10/31/2005

CD Review: Blue Rodeo: Are You Ready

There are very few bands that manage to genuinely bridge the gap between country and rock/pop music. Too many of them end up forgetting that all they have to do is remember where rock and roll came from in the first place and they'll be able to get the right feel and sound. Instead what you get is bands playing rock music but throwing a pedal steel guitar in for effect, or country bands throwing in an occasional burning guitar solo. In each case the effect is more jarring than pleasing to the ear. Of the bands and individual artists that have attempted to mix the two genres the only three that I know of from the past thirty to forty years (that doesn't mean there aren't others) with any degree of success were "The Byrds", "The Grateful Dead", and "Graham Parsons and the Grievous Angels". Since then while bands like the "Flying Burrito Brothers" may have attempted such experiments its been left to a bunch of city boys from Toronto Ontario to pick up that torch. "Blue Rodeo", unlike a number of their contemporaries, seems to have found the perfect balance of sensibilities to create a fusion of the two genres. Their songs have a timeless feel that doesn't tie them to one era, allowing one to believe they could have been recorded anywhere from the fifties in the Sun Record studios with Elvis just down the hall, or in a more contemporary setting with any number of current rock bands. Their current album, Are You Ready is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. No matter what the tempo or topic the songs, with one note worthy exception, bring the best of both worlds together. Country's heart felt emotions are rid of cheap sentimentality by a world-weary rock attitude. Where most bands stumble when attempting this merger, "Blue Rodeo" excels: the actual crafting of the songs. On Are You Ready the predominant theme is of love lost and relationships ending. Pretty standard heartbreak country stuff you might think, that doesn’t have a hope in hell of sounding palatable. But in the hands of the song writing team of Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy the material transcends cliché and becomes something real.
"Thank you December for your cold grey air/lakes are frozen, trees are bare./I once loved her of that I am proud/just no room for me up on that cloud" Blue Rodeo "Up On That Cloud", Are You Ready 2005
Lines like that used to describe the vulnerability of an unrequited love, when you know you have no hope in hell of ever having it reciprocated, are the perfect antidote to the usual she don't know I exist moaning that passes for emotion. I don't normally associate song lyrics with poetry; most lyricists are too intent on reproducing a formula, but the imagery utilized by Keelor and Cuddy is equal to that of any poets. Of course lyrics alone don't make for interesting music. On Are You Ready once again shows that they are equally as comfortable with rocking out, "Can't Help Wondering Why", as they are with introspective ballads "Phaedra's Meadow" This song is also an example of their willingness to step outside the type of music that people normally associate with them in an attempt to find the means to express the emotion contained in the song. In most other bands if they all of a sudden throw a tin whistle and Uilleann Pipes into a song it would sound like they were cashing in on the whole Riverdance/Celtic thing. But listen to the lyrics and feel the mood they create, and you realize that nothing is more appropriate than the haunting sounds of those instruments for these songs. Blue Rodeo is one of those bands you can always count on for producing intelligent and thoughtful music that avoids the pitfalls of cheap sentimentality and songs about pick-up trucks. But consistency in their case does not mean stagnation, and they continue to grow and both musically and lyrically. Are You Ready is another step in the really interesting journey that is Blue Rodeo. If you've never heard their music you're in for a pleasant treat, for the long time fan there's some pleasant surprises as well reassurance that they are still one of the most consistent bands on the market today.

Blogcritics: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love To Write Again

Ain't life a funny old thing? The twist and turns that it takes you on, you never know where you're going to end up. You need look no further than the guy typing this thing that you're reading for a good example of that. I'm not even talking about major life changing events, of which I've experienced a few, but the little casual things that end up sending ripples through your entire life. Seven months ago I was looking for a way to practice my writing skills. I had been plugging away at a novel for about a year, eked out a few poems, and written a couple of short articles. I had opened an account at one of the many self-publishing houses on the web, Lulu.com, in the hopes that people would actually buy the material of an author they had never heard of. Something was missing though. No matter how many words I wrote, or how many pages I'd publish, nothing felt right. I was getting bored with my own writing, and it was a struggle to remain interested in what my characters were doing. I figured that wasn't a good sign: if I wasn't interested in what my creations were doing who the hell was going to be. To make matters worse all my ideas were beginning to feel and sound contrived. I'd read some dialogue and wonder if that's what people really sounded like or if a piece of action was realistic in the context of what I'd created. Then I realized it wasn't a matter of what the characters did or said that was awkward, it was the way in which they were doing and saying things that was strange. Instead of my words seamlessly piecing together the little pictures of a jigsaw puzzle to create one final image, I was forcing them to fit together with a sledgehammer. The, if it doesn't work use a bigger hammer approach may work for computer repair, but it sure doesn't work for writing! That's when I made the decision that I should begin blogging. I needed a place where I could write about anything under the sun, and with freedom. It's one thing to care about your writing, but another altogether to be uptight about it to the point that you can't write anymore. I needed a place where I could write and learn to develop some emotional detachment from the work. Heart and soul are valuable ingredients in writing, but when the investment becomes so great that you become paralysed by your worry about screwing up, there is something wrong. I needed to learn how to love my writing without being scared of the fact that it was important to me. Another part of me also hoped that if I had a blog people would get to know of my existence and perhaps be intrigued enough to check out the writing I had for sale at my store front. Hell, maybe some syndicate would pick me up to write a weekly column that could be sold across North America and my financial woes would be solved. With dreams of sugarplums and contracts dancing in my head I set forth into the blogsphere and began writing. Such was my naivety and innocence that I had no concept of how many millions of people were already out there doing this, and how it was almost next to impossible to be noticed amidst the noise of all those voices shouting for attention. So I learned about RSS feeds, blog listings, search engine tricks, and all the other little nuances and ploys to attract people to your site. If I ever wanted to be read by more people than my wife and our friends it seemed like I'd have to spend as much time promoting my site as actually writing. It was during one of those forays into searching for a means to get my name out there, that I came across a site which offered links to a variety of places that published blogs in online magazine format. Thus, was my affiliation with Blogcritics.org born. I knew absolutely nothing about them, but it seemed like a place where I could publish my blog and gain some notice. In spite of my initial reluctance to understand that proper spelling and grammar could somehow be important to an article, I began to find a comfortable niche within the Blgocritics circle. I knew people were reading my articles because I would receive comments in my inbox on a daily basis, sometimes they agreed with my opinions, sometimes they didn't. Aside from the standard amount of abuse from people who don't understand what the word argument means, most of the comments were intelligent, thought out responses which forced me to be even more careful with arguments. I had to learn how to get an opinion across in an intelligent and comprehensible manner. Thankfully there have been many willing and able teachers and editors at Blogcritics who have taught met how to put my best foot forward when it comes to presenting my thoughts in typeface. By refusing to accept mediocrity on their site, and by assisting those willing to achieve the standards they have set, they have established an atmosphere that inspires creativity and self-discipline. Not only are those traits essential for good writing but, to my delight I have discovered that it was an imbalance between them that was causing my dissatisfaction with my work. I have never lacked for the initial impulse that would propel the birth of a story. It has always been in the completion, or the communication of the idea, that I have stumbled. Awkward constructions, clumsy reasoning (in print anyway) and poor organization had conspired to make everything a struggle and sound awkward. These days I feel much less a fraud when I say that I am a writer. When I was an actor I had the usual performer's low opinion of critics and reviewers. It went without saying that they were all failed performers, writers, musicians, and painters. Imagine the surprise on my younger self's face if he could see me now. Not only do I review and critique work on almost a daily basis now, but I actively solicit publishers, publicists, and others for copies of their artist's work to write about. The bonuses of this type of work are both obvious and subtle. First it gives me access to all sorts of wonderful music, films, and writing that otherwise I would never have had a chance to appreciate. Of course there is also the feelings of importance you get from having U.P.S. show up at your front door on a regular basis with packages from all over North America for you, and the Christmas like excitement of opening packages on a regular basis. The other, less obvious benefit for me has been the noticeable improvement in my critical thinking. I've been able to look at my own writing with a much more dispassionate eye ever since I started evaluating other's work. I've trained myself to look for what works, what doesn't work and figure out what's needed to make something work properly. Each time I review something; I'm actually learning a little more about how to present my own work. The medium under review is irrelevant to the lesson being learned, because there is always something that can be learned from the way one artist does something, even if they're musicians and you are a writer. Timing is everything, as they say in comedy, and in the instance of my joining Blogcritics it was spot on. Not only have I hitched my wagon to a site that is fast becoming a presence on the Internet, it came at exactly the right time in life. I needed that extra push that the site has provided to push my writing to the next level. The slightly nebulous idea of: I want to be a writer, has been solidified into I am writing. Seven months ago when I had the initial idea of starting my own blog to hone my writing skills I had no idea of the twists and turns that path would entail. I'm nowhere close to nearing the end of the process, I still have plenty of room for improvement, but now, at least I know where I'm going.

