Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Playoff Predictions

NHL Playoffs, Round Two

I went 4-4 in the last round, which suggests you should ignore the predictions below.

Easter Conference

Boston vs. Carolina: Boston but it will be close.
Washington vs. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh and it won't be as close.

Western Conference

Detroit vs. Anaheim: Detroit.
Vancouver vs. Chicago: Vancouver.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Book Blurb

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

The first time I heard of Philipp Meyer's American Rust was in a Bat Segundo show with Patricia Cornwell, the mystery veteran, who praised the debut novel. I filed the name of the book away. Then some time later I read a glowing review from Michiko Kakutani; if Meyer could please her, could he please anybody? There were other good reviews, which I can't remember specifically, and I was convinced to read American Rust.

Does it live up to the hype? I would say it does. I found it hard to put down: the plot and characters are believable and authentic. It reminded me of Mystic River, who Kakutani mentioned, but Meyer doesn't rely on any twists. Every action seemed inevitable in the way that Meyer was recalling history. It was truth as much as it was fiction.

Verdict: Read this book.


Pulitzer Winner

Why Did Elizabeth Strout Win?

I had read the last two winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction before they won - no literature bandwagon jumper was I. So when Elizabeth Strout won this year's award for her collection of linked stories, Olive Kitteridge, I was a bit disappointed that I hadn't read the book: after all, it had been sitting on my to-read shelf for the last two months. (I'm, obviously, easily disappointed.)

The Pulitzer winner pushed Strout's book to the top of the heap and I read in a couple of sittings this weekend. 

My verdict? It's good, yes; it's well-written, no doubt; but it feels ordinary at the same time. I'm not sure Strout takes any real risks. I guess putting a supposedly unlikeable character at the centre of many of the stories could be seen as a risk but I didn't hate Olive Kitteridge; perhaps I know too many people like her.

Where's my evidence for my less-than-impressed views? That would take a legitimate attempt at reviewing Olive Kitteridge; bit lazy to do that. Instead, know this: there are worse novels than this year's Pulitzer winner and there are better ones. No matter who wins any year, this will always be true.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Vampire Fiction

Not Twilight, but Del Toro

I heard a rumour a while back that Guillermo Del Toro was writing a vampire novel. Not so, a rumour that is. Publisher's Weekly has the first review:
The Strain Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Morrow, $26.99 (416p)
Director Del Toro (who won an Oscar for Pan's Labyrinth) makes a dramatic splash in his fiction debut, the first volume in a vampires vs. humanity trilogy, coauthored with Hogan (Prince of Thieves). Just as a jumbo jet on a flight from Germany to New York is touching down at JFK, something goes terribly wrong. When Ephraim Goodweather, of the Centers for Disease Control, investigates the darkened plane, he finds all but four passengers and crew dead, drained of blood. Despite Goodweather's efforts to keep the survivors segregated, they get discharged into the general population. Soon after, the corpses of the tragedy's victims disappear. The epidemiologist begins to credit the wild stories of Abraham Setrakian, an elderly pawnbroker who's the book's Van Helsing figure, and concludes that a master vampire has arrived in the U.S. The authors maintain the suspense and tension throughout in a tour de force reminiscent of Whitley Strieber's early work. (June)
It earned a star, too.


Playoff Predictions

NHL Playoffs, Round One

It's that time of year when I make wild guesses because I didn't pay enough attention to the regular season. I might as well be picking these out of a cereal bowl.

Easter Conference

Boston vs. Montreal: Boston, because its fashionable.
Washington vs. New York Rangers: Washington, because they'll lose next round.
New Jersey vs. Carolina: New Jersey, because Brodeur.
Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia: Philly, because the Penguins won't this year.

Western Conference

San Jose vs. Anaheim: San Jose, because I didn't pay any attention to the West.
Detroit vs. Columbus: Detroit, because of experience.
Vancouver vs. St. Louis: Vancouver, because of Mats... Yeah, right.
Chicago vs. Calgary: Calgary, because we need two Canadian teams to move on.


