Thursday, May 29, 2008

Some Thoughts on Will Oldham, Art and Friendship

My friend Ezio is an artist. Actually, he is about the most artistic person I know. Painting, music, film. . . He does it all and even makes it look easy. Me? I can muddle about with words when the mood strikes me, but that's about it. I mean, I can draw a straight line. . . if you don't mind a turn or three.
Here is an example of his art:

And another:

He is also a bit of a musical obsessive. When he finds an artist he likes, he will go to almost ridiculous lengths to find every recording by said artist. Me? While music is a huge part of my life, I reserve that level of obsessive compulsiveness for my book collection. This results in a bit of a cultural exchange. While I send him baseball novels (baseball is another of his passions) like Roth's The Great American Novel or Coover's The Universal Baseball Association. . . , he introduces me to musicians I might have missed.

One of these is Will Oldham. Truth be told, when I first heard him, I wasn't impressed. It just seemed like more sad bastard music, slow and dirgelike. Then I listened to it again and it was still sad bastard music but it was kind of, sort of, ok. Then I bought a disc on a whim and played it again. And again. And you get the picture. I'm not going to say I'm the world's biggest Will Oldham fan - that honour is reserved for folks like Ezio - but I like his stuff a lot.

So, when I heard that he had a new album coming out - under his usual Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker - I knew I had to pick it up. My first listen to Lie Down in the Light was on the subway to work yesterday. I was mildly pleased until I hit track three - So Everyone. It's this shambling duet that just killed me. That's when it opened up to me. This is a great album. It's one of those albums that become the soundtrack of your life, if only for a week or two, and I recommend it to everyone.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Canuck Book 13 - It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth

First, a confession. I actually read this book over the weekend. So it was really the 12'th book I finished.

Another confession - I've never really been into comic books, at least not in the way some of my friends are. It's not that I actively dislike them or dismiss their value. It's just that I guess I never really had many comics around as a kid, so it's hard to go back now. When you don't spend your formative years soaking up the mythology and twisting storylines, it's hard to play catch up.

So why, then, have I chosen a 'picture novella' as my 13'th book? Well, I guess that's because it's a comic book that's not a comic book. There are no superheroes here, no 'pows' and 'blammos'. It's just a guy who pines for the past with a dour outlook on the present.

The book basically follows a fictionalized Seth as he tries to track down the story of an obscure Canadian cartoonist who went by the pen name Kalo. That's it, really. There are setbacks, train trips to Southern Ontario and conversations with his friend Chet (a fictionalized Chester Brown - another Toronto cartoon writer).

What keeps you going is the art. While the story takes place in the 80's, Seth has a knack for capturing the oldest elements of the landscape - a lone water tower, Union Station - to make the book feel more like a tale from the 40's or 50's. I just loved the look of it.

In a lot of ways, Seth's work - and that of his contemporaries like Joe Matt and the aforementioned Chester Brown - has a very Gen X quality that appeals to someone, like me, who went to high school in the early nineties. Like a Kevin Smith movie without the gags or Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, these comic books are really about people talking. It works for me.

That's it. I'm done with the challenge. I'll probably sign on for the next installment, but I'm holding off for now.

Canuck Book 12 - Divisadero

I finally finished Divisadero. 12 books down and 1, count it, 1 more book to read in the Canadian Book challenge.

I really don't know what to say about Divisadero. It's a beautiful book, for sure. It's a really beautiful book. It's also a supremely enigmatic book. I read the last page at about 2 in the morning and I still don't know what to say about it, other than I liked it. Not the most eloquent response, I'll admit, but I can accept that.

Ultimately, Divisadero is a novel that asks more questions than it answers. Tangents start and end, characters and narratives dance and weave, and nothing gets tied up the way you would normally want it. In a lesser writer, this would be a recipe for disaster. Here, it works and it works extremely well. True, I have a hard time ending a book without knowing everything, but that's just me.

Ultimately, I did not feel cheated by the book because it was so well crafted. Instead, I began to appreciate what the character Lucien Segura said about knowing the story - "Not knowing something essential makes you more involved."

If I was to recommend one book I've read for the challenge that everyone should read, this would be it.

Years ago, I tried to read The English Patient and soon lost interest. It just didn't grab me. Reading Divisadero has me wanting to go back and try The English Patient again, if only to tide me over until his next novel is done.

What draws my ire. . .

I am getting tired of companies that I've bought something from or whose services I've used calling me up for follow-up surveys. I really wasn't bothered when it happened once in a while - maybe every few months. Nowadays, it's happening once or twice a week and I'm sick of it.

I don't mind being helpful. I've done surveys before. It's the number of them that bothers me. It's the fact that everyone I buy something from now wants my feedback. They should realize that if I bought their product or service and a few weeks go by without an irate phone call, chances are I am satisfied.

