Saturday, June 2, 2012

Shakespeare’s Bookmark: Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

As a bookseller, I encountered rather mixed reactions to Canadian fiction. These tended to be something like Oh or Um or No Thank You. Usually, all three.

What is wrong with Canadian fiction, I would ask.

It is too bland, they would say. Too drab. I don’t like it.

Oh, I would say back.

And then I would offer them Come, Thou Tortoise in hopes of changing their minds.

The first novel of Newfoundland’s Jessica Grant, Come, Thou Tortoise wanders between two narrators. The first is Audrey “Oddly” Flowers, whose father lies in a coma after an accident – or as Oddly insists on calling it, a collision – with a Christmas tree. Oddly flies home to St. John’s to be with her family, stubbornly optimistic in the face of growing questions about her father and her future. Whether she’s inventing strange shovels, rescuing laboratory mice, or getting trouble with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, Oddly’s voice made me smile from the first page.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Neglected Gem #16: Stone Reader (2002)

Stone Reader has a delicious premise. The director, Mark Moskowitz, a voracious and life-long reader whose library has followed him around from youth to middle age, revisits a book called The Stones of Summer that he first acquired in the early seventies, after he’d read a rave review in The New York Times claiming it as the book of its generation. Moskowitz tried it on two occasions and put it aside, but now, nearly thirty years after its release, he reads it from cover to cover and finds it enthralling. So he checks on the Internet for other works by its author, Dow Mossman, who wrote it as a young man, just out of the University of Iowa writing program. (The Stones of Summer began as his M.F.A. thesis.) To his surprise, Moskowitz can’t find any other works by Mossman, or any further references to him or to this prodigious debut novel. So he sets out to find Mossman, and to learn why he never published anything else. His quest, which becomes an obsession and takes up a couple of years of his life, has him journey to New England, Manhattan and Iowa and puts him in touch with a variety of people who were once linked to Mossman or to the Iowa writing program, or who can shed light on the elusive and exasperating publishing process. He interviews former New Yorker chief Bob Gottlieb, who, as a young editor at Knopf, was instrumental in getting Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in print; the literary critic Leslie Fielder (in what may have been his final interview); Frank Conroy, head of the Iowa program, and William Murray, whose tough-love approach to his students at Iowa both battered them and left them grateful admirers (and to whom The Stones of Summer is dedicated); John Seelye, who wrote the review in the Times; and Carl Brandt, Mossman’s agent at the time when he put out the book. He even tracks down the artist who designed the cover.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Atlas Pumped – Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder

When I was a young lad reading my Superman and Batman comic books, I was always fascinated by an ad that appeared in every issue. It featured a skinny young guy (not unlike myself) sitting on the beach with his fetching girlfriend and having sand kicked in his face by some jock who was built like an express train. Of course, the lean kid was humiliated, and the girl ran off with the beefcake. This was the selling point for Charles Atlas, a popular bodybuilder who could turn your beanpole frame into a brickhouse and you'd never have to have sand kicked in your face again.

The very idea of crushing bullies with a quickly acquired set of brutal biceps had a certain appeal (especially for a guy who for years to follow would have to grow used to losing girlfriends to intimidating guys with Ferrari's), but it wasn't alluring enough for me to send away for barbells and catch what Samuel Wilson Fussell, in his autobiographical expose Muscle, calls "the disease." The "disease" he describes is the obsession with transforming yourself into the fearsome giant you once dreaded. In Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder (William Morrow, 1992), Fussell takes us pretty far into the secret world of the sissy who hides inside his hulking flesh. "The beauty of it all," he confesses, "lay in the probable fact that I would never be called upon to actually use these muscles. I could remain a coward and no one would know." What makes Muscle such a compelling read is that Fussell brings a frighteningly precise awareness of what he did to himself and why.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Brutal Sympathy: Women in Peckinpah’s Westerns

Teresa (Sonia Amelio) and General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) in The Wild Bunch

Can a filmmaker obsessed with machismo also be feminist? With Sam Peckinpah, you wonder. His luminous westerns – Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972) – are lyric meditations on machismo. They’re about cowboys, outlaws, drifters and rodeo stars caught in a changing world, and the last flaring up of their spirits before they are pinioned by the machinery of that change. But they are also about how those men relate to the women they encounter on their journeys, women, like them, trapped by circumstance and fighting to retain some glimmer of their humanity. The gloriously spacious landscapes of the American west (shot in each case by Lucian Ballard), with the teeming blues and yellows of wide skies and sweeping country, express the paradoxical entrapment these characters feel, their longing to break free and their uncertainty of what they’d be breaking free to, but they also infuse the movies with a kind of moral spaciousness. The characters, male and female, have room to be who they are, without judgment before the eyes of the camera. That’s the romanticism of Peckinpah’s westerns, and it often comes out in romantic plots that bring together pairs of lovers in sublime meetings of equals. 

It’s not exactly that Peckinpah stands out among the work of other American New Wave directors for his sensitivity to female experience – not in a generation that includes Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant), Robert Towne (Personal Best) and Brian De Palma (Carrie, Blow Out). It’s the way he gets at that experience that is so unusual and so dazzling. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can refract a feminist sensibility through male, at times misogynistic, perspectives. That’s what Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch, which, unlike Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue or Junior Bonner, has no heroine or even any single female character on screen for more than a few minutes. Instead, the women are diffuse, and they become part of the imagistic tapestry of the movie, indissoluble from its human vision and moral dimension. In the sensory overload of its turbulent pacing the feminist ideas can feel oblique and at times almost encrypted, but it’s Peckinpah’s most complicated examination of romantic sympathy.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Private Battle, Publicly Fought: Our Obsession with Competitive Running

The start of Halifax's 9th annual Bluenose Marathon, last Sunday

Last Sunday was the 9th annual Bluenose Marathon in Halifax. At 8am, I laced up my sneakers and got ready to run the 10K. Leading up to the race, when anyone inquired as to the distance I was running, I found myself apologetically admitting that I was only doing the 10K. The 10K was in fact the most popular of the 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon, with almost 2800 participants. As I crossed the finish line with a sense of pride at completing my lowly 10K, I began to wonder what (besides a sense of pride) compels our society to embrace running as we do.

