Three Tracks: 2015

Better late that even later. Three tracks that defined my year in 2015:

Beach House, “Space Song”

It was a year of transition. At the tail end of summer, walking and biking Cannon Beach in Oregon, I felt that five years after my divorce everything had finally come together and I had myself back fully, even though I’d just realized it. “Fall back into place.” A revelation live at their April 2016 concert in Vancouver.

Sufjan Stevens, “Blue Bucket of Gold”

Driving the beautiful Highway 26 from Portland to the ocean, rain alternating with sun. One relationship over, and another one—I could almost feel it—just around the corner. “Raise your right hand / Tell me you want me in your life / Or raise your red flag / Just when I want you in my life.” Another great concert in June 2015 at the Orpheum.

Sjowgren, “Seventeen”

I don’t include enough fun songs in these lists (see also 2013, 2014). “If you want a second to breathe / I’ll give you all of my love / I’ll give you all that you need, ah.”

Three Tracks: 2014

Three tracks that defined my year:

Sun Kil Moon, “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”

Chilling, intense. One of the best-ever songs about death of all sorts. “And I remember just where I was/When Richard Ramirez died of natural causes.”

Cloud Nothings, “I’m Not Part of Me”

One of the best shows I saw this year. “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else.” And: “I’m not! I’m not! You.”

(I included the audio-only YouTube link as the official video is just distracting.)

Spoon, “Do You”

Song of the summer, and it’s been a while since we had one this great. The wistful ending—sort of like the end of summer, come to think of it—puts it over the top. “Do you want to get understood?”

See also Three Tracks: 2013.

Three Tracks: 2013

I had this in mind a year ago, but never got around to posting it (see Three Tracks: 2014). Three tracks that defined my year:

Jon Hopkins, “Open Eye Signal”

The track is a journey, a revelation (and the video is actually pretty great). Saw Hopkins in November (and again in July 2014), and it was brilliant.

The Knife, “A Tooth For An Eye”

It rocks. “I’m telling you stories/Trust me.”

Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey”

Like a 21st century Paul Simon; the whole album is great. “Who could ever live that way?”

Robin Williams

He’s been remembered in recent days for the obvious stuff: Mork; Good Will Hunting; Doubtfire; and so on. All great. But for me, and I think my daughter Karina, it’s his reading of “The Fool and the Flying Ship” that is most memorable. All of  his manic inventiveness is here. The voices, the enthusiasm, and what I assume is a good dose of improv are hilarious. He was one of a kind.

Reading 2013

Another year, some more great books (see also 2011, 2012).

Fiction

fiction

Cathedral, Raymond Carver – Always wanted to read Carver; Junot Díaz suggested this one in a recent interview. Some of the best short stories I’ve read in ages. Modern Chekhov, etc., sure. But they’re also slow-burning page-turners—and after all, isn’t that a large part of the point of reading? I can’t say that they always preserve a kind of dignity in the everyday-or-worse characters; but they make them real and mundane in a way that’s extremely compelling and fascinating and believable. But beyond that, it’s the interactions between people that shine: it’s almost a relief to be shown that what can be most important are these encounters, whether in crisis situations or not. I read this from Carver: Collected Stories, and look forward to reading more.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller – Good and sometimes great writing; insightful, suspenseful, pensive, and with three-dimensional characters. And it’s a page-turner. I don’t care how many post-apocalyptic books have been written blah blah blah; does it really matter? Anyway, I haven’t read many, but I think this stands on its own, and the situation is ultimately a framework, a platform for characters (mostly Hig) trying to understand themselves and their motivations. Beautifully done, in my humble opinion. A great summer read—but I say that partly because I read it in the summer, I suppose.

Tenth of December, George Saunders – Saunders draws you in with surprising humour and squeezes, simultaneously. In less capable hands, some of these portrayals might have come across as condescending; but there’s enough insight, not to mention familiarity, to push things forward in a sympathetic way and towards ends which render the details just that. The reader feels inside these heads and incorporates a complete internal consistency. Entertaining and enlightening.

Levels of Life, Julian Barnes – An unusual premise, to say the least: the history of ballooning leading into the loss of a spouse. But it’s pulled off beautifully. Barnes has become one of my favourite writers.

Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat – It’s a beautiful arc, but at a point—specifically, through some of the chapter “Di Mwen, Tell Me”—the writing falls apart a bit. But overall it made me want to read some of Danticat’s earlier books.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan – For some reason I read this over a longer span of time, more like a series of related short stories—which I’ve heard argued they really are; but I’d like to go back to it and make the character connections more concrete. Even as short stories, though, I found the book sharp and entertaining.

