Saturday, March 29, 2008

Canuck Book 9 - Golden Fleece by Robert J. Sawyer

Sometimes my reading tastes get a little too precious. Determined to only read "important" or "serious" books, I wind up wading through some stuff that is just not that much fun. It's as if I'm worried that at the end of my life, when I head to the big library in the sky, some heavenly librarian will be standing there with my life's reading list in hand. With too much pop fiction and too many national enquirers on the list, I fear she will judge me wanting, deny me a card and point me down the road to the big walmart in the sky where I will spend eternity pushing a shopping cart train up a move-ator or some such suitable penance.

So I miss some of the fun stuff. I even miss whole genres. While I won't apologize for taking a pass on romance novels or pulpy westerns, I do regret not reading more sci-fi. Especially after reading Robert Sawyer's Golden Fleece.

The story centres on a ship travelling to a far off planet to complete a planetary survey. The catch is that the 10 000 or so people on board know that, through the intricacies of relativity and near light speed travel, by the time they return to earth everyone they know will be long dead.

The book starts with a death, a murder disguised as a suicide committed by JASON (the Greek theme runs through a lot of the naming - the ship is called the Argo, for example), the ship's computer. In fact, the whole story is told from Jason's perspective, which is a pretty novel twist on what becomes a murder mystery.

I don't really want to say much more because I don't want to ruin it for the reader. What I will say is that the book is smart, at times funny and even a little thought-provoking. Sometimes, the technical side of things does get in the way of the story - there are some long stretches that feel more like a lecture than a story - but it is never a big issue. By the end of the novel, I found myself wishing it was longer and hoping for a sequel. I will be looking for more of his books in the future.

Next up is Ibi Kaslik's The Angel Riots.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Why Hand-Crafted Counts

People who have followed me from one blog to another may remember that I bought some custom leather harmonica cases from an outfit down in Indiana called Cumberland Custom Cases ( The cases turned out far better than I had hoped. They are beautiful.

A couple of months ago, I decided to take advantage of the high dollar again and order a writing portfolio. I knew that Jeff, the owner, likes doing custom work so I thought it might turn out well.

It has.

On Jeff's suggestion, I decided to forgo the plain sides I originally envisioned and opted for a more intricate design on the front. It worked perfectly. The great thing about it is that this is a fully custom work. I told Jeff what I wanted in it right down to the dimensions of the notebook I use. You can't do that at Staples. Furthermore, it was fun dealing with him. We'd email back and forth and he would provide the occasional update. It might take a bit longer, but you wind up with a product that is truly worth the wait.

Jeff was happy enough with the results that he has put these pics up on his website:

Now I just have to wait for it to come in the mail.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Canuck Book 8 - Tell Your Sister by Andrew Daley

I finished Andrew Daley's Tell Your Sister earlier this week but did not have a chance to write until now. Between work, visiting my parents new house outside of Parry Sound and a very serious phone conversation with my 5 year old niece about our favourite colours (hers - pink and purple, mine - blue), I just haven't had the time to blog.

I bought Tell Your Sister from the author at last fall's Small Press Book Fair. Obviously, buying it from the author predisposes me to liking the book. This inclination was tempered, however, by the fact that the 'Torontonian with a small town past' thing has been done so many times before that it has almost become cliche.

So, with one count for and one against, I dove in.

My verdict is that it is a very good novel, especially a very good first novel. Not great, but that's fine. It was more than good enough to ensure I will be buying his next book whenever it comes out.

The book tells the tale of two small town boys and the choices that can shatter or shape a life. While Dean and Aaron are both originally from the wrong side of the tracks, Dean's family moves on while Aaron's does not.

The novel is split into two strands. The first focuses on the year or so after Aaron drops out of school. Essentially abandoned by his father and stepmother, Aaron scrapes by, living in a rooming house and working at a bowling alley. He has an on again/off again relationship with Dean's sister that is shaped in no small part by the growing chasms of class and opportunity. The desperation of his situation forces Aaron to make some rash decisions with far reaching consequences.

The other strand occurs much later when the adult Dean happens to see one of Aaron's sisters at a downtown Toronto art opening. Very quickly, Dean is forced to face a) the departure of his long time girlfriend b) the fact that he can no longer work at a career (real estate) he has no interest in and c) the past that confronts him in the form of his one-time best friend's sister, reminding him of a bad choice he made.

