Monday, February 23, 2015

UNCORKING WINESENSE


I sat down for a beer and talked wine with Bob Desautels. Over the hour, we covered his own transition from drinking whatever Big Three beer was available to him as a teen, to slowly discovering good wine as an underage student in Montreal, to his experiences making the stuff himself. "I made my own wine for about ten years," he says. "What's that old saying? About life being too short to drink bad wine?"

We covered his spates spent as a professional golfer, philosophy student, teacher, restauranteur and, now, author. As Desautels was ordering his second pint, we were joined by a friend of his fresh from a visit to a familial wine cellar abroad that she was starting to sort through. Her relatives had been collecting wine for the better part of the century, but the husband had passed away and the wife was not going to quaff the remaining collection. She had taken pictures of some of the labels and wanted Desautels to have a second look.
 

Desautels didn't temper his enthusiasm, scooched closer to the laptop to scroll through the images. "That'd be a great one." he spotted right away. "Château Gazin. 1961. That's the year of the century for Bordeauxs. '61."
 

A subtly tragic thing, it occurred to me. The revelation of most aging collectors of anything is their inability to take their collection with them. The best analogy I can come up with is a kid who gets a toy and chooses to keep it in the box, to collect it instead of playing with it. Sure, the value is increased, but why have a toy that you can't play with? In WineSense, Desautels manages to smooth this contradiction. Good wine drinking, he argues, is a balance of knowledge and interaction.

Spending the first half of his 20s as a professional golfer, Desautels came to Guelph at 28, in the early 80s, to do a Masters in Philosophy. There he took a teaching assistant job in the Bachelor of Commerce Hospitality Program, marking papers and organizing wine tastings. After two years, he was offered a full time position, teaching the history wines, beers, and spirits.

"Twenty-five percent of the class were dead serious about learning about wine," he remembers. "The rest thought it would be a fun course where they'd get to taste a lot of wine. It was much looser than it is today with third party liability. I'd appoint five students for every tasting, to do the pouring, and afterwards we'd go back to my office and there'd be half a bottle left of this wine or that wine. We'd go back with some of these wine experts, a lot of whom were trade guys, real characters who'd been selling wine for most of their lives, and we'd sit around and finish the wine and tell stories."

In its calm concision, WineSense benefits from Desautels time spent teaching. He leavens  what can often come to feel like dense erudition. Some experts, he writes in the introduction, "seem to squeeze out all the enjoyable aspects of wine. The wine itself – and all the pleasure it brings – gets lost in the analysis." With the casualness that experience affords, Desautels breaks his book into three keys: The Basics, The Grapes, The Approach. "The book is an homage," he says. "Wine goes back to the dawn of civilization. It's a key part of major cultures, major religions, and it should be celebrated.

"The reason I like the tree keys," he says, "you need to know the basics about wine like you would anything else. If you know the few basics, you literally just need to learn 8 to 12, up to 17 grapes and you've covered all the quality grapes in the world. The wine makers makes two major decisions – do they want to make a blend, or use just one grape? And then are they going for quality or quantity and value. 

"Like literature," he says, "it can be a complete turn off when people just use jargon. Over the years, my wife and I have [had] friends who take two or three wine courses, and you go to their house and they open up wine like it was something precious. You all say it's nice, but then the whole night becomes, Well, I'm really getting a strong liquorice taste here, and it takes all the fun out of it.

"I think wine should take you into very good discussions that are not trivial," he says. "Because I hate sitting around at a dinner talking about how much worse this winter is compared to the winter before. We all watch the weather report, we know this stuff anyway. But wine does seem to get people into discussions of literature, or politics, and stuff that's often taboo, but which is some of the most important stuff to talk about in life."

As a guide, WineSense is unimposing. It has the simple but heavy-lifting prose of mid-century guides, with Gillian Wilson's illustrations helping to define the casual refinement of that era. It's a companion more than an instructor, written with the assumption that you're already drinking and enjoying the stuff, and might like to articulate that experience with more context, whether historical or agricultural or biological. Once you've got the history and the technique down, you can enjoy the effects. And certainly WineSense is riddled with reminders that the point of wine is celebration, helping to open up and and enliven a get-together.

As Desautels swipes through the labels, he sorts through the histories of each.

"Here's the one that will cover your travel," Desautels stops on a label. His friend has been flying back and forth from Canada to London to help out with the collection. "1959 Château Latour. If we can look at the ullage... Sometimes you can't see. I don't know how dark bottles were in those days... And this looks like a Mouton Rothschild."