10/30/2005

Rosa Parks Never Came To Canada

Growing up in Canada in the 1960's left you sort of oblivious to the issue of race. It's not that it didn't exist, more the fact that there simply were very few people of colour living in Canada at the time. Probably the only visible minority present in any number were people of Asian descent, and those days that simply meant Chinese. So it was hard as a young child to understand the whole civil rights and black power issue. Now both of my parents were socialists (no, not like most Canadians, there are very few who would call themselves that no matter what people think) and had better insight into what was going on than the majority of people in Canada. They were friends with people who had been freedom riders; people who had gone down to the Southern States in the late fifties and early sixties to help with the voter registration drives and other integration protests. But as a kid those things didn't really permeate my awareness except for on a couple of occasions. One was a conversation I remember overhearing my father having with my mother about visiting a friend of theirs in Windsor Ontario. For those of you who don't know Windsor is just across the border from Detroit Michigan, and in those innocent days people would just walk through the tunnel under the St. Clair river and go into Detroit for a visit. My father told my mom that before he and their friend would cross the border his friend made sure that he was carrying a copy of the latest Black Panther newsletter, which he would carry displayed prominently under one arm when they walked the streets. This ensured that their chances of being harassed were reduced to a minimum. Of course that piece of information only served to confuse me, because at that point in time the only black panther I even knew of was the one in the Jungle Bookby Rudyard Kipling who had befriended Mowgli. Needless to say this left me with some very confused mental images of going to visit Detroit. It was a 1968 visit to Washington D.C., when I was seven, that I began to understand about the whole black and white issue, and how things were different in the United States than Canada. I'm not saying that I gained any huge grasp of the issues or anything like that, I just began to understand that unfairness and anger existed in the world. I think my parents had thought a trip to Washington in the spring would be pleasant, the trees blossoming and not as many tourists crowding the monuments. We were to be staying with a friend of the family's who worked for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation's (C. B. C.) Washington bureau. World events have a way of making all your best-laid plans look ridiculous. Washington D.C. in the spring of 1968 was not the ideal vacation spot. I'm sure the only reason we still went on the family trip was because it was too late to return the plane tickets, and to change my father's vacation time. Just a week or two before we were to travel Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In the days leading up to our trip the front pages of the papers were full of pictures of inner city America in flames. I think there were lots of phone calls made to Washington before my parents were convinced it was safe to travel. It turned out to be a remarkably uneventful trip with very few indications that anything untoward had recently happened in the city. In fact there was only one occasion that I remember anything being mentioned at all by our host. We had parked the car at the top of a hill, I can't remember where we were going, and when one of us went of lock the car doors he said not to bother, he'd rather it stolen then destroyed. Turning to my father he added that two weeks ago standing here you could see smoke billowing upwards from various points through out the city. But for me the biggest revelation of the whole trip was the number of black people. To my eyes, which were completely unused to seeing any people of colour, it appeared they were the predominant race in the United States. Somewhere along the way I had come to understand that J. F. Kennedy had been associated with the civil rights movement, so at one point I turned to my mom and asked if that's how he got elected because all of the black people had voted for him. She replied that there were not enough black people in the United States for their vote alone to have guaranteed his election. Now I won't be presumptuous enough to say at the age of seven that those events changed my life, but it certainly widened my worldview. Over the next few years, before high school at any rate, through reading fiction such as To Kill A Mockingbird and histories of the era, I became familiarized with the events surrounding Montgomery, Birmingham, and integration in general. The other thing that happened, as I grew older, was that I started to leave the shelter of my middle class neighbourhood and discover Canada had people of colour living here as well. Of course Canada has always been a lot politer than most other countries, so our racism has always been more discreet. Why do you need fire hoses and dogs when economics and social lines do the job a lot cheaper and just as efficiently? In some ways the racism in Canada runs deeper than that in the United States. With power still lingering in the hands of those whose father's held the reigns from before we were a country the chances of any person of colour becoming part of the inner circles of power in this country are next to nil. Unlike Colin Powell and Ms. Rice who genuinely wield power, Canada's most visible minority, Michelle Jean the new Governor General, is simply for show. Although some people trumpet her appointment as the new face of Canada, implying a future of multicultural pluralism, I find it hard to believe. We've never been forced to deal with the issue of race and confront our own fears and bigotries in the manner our neighbours to the south have. Placidly we live in the belief that we are better than them because of that, failing to see that we are beset with the exact same problems. We have the same economic gap, the same disproportionate representation in jails, and the problem with assumption of guilt that black men experience in the States is just as wide spread in Canada. Rosa Parks never would have had to fight for a seat on our buses, because we are just too polite to do that sort of thing in public. The trick would have been for her to get a seat at the same table as everybody else. Not much has changed there, and it doesn't look like it will any time soon.

10/29/2005

NaNoWriMo Notes 5: The Final Checklist

Saturday October 29, 2005, 3:06 am 68 hours and 54 minutes until fingers in motion. With just over two days to go before the gun sounds to kick of NaNoWriMo it's time to take stock of the situation and make sure that all systems are go. Just like astronauts, scuba divers, and airline pilots I'm running through my pre-trip checklist. Are my fuel tanks fully loaded; my dials spinning in the right direction, and do I have enough oxygen in case things get rough? The problem of course is all the intangibles that I can't just check off on a list of things. Those guys sit in their cockpits or on their boats and they have the dials to look and the buttons to push. They have their clipboards in front of them listing what everything is supposed to look like, and they have somebody with them double-checking everything. On the other hand I have my keyboard and me. The laptop seems to be working in tiptop shape, all the keys still move and the memory is fine. There's plenty of room on the hard drive for 50,000 words and even in the eventuality that I need to create more I can just hook up the external floppy disc and start dumping stuff. (This is a very old laptop that I picked up on e-bay for $100.00 but it's the best investment I've ever made) But what about what's sitting in front of the laptop? How's it doing? The only person that's going to run a checklist on me is me so I'd better start doing it. The cat sitting on my lap is a nice guy, but he doesn't have the greatest insight into my ability to finish this project, he's just grateful for food and treats. My wife, who probably knows me better than I do on occasion, will most likely, and wisely, just try and stay out of my way for the duration. Physically I have no doubts that I'll be able to squeeze out an extra 1700 or more words a day. I'm not going to stop if I'm on a roll so there's even the chance of finishing early. What I really need to worry about is any emotional and psychological barriers that I am going to need to overcome. Oh, yeah and the technical business of writing could be a problem. Plot, characters, story line; you know stuff like that. This last week I've spent a few days playing around with ideas, and starting sample chapters. The end result is that I feel that the rough story line I've been developing in my head will be just fine. There's lots of room for interpersonal conflict, a love story, suspense, pathos, and humour. The great thing about fiction is that you can make it up. That's why its called fiction, you can invent everything and not have to worry about anyone calling you on facts and dates or whatever, because you're the one who's the creator of the universe. The only thing you have to try and do is stay consistent. So I've grabbed an historical period from our world and transported into a fictional construct so I can do whatever I want with it. If people catch on to what it is I've done that will be okay, but even if they don't, as long as they like the story I'll be happy. I know there are authors who go to great lengths to research a time period, and then create a whole new world based on our history. I wonder why if they're making a new world why they insist on such verisimilitude to its parallel in our universe? I've no problem with a novel being novel. I've always been fascinated with my Mother's paternal family line and I'm going to use this novel to try and recreate one of the many potential stories of those people. She is a mixed Polish/Romanian Jew. Maybe if you don't know much about the history of Jewish people that won't seem like such a big deal to you, but there is a world of difference between the two nationalities. (When her father married my grandmother his family took him aside and said to him: "Remember to hold your head high. You're a Romanian and she is only a Polack") While there is no doubting that Polish Jews are of Ashkenazi stock, there is some mystery around my Mother's Romanian family. Both of us have had cause to wonder whether or not they could be of Sephardic heritage. There has always been a certain romantic appeal about the Sephardic, not least their co-mingling with the gypsies of Spain during the periods of the Inquisition and the expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) There is historical documentation that Jews and gypsies both sought shelter in caves in the hills surrounding the cities that they were expelled from before beginning their migrations to other parts of Europe. It may be that as the more tolerant Moorish and Ottoman empires retreated before the armies of the reconquista (forces retaking the lands for Christianity) that Jews fled with them. The path of retreat would have been through the Balkans and back across South Eastern Europe to Turkey, which would have passed through countries like Romania and Hungary. Using those few historical facts and a lot of imagination the world I create will have the equivalent of gypsies and Sephardic Jews coming together to flee before the armies of conversion. For me it will be a wonderful opportunity to create a romantic history for my family. I'll be able to incorporate the little that my grandfather passed along to us in terms of family history that is pertinent (things like how he helped make the Bronfman family their first million by running whisky across the Canadian/American border during Prohibition won't make the cut) So I don't actually have too many worries on the whole plot and story front. It really looks like that's going to be able to take care of itself. All I'm going to have to do is go along for the ride and type it out. Of course that's also where the potential for problems exist. There are really only two things I know in advance that I'll need to be concerned about (more of course could develop as I progress) The first is to remember that this is not a finished product. First of all 50,000 words are not a completed novel so I should not be anticipating ending the month of November with a manuscript that's ready to be sent off to publishers. This means I have to also avoid the trap of thinking I need to have every word exactly right, and I mustn't get caught up in polishing up sentences, and spending precious moments fretting over style. There is no place for perfectionism in this type of word count only contest. You've heard of the condition called repetitive muscle injury, where your hands or other body parts seize up because of repeating the same motion over and over again. Well in this case I'm more worried about repetitive brain strain. Every day writing about the same thing, the same story, the same people, and the same situation; what kind of damage is that going to do to my brain? Will I get too bored to continue? Churning out 1700 plus words on a daily basis on the same topic might just drive me crazy and I'll stop caring enough about the project to complete it. I know that sounds silly, but I also know what I'm like and how quickly I can run out of steam or motivation. I'm hoping that by keeping up with my regular postings and publishing this series a least once a week that I will be able to avoid that problem. They will provide my brain with enough alternate stimulation to keep it happy. Picking a subject that's close to home should also help me maintain interest. I can imagine reading it to my grandfather once it's complete, and. he can complain how I got everything wrong. Since he's been dead for twenty years it will defiantly be imaginary. But, truth be told, the thing that will more than likely ensure that I'll finish no matter what, is the fact that I'm being so public with the whole thing. I don't know if I could live with falling short after all this build-up. Pride may go before the fall, but in this case pride will ensure there is no failure. This is my last entry before the start of the contest. For the next month anytime we meet up here on these pages, you'll be hearing about how its going, and maybe even reading a couple of paragraphs. I hope you don't mind if you end up being my ear to vent into, my shoulder to cry on, and in return I'll try to give you a peak inside the mind of a writer in constant overdrive. I'll be talking to you again soon. Until then, for all those who are embarking on this strange journey good luck and have fun. The rest of you can just sit back and enjoy the show.