The book moves and works well, building to an ending that is more satisfying than surprising. At times, Mr. Daley risked going too far. For instance, Dean's dazed ramble through the city near the end of the book had me worrying that the author was just dragging things along looking for an ending. Thankfully, he pulled it together in the end.

For my next book, I've decided to delve into some genre fiction. Hey, if it's good enough for Atwood, it should be good enough for me. Truth is, aside from some Philip K. Dick (which reads more and more like non-fiction the older I get) and Kurt Vonnegut, I have read very little sci-fi.

Considering the fact that one of the best living sci-fi writers lives probably less than a half hour from my apartment, this is a blind spot that needs correcting. As such, I'm currently reading Robert J. Sawyer's Golden Fleece. So far, it's pretty good.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Something new, something old

First five discs played in my new stereo:

1. Shostakovich's Symphony #1 / Cello Concerto #1
2. Air's Talkie Walkie
3. Joni Mitchell's Blue
4. Tom Wait's Orphans Disc 2 (Bawlers)
5. Radiohead's OK Computer

My old mini stereo finally died on me so I figured it was as good a time as any to upgrade. I went to Bay Bloor Radio on Friday before work and picked up a Teac mini system with Mission speakers. I didn't set it up until this evening. I really do not know much about the brand names or what I should have looked for. All I know is that the thing sounds fantastic. Incredible. Amazing.

In other news, I've ordered my first used book online. I've wanted a copy of Cohen's first Selected Poems (the 1968 version, not Stranger Music) for a long time. I borrowed that book from the Sarnia Public Library quite often back in high school and I had always hoped to find a copy somewhere. Nothing ever turned up.

Why am I not content with Stranger Music? Well, the first collection is more focused on his earlier poetry. It contains poems that are left out of the later collection. Besides, it was my first serious exposure to his work and there's a part of me that wants it for that reason alone.

So I finally decide to take my search online and what do I find? Lots of copies and fairly cheap too. I've never really bought anything used online before so I hope it works out alright.

Now, I must step away from the computer. I've got Bonnie Prince Billy on the stereo, a good book waiting by the recliner and some tea brewing in the kitchen. What better way to finish off a weekend.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hero Worship

I'm going to see Leonard Cohen in June. That's really all I have to say.

Things are good. Work is improving. I'm about to start apartment hunting.

I'll write more later but, for now, I'm just going to relaxing and wade further into Ondaatje's Divisadero. It's quite good.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Ipod Has A Genre Called Sarnia

In it, I have stuffed all the works I have by friends and acquaintances from the Chemical City. From veterans like Jim Chevalier to up and comers like the Chocolate Robots, it is a genre I visit often. It's not that the music does not hold up against the rest. It does so in fine fashion. I just set up the genre to make the music easier to find.

One always finds people who are quick to criticize Sarnia. There's a facebook group dubbing Sarnia the 'ghetto of Ontario'. Aside from the fact that, if Ontario had a ghetto, it would probably found on the opposite side of the province (but that's a topic for another day), I just cringe at this sort of talk because it is so short-sighted.

When I think of Sarnia, I think of the fact this supposedly horrible city shuts down its downtown core for a weekend every summer to celebrate the works of its artists and artisans. I think of the photographs and artwork that decorate my walls. I think of a place that still feels like a small town for good and bad reasons. I think of the energy exchange and wonder what other small city could boast a shop like that.

People are too quick to look downriver in Sarnia, towards the apocalyptic tangle of pipes and boilers that is the chemical valley. Their compass points to the darkness. If they turned around and faced upriver, however, they would see Lake Huron, one of the great inland seas, and a shoreline that is incredibly beautiful.

Sure, it's not that simple. I know that things in Sarnia are far from perfect. What amazes me is that so many people are trying to make it better, so many people are taking the time to create art and music and poetry.

Well, that's enough cheerleading for today. I've never been good with pom-poms and the like. Besides, it's time to head to work.

Monday, March 10, 2008

An Epistolary Confession

Dear Readers,

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but I have a weakness for books of letters, especially those written by writers. It started with Steinbeck's A Life In Letters. I picked it up on a whim and have had a hard time putting it down since. It was a revelation. Even in such spontaneous scribblings, Steinbeck is a pleasure to read. The little details, the relationships, the observations - to this day, Steinbeck's book remains the gold standard as far as I'm concerned.

Which brings us to this past weekend and my spring cleaning / purge. The great thing about this is I dug up a number of books I nearly forgot about. Two of them were books of letters, one by a publisher and one by a writer.