"It is," his friend confirms. "There are about seven of them. Their labels are gorgeous."

"You know the history? The Rothschilds Family commissioned a new artist every year. Including Picasso, Andy Warhol... Warhol did 1975 Château Mouton Rothschilds, and this guy I know had some bottles signed by Andy Warhol. And it's the most tragic story. He had some Château d'Yquem stored above, and the cork deteriorated, spilling the wine and ruining the signature."

"Well," his friend muses, "it just shows how ephemeral it all is."

We talk about the risk of knowing when to open a bottle, never exactly sure when the drink's at its best. "Wine goes through the same stages we do," says Desautels, "They're too vigorous when they're young, too tannic – out of balance, you know. Then they mature, and there's a point where they're perfect. Then they become frail, become watery."

Shoulder to shoulder, they flip through a few more pictures, naming off specific people they know who would love a crack at specific bottles. "I wouldn't mind selling some of these," his friend says, "but the rest of them... Sharing this is a special thing for people who would never have it. Having some of these with my friends who would never have stuff like this."

Desautels raises the idea of organizing a tasting, and then the tone of the perusal changes. Going through the bottles now, he's animated not just by the histories of these half-century old wines, but by the possibility of getting together with friends to crack some of these chestnuts open.

- Andrew

Saturday, February 21, 2015

MR. HARPER, PLEASE READ THIS BOOK



Who are the Houthis? 

I thought this when I read in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago that the U.S. had shut its embassy and that this rebel group had dissolved parliament and was taking over the government. I had a vague feeling for Yemen somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, but very vague. I knew that it had serious Al Qaeda links through the Bin Laden line, and that the underwear bomber had been trained there, but that was all.

I was feeling slightly embarrassed and unsettled by this when I noticed that one of the Canada Reads books this year was written by a Yemeni-born writer named Kamal Al-Solaylee. The book is entitled Intolerable: A Book of Extremes. When I read on the back that it had also been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir I thought this guy must have an interesting story.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is a professor of journalism at Ryerson and has written for the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, and Toronto Life. He begins his story with this revelation: “I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.” He is, in fact, the youngest. There were so many children because it took his parents many tries to have the much desired boy. Also his father, when young, had an unstoppable libido and while making many children at home was constantly hiding from angry husbands here, there, and everywhere.

This is a very sad story told with a certain amount of dispassionate intensity – if there can be such a thing. Kamal was brought up in a house of sisters and a mother whom he loved. He had nothing in common with his three brothers. Much of his treasured time was spent in the kitchen. He realized before puberty that he was attracted to men but never told his much beloved mother or his father. A large part of his life has been running away from his family and heritage to be able to live the life that was necessary to his psychic survival. 


I learned some crowded Middle Eastern history as his family had to move from Aden to Beirut to Cairo and back to Aden. When Al-Solaylee was young these cities were like Paris and London. There was a lively and sophisticated culture. From his account women had as much freedom as women in the west. But all of that changed. His sisters who had at one point been splashing in bikinis, listening to Tom Jones, and stressing about lipstick and eye liner, ended up in burkas and niqabs. His brothers became very religious and controlling of their wives. From Al-Solaylee’s vantage the descent into intolerance and fundamentalism began with the death of Anwar Sadat and the economic decline of the region. His family’s plight is embroiled in the thick complication of Middle East Politics.

Al-Solaylee was very strategic about leaving his roots. He is now happily settled in Toronto. The verb form of his name, Kamal, means fill in the gap or complete the story. He certainly has filled in some gaps but the story is not complete and it raises so many important issues. I know how much he agonizes about his family who have lost their sense of hope. I wonder how they have done in this latest tribal skirmish reported in The New York Times. I am reminded of how easily women especially can lose social and economic mobility. I wonder about Obama’s latest plan to fight terrorism and I fear the Harper government's new terrorism bill. I am sure Al-Solaylee would say that much of the problems seething in the Middle East are because the people are poor and have no hope. Al-Solaylee still fears any kind of border crossing. But really, he has crossed so many already.

- Barb

Sunday, February 15, 2015

REVIEW: ON YOUR OWN LOVE AGAIN


Recently a usually laconic Bob Dylan spoke at length at a benefit for the MusiCares Foundation. Of the range of topics covered, Dylan alighted on the years of criticism his voice has received, wondering why the likes of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen get spared, while time and time again he gets dragged over the coals. "Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice," Dylan related. "He said, 'Well that's very kind of you, but voices out not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth." In these terms, I believe everything Jessica Pratt sings.

