Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Soundtrack for a Trip to New York

A top 7 (no time for more), in no particular order -

1. Hard Times in New York Town - Bob Dylan
2. Only Living Boy in New York - Simon and Garfunkel
3. I'm Waiting for the Man - Velvet Underground
4. New York New York - Cat Power
5. Rhapsody in Blue - G. Gershwin
6. Sheena is a Punk Rocker - The Ramones
7. On Broadway - Neil Young

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Taking up the challenge. . .

Well, the esteemed Mr. Mutford over at The Book Mine Set (http://bookmineset.blogspot.com/) has blackmailed me into completing this meme. So here goes:

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures - The only thing I look forward to about surgery is that I get to sleep through the whole thing and miss all the gory bits. So, while I've heard great things about the book and I even greatly enjoyed hearing him talk and read from the book at last year's Word on the Street, I keep avoiding the book.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

Rabo Karabekian (from Vonnegut's Bluebeard), Sal Paradise (Kerouac's On The Road) and Gabriel English (Michael Winter's This All Happened & The Architects are Here). An evening of booze and conversation in a rundown bar.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Hey, if I could live forever just by avoiding Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, it's a sacrifice I would be all too willing to make.

Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

I've started far more religious texts than I will ever finish - Buddhist Sutras, Hindu texts, etc., etc. And yet I have engaged in many great debates with the unsuspecting Jehovah's Witnesses that come to my door by drawing solely on what amounts to more of a Coles' Notes version of religious understanding.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book?

Not yet. Though it will probably happen eventually.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP)

Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief. It is a book that everyone should read.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

Russian would be great. Mandarin as well. There's a part of me, however, that is seriously leaning towards Latin.

A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

If it had to be a big book, it would be either Margaret Laurence's The Diviners or Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Personally, though, I'd keep it short and sweet. Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superheroes. A fun book I can go back to again and again.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

The strange world of book challenges. This one - http://bookmineset.blogspot.com/2007/10/canadian-book-challenge.html - in particular.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Books a hodgepodge of hardcovers and trade paperbacks. A big old desk with a comfortable leather chair, maybe a manual typewriter for letter writing. A big arm chair and ottoman with a good lamp for reading.

I'm not really sure who to send this on to. I do not even know if I have more than a couple of readers so I'll take the easy way out and offer up the questions to anyone that feels like answering them.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Canuck Book Four

I finally got around to finishing Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians. It's not that I did not like the book - actually, I liked it a lot - it's just that, as usual, I got distracted.

Anyways, I plowed through and even missed my bus stop last night because I was so wrapped up in the story. The Torontonians is something of a revelation. As I had mentioned before, I used to subscribe to the idea that the Toronto I know and love just magically appeared at some point in the late sixties. Before that, the city was a grey mass of worker bees, churches and strange liquor laws.

While this book does not completely dispel the myth, it does show that, beneath the surface, life was far more interesting and varied than the myth would suggest.

The story follows a week in the life of Karen Whitney, a housewife living in one of Toronto's affluent new (at the time) suburbs. It is a mannered environment of lunches and bridge parties, automatic dishwashers and big cars. One day, she receives 3 letters that will in some way change her life. The novel, then, follows two paths. The present day portions are interspersed with long sections detailing her past - growing up in Toronto and then spending a year in Switzerland going to school.

The story is solid. Karen is suffering from a midlife crisis of sorts where she realizes that the materialistic life she has built in the fictional suburb Rowanwood might not be what she wanted, after all. It works well and is surprisingly relevant. Her comments on women and women's role in society are surprisingly prescient. At one point, she wonders why she and her friends were sent to school when all they were preparing for was housework that could be managed by people with no education. All of these time saving devices that just free up time to do more housework or bake more perfect cakes. This is a novel with teeth. She does not hide her dissatisfaction with a world that is not as different from ours as we would like to believe. Though, nowadays, both men and women risk having their lives trivialized by modern conveniences in both the home and office.

