightening, and improvement. At 700 pages, it is far too long, and the plot not complex enough to sustain my interest. Indeed this novel tried my patience to the point of exasperation by the last 150 pages. Fowles is a skilled fabricator (a compliment that would surely please him), but this novel asks too much with little reward.

I had been thinking of attempting The Magus again, but this novel magnifies all that I dislike about Fowles' novels, and what I didn't like about The Magus as well. Daniel Martin is easily the worst of all of Fowles' projects, and should only be read by serious fans of the author. Otherwise, stay away.

As always, thanks for reading. Next on my list of books to read is poor Byatt's Babel Tower. It's been sitting there, from the library, waiting to be read, and I'm going to jump right on it. After that, I think I'm either going to tackle some D. H. Lawrence or On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. I also managed to get my hands on Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the most recent winner of the Booker Prize, but there's no rush to start that yet.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Since it's taking me a year to read John Fowles' Daniel Martin, I thought I would go back and look at a Booker Prize winner that I haven't reviewed for this blog. I will eventually finish the Fowles novel, hopefully today, if I can make it, but for now, let's take a look at the co-winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, Holiday by Stanley Middleton.

Holiday is the intensely cerebral and inward-looking story of Edwin Fisher. He has just left his wife and the first thing he does is go on holiday to an English beach-side resort for a week of decompression. He's gone back to the same town that his family used to visit when he was a child, and this triggers a flood of memories, mostly of his tempestuous marriage to Meg.

The narrator's voice is omniscient and very good at getting to the heart of the matter, which is matters of the heart, frankly. Fisher is captivated by a young married couple, and there is a mutual attraction between Fisher and the wife.

While Fisher walks around quite dumbly, it turns out his in-laws have coincidentally also taken a holiday in the same town. Fisher must contend with his father-in-law's constants machinations to repair the marital union.

I was not expecting a lot with this novel. I have never heard of Middleton, and from the brief synopsis I had read, this sounded like a Mrs. Dalloway but a about upper-class white male in the Seventies. Rather, this is an astute character portrait of an Englishman trying to show the stiff-upper-lip and retain a sense of identity in a marriage that consumes both parties.

Stories of infidelity and broken marriages seem to be extremely prevalent in the Seventies; as if the idea of monogamous wedlock was being slowly and systematically disintegrated. There's nothing wrong with this literary trope, but its ubiquity creates a spectrum of quality. Luckily, Holiday remains on the superior side.

This is well-written, frank, and quite thrilling, in an English sort of way, really. I was very anxious to find out the outcome, and I was never bored or put off by the tangents and constant memories.

They don't make books like these anymore, and for good reason. For all the positive comments I can make about the book, there is a certain un-ironic aspect to the narrative voice. This is an old-style novel that takes no pleasure or pain in regaling us with the protagonist's inner thoughts or motives. It is simply a portrait of a man, thrust into our hands with a simple "Here".

Regardless, Holiday is an enjoyable experience. Middleton's prose, while emotionally distant from its main character, is light and easy to read. His cast has enough depth for the novel's purpose, and its themes of Englishness and the apparent sanctity of marriage remains prescient in our time of constant divorce. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and if my library had any more novels by Middleton, I would read them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film in 2010

There are a whole bunch of movies I want to see in the next year, and this post is going to take a look at them, starting with a release from next week.

Green Zone
Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, a fantastic actor-director combo that gave us one of the best movies of all time, The Bourne Ultimatum. This time, however, the action is political, set in Iraq. Based on the trailer, it seems we're looking at the same hard-hitting visceral documentary-esque style that made the second and third Bourne movie so good. I'm excited for this.

Toy Story 3
I'm a huge huge Pixar fan and will go see every movie they make with the exception of Cars and Cars 2. Every movie the studio has produced has been funny, heartwarming, complex, and always gorgeous. I can only assume that the follow-up to the wondrous Toy Story films is going to be as good.

Tron Legacy
I'm not a fan of the original: the pacing is glacial, the plot somewhat predictable, but the graphics are incredible for their time. One of the reasons why I'm excited for this film is the visuals are just amazing. Everything I see about this movie has this amazing sleek pseudo-retro-future look to it. Also, in a more geeky way, the movie is being filmed in a crazy wide aspect ratio, and they're using IMAX cameras for certain scenes.

