Monday, December 31, 2007

Sweet Mink

It still shocks me, digging through the feminine duds in an antique store, to come across a small gutted mammal with its head and feet still intact. I can't reconcile these gruesome puppets with the fashion accessories they once were, rakishly hanging around a rich lady's neck with dead paws a-dangling.

In the pre-guilt days of fur coats it seems that few people were concerned about the ethics -- not to mention the taste -- of such things. And once in a while (in the July 21, 1928 issue of The New Yorker) you run across a cute fantasy that portrays the animals as somehow ENJOYING the process of being trapped, killed, skinned, and carted out for tea:
THE MINK -- is only at home in the forest -- until immortalized in a Russeks Mink Coat. Then he forgets his wildwood wanderings, becomes sophisticated, and wouldn't recognize a muskrat if he met it in the same Rolls Royce.
This ad for Russeks Fifth Avenue makes me think of a lyric that's always equally delighted and baffled me, from the film "The Opposite Sex":
Why do mink--
(Yes, why DO mink?)
willingly let themselves get trapped?
The song goes on to say that mink allow themselves to get trapped "for the opposite sex," which could also explain why frogs (yes, why frogs?) willingly let themselves get run over on the highway. At least frogs are doing it the opposite sex of their own species.

You know what? Fur coats ARE absolutely beautiful and I swoon in their presence. But somehow I don't think I could bring myself to buy a new one, and even if I did I don't think I could ever wear it, which certainly defeats the purpose of having one. I DO have a totally utilitarian bear-skin muff, but I never use it because not even a bear can encompass all the crap I carry around with me.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Armchair Caving

I'd like to say "put me in a cave and I bravely explore the smallest crevasse," but the truth is more like "put me in a cave and I scream 'help, I'm stuck, there are bugs, get me out!'"

No matter my reluctance to actually squeeze through the dark, buggy confines of a real-life cave, I love to read about OTHER people going into them, which is why Roger Brucker's book "The Longest Cave" is such a treat.

It's the story of the Mammoth/Flint cave system, and in particular the attempts of the authors (and many others) to survey and connect them. I've always thought that the grueling nature of caving was just about "squeezing through that tight spot" or "ducking under that stalactite," but Roger Brucker brings the truth home. Have you ever spent five hours crawling on your belly through a dusty passage only slightly bigger than your horizontal body, trying to find the end of a mysterious, extended tunnel, occasionally sleeping, rarely given the opportunity to turn around?

No? Well you're not alone, because apparently nobody's ever gotten to the end of that passage (called "Left of the Trap"). And therein lies some of the beauty of "The Longest Cave." It describes in a matter-of-fact way the places that humans JUST CANNOT GO, because even the most acclimatized of us simply do not have enough stamina. And that's incredible.

Although Brucker's style tends to be of the "We walked through the passage, Clive kept on singing, we told him to be quiet" variety, he really does maintain the tension until the very end: the connection of the Flint and Mammoth systems to create the world's longest cave. He's not a great author but his passion and his first-hand experience more than make up for his stylistic stumblings.

As an aside I've discovered that it's almost impossible to actually see a MAP of these caves; the maps in Brucker's book are not very detailed, and there don't appear to be online sources for ANY Flint/Mammoth cave maps. I wonder why? I bet they're kept pseudo-secret to prevent people from wandering into them and getting lost.

Friday, December 28, 2007

I'd Buy Anything By...Thomas Dolby

When I was in grade school, Thomas Dolby was my idol, an oddball nerdy boffin who somehow managed to be cool. Since nobody thought I was cool when I played around with computers, I hoped that someday I could be "just like him."

That never came to be, and even though Dolby veered off his golden path after his very first album, I still pick up his infrequent releases and I still enjoy them...

...though not as much as I enjoy "The Golden Age of Wireless," his debut album with a perfect mix of traditional pop instruments and evil buzzing synths (ala Gary Numan). Some say it's aged poorly but I vehemently disagree; it's so fresh it stings the skin and sprays fruit juice everywhere.

But let's go back further than that, to his first single containing a rough song that almost sounded like a demo: "Leipzig." It's one of my favourite songs and Dolby does it justice in his recent "Sole Inhabitant" tour (yes, he's doing it all himself, totally live). Oh, the lyrics:

So yeah he got pretty cheesy in his later years. Somebody -- perhaps him -- decided to ditch the esoteria and the buzzy synths and start hanging around with Eddie Van Halen.

But why dwell on the cheese? Instead, here he is performing "Hyperactive" live, at a time when his music still had "bite." The musicianship and sheer funkiness of this version is amazing, and check out Adele Bertei's -- ahem -- moonwalk.

The must-have album? "The Golden Age of Wireless" is a new wave head-trip, usually dark but always catchy. The album to avoid? "Aliens Ate My Buick" (all the worst elements of late-80s pop rolled into one). For fans only? I suppose that would be the "Howard the Duck" soundtrack, which I haven't stumbled across...but when I do I'll buy it. S'truth.

Uptight Reviewer Faces the Future

I recently mentioned the joy of watching the "talking pictures" creep up on The New Yorker's stodgy film reviewer ("Bergman"). Just three weeks before the below article, the reviewer had been poo-poo'ing talkies.

Now (July 14, 1928), "The Lights of New York" has arrived and Bergman is eating crow (while simultaneously being a bit poo-poo-ey in the process):
At the Strand is "The Lights of New York," the first one-hundred-per-cent talker. Conversation, action, and plot are all very poor, but you will find it interesting as a museum piece. It would have been better silent, and much better unseen. The talking films have not even progressed to their infancy yet. Bad as it is, though, the film shows what I have been very reluctant to believe, that audibility will be a great help to the movies.
Reading these magazines sixty years after the fact is occasionally like watching a blind man stepping into traffic*, though other small articles are noting the shockwave that was about to hit Hollywood (studios rushing to implement sound, actors rushing to elocution lessons).

I'd like to point you in the direction of a good scholarly resource about this topic, but instead I'll direct you to "Singin' In the Rain." Seriously.

* What's the next runaway bus, speeding towards the 1920s blind pedestrian? I guess that would be "Black Tuesday" fifteen months from where I currently am in the magazine's history.

Dr. Seuss Inhales Flit

From the July 14, 1928 issue of The New Yorker:

We now know Dr. Seuss was inspired by the same drug the "Betty Boop" cartoonists were using: pure, uncut Flit, right up the nose.

(Kids, don't inhale Flit, seriously).

Strange, Bigoted Interjections

Maybe this shouldn't shock me -- I tend to move in a very educated, socially-capable, easy-going crowd -- but twice this past week I've encountered people who have emitted strange, bigoted interjections in social situations.

I'll be the first to admit that negative generalizations are easy to acquire; when I talk about "meatheads" and "hootchies," I'm laying a negative stereotype on people I hardly know, and I need to constantly remind myself not to jump to conclusions. But I like to think that the stereotypes I fall prey to are based on less superficial evidence than religion, skin colour, or gender.

I'm not going to get into an in-depth discussion about bigotry -- since the causes and effects differ depending on the person who says them, the setting they're in, and the target of their venom -- but it seems to me that people who make socially-obnoxious, bigoted comments are probably responding to some combination of three things:
  • Ignorance. They just haven't thought things through, or they're basing their assumptions on inadequate information.
  • Anger. They've got some sort of chip on their shoulder, and they focus their anger on some group of people in order to direct it away from themselves.
  • Social Inadequacy. They don't know how to attract positive attention so -- like schoolkids -- they "act out" and try to shock people. And they probably aren't aware of how they're perceived when they do this.
How do you confront somebody who does this sort of thing around you? That depends. If they're ignorant, you may be able to point out the flaws in their reasoning. But if they're angry or if they are socially handicapped, arguing with them is probably what they're HOPING you do...then they can get angry at YOU, or revel in your attention.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

David Gilmour, "Remember That Night"

David Gilmour's mammoth live DVD is called "Remember That Night," but the night I REALLY remember was when I saw him -- and the first post-Waters version of Pink Floyd -- play two shows in the old Jay Stadium. I was sixteen and it was my first big concert out on my own, escorted by my super-cool Aunt Julie, there to see a band that both of us were passionate about.

So now Gilmour's back again with a new live show and a new bunch of Floyd re-interpretations, including all the songs off his latest album. You might be wondering how it looks and sounds. Well...

He's got his favourite musicians with him, first off. Bassist Guy Pratt has been touring with him forever, and so has Jon Carin (who, thanks to touring with Roger Waters as well, probably knows the songs better than anybody). Old Floyd-mate Richard Wright is there being typically stoic and capable, and -- wonder of wonders! -- Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera is the second guitarist. Sweetie.