A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers – Some reviews I’ve read are I believe over-thinking things. This is a novel about a character that is perhaps not likeable, but at the same time maybe it exposes some fears that there’s more of him in us than we feel comfortable with. I thought Alan was developed quite well. It’s important to remember that we’re restricted to his world view—not, perhaps, an unreliable narrator, but one who is somewhat aware of his naïveté and has lost confidence as a result—and that the language is his, and what we can see of politics and Saudi Arabia is from his point of view. He’s self-aware in his unawareness, and that’s pulled off pretty well. It’s an easy read, a lightweight book in many ways perhaps, and the ending is perfunctory. But I think Eggers made an uninteresting type into an interesting centrepiece, if not exactly a protagonist.

After the Quake, Haruki Murakami – I didn’t take notes and honestly can’t remember much about this book. Maybe that says something.

Non-Fiction

nonfiction

Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens – More than any other writer, I think, reading Hitchens feels like being engaged in conversation: one after which I feel sharper, and speak and writer better. I don’t read a lot of memoirs, but this one is distinct because he was such an interesting guy, so ultimately a lot of the book is not directly about him. The chapter “Mesopotamia from Both Sides” is particularly brilliant, providing more context and explanation for Hitch’s “support” of the second Iraq war, and reducing it to the personal in an incredibly affecting way through the story of Mark Daily.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer – No single volume of course can completely (and impartially) distill the tone and direction of a country like the United States over the course of several decades. But this gives a strong impression of a wide range of some very American characters through their fascinating stories. The only Writers Fest event I attended this year was an interview with Packer, and it was great.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg – Due to “the rising status of women, the growth of cities, the development of communications technologies, and the expansion of the life course,” many—most—of us are now living alone. I didn’t need convincing (I live alone and cannot imagine ever cohabiting again), but thought this would be an interesting read. It was, although there was I think too much emphasis on the elderly. It’s a new area, so the author has actually done a pretty good job of pulling together anecdotes from various cultures and countries (pointing out once again, among other things, how backwards and behind we are in terms of social policy compared with the Scandinavian countries). I bristled every time he described the appearance of a woman interview subject, though; I don’t think I’m misremembering or miscounting in believing that he didn’t do so to the same extent with the males. Perhaps my biggest lesson from this book is that I should plan to live close to my daughter when I’m older. Ultimately it’s one of those books that probably could have been shorter by half, perhaps comprising a series of interesting articles. But if you’re interested in the topic, it’s a worthwhile read.

Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks – I didn’t enjoy this as much of some of Sacks’ other books: the chapters are organized around types of hallucinations, with patient stories sprinkled throughout, whereas I really enjoyed the expanded case studies of, for example, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Still, lots of fascinating material here; the author always makes one think about one’s own perception. If you like his books, there’s no reason to skip this one.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains, Chuck Klosterman – My initial review for this book was going to be: “Merely clever.” But then as I got further I started to think it wasn’t even very clever; and it isn’t funny. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed a couple of Klosterman’s earlier books. Here are a couple of quick examples: “Necessity used to be the mother of invention, but then we ran out of things that were necessary. The postmodern mother of invention is desire; we don’t really ‘need’ anything new, so we only create what we want.” If he’s trying to be funny with this sort of end-of-history thinking, he isn’t succeeding. But I don’t think he’s trying to be funny here. Do I need to give examples? I’m not going to bother. Or this sentence: “He refused to pretend that his life didn’t feel normal to the person inside it.” WHAT?! The book is full of this kind of thing. It would be head-scratching if it was worth scratching one’s head about. But it isn’t.

How Should a Person Be?Sheila Heti – It’s hard to rate this book. It feels like an early draft of something else; the question is whether that something would ever be any good. I tend to think not. I suppose that the main problem is that the narrator is for the most part so incredibly unlikable. Narcissism doesn’t really describe it; perhaps vacant and spoiled do. To be sure, there are a few decent moments; but they’re buried. For me the book and the author were made all the worse for apparently completely misunderstanding one of the nicest moments in The Little Prince.

Movies 2013

I didn’t see as many movies this year as I usually do (see 2010, 2011, 2012). The reason: Breaking Bad (see below) which, multiplying its 62 episodes by 48 minutes, is the equivalent of about twenty-eight (28) 1.75-hour films.