Her comments on consumer culture also stand up well. Talking about society's love of the something for nothing sales pitch, she writes:

"Most of the people on the North American continent, as far as Karen could see, were prepared to play ostrich to this kind of approach. The salesmen and the advertisers, very earnestly and sincerely, assured them that it was indeed so, they could indeed get something for nothing. All they had to do was sign on the dotted line, and keep it in mind that quality was its own reward. And if they were to buy right now, they would actually be saving money."

Later, when talking about the brotherhood that comes with owning the same make of car, she says, "You could leave all the throat-cutting to General Motors and Ford, which was not only convenient but sensible, because they were so much better at it than you were."

One might worry that this book is more suited for a history class, but they would be wrong. Much of the novel still rings true and the dated parts - smoking in the doctor's office or the ever-present martinis - do not get in the way of what is a very good story.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The King is Dead

Bobby Fischer is dead and I am conflicted.

Yes, he was a nutjob and anti-Semite (despite being Jewish himself) with a massive persecution complex. On the other hand, he was one of the great chessboard artists of all time. With a wonderful mix of talent and chutzpah, he caught the world's imagination playing a game that is as close to a universal language as we have. It is because of this, that many - myself included - still harboured irrational hopes that the king would return.

He didn't.

He just got stranger. And maybe that's where the problem lies. He did not simply disappear. J.D. Salinger disappeared. Fischer stuck around, popping up just often enough to tarnish his legacy. True, he tried to innovate with his FischerRandom Chess. Unfortunately, he also embarrassed himself and his supporters whenever someone put a microphone in front of his mouth. Eventually, he became an odd footnote to his own past and, perhaps, a cautionary tale for parents who buy their kids chess sets.

I've played chess - badly, for the most part - for over two decades. I love the game. I love the ritual of setting up the board. I love the language and traditions. I love the fact that everywhere in the world there are people who are playing the exact same game on the exact same checkered board. I've seen this first hand. On my first trip anywhere outside of Canada and the States, I went to Mexico City and wound up spending some late evenings playing chess with guy who manned the front desk of the hotel I stayed at. His english was spotty, my spanish was mostly non-existent and, yet, we spent a few hours together pushing pieces back and forth. You don't find that playing Monopoly or Scrabble.

I also have a real fascination with street chess, the sidewalk tables where the game becomes part art and part con job. Most large cities have these places where people from all walks of life meet to play chess. Back when Toronto's chess tables were around the corner from Sam The Record Man, it was nothing to see a Bay Street business man play against a street person or a recent immigrant play against a tourist. It was wonderful.

Any trip to New York, for me, is not complete without some time spent at the chess tables in Washington Square Park. Of course, from there I wander over to Thompson St. where not one, but two chess stores (Village Chess Shop and Chess Forum) wait to supply chess fans with the tools of their trade. Sure, I see a lot of other things when I go to New York. How could one not? The fact remains that the only places I return to for sure are the chess places. (Perhaps I should not have admitted that.)

At least part of this obsession can be traced back to Fischer and what he once represented. This is in spite of the fact that his World Championship victory occurred three years before I was born. His presence - his mystique - was that strong. For better or worse, Fischer was the face of chess.

I really wanted him to come back. I really wanted to understand him. I wanted my chance to see the greatest player play. I wanted to feel a touch of that magic.

Now, it's all over. The king has died in exile and we are still left wanting.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Woo Hoo!

This is blog post number 51! Yay!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Playing with leather. . .

I knew that would get your attention. Actually, this post involves a much more mundane sort of leather. Though, seeing as how you are online right now, you should be able to find lots of less mundane leather, if that is your bent.

Anyways, I keep looking at the harmonica cases I ordered last year (www. cumberlandcustomcases.com) and thinking that the sort of work that goes into the harmonica cases would also make a really good writing folder - something to hold a notebook and a couple of pens for when I head up to the cottage or go on vacation.