10/28/2005

Defuse Iran By Helping Palestine

How many times in the past sixty odd years have we heard some Arab leader or another say in reference to Israel "We will drive them into the Sea? In recent years we've seen a reduction of the more inflammatory remarks from heads of state; usually pronouncements like this are now the preserve of leaders of groups like Hamas or Islamic Jiad. In a region where most countries are now trying to establish western ties, why than would the leadership in Iran decide to make such an overtly public declaration of hatred. I hadn't noticed any stories announcing that competition had been opened for the title of number one pariah state, but I guess since the fall of Saddam's regime the role has been going begging. Maybe the Iranian government just could never stand being seen as second best to that secular pig-dog running Iraq, and they want to show the world how a "real" Muslim state goes about isolating itself from the civilized world. Iran hasn't been the model of a democratic societie for quite some time. Prior to their experiment with Holy Fascism they were under the benevolent thumb of the Peacock throne. Given that history it should come as no surprise that they are now bucking for the "Doesn't Play Well Others" award from the United Nations. The past ten years have seen Iranians flirt briefly with a moderate government and a genuine swing in public opinion toward a more liberal society. But it was too early too soon and the Ayatollahs weren't ready to step down from their autocratic ways. For stolid inflexibility on social issues the only match these guys have are the current crop in the Vatican and some of the more deep fried Southern Baptists. Not surprisingly t they managed to get their people "elected" and are now in complete control again. If anyone doubted their new found zeal the last Summer Olympics in Athens insured that no one was left wondering. When an Iranian wrestler ended up in the same draw with an Israeli he withdrew rather than risk being contaminated by close contact with a Zionist devil. Obviously the man had no choice in the matter, and it was either that or risk sever punishment when he returned home. Iran claims to be building a state that will be home to true believers. Those who talk of them as trying to turn back the clock to the middle ages have got it wrong; it wouldn't be so bad if that were what they were genuinely trying to do. If you look at history the Islamic rulers of the Ottoman and Moorish empires that spanned the globe from Istanbul to Spain and the Balkans were actually far more tolerant of other religions than the equivalent Christian empires. Other faiths were free to practice their beliefs as long as they accepted the rule of the sultan and publicly abided by the laws of Islam. For Jewish people this was not that difficult as their dietary laws are identical and they share similar attitudes about modesty. For the most part Jews were, if not able to thrive, at least not be in persistent fear of death and persecution under Muslim rule. It was only as the Sultans were forced to relinquish their hold on Europe and the Christian kingdoms advanced, that organizations like Spanish Inquisition began to flourish. So the Iranian government's claim to be restoring traditional Islamic living is false. Like any religion, there has always been a fringe element of extremists in the Islamic world, and unfortunately the people ruling Iran right now are some of the worst. With the Middle East stumbling towards peace, tiny baby step after tiny baby step, and parties on both sides of the Arab and Israeli divide trying to find a way out of the hole they've made for themselves, Iran faces the possibility of being isolated from their Arab neighbours. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestine Authority have all recognised the state of Israel; Lebanon is up in arms against Syria, and has always been sympathetic to the west. This leaves Iran with only Syria, a few of the emirates and the terrorists groups as their only allies. Taking their statement of driving Israel into the sea into that context one can see it as a rallying cry to the troops in an attempt to see who they really have as allies in the region. Syria may not wish to get embroiled in anything that risks outright confrontation with the west. The simple fact of the matter is they need the cash that only the G-8 can provide to remain afloat. Iran is already fighting it out with North Korea for the number one spot on the list of pariah's in the eyes of most western governments, so what harm does this statement really do to them in the international community? Their reputation can't really get any more tarnished than it already was. So to them the risk was minimal. Of course there's also the very real possibility that they are being deliberately provocative to see how far they can push the world community. They know that the American armed forces are stretched to the limit right now, in terms of ground troops so the chances of this developing into open warfare are slim. But even so that still might be their goal. Maybe they feel that if they push the American's into acting they will be able to rally enough support to their side that the Middle East could just disintegrate into a firestorm of unrest again for another decade. It is imperative that no one acts rashly in these circumstances, because that's probably what they want. No one has any true idea of their nuclear capability, although it seems unlikely they have any actual warheads yet, that does not mean they can't produce them in the near future. There are probably still enough floating around on the open market that they could even pick up a few for a bargain prices if they so chose. This means we can't ignore them and hope they will go away. We can ignore their provocative language. Maybe hit them with a sanction or two, but give them little or no ammunition for their propaganda weapon. Don't let them paint themselves the victim of western oppression and generate sympathy amongst some of the borderline Muslim states and populaces. Instead of moving against them assist the Palestine Authority in its attempts to establish their state and provide real hope in the region. Help them and the Israelis police their borders so that terrorist attacks can become a thing of the past. Which will in turn cut back on Israel's retaliatory raids into Lebanon and other regions. The best solution to the inflammatory comments right now is to concentrate on ensuring the success of the new Palestinian government, and show real commitment to the peace process as well. Trust and faith are commodities in high demand but short supply in the region. Rectifying that problem will go a long way towards defusing Iran.