The book by a writer is Evelyn Waugh's collection (The Letters of Evelyn Waugh). I've put it in the on deck circle, as it were.

The other book is Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters of Jack McLelland. I've spent the morning thumbing through it and I am amazed I did not give it more time the first time around. Richler. Cohen. Atwood. Layton. Purdy. This is CanLit in grand style. It's great to see these names become people. Of course, the fact that these are letters to and from a publisher means that it is not a complete love-in. That is one of the pleasures of the book, seeing the writers talk so candidly about their craft and the marketing of such. I'm thinking it may become one of my books for the Canadian Book Challenge (

In some ways, it saddens me. Reading these letters makes me realize just how poor a medium email is. And how lazy we've all become. Rather than deal in thoughts and emotions, we are quick to toss off cliches and smilies. Have we really become so important that we cannot take the time to say that we are laughing out loud?

What about those who are quick to jettison punctuation or capitals? It's fine when done right, but we are not all budding ee cummings. As such, what was once a bold and calculated statement becomes a testament to laziness and sloppiness. It tells the reader that the writer does not think enough of them to take the time to write a proper, thoughtful letter.

Ironically, this seems to happen most in the one place where it should happen least - the business email. How does one respond to a business letter that has a smiley in it? Or one that is so full of spelling/grammar errors as to be almost unreadable. The irony being that the worst offenders are often the highest up the corporate ladder.

I guess this has turned into a bit of a rant. I did not mean it to be. It's just that it bothers me. Where once we took the time to communicate, it seems now we just want to get the letter over as soon as possible so we can get back to the television or something.

There I go, tilting at windmills again. By now, you're probably getting bored of this. So I will wrap it up.

How are things with you, by the way? What's new? Read anything good lately?

So long for now,


Sunday, March 09, 2008

More Spring Cleaning Fun

I was listening to an old mixed disc I made years ago, drinking a beer and wading through the boxed remainers of my life until now when I chanced upon a folder from the OAC Writer's Craft course I took nearly half a lifetime ago.

The writing was the same as all the writing I have found so far in my cleaning - touches of skill mixed with touches of pretension muddled with teenage angst and bravado. As Dylan sings, "But I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now".

Anyways, stuffed in the front pocket of this folder was an acceptance letter from York University. I never did take them up on that offer, though I thought of it. Instead, that summer, I worked for the military for a month and a half and then I hitch-hiked to Vancouver (strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons with god - k. vonnegut). I came back, took two morning classes, worked a combination of four jobs and then went to Laurentian the next year.

There's a part of me that wants to fill the forms out and send them in with a note apologizing for the delay and stating that I am ready now. Just to see what they say.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


I've got Hockey Night In Canada on in the background. They're doing the national anthems. The singer gets most of the way through O Canada and stops singing, letting the crowd take up the song for a line or two. He then jumps back in and finishes it off.

I've seen this done at so many concerts that it's almost become a cliche. I have never seen this sort of thing done for the national anthem.

I guess I like it, though it seems a bit odd.

If a bomb was to go off in the hallway. . .

. . . I would be safe. My doorway is currently blocked by a barricade of full extra large garbage bags. Nothing short of an a-bomb will put a dent in that pile.

Now that I have guaranteed I will be working downtown for the foreseeable future, I've decided it's time to finally get off my ass and move somewhere closer/more interesting/less rundown. I put my two months notice in with the corporation that own the building and I have started the search for new digs.

While I will likely buy a condo somewhere eventually, I am looking to rent a place close to downtown for a while. I want to experience a downtown life that isn't bookended by hour-long subway and bus jaunts. I want to live near a neighbourhood bar again. I want to see more plays and bands and readings and all the things I pass on now because they are such a hassle to get to.

To make things easier when the time comes to move, I am reducing the amount of stuff in my apartment. Hence the garbage bags. I never really realized how much of a pack rat I was until today.

The books and cds, I can understand. While I have put a small dent in my library lately by donating two big plastic bins of books to the Barrie Public Library (most of them wound up in circulation, apparently), I will always have way too many books and cds. It's just who I am.

What I cannot explain is why I still have:
- games for Windows 95 computers
- worn out work clothes for a job I will likely never work again
- 10 chess sets of various styles and sizes (I'm parting with 6. I will explain why I still want 4 at some future date.)
- a Winnipeg souvenir spoon
- a game boy advance when I also have a DS
- a backgammon set with a "Chess Players Mate Better" bumper sticker on the side
- 2 sets of bedsheets I will never use again

The list goes on to include plenty of papers, trinkets and gizmos I will never need and, frankly, had not thought of in years.