The weird thing is, watching this concert, you'd think the only people on stage were Richard Wright and Gilmour, plus maybe the drummer because he's slightly to Gilmour's left. The shots are single-minded and static, as though the cameramen are incapable of a pan. The few shots of the audience show a crowd who is very happy to sit down and relax, except for the few people who'd managed to sneak their alcohol in and who cut a very sad picture dancing by themselves, because they're football hooligans and they're paunchy.

The strangest thing is the almost complete disappearance of Jon Carin in the second act. If you've seen other Gilmour and Waters live shows, you know that Carin does EVERYTHING, jammed in behind his keyboards, singing and playing that guitar he manages to awkwardly fit in behind all the equipment. But I swear that you don't see him AT ALL during the second half, as though he had something crappy hanging out of his nose after the intermission. Poor Jon, does so much and nobody cares but me.

And Gilmour? Still sounds great in every way, and even manages to rock out a bit, though the entire set is more laid-back than chuggy-psychedelic, which is probably what happens when you include David Crosby and Graham Nash in the lineup.

Poor David Bowie is the latest sacrifice to the "Comfortably Numb" meat-grinder. They always need somebody to do the Roger Waters parts, which are short and thankless and which end in the middle of the song...before Gilmour's final, celebrated, show-stopping guitar solo. Since Gilmour has recently been casting CELEBRITIES in this role (David Bowie, natch), they insist on doing it their own way, which is always pretty awful.

But I'm spoiled, see. I saw that gorgeous duet with Rachel Fury back at Jay Stadium, and even though that particular concert has never been released on DVD, I still ritually pull out the videotape ("The Delicate Sound of Thunder") and watch it again and again. They managed to do that (overplayed, cheesy, but remarkable) song properly once-upon-a-time, why can't they do it again?

Waters' versions have sucked too, if it's any consolation.

The highlights? I'm not rabid about Gilmour's new album so I'll skip those songs. They do a pretty much complete version of "Echoes" (which leaves you wondering who's doing the squeaky parts), and Bowie's good on "Arnold Layne" (yay!)

But the real show-stopper is the song that Gilmour quixotically resurrected during his last tour, and here it is again: "Fat Old Sun," a forgotten piece of Atom Heart Mother fluff. When he comes in at the end with his distorted die, it's pure power.

Thanks Dave. You're weird but I love ya.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas Drag Show: "It's DeLovely!"

If you thought I was going to let Christmas go by without a treat, you're thinking CRAZY!

Here's the fictional story of me and a miraculous wooden bird, to the tune of Anita O'Day's "It's DeLovely." It's all true, I swear!

Production Notes:

It's silly to call these things "Mini Drag Shows," since they take far more work than a drag show ever does. I decided to conceive and film one in a single day, which meant rushing a lot and losing some footage. Fortunately the second unit stepped in (errr, that's me too) and we made our Christmas deadline with some make-up shots.

You'll be amazed to know that the bird is NOT animatronic, nor is it a green screen effect! Our special effects technician (moi, ici) rigged it up in the old-fashioned way. Try keeping a cat away from an effect like that. You can see an intrigued Zsa Zsa during the early part on the couch.

My version of iMovie is the most up-to-date one available for OS X.3, but it is still INCREDIBLY limited. You're allowed a single video track, so you can't lay down multiple takes and see how they compare. You can split a video clip once, but both segments must remain on the timeline if you want to keep using them, and the "dragging rules" become stranger the more clips you split apart. To cap it all off, once you have cropped a video clip, it is considered to be permanently edited; you can "restore it," but then ALL of your edits to the clip are gone.

Tedious, tedious, tedious. But free.

I'm happy with the way the quick cuts turned out but you can't imagine the work involved.

Now, About Anita

It's only now that I realize that Anita O'Day -- the only jazz singer I've ever really enjoyed -- died last year. I bought a copy of her autobiography two years ago and it arrived with a decidedly crooked signature; I suspect she was getting fragile even by that time.

So Anita, this one's for you. Thanks for your music.

Monday, December 24, 2007


You go to work because you want to finish a big project. Your part of the building has about thirty people in it, but today there are only five or six. Everybody is sober, expectant. Your workmate brings cookies. The atmosphere is motionless, static, calm. People chat, their moods are between office and home.

You put your headphones on and do your job. People leave, occasionally, you see them out of the corner of your eye. You eat cookies and listen to your music and you work, work, work. You are hardly aware that time is passing, lunch is over, it's late afternoon.

During a break you talk with your workmate. He's leaving soon to pick up groceries and go home. After he leaves you go back to work, you finish your project, you get up to stretch your legs and look around.

The building is empty. No more chatter, just the sound of the air-conditioning. You are standing in the middle of a place where people bustle and work and chat, and now their cubicles are empty. Their coats are gone.

You walk around, hoping somebody has stayed behind so you can say goodbye to them. The offices are dark, closed. The receptionist's computer has been turned off and her sweater is on her chair. Through the windows in the atrium you see the darkening sky, the trees bending over in the wind, night is falling, it feels like something bad is happening.

You hear the vending machines. The coffee pots are empty. It's cold outside. The world has gone home. Something icy has hit your heart.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Wow-Wind

The 50-kph gusts we've been getting this afternoon are seriously shaking this rickety old building, and the attic squirrels are in a tizzy of jumping and skittering. If we reach the predicted 80-kph gusts this, I can't even imagine that wind-speed.

The really amazing thing, however, is that fate usually has me outdoors in this sort of weather, wearing a fancy feather head-dress. I'm counting my blessings, wrapping in a blanket, and doing some serious cat-cuddling tonight.

Saving the Compact Disc, One Dollar at a Time

One of my fears is that I'll wake up tomorrow morning, go out to buy a CD, and find a great big hole where the CD shop used to be. More likely the shop will have been converted into a condominium. The people who used to work at the store will yell, "why didn't you help save our business, and save the compact disc format in general?" And I'll cry, and I will be unable to buy that CD I wanted.

So today I went out to buy CDs, just to help worthwhile people keep their jobs, and to support the artists I love, and perhaps also because I enjoy buying CDs.

Here's what I picked up, a mixture of new and used:
  • The Sisters of Mercy, "Floodland." A big part of my wanna-be goth highschool days, this album made me feel so credible...and it's also really good! But its sweeping grandiosity was marred by sludgy CD mastering. This is a "remastered" version, so hopefully it sounds better, and it also contains "Emma" (a much-loved B-side) and an essay about what a jerk Andrew Eldritch is (as if we needed to be told).
  • Erasure, "Erasure." So good they named it twice! Actually I don't know if it's good at all, but it was cheap, and I've never picked up a cheap Erasure CD that I didn't like.
  • The Fall, "Middle Class Revolt." I make it a habit to always buy a Fall CD when I go shopping. I buy them randomly, choosing the first one I see that I don't already own (and avoiding the live albums). I have never regretted doing this, and these 2-CD Castle Music reissues are GORGEOUS. Plus they include essays about what a jerk Mark E. Smith is.
  • Skinny Puppy, "Mythmaker." Probably rotten but I feel the need to give it a chance. I bet Ogre's going to "sing." I bet I'll cringe.
  • Ween, "La Cucaracha." A new Ween album is a cause for celebration. Look past the unshakable college stoner fanbase and you have two brilliant guys, writing music that simultaneously pays tribute to and improves upon every musical style you can think of. Not even Parliament funks like Ween, I'm afraid to say.
  • Adam and the Ants, "Dirk Wears White Sox." I'm not a HUGE fan, but I've heard good things about this album...and it was cheap.
  • The Cardigans, "Long Gone Before Daylight." I didn't buy it when it came out because I thought I'd be disappointed, after the evil lurking moroseness of "Gran Turismo." Now I realize that I like The Cardigans in all their incarnations, so there you go. I bought it.
  • Frank Zappa/The Mothers of Invention, "Freak Out!" Again, I'm not a big fan but I have an immense respect, and supposedly this one is a gem. And it was cheap.

The Barthathon "Where Three Roads Meet"

Okay, the Barthathon is finished. I'll wrap it up at the end of this post, but I've already said pretty much everything that I have to say about John Barth and his writing.

I'm glad that I won't need to read anymore of his books, and perhaps you're glad that you won't need to read my reviews of them.

I'll admit up-front that I couldn't wait to FINISH "Where Three Roads Meet" (2005) before I'd even STARTED it. What began as a joy back in July -- reading all of Barths books in chronological order -- had become a painful chore, and one that I wasn't getting anything out of except lessons in what NOT to do when writing fiction, and also shooting pains in my esophagus.