★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year

Upstream Color (trailer): Nine years after the amazing Primer, one of my favourite sci-fi movies, director/actor/composer/etc. Shane Carruth does it again. If only every movie could be so engaging, puzzling, and thought-provoking. I’ve seen it again, read articles, and am currently watching it a third time, carefully, in twenty-minute doses. I’m not sure it can really be described: perhaps the atmosphere of The Tree of Life and the intrigue of Stalker? Just see it.

upstreamcolor

All Is Lost (trailer): Harrowing, maybe partly because I was feeling a bit out to sea myself when I saw it, but it’s a great almost-wordless performance by Robert Redford (in contrast to George Clooney’s yabbering in the similarly-themed Gravity—see below). It draws you in and onto the sea with the unnamed man.

allislost

Before Midnight (trailer): I haven’t seen the prior instalments in this series, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). No matter—this stands alone as a brilliantly talky movie with surprising and subtle revelations about friendship and marriage. Both Hawke and Delpy are great.

beforemidnight

Captain Phillips (trailer): I’ve never liked Tom Hanks, and/or the movies he’s acted in. Although I’m not as sure that this quite deserves my four-star rating overall, Hanks’ incredibly affecting scene at the end puts it over the top: one of the most emotionally impactful things I saw this year, following a relentlessly tense—and believable—hour and a half or so.

captainphillips

Breaking Bad: Not a movie, but then I don’t watch television and I saw this at my own pace and without ads, which made it seem more like a series of films. I don’t watch television because of advertisements and quality. Breaking Bad, at least via Netflix on my iPad, didn’t have those issues; but it definitely reminded me of the third reason I don’t own a television: time commitment. I don’t regret the time I spent here, but it did cost me a number of movies in the theatre this year: there’s only so much video I can take. At any rate, despite a couple of weak episodes, this was an incredibly consistent long piece ultimately dealing with many forms of ambiguity. It was not (usually) broken into neat little episodes, and I often found myself watching from midway through one episode to most of the way through the next, without noticing or having troubles picking up the next time. The last “half season” was pretty brilliant—with the arguable exception of the last episode (see for instance Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the New Yorker, The Closure-Happy “Breaking Bad” Finale). Will I watch another series? Probably not. But it was fun to be in on the cultural phenomenon of the moment, and the VIFF interview session with series creator Vince Gilligan, on the eve of the finale, was one of my favourite live events of the year.

breakingbadwalt

breakingbadjesse

 

★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing

12 Years a Slave (trailer): It was great. And yet. Was it the music? There was something that distracted or diminished the film. Was it the usually good Brad Pitt, whose character didn’t quite gel? Was it editing? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll watch it again some time to try to pick it apart a bit better.

Safety Not Guaranteed (trailer): I was casting about on Netflix and found this great little movie. It’s funny and poignant and sometimes surprising: a film about some young journalists from Seattle pursuing a story about a fellow who posts an ad looking for a time travel companion.

Blue Jasmine (trailer): Essentially a tour de force by Cate Blanchett, but also Woody Allen seems to have been stronger again recently.

Europa Report (trailer): Most underrated? Much sci-fi seems to be totally unrealistic and/or over-the-top. I read somewhere that NASA consulted on this. It shows in the more measured, and therefore realistic and suspenseful, tone.

Gravity (trailer): Like a roller coaster ride. Incredible visuals. There were just three problems: George Clooney’s inane chatter; some religious bullshit; and—sigh—sound in space.

Philomena (trailer): About what you’d expect, but in a good way. Some complained it was anti-Catholic. I say: more, please.

Nebraska (trailer): Saw this at VIFF. Sure, Bruce Dern was great. But overall it felt slightly slight; and I didn’t like being so obviously expected to laugh at some of the characters—this wasn’t gracefully done.

Chinese Take-Away (trailer): Funny and affecting indie film about a couple of guys who can’t speak each others’ language, searching.

★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these

Oldeuboi (trailer): I watched this 2003 original on Netflix as the reviews of this year’s remake made me curious. It was often quite watchable, but ultimately over the top.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (trailer): Yes, well done again. But I’ve had enough of these all-evil characters, Khan or not: I hate superhero movies and this hovers dangerously close. I want an exploration/aliens film next time out with this franchise (and perhaps that word is itself damning).

Rap is War (trailer): Another VIFF film; didn’t see enough this year. Interesting documentary on an underground Cuban rap outfit; would have been better if it had been shorter.

★★½ – Credit for effort

Camera Shy (trailer): IMDB: “This dark comedy follows a corrupt city councilman whose life spins out of control after a mysterious cameraman begins terrorizing him.” Kind of amusing, and not an awful film, but ultimately a sort of amateur proof-of-concept effort.

★★ – Please promise me you won’t see even if you’re curious

The Conjuring: The worst movie I’ve seen in a long while; I haven’t seen many horror films, but this seemed to be an amateur re-hashing of the few that I have. Fortunately my friend had free tickets. Boring, often-awful acting, and docked an extra star for claiming to be based on a “true” story. Anyone in the audience who took the laugh-out-loud claims in the title cards at face value should not be allowed to vote. Or at least to see movies.

The Place Beyond the Pines: What a dreadful movie. By turns maudlin, amateurish, boring, and improbable, it was at times laugh-out-loud awful–particularly when Gosling was playing Gosling parodying Gosling in Drive. And then it turned into a made-for-TV movie.

Predators (2010): Why on earth did I watch this? I must have been drunk. I have to be more careful with Netflix. Laughably awful.