What also irks me is that, while they "value" my opinion, they usually don't value it enough to have someone talk to me in person. Sometimes, my opinion just does not fall into a satisfied/dissatisfied dichotomy. Sometimes, I am even foolish enough to believe that my opinions are not best represented by "press 1 for. . . ", "press 2 for. . . ". Sometimes, if I am asked for my opinion, I want to actually give my opinion.

Press '9' if you're tired of this rant. Press '2' if you want me to go back to writing about about books and stuff.

Monday, May 26, 2008

U. Utah Phillips 1935-2008

Utah Phillips has died and I don't really know what to say. Considering the heart problems he had, the news shouldn't have been as surprising as it is. There was something about the way he roared and rambled that had me half believing he was invincible.

I chanced upon his work years ago when he and Ani DiFranco put out a disc. Since then, I had become an avid fan. He was a perfect combination of entertainer and educator. He was a master storyteller who could spin the wildest yarns with reckless abandon. Of course, more often than not when you stopped laughing, you'd realize he had a point.

He could really make you think. When the first gulf war broke out, he stopped driving his car because he said his car "did not run on blood". He also went into the studio and recorded the album "I've Got To Know" in one take. In song, story and rant, he offered up his reaction to a war he was morally opposed to.

That's what we'll miss without him. Singers of political songs are almost as rare as good storytellers these days. He was both.

One of my favourite Utah Phillips songs is Yellow Ribbon. It came from "I've Got To Know":

Yellow Ribbon
Utah Phillips

I've traveled through this country
And I'll tell you what I've seen
A million yellow ribbons
And I wonder what they mean
It's love and hope and sympathy
For those who've gone to fight
But still I know that none of them
Can make the killing right

When we see two children fighting
Don't we try to come between
Get 'em both to talk
Instead of acting rough and mean
We give 'em love and limits
Say now try to get along
Then we tell 'em it's alright to kill
To prove that killing's wrong

Sometimes your yellow ribbon
Tries to make me feel ashamed
Tells me I'm a traitor
That somehow it's me to blame
But I can't hide behind it
Just to prove that I belong
And I won't be an accomplice
To a thing I know is wrong

But I'd wear a yellow ribbon
For the peace that's in my heart
I'd wear it for the loved ones
That should never have to part
I'd wear it for the wasted lives
No matter friend or foe
And I'd wear it for the children
If they never had to go

Yes, I've seen your yellow ribbons
Hanging up all over town
But I don't think they'll ever buy
The peace we've never found
Oh, the guns will all be silent
And the battle flags all furled
When we tie a yellow ribbon'
Round the world

Yes, the guns will all be silent
And the battle flags all furled
When we tie a yellow ribbon'
Round the world

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Seeing Al Purdy

I finished off the day by heading up to Queen's Park to see the new statue of Al Purdy. It's nice to see a writer (a poet to boot) being honoured in a park that is usually reserved for men of war.

I think they did a great job.

The inscription says it all.

More Toronto

A beautiful day and an amazing event. I did the CBC radio drama tour, the TD Building tour, the new opera house and wandered around Nathan Phillips Square.

It was great to see so many people out for the event. There were long line-ups everywhere.

A day in the city

Doors Open Toronto gave me a perfect excuse to wander around downtown and snap a few shots. It was nice to get out with the camera again as I hadn't really touched it since February.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Doors Open

I just realized that this weekend is Doors Open Toronto. I can't believe I almost missed it. It's a great event that everyone should go to. Something like 150 buildings 0pen themselves for the public to tour. Most of them only admit the public or only open up certain areas this one weekend so you don't want to miss it.

This year, the only must see for me is the radio side of the CBC building. Other than that I will just sort of wander downtown and see what I see. If I have the time, I may get back up to see Coach House Press. It's quite cool.

Even cooler, it's all free.

Other than that, I finished Suze Rotolo's memoirs. They were great. A perfect read for anyone interested in early 60's New York and some harmonica player from Minnesota.

Last weekend, I was up at my parents new house outside of Parry Sound. It was a great break. While I was up there, I made sure to pay a visit to Parry Sound Books. While some of the staff are not the friendliest of sorts, the store is great with an excellent selection.

I picked up Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader. It's a small, funny book that works on the premise that the Queen, through a chance encounter with a bookmobile, becomes a compulsive reader. It's more gentle grins than laugh out loud hilarity but I liked it a lot.

Well, that's enough for now. It's looking nice out so I think I will try to get a walk in before work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More on Reading - kicking a dead horse with gusto

There's a great deal of nonsense now about how our children can't read but then how could they in terms of imitative behavior if their parents don't read and there are no books in the house? If books aren't treated as beloved objects like the sports page or the television why would a child wish to read? You wonder how disgustedly low-paid teachers must spend their lives trying to overcome parental stupidity, but then in our money culture everything is considered merry and bright if the parents show up for their often dismal jobs on time.