So I am totally unable to view "Where Three Roads Meet" in any sort of objective fashion, other than to snarkily tell you about the game I invented.

I call this game "What Sort of Crap Will John Barth Throw At Me This Time?" To play it, write a list of all the stereotypically overdone Barthian themes you can think of (excluding ones explicitly stated on the jacket write-up, like the "Ur-Myth" in this case), and then jot down when each theme appears. When you have discovered all but ten themes, rip the book in half.

Feel free to play this game yourself. Here's my tally, with the page numbers they first appear on:
  • The Chesapeake: 3
  • A muse is invoked: 3
  • The fiction is ABOUT fiction: 3
  • Narrator is also the protagonist: 3 (the book starts on page 3, after all).
  • Telling stories: 3
  • Impossibly long infodump: 4-25 (merely the FIRST part of the FIRST infodump; of the three novellas in the book, the first and third are ENTIRELY infodumps. Barth, YOU SUCK).
  • Protagonist is a teacher: 4
  • A character's parents are both well-off professional types (teachers, lawyers): 5
  • A character's infodump includes a detailed history of their education: 5
  • Scheherazade: 7
  • Narrator says "et cetera": 9
  • Descriptions of the alcohol that everybody is drinking: 13
  • Narrator says "anon": 15
  • A parent goes crazy, ends up in an institution, dies: 15
  • Somebody says "faut de mieux": 15
  • Inappropriate use of prefix "afore-": 19.
  • Twins: 22
  • A character peppers their speech with Yiddishisms, and then clarifies that they aren't actually Jewish but, you know, they like the words: 23
  • Somebody makes an obvious pun, and then the narrator explicitly points the pun out to the reader ("so to speak," "sorry for that," etc): 31
  • A character is, fortunately, old enough to avoid WWI but too young for WWII: 32
  • Inappropriate use of suffix "-eth": 35
  • A character wonders "who ARE we?": 44
  • Sodomy: 45 (not as pronounced as in most of his books, but it's still there, of course).
  • Abortion: 47
  • A list of "current events" appear in order to supposedly flesh out an infodump's time period: 49
  • Narrator mixes metaphors and then says "pardon the mixed metaphor": 51
  • Menstruation: 52
  • Character has multiple names: 64
  • Narrator describes self as "Yours Truly": 64
  • Somebody says "tant pis": 67
  • Another painful explanation of "ground situation" and "dramatic vehicle": 70 (of all Barth's themes, this one is the most inexcusably repeated during his "late period")
  • "The story of our lives is not our lives": 80
  • Musings about the world perhaps ending soon, usually following one of those "current events" lists: 81
  • The inability to inject the necessary conflict into a story turns out to actually BE a necessary conflict: 99
  • Young woman, older man: 107 (though not REALLY; the young/old connection is not so pronounced here)
  • The "Barth Female," that is, a woman who is achingly beautiful, highly sexed, and so intelligent and well-read that she even says "tant pis" occasionally: 113 (All three characters in the final story are bonafide "Barth Females").
  • A woman has an experimental lesbian affair: 155
I admit that thirteen of those themes are ones that I hadn't thought about beforehand, and only noticed when I came across them. I include them in exchange for all the other themes I DIDN'T include, basically because my writing hand was getting tired.

Did I rip the book in half? No, because it didn't contain sailing, a trip to Spain, a youthful tragic sexual experience, a declaration that "we're fortunate to be this age, in these circumstances, in this country", any of Barth's Chesapeake scenery (loblolly pines, Canadian geese, spartina), a water message, a detailed list of a character's prior residences, cute pillow-talk, meditations on The End of Literature, an increasingly impotent older male, a character who is obviously Shelly, Zeno's paradox, the "coastline measurement" stuff, or a time paradox involving writing.

Which means that, wow, this book is BREAKING NEW GROUND!

So, should you read John Barth? Yes, you certainly should. Ping-pong back and forth between his works, making sure not to read any that were published consecutively (with the exception of "Sabbatical" and "Tidewater Tales," which should be read "as a whole).

Also, perhaps, find it in your heart to love the old guy a bit. Someday I'll be able to do that...but not now.

On with the (different) story!

The Cab Driver Who Will Not Take Shite

Whenever I deal with cab drivers, I am always tempted to ask them: "How do you deal with so many crappy people?" They always respond in a good-natured way: "Awww, people are generally good, really."

Since this response is so far removed from what *I* see every weekend, I'm always baffled by such diplomacy.

So tonight it was refreshing to get picked up by a cab driver who spat venom about the bad people in the world, then made a U-turn and buzzed the middle-road guys and yelled "NO WONDER YOU NEVER GET A CAB!" Seriously, there really ARE men -- generally men -- who stand in the middle of the road and throw themselves in front of taxi cabs, and I see these guys and I wonder how the world can possibly accommodate such people.

Tonight's cab driver skimmed those guys and screamed at them, then drove around the block and came back to scream again...and it was wonderful! It was a festival of revenge! It was one cab driver's taunting, vicious time to shine, with me in the passenger seat simultaneously supporting him (and brandishing "the finger") and thinking "wow, we're going to be killed."

So it was sort of refreshing to meet the non-diplomatic cabbie who has simply had enough; the cabbie going postal. But somehow I'm happy to have survived and gotten home as well, you know.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Christmas Thought

My feelings about Christmas are complex, confused, and mostly personal, but I can't help wondering: does anybody actually LIKE the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas?"

In terms of awful holiday songs, it is second only to Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime."

Death of the CD

I'm starting to see the signs and I'm dusting off my widow's weeds: the compact disc is in its last throes.

I'm not exactly a luddite but this still makes me sad, and it surprises me a bit. I love my CDs and I don't see anything wrong with them...though I admit that my iPod and I spend most of our time together, with the caveat that the music ON the iPod is pretty much FROM my CDs.

Will CDs go the way of vinyl, that is, disappearing for a few years and then coming back as a sort of "nostalgia," available at high prices on ebay? At first I thought so, but part of the vinyl-mania was because certain things had yet to appear on CD. CDs can simply be ripped and file-shared, so chances are there will be little pain just because you can't find a song on iTunes.

I admit I'm not a huge fan of massive file-sharing. I can't see how it doesn't impact the artists (though I'm not sad to see the big labels get shafted). I'll hold out as long as I can, and I'll continue to cherish my collection as the rest of the world moves on to "something else," and eventually I'll embrace that "something else" when I no longer have a choice.

I'd Buy Anything By...The Divine Comedy

It sounds mundane to say it, but sometimes extremely talented artists become constrained by the very things that make them famous. When they try to change direction, the fans and the critics howl. Enter "The Divine Comedy."

Frontman Neil Hannon was embraced for his theatrical, intelligent, somewhat prissy, turn of the century British wit; his songs were serious but had an underlying humour, a postmodern Victorian reflection that -- for many fans -- probably became "the point." But when he writes a song that ISN'T slyly humourous, it loses sales.

I'm saying this as a Divine Comedy outsider, however; I don't know any fans and I've never really followed the gossip. I was introduced to the group by a roommate (Angela) who only knew one song: the totally un-Divine-Comedy-like Noël Coward construction, "I've Been to a Marvelous Party." (This is not the official video, but it's a very capable film project that captures the spirit nicely)

How surprising to discover that The Divine Comedy does NOT dabble in electronica. Instead they were firmly within the Britpop scene, with overriding elements of Michael Nyman (thanks partly to multi-instrumentalist collaborator Joby Talbot).

Then one day the band reformed (ejecting Talbot), and Hannon released the gorgeous "Regeneration" album: dark, minimalist, slow, reflective, almost "Talk Talk"-ish, and also totally un-funny. But the fans didn't like it, and the latest album ("Victory for the Comic Muse") is pretty much back in the old style.

Here's to "Regeneration," and a song that always makes me cry for some reason: "Lost Property." It loses something in the live translation...but not too much.

Their albums aren't easy to stumble across here in Canada, but if you're out to buy one I highly recommend "Fin de Siècle" (over-the-top, cinematic, Nyman-esque). Albums to avoid? I don't much like the baroque style of "Liberation." For fans only? I have no idea, being a person who collects the material as I can rather than somebody who rabidly seeks it out.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Barthathon: "The Book of Ten Nights and a Night"

I've said it before, I'm saying it again: Barth fans, DO NOT READ ALL OF HIS BOOKS IN SEQUENCE.