Event Horizon (1997): Another unintentionally horrific sci-fi. I don’t understand why the production crew and actors would persevere when it should have been obvious that they were working on a stinker. Acting, dialog, and especially premise were terrible.

Movies 2012

Here’s a list of the movies I saw this past year, sorted by rating (and within each rating, the chronological order in which I saw them).

★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year

Piña (trailer): Stunning. See it. See it. I’m not even a casual dance fan–well, maybe I am now. Human motion and music and meaning. Absolutely lovely. Perhaps the best application of 3D I’ve seen, though that’s not saying much in terms of quality (Avatar, ugh) or quantity. It worked here some of the time: though i realized that its otherworldliness may come from all objects, foreground and background, being in focus. I’m not a stickler for realism, though; this is just another medium. Anyway, would be interesting to see it flat. But overall, highly recommended. I got lost in its worlds and stories and sounds and beauty.I want to see it again, and that’s very rare for me.

pina

Amour (trailer): So many movies just won’t take the time necessary to portray a life. This one does. Sad and harrowing, it gives the sense of gradual loss and all the space—and yes, loneliness—of growing old. I saw this at VIFF.

amour

The Hunt (trailer): I thought this was brilliant because it could be seen from both sides: Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas seemed at times an ambiguous figure even though we knew the real story—indeed how we might all doubt him. It really centres around his performance, and it’s a great one. Another VIFF film.

thehunt

The Master (trailer): The brilliant acting almost overshadowed everything else. I could not stop simply watching Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think there will be a lot to pick up on second watching. I think that the general acquiescence to a mad and cultish figure was riveting and believable.

themaster

Celebration Day (trailer): I don’t listen to “classic rock.” But I grew up on Led Zeppelin; a friend and I were talking about seeing their 1980 tour, which was scuttled on John Bonham‘s death (his son Jason fills in on drums here). The band regrouped for one night five years ago, and that concert is documented in this film. While I thought the performances were generally brilliant—Kashmir in particular—I was particularly struck by a couple of other things. First, the film proves that musicianship, even rock musicianship, does not or need not decline with age: these guys were about sixty here and they’re sounding better than ever. Second, I now agree with Plant’s decision not to have extended this performance into a tour. These felt like last performances to  me: while I don’t enjoy listening to this music regularly, as it’s so overplayed, I cannot imagine what it would be like to sing it. A time and place, nicely visited here but that can now be lovingly put away.

celebrationday

Holy Motors (trailer): Another film I want to re-watch. There’s been a lot of discussion about what it all means, and my knowledge of film history isn’t strong enough to pick up the references. But it was purely entertaining and intriguing. Give me this over superheroes any day.

holymotors

★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing

  • Shame (trailer): Depicts well something I’m tempted to say would be very difficult to do: the declination of pleasure to obsession to compulsion. No joy, but no particular sadness either, until it has consequences, which here may be set up a little too obviously. Still, recommended.
  • Monseir Lazhar (trailer): Surprisingly less than the sum of its parts. On paper a lovely, human story; but it didn’t deliver quite the impact that might have been expectedâ??or at least that I did. Kudos for not going over the top, but it didn’t quite reach the  top, either: a delicate balance between subtle and slight. Worth seeing, though, for several excellent performances.
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (trailer): Immediately bought the book and read through to fill in some blanks and inconsistencies that I suspect we’re lost in the translation from novel to screen–unless I was having an off night. The usual objections to the rich American family that doesn’t seem ever to go to work, but overall an effective, harrowing story of parental bewilderment: those who have not been through it (parenthood, that is) may be scared off; those who have, like me, will recognize and perhaps shudder despite the degree of strife. Very engaging and full of effective tension; Tilda Swinton is great as usual.
  • A Separation (trailer): Interesting cultural limitations and twists on a Western–or is that just human contemporary–situation and setting. Some loose ends: the wife’s story wasn’t fully developed, I didn’t think. But a minor qualm. Just the right developing ambiguity and the central figure of the daughter Termeh was brilliantly written and played. Recommended.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trailer): Not as good as the original Swedish movie of 2009, though it probably had better music. Probably should get an award for best trailer, though. Watched this on my iPad.
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi (trailer): Perhaps not the most obvious movie for a vegan, but the care and artistry of this guy are inspiring. I would eat his food if I had the chance.
  • Moonrise Kingdom (trailer): Wes Anderson nuttiness. A tonne of fun.
  • Monsters (trailer): Surprisingly affecting sci-fi, proving you just don’t need big-budget special effects to succeed.
  • Coast Modern (site): alternately inspiring—West Coast architecture is home—and depressing: I won’t ever have a home anything like these. Very nicely done.
  • Pearl Jam 20 (trailer): I stopped listening a few years ago, though one of their recent Vancouver concerts was a lot of fun. I took a look at this partly out of curiosity after reading Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. It’s tempting to see Pearl Jam as a salvage job for the Seattle scene. Workmanlike and dependable; though not really “grunge,” if that even means anything. Watched on iPad.
  • Take This Waltz (trailer): Rising and falling of lust and love. I like Sarah Polley‘s films. Watched on iPad.
  • Life of Pi (trailer): I haven’t read the book. The movie was visually stunning, but was screwed up by nonsensical (is there any other kind?) religious mumbo-jumbo; and the current-day scenes were really weak.
  • Sleepwalk with Me (trailer): Mike Birbiglia is a funny guy. But this movie is mostly a rehash of material you will have heard if you’re a This American Life fan. Given that these were old jokes to me—perhaps I should have known from the title—it’s hard for me to judge how well they work in this medium. Given also that many of the stories seem to have arisen from Birbiglia’s actual experience, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here, unless he’s continued to have more crazy experiences. Still, worth seeing if you haven’t heard his routines. Watched on iPad.
  • Argo (trailer): As good as Hollywood gets, probably. Docked half a star for offending Canadians (not to mention Iranians, probably) and for the writers failing to take thirty seconds to Google the take-off speed of a 747: it’s about 160-180 miles per hour, so police cars couldn’t keep up.
  • Django Unchained: (trailer): Like Inglourious Basterds, a mixed bag. A lot of what Tarantino does seems just to be to use violence to string together scenes in support of some admittedly good writing (not to mention great acting). I wish he’d try a different kind of film. I actually thought that Django had the weakest Tarantino scene ever—the prattle about the pre-KKK masks. Not funny: just really dim. I was surprised.