Christopher Nolan's newest film is shrouded in secrecy. It has something to do with policing dreams or whatever. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe. I guess that's enough to make me interested in a movie. The teaser poster's design also helps.

Iron Man 2
The first one was great, and I adore Robert Downey Jr, probably more than I should. He is absolutely terrific in almost anything he does. I love this new resurgence for him. Jon Favreau directs this one as well. Who knows what kind of cameos and set-up we'll get for the Avengers movie?
A Nightmare on Elm Street
I have no problems with people remaking horror films. Often they're entertaining for a couple hours and that's about it. The girlfriend and I like to be scared. We saw The Crazies yesterday; it was an easy way to spend a couple hours. The same can be said for this upcoming movie and the previous Friday the 13th remake. I just like to see a bunch of people get carved up.... I like Jackie Earle Haley too.

Piranha 3D
Same story as above, except this is directed by Alexandre Aja, one of my favs. And it's in 3D....

And probably my most anticipated movie of the year is...
Clash of the Titans
Oh my god. One word: Kraken. That's all a movie has to say to get my dollars.

In other news, a Saw sequel is coming out, a Sex and the City sequel, a Paranormal Activity sequel and whole bunch of other crap like a Adam Sandler movie. Whatever.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I want a Kindle. Right now.

I want a Kindle. Right now. Here's some reasons why

I could get the complete works of certain classic authors for like 10 dollars. Bunch of books by Dickens, under 10 bucks? Yes please. D. H. Lawrence? 15 books for under 5 bucks!

New releases and tons of other books are about 10 dollars. New hardcovers in physical form, however, are 30 to 40 dollars. That's huge!

The screen, which I was worried would be hard to read, uses crazy future technology to simulate the look of real paper!

Also, Kindles support local library systems (not in Canada yet, but soon), so I can take out ebooks the library has in stock.

Dear Santa, I want a Kindle for Christmas, Love Matthew.

John Fowles - a prelude

I'm currently halfway through Fowles' longest novel Daniel Martin. I've always had this novel sitting on the shelf, or in boxes, and I'd always wanted to read it. It's a huge sprawling novel about an Englishman living in California as a screenwriter who comes back to London to sort out some old family business. Fowles himself said that it was a long novel about Englishness - and if that isn't what I'm really into right now, I don't know what it is. Since the novel is so big, it's going to take me awhile to post the review. In the spirit of trying to keep this blog going almost-daily, I'm going to do brief reviews of all the Fowles novels I've read, arranged by the order in which I read them, rather than chronologically published.

The French Lieutenant's Woman
I was taking a course in university which was arrogantly titled "The Novel". I had to take it if only because of the title's hubris. Suffice it to say that it was one of my favourite courses in university. We read Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Dalloway, and some other great works.During this course, the professor, Sue Sorensen, recommended to me a couple great post-modern novels, considering I was a huge fan of it during that time. This was one of them (Possession being the other). It was from Prof Sorensen that I learned about F. R. Leavis, György Lukács, and proper critical techniques. Anyways, long story short, I adore this novel. I still remember almost all the big scenes and my favourite parts and it's been 6 years since I read it. The combination of post-modern playfulness, comfy 19th century novel, and extremely lucid and clear prose makes this a classic. Still my favourite of all Fowles novels.

The Ebony Tower
This I liked, but I didn't love. It's made up of 5 longish stories. One of them, the eponymous story, is absolutely killer. The others are okay. Fowles' skill at creating a scene with only the barest of descriptions is unmatched. I always know where people are in a room based on only a couple words from him. There's no better example of this than this collection.

The Collector
His first novel published, this is an amazing work of intellectual thriller. Very tense, and very cerebral, just like a good amount of his works. I loved this book, but in terms of theme and craft, this is a minor work. Most entertaining, probably.

A Maggot
Post-modernism at its finest. A novel made up of transcripts of investigative interrogation trying to decipher what happened to a rich man who was found hung in an inn. I can't possibly talk about this novel without spoiling the entire thing. This is a beautiful exercise in narrative experimentation. 

I tried reading The Magus but I loathed it. I may have not been "ready" to read it and appreciate. I will probably give it another go soon. Reading Daniel Martin is the same thing right now. If I had tried it 6 years ago, I would have hated it. Now I can appreciate it. I'm a better reader now than I was in university.