You might say that this should apply to ALL authors, not just John Barth. If I had been doing a "Pynchon-athon" or a "Coover-athon" or a "Janowitz-athon," would I not be in the same state by this time, cursing the author's stylistic and creative shortcomings?

Maybe, but probably not to this extreme. Barth's wincingly-bad flaws involve a combination of three things: an obsession with themes that he has already explored ad nauseum, an expository writing style in which the narrator is constantly explaining events (always in exactly the same way), and an extremely narrow range of characterization.

This becomes most painful in "The Book of Ten Nights and a Night" (2004), because its eleven collected stories are rapid-fire, compressed examples of Barthy-badness which -- due to their quick repetition -- drown out the good stuff that is supposedly the point.

The first two stories are the oldest tales and so, unsurprisingly, are the also the best...they pre-date his locked-in style. "Help!" is a funny, moving, wildly experimental representation of a musical composition, and "Landscape: The Eastern Shore" is a refreshing taste of Barth's modernist writing: a good story told well.

But as you read the subsequent stories you -- winding up an exhausting Barthathon -- begin to realize that Barth has done exactly the same "things" in every piece he's written since the '70s, and as you continue to read you start to make a game of predicting what will happen next, AND YOU ARE ALWAYS RIGHT.

Each story will:
  1. Start with a tantalizing glimpse of what the narrator is obsessed with.
  2. Introduce the narrator's significant other.
  3. Go into a tiresome, extended "infodump" that describes the entire chronological history of the narrator and his wife, with particular emphasis on the schools they've taught in and their deteriorating ties with their offspring.
  4. Narrator talks exactly like John Barth, even though his name is not actually John Barth ("tant pis," "faut de mieux," prefixing words with "afore-" and ending them with "-eth").
  5. Occasional lists of world-wide political events, with a focus either on "things are getting worse" or "gosh we're fortunate to live in this time/place."
  6. Mention of threadbare Barth themes (coastline measurement, Zeno's paradox, fiction/time paradox, writer's craft).
  7. (Hidden somewhere in this portion of the story is "the good stuff" that the story is actually about).
  8. Narrator's significant other chuckles good-naturedly about Narrator's silly obsession, even though that obsession ultimately reveals some Important Human Truth.
As fun as it is to constantly "win" while playing this game, it's actually beginning to make me ANGRY. I cannot BELIEVE that a professional can WRITE like this...ESPECIALLY not a person who spent most of his life TEACHING CREATIVE WRITING.

What is PARTICULARLY amusing (and heartburn-inducing) is that the stories are punctuated by conversations between the storyteller and the obligatory "Super Coolinest Barth Female," in which she keeps imposing conditions to PREVENT him from becoming repetitious -- no more stories about infidelity, no more stories about authors -- and yet she never once addresses the REAL reptition: no more expository stories, structured identically, starring identical characters who differ only in name.

This means that Barth retains a healthy criticism about SOME of his writing, but somehow the REALLY bad stuff escapes his notice (or he doesn't care to address it).

The final REALLY REALLY amusing (and headache-inducing) moment is the last story, which is ONE LONG INFODUMP about the aforementioned Super Coolinest Barth Female. I knew what was coming from the very beginning: she's the child of upper-class professionals? Yup. Strange obsession with Jewish culture? Yup. Traumatically sodomized as a teenager? Of course! Intelligent, literate, thin, beautiful, high sex-drive, attracted to her professor, terminally damaged but still functional and therefore worthy of immense respect? You got it! All that's missing is a lesbian affair, a sailboat, and the revelation that she's a metaphorical Scheherazade.

(She can't be Scheherazade, you see, because in this case that part is being played by John Barth himself, and not even HE can work TWO Scheherazades into a plot...yet).

Do I sound snarky? YOU sit down and read his books, all in a row, and tell me what YOU discover. What *I* have discovered is a writer with terrific ideas who, just before the middle of his career, became increasingly obsessed with themes that he has since milked dry, and who long ago stopped giving a damn about his writing style and his characters.

I've also discovered that fiction can make me emotional, for all the wrong reasons.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mini-Drag Show: "I'd Love To"

Here's the next "mini-drag show," recorded over several weeks in varying degrees of inebriation. It suffers uncountable continuity errors...but I tell myself that's part of its "charm!"

The song is Lee Aaron's "I'd Love To," off of her FABULOUS jazz-inspired album "Slick Chick." The guest artiste is Zsa Zsa, not to be kept away from feathers or cat food under any circumstances.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Very Bernardy Christmas

To balance the whiny post below, here's wishing everybody a Merry Christmas! I also hope you have a cat to keep you warm (and covered with loose hair).

A Very Bernardy Christmas

Love, Zsa Zsa & Muffy.

My Little Black Cloud of Mishaps

Sometimes it seems like the world is out to get me. You know this is leading to a story about intense frustration, so let's get right to the point.

Sunday, December 16th: a tremendous snowstorm -- the second in three weeks -- wallops my little town.

It's the night of Club Abstract's Christmas party. Since the party is mainly for staff members, they insist you arrive before 10pm so all hands can lock the doors and retreat into debauchery. With this in mind I call a cab at 8:45 and wait.

And wait. And wait. Once again a cab driver has been unable to find me, and instead of calling to check my address he's simply driven away, leaving me without transportation. At 9:30 I am frantically talking to the cab company: they can send somebody else, but not anytime soon; they're booked solid with Christmas parties and the roads are terrible. The fact that THEY screwed up doesn't seem to change the situation.

I make a snap decision. I put on my sturdiest boots and begin to walk, over twelve inches of mostly-uncleared snow, through 60kph winds. Here's a brief excerpt so you can share the joy with me. I make an appearance at the end that turned out surprisingly well. I figured that if I died like a stranded Jack London character, they could use my camera to learn about my last desperate moments.

A survivor, I arrive at Club Abstract...and discover that I'm dressed like a bar skank at a formal event. Alright, maybe I should have asked about the night's "tone."

I feel terribly out of place, I brood about the inevitable walk home, I get increasingly nervous and repetative. People are looking at me strangely. Eventually I discover that my blood sugar is catastrophically low; the walk through the snowstorm has done me in.

A sweet bartender serves me Shirley Temples, I eat a bag of Skittles, I acknowledge that things couldn't possibly get worse.

THEN THE SOLE OF MY RIGHT BOOT FALLS OFF. I cannot walk back home, in a snowstorm, post-insulin shock, with only one boot. I want to kill myself.

Fortunately a quick-thinking staff member gives me an early Christmas gift: duct tape.

Broken Christmas Boot

Desperate for home, my little black cloud parts long enough for me to grab an impossible cab. I count my considerable blessings.

The next morning I walk to work; a half-hour ordeal through a city paralyzed by the storm. I stop at Tim Horton's for food and realize I've left my wallet at home. I only have petty change with which to buy lunch. I am going to cry.

I sit down to eat my paltry food, I reach into my bag to give myself insulin...and realize I've forgotten my insulin as well. I've come all the way to work and I can't buy or eat anything.

My heart has gone cold and squishy. I gently put my head on the table. I cover my head with my hands and press, scratching my scalp, moaning slightly. I have had a terrible, terrible weekend. I am actually looking forward to going to work; I can't get hit by a car while sitting at my desk, probably. I do not feel safe in the world.

I wait patiently for a cab to take me home so I can grab my wallet, my insulin, and return to work. This costs me twenty dollars. Smiling over its shoulder, my little black cloud of mishaps laughs and wanders off to torture another soul, hopefully not you.

Anthropologist Seuss

Before devoting himself to sheer fancy, Dr. Seuss was a minor sort of anthropologist. Here's what he uncovers in the June 30, 1928 New Yorker.

The above photograph was found in recent excavations under the city of Rome. Noted archaeologists say it is from the Sunday Roto Section of Rome Graphic, and appeared in B. C. 1073. The picture depicts that sly satyr Flit undoing the work of the unpleasant goddess Insecta.
Why a "photograph" instead of a pot shard or something? I honestly don't know; it wasn't like newspaper photographs were anything new in 1928, though they may have been part of a controversy around this time. Just a few issues previous, Morris Markey had done an expose of unsavoury newspaper photographers (which meant all of them, according to Markey), and especially their photo-manipulation techniques: it was common at the turn of the century, apparently, for photographers to use photo tricks to raise the hems of ladies' skirts and -- gasp! -- draw in fake ankles!

Still, the advert's pointed mention of a newspaper photograph is a mystery akin to "why does Insecta wear a housecoat?"

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Barthathon: "Coming Soon!!!"