I know there is something mildly ridiculous with putting so much effort into the trappings of writing when I should really be putting pen to paper but sometimes I can't help it. Besides, the harmonica cases are about as sharp as harmonica cases can be (which is surprisingly sharp. . . take my word for it) so I keep thinking of what sort of magic Jeff at CCC could work.

Now I just need to do two things - 1. decide what exactly I want. 2. find out if Jeff would entertain the notion of doing a writing case (as you can see, I've never been afraid of putting the cart before the horse).

In other news, I'm into my second week of actually cooking my work lunches for myself. Working in downtown Toronto, it is just too easy to order in all the time. While I do love the variety of ordering in, my wallet was starting to complain about being overworked (and underpaid, for that matter).

I won't lie. It's still a pain in the ass to cook for one, but it's getting better. I have a pretty good collection of plastic containers (Lock & Lock containers rule, by the way - no leaks) and I am obsessive compulsive enough to put the time in cooking dinner when most people are working their way through a morning coffee.

Speaking of work, it's time for me to get going.

So long for now,


Canadian Book Challenge, Part Three

The best excuse I can give is I got distracted. I was midway through 'The Torontonians' when I picked up Farley Mowat's 'Lost In The Barrens'. I read a little bit, nothing serious, just trying to get a taste of a book I loved years ago. Then I read a little more. Then I started taking it on the bus and proceeded to whip through it.

The verdict? A really good book and still worthy of devotion.

I was sort of nervous about this choice. Lost in the Barrens is one of those books that shaped my childhood. It helped fuel my passion for the north country in particular and travel in general. The idea of two youths living off the land appealed to me even more than the best Hardy Boys mystery. And I was a big Hardy Boys fan. To go back to it over twenty years later was something of a risky proposition. After all, 50's era stories involving natives generally were not known for being very progressive or even handed. Would I still like the book? Would it be just too anachronistic to enjoy?

The answer is yes to the first question and no to the second. What amazes me most going back is how respectful the tale is - respectful of the various cultures and supremely respectful of the natural environment.

Now let's be clear about one thing - this is still a tale that is best enjoyed by the preteen set. The story jumps right to the action and rushes along at a fair clip from episode to episode. While there is a great respect for nature, culture and history, the story never gets weighed down by an abundance of reflection.

That said, the book is fun and smart and should be recommended reading for all Canadian school kids.

Reading this book makes me realize I should probably go back and read other books that I have enjoyed. I usually get caught up in moving from new book to new book, always striving for the new rush and the fresh experience. I almost never go back to reread anything. In fact, there are only about 3 books that I will normally reread - Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Laurence's The Diviners and Irving's A Widow for One Year. I'm thinking it's time I dusted off some of my other favourites for a change.

Now, I will finish off The Torontonians.

But first, it's time for bed. My day started at the dreadful hour of 4 A.M. and consisted of 16 hours of work bookended by early morning/late evening TTC commutes. I more than a little bit beat.
So long for now.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Slash's Book

Overall, I liked it. I won't bother reviewing it or anything. Whether you like or don't like the book has more to do with what you think of Slash than it does with how the book is. The book is really just not strong enough to stand up on its own.

If you like Slash, though, the book is fun.

What I will say is that I wish they would have spent a little more money on proofreaders. Seriously, even when the prose was tight (which wasn't that often), the actual text was as sloppy as they come. It's like someone used spellcheck but decided to save time and not bother with grammar check. All the loose ends were just left in. So, while the words were mostly spelled right, they would often be out of place. Sentences would start and then restart missing key words. While there were no total deal breakers, it just seemed like such a shame that so much effort was focused on the package while so little was focused on the contents. It is ironic, considering how much time Slash spends distancing himself from the style over substance 80's hair metal bands, that his book winds up looking much better than it is.

As a guilty pleasure, though, it was not half bad.

Now it is time to get back to more interesting fare. I'm also planning on starting a pen and paper journal. Hopefully, that will force me to get back into writing more regularly. Right now, though, I have to cook some lunch and get ready for work.