27 years old, Pratt has a spacey warble and a fingerpicking style that can't help but evoke trippy 60s folk, but there's a darkness and a weight to Pratt's delivery that soon dispels the images of flower stickers on acoustic guitars. If there's a folk comparison I'd hazard make, it would be to Karen Dalton, whose queer, soulful delivery always feels like a direct, obvious result of the songs themselves. Like Dalton, Pratt pairs her material with her delivery so deftly on On Your Own Love Again that the split disappears. The competing weight or lightness of her voice vacillates along with the performance, with the content, in such a casual way that the result, for as complicated as it actually is, feels like an organic, obvious thing; thoroughly true.

- Andrew

Monday, February 9, 2015

Q&A: MICHAEL HARRIS



You take a seat behind your computer to hunker down. It could be that you’re formulating a non-profit proposal for increasing internet accessibility in rural Malaysia? Getting registered for your taxes on the Revenue Canada site? Finishing off a hopefully viral Soundcloud-via-Garageband hiphop remix of the latest big crooning husky clip on Vine? Potentially, you’re struggling to put together a succinct intro to the Q and A you did with this year’s Governor’s General Award Non-Fiction Michael Harris. More realistically, you’re sitting down to read said interview on the Bookshelf Blog with a fresh cup of coffee. You get to the word ‘hunker’ and wonder on its etymology. Should you search the OED? Wikitionary? Urban Dictionary? You accidentally type "bunker" into Google. You call up a host of definitions and images of well-stocked models of paranoia tinged disconnection. Before you can see what one is going for on Kijiji, there’s a drool inducing notification ding (is it a like?!) on your pre-coffee making Facebook joke comment in a stream about Stephen Harper’s band. You made some pun rebuttal not even worth repeating in your internal narrative. Your phone chuckles dismissively against your Brave New World mug. Your pal wants to have coffee or beer this aft and could you Dropbox that McLuhan audio doc and did you see Andrew’s Instagram, what’s w/ all the pics of sloppy guys eating fastfood, was he hacked or what?

You put your phone down. Presuming you are sort of right about what hunker means, how were you ever able to hunker down with all of these distractions? You close all extraneous desktop windows and decide to focus on this thing. You break into a scanning trot, sifting for the relevant info in this Q and A on ‘Michael Harris, celebrated Canadian journalist’.

Book title?
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection… Gist? "Soon nobody will remember the world before the internet"…"if you were born before 1985, you’re of the last generation who will"…"this is a monumental change in how we think and interact".. Verdict: "A funny well-researched meditation"… "weaving the author’s keen anecdotes with up-to-date studies and interviews about our current technological (ir)realities"…"explores how we reclaim the positive aspects of lack and absence in an increasingly present digital age"…"without moving into a bunker of preserves, bottled water, and War & Peace"…

The author of this intro is a bit run on, meta – disjointed - you think, but
The End of Absence appears pertinent. Fighting a pun Facebook comment-thought about what Thomas Mulcair’s band would be called (RotoTom or Rockficial Rockostion..ugh), you hunker down to full sentences:

"I avoided internet-distraction just long enough to distract Michael Harris with some email questions about his timely book. He kindly and quickly got to work."

-
Brad de Roo, who forgot to get you to bookmark this link to Mr. Harris’s event at Lakeside Hope House here in Guelph on Feb 25th @7pm: https://www.uoguelph.ca/arts/astra-cafe-philosophique-and-bookshelf-present-michael-harris-end-absence

 
Would you ever do a remote appearance for a book release using Skype or some later variation of it? Would you ever use Margret Atwood’s LongPen to sign a book or a book deal?

Sure. In fact, I’m doing a Skype Q&A session for a UBC class next week. Folk have this impression that I’m a Luddite but that’s a little like assuming a dietician doesn’t eat food. It’s really not about tech-good or tech-bad. It’s about recognizing that our technologies are both fantastic and dangerous, like your favourite carving knife.  


How important was absence in writing this book? Is it essential to your writing process? Do you adopt different relationships to absence for various writing projects or tones? Does a journalistic essay approach absence in a different way from a book? Is absence an important theme or force in writers who move you?