I'm glad to be doing this. It's a hassle I have put off for way too long. Much like when I downsized my library, though, I find that it gets easier as you go. Once I start, it becomes a game to see how much I can get rid of. When I got rid of the books, I wound up slipping in some books that I really was not planning on parting with, simply because I wanted someone else to have the chance to enjoy them as much as I did.

I can't say today's cull has been quite as high-minded or quixotic, but I am feeling better already. The weight of my possessions had become too much. It's an odd notion, but it's true. I knew for a while I had lots of stuff I no longer needed but I could not bring myself to act because the job just seemed so large. It was easier to ignore it.

Well, it's time to get back to the bedroom. I'm through the worst of it, I think. With the new job and everything, I'm not going to have much time to move. Doing this stuff in advance should make things much easier.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

My Gangland Past

I guess I will have to put off my tell-all memoir about living amongst the gangs of Jane and Finch for a while yet.

There people go, letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Phew. . .

Just learned that American Idol is actually going to do the right thing and ignore the guy's past.

Good. Now I can safely go back to not caring about American Idol.

I feel better already.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A question. . .

How is it that one can work a legitimate, legal job and yet face possible expulsion from a game show on moral grounds? Why do we as a society allow this just because the job happens to be stripping? I mean, if we are to judge jobs from a moral viewpoint, wouldn't we be better off shunning the owners of payday loan joints? Or slums?

Apparently, there is a guy on American Idol who used to work as a stripper. Now I've only watched about 2 episodes of American Idol in my life. I have absolutely no interest in who gets chosen. I just get frustrated by all of this hypocritical moralizing. Who cares what the guy did for a living? How does this affect how well he sings?

It reminds me of the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl a few years ago. The incident occurred in the middle of a game where grown men basically attempt to tear each other limb from limb. After the game, the network aired the season premiere of a game show (Survivor) where people lie, cheat and connive their way to victory. For all that, we are told that the most immoral thing to happen that night was the sudden appearance of a woman's breast. How does that happen?

I'm not trying to defend stripping. I really could not care less, one way or the other. All I'm saying is that, if the job is legal (he was licensed), what right do we have to pass judgement?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Canuck Book 7 - The Architects Are Here by Michael Winter

I just finished book 7 in the Canadian Book Challenge.

Michael Winter's The Architects Are Here is a book I was really looking forward to loving. What was there not to love? After The Big Why, Winter returns to a story focused on his fictional alter-ego Gabriel English, the protagonist of one of my favourite books, This All Happened. Furthermore, the book is a road story of sorts, winding from Toronto to Newfoundland with stops and detours along the way. Again, this is something I normally love.

At the end of it all, the book did not live up to my expectations. It would be easy to say I set my sights too high, but I don't think this is the case. Mr. Winter is an excellent writer and there is some excellent writing in this book. It's just the story gets muddled in a series of outlandish coincidences and strange acts that did not always ring true to me.

To be clear, this is not a bad book. I enjoyed reading it. Gabriel English is one of my favourite fictional characters and I hope Mr. Winter returns to him in the future. It's just the story did not hold together as well as I had hoped. Near the end of the book, you get this feeling that the end is near. . . And then he pulls back. Then he builds another climax, then pulls back. You start to feel as if you're floating close to shore, feeling the waves push you forward, draw you back, then push you forward all over again. By the time you land on the shore, it feels less like a conclusion, then that you simply ran out of room.

With that said, I must make it clear that I do love his writing. There is a sharpness to it that I love. Like his fellow Burning Rock alumnus, Lisa Moore, Winter's writing style jettisons all extraneous punctuation to create a text that is very fluid. Dialogue mingles with description, thoughts with actions.

A long time ago, I read a review of one of his earlier books by a blogger who complained about this. She took the lack of punctuation to be a sign of disrespect for the language. It stuck with me all this time because I could not believe how wrong she was. To write the way Mr. Winter does, requires a great deal of respect for the language. He is not simply forgetting to put in punctuation. Instead, he is actively withholding the punctuation to better serve the story he is telling, in the way he wants to tell it. It works because he has taken the time to make sure it is done right.

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Winter's work, I would recommend picking up This All Happened first. Get yourself acquainted with Gabriel English and his world. After that, pick up The Architects Are Here. It's not perfect, but it tries.