Journalism Problems

A Roundup of Articles

The New York Times Monday Business section covers the media, and this week, with the bad shape newspapers find themselves in, as the media keeps on telling us, the Times offers a number of interesting articles about journalism.
  • "Hyperlocal" news websites: This is an interesting concept, but I have doubts about the long-term viability of this. Or perhaps I just don't care enough about what's going on a street away from my house.
  • Magazines increase cover price: The New Yorker, the only magazine I subscribe to that's mentioned in this article, already charges a large amount for its print subscription in Canada. Would I pay more if they raised it? Likely. Would I pay more if a Canadian magazine raised its subscription fees? No, because I don't read any; none fall under the category of Must-Read.
  • David Carr on how newspapers blew it: The Times' media columnist writes about how some people believe newspapers blew their opportunity to charge readers. The people who make this criticism are mostly right.
  • Boston rallies around the Globe: With the threat of the Boston Globe being closed disclosed, Bostonians have rallied around their city's newspaper (they have more than one, but this one's special). I don't have to wonder whether I would rally around one of the Toronto papers if it was being threatened this way. You can read through my many posts where I express my disdain for most local journalism. And can you blame me? In today's Star, the editors chose a New York Times rip-off story for the front page. Here's the Times story (also a front-pager) from Sunday. Here's the Star's, which makes no reference to the original. Great work, all around.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mavis Gallant

Randy Boyagoda Reviews Gallant's Newest Collection

In today's National Post, Randy Boyagoda reviews the latest collection from Mavis Gallant, a sometimes forgotten Canadian short story writer. Boyagoda's verdict is good:
To describe Going Ashore as a collection of the “missing” stories of Mavis Gallant, as Douglas Gibson does in his prefatory note, is to suggest only two possibilities to the reader: Either these stories have never appeared in book form because they didn’t match the superior quality of those stories that made up Gallant’s earlier works — such lapidary collections as The Pegnitz Junction, From The Fifteenth District and Home Truths, not to mention her 900-page Selected Stories; or, as Douglas himself proposes, there simply wasn’t enough space in any of the prior collections for these uncollected stories, which are just as strong. As a stay against disappointment, one can’t but approach this new collection presuming the former while hoping for the latter. Good news. Going Ashore rewards that hope.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Eleven-hundred-page Epic

Stephen King's Next Novel

The Guardian reports the first details about Stephen King's upcoming, twenty-five-years-in-the-making, eleven-hundred-page epic, Under the Dome:
Set in the town of Chester's Mills, Maine, "on an entirely normal, beautiful fall day", inhabitants suddenly find that the town has been sealed off by an invisible force field. "Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener's hand is severed as 'the dome' comes down on it, people running errands in the neighbouring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact," King revealed on his website. "No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when – or if – it will go away."

Characters in the cast of more than 100 include Dale Barbara, a Gulf veteran and now a cook, the town's newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician's assistant at the hospital and three children. They're up against an evil politician, Big Jim Rennie – who's desperate to hold onto power and will stop at nothing, even murder – and his son, who in classic King style, "is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry". Meanwhile, time under the Dome is running out.
I still haven't tackled King's last 600-plus-page epic... Yikes.



Stalin + Martians

Stalin vs. Martians: The Video Game



Hella Nation

The Daily Beast Talks With Evan Wright

Evan Wright, the author of the great Iraq book Generation Kill, has a new one coming out, titled, Hella Nation. The Daily Beast has an interview with him:

What does “Hella Nation” mean?

Basically, it’s stupid slang. It was just a phrase used by one of the anarchists. It’s actually a meaningless phrase. It means fringes. I used a weird, almost meaningless slang phrase because it’s a part of America beyond conventional description. It’s the primordial ooze.

You talk about feeling more calm in Afghanistan as an embedded reporter than you were as a civilian in Los Angeles.