Overall, one can sense a tension with Fowles' collection of novels. They repeat themes and techniques, but no one could possibly say that they're all the same. Each novel attempts something different while using some of the same themes and images. It's such an interest collection taken as a whole. It's not like Dickens, where you can point to similarities and sameness. Each Fowles novel stands alone, and yet works organically together with the others.

I'm a big fan of Fowles, as you can see, but I've never done any academic study on his work, if you can believe it. This is why it so satisfying to read Daniel Martin right now. It fits into where my tastes are at, where my head is at, and even some of the themes are echoing in my life at the moment. Check back here for the review. Thanks for reading.

New Career

I've finally done it. After about 5 years of not knowing what I wanted to do, what I could do, what was best for me, I finally submitted my application for the Paramedicine Program at Red River College.

Yes, that's right, I'm going to be Nicolas Cage in Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. Ha! Except I won't be huffing the gas in the back of the ambulance.

I've always been interested in medicine, but I'm not sure if I'm smart enough in the science realm to do a doctorate. I've always been an Arts student, as evidenced by my art-focused blog, but I'm interested in the medical field. I like being the guy that people come to with question on health and whatnot.

So wish me luck, and keep coming back for updates and notes on how my school is going.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thoughts on Cerebus

I'm reading, for the second time, the entire Cerebus run. This time, with the help of the Cereb.uswiki to keep all the characters and stuff straight. As of today, I'm halfway through Church and State, left on the cliffhanger. Here is a collection of thoughts on this re-read.

Sim's art improves considerably over the course of a mere 25 issues, but his inherent skills as a cartoonist, specifically a cartoonist, are apparent even from the first issue. Regardless of the man's current reputation, his art is lovingly made. Panel layouts, establishing shots, facial expressions, action, and even speech-balloons are detailed with care and a keen eye for coherency, a word not normally associated with the man.

Once I had finished reading Latter Days, I wrote a letter to Sim, who replied by writing on my letter itself. He directed me to read a bunch of stuff closer, and to be a better reader, but in a more polite way than that. Soon after this, Sim vowed to only read letters written by people who signed an agreement stating Sim wasn't a misogynist. Suffice it to say that I did not reply to Sim, and I will not. Ever.

An underrated aspect of the first 150 issues of Cerebus is the sheer complexity of plans the supporting cast get involved with. It's hard to follow Lord Julius' inspired plans from one point to another, but he ultimately has one. Julius reminds me of Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker: he contends that he never has a plan, but it becomes increasingly clear that there is a very subtle and cohesive plan lurking beneath the apparent insanity. It's not just Julius' plans that are amazingly convoluted: Astoria, Weisshaupt, Bishop Powers, and even Cerebus himself (well sometimes...) have great plans. 

Issues 74 and 75 are absolutely perfect. They're essentially a long conversation between Cerebus and Jaka, in which Jaka's marriage is revealed, the pregnancy as well. Cerebus' love for Jaka is so heartwrenching and tender. Sim makes the issues fly by with perfect pacing and fantastic use of suspense. One has to admire the long term planning, as well, considering this sets up the terrific Jaka's Story arc.

I will probably post another Thoughts on Cerebus as I continue to make my way through. We're not at the hard part yet. Currently, Cerebus is a joy to read. It's not until Reads and Minds that I start to get bogged down. We'll see how it reads the second time ever.

Books I haven't read yet

I thought I'd give an inventory of books that sit on my shelves, waiting to be read, and then, slowly but surely, mark off the ones I've read. Ever since I gave up television, and weekly updates on comics, I've been consumed with a desire to read and never stop. There's so much I want to read, and so little time, it's such a shame. I've been really good about reading what I buy the past year and a half. It isn't like before, where I had a poor ratio, only quarter of owned books were read. Now that I've sold almost all of my books (sacrilege!), and my money is much much tighter, I'm very selective with what I buy. Mostly I buy whatever I've already read from the library, but there are some things I get...

In no particualar order, here are the books that languish unread on my shelves.