★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these

Reading 2012

I read a few more books in 2012 than the year before, and started posting more consistently to Goodreads; you can follow me there if you like. Most of these books are fairly current; where they’re not, I’ve indicated year of publication.

Fiction

Fiction

The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Almost relentlessly good writing, sometimes great, very occasionally over the top. Horror and response to horror minutely and beautifully observed and reconsidered, and again. “The details of the world in which we live are always secondary to the fact that we must live in them.” There’s a continuous passage—pages 144-146 of the Little, Brown hardcover—that is as powerful as anything I’ve recently read, and as far as I know or now feel, an accurate accounting of these Arab wars or any war; or at very least something very affecting was got into me by the author.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz. Economy and energy. Almost a novella. Brilliant stuff. Given an extra dimension for me by the reading he gave at the Vancouver Writers Festival this year: perhaps the most gracious and keenly intelligent writer I’ve heard.

Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992). Mentioned by Junot Díaz in a recent New York Times interview. Absolutely brilliant. Almost every sentence a revelation. Read it. I picked up “Train Dreams” (below) on the strength of this.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958). A ripping yarn. And yet, I kept hoping that the women, outcasts, and slaves (!) of Umuofia would rise up. Ultimately, it’s the tale of one idiotic set of beliefs replacing another. I know, it’s a story, but it’s not simply presented as such. I feel about as little sympathy for Okonkwo as I do for the missionaries who destroy the Africans’ “way of life” (not that they had any right to, of course)—which is defined and enforced by a ruthless circle of brutal men.

Lionel Asbo: State of EnglandMartin Amis. One is left wondering, “What’s the point?” A good yarn, but so what? I have to go back and read something like “Money,” I suppose. I enjoyed “House of Meetings“—completely different tone.

Ancient Light, John Banville. Some great writing—it starts strong—some middling. Someone else on Goodreads pointed out similarities to Barnes‘ “The Sense of an Ending,” but this is not quite of the same quality. Very enjoyable though, particularly around the vagueness of (all sorts of) memory. The slight twist at the end reinforces the overall message of the unreliability of not just memory, but perception—of places, events, and in particular people, those closest to us. Perhaps not as understandable to someone not yet in middle age. I may read more of him—I understand this is the third book of a trilogy.

Pulse, Julian Barnes. I loved “The Sense of an Ending” last year so picked this up. A solid collection of short stories. I liked those in “One” better than the perhaps more adventurous “Two,” but all were good. The “At Phil & Joanna’s” series was entertaining and funny.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000). A ripping yarn, compellingly told. It doesn’t quite sustain its quality to the end, but I’ve picked up “Telegraph Avenue” and am eager to read it. Saw Chabon at the Writers Festival and he was intelligent and funny.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson (2002). Not quite of the same quality as “Jesus’ Son” (above), but well worth reading.