10/27/2005

Publishing: The Price Of Profit

Although some out there may find it hard to believe I actually understand the profit motive. Who doesn't want to make money in return for their hard work? Who doesn't want to see the money they invest in a project come back with interest? Unless you're looking for a tax write off there's not much point in doing business if not for the money. Since that's the world we live in, that's the way you play the game. (Whether or not that world is necessarily a good one is a whole other question) That being said, yes here's the "but" you were all waiting for, there are times when this model is totally just doesn't work. While it makes perfect sense for an investment banker or a stockbroker to work along those lines, the idea of book publishers existing solely to make profits is a concept that needs re-examining. The problem stems from the ways in which they insist on doing business. First there's the fact that they seem prone to making mind boggling stupid decisions when it comes to handing out advances. Paying an author like Lauren Weisberger two, one million dollar advances after she had only written one book, and that a gossipy hatchet job about her former boss at "Vogue" magazine, is not what most people would call economically sound. Okay so her first book The Devil Wears Prada was a bestseller, but she has no track record as an author, and even in New York City bitchiness doesn't play well for an extended period. Her second book Everybody Worth Knowing is already showing signs that it will not come anywhere near the success of her premier effort. There are only so many bad reviews an author can get before people start believing them. Simon and Schuster have committed two million dollars in advances to this woman, and God knows how much money on top of that for marketing and publicity. All in the hopes that she might catch lighting in a bag again, write a hit, and provide a return on their investment. What kind of business sense is that? We're not talking about a proven best seller like Steven King, Tom Clancy, or John Grishom, but a one hit wonder whose only previous experience was a year's internship at "Vogue" I'd say the chances of Simon and Schuster recouping their close to three million dollar investment (advances, promotion, and the physical cost of publication) are pretty slim. How many good books are not going to get published because they've committed that much money to one person of dubious quality? By performing this type of crapshoot of dumping all their eggs in one basket aren't publishers actually diminishing their chances of making money? I would think that it would be a simple matter of probability. You publish five books for an investment of one million dollars and you have five chances of striking a chord with audiences. Even if none of them become run away best sellers your odds of breaking even or turning a profit are higher because none of them have to generate massive sales to begin showing a return. In fact I would think the ideal book for a publisher would be one that generated consistent sales over an extended period of time rather than one huge burst of popularity. The folks that own the rights to a work like J. D. Salingers's Catcher In The Rye are still getting a nice return on their investment close to fifty years after its initial publication date. Certainly there is no way of guaranteeing any books durability, but walk into any book store and pick up any one of the books that still sells fairly consistently and I'm sure you'll begin to learn what to look for when it comes to quality in a novel. If not than perhaps you shouldn't be in the publishing business in the first place. Is it any wonder that next to the music business these people are some of the biggest whiners when it comes to complaining about their profit margins? Look at the whole brouhaha around Google's proposed on line library which would have permitted people to read excerpts from books that are protected under copy write and the full text of books in public domain. Not only does it show how petty they are when they worry that something like that could possibly make any substantial impact on their profits, but it also shows them to be out of touch with a good many readers. Have you ever read a scanned document on a computer? No matter what the quality it will never be equal to actually reading a book. One of my favourite authors is serialising an older story of his online and I'm having a hard time reading it off my monitor, and he's been typing it, not scanning. Scanned material is really aggravating to read and very few people I know have ever been successful in reading a complete novel on line let alone one that has been uploaded through scanning. Instead of looking at the Google proposal for ways in which they could make money: promoting books, promoting reading etc, they immediately became defensive and couldn't see past the fact they might lose a few pennies. In my mind that would be a far better investment than a two million dollar advance paid to an author with only one book to her credit. An industry like publishing, or any artistic endeavour, is not the best place for profit oriented business practices. There is an inevitable clash of philosophies that happens. Artistic growth is based on the freedom to be able to create from your inspiration, not working to suit the needs of a market. None of the great works of art that are still popular today were created on the basis of their marketability. For all people say that Shakespeare wrote for his audience, implying market forces at work, his work simply mirrored the society he lived in. We look back and say "oh he wrote for the lowest common denominator so he could make money" when in fact it was just a reflection of his societies morals and standards. Modern publishers don't seem to have the vision to see past what was popular last week, or what this year's trend is. They cheat the reading public out of experiencing the diversity of the world's potential by creating a blinkered view of what they can make money from. Unfortunately by flooding the market with only those books they believe people will buy, they have generated a spiral of self-fulfilling prophecy. The only books that are marketable, are the ones that people are buying, (which are the only ones for sale) so we have to continue putting out books like the ones people are buying, and on the circle goes. It's now reached the point of such ridiculousness that an author I know, who has world wide sales well over the million mark, is unable to get an American publisher interested in his latest work because they can not fit it into their vision of the market place. Although since this is the same industry that had J. K. Rowling "translate" Harry Potter into American I can't say I'm too surprised. If publishing wants to survive and compete in this new high tech world they are going to have to rethink the way in which they do business. Like sports league and other entertainment industries they have started to price themselves out of the reach of the majority of people. When they are paying out advances of one million dollars, plus having to worry about marketing expenses and printing costs the prices of individual books keep rising higher and higher. This of course limits the number of people who are going to buy books, which in turns limits which books are going to be published, and look we're into another spiral of self perpetuating limitations. Sure you can walk into any big chain bookstore and see hundreds if not thousands of books, but walk through any section, be it mystery, science fiction, or just straight fiction and see how many different books there are really. I'm finding it harder and harder to find anything on the shelves that stands out as different and exciting. In the past five years or so I'd say I've come across only five authors whose work is distinctive from the bulk of what's being published. Maybe other people's experiences are different, but I know for myself that whereas I used to be able to go into a bookstore and come out with at least a couple of books I was really interested in; now, more often or not, I come out empty handed. The only two choices I see for publishing houses to change the situation is they either have to start emulating not for profit organizations where the emphasise is on ensuring the work gets produced. The people working for the company make a salary, but there is no one expecting to reap a windfall from the profits to pay for their penthouse over looking Central Park West. The other option is to stop paying authors massive advances. If none of the big houses are willing to pay, then agents will very quickly realize they will have to start lowering demands. If publishers are able to get out from under huge monetary commitments to only a few people, financial risks will be kept to a minimum allowing them to be open to different ideas. Unless, or until, this happens the people who suffer the most, aside from authors, are us the readers. Publishers will continue to deny us access to books because their view of the world is defined by how much will it make me. Tis a pity, but tis true.

10/26/2005

Agoraphobic Cowboy: Rick Moranis Releases Country and Western Album

There's a story that use to circulate around the Toronto acting community about the birth of one of the more famous routines on Canadian television. (Although it maybe just one of those myths that circulate in the world of Canadian entertainment) When SCTV were still being broadcast by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (C.B.C.) they were told that their sketch show needed more direct Canadian content. This being such a ridiculous demand, in light of the cast being predominantly Canadian, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas created the now infamous Mackenzie brothers. It was those moments of brilliant satire that continue to set SCTV apart from the rest of the sketch comedy shows that have come down the pipe in the interim. Focused around the lives of the various characters that ran and appeared in the programming of a low rent television station, the show provided scathing bite the hand that feeds me indictments of their own industry. Moranis Album Cover Since Second City went off the air individual cast member have gone on to do a variety of projects with mixed success. Some like Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara have carved out successful movie careers; Dave Thomas has had roles on a variety of television shows and directed the occasional movie, and Andrea Martin has been doing stage work in Canada. Rick Moranis was one of the ones who carved out a successful movie career for himself in the mid eighties on through to the mid nineties, starting with Ghostbusters, the Honey I Shrunk The Kids franchise, and finishing with his last feature movie The Bully in 1996. Since then he has virtually dropped off the map, limiting himself to voiceovers for animated films rather than committing to features. Like Mark Twain, contrary to rumours of his death he's been very much alive (There was a nasty Internet rumour that made the rounds last year that Mr. Moranis had died in a car crash.) He was happily at home raising his kids and doing some small projects that enabled him to spend time with his family. His most recent project, a country and western CD called The Agoraphobic Cowboy may not sound like something one would associate with the very urban persona presented by Rick in the characters he's created. In a recent interview with the "Globe and Mail" he described the disc's evolution.
"It's not like I said, 'I'm going to write myself a country and western album…I'm not trying to jump-start anything -- I'm not trying to become something I'm not. I had an idea, one that could have been done in another form, but it seemed to fit best as a song…(his daughter) had been listening to a lot of non-commercial music, bands like Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band…I'd rediscovered country and bluegrass through my kids. I wrote a couple of songs and sang them to friends over the phone. I ended up with about a dozen. It wasn't planned." Rick Moranis, "Globe and Mail" Tuesday October 18th /2005
This is obviously not a project he's done with fame in mind, he's selling Agoraphobic Cowboy through a web site on the Artist Share Network, but as a means of continuing to express himself. He's always considered himself a writer and anything else simply a means for getting his writing out there.
"Performance for me was always just a vehicle to get the writing out. That's how I ended up acting -- I never enjoyed it, that's why I stopped -- it was creatively unfulfilling." Rick Moranis, "Globe and Mail" Tuesday October 18th/2005
It's not as if he's a novice when it comes to singing. In the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors he did all his own singing and he did plenty of musical numbers back in his T. V. days. Don't look for him to be making fun of the genre he's playing either. He seems to have a genuine affection for country music, from its more traditional roots all the way up to some of the newer country. Over at his web site, Rick Moranis.com, you can find out much more about Agoraphobic Cowboy. There's a letter from Rich talking about the album and its evolution in detail, a player so you can listen to a song or two, lyrics from a few of the songs, and a link to purchase it. Looking at the lyrics for "I Ain't Goin' Nowhere", done in the mode of Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere"(or for the more modern amongst us, MacLean and MacLean's "I've Seen Pubic Hair") one can see that Moranis hasn't lost his talent for writing satire. It's a peon to the delights of never leaving your house and the joys of agoraphobia. Who needs to live in the world with all its dangers when you have it at the tips of your fingers in the privacy of your own home? The site also has a nice little contact form so you can leave comments for Rick, which I did, along with an offer to review the disc in this space. I've since heard back from Mr. Moranis and he's sending me out a copy of Agoraphobic Cowboy so I'll be posting a review in the very near future. In the meantime head on over to Rick's site and give it a listen. Good satire is hard to come by these days, so it will be interesting to see if Rick Moranis still knows which balloons need popping and where to stick the pins for best effect. Here's hoping he still has the same eye and ear that were so discerning back in the seventies and the eighties. It would go a long way to proving that he's still alive.

10/25/2005

Lists: It's Not What You Are , But Where You Are.