In "LETTERS," John Barth gave us -- among other things -- a struggle between his own media (literature) and the media he felt threatened most by at the time (film). The Ambrose Mensch Barth-surrogate character was constantly struggling with avant-garde film director Reg Prinz, who had utter contempt for words and wanted only to deal with images. Who won the struggle in the end? That's impossible to say, what with all the explosions and the mass-impregnating bug monster.

In "Coming Soon!!!" (2001), Barth seems worried about a newly threatening trend: hypertext fiction. The "Novelist Emeritus" Barth-surrogate character is constantly struggling with e-fiction author Hop Johnson (the "Novelist Aspirant"), who has utter contempt for the linearity of "p-fiction." Hop and Barth compete to see who can be first to finish their respective versions of "Coming Soon!!!", writing both in their own styles and also parodying each other's styles. Soon the novels are cross-pollinating, plot twists are introduced and then defeated, the battle between Aspirant and Emeritus is joined.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? So why does the book SUCK?

I tried to read "Coming Soon!!!" back in 2004 (I know the date because a receipt for "Quiznos Subs" was tucked inside for a bookmark) and I put it down shortly into the second part: I thought it was stupid and annoying. Now, with a greater grasp of Barth's concepts and a greater knowledge of literary criticism in general, I can's STILL stupid and annoying, though partly for different reasons.

You see, I already know most of Barth's tricks by now. I know about his wordplay and his tropical storms and his author-writing-about-the-future-as-the-future-catches-up-with-him stuff. I know this because he's performed these same tricks in every book since 1972 ("Chimera"). His old tricks are boring -- and insufferable due to their dull repetition -- and very little is new in "Coming Soon!!!"

The real problem is that the new stuff that IS in "Coming Soon!!!" -- the fake hyperlinks and buttons, the "put on a show" theme, the duelling narrators -- is almost totally uninspired, cliched, and pat. These energetic, wacky, youthful, horny thespian characters all sound exactly like John Barth does, except perhaps on speed and sucking helium and a tad hornier. They all talk in that impossible, goofy, dippy, Barth-being-sexy-cute manner, maintaining all of his "et ceteras" and "them-wards" and "tant pis's," and calling womens' breasts "bubs."

To make this totally painful, the character with the most obnoxious speech pattern -- Hop Johnson -- is the co-narrator. And since all of Barth's books are 99% exposition, we're left to wade through paragraph after paragraph of totally unappetizing crap like this:
And so the search went on for a dramatic chef d' ouevre to follow the Follies: a search that Narrator right readily joined out of his growing general commitment to TOFO II and, more particularly, his ongoing lustful fascinadmiration withof Ms. SMcAS. (What made the woman who Made It Hop tick? How could so multitalented and physically striking an all-'round wowser futz her life away in D'town-on-Ch'tank, aboard funky floundering T II, and in occasional bed with no better than the likes of Yrs T -- and, maybe, Cap'n Elva K?)
The subject of these paragraphs is Ms. Sherry McAndy Singer, she of "those eyes those eyes," the Barth-typical slim, gorgeous, intelligent, talented, take-it-up-the-butt, terminally menstruating, "scarred-by-abusive childhood" female lead who -- you guessed it -- BECOMES SCHEHERAZADE!!! Because we all know that Scheherazade is the most sexiest, admirable, and resonant literary character ever-ever-ever, so resonant in fact that Hop -- who has no interest in traditional literature -- wants to name his daughter after Scheherazade's resilient, equally-resonant, sooper-coolinest and no-doubt-sexy younger sister.

You know how much I hate all this.

So you've got two narrators doing their level-best to out-annoy the reader. You've got the usual handful of Barth character traits (the earthy lesbians, the Jewish characters who pepper their speech with stuff like "they're all meshuggenehs!"). You've got at least thirty pages devoted to blow-by-blow descriptions of the minutiae of sailing, which we've already read a hundred times before. You've got many, many more pages devoted to blow-by-blow descriptions of the scriptwriting and show-planning activities of a bunch of annoying horndogs on a boat...who we only know are talented because the narrator says "wow, they're talented!" You've got Barth and his sexy, coolinest, sadly-not-Scheherazade wife...sailing around...again. You've even got Barth stretching his offensively tin dialect ear beyond mere Jewishisms and into cockney, Italian slang, watered-down ebonics, and tidewater y'all-ing.

"Coming Soon!!!" is an obnoxious, go-nowhere mishmash of nothing. It's boring. It's self-indulgent. It's the same-old. I am losing faith.

Is there anything GOOD about the book? Only the mildly interesting battle between the Aspirant and Emeritus, which sputters in and out of the plot before fizzling entirely near the end. It's interesting to note that Reg Prinz and Ambrose Mensch never resolved their film/lit conflict, but Barth's p-fiction beats Hop's e-fiction hands down.

Open Drag Night in December

Ahhh, another wonderful open drag night at Club Renaissance. Fellow queens Drew, Ivana, Noir, and Katrina are so fun to be around, and I even got to see Ivana's method of changing her shoe colour (black magic coming soon).

With a brand new dress and an equally new "flamingo pony" dance routine, I was jonesing to perform one of my most favourite songs for the first time: "Love and Truth" by Mother Mother. Beth was sweet enough to hold my alien camera, and this is how it all turned out.

Club Ren's new stage is a real beaut, though I find myself confounded by its three-sided seating. Stages confuse me at the best of times but it's worse if I don't know who I should be looking at. I feel like those nervous TV show guests who are always turned toward the wrong camera.

In any case I may be joining the "All That Glitters" night as a once-a-month "featured entertainer," which I'm happy to do as long as I don't feel too obligated or trapped. Drag shows are fun (and often gratifying), but they are ALSO a lot of (mostly-free) work. I'd hate for a hobby to become a chore.

Here's to another fun night in a long line of fun nights, and here's to telling the world about the joy that is Mother Mother!

Golf Sweaters, Plus New Yorker Racism

Hmmm. There are a few things to be said about this June 30, 1928 advertisement from The New Yorker.
First, there was simply no escaping this black caricature in the '20s press. The cartoons always showed these big-eyed, slope-headed, huge-lipped creatures, usually scuttling in the background and carrying somebody's bags. Even when the cartoon's joke did NOT involve the servile black character (and it rarely did), he was invariably drawn in this way.

At first I was shocked, but after three years of New Yorker cartoons I'm gradually realizing that the cartoonists of the time -- whatever their own beliefs -- were largely drawing in an accepted style, the same way that all chorus girls were distinct in their comparative bustiness, all businessmen were fat, and all Jewish characters had big curly beards and glasses.

So in this illustration featuring the dignified golfer and the servile caddy, the black character has the additional indignity of wearing the offensive golf shirt. Peck & Peck tell us that the days of "bold, bad checks and Chuck Connor stripes" are gone, and that "good taste" is now the order of the day. That was 1928, mind you.

The question (other than "who was Chuck Connor?") is...why do people continue to wear ugly golf sweaters, eighty years later. Are some just taking an awful long time to transition? Much like the "ugly car salesman suit," the "ugly golf sweater" is a long-standing joke with more than a kernel of truth.

Is this because the stereotypical dedicated golfer -- like the stereotypical car salesman -- is clueless and reactionary, meaning that they're forever out of style? I wonder how this fashion trend started, what defines it, and why it continues today. Since I have never actually golfed I'm afraid the answer eludes me.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Nope, I haven't updated much lately. Sometimes I feel demon-driven to post entries, and other times -- like now -- I don't.

It doesn't help that everything I'm doing at the moment would sound dull, lifeless, and repetitive if put into a blog entry. Do you (the reader) care about my almost being finished John Barth's novel "Coming Soon!!!"? Probably not, but don't worry, you'll see a post about it soon.

Do you care that Rudolph (the squirrel) thumps himself down on my balcony every morning, but that he doesn't actually eat the peanuts I give them...he just stuffs them in his mouth and go hides them somewhere? No skin off your nose, I'm sure!

How about my latest project: to paw meticulously through the 100-odd master tapes & CDs, mix-down tapes, and 4-track sample collections with the aim of cataloging and digitizing them all? Do you care about the forgotten odds-and-ends I'm finding? Hardly!

So please don't fear that this blog is "languishing." It's just going through one of its periodic quiet periods. I DO have things I'd like to write about, but they either take more preparation than I have energy for or they're too much like other things I've just written about.

I'm sure we can all sleep easier now.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Creeping Talkie

One of the interesting things about reading old New Yorker magazines is observing the slow approach of the talking film.