For many of us, running is a chance to run away, to escape. Of course, everyone escapes different things in different ways. Over ten years ago, Running Times published an article entitled “The Marathon Mystique.” Their claim was, particularly in the age of convenience and shortcuts, we run marathons for the sheer challenge – to escape the banality of everyday life with a rigorous training schedule and finite goal. In a recent Globe and Mail article, Katrina Onstad writes convincingly that she runs to be alone – to escape the world and all the noise that comes with it. But for every runner in training mode, there’s a casual jogger. For every solo sprinter, there’s a running community.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to Coolidge: Nice Work If You Can Get It and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Matthew Broderick and the Cast of Nice Work If You Can Get It

With the obvious exception of George and Ira Gershwin, no one involved with the new Broadway musical Nice Work If You Can Get It is at his or her best:  not the director-choreographer, Kathleen Marshall (also represented currently on Broadway by her irresistible production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes), or the two stars, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, or the scenic designer, Derek McLane or the costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz.  Joe DiPietro’s book is a limp reworking of the plot of the Gershwins’ 1926 hit musical Oh, Kay! (the original was the work of those skillful musical-comedy wordsmiths, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse) about the romance of a playboy and a bootlegger whose hooch is stashed in the cellar of his Long Island mansion.  It would have made sense for Marshall to stage a revival of Oh, Kay!, which still has a lot of charm and a delectable score.  (You can hear the score complete, impeccably restored by Tommy Krasker, on a 1994 Nonesuch recording with Dawn Upshaw as Kay.)  Nice Work is a jukebox musical with twenty-one Gershwin tunes shoehorned in, many of them randomly.  Often musicals in the pre-Show Boat days (Oh, Kay! was one of the last, opening just thirteen months earlier) and even afterwards were just vehicles for songs and performers, but as disposable as the dramatic situations may have been, the songs generally fit them.  At least a third of the song cues in Nice Work are about as convincing as the ones in Mamma Mia!:  Billie (O’Hara), the renamed heroine, may be feisty but she’s not the kind of girl who would demand of a would-be lover, “Treat Me Rough.”  And why, exactly, is she singing “Hangin’ Around with You” while (masquerading as a domestic) she serves dinner to Jimmy (Broderick) and his house guests?

Only two of the songs, “Someone to Watch Over Me” (the hit of the original show) and “Do, Do, Do,” have been rescued from Oh, Kay!  The rest come from a variety of other Gershwin scores.  “Do It Again” from The French Doll predates George’s collaboration with Ira (Buddy DeSylva wrote the lyric). “Treat Me Rough” and “But Not for Me” are from Girl Crazy, “Looking for a Boy” and the show’s cabaret-set opener, “Sweet and Lowdown” from Tip-Toes, “I’ve Got to Be There” from Pardon My English.  “By Strauss,” which most Gershwin fans probably remember best from the 1951 Vincente Minnelli film An American in Paris, was a one-off contribution by the brothers to a 1936 musical called The Show Is On.  “I’ve Got a Crush on You” was written for Treasure Girl and then reused in the second version of Strike Up the Band, which is also the source of “Hangin’ Around with You.”  “Delishious” and “Blah Blah Blah” hail from the Gershwins’ first movie score, Delicious, and “Demon Rum” from The Shocking Miss Pilgrim  not made until 1946, nine years after George’s death, and containing songs Ira and Kay Swift dug out of his manuscripts.  The other seven songs are all associated with Fred Astaire, Gershwin’s personal favorite among the interpreters of his own work.  “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Lady Be Good” are from Lady, Be Good! And “’S Wonderful” from Funny Face – the two musicals the Gershwins wrote for Astaire and his sister and first dancing partner, Adele.  “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed,” among the last songs George penned, were sung by Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the film Shall We Dance, and Astaire crooned “Nice Work If You Can Get It” in A Damsel in Distress the same year, 1937.  Nice Work’s single contribution to the history of Gershwin performance is its rediscovery of a plaintive ballad called “Will You Remember Me?” that the brothers wrote for Lady, Be Good! but never used.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has A Mouth, and He Will Scream

Writer Harlan Ellison turns 78 today and if you don’t know who he is, you should. I mention his birthday, as well, because he’s dying, or at least that’s what he told The Daily Page in an interview in September 2010, just before his appearance at a science fiction convention in Wisconsin, reportedly his last public appearance. "The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying," says Ellison, by phone. “I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West – I'm melting. I began to sense it back in January. By that time, I had agreed to do the convention. And I said, I can make it. I can make it. My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There's three quarters of a novel ... When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."

Now it’s not for me to question Ellison’s comments – as of this writing, he’s still around nearly two years later – and his health problems are likely quite serious – he had a crucial heart bypass operation in 1996. Nor has he published an original collection of stories since Slippage in 1997 (Troublemakers, his 2001 collection was mostly made up of previously published material with new introductions aimed at a younger demographic who likely didn’t know his work.) But this is not what this post is all about. It’s a celebration of one of America ’s most unique, uncompromising and fascinating talents, who’s been a constant in my life since high school.