This past year has seen the proliferation of the insidious Top (insert subject and number here) List. Top ten this, top twenty-five that, top fifty, top one hundred, hell there might even be a top one thousand something or other out there for all I know. On its own "Time Magazine" has put out at least four: Top 100 English language books, Top 100 movies, Top 50 Blogs, and Top 10 Graphic Novels. Over the past few months I've seen lists ranging from "Rolling Stone's" Top 100 Guitarists, Top Ten worst band names, worst song titles, best all time actors (both male and female). Hell I was guilty of contributing to the mess myself by compiling a list of my twenty favourite women actors. I have yet to see any point to these things. The argument could be made that they are a means of formulating discussion on topics, but have you seen any of the comments left in any of the threads where these lists are discussed? The majority of it descends into slanging matches and insults. In a world where very few people understand that someone can hold a different opinion without being a congenital idiot, reasonable discourse has gone the way of the horse and buggy. The question in my head, one of many about the peculiarities of modern life, is what impulse drives these list makers? Do the publications make them simply to attract attention to them selves or do they honestly believe they are seen as arbitrators of taste and style to the extent that their opinions are of significant consequence? Of course by far the worst offender in that game is our friend Oprah. Not content with clogging the air waves with her hackneyed new age babble speak psychologist friends, celebrity ass licking, and sentimental manipulation, she has set herself up as the seal of approval for novels. That ubiquities O stares back at you from the covers of books everywhere now. Bookstores have racks devoted to "Oprah's Book Club" choices, and I'm sure publishers are vying for the right to get that blue sticker plunked on the cover of their books. Somehow or other she has gained such influence that the sales figures of any book she selects jumps significantly. When I think about, and in all honestly I try not to give the world of popular culture too much thought because it tends to make me cranky-hence this article-, I begin to see a correlation between Oprah's book club and The Lists. As she gains more influence on the minds and hearts of the consumer, others have begun to worry that their self-perceived place in the pantheon of mass cultural impact is being eroded. Establishments like "Time Magazine", who've always had an overblown view of their own importance (Man of The Year), are finally beginning to realize that they are not even close to being the only game in town anymore. As a weekly they've never been able to be as topical as the newspapers, and now with more and more people using the Internet as a source of news, they have become even less relevant. They and the other print media are desperate to find the means to regain their positions as the voice of authority. Thus the lists: create a category that makes it significant and unique to your publication, and yours becomes the definitive list. Perception and appearance are what matters today above substance, so that the actual content of a list is secondary to the fact that people see you as being important enough to produce one. If worded correctly, like "Time's" best since we've been publishing lists, people don't tend to question why you've done it, instead they treat them seriously. Even when they disagree with you they are giving credence to the fact that what you say matters. I could spew out list after list and probably no one would give a damn. I just don't have the reputation or influence. But for magazines like "Time", "Rolling Stone", "Newsweek", and "People", these things are becoming more and more important. It used to be that most publications would do some sort of end of the year round up, an annual summation to help their audiences put the previous months in perspective. But now it seems like they create any old excuse to come up with a best of type list that will increase their appearance of mattering. It's like they are all hoping that they will become a label on the cover of a book or a record. In the past a book may have had a special notice about the author winning the Booker or the Pulitzer Prize; a record a Grammy; a video an Oscar, and so on. But if publications like "Time" have their way, are we in for a future when books, cds, and DVDs are covered with labels: "Picked as one of the top ten books written during a Leap Year" or " Chosen one of the top twenty albums using pan European-Asian percussion in the new age/retro rock category" Lists have become serious business for the publications producing them. A list is a means for them to utilize their name brand to establish themselves as an authority in a certain field, whether they warrant it or not. Nobody has questioned Oprah's literary credentials; her name alone is all that matters to publishers and booksellers, and the same applies to all the purveyors of lists. It's only a matter of time before publishers, movie producers and music executives start specifically looking for items that will fit the characteristics of what could be chosen by Oprah, or any of the other lists. It will become a symbiotic relationship where items will be produced to fit into the lists, and the lists will identify these items as pieces of quality cementing their reputations as arbitrators of culture. Everybody will be happy and make lots of money, except for the people who don't fit into the list. But if you're not the list, you can't be any good, because you're not on the list.

10/24/2005

Review: The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

Ah the eighties! Those tumultuous years that saw greed become fashionable and two forms of outlaw music become co-opted. By 1980 punk rock was already turning into new wave (how can you tell a punker from a new wavee: a new waver wears pins on their jacket a punker has a pin through her nose) and rap was moving out of the hands of Gil Scott-Herron and Grandmaster Flash into the mitts of Vanilla Ice. Oh they were heady days alright, so much to celebrate and remember: Oliver North, Tammy Faye and Husband Jim Bakker of Pass The Loot our way (All right P.T.L. really stood for Praise The Lord) and Jimmy Swaggert, showing he could be as down and dirty as his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, getting caught with a prostitute in a run down motel. The Pogues The Moral Majority were starting to flex their muscles, and they had to shed some of the more "eccentric" of the brethren if they wanted to be taken seriously. Jerry Falwell and friends were quick to distance themselves from Tammy of the blessed eye shadow and Jimmy's penchant for misunderstanding the meaning of the word proselytising. It was time for the religious right to start being taken seriously, and to prove it Pat Robertson ran for President, well at least the Republican nomination. It turns out America wasn't quite ready for what old Pat was selling and after a good showing in Iowa caucuses he fell quickly by the way side. But it was OK because Papa George was there to succeed King Ronnie who, much to Nancy's chagrin, had to hand over the sceptre of power after eight years. The eighties were so good that even Great Britain got to pretend it was an empire again. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to send her armada across the seas and teach the Argentineans who was boss. No wog from South America was going to threaten the British Sheep Farming Industry of the Falkland Islands if Maggie T. had any say in the matter. Which unfortunately for all the people who died in that war she did. Neither the ghosts of the British and Argentinean sailors who died in that war, nor the soldiers and villagers from the Iran and Iraq war of the same decade, ever seem to get invited to the eighties revival parties and club nights. In fact I sometimes wonder where I was during the eighties because I never recognise any of the music that gets played or te fashions that get worn at these events (Not that I'm very often invited to them either) I was forcibly reminded of this the other day when my wife came home with the special re issue of the seminal Pogues album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash the other day. Originally released in 1985, the good people at Warner Music re-released it last year with six additional cuts obviously never released before. When Rum, Sodomy & the Lash was first released it stood the world of Irish folk music firmly on its ear. Even though the boys were using primarily the same old traditional instruments, boron, tin whistle, etc, they imparted a particular punk like sensibility to their tunes that left some blowing bubbles in their Guinness. (If you've ever had Guinness you'll know how hard that is) It wasn't just the way they played their instruments, hard and fast, which got up the traditionalist's noses, and they could probably have lived with Shane MacGowan's snarling voice and curled lip attitude; the subject matter of their originals was another matter all together. There was no glorification of rebels or Ireland, but songs about rent boys, drugs, and the horrors of war.
"And now I am lying here, I've had too much booze/ I've been shat on and spat on and raped and abused/I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg/For some money to take me from the old main drag" The Pogues: "The Old Main Drag", Rum Sodomy & the Lash 1985.
Yes, well welcome to the real world and all everybody. Ireland's history didn't end in 1926. This is the new world of heroin, hookers and poverty. Not what you want to hear being sung over the uillean pipe and banjo; could put you off your Guinness and chips. Then when the same boyos, and that lassie, wind up and take a run at "Jessie James", it's so hard and fast you don't know when and if you'll ever breath again. Well that just doesn't sit right with some people. Which could explain why you're not going to hear very much from the Pogues at any one of those eighties revival meetings where they stand around and worship at the alter of Adam Ant and Rich Ashely. They didn't have hair that could be flipped back out of their eyes while they doodled cool notes on a keyboard and sang in plumy English boarding school accents about wanting me baby or if you really meant to hurt me. No getting the dirt from the back alleys of Belfast and Dublin tossed in your teeth isn't going to make you sentimental for something you never lived through in the first place and probably wouldn't sell much beer to the university crowd anyway. Snarling drunk Irish poets tend to frighten suburban North Americans who have been raised on the white bread of Brittany, Brandy, and Backstreet Boys. Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (the title was take from a Winston Churchill quote: "Don't talk to me about naval tradition, it's all rum, sodomy and the lash") was the Pogues second album, but it was the one that took them beyond bar band status. For starters it was produced by Elvis Costello, who had taken a real shine to the band, and that gave them instant press credibility and attention.
"I saw my task was to capture them in their dilapidated glory before some more professional producer fucked them up" Elvis Costello
That he did. They shine through like rough diamonds on this disc, unfinished but radiant in their strength and power. Not the polished ring you’d give to your sweetheart maybe, but definitely the drill bit you'd use to carve a lasting impression in stone. For an album that's awash with songs about death, there is something powerfully life affirming about the Pogues' Rum Sodomy & the Lash. The fact that they can perform songs like "The Band Played Waltz Matilda", and "A Pair of Brown Eyes", which both feature not too pleasant reminders of the reality of war, with passion is what offsets the morbidity of the subject matter. Nobody who cares that much looks like they're about to give up the ghost. So if you're like me and were actually of drinking age during the eighties, and you're in need of a serious antidote to the schlock of nostalgia nights, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash from the Pogues is just the thing to get you back on your feet. For those who don't know any better, and think that Boy George was the epitome of eighties rock, please listen to the Pogues, and maybe you won't think us such wankers after all.

10/23/2005

Torture: A Means To What End?