John Fowles, Daniel Martin
Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
John Dos Passos, The U. S. A. Trilogy
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Flann O'Brien, The Complete Novels
David Simon and Ed Burns, The Corner
John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra
E. M. Forster, A Room with a View
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

See, that's not so bad, is it? All of these books I bought second hand, believe it or not. Not a single new one in the bunch. I've also haven't read my big shelf of Dostoyevsky. I've been slowly and surely purchasing all the black Penguin paperbacks of the Russian master. It's taken me six years, but I now have five of his novels that all look the same on the shelf. Add to this, my handsome War and Peace boxset in the same black style. Those are mostly for my girlfriend, as she is of Russian descent and loves the literature.

So bear with me, as I slowly make my way through this list. My love is literature is apparent with this blog. I love almost nothing more. I would give up movies and video games for the rest of my life for books, if I had to. Luckily that option will never be presented to me.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Even though I said I would either read Byatt or Carey, I decided to go with a Booker Prize winner that has been sitting on my shelf for a couple months, that is to say, David Storey's 1976 novel, Saville. According to Sam Jordison, the book is rumored to have won the Booker for the sake of giving the prize "to something written from the worker's perspective". Again, I'm fascinated by the story behind the novel, but it doesn't colour my perspective on the novel itself.

Saville is the story of Colin Saville, son of a miner in a mining town in the forties and fifties. This is an epic bildungsroman of the progeny of mining folk, of the trials they face: financial, educational, social, developmental etc. Colin has hopes to be a poet, but faces obstacles in the form of his mining father, his lazy and unimpressive siblings, his friends, his teachers, and all of their ways, set in stone by work work work.

This is working class fiction at its heart, and it proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeves. Saville sounds like a D. H. Lawrence novel, including the dialect, and the social distinctions that play such an important role in the novel.

I've never encountered a country more interested in class struggles than England. (Actually that's not true. Russian literature is permanently transfixed on the differences between classes.) I suppose the working class literature stems from a strong desire to escape the drudgery, the neverending sense of oppression.

The actual job itself lends to beautiful examples of imagery of depression, with the looming black clouds of pollution and dirt permeating everything the people touch. It's like the novel can write itself.

Storey's Saville separates itself from the cliches by proudly wearing the cliches on its sleeves, as well as Storey's gift at keeping the characters real, the situations real, and ultimately consistently engaging the reader. The pace is quick, and what little meditation there is from the narrator is poignant and perceptive.

However, the narrator keeps Colin at arm's length. The purpose for this, it seems, is to have the rest of cast interpret him, either correctly or incorrectly. Their perspectives on Colin is what makes up most of the novel, and surely is what the central thesis appears to be.

Saville as a novel is concerned with how the working class would deal with a member of society like Colin, one who bites the hand that feeds him, one that refuses to conform, to settle into the life they have carved out, through sweat and blood.

The emotions that Colin feel are often implied, but so successfully that the emotions evoked are real for the audience. Saville is an immersive experience in that I was fully carried away by Storey's evocative and paradoxically luminescent portrayal of a dirty black mining town.

I was thoroughly captivated by David Storey's Saville, and if it wasn't so hard to come by I would happily read more novels by the author. Sadly, it seems Storey is an under appreciated English author, remembered only as a chronicler of the working class, when Saville shows so strongly, that he is a gifted storyteller. I heartily recommend Saville to readers of working class fiction and even fans of English fiction. Not all English literature must be Woolf, Tolkien, or Jeeves and Wooster.

Thanks for reading. Check back here in a couple days for another review. I'm not sure what I'm going to be reading next. I gave up on Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, but I may try again. Hopefully you're kept in suspense, checking back hourly for an update on what I'm reading.

Paul Simon - "Biko"

Here's that Paul Simon cover of Peter Gabriel's "Biko" which I referred to in this post. As for the song, I think it's an excellent cover. Paul Simon makes it his own, and the song itself is already a killer. I love it.

And here's the original Gabriel version.

What a fantastic song.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The 25 Best Movies of All Time Part 2

Thanks for joining me on my look at the 25 Best Movies of All Time. Here we go with Part 2.

10. The Big Lebowski
This is a comedy. Pure and simple. One of the funniest movies ever made. Taking plot from Raymond Chandler, the Coens excoriate Los Angeles and all those idiots infesting the city. Not a single character with redeeming features except for poor Donny. 

9. The Dark Knight
The score, that whining, off-putting violin noise when Heath Ledger is about to do something. That's the most gripping element of this movie. Yes, Ledger's performance is great, but it's Aaron Eckhardt and everybody else in the movie that carry this, carry this awesome paean to movies about cities, about the things we do to make it work in the city. I love this movie.