The Listener, David Lester. The first graphic novel I’ve read. I have nothing against the genre. But this is a bit thin, and in particular suffered I think from an adolescent tone. I’m sure we’ve all encountered the type: oh so knowing, oh so superior, oh so intellectual. The depth isn’t there, in my opinion. It has its moments, and I think the artwork is great and supports the story well. But I wanted more: depth, maturity, and even history.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan. McEwan seems to focus so much on his “hook” of a surprise twist at the end of his books (incidentally, I wasn’t sure I believed reviewers who claimed to have figured this one out—perhaps I’m just thick) that the writing is sometimes secondary. I enjoyed this a lot more than “Solar,” but the characters seemed less involving than “Saturday“—I get it, that’s perhaps the point, but that seems like a bit of an excuse. If you like McEwan you’ll probably enjoy this. But I’m losing my enthusiasm a bit, when there’s so much great writing out there, from Michael Chabon to Denis Johnson. I think “On Chesil Beach” was his high point.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver (2003). A rare case of a movie that prompted me to go back and read the book. Having finished the book, I want to see the film again; like ‘2001: a space odyssey,’ though not written and filmed in tandem as Clarke and Kubrick did, I see them as somewhat complementary; and it seems Shriver is quite the fan of the film adaptation of her book. At any rate, I thought this was a great book. Sentences that were surprising and original; and of course the characters of the mother and son intrigue. That’s the crux: insight into the psychology of some interesting characters, and by extension of us all. To what extent Eva is an unreliable narrator may be in question, at least until the end of the book. But more interesting is the character of Kevin. I don’t know enough about such psychopaths to judge the quality of the portrayal, but for the most part it convinced me. The only two things that stuck out were Kevin’s altered behaviour during his illness; and his apparent racism. Although I can understand the “breakdown” in his carefully constructed world as he aged from sixteen to eighteen in prison, his relenting during an illness when he was younger was not really explained—not that his behaviour could really be explained, but it made me wonder. Likewise, his precise and controlled intelligence would seem to be at odds with some of the racist remarks he made when a bit older. But these are quibbles. Although having seen the movie first may have dulled somewhat the impact of the book—I won’t post spoilers here—I recommend this book. Though not in terms of style, it reminded me somewhat of Philip Roth‘s “American Pastoral.” I have seen enough of almost-over-the-edge teenage thinking to appreciate the thought that went into Kevin, if not actually being a little scared in retrospect.

The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto (2005). A slight and contrived story masquerading as profundity. Made all the worse by cringe-worthy clichés—though I suspect the translation, by Michael Emmerich, is poor—and unnecessary supernatural BS.

Incomplete

Non-Fiction

Non-Fiction

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo. I can’t say it much better than does David Sedaris on the slip cover: “As rich and beautifully written as a novel.” Would that all non-fiction be so compelling. Depressing, yes; but the people shine. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Not much more to say, other than “read it.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Denial Kahneman. I need to re-read this: a goldmine of information on psychology; I should have taken notes as a lot of it is applicable to my work. Anyway, fascinating, and definitely recommended.

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of GrungeMark Yarm. I was almost next door in Victoria and Vancouver during the “grunge” years in Seattle, so the whole scene seemed almost knowable. This book provides fascinating background information, but is particularly fascinating for how it traces the arc of a scene. Ultimately very sad, of course, not just thinking about Andrew WoodMia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, and Layne Staley, but the toll that addiction took. And how quickly fashion moved on and forgot about the town. I went to see a grunge/Nirvana exhibit at the Experience Music Project in Seattle recently, and it was great but ghostly to see artefacts in glass cases from this music that was so human and alive. If you are even a casual grunge fan, you should read this book. My only criticism is that there are so many characters that I found myself having to go to the index repeatedly to remind myself who some of them were.

Vancouver Special, Charles Demers. He picks and chooses, but nothing is sacred and I got a sense of the flavour of my city, both what I already knew and some new angles. And he admits, “Drug money is the unknown variable in almost any economic equation that you can’t otherwise reconcile in Vancouver.”

This Is Not the End of the Book, Umberto Eco et al. I am going to post an expanded review of this book. Some good points, although the two men—Eco is in conversation with someone named Jean-Claude Carrière—are hopelessly clueless about technology, which is central to the argument.

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens. Exactly what you’d expect from Hitchens. And if you’ve read him, that’s pretty good. At the same time, heartbreaking.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now: As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It, Craig Taylor. I picked up this book after returning from a week in London last summer (pre-Olympics). A great format to learn about a city: conversations with and stories from Londoners. Would that more cities had such volumes.

Who I Am, Pete Townshend. On balance probably more interesting than Keith Richards‘ “Life,” but it had even more of an absence of any talk of composing the music that is so central to the story. As if how the tunes and sounds were composed is incidental to the events and times and especially the stories, in particularly the “rock operas” Tommy and Quadrophenia. I’d have loved to have read, for instance, about how Townshend put together the synthesizer lines for some of the early ’70s material—but he seems even to have forgotten they were ARP synths.