I was reading an article over the weekend that offered a new perspective on the old saying "the ends justify the means". According to Rick Salutin we spend far too much time agonising over the means aspect of that statement without ever analysing the "ends". In his article he looks at the current debate over torture to try and explain his opinion.
"Now, I certainly think you can imagine a situation in which any of us might act brutally under stress for the sake of a noble result, often involving kids or loved ones, or mass murder of innocents…" Rick Salutin, "The Globe and Mail" October 21, 2005
Well, yeah of course, what wouldn't we do if someone we loved were in jeopardy, or we knew that the person in front of us had the answer to preventing mass murder? Probably anything, and then we would have to live with the consequences of our actions. Most likely most of us might have a coupled nights troubled sleep, but aside from that our consciences would be clear. But that's an entirely different matter from the legalization of torture, or turning a blind eye to it by shipping people to a third party country, on the off chance that this person may have information pertaining to "The War on Terror" When the Canadian government allowed Syrian officials to torture people like Maher Arar they did so on the off chance that he might know somebody within Al Queada. Now a lot of people are appalled at the obvious mal treatment of an innocent man, but not many people have questioned the mentality that brought about his circumstances. Mr. Salutin makes the argument that we would be better served questioning the responses to the bombing of the World Trade Centre (The War on Terror, and the level of fear generated by governments among their populaces), than trying to stake out moral high ground on issues like torture. The war in Iraq has a tangible target, whether we agree with it or not is another question, but that war will supposedly end when the pacification of the country is completed and their new government is established. When will the War of Terror end? Who is the enemy? If tomorrow it were announced that Osama bin Laden had been captured would that mark its end? Of course not, there's always going to be someone out there who will be willing to pick up the gauntlet and make anti western statements. There will always be people fanatical enough to be willing to blow themselves to smithereens for a cause. People like the folk who blew up the building in Oklahoma City. The War on Terror is a nebulous phrase which gives who ever is governing the power to do what ever they want without having to make excuses. In Canada there was what was known as the October crises in 1970. The Quebec provincial minister of justice was kidnapped and murdered, and the British high commissioner was kidnapped by the Front de Liberation du Quebec (F.L.Q.). The federal government imposed a little know piece of legislation known as The War Measures Act, which stripped every citizen in Canada of civil liberties. Thousands of people were rounded up and thrown in jail in Quebec just based on suspicion. (Including a surprising number of people who supported candidates running against the incumbent mayor of Montreal in imminent municipal elections) I don’t think one of those people even went to trial let alone served any jail time aside from those days spent wondering why they had been arrested. How many people in Canada and the United States, who are currently being held prisoner, or being shipped out to Syria for torture, are in the same situation right now? What I would find amusing, if it weren't so sad, is how many people who support these moves are the same ones who complain bitterly about what they call government interference in their lives. What could be more invasive than a government's right to arrest you without any reason? Maybe they feel safe because right now because it's other people who are getting rounded up. What would happen if all of a sudden there were a spate of Oklahoma City type bombings again, and the government decided that they had to round people with those types of political leanings? These laws are on the books now, and can be applied to any situation and anybody, not just people with swarthy skin and funny sounding last names. Is that far fetched? Perhaps, but Oklahoma City was bombed, and there are still enough disgruntled people out there that if times change and a government they are less enamoured of comes into power…who knows. I guess the only trouble would be figuring out who to round up. Can't just go around arresting every person who's ever had anything to do with a libertarian now can you? The point is that we need to hold our governments far more accountable for the ends they use to justify their actions. Laws and policies need to reflect more than just the current world situation, but be a reflection of the society they are written for. If we in the developed world claim to be setting the bar as far as governance and social behaviour goes, why are we utilizing the practices of those societies we say we condemn? It is one thing to be driven by the exigencies of circumstances, but another altogether to justify actions in circumstances when they aren't warranted. Ends that allow for any means, while having no clear definition themselves, are subject to abuse that could eventually become more of a threat to our society, than the threat they were supposedly designed to cope with.

10/22/2005

Book Review: The Hickory Staff by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon

Well I've done it again. I've got myself hooked on a new series. Why is it that every time I discover a new author I like he, or in this case they, has to be working on at least a trilogy. Maybe those folks who know they have a long time to develop their plots are able to write with a more carefree attitude. What ever the reason I'm now hooked on The Eldarn Sequence In the first book The Hickory Staff the two authors Robert Scott and Jay Gordon have got their hooks into me and unless they really screw up in the second book, I'm theirs until they've finished. It's not that they've discovered something new under the sun, it's the fact that they've been able to take a familiar theme and give it new life and depth that makes this book, and hopefully the series, such a good read. It’s the standard other world type story, where people from our world accidentally cross over, and find that they have a role to play in preventing a horrible evil from destroying all the worlds. Yep, been there, done that, bought one too many t-shirts and seen the movie in its special tenth anniversary boxed set, would be my reaction too if it wasn't for the fact that the two authors have managed make it seem like no one has ever written this type of story before. I was on a trawling expedition through my local large chain bookstore when I found The Hickory Staff. It was the cover that caught my eye and the title. Simple sepia toned background with a line drawing of a tree, and scripted characters for the title and the author's names: nothing flashy but evocative. I know that authors usually have no control over a book's cover art, but I couldn't help feeling that any work that felt secure enough to package itself plainly deserved a look. The first thing you'll notice differing from other books of this type is that it diverges from the typical formula almost immediately. Instead of the action building on our world with the main characters sliding into the alternative one, the scene shifts continually between the earth and Eldarn. The authors give us the details that the characters from earth are going to have to understand when they get to their eventual destination. The situation in Eldarn and the characters we will meet there are as familiar to us from the start as the people in our own world. While Steven Taylor and Mark Jenkins from Idaho Springs Colorado are still the main characters, they are only cogs in the larger story of the ongoing history of Eldarn. Once we are in Eldarn and certain other facts come to life the idea of alternate worlds is ever so slightly turned on its head. Earth and Eldarn: which is the central world? There has been more traffic from Eldarn to Earth over the years than the other way round. With only Steven, Mark, and Steven's girl friend Hannah, ever having fallen into Eldarn, while planned trips in reverse seem to have happened more than a few times in the past, Earth becomes less the centre of the universe than is usual in these types of stories. The differences between the two worlds lie in the fact that on Eldarn magic is a viable force, where as on earth technology has risen to the forefront. In fact it is the corrupted magic of one sorcerer that has retarded the growth of Eldarn. It's the usual story of power, corruption, and unspeakable evil, where one man Nerak, trying to tap an ancient source of power released an evil that drove him insane. Using his newfound powers he carefully eliminated the ruling families of all the countries of Eldarn, and all but two of his fellow wizards, until he was able to claim absolute dominion over the world. But the ultimate goal of the evil that possesses him is to obtain the "key" that will unlock the magic needed to release the power that will decimate all the worlds. The key happened to end up in a safety deposit box in the bank where Steven Taylor is assistant manager. Steven is one of those guys who epitomises the saying he who hesitates is lost. He lost out on all the good jobs when he graduated from collage by dithering, and so ended up in Idaho Springs as assistant manager in a small bank. Even when he meets Hannah, who he instantly falls in love with, if it wasn't for her being willing to risk taking the initiative, their relationship would never have started. Perhaps his confidence is boosted by her interest, or perhaps something else is pushing events, but whatever it is, when he discovers a one hundred and thirty odd year old safety deposit box in the basement of the bank, he decides he must find out what’s inside of it. One Friday night he secrets the box in his briefcase and takes it home. He and his room mate Mark open the box to discover that it contains a strange rock and a tapestry. They lay the tapestry out flat on the floor. When they notice a current of energy running through the room they assume that the rock could be radioactive. They decide to vacate the apartment to seek assistance in dealing with the dangerous rock. Steven leaves the room and Mark trips and falls into the tapestry. The tapestry is the portal. Steven finally figures out where Mark has vanished to and is horrified. He's frozen with fear. What can he do? He spends the rest of the night berating himself for being a coward, and finally as dawn breaks he works up the nerve and jumps through the portal to try and find Mark. Eldran with its magic and immediate threats forces Steven to finally confront himself. He has been chosen by someone or something to wield an instrument of power: the hickory staff of the title, and be the main opponent to Nerak. He must find a way to remain true to himself but be strong enough to confront the variety of enemies and challenges this strange and wild world throws at him. A key element in the success of this book is the strength and variety of the characters. The writers have done a masterful job in creating a diverse group of peoples with a myriad of motivations for why they do what they do. Even spirits and soulless warriors are allowed to show that they have the potential for more than one dimension. At various times in The Hickory Staff we switch from one group of characters to another, and each time are rewarded with a different perspective of the land and the trials its people have endured. When Steven's girl friend Hannah stumbles through the portal, it’s a day after the guys, and so she ends up in a different part of the world. She is eventually befriended by people who are searching for a means to end the rule of Nerak, and learns more about the seemingly insurmountable task facing all of those who oppose him. When Steven and Mark had landed, they had been picked up by members of the resistance, whose first instinct is to kill them. Anyone dressed as strangely as the two men were must be dangerous. In both instances the strangers are taken to meet someone who supposedly will be able to help them return to their own world. Not surprisingly they turn out to be the two wizards that survived Nerak's killing spree the first time round. It just so happens that they are in completely separate parts of the world, and by the end of the first book Steven and Hannah have yet to be reunited. In fact Steven has had to go back to Colorado to retrieve the "key"(remember that rock) from his apartment before Nerak beats him to it. Unless Steven manages to retrieve the key, and return with it, not only will nobody else be coming home anytime soon, but there might not be any worlds anywhere for anyone. Robert Scott and Jay Gordon have written a tantalizing opening volume to what promises to be an exciting sequence of books. Although there is an underlying threat of action through out the book, it is not dominated by action scenes. The Hickory Staff is far more than just sword and sorcery and this alone would raise it above so many books who attempt the alternate world scenario. What really sets apart are the range and depth of the characters. We learn about all of them naturally; either through their own eyes, or through others' perceptions of them. You find yourself caring about what happens to these people much more than you would normally in most fiction. The Hickory Staff is a book well worth reading, and what's even better is that you know there's more of the same still to come.