- Jim Harrison

Things I've found on YouTube that make me happy

I wish I could find a video of Peggy Seeger doing this song. I have a copy of her doing it on a cd of old folk tunes and it is great.

Everyone needs to own the Reverend Gary Davis' Live at Newport disc. Blues. . . Folk. . . Gospel. . . Whatever you want to call it, it's an epiphany.

More Seeger. Somehow fitting.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Why we read. And write.

I a compulsive reader of Yann Martel's blog What is Stephen Harper Reading? ( Whether the 22'nd Prime Minister reads the books or not, it has become a great forum for Martel to talk about everything to do with books and reading. In his latest post, he sums up perfectly why we read and write:

"A book is a bottle with a genie inside it. Rub it, open it, and the genie will come out to enchant you. Imagine being the one who put the genie in the bottle. Yes, it's terribly exciting work."

How can you argue with that? Really, this is what drew us to reading in the first place and draws us still. And yet, how often do we really take the time to appreciate this bit of magic?

I only hope that the PM is listening Sadly, I have my doubts.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hello again (or a shameless overuse of brackets because I feel like it)

Okay, it's finally time for me to stop procrastinating and to start blogging again. So with bagel and steel water bottle at my side (for the record, What A Bagel makes the best bagels this side of Montreal), it's time to play catch-up.

Though I guess I do have a good excuse for some of my absence. For a couple of days a few weeks ago, my parents thought they were going to be taking home a vegetable from the hospital. As the presumptive veggie, I'm only now getting all the details of how bad things were. The silver lining is that I have no recollection of the MRI (which normally freaks me out for a good week before I go into it) and the spinal tap (turns out it isn't just a comedy act, after all). Being a medical marvel isn't as much fun as it sounds. Thankfully, the aneurysm is still fine.

As for the Canuck book challenge, I have two books to offer - Ibi Kaslik's The Angel Riots and Alison Pick's The Sweet Edge.

I enjoyed both books but I much preferred The Sweet Edge. The Angel Riots, while cool, was a much more muddled effort. Both books work with a dual storyline, following the lives of two protagonists - one male and one female. The problem with Kaslik's book is that I really did not sense much of a difference between the two voices. The thoughts and emotions seemed to run together in a way that was more confusing than anything. True, the book was an interesting look at the rise of an indie band. I just wish it could have been something more.

Pick's book, on the other hand, has two really defined characters. Following the lives of two ex-lovers during one summer - the woman in Toronto, the man canoeing through the arctic - I came to like, occasionally dislike and appreciate both characters. That's what makes the tale work so well - there were two fully formed voices speaking instead of one. Besides, the Arctic canoe trip had me thinking of Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights On Air, a book I enjoyed immensely but read before I learned of the book challenge. Not that the stories are similar, just the setting.

I think my next Canuck book will be Ondaatje's Divisadero. It's a book I've been plodding through for a while. Not sure if I like the story itself, but the writing is sublime with far too many lines that are just stunning. It reminds me of what a woman said to me in a bookstore once about Bob Kaufman's poetry - "He writes poems so beautiful you read them aloud to yourself in bed just because you can." (I've held onto that line for the better part of a decade, how could I not?) That's what reading Divisadero has been like so far.

I like what Ian Tyson had to say about Divisadero - “I love that book. I don't understand it, but I love it.”

In other news, I now live at Yonge and Eglinton. It's nice to finally be in a neighbourhood where you actually want to get out and walk around. The twenty minute commute is a nice plus, as well (I'm saving myself about an hour and twenty minutes a day compared to the old trek). I used to spend way too much time on the bus and subway just travelling to a part of town I would want to walk around. Now, it's all just a minute or two away.

I am also way too excited about picking up Suze Rotolo's memoirs (A Freewheelin' Time). She was the Dylan muse/visual artist who is pictured with Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album. Something tells me Odaatje will be put on hold for a few days longer.

There is more, but I'll keep it short. I broke down and got cable tv again and, while it's been fun, it has left me puzzled. How can people honestly look at tv as a replacement for reading? I just don't get it. At the end of the day, it's all just so bland and undemanding. I don't mind it. At times, I even enjoy putting my brain on cruise control, but that's just what it is - cruise control.

This morning, I spent an hour in bed reading and it just felt so much more stimulating than any amount of time spent in front of the screen.

I remember arguing this with a friend at work once. He kept trying to tell me about what a great learning tool tv is. I disagreed then and I strongly disagree now. It's not that I think tv is all bad. It is entertaining and you can learn the occasional bit of info. I just don't think it can replace books. I was lucky enough to grow up when educational tv was in it's prime, when gifted entertainers and educators like Mr. Dressup and the folks at Sesame Street ruled the (morning) airwaves, and yet I never learned as much as I did from books. It's not that the people failed; it's just that the medium is faulty. You aren't forced to engage the mind in the same way you are with books.

I could go on and on but Friends is about to start. . .

Just kidding.