8. Chinatown
"My daughter! My sister! My daughter! My sister" - this is the most sinister and twisted of all noir. Taking the familial darkness only touched upon by previous noir, Towne and Polanski take this too far.

7. Goodfellas
Loud, jumbled, paranoid, violent, hilarious, and fast are all words I would use to describe this amazing work of art. Scorsese is my favourite director for a reason. All the little bits work together for a cohesive and unified whole. Remember the scene after the three wiseguys get rid of that idiot and then stop at Pesci's mom's house. That's Scorsese's mom and she improvised! That's amazing and perfectly captures what I love about this movie.

6. Fargo
Dark, complex, funny, satirical, and infinitely quotable. I watched this just recently, and I had forgotten some of the funny bits. I had also forgotten how fucking good Frances McDormand is in this. Her character, the moral centre, and possibly the smartest of all Coen characters, is just amazing. I could watch this again and again.

5. The Blues Brothers
I've probably seen this movie 20 times, and I still laugh at all the right places. I adore this movie: the music, the jokes, the car chases, the classic quotes. I wish they hadn't made a sequel.

4. The Empire Strikes Back
The best of the Star Wars movies, hands down. This has everything a Star Wars movie should have: lightsaber duel, Jedi mind tricks, Yoda, chases, laser battles, dogfights in space, and revelations. It's too bad that Return of the Jedi squanders almost all of my good will with fucking Ewoks.

3. The Departed
Absolute perfection. There are few cop movies so distilled, so focused and so tense as this movie. Only Scorsese could pull off a bravura cinematic performance with this movie. It helps that the entire cast is on their top game, from Leo to Matt Damon to Alec Baldwin to a scene-stealing Mark Wahlberg.

2. The Exorcist
The scariest movie of all time, and one of the most complex horror movies. This is a book and a film that has incredible depth and is rich in meaning and symbol. This movie is one I could happily teach, and would love to.

1. Aliens
The first Alien is good, but Aliens is better. It's scary, action-packed, I care about the characters, and it's more bad-ass than any other movie I've ever seen. Ellen Ripley stands as one of my favourite characters of all time. I prefer the theatrical version, if only because the prologue doesn't interrupt the tension of the first search of the area.

I'm aware my tastes aren't terribly pretentious or high-falutin'. I like what I like. If I did 50 Best Movies, then we'd see some more high-art examples like Jacques Tati or Kurosawa or Jean-Pierre Melville. But this is my list, today and yesterday, of what movies I like. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The 25 Best Movies of All Time Part 1

Starting today, I am going to rank what I consider to be the 25 best movies I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. Some of these films are classics, some of them are modern, some of them are of questionable quality, but hold a special place in my heart. This is an entirely subjective list, with a flexible ranking system. I often say of a film that it's in my top five or top ten, but I would never freeze it into a spot, as my tastes often change. Scorsese writes in the introduction to Ebert's book on Scorsese
Movies, like any other works of arts... don't change. ...[M]ost movies are destined to live their lives in the form in which they were first released. But the people who watch movies do change. They grow up-or at least grow older-and their perceptions of a particular movie change. Movies we loved as young people sometimes seem less lovable when we revisit them years later. The opposite is also true: sometimes we need more experience to appreciate full the subtlety of movies we saw for the first time in the distant past. What's true of us, as individual moviegoers, is also true of the world at large.
I couldn't have said it any better. The ranking system herein isn't arbitrary, but it represents a unique snapshot of my tastes and my state of being in terms of film at this given moment. That isn't to say that the list will drastically change in five minutes. Rather, in five years, a couple may have dropped off, and a couple may have been added. The skeletal list, the venerable mainstays will still be there.

Without further ado, I give you the top 25 Best Movies of All Time part 1

25. The Bourne Ultimatum
The action scenes, done in a documentary style, are some of the best on this list. I adore the Bourne films, but the third stands as the most refined and lean of them all. Include a pitch-perfect performance from the cast and you got yourself a great modern action movie.

24. Wall-E
Makes me be in love with love. This is a tender and beautiful love story buried in a cynical and hilarious satire of the future of the human race. I've never seen a children's film so cynical.