Incomplete

Periodicals

Last year my post was titled “Books 2011” and thinking about that recently I realized that I don’t read as many books as I’d perhaps like to because I’m often reading periodicals and “newspapers.” In 2012 I expanded my iPad subscriptions. I read the New York Times and New Yorker pretty consistently. Wired is so cheap it’s a no-brainer; if I read four articles a year it’s worth the price. I subscribed to The Economist but didn’t find myself reading it as much as I should: a 2013 resolution. The Walrus finally became available on iPad; it was my last print subscription and I had really stopped reading it because I just don’t think of picking up a paper magazine. There are a couple of wine magazines (Wine Access and Snooth Buyer’s Guide) that I look at now and again. I subscribed to The Guardian/Observer partly because my daughter was living in the UK; but I cancelled it near year’s end as she’s returning and it was also probably too much given all of the above.

Special mention is due The Magazine. I find the articles sort of engaging, topical for a “geek” perhaps. Perhaps. But the interesting thing for me about this “experiment” of Marco Arment‘s is how dismissive he—and apparently much of the audience—has been of the iOS Newsstand. Well, I have to say that all of the publications I’ve listed above so far outshine the writing in The Magazine that this is pretty surprising. Maybe, despite my focus on usability, I find that the problems with, specifically, the Adobe Publishing Suite are completely overshadowed by the quality of content in something like the New Yorker. I like the Magazine app, sure, but I’m not sure it could support the volume of one of these other publications, at least not yet. Maybe it’s the app/framework that Arment should focus on.

Vancouver “Writers Fest”

I wanted to include a note about this event. It seems to me that it’s time for the organizers and announcers to pass it off to a new generation. I saw Martin Amis endure an embarrassingly awful interview by Anne Giardini. At the David Suzuki/Tim Flannery event, “The State and Fate of This Small Blue Planet,” the authors were barely introduced by Hal Wake, who was far more concerned with introducing the “rebranding” of the festival to “Writers Fest”—as he’d done ad nauseum at the other events. Who cares, and what was wrong with “Vancouver International Writers Festival”? Worse, he instructed the audience not to engage in social media during the talk. It seems to me the event needs as much publicity as it can get, especially to attract a younger audience; real-time Tweeting should be permitted. Wake was a bit better while interviewing Michael Chabon.

The best event I saw was An Intimate Interview with Junot Díaz, who was free to talk without a moderator or interviewer. Granted, he didn’t need one; he was incredibly entertaining and gracious—I’ve never seen anyone better at taking a poor or naïve question and turning it around to seem like the most insightful query he’d ever received.

Well, Vancouver is a small town. I’m thinking about going to the New Yorker Festival this year.

Prometheus

My father took me to see Alien when it came out in 1979. He had also introduced me to 2001: a space odyssey, which I consider one of the best movies ever made, and probably still the best science fiction film (the likes of Star Wars are for me unimaginative in this sense, essentially Westerns in space). I really liked the original, then saw the first few Alien sequels, which weren’t so much sci-fi as sort of military-meets-monster movies, and lost interest.

Good science fiction at the movies is rare. Really rare: in the past couple of years, the only things I’ve seen that qualify would be Melancholia (trailer); Inception; and Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979—trailer). Arguably only Inception was science fiction, and it was a letdown; Stalker was brilliant but arguably not sci-fi; and Melancholia didn’t have science fiction concepts at its centre.

So I had pinned my hopes this year on Prometheus (trailer), the much-hyped sort-of-prequel to Alien. Ridley Scott was back as director; H.R. Giger was again responsible for set design; and the initial “viral” advertising campaigns—see for instance the TED talk from 2023—made it look potentially clever.

Alas. Despite being absolutely visually stunning, much of the rest of the film was either stupid (the whole story of the origin of life on earth), puzzling (unintentionally, as far as I could tell on first viewing), or cringe-inducing (the dialogue). Or all three simultaneously, but I’ll deal with these one at a time.

I expected there to be far more exploration of the (yes, tired) religion versus science “debate.” I’m a pretty staunch atheist, though given the right treatment this sort of thing can at least offer some interesting banter. But here it really wasn’t anything more than the topic of a few weak asides, never developed. I didn’t really believe that Dr. Shaw, supposedly a leading archaeologist of the late 21st century, could be a religious nut like some of those still hanging on in our own era. However, what wasn’t explained at all was how an alien race with identical DNA to humans could seed life on what was, from appearances, a lifeless earth using a sort of decomposed body and have all the other species evolve, or arise, or something: away from human form? You might explain our close genetic relatives in this way, but how (and when) would insects, never mind dinosaurs, have arisen? None of this makes any sense if you give it more than a second’s thought. Even Star Trek had a more coherent, though similar, origin story in the episode The Chase.