So long for now,


ps. If you haven't invested yet in Tom Waits' 3 disc set Orphans, do so. It is incredible.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Canadian Book Challenge, Round Two

I finally got around to finishing my second selection for the Canadian Book Challenge. Tomson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing is a play I've been meaning to read for a long time, ever since reading The Rez Sisters back in university.

All I can really say right now is wow. Or maybe ouch is a better word. This is a play that pulls no punches. While it has some wonderful wordplay and humour - and dialogue that dances between English, Ojibway and Cree - there is a darkness to this play that is almost painful. When the play turned tragic, I almost felt sucker punched. But it works well and I'm sure I will be thinking about this play for a long time to come.

The Ojibway and Cree passages were quite interesting. I found myself trying to sound out the words phonetically to get a feel for the language (translations are provided). While I was probably much less than successful, it intrigued me enough that I think I will seek out some books on those languages.

The only problem now is that I really want to see this play performed.

Where I go now in the Book Challenge is still up in the air. I'm working my way through The Torontonians. After that, I think I may tackle Kathleen Winter's story collection Boys and Leonard Cohen's first book of poetry (Let Us Compare Mythologies). That way, I've at least covered a wide spectrum of book forms. Then, I may get back into the Montreal books I had mentioned earlier. As you can tell, my list changes almost as often as the wind.

Well, it's way too late/early for me to be up flinging words around, so I think I will wander back over to my bedroom (with a good book in hand, of course).

Friday, January 04, 2008

Gladiators ready. . .

The American Gladiators are back. There's a part of me - some deep down shred of 9'th grade me - that is actually looking forward to this.

Just don't tell anyone.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Random hockey thought. . .

Am I the only person who thinks we can find a better way of celebrating a multimillionaire scoring three goals in a game than by throwing him our hats?

The hat trick goes back to the days when hockey players were not all that well paid and a new hat meant something. Why we feel the need to toss our not always new hats onto the ice after a third goal eludes me.

Yes, I'm feeling curmudgeonly, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

A new year and a new way

Hello all,

How're things? Good.

Yesterday, I made a biggish change in my travel arrangements. After much deliberation, I made the switch from TTC tokens to the metropass.

This was not done without reservations. The main stumbling block is that the metropass is way too expensive. Currently, the metro pass costs $109. Basically, that's a dollar less than taking the TTC at full price to work and back for four weeks (5 days a week X 2 X $2.75).

Fair (fare?) enough.

If one were to use tokens, however, the 4 week cost drops to just $90 dollars. One has to take at about 10 more rides to equal what they would pay for a metropass. I'm a pretty dedicated transit rider and I'm not totally sure if it will work out in my favour most months. I'm testing the waters this month, but I may go back to tokens for next month.

There is a convenience factor to the metropass that is undeniable. Especially for me because I start most of my TTC journeys with a bus trip to the subway. If I forget to pick up tokens on the way home, I'm stuck paying full fare to get back downtown. There is also the tax break that comes with using the metropass.

This is not really enough, in my opinion. Take a look at New York's system and you will see what we should be aspiring to. Smart fare cards instead of tokens, an insurance system to protect against lost or stolen cards, discounts for city attractions for metrocard owners and a price that is much more reasonable than our own ($76 US for 30 days). Chicago's pass is $75 US. L.A.'s is $62 US.

I know it is hard to compare US transit systems to our own. Fine. Forget that last paragraph but think about this: Montreal's monthly pass is only $66.25 a month. That is in spite of the fact that their cash fare is the same as the TTC's ($2.75).

I do not mind paying my fair share. I just think that the inflated rates we currently face are unrealistic and counter productive. A monthly pass is supposed to make it cheaper to ride. Toronto's does so only in the most meagre way. It also prices itself out of the hands of a lot of people. If the passes were substantially cheaper, I believe you would have more riders.

Of course, then the system would have to accomodate the extra riders. Right now, the TTC seems more intent on digging a tunnel to the super walmart at jane and 7 then it is about actually increasing/improving service.

But that's just my opinion. As it's time to go to work, I'll leave that topic for another day.