23. Collateral
From the amazing digital camera work to Jamie Foxx's subtle performance to Mark Ruffalo's engaging screen time, this is a classic movie. It's a perfect synthesis of music, visual, and character.

22. The Sting
Here's a movie that is just plain fun. It's hard not to like Redford and Newman's characters, as they set up a fairly cliched con. But it's the set up that's most entertaining, rather than the execution or denouement. The con movie that sets the bar for all others.

21. Zodiac
Another amazing performance from Mark Ruffalo (who's also very strong in Shutter Island) and strong strong direction from the notorious perfectionist Fincher. The theatrical version is great, but the more subtle director's cut is supreme. I love that this movie is a direct reaction to Fincher's previous movie Seven. Instead of an ending with a bow-tie it's so wrapped up, Zodiac prefers ambiguity. It's confident and daring.

20. Heat
Speaking of confident, Michael Mann gets a second appearance on this list for his magnum opus, and one of the more influential crime films of the past fifteen years. This is a great movie filled with great acting, great action, and some amusing tangents. Very impressive.

19. The Aviator
Scorsese, who will appears on this list again, I assure you, gets Leonardo DiCaprio to give his best performance ever as Howard Hughes. I love the cameos and the different colour schemes that Scorsese uses. I love the stunner of an ending and the way it builds from the past two hours.

18. Princess Mononoke
Heart-breaking, gorgeous and amazing. I love Miyazaki's confidence in his audience, that we will follow along, take his hand be lead to where ever the movie goes. This is an astonishing piece of animation, and proof that anime isn't just kids' fare.

17. Traffic
I walked into the theatre for this knowing practically nothing, and I was just blown away. The raw emotion of the last twenty minutes just rips through you. This is a film made by a master.

16. Into the Wild
Every time I watch this, I'm overcome with the same desire over and over, an emotion so strong. This is the mark of a successful film, one that makes me want to see it over and over and over again. Emile Hirsch's performance as Christopher McCandless is breathtaking. I was with him every step of the way.

15. Inglourious Basterds
My favourite movie of 2009 and one of my favourite movies ever. It's like Kill Bill, but it's more focused on plot, moving all the pieces across the board. But really, it's just a collection of set pieces, all of them awesome.

14. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
I know a lot of people prefer the first Indiana Jones, and I'm not one to disagree. The first is the best, technically. My personal preference? The third. It's the funniest, with the best special effects, and some great character work. It's just so damn entertaining.

13. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
The darkest and most cynical of all the things those boys ever did, which is saying a whole hell of a lot. It's also extremely funny. Not a wasted moment in the movie.

12. Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2
Some consider this two movies. I say shut up, it's one movie. One awesome, balls to the wall, exciting riveting and fun movie. Parts of chop suey movies, kung fu, samurai, westerns and showdowns after showdowns, all distilled by Tarantino's unique and protean vision.

11. Ghostbusters
I've seen this movie probably a hundred times. It's perfect.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the top ten. Join me, will you?

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Children's Book

The last novel I reviewed for this blog was Byatt's Still Life, the review you can read here. It's taken me awhile, but I've finished Byatt's latest tome, The Children's Book. There was a lot of critical acclaim for this novel, and it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2009. Is it deserving of praise? Has Byatt maintained her quality? Let's take a look.

The Children's Book is a sprawling, gigantic novel about a whole slew of characters during an extremely turbulent and socially dynamic era, the end of the Victorian reign to the end of the Great War. At the heart of its narrative is the Wellwood family, headed by Olive, a successful author of children's books. Among her many progeny are Tom, the eldest and inspiration for Olive's protagonists, Dorothy, who aspires to be a doctor, in a tumultuous time. There's also Prosper Cain, curator of the Museum, his children Julian and Florence; Benedict Fludd, potter, his children Geraint, Imogen and Pomona. The London Wellwood, including Basil, banker, his children Charles and Griselda. All of these characters are connected by Phillip Warren, a young boy, escaped from the factories and hiding in the museum. It is Tom and Julian who find him, and the main thrust of the plot begins.

The relationships and connections of the characters are extremely complicated and ever changing. Marriages, sexual encounters, friendships, familial connections, and other elements make up this gigantic protean family. It's quite difficult to keep track of all of them for the first half of the book, as Byatt slowly and seemingly directionlessly introduces every strand and tangent.