The puzzling bit for me was the motivations behind the founding race or civilization, and those apparently competing with it. Having created us, they seemed out to eradicate us—um, I think—until stopped by a hodgepodge of related but unrelated monsters and viruses and worms and such, all breeding and morphing into each other and working in concert—I think. I might go see the film again just to ensure I didn’t miss something here, but I’m pretty sure it was glossed over or left without satisfactory explanation; and I don’t think this was entirely intentional. Some sort of motivations should have been apparent in order to tell an interesting story.

And oh, the dialogue. Though Noomi Rapace (Dr. Shaw) and Michael Fassbender (David the artificial life form) were great in spots, all actors had some embarrassingly poorly written lines to read. I won’t bother quoting them here.

Worse, many of the characters simply aren’t believable. Sorry, but you’re just not going to spend a trillion dollars on a ship and staff it with a crew who seems to have been selected at random from the local pub. What I think is happening here is that the old stereotype of scientists as socially inept dweebs in white lab coats has been replaced with the “cool”—and stupid. And the decisions they make! After travelling so far and for so long, to jeopardize everything by immediately doing an EVA when it’s almost nightfall, removing helmets, and generally being reckless, is laughable. Then again, a more realistic bunch probably wouldn’t have triggered all the action.

The apparently illogical story and the bad dialogue may be explained by the presence of the writer Damon Lindelof. I found out a few days before I saw Prometheus that he was involved, and my expectations were immediately lowered; he was responsible for Lost, a ridiculous bit of television rubbish which I was compelled to watch for reasons I won’t get into here. That story was similarly unsure of itself, essentially a shaggy dog affair that had not a clue how to establish or maintain or wrap up any kind of internal consistency. Lindelof seems to be going for profundity via obscurity; whether he is incapable of constructing a coherent story universe, or is just lazy, is an open question.

One more thing: I didn’t care for the music. After hearing many great film scores in recent years, from Philip Glass to Trent Reznor to carefully selected classical pieces as in The Tree of Life, this dull orchestral score was a disappointment, and for me, out of place.

The film ends making obvious way for a sequel. It’s a shame that, given the mess we have here, the next part of the story will be so much more intriguing left as a mystery than put to celluloid by this hapless crew.

 

Roger Waters: The Wall Live, Vancouver BC, May 26 2012

I’m not really one for “classic rock.” The genre is still alive and, in 2012, producing music that at some point in the farther future may well considered “classic;” it seems a bit early to be proclaiming music that will stand the test of time. Thirty years is not a long span; we’re still within the lifetime of three of the four musicians who comprised Pink Floyd when The Wall was released in 1979. One of them, Roger Waters, brought a crack band (with no other members of Pink Floyd) and a frankly astonishing stage production to Vancouver a few days ago for a show at BC Place, at which the entire album, originally two LPs, was performed.

In great physical and musical shape at 68—he sings and plays bass—Waters managed to humanize the whole heavy album; he was clearly having a great time. It’s been ages since I heard this music; I was sixteen when it was released, so it brought back a lot of memories. In general Floyd hasn’t aged as well for me as some of the other bands of the era, but there’s some great music here. I was always surprised that critics didn’t seem to notice how the album stood out from the rest of the band’s work: it is not only more musically varied than their three preceding releases, never mind the less conventional work that preceded those, but also has some really tuneful compositions: not just the hit “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” (I prefer parts 1 and 3 myself), but “Mother,” “Hey You” (performed here behind a completed wall so the band was totally hidden), and “Comfortably Numb.” Not to mention a few good rock tunes, “In the Flesh,” “Young Lust” and “Run Like Hell.” And not all the rest is filler. Even “The Trial,” a sort of show tune, worked pretty well as Waters mimed and performed various voices.

The themes of the work have, by Waters’ own admission, been broadened from his own original alienation and dissatisfaction with superstardom, and there were a lot of effective and affecting themes of exploitation and commercialization depicted visually. The sets and visuals are breathtaking. It’s almost impossible to describe in words the scale or indeed the beauty of the sets and in particular the images and animations projected on the wall and on the screen behind it. For once, exorbitant ticket prices seemed justified: it must take an awful lot of people and effort and money to pull this off and cart it around the world.

The crowd seemed a bit less enthusiastic than I would have expected, especially given the quality of the show and performance. But one thing I found interesting was that in the age of the Internet the general population seems better informed than I believe they would have been twenty or thirty years ago: clearly everyone knows who Roger Waters is, while during Pink Floyd’s heyday it would only have been the hardcore fans—like me—who knew the members’ names. If this show returned (I missed it in 2010), I’d go see it again; and I can’t say that for many concerts. On the other hand, I’m not that much more likely to go back to this music regularly now. Even if I still had my vinyl copy from ’79 (sadly, lost in a divorce), I don’t have a record player. But I did call up a few of the tunes on YouTube in the days following the show. At any rate, thank you Roger and all involved for a great night.

Photos © 2012 Stella Regina