You ask planet-sized questions, you know that? I’d say that solitude is essential to the creative process. My brain’s foundation was laid in a pre-Internet world so, for me, disconnection is the only way to figure out what I think about things. Connection is a necessary first ingredient, of course. You have to go out into the world and see what it’s talking about. But to create I have to take all those shiny ideas and make them my own. That part happens when I’m locked in my Fortress of Solitude.

That’s an interesting point you’re making about the difference between journalism and books, though. I haven’t thought about it too much, but you could argue that today’s bias toward conversational journalism, as opposed to a more objective reportage, is similar to older oral traditions of storytelling; and you could then argue that our newest communication technologies encourage that kind of thing. Meanwhile, book-writing is a product of an earlier mindset and a different technological climate; it seems to require a mental environment that does not come easily to us anymore. Certainly, when I’m working on a book, I have to build this very artificial environment of scarcity and solitude. I have to engineer absence whereas writers in the 19th century probably came by it more naturally.

My favourite fiction comes from all over the place, Jane Austen to Brian K. Vaughan, but what they all have in common is their ability to create hermetically sealed worlds. And I think you only get that kind of really coherent, inviolable storytelling from writers that are acquainted with solitude.

Does reading a book do something for you that the latest gadget does not or cannot do?

Yes. In fact, reading a book is pretty much the opposite of Twitter or Whisper or WhatsApp. It’s introversion versus extroversion, I guess. Allowing yourself to be absorbed by a narrative, in a massively empathetic way, as opposed to using text as a way to project yourself onto other people. 
 


What is absence and when did it start to end? Has it had other ends? Does it have a long-standing history we can learn from?

Man, those are the sort of question a guy could spend a whole book trying to answer… For me, Absence is a catchall term, encompassing daydreaming, reverie, solitude—all those qualities of life that constant connectivity wipes away. Every advance in communication technology—from papyrus to the printing press to Pinterest—are going to wipe out some quality of absence, though. So this desire of ours, the desire to lasso bigger and bigger parts of the world, does have a very long history.

Your book explores some of the historical and philosophical origins of technology - especially media (the Printing Press, computers etc). Have you discerned trends in our reactions to technological revolutions throughout the ages? Are there particular thinkers who’ve informed your insights? Do you relate to a tradition or lineage of Canadian cultural studies?

McLuhan and Frye and Innis and Coupland, right? I did a talk in D.C. a couple months back and one of the questions was "Why are Canadians all over media studies?" I didn’t have a smart answer but it does seem to be something we do. Maybe it’s because we sleep next to the biggest media giant in the world; we have to think critically about media or else we’d get squished. That said, there are lots of American media critics I admire: Nicholas Carr, Neil Postman, Elizabeth Einstein, James Gleick, to name a few.

In the last chapter of The End of Absence you attempt to return to "the technological circumstances" of your childhood by taking a month away from your cellphone and the Internet (an "Analog August" as you call it). How has your re-integration into digital world been? Have you found new ways to introduce absence into your life? Has the writing of this book cleared a better space for nourishing instances of this state? Do temporary Waldens dot your days?

The problem with writing a book about absence is that, if everything goes well, you’ve screwed yourself: I have more demands on my time now, more requests for connection. And, at the same time, if I show up to a reading and check my phone people are disappointed. I’m the guy who wrote that book so I’m supposed to be hovering in some kind of Walden state. Some even go “a ha!” when they learn the book’s available on Amazon or Kobo, like they’ve uncovered my hypocrisy… But folk who read the book will find it isn’t arguing for abstinence at all. I think the real goal should be engineering a healthy media diet that includes connection and disconnection in a healthy ratio. And we each get to decide for ourselves what that ratio looks like. Otherwise, we’re zombies. Which is a valid life-choice, too.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Q&A: ANDY BURNS



Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks (Pop Classics, ECW Press) by Andy Burns arrives at an expectant time for Twin Peaks geeks. After nearly 25 years off the air, the enduringly weird (and hilarious) television show created by acclaimed directors Mark Frost and David Lynch will return with nine new episodes in 2016. Speculation about where everybody’s favourite supernormal small-town murder mystery will pick up is as fervent as it was when the show debuted.

If you’re not so familiar with the classic two-season show (and subsequent film,
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), Wrapped in Plastic is a thorough primer. It fills you in on a town reeling from the death of the universally beloved every-teen Laura Palmer as the eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper teams with an amiably odd local police force to investigate. It gives brief overviews of celebrated episodes and convincingly centers Twin Peaks in the TV culture of the early 90s.