At the same time as a family epic, Byatt is repeating some of her tropes seen in the Frederica Quartet. The Children's Book is a vast study of the intellectual, political, sexual and social development of English society from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the most deadly and destructive war the English had ever seen. Byatt spends pages upon pages informing us of various political groups, anarchist agendas, and books and paintings and plays and everything else in between.

It seems to me that there are two major themes to look at in this book. The first is that during this era, there was a proliferation of children's literature, read by the old and young alike. It appears to be a desire to return to innocence, a return to nature, to childishness. This is starkly contrasted with the political and social upheaval being felt all through Europe. This comparison and contrast is the first major theme.

The second is of the damage done by these two things to the actual individual, in a figurative and literal sense. The individual in a figurative sense disappears in England. Byatt reinforces this by the primacy of groups and collective: the Fabian Society, the Suffragists, the Anarchists, etc. This is also reinforced by the children joining, resisting, flailing against. This novel is replete with images and descriptions of crowds and people, like when Geraint moves to London and works with the other young men. Byatt describes his walking to work in a crowd of hundreds, all wearing the same grey and black suits, with the same intent look on their face.

The individual also disappears symbolically in terms of the actual children's books of the title. Olive Wellwood as a unique notebook for each of her own children. In them, she writes an individual tale which may or may not feature the child. The largest of the notebooks is Tom's, her eldest child. Most clearly, the tale is of Tom losing his shadow and searching a vast neverending labyrinth underground for it. Tom, the "real person", goes through an existential crisis and a reverence of nature, a literal return to roots. It is interesting the juxtaposition. But most tellingly, in terms of the loss of the individual, Olive adapts the private and intimate tale into a play that capitalizes on the success of Barrie's Peter Pan. The play is produced by a multicultural mixture of English and Germans, a whole group, again reinforcing this loss of individuality.

While this is an interesting and fascinating novel, I have some problems with it. Firstly, and most importantly, is the vastness of the cast. In having ten or twelve major characters, some sink into a sense of sameness. Not all characters define themselves clearly. For a good chunk of the novel, I had a murky conception of who was who. It was tough.Coming hand in hand with this problem is that not all of the storylines and arcs are attention-grabbing. Often, I wished a chapter would end so I could get back to another more riveting section.

The second major problem is one of the ending, which many others have problems with. Time moves at a specific speed for Byatt. Her control of pace is very telling. The first half of the novel moves slow, years brag by, as it was a Golden Era for those living then. Once the Widow in Windsor dies, this starts the Edwardian Age, and Byatt's pacing speeds up, almost racing towards the War. At the end, the novel ends with a rush as the Great War takes up maybe 50 pages of an over 600 page novel. The last year featured in the novel, 1919, occurs over just 15 pages. It is a seemingly rush ending to a novel. Many loose ends are tied up very quickly and without emotional impact.

Byatt is no fool. I'm sure this was deliberate. The War was horrible, and the deaths were horrendously shocking. Byatt seems to be making the ending symbolic of the actual deaths. We lived with some of these characters their entire life, and then in one brief instant (often only a sentence of description) the person is killed. We feel their death like a family member would.

I can appreciate the ending, but I don't much care for the ending. A novel is not like the real world, and above all other authors, Byatt knows the omniscient power of the narrator. The novel could have benefited with an expanded ending, even if its in opposite meaning to the current ending's symbolism.

The Children's Book is very good novel, maybe of the best of the books published in 2009 that I had the pleasure of reading, but it is not nearly as good as other novels in Byatt's oeuvre. Just like before, a Byatt novel is one that the reader sinks into, never simply skimming the surface. This is extremely commendable and I look forward to reading more from Byatt. For now, I shall continue with the Frederica Quartet, and hope the quality stays the same or improves.

So up next for this blogger is John Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, which I shall start as soon as I finish this post, and of course, Babel Tower by Byatt, the third in the Frederica Quartet. I may hop back on the Booker train, as Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey stares at me from the bookcase, sad and unread. Thanks for reading.

Man of the Moment: Tom Ford

I love Tom Ford's classic, but daring styles for suits. He goes with bold patterns, but the suits still seem timeless. Amazing work. Here are a couple examples, and the man himself.

Fantastic work. Look for more examples of "Men of the Moment"