When I’m in a war zone or in a dangerous situation, I don’t know if I’m chasing a high or well-equipped for this because I’ve had a life of such chaos. There are certain stories I’ve done that I don’t know what the social value is. But other things—anarchy, crime, war—it’s important. I went there because I was like, Whoa, my country’s at war, and Iraqis are dying. And it’s a serious thing.

I'll probably get around to reading this at some point. Generation Kill is worth the time, and I have the HBO mini-series based on that book in my queue to view.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Reading Files

Mysteries and the Mystery

So what have I been reading lately? Well, mysteries and some other things. I could go through list but that'd would bore me. Instead I will single out two books.

The first is Liaquat Ahamed's Lord of Finance, which is a history of the world economic collapse of the 1920s. It's a great piece of writing that shows the how the economy can ravage countries and lead to unforeseen problems. It's worth reading to see why solving today's economic crisis is kind of, you know, important.

The second is Stieg Larrson's much-praised and after reading, much-disappointing, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel is the first part of a trilogy that was supposed to go 10 novels, but Larrson, a journalist from Sweden, died after he submitted the manuscripts for the first three parts. Perhaps the hype was too great, but I found the prose pedestrian (may be partly the fault of the translation), the mystery not compelling, the twists not what I'd consider twists, the violence not ghastly (am I too desensitized after watching Saw?), and overall, too long, too much of a chore to finish. And this was supposed to be one of the best of the year, a real "page-turner."

But... Yes, Larrson didn't lose me completely. I'm interested in the sequel because I've heard it's better than part one. I won't damn a writer after one book that didn't please me. Maybe if part two sucks, then...


Baseball Season

Actually Excited About the Jays

Yes, I couldn't have expected that in April of 2009 I would be looking forward to the coming baseball season. It's not that I dislike baseball; it's that the Blue Jays disappoint so quickly that I lose interest in the games (in fairness, I've lost interest in the NHL this season and that's why I haven't bothered to write about the Leafs lost season). Sure, I could solve this by supporting a team not based in Toronto, but for me, that seems like abandoning a friend because he's an unemployed loser now.

So the Jays home opener is Monday, and I hope they can surprise everyone and make the playoffs. I have my doubts. In today's Times, there's an enjoyable article about the Jays best pitcher, Roy Halladay. Gives us hope that we have the best pitcher in the league. Unfortunately he only plays one out of every five games.


Short Fiction

A.O. Scott on the American Short Story

From today's Times:
But the conventional wisdom in American letters has always been that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters — take your pick of Hemingway-Mailer macho sports metaphors — go after the Great American Novel.

But this maximalist ideology may be completely wrong, or at least in serious need of revision. The great American writers of the 19th century, whose novels are now staples of the syllabus, all excelled in the short form. Herman Melville’s “Piazza Tales” are as lively and strange as “Moby-Dick”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and sketches are pithier than “The Scarlet Letter”; Henry James’s stories, supernatural and otherwise, show a gift for concision along with the master’s expected psychological acuity.
He continues:
But if the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence. Wells Towers’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” provides the most vivid recent example of the way a good story, or a solid collection of them, can do more than a novel to illuminate the textures of ordinary life and the possibilities of language. And the short story may provide a timely antidote to the cultural bloat of the past decade, when it often seemed that every novel needed to be 500 pages long and every movie had to last three hours — or four years, if it took the form of a cable series.

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.
Forgive me for not using brief quotations: this is a great article. I agree with much of what A.O. Scott has to say, chiefly that brevity should be the goal of every writer. As far as my reading habits go, reading doorstops is mentally taxing but I don't mind them when they're worth every page. But I'm not forgiving when the writer has failed to edit their prose to the essentials. Every writer is guilty of this at some point but it's worst kind of mistake. Especially in an age where people have less time to read (or choose to read less).

I don't necessarily agree that the short story is the answer to fiction's problem; I don't need to repeat the known problems of the short story. But I think novelists should aim to write fiction that is consumable in two sittings - something, I believe, Joan Didion said was her aim with her fiction. That typically means less than 300 pages. But if you need 500, that's okay too: just make it good and don't waste a damn word.