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Film review: Danton outgrosses Robespierre

Preface: As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake i...

Sunday, April 29, 2012

GRoM&LA Ch.3: Puzzles, Paradoxes and Paralyzers (and More Crap and Italics)

Once more into the heaps...   aaand here on page C3 of the Edmonton Journal, Jan. 5, 2010 is a story on the long-popular (as opposed to me) Steve Martin. God knows when or why I ripped it from the "A&E" section (that's Arts and Entertainment, fellow slowpoke). Perhaps I was in a hurry to do something else, and just tore it out to read later? Not that I'm especially interested in Steve Martin (although I share his parody-of-rationality humor and his love of the banjo, and may be a better player on one of these instruments). I remain curious as to whether he was once a member of the Left Banke, as my errant brain seems to recall. No answer in the paper-and-ink, but the mundane datum MIGHT be on Wikipedia... o-ho!...nope.. studied Philosophy, eh?...
   Or perhaps, rather, I was saving the smaller, adjacent story on North America's biggest concert tours of 2009 (yow! history in the made!), as it amplifies my plaintive whine that the stinking dollar-standard is creepingly becoming the criterion-of-choice in the arts. I've clipped many items on this subject and, interestingly, another pops out from the newspaper-heap almost magically: a National Post story from three days earlier (Jan. 2, 2010) about a stolen Degas painting. Sure enough, the short item's lede tells us it is "a valuable painting" and the third sentence gives us the exact value:  800,000 euros or $1.2-million (no indication if the Agence France-Presse figures are U.S. or Cdn, or whether the black market offers a discount).
   Oh yes: the painting is "a colorful image of singers performing on a theatre stage" if that matters. An estimated 70,000 people saw it before it was whisked away. That's about $19 of viewing-value per person! (aren't statistics illuminating?) No indication in the story as to whether potential viewers who missed the painting will be compensated for their loss.
   But getting back to the Steve Martin story, we could also treasure it for its proper use of italics in listing his book/album/movies. God bless an editor somewhere! As opposed to the online editor at the Library of Congress recently--check this:

Jeanne Guillemin, author of "American Anthrax: Fear, Crime and the Investigation of the Nation’s Deadliest Bioterrorist Attack" (2011), will discuss the case in a lecture at the Library of Congress at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 3, in the Mary Pickford Theater on the third floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C.

Yes, American Anthrax is a book, although working from the above you could mistake it for an old 45-single (of a very awkward tune).

What else?... okay, MUST go walk the dog again. This work-in-progress is now officially motionless. Publish-or-perish with this rickety old computer, I fear...

May 5.

Where to start? Where to restart?

   Maybe with the novel I have pulled off the shelf yesterday: Jan de Hartog's The Captain. One of the oldest items in the library, 3rd paperback printing 1968, probably read in '69 or '70 while I was in Senior High. Thinking vaguely about giving it to my son, now about the same age, and wondering how stupid an idea that might be. Wondering if the novel is really as good as I seem to remember, and why I remember so little of it (only that the convoy on the Murmansk run is pretty much obliterated by the Germans, as also happens in another novel on the subject, possibly by Alistair Maclean). Wondering if my purchase of the book ($.95!) was at the old Hurtig's bookstore at Jasper Ave-104 St (twice reborn, now Audrey's at Jasper-107St), or why I have troubled to box it and lug it through eight moves, and whether I'm now capable of selling it. Or dumpnating it to charity. Or whether it will gather dust on the shelf for another 20 or 30 years...
   Naturally such metaphysical questions are best pondered while re-reading the thing and assiduously avoiding urgent chores. Hm. The climactic obliteration sems a trifle melodramatic, especially the rescue of the oil-soaked sunken U-boat cook, but otherwise credible. Then I randomly dip into the middle, and ho!--what should be there but an interlude where the captain and ship are laid up in Halifax, whereupon a little satire of Canadian niceness (all the more credible for being inflicted by a Dutch author and U.S. publisher... who misspell Kenora as "Kinora"--tsk!) which develops into a larger satire on the stupidity of war and patriotism, and then some sex, as novels are wont to do. All unremembered. The sex is not indulgent. Somewhat wrily and ironically satirical in fact. Maybe I will give it to my son...
   None of this, of course, helps with the big office-cleanup.

   Truth be told, I have actually been to the Wee Book Inn BUYING a few books to further bollox the big mess: on a whimsical impulse, for instance, I snapped up a beautiful BBC hardback In Search of the Trojan War (only $10.99!) No real connection with my Troilus and Cressida research/obsession, although Shakespeare's play does get a few passing mentions. But again I am transported back to high school days, for we had an excellent Grade 10 Social Studies teacher (back when ancient history was still taught) and the names Schliemann and Hattusilis are familiar.

   Okay, snap out of it. There is logorhea to be removed, starting with a certain bundle of newspapers, and (I hope) a less lurching train of thought...

May 10

The "certain bundle" still waits, folded and patient. In the meantime I have managed to bag (for recycling) a few sections of newspapers replete with uninteresting items like the Jack Layton funeral, the 40th anniversary of the Alberta Tory dynasty, Hurricane Irene, new Canadian visa rules, "Wine, food and Junior Achievement," touring Ireland's backroads, Sean Penn's non-divorce, Cornelius Vanderbilt, a "Tournement of Vegetables"...