If you’re a diehard Peaker or lodge-member to remember (as you may or may not coin yourself), you’re sure to find many peak reminiscences (Laura’s father Leland’s dancing, BOB’s accidental appearances) and homey asides (of author, cast, and crew) in Andy's book to reward the constant re-viewings of your Blu-ray collection leading up to the new episodes.

An immersive fan, I requested an interview with Andy to rehash the show’s case. Not mincing words, we met in a once-secret corridor between the Black and White Lodges (now often called the Internet). I waved a copy of his concise book in introduction. He passed fine clues between its pages. "It’s amazing," I think the subtitles said I said, "that Laura Palmer lives on so many potential TV seasons (an uncanny measure of years!) after she was found wrapped in deathly plastic on the blue-grey riverbank of little-screen America."


- Brad de Roo, who carried a handheld tape recorder for one windy summer as an investigative teen, but was unable to get past the static of the mundane before the machine went missing in an abandoned coat-hanger factory that chimed with the rumour of owls.


   
What is the MO of the Pop Classics series of which Wrapped in Plastic is the third? Have you read the first two entries on Showgirls or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I’d say that the MO for the Pop Classics series is smart writers writing about the pop culture that they love, in a thoughtful and accessible manner. I’ve read parts of both It Doesn’t Suck and Raise Some Shell, though I elected not to delve too deeply so as to avoid any outside influence while I was writing my own Pop Classics entry. The connection between all three titles, apart from the masterful guidance from editors Crissy Calhoun and Jen Knoch, whose brainchild the series is, is that we all feel quite passionately about our given subjects.


How much of Twin Peaks do you think was a comment on the TV of the times? Could a TV program be as transformative or transgressive a force post-Twin Peaks?

Twin Peaks was absolutely a reaction to television at the time, and the lack of really good storytelling. No offense to series like Dynasty or Dallas, the latter of which I was a huge fan of growing up, but these were nighttime soap operas, pure and simple. While Twin Peaks absolutely carried some of those conventions with it, it was also a series that pushed the boundaries of storytelling, both in terms of visuals and subject matter. Thankfully, equally ambitious creators followed in its footsteps, some unsuccessfully, many with great success. I think in the early 90s there was a bit of a generic template – weird and quirky – but as the medium developed and creators inspired by the show found work in Hollywood, generic gave way to unique. As for whether or not a show today can be as transformative or transgressive, I’d say that the first season of True Detective answers that with a resounding yes.

  
What are your favourite episodes and/or moments of Twin Peaks?

You’d be hard pressed to find a better pilot for any series than the one that begins Twin Peaks. From the acting to the storytelling to the visual sensibility that David Lynch brings as a director, it’s as perfect as television gets. As for favourite moments, the initial dream sequence in the Red Room/Black Lodge is a highlight, while the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer remains, twenty-five years later, the scariest hour of television I’ve ever seen. I also think the show’s final hour is outstanding, not to mention frightening, confusing, surreal, funny, confounding. 



Does writing this book entitle you to Sneak Peaks (advance apology for the pun) of the nine new episodes to be released in 2016? What is left to be resolved in the new series from the point of view of a fan? Do you worry that the new entries will suffer from the bland reunion curse of many shows? 
 
You know, I’m the sort of fan that doesn’t worry about whether Twin Peaks 2016 series will live up to the previous episodes, for a few reasons. First, I may love Twin Peaks and it may have been groundbreaking, but it’s far from a perfect series. I think everyone involved would admit to that. There were some bad choices in terms of storytelling during the second season; when the series hits its mark, its outstanding, but when it doesn’t, it’s a bit of a slog. Second, Mark Frost and David Lynch are going to have complete control with the Showtime version of the series. They’re co-writing and Lynch is directing all nine episodes. That’s an unprecedented commitment and should give fans faith that Twin Peaks 2016 will be anything but bland.

As for resolutions, I’m confident we’ll find out how Annie is… Not to mention Cooper, Audrey, Lucy and the rest of the key cast who are still with us. No "sneak peak" for me… At least not that I know of.

Was there anything in the researching or writing of this book that struck you as something out of Twin Peaks? Were you visited by giants or backwards talking in your dreams? Did you start to see logs and pie differently? Do Twin Peaks fan conventions ever conjure characters, images, or moods that would feel at home in a Twin Peaks episode?