10/21/2005

DVD Review: Last Exit and Red Cockroaches

Two new releases from the Heretic DVD label showed up in my mail to be reviewed today. Not having anything else happening I decided to treat myself to a double feature and watch them one after the other. That may not have been one of my wiser decisions. Heretic films specializes in independent films that are "Inventive and cutting edge: scary, violent, gory, and sexy…" Probably not an ideal combination for a calming afternoon double-header, but I didn't really want to watch them after dark. The thing is that both movies had far more substance than most movies that are churned out by the Hollywood machine these days. While Red Cockroaches is a futuristic psychological thriller and Last Exit a film noir type look at people on the bottom rung of society's ladder, they both share a commitment to gritty reality and honesty that is missing from a deal of film making these days. For those of you who still think of "Sundance" as the epitome of independent film making, these movies will be an eye opener. Nigel, the protagonist of Last Exit is a multi time loser down on his luck. Forced to flee his native England because of bad debts to a loan shark, he marries his on again off again Danish girl friend and settles in Denmark. Desperate for money he takes a series of jobs storing stolen goods for a thug called the President. Thus begins his descent from the bottom rung into the pit. He begins a torrid love affair with a prostitute named Tanya (Gry Bay) that alienates him even further from his wife and sucks him deeper into a world of deceit and violence. Even the sex he enjoys with Tanya becomes increasingly surreal, augmented with bizarre light shows and projected images across their bodies. Director David Noel Bourke has created a pulsating, tension filled Copenhagen; short choppy editing, hand held cameras, dissonant music and unreal lighting combine to augment the feeling of a life spiralling out of control. The only times that Nigel and we get any relief are his visits to Jimmie, the existentialist pot dealer. If such a thing could be said to exist in Last Exit you could describe Jimmie as comic relief, but in reality he is more like a calm pool in the rapids that are carrying Nigel over the edge. He tries to tell Nigel what he needs to hear to find his way out of his turmoil, but Nigel won't listen and eventually his final plunge is assured. The acting in Final Exit is surprisingly good, with the cast able to be convincing in their roles, without the usual B-movie bad acting mannerisms. Morten Bogelius as Nigel is especially capable in his depiction of the multi-time loser. You can see in his eyes the fact that he knows, no matter what he says, does, or thinks, that he is lost. It's just a matter of time before it falls apart completely. There are a couple of scenes of violence in this movie that some people might find overt, including me, but it's not a gore fest by any stretch of the imaginations. The violence is not gratuitous, as it does fit into the scheme of the movie, but if you have a weak stomach there are a couple of times when you should keep your DVD player's remote handy. Red Cockroaches on the other hand has little on screen heavy physical violence; all of the violence in this movie is done to your brain and perceptions of life. Plot twists and red herrings abound, with tidbits delivered via television commercials and interviews so that we get our information in the exact same manner as the movie's characters. Our setting is at some future point in New York City's history. There are rumours that the acid rain has gotten so bad that it is causing human mutations to occur. Flying cars dot the horizon, but there is still street traffic as well. As the movie progresses the situation in the world seems to be deteriorating on par with the disintegration of the main character's life. When we first meet Adam he is drifting. He's involved with a girl whom he doesn't seem to really care about, he has a job that means nothing to him, and he's as bland and boring as anybody can be. One day he catches sight of a striking young woman on the subway platform. They make eye contact, and he is quickly enthralled and walks over to meet her, but by the time he gets to where she was, she's gone. Mysteriously, right where she was standing a human tooth has appeared. Without having even talked to her, she seems to have already started to affect his life. He breaks off his relationship with his girlfriend and begins to reassess where he's going and who he is. The very next day the mysterious woman shows up at his apartment inquiring about the roommate wanted advertisement that Adam had placed. In the end she decides not to take the room and leaves. On a trip out to his mother's we find out that Adam's father and sister both died ten years ago in a car crash. As his mother has reminded him that it is the tenth anniversary of their death, he decides to visit their grave on the way back into town. Mysteriously the woman is there also. They start to have sex but are chased away by a minister. Again she appears to vanish into thin air. Adam receives a panicky phone call from his mother and rushes out to her house, only to find the mysterious woman there. She is claiming to be his sister. She and the father had been in France at the time of the accident and she claims that the French authorities had kept her alive in a coma for nine years, and she has just awoken recently. Lilly, has already convinced their mother of who she is, but Adam doesn't want to, and can't believe this strange woman is his dead sister Lilly. Unfortunately for him and his confused desires, she is able to supply irrefutable proof of her identity, by knowing things that only Lilly could have known. The problem is that Adam hadn't been thinking of her as his sister, and isn't able to get those thoughts out of his mind. Lilly doesn't seem to be discouraging them either. She acts in a deliberately provocative manner, which results in what can only be described as a type of consensual rape. Lilly had wanted this to happen so that she could have the excuse to reveal a secret. When they had both been children their father had sexually abused her while Adam had watched. She both hates Adam and wants him to devote himself to her. Eventually he makes the choice, and they become lovers. All around them the world is getting worse: the city of New York is now sounding alarms whenever it looks like rain so that people can seek shelter because the effects have gotten so bad; mysterious red cockroaches have shown up everywhere and nobody is sure where they came from or what they mean; and children are starting to disappear. Is there some connection between the three happenings, and even more mysteriously could Lilly be in some way connected? At one point when Lilly is out of the house Adam comes across the tooth he had found on the subway platform. When he breaks it open with a hammer he discovers a small red insect like creature had been living inside. Red Cockroaches takes us into places where we don't want to go. Incest between a brother and sister is one of the big taboos of our society. This movie asks us what would you do, could you pull back if you found out the woman you were obsessing about turned out to be your sister? What lengths would you go to in order to make the relationship work? We can see the toll this is taking on Adam. At the beginning of the movie he is neat and tidy. He dresses well and takes care of himself. As the movie progresses he lets himself go. His hair gets long and unkempt and he is paying less attention to the rest of his appearance. We get the feeling that there's still more to Lilly than meets the eye. Why is she involved with her brother, especially after she has almost accused him of being complicit in her abuse as a child? Is she out for revenge, or is she just confused and messed up from her years in the coma, and the sexual abuse? Either answer would explain her behaviour; half coquettish, half stay away from me or I'll kill you. Director Miguel Coyula has done a masterful job of putting this puzzle together, and leading us through the maze of emotions and secrets. He has also done a fantastic job of integrating computer-generated elements into the live action. The virtual and the real blend together almost seamlessly, so that when a flying car flits across the screen it looks like the everyday experience its supposed to be. His two leads, Adam Plotch and Talia Rubel as Adam and Lilly respectively are called upon to do some difficult and emotionally draining work. Any number of their scenes could have disintegrated into overacting and melodrama, but they and the director have done a fine job of keeping it as real as possible. Both roles call for degrees of subtlety that would be difficult for many actors to handle, but these two do valiant work in difficult circumstances. Some of their scenes together could not have been easy to perform, and they should be given credit for doing them in such a credible manner. Like Last Exit, Red Cockroaches deals with subject matter that is far from mainstream and not for the delicate. But instead of being worried about squeamishness, I would worry about the emotional burden placed on the viewer by this movie. Some may find the end of the movie leaves too many questions unanswered, but, relationships like Adam and Lilly's go beyond rationale, anyway on the back of the DVD box it says something about Red Cockroaches being the first of three movies, so maybe the answers are still forth coming. There's a fine line between violent gross out B movie flicks, and razor sharp independent movies that go places studio movies wouldn't dare. Both Last Exit and Red Cockroaches manage to stay on the right side of that line and present grim, challenging views of the world. They might be unsettling, but so is the world.