Film reviews from 1926 didn't mention sound-films at all, complaining mainly about the people who loudly repeat captions while in the theater (proving that some things never change). In 1927 the critic was thrilled with "The Jazz Singer," which relied on the Vitaphone for sound (which would soon be obsolete) but he was not happy with other films that used the same method: too loud and -- due to the problems with syncing sound to video -- usually used in unimportant scenes.

Now, in the June 23, 1928 issue, he admits that talkies just might not be a fad:
Movies are going more and more talkie and people who make statements about the infant industry say that in five years there will be no silent films at all. I recommend that gentlemen concerned with pictures take it easy. For about half its length "The Lion and The Mouse" indulges itself in dialogue and while it does, action is at a stand-still, as two characters stand woodenly by the camera and say things, or talk in close-up. Maybe the two mediums of the stage and screen can be combined, but there has been very little to point the way... We are now getting all the faults of the speaking film. Perhaps one of these days we will begin to see some advantages.
With the benefit of hindsight we know that the film critic doesn't have long to wait. A smash hit talkie will be along in July ("Lights of New York"). By 1929 the talking films will have become the norm, leaving critics to argue instead about colour, or Panavision, or HD.

It's nice to see a snarky critic get it wrong, now and then.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

"On With the Story Again!" or, An Imaginary Sailing Trip with John Barth

(For Shelly)

"Ahoy there, Novelist Emeritus!"

"Yrs Truly! Welcome aboard, Muffy S.B.! Only soft-shoes on deck, please, and no cigarettes."

"I don't smoke."

"When famous South American novelist and great personal inspiration Jorge Luis Borges met me at a dinner seven-several years past..."

"No frame-tales, you promised!"

"I'm sorry, Muffy...all of us have a Scheherazade's worth of life stories, and storied lives, and lives of our living life stories. It gets so a man repeats himself after his allotted three-score years and ten."

"Shall we sail?"

"Into the mighty Choptank to the tune of Handel's 'Water Music,' prefiguring the unique salinity of these shrinking estuaries. Did you know, M.S-B., that the salt content in these murky waters is identical in composition to uterine fluid, and also to--"

"--human tears?"

"You've read my books!"

"Tant pis!"

"Ah, my books, those offspring of mine launched like self-aware sperm towards the confluence of--"

"Shut up! Weigh the anchor!"

"Mizzens, engines, swing, top-sails, cutters, masts, et cet!"


"It's beautiful out here. No wonder you write about it so much, Mr. J.B., Novelist E., et cet."

"The challenge for this J.B. N.E. E.C. with his bruised and battered binder is to find new ways of setting the above-water scene, so to speak. There's some spartina, for instance, next to the Canadian geese, behind that stand of loblolly pine."

"To the right or the left of the osprey's nest?"


"Why what?"

"We're at the Wye, the parting of the streams...or the joining, depending on how you look at it! We're at the place where it all comes together and decisions are made!"

"I thought we were at the Axis Mundi..."

"I don't write about that stuff anymore! No, this is the meeting of masculine and feminine, the spot where my second wife and I traditionally come to a likewise meeting of minds, the woman and is-a-man make late-life love and love-late lust despite the knowledge--"

"--foreshadowed by Tropical Storm X, and by the narrator's foreshadowing of the foreshadow..."

"--that the woman of us is on the edge of becoming first-hand offended and then-hand 'teary-eyed.'"

"Blam! Blooey! Since we're at the Wye, I suppose we have to decide whether to go right or left?"

"Not necessarily, M.S.B.! We could go back--"

"--in order to go foreward--"

"--or we could take the FOURTH route, that surprising-the-first-time-I-thought-of-it-but-now-sort-of-predictable direction, that is, to stay motionless here, to freeze-frame, here halfwise struck and arrow cocked forever-ever-after-ward..."

"To take a pee-break?"

"Don't forget to pump the head! In the meantime I'll open up a Beck's Genuine Dark and splash the first gulp over the side for Poseidon, adding my contribution and yours to the unique salinity of these Choptank waters, so close to that of uterine fluid. And tears!"

"You shouldn't drink if you're not at anchor, and if you don't have sufficient swing in the face of the projected blam of TSX, and the projected (expected) 'teary-eyed' blooey."

"I'm not drinking, I just wanted to mention my Beck's Genuine Dark. Hey look, it's a floating water-message, plus my boina!"

"It must have come from that marshy triangle of overgrown wilderness we just passed, behind that wall of recycled rip-rap."

"We'll go back and rap about the ripping of that rap, oh M-S-B."

"No way, I know what happens in those marshy triangles! No soixante-neuf for me!"

"Tant pis, et cet, though it would be dramaturgically correct, my forty-odd years older, you in your prime, muse retired and the woman-of-us at home. Let's pay off our narrative debts and fire the pistols we hung up in Act Zero, and isn't that wacky, an 'Act Zero.'"

"You sexy, increasingly soft somebody-or-something former professional prof."


"Here? In the end?"

"Mmm, she said..."


"'The End'..."...



I'd Buy Anything By...Devo

Excuse me if I've already told this anecdote.

When I was eight or nine years old I used to torment the Dairy Queen ladies every lunchtime by playing two songs on their jukebox: "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" by the Charlie Daniels Band and..."Whip It" by Devo. I loved the song. It touched a burgeoning New Wave chord in my little kid's body (likewise absorbed with the post-prog music of Alan Parson's Project, Supertramp, and Styx), though my OTHER juke box selection indicates that I had hardly chosen a niche.

Fast-forward past years of "Whip It" at various retro nights (and the occasional acknowledgment of "Jocko Homo" as a neat song), then finally to a gift given to me circa 1997 by fellow BollyBobber Mike: a VHS copy of Michael Nesmith's dismal "Elephant Parts" show (that I'd been waxing nostalgic about)...with Devo's "The Men Who Make the Music" taped onto the end, just because Mike thought I might like it.

I'd always considered Devo to be a one-hit-wonder novelty band, a group of slackers who probably didn't take their careers seriously and -- likewise -- didn't deserve serious treatment. But I was amazed not only by the great songs I hadn't really noticed before, but also by the surprisingly jangly, intense, rock-out quality of their live show.

So I started to buy the albums, but most importantly I began to absorb the "Devo story." Far from a bunch of carefree goofballs out to make a buck, they were actually a deeply serious bunch...especially Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, the shockingly misanthropic (and some would say misogynist) singer/songwriters/philosophers. They did become homogenized into their manufactured image eventually, but their uncompromising nature got them into trouble time and time again...the final line of "Beautiful World," for instance, or the recurring character of "Rod Rooter," or the "you can have the french fry, the donut, or the girl, but you can't have all three" conflict in the video for "Good Thing." They generally managed to ease their nasty ideas past the record company executives so it's fun now to go back and ponder how -- for instance -- they slipped those placards into the "Girl U Want" video.

The most entertaining example of their personality problems is in their video for "Through Being Cool," (choreographed by the choreographer for "Beat It") which contains a message that some said encouraged children to "eliminate" ("murder") "the ninnies and the twits." The Manson-esque adolescent killing spree is all during the second half, impatient viewers.

The Devo discography is uneven. During the early '80s they began to phase out the guitars (supposedly Casale's revenge on the guitarist for trying to date Casale's then-girlfriend Toni Basil) and became increasingly bloodless, ending off with a spectacularly awful album. But they still tour around -- and they're still feisty, apparently -- and it's a dream of mine to see them before they perform in wheelchairs.

Albums to buy? Everybody loves their debut ("Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!") but since their albums are pretty uneven I'd actually recommend "Now It Can Be Told," the 1989 live album. Albums to avoid? "Smooth Noodle Maps" is almost completely without any redeeming qualities. For fans only? The "Hardcore Devo" collections of early demos, which I sadly passed up buying when I had the chance. Likewise you might enjoy their collaboration with Neil Young in the movie "Human Highway," which is...well, impossible to describe.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Barthathon: "On With the Story"

My reviews have made it sound like I don't like John Barth. Let me clarify that I really LOVE his writing -- and I think he's probably a fabulous guy -- but there are certain things about his BODY OF WORK that I find painfully annoying (repetitious characters/themes/situations, dippy pillow-talk, and Scheherazade-aphilia in particular).

The thing is, a book can be perceived in many ways, only one of which is as a part of an author's collected work. "On With the Story" (1996) can be viewed as "part of the whole" -- it expands on many of the thought experiments that Barth toyed with in "Further Fridays," in particular Zeno's paradoxes and the distinction between a person's life and a person's story. It has its fair share of overdone Barth characterizations and people do, indeed, go sailing around on sailboats. Quite a lot actually. And some of the story conceits are self-defeatingly tricksy ("And Then One Day..." and the title story in particular).