   Still, I fear the newspapers (three subscriptions plus the occasional Edmonton Sun) is ultimately jamming the basement far faster than I remove the residue. Even as I write this entry I'm clippping a few items. Hm, was the writing career of Reynolds Price less laughable than mine? And retrieving the discarded Layton section for a second look, I even find a Lorne Gunter column on Layton's final "Letter to Canadians" that I nearly missed (it mentions a person I've met in the flesh and, more importantly, touches on the constant problem of why a person even bothers to write, as does the review of Price's memoirs).

   But I've already written a why-I-write sort of essay about ten years ago (the newspaper I sent it to didn't bother to respond, nor did I have the heart to approach a second). And, really, there isn't much more to say about THAT, beyond a frank admission that one has made a great error in taking up the writerly profession.

   And now the second bundle of newspapers seems to be mislaid. Well, whatever. I can pull any other item from the paper dunes and extract the same lesson I had in mind when I started this wandering, maundering post: namely that too much knowledge of the seething mass of humanity pumped into one's brain will leave a wise and sensitive person paralyzed, flummoxed and wondering: what the hell is a wise and sensitive person really supposed to DO??

The item at random turns out to be a TVtimes/Edmonton Journal April 27, 2012 item "Keeping Cockburn Running"--for the documentary Bruce Cockburn--Pacing the Cage (note proper use of italics and quotation-marks). I read it with my mind making the the automatic critical notes: hm, the usual ginger and circumlocutory handling of religion, the main "hard news" being that Cockburn doesn't want to be mistaken as a "right-wing evangelical" (no surprise)... not much obvious relation to my own research into Shakespeare's handling of Christian ideas... the usual songs mentioned, although I miss "Tokyo"--my own personal favorite (although I scarcely know anything beyond the radio-fodder)... interesting that the English press wouldn't cover him at all because of the Christianity (compare Bob Dylan's coming-out)... the religious producer is VisionTV... hm, is Cockburn still into those ironic combat-outfits? (or is that an old photo?)... overall, article is exploitable for that "What's the Big Idea?" thing that's been shaping up in the old noggin...

Well, I missed seeing the show (who has time?) but for some stupid reason I dwell on the clipping, trying to gauge those sad basset-hound eyes; trying to think if there might be something to add to a jibe I published decades ago about his "tear-stained rocket-launcher" (yep, implicit indictment of ye olde meek-and-other-cheek); trying to overcome the trace of annoyance at Cockburn using the "pacing the cage" metaphor that, coincidentally, I liked enough to once employ in a short-story (unpublished); trying not to think about the time I'm wasting here, and the newspapers yet undumped...

   At this rate (one clipping a week) I'll still be shovelling paper come Judgement Day.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

HRM&LA Ch.2 What is this sh*t anyway?