No visits from giants or dwarfs, but I did have to cut back on my coffee intake for health reasons. I’m not sure if that’s coincidental or if there may have been a fish in the percolator.



As for fan conventions, I attended my first during the summer of 2014 in North Bend, where the pilot and the film were shot. The fans were all warm and kind – they’re a great bunch that has been incredibly supportive of Wrapped In Plastic: Twin Peaks.

You cite Fire Walk With Me, the Twin Peaks film following the series, as your favourite Lynch film. Most fans, I suspect, would not agree with you. Casual viewers would likely agree even less. Why do you think the film is not as beloved as Blue Velvet or Mullholland Dr. or the original series?

Look, a film about incest is going to be a hard sell to anybody, and that’s essentially what Fire Walk With Me is. It’s a harrowing, unflinching journey into the life of a seventeen-year-old girl who has been abused continually for much of her life. This is dark stuff; darker, I’d argue, than Blue Velvet, and that’s a pretty dark experience itself. BUT Blue Velvet is also uncomfortably and absurdly hilarious in places – it’s that sort of laughter you have when something is so twisted you don’t know what else to do. After the first twenty minutes of Fire Walk With Me, there’s nothing to laugh with or at. 



Here’s the thing with the two movies you site, though. Nobody was walking into those films saying “I want to see the story of a guy who finds an ear” or “I want to see Lynch’s take on Hollywood starlets”; with Fire Walk With Me, there was an expectation from fans that we would be getting something specific – the people, the town, the humour. Fans wanted answers to the cliffhangers the series ended with, but that wasn’t the film Lynch wanted to make.

I would suggest, though, that fans and critics have really reappraised the film since its 1992 release. The performances are all good and, in the cases of both Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise, award-caliber.  


Is there any anecdote, fact, question or observation about Twin Peaks you couldn’t fit into your book that you’d care to mention now?

One of things that that really stuck with me, and there’s mention of it in the book, is just how influential Jennifer Lynch, David’s daughter, was in crafting who Laura Palmer was. She was pretty much given carte blanche when writing The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, and in talking about Jen and the character with Sheryl Lee, I know Jen’s writing was key in helping Sheryl develop her take the character, especially for the film.

Music is an essential player in Twin Peak’s world. Why is the music of the series so powerful? Is there a way that Lynch uses music that sets him apart from other TV directors/writers?

There’s simply something special when Angelo Badalamenti works in David Lynch’s world. The show’s score is powerful because of just how unique it is – slow, ethereal, jazzy. Unlike other shows of the era, the opening credits aren’t face-paced or rousing. The music moves languidly, just like the water on screen. Add in the occasional chanteuse styling of Julie Cruise and its just an incredibly unique aural experience.



In his essay ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’ David Foster Wallace writes:
AN ACADEMIC DEFINITION of Lynchian might be that the term "refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type [sic] words that's ultimately definable only ostensively-i.e., we know it when we see it.
What do you think of this definition? Would you add anything to it? Is there any way in which a Lynchian POV is limited?

“We know it when we see it” – I think that’s a very fair description, and I wouldn’t add anything to it. I do think it’s important here to comment that, while David Lynch’s vision certainly helped fuel the Twin Peaks landscape, he did only direct a handful of episodes. Those ones certainly have the hallmark Lynchian tropes – cinematic camera shots, inanimate or mundane objects infused with an uncomfortable or macabre vibe to them – but the entire series was not a playground solely visited by Lynch. Mark Frost was already a celebrated television writer and brought his own prodigious talents to the table. Meanwhile, other directors, such as Lesli Linka Glatter, Caleb Deschanel and Tim Hunter also contributed significantly to the series, utilizing a similar style and feel, a vocabulary, if you will, but never really aping Lynch. As if anybody could.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

REVIEW: THE TROUBLES TRILOGY


I was looking for another Irish writer after finishing the incomparable Tana French when I read Ian Rankin quoted as saying that Adrian Mckinty “blew my doors off.” That was good enough for me so I ordered Mckinty’s The Troubles Trilogy and enjoyed many cold January nights in the company of Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop working for the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary in 80s Belfast. Not just a bit of cognitive dissonance here.
 

Mckinty blew Rankin’s doors off not just because he has to check under his car for explosives each time he drives but because he has created a complex, sophisticated loner (as all good detectives are) who is just trying to make the world a better place but keeps on stepping on the wrong toes.
 