But the tales in "On With the Story" often break from tradition in refreshing ways. The general theme of the tales is that of grief and suspension -- stretching out "the good times" can be nice but may only postpone the tragedy. The people in these stories aren't just sailing around wondering if they should have children or if they should have a divorce...they are dealing with (or trying to deal with) death, loss, awfulness, and the last good days, weighty topics that Barth hasn't explored since the beautiful final chapters of "Letters."

In the middle of this is the book's high-point: "Stories of Our Lives," which moves jerkily between distinct characters who are only tangentially related, exploring their struggles and their individual grief. We become engaged in one character's story, we begin to feel their anguish...and then we move suddenly to a tangential character and learn about them instead, putting personal anguish both on a pedestal AND in a worldly perspective. This is the balancing act that Barth does so well. It's what Robert Coover only wishes he could do. It is storytelling -- and life-telling -- at its best.

Did you see what I wrote there? The story moves "between distinct characters"! For the first time in recent memory Barth has put aside his broken Ident-a-Kit method of character development and given people. They're not all just him and his wife! In "Preparing for the Storm," Barth gives us a surprisingly modernist tale of three characters who bear NO RELATION to him or his wife!

And what's more, these characters live and breathe. They're full-fleshed, unique, perfectly formed. They fit their stories and their circumstances, and most of them would seem downright ODD on the deck of a sailboat. In 1996 Barth was still capable of inventing a new why did he stop?

In one of his more autobiographical books (forgive me if I forget which one) he said that the reader was probably getting tired of old married couples sailing around the Chesapeake, but that that environment was so much a part of his experience that he felt anything he wrote WITHOUT those elements would be somehow false. I agree that his sailing old couples "ring true," but so do these OTHER characters -- the loners Bowman, Tyler, and the narrator battening the hatches before an oncoming storm, Mme Jacqueline Masson with her missing sunglasses, slacker William Allen Wentworth III about to suffer a mundane but crushing revelation.

That's not to say the "Barth and his wife" characters aren't significant as well, of course. "'Waves' By Amien Richard" -- with its teeth-gritting tension (narrative and otherwise) -- and "Ever After" both succeed (and remain fresh near the end of a Barthathon) because they put "Barth and his wife" into new (and terrible) situations. Those stories -- and the frame-tale as a whole -- are beautiful.

"On With the Story" is an uneven collection that is usually satisfying, and is brilliant when it counts. And Scheherazade is only mentioned twice, which at this stage in the game is like her not being there at all, thank goodness.

In my last review I claimed that Barth's language lacks poetry. I stand by that assertion to a point, in that even at his most poetic he is still appealing to structure, rarely taking a "flight of fancy" or just giving us raw emotion.

But that doesn't mean Barth's words are never beautiful...far from it. As my mea culpa for ever suggesting such a thing, here are the final words from "Stories of Our Lives," which also nicely sum up the feeling of the entire (mostly wonderful) book:
Franco the senior art historian, just now masturbating pensively before the draperied window of his condominium overlooking the university's lacrosse field, where the women's varsity squad is working out. Mimi Adler's subtextual smile and narrative-ontological question. That Canadian quarter, still unretrieved from the campus grass. That balled-up book-page on the Club Med beach, slowly unballing itself now by the force of its own resiliency like a time-lapse movie of a sprouting mushroom, until another breeze catches and rolls it lightly seaward.

Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, Kurdistan. The doomed Marsh Arabs.

The web of the world.

The League of the Shameless (pink-ish) Lions!

Hilda has graciously awarded me the "Shameless Lions Writing Circle" award for Powerful Words, and I'm thrilled to receive it. I love reading her blog and it's always been an inspiration, for the reasons given below.

See, as part of this award we're supposed to list three things that are necessary for good, powerful writing. I wish I knew more about that than I do -- I'm still in the process of re-learning all those things about writing that I've somehow shied away from during the past fifteen years, and this blog is part of that -- but I can at least say what attracts ME to a writer's fiction.
  1. Always the same, but different. A distinct voice through all works that occasionally delves into different styles and themes. When I read a new story or book by an author, I want to know instantly who wrote it, but I don't want to instantly know what happens next. This cheap shot's for YOU, John Barth.
  2. Self-awareness. I like to see the author in the works. Whether they do this out of insecurity or out of vanity I don't care. I don't need a literal author-surrogate jumping into the text, but when I see an "I" in a sea of "he's and she's and they's," I fall in love. Though there's a lot to be said for straight-forward unselfconsciousness too.
  3. Gusto. An obvious joy at what they do. I'll even excuse some shoddiness if I believe the author NEEDS to write what he or she is writing. I've gotten so sick of cookie-cutter potboilers that I particularly enjoy an author who doesn't CARE if the pot boils (or who, most likely, provides enough heat for boiling simply by writing what they write).
Another part of this award is to pass it on to five other bloggers. I've made it a life mission not to chase awards OR hand them out so I'm afraid this one stays in my sticky fingers. I'd most like to give one to Hilda but she already has it!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Fleischmann's Yeast: For Men Who Drag Little Girls Around

In the June 23, 1928 issue of The New Yorker, Stanley Carvet writes:
Returning from a tour of Africa and Australia, I found that I had contracted stomach trouble. Thinking it would wear off, I started east on a well-known vaudeville circuit. But instead of getting better, my trouble rapidly became acute. At Omaha I decided I would have to cancel the rest of my route. A fellow performer, however, suggested Yeast. Said I, 'I'll try it,' and that night I began. Every day I ate several cakes. Well, I was able to go right on with my act, thanks to Fleischmann's Yeast, doing three strenuous dancing shows daily. In a short time I was in first-class shape.
That's alright for you, Stanley, but what about that little girl? It amazes me that his name doesn't turn up a few police reports from Google, but I guess those vaudeville guys were pretty crafty (not to mention "tight").

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Xena to the Sickbed

Bad flu, sore body, snotty head. Dusty apartment. Cold weather.

"Aei-yi-yi-yi-yi!" It's Xena, come to rescue me! Or rather to bumble through the rest of the first season, which Jason & Craig loaned to me so long ago. Xena to keep my eyes and my head busy while the rest of my body moans. Something to think about that doesn't require any effort. A rousing theme-song you can sing along with. Tom Atkins playing the same character he always plays, but on horseback. Bruce Campbell's funny eyes.

I like Xena when she's funny. I like Gabrielle too. I wonder if any women have ever felt empowered by this show. I wonder how blatant the lesbian overtones were meant to be. "Is There a Doctor in the House?" was a crazy hodge-podge of medical drama, social commentary, and breech-birthed centaur, plus an old guy yelling "MY TEMPLE!" How can you make a gripping program about emergency medical procedures when all you have are some hollow reeds, a sword, a hypnotizing candle, and "Gabrielle, make compresses out of those cobwebs"?

Callisto was a good villain. More Charon as vaudeville comedian, please. Two episodes in a row, Xena disguised herself as a bride in order to capture a bad guy. In about six episodes in a row she said "I have stopped the blood to your brain. You will die in sixty seconds." Whenever the show gets boring you can play "guess the accent that the actor is hiding." Whenever it starts to hurt, take a Tylenol.

Ooooo, back to sleep, I think.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dr. Seuss and Flit Again

It looks as though these Dr. Seuss "Flit" advertisements will be a regular feature in The New's another from June 16, 1928. This cartoon should give comfort to Young Earth Creationists, with the additional surprise of a domesticated dog and the presence of insecticide. You're a maniac, Seuss!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Barthathon: "Further Fridays"

Take my advice: NEVER DO A BARTHATHON.

The frustration I'm feeling with John Barth is due not just to "Further Fridays" (1995), but also to the fact that I'm halfway through his next book...and while I could excuse Barth's repetitious obsessions in a retrospective essay collection, I cannot excuse them in a subsequent collection of new fiction.

So let's just say I was annoyed when I read "Further Fridays," but my annoyance was self-tempered ("they're essays, it's a collection of diverse material"). Now my annoyance has been ramped up and confirmed, so my feelings about "Further Fridays" -- and Barth as a whole -- are retroactively amplified.

Alright. Dippy cover aside, many of the "Further Fridays" essays are interesting, and some are outright brilliant. His musings about story structure and writer's craft are the most concise, helpful, and entertaining essays I've ever read about those subjects. Barth's students were lucky to have such an articulate and well-informed teacher.

Many of the themes in these essays are echoed -- sometimes word-for-word -- in his novel "Once Upon a Time," and this made me realize something significant about Barth's work: he is basically ALWAYS writing essays; his novels are all about rigorously explaining situations within the framework of an equally rigorously-explained narrative structure.