I mean, really, what IS it??
   Okay, technically it's a book-review, as you may have guessed from the previous chapter, but what precisely makes it so fecal? The short answer, I suppose, is that the crappy critique, dominant atop the "book reviews" page (Edmonton Journal Oct. 23, 2011) and occupying almost half of it, is the logical result and natural product of our brick-sh*thouse civilization (and my apologies to the "reasonable accomodation" folks whom will undoubtedly tut-tut this harsh judgement and/or ship my pathetic tarred-and-feathered carcass back to Saudi Arabia if I hate Canada so much).
   And the reviewer herself? I'm inclined to soft-pedal her transgressions, in part because they seem typical, not invidual; in part because I'm a hopeless male with incurable delusions of chivalry; but perhaps mostly because I know that the book-reviewer pay-scale is comparable to that of a Nineteenth-Century Junior Coal Removal Facilitator. If you expect better writing, then PAY better, dammit.
   In fact, although she is merely listed as "freelance reviewer" I'm pretty sure she is (or was) an English professor at my alma mater. Someone I've never met. Whatever. But her review, titled "Tale of matriarch's loss a poetic saga" is flatly dismaying and depressing, even to a pessimist like myself, whose expectations in life have been minimized by the best operant-conditioning available.
   The bleakness starts with the cutline under the photo of the book's author (okay, the cutline almost certainly wasn't written by her) which announces "Playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry's latest novel, On Canaan's Side, picks up on threads he has explored in previous novels, such as the The Secret Scripture." Maybe I'm just nitpicking, but this sentence has far too many commas. It doesn't need any. And why are the two book-titles not italicized? I know I'm being a totally fossilized reactionary raising the subject of italics, but really--what was the point of chopping down entire forests to produce (over years, decades, centuries) vast heaps of style-guides, grammars and the like, all stressing that entire published works should be italicized?--so the reader knows what is being discussed--only to have some post-modern denial-of-expertise expert shrug and say, "Do it any way you like" (presumably because freedom is the ultimate criterion, baby).
   Again, does any flesh-and-blood human actually "explore threads"? Even internet-threads are just browsed, right? If you go further, to systematic exploration, you are probably some kind of stalker. Nope, exploring threads, whatever that might be, is just a vague, tired, abstract metaphor, suitable only for professors and other professional dullards.
   Onward to the review itself, which begins by calling Mr. Barry "celebrated." Celebrated? Well, perhaps it could have been worse. He might have been certified iconic, at which point I would have slashed my wrists. Seriously, I'd never even heard of the author before I picked up the clipping. And while I don't track all fiction (who has a lifetime to surf the deluge?) I do track book-reviews fairly fussily, monitoring at least the trends that are trendiest. So who is this guy?
   But let's summarize the review, since my blog-post is plodding and dragging a wee bit. In it our reviewer delineates a novel of an Irish mother who moves to America for a better life, but loses both sons, one to an IRA assassin, one to post-traumatic stress disorder (whether the latter is a death is not made clear). There is little else regarding the substance of the novel, although my snout deduces from said meagreness that the story is somewhat melodramatic, and the remainder of the review, about 80% by my estimate, dwells heavily on style.
   And this style too comes across as overblown, although the reviewer seems impressed by it. For example the book's whoop that "My heart lifted like a pheasant from scrub" strikes the reviewer as one of "those spears of poetry that penetrate the dark like shafts of moonlight." Sorry, for me the line is just a lame parody of that running joke in Little Big Man, "My heart soars like an eagle."
   Have we no guffaws left for such rhetorical heaving and eye-rolling? Apparently not. There be poetics by the hectare in modern fiction, symbolism by the gallon, alliteration and litotes by the liter, hyperbole unlimited, blah blah, yet amid all our culture-heroes, none dare call it flapdoodle. Personally, I'm blaming F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, where the whole style-over-substance buffoonery seems to have started. Let some post-modern warrior smite this pestilence of metaphor! (or is that a mixaphor?) And let academic/overeducated reviewers get down from their towers and into the semi-fresh air of the real world to clear their heads.
   And that's all. I could dredge up a few more complaints, like why a book seemingly about the 60s has on its cover a 20s-ish flapper, or why a bigshot publisher like Viking bothers to publish such seemingly uninspired stuff, but let it pass. The damn lawn remains unraked. Nor is anyone reading this blog, in all likelihood. As a final bringdown,  it occurs to me that in writing this I haven't manged to dump a single bolus of office-crap, as I had planned. I may even need to file that damn clipping now.

Chapter 1: The scope of the dope on the ropes

Of making books there is no end -- Ecclesiastes

I really don't have time for this. Or maybe I do...
   Entering the basement "office" has become a dreaded routine; the piles of crap, mostly newspapers, clog the place. It is almost impossible to turn around, let alone walk from end of end of its thee linear rooms without gingerly traversing hurdles of newsprint, magazines, books, two storage-hassocks of old LPs...
   Somewhere in my rational brain I have plans to renovate the three rooms, indeed I started the renovations soon after moving into the old bungalow in 1988, ripping out the weird/ancient pulpboard walls with a mind to putting in new drywall. The actual drywall, maybe 18 sheets of it (I could go over and count, but it would be a precarious stretch over two stacks of newspapers in the middle room where computer and I sit), this drywall, incriminatingly dated 1990, leans patiently on the exposed 2X2s along with a few sheets of plywood, making a mockery of my hard belief that I am not just a talker, but a doer. Hey, family stuff overpowered me! (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it).
   Waking this Sunday morning without three or four priority jobs screaming in my ear (although yesterday's lawn-raking of our large yard needs to be completed, and there is only an hour or two until the morning dog-walk) I fire up the old 2005 Dell desktop, determined to write something. The topic is not a problem. I have been primarily a critic since H. L. Mencken blasted through my brain circa 1975, and inspiration is as close as the nearest Atlantic or Globe and Mail. You can see where the problem starts, perhaps...?
   Truth be told, my cognizance of the long-accumulating paper-jam has triggered a sort of initial immune-response, namely that being a clever chap I will not just clean up the mess but kill two birds with one brainstorm by writing a massively popular and profitable bestseller about the clean-up, sort of like that book The Know-It-All, by the guy who reads the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from beginning to end, shooting off witty asides regarding this entry or that as he reads them. I'd look up the author's name, but my copy is, naturally, lost somewhere. And I'm still a bit of a conscientious objector to Google.
   Speaking of lost items, the title of my whiz-bang bestseller (many years in the brain-pan) is also lost in this jetsam, although I recollect it as being rather tentative. Its best part, a sarcastic jibe about "how to lower awareness" is of course unforgettable.
   As the computer slowly comes to life, I hit the "Remind me later" button for the 33rd time on the Adobe Flash update (which I fear would be a death-blow, just as the update from AOL 7 to AOL 9 was a near-death experience for our 1998 Dell) my brain is percolating nicely, and I rejig the title as How to Remove Media and Lower Awareness. Good enough for now, until the original title emerges from the paper-drifts....
   But 2+ hours later, I'm overdue for walking the dog, and haven't even tackled an irritating book-review clipping I found atop the heap of newspapers that had to be removed from my typing-chair. Barely time for a quick edit of Chapter 1 here...