And the wrong toes are everywhere in Northern Ireland in the 80s. There are so many factions, rules and regulations inside the terrorists (or shall we call them freedom fighters) that it makes Al-Qaeda and Isil (or is it Isis?) almost understandable. I realized very early on that I basically knew nothing about "The Troubles" and appreciated Mckinty’s fictional map of a very fractured land.
 

In The Cold Cold Ground (Book One) Duffy is tracking down a serial killer of gay men. Homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland then and a really big no no for the IRA. I Hear The Sirens in the Street (Book Two) finds Duffy investigating an IRA assassination with ripples in big business and in In The Morning I'll Be Gone (Book Three) Duffy has to find an escaped IRA master bomber who also happens to be an old school friend.
 

Duffy is a busy guy but when he’s taking time out he listens to opera and reads critical theory. His take on popular culture of the 80s also brings back lots of music and Margaret Thatcher things – very entertaining in hindsight. You’ll find your time with Sean very hard to resist!

- Barb

Monday, January 19, 2015

REVIEW: THE DEVIL YOU KNOW


In Montreal, in the summer of 2005, women were being attacked in my neighbourhood. It was the first time that this stuff that happens all the time was tangibly happening in a place I was. Young and naive (read: a dumb boy), this rash of specific, directed violence only showed up on my radar when it effected me. Walking home after hours, I'd sometimes fall behind a woman on an otherwise empty street. I was just some regular tipsy dude minding his own tipsy business, as the person in front of me was surely minding hers, but suddenly we were snared in a scenario, cast in roles. Behind someone, I felt immediately like a threat, felt perceived to be something I wasn't.
 

With everyone on high alert that summer, friends of mine were urging me to cross the street if I found myself coming up behind a woman alone. Anyone following them was a potential attacker. But then other friends would insist that, no, whenever a man scurried to the other side of the street, they worried the dude was flanking her. I was to stay where I was, but keep a safe, consistent distance. Whatever my behaviour, I imagined the woman in front of me tensing. I knew I wasn't a threat, but this person didn't. Or maybe she wasn't concerned at all, and the the worry (as it often is) was all just in my head. I was always tempted to call out "Don't worry! I'm one of the good ones!" Except isn't that what one of the ones who wasn't one of the good ones would call out?  

Paranoia, whether it's justified or misplaced, has a way of turning a banal situation into a charged scenario, of turning a regular person in the world into a character in a book. Elisabeth de Mariaffi's The Devil You Know is a tense read, but what sets it apart from most taught thrillers is the nature of its core tension. About Evie Jones, a rookie reporter initially compiling a history of missing girls in Ontario on the cusp of the Bernardo case breaking, this first novel taps into and keeps a hold of the the real-life, palpable fear and doubt created by ambient, cultural paranoia. 

A teenager when the Scarborough Rapist was active, Evie is no stranger to being on high alert. "You think about how scared you can make yourself at night on a dark, lonely street," she remembers about that time, when any girl was a possible victim. "There's a way of listening in the dark that's so intense for girls. You can feel the insides of your ears." As Evie begins to professionally explore the bottomless history of crimes against women, like feelings of being followed and observed begin to creep in. From a thriller narrative standpoint, de Mariaffi brings the alone-and-hearing-things-in-your-house feeling to a slow boil before shifting The Devil You Know into high gear, but -- more importantly -- she uses this build up to establish the reality of crime, of fear.
 

Early on in the book, Evie and her mother are browsing true crime books at a flea market and, picking up a copy of Helter Skelter, Evie points out: "Here's a stat for you... Women are voracious true crime readers. No word of a lie. Much more so than men." "So," her mother sorts, "the men are doing all the serial killing, but the women are reading about it." Later, mother prompts a conclusion that sits like a lump in the throat of The Devil You Know: "You know why women read that stuff... It's so we learn how to get away."  

It's a gut-bothering ouroboros: sensationalism is based on reality, and we begin to experience and worry about reality based on those sensationalized versions, but then real life is irrefutably sensationalized when the worst kind of real life actually happens to you. This complexity at work in The Devil You Know is never didactic or annoying, but rather de Mariaffi puts such a sure finger on her subject matter that you might need to just lie down on the floor for a few minutes. As one character puts it: "It's an old story... And a sad one."

Of course, de Mariaffi seemingly paints herself into a bit of a corner. The visceral, sad fact of the world we live in -- or, rather, the world we're from time to time forced to inhabit, possibly by the person