This may be a strength -- rarely do his novels deviate from their straight-and-true direction -- but I've suddenly noticed that he has no sense of "poetry." His words are carefully-chosen but they are meant to EXPLAIN, not to evoke an emotional response. Even his actual (dippy) poetry is as planned-out as a haiku, albeit a haiku designed to convey a straightforward idea. Barth knows his words intellectually, but not emotionally.

This is most apparent when he proudly presents us (again and again) with his very own newly-minted pet phrase: "coaxial esemplasy." He uses this phrase so often that it gets its own index entry. After defining it in various round-about ways he finally admits that it's exactly the same concept as "feedback loop," but he considers "coaxial esemplasy" to be a more ELEGANT phrase due to the more "modern" connotation of "coaxial" and the ETYMOLOGY of the word "esemplasy."

But hey, Barth: the phrase SUCKS. You're so intent on the intellectual sense of the individual words that you don't realize that, as a phrase "coaxial esemplasy" is clumsy, forgettable, and impossible to parse. The fact that he's used it in his FICTION as well ("Once Upon a Time") hammers home an essential Barth weakness: he loves to explain, but he doesn't bother putting words into beautiful sentences. Form DOES often trump storytelling in his books, because he falls in love with ugly (but nifty) phrases.

This goes way back to his earlier novels. He'll throw these crazy, awkward phrases at the reader (eg. "What you've done is what you'll do") without stopping to wonder if there isn't a better -- and more elegant -- set of words available. Then he'll use them again. And again. And this comes to the basic problem:

Barth is fallible. He can make bad stylistic choices. I think he does this because he becomes passionate (aka "obsessive") about something, and he doesn't realize that other people don't feel the same way. If you've been reading my Barthathon posts then you know where this is going:

Schehera-freaking-zade. Excuse my crudeness, but Barth has had a twenty-year hard-on for her, and I'm not just being flippant when I say so. She is CONSTANTLY coming up, and you can always tell when he's about to mention her again; his writing heats up, he beats around the bush a bit, he sort of shyly avoids the bait, and then WHAM: there she is, presented as though she were an ACTUAL WRITER (as opposed to what she really was: a minor fictional character who existed mainly so that the stories of OTHER characters could get told). Every time Barth presents her in a list of ACTUAL PEOPLE (eg. "You can see this in the stories of Cervantes, Borges, Scheherazade, Pynchon...") I want to scream, and I do, as I'm screaming now: SHE WASN'T REAL AND SHE WASN'T VERY SIGNIFICANT!

Barth is in many ways a LIMITED AUTHOR. His themes, characters, settings, and concepts revolve around the same small handful of ideas. He knows those ideas inside and out and most of them are deep, honest, and beautiful...but that doesn't change the fact that Barth is inexcusably repetitious. The Scheherazade thing is just a symptom of something more unpleasant.

This isn't a problem if you read a SELECTION of his novels, particularly from different points in his career. And sometimes he DOES reach out beyond these worn-out themes (and when he does he's usually brilliant), and he even manages to explain away his obsessions in a halfway-convince way...for a while.

But whenever I read about an older teacher slipping his increasingly-impotent penis into the cleft of his young ex-student's buttocks while sailing a boat in a storm after a fetishy discussion about Scheherazade but before sending a message in a bottle and then having a marital tiff that turns into a full-blown crisis which ends with the woman "teary-eyed"...

...well, let's just say I'm frustrated.


Did I mention that his essays about Borges and goose-art were exceptional?

Active Weekend Reflection (NOT "Weekend Acid Reflux")

On Saturday my mother and I ventured out to buy me a Christmas tree. I'd hoped for something about five feet high, but fake trees apparently come in only two sizes: miniscule or enormous. Fortunately, "miniscule" plus "end table" equals "medium," and the darn thing even has tasteful white lights on it. Some pictures (and nostalgic reflections) soon!

That night, I slogged through the first half of the next "mini-drag show" video. The "Monkeys" video involved just three setups and five scenes; this one has eleven setups and twenty-six scenes, which is a bit much to squeeze between "getting into drag" and "going to the bar." Hopefully I can film the rest of the scenes next weekend.

To make the process more efficient and rewarding I've learned to repeat scenes several times and pick out the best version, reducing how often I need to jump up and down to turn the camera on and off. For that reason I have some pretty strange raw footage. Here's a brief snippet of a Saturday-night repetition, to confuse you, tantalize you, and to prove that I really AM doing something, even if it's creepy:

After that: Club Abstract for drinkin', dancin', and socializin'. Since we were effectively trapped in the bar due to a terrible snowstorm, many of the hornier patrons were palpably desperate, which was entertaining to watch. Best of all: meeting DJ Jeff, briefly back from Japan. Jeff was the "goth night" DJ for many years (long ago), and whenever I hear Front 242 I think of him. Love you, Jeff!

For a few relevant pictures (and a few more "Zsa Zsa Collector's Photos"), plus a shot from Guelph's "Kink 2" night, go to Flickr.

The Goat AGAIN!

(For those concerned with my emotional wellbeing, you'll be happy to hear that I think my foundation issues are licked. I'm still working out how much powder I can get away with -- and as a result I look a bit spotty by 2am -- but it's all uphill from here).

Speaking of uphill at 2am: there were no cabs available when the bar let out (basically because there were no roads anymore). I stomped my way home through the frozen, blowing snow, buffeted by gusts and confined to the tire tracks of the few adventurous cars.

Far from being a chore, this was beautiful. No vehicles, nobody outside, no traffic rules. With the snow baffling all the sound, the only things I could hear were the trees bending over in the wind and my own crackling footsteps.

I took a video of my walk but you don't want to see it; it doesn't capture the spirit of the thing and you can mostly just hear me snorting back my cold-weather snot. Some things are best experienced first-hand.

Tommy Meets Muffy from Manhattan

Hilda has posted a "book cover" muh-leem: do an advanced title search for your first name at, and post the most interesting match you find.

Since I'm always interested in the cultural status of the name "Muffy" I decided to try it, and here's the best result by far:

I'm assuming that Muffy is the bad-hair dog at the top of the picture, and note that Tommy is paying polite but nonsexual attention to her. I think it's appropriate that Muffy is the more cosmopolitan animal -- obviously just returned from the salon -- and that she's using the rock as protection in case Tommy gets too frisky.

When I finally visit Manhattan I can only hope that I am this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

iTunes Word Search: "Work"

Some iTunes word searches produce thousands of matches ("love"), while others produce few or none ("havarti"). It's a thrill to discover a word that results in an optimal number of matches (and when I say "thrill," I mean, relatively speaking).

I've been thinking a lot about my past jobs lately, and while they may not inspire a set of gripping blog posts they'll at least inspire a word search.

For those about to work, I salute you!
  1. Back to Work (Colleen Brown)
  2. A Clean Break - Let's Work (Talking Heads)
  3. Fit and Working Again (The Fall)
  4. Hole-Workers (The Residents)
  5. My Work is So Behind (The Residents)
  6. There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis (Kirsty MacColl)
  7. This Woman's Work (Kate Bush)
  8. Won't You Keep Us Working? (The Residents)
  9. Unrelated Work Tapes (The Infant Cycle)
  10. Work 01 (Front 242)
  11. Working for the Man (PJ Harvey)
  12. Working in a Coal Mine (Devo)
  13. Working with Fire and Steel (China Crisis)
I tried to only stick with songs about actual "labour" (as opposed to other usages of "work," such as "to be operational"). The Residents score an unusual number of entries thanks to their "Mole Trilogy" (about work-struggles between classes). Kate is, of course, LITERALLY singing about labour. China Crisis brings us a borderline definition of work, that is, "to forge."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Cartoon Confusion Due to Midget Punchline

New Yorker cartoons are infamously opaque, but they weren't much so during the 1920s. The multi-panel vignettes by Otto Soglow were particularly easy to "get," usually a simple, surreal, but obvious joke stretched out to six or nine panels.

But this one confuses me and freaks me out. Sure I understand what is happening in each panel, but there's a disconnect between "what appears to be happening" and "what it all means." Part of this confusion comes from my desire to NOT see it as a cheap midget-with-a-cigar-sex-gag, because New Yorker cartoons -- and Soglow's in particular -- just weren't LIKE that at the time.

It says something about the vapidity of the '20s magazine that this cartoon is the most thought-provoking thing I've seen so far.

Incidentally, you may remember Otto Soglow for what he eventually became famous for: the 1930s "Little King" comics.