10/20/2005

News: The Small Big Picture

We live in a world of continual news reports. Anytime of the day or night you can turn on your television, radio, or computer and receive updates on the world's situation. Satellites beam information from the four corners of the world on a continual basis, providing a continual update on whatever is considered "hot". Images of grim faced reporters are flashed into our living rooms; terse sounding voices emanate from our radios; and scrolls of typeset flash across our monitors: each one striving to provide us with the "big picture" first. But how "big" is that "big picture"? Most broadcasters are going to only show news that is pertinent to their viewing audience. If you are watching a regional broadcast you're sure to receive the latest crime reports, municipal news, and updates on the local sports teams. If the station is an affiliate of a larger network at some point you will receive some international and national clips that head office has deemed important enough to make available for local consumption. Usually they are the stories that the national broadcast team will be covering in greater depth latter in the evening. Dependant on the country you live in, and sometimes even the region of the country you live in, the important stories will vary according to what the broadcasters believe you want to know about. If you live in Quebec Canada for instance, and there is any story making the news about the issue of language or sovereignty you can be sure that will be the lead item. Similarly if you live in the United States the lead story will have to do with either the latest news from Washington, or updates on the situation in Iraq. Broadcasters, newspapers, even Internet sites, exist to make money for their owners. (Even supposedly "public" broadcasters like the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (C.B.C.) operate on that principle) It only makes sense that they offer up material that will appeal to as many people as possible. Invariably what results is an across the board uniformity of stories and information. Nobody who depends on market shares for survival risks editorializing for fear of alienating potential audience. This means that any statement issued by any public figure, no matter how far fetched or misinformed, will be reported verbatim and lent the veneer of legitimacy associated with appearing on the news. All of our politicians have learned long ago how to exploit this and use it for their own ends. They can make the wildest accusations about opponents in a political campaign and know it will be reported without question. If a newspaper headline reads that candidate "A" accused their competitor of being unpatriotic, the simple fact that it is printed without commentary or analysis lends it an air of credibility. Once something is presented as "fact", no matter how farfetched, by the media, it's as if it has been given a stamp of approval. No matter what happens afterwards the first impression is what sticks in people's minds. Your mother didn't know how right she was when she stressed the importance of making a good first impression. The media, much to the hilarity of people on all sides of the political spectrum, have always staked out the moral high ground of objectivity. They claim it is their job as reporters of the news to not tell people how to think, just to let them know what's going on. They seem to forget that there is a difference between analysis and opinion. Unbelievable as it may sound, it is possible to analyse a situation without venturing a personal opinion. Instead of blithely reporting that someone has said 2 + 2 = 5 and leaving it at that, why not point out that 2 + 2 actually equals four? As long as you don't call them mathematically challenged, you won't be offering an opinion. The media often adorn themselves with titles like International, World News, or something similar. It sounds impressive doesn't it? But what does it really mean? I know that in Canada the C.B.C. makes no bones about it and says right up front something along the lines of: "The stories that matter to you from a Canadian perspective". That means when they run a story on the softwood tariff dispute between Canada and The Untied States, we hear from the Canadians involved, and get the Canadian view on the matter. Perhaps they'll let an American speak, but only so his points can be rebutted. On the other side of the border, if the story is even making the news, I would guess the opposite would be true. Spokespeople from the American lumber industry, and Industry and Trade, would be trotted out to give their view. Each side will use their media to spread their word to the people. The cast might stay the same, but dependant on which side of the border you are on, the role of villain and hero switches. That's why if amuses me so much to hear anyone accuse another media of being propaganda. In its current incarnation that's all any mass media is anymore. Open any newspaper; watch any broadcast, and some one's view is going to be propagated as the truth. Whether government policy, moral standards, or casualty lists of civilians from a war. Everything that is printed or televised is designed to shape opinion. Certainly state controlled media outlets are more obviously controlled, but hasn't our media, through its refusal to analyse, become no more than a mouthpiece for those with power? If any dare stray from the official line they are vilified as being unpatriotic or playing into the hands of our enemies? The sad part is that we, and I mean we in all the supposed free press countries, not just the United States, have gone along with this. The press, and the public have all allowed the erosion of our one means of questioning authority to happen without complaint. While the Internet has opened up discussion, in the form of blogs and independent news web sites, the majority of people still obtain their information from the same old sources. While the Internet does provide anyone with a computer the chance to voice their opinions in public, and provide a means for dissemination of dissenting view points, how long will it be before it is co-opted into the mainstream. All the major networks, and newspapers maintain a web presence, as do radio stations and politicians. What is going to make the virtual world that much different from the real world? If you go to any site that has political discussion all you are likely to find is people slagging each other about their opinions. That's not going to lead to a freer and opener expression of the news. What it comes down to is what are people going to be satisfied with in the form of news. As long as we continue to turn to and accept the mainstream outlets nothing is going to change. We will continue to get a very limited view of the big picture.

10/19/2005

Muhammand Ali: The Good Fight

I've never been a big fan of boxing; the attraction of seeing two people whale away on each other has always alluded me. There's also always been that sort of sleazy aftertaste associated with the sport; poor kids from the slums risking their lives and unscrupulous promoters making big money from their sweat. But there was a period of about eight or nine years from 1970 onwards, that one figure stood out in the boxing world as no other had before or will ever again. I first became aware of Muhammad Ali when he lost his come back fight to Joe Frazier in 1970. It was his first fight back after having had his world heavyweight title stripped from him for refusing to report for the draft and fight in Viet Nam. Ali Frazier 75 I was only nine years old at the time and knew nothing of the background behind the fight, Ali's history as the young Cassius Clay, his conversion to Islam, or his history of draft resistance. But there was something about him that captured my imagination, and held me enthralled up to his rematch with Leon Spinks where he once again retained his championship. When Frazier beat him in 1970 I remember being disappointed, but if you had asked me why I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Looking back on it now I understand my feelings better. They were all brought back the other day by an article in the on line "Globe and Mail" which reported on the forty best magazine covers of the past forty years. The initial picture that accompanied the article was actually of the third place winner: Esquires' 1968 picture of Muhammad Ali pierced by a number of arrows a la St. Sebastian. ali cover They had obviously chosen the image to depict his tribulations over being banned from boxing because of his refusal to fight. I wonder now if the irony of a fighter refusing to fight in a war was lost on people back then? Or were there so many other issues in America in 1968 that irony was a luxury reserved for people outside the fray? I understand now why Ali appealed to me unlike the rest of my classmates, who merely parroted the putdowns that were common those days: boastful, obnoxious, and a show off. Abuse victims need figures of hope and encouragement; they also cheer for the outsider and the underdog. If he or she loses the disappointment isn't as bad, but if they do win out against the odds, than it gives you hope for yourself. I doubt that any of those thoughts would have formed that coherently in my young confused brain when I chose to identify with Ali, I just thought he was cool. Neither my parents nor older brother had much interest in sports, so there was little or no influence exerted on me when it came to decisions about whom to support or cheer for. The only conflicts that ever ensued was attempting to read the sports section to find out the results of his matches. In those pre pay per view satelitte broadcasts, a fight fought on the other side of the world in Zaire or Manila, might not find it's way into the sport's section until a day or two after the bout. In those days "The Globe and Mail" sport's section was tacked on to the business section, and read back to front. In order to read anything I had to be able to grab the paper before my father came down to breakfast, and scan through it quickly. Otherwise I wouldn't see it unless it returned from work with him that evening. So I was only able to follow Ali's triumphs over Foreman, Norton, and finally Frazier in quickly grabbed snatches. Then there was the series of stupid fights, as a board Ali looked to make money while waiting another serious challenge. It was that period of his career where he came closest to becoming a cartoon figure: a caricature of himself. The seventies seemed to bring out the worst in a lot of people. In the late seventies one of those "bums" surprised him; Leon Spinks beat an obviously out of shape Ali. In his hey day he could have stopped Spinks cold, but now he was nearing the end of his boxing days, and unprepared, the unthinkable happened. He lost. All the old detractors came out of the woodwork where they had been lurking. That loud-mouthed punk had finally got what was coming to him. No one believed that he could come back again, except Ali. The experts wrote him off as too old and too slow. In probably one of the last fights televised live on Network television Ali danced around Leon Spinks for fifteen rounds. Bobbing and weaving, he hit Spinks at will. It didn't matter that his punches lacked the power they once had, what mattered is that he couldn't be touched. He was still up on his toes in round fifteen, effortlessly holding his opponent at bay with jabs to the face and fancy footwork. Up in the broadcast booth, Howard Cosell, who had covered Ali's fights for longer then anybody else in the media, couldn't help himself. There had been times when the two men had been at odds with each other, but not now. As Ali put on a boxing clinic Cosell became less and less the objective media representative and more the fan. At one point in round fifteen he did something I'll never forget: (for a variety of reasons) he recited chunks of the Bob Dylan song "Forever Young" in recognition of Ali's achievement that night. (This wasn't the last time that Cosell would break out of his sportscasters' role and reach out to the audience: on the night John Lennon was murdered, he was working Monday night football. All of a sudden the commentary stopped. He came back on the air and made the announcement of what had happened, and said he didn't think it appropriate to continue on with the commentary, and just let the game run on its on.) That fight was pretty much it for Ali's career. Larry Holmes was waiting in the wings, and became the next champion. Heavyweight boxing hasn't been the same. Those same people who probably dumped on Ali have finally realized what a unique person he was, and how much money he made them. Without his presence the sport has once again been relegated to the fringes of the sports sections. The lightweights and the featherweights have their followers, especially amongst the Latino population in the United States, but they don't have the glamour of the heavyweights. The combination of Don King, Mike Tyson, and Bob Avrum has left such a negative impression in so many people's minds that it will take a boxer with the character and personality of Ali to recapture people's hearts. But there will never be another Ali. Ali was, and still is, a symbol of hope for so many people, especially those of African descent. He showed that the game, any game, could be played on your own terms, and that you could stand up for what you believed in and still win. Maybe that's why he's treated like a head of state whenever he travels through Africa. With his walk reduced to a shuffle and his speech slurred through the ravages of Parkinson's disease, he still commands immediate attention when he walks in a room. On the T.V. clips I've seen of him he still carries himself with dignity and that mischievous twinkle still shows up in his eye. Thankfully somebody around Ali ensured that he would have money when he stopped boxing so he can now live out his days in comfort. When he boldly predicted he would knock out Sonny Liston more then forty years ago, he was dismissed as a loud mouth that would soon get his comeuppance. He has spent the time since confounding his critics both inside and out of the ring. Here's hoping he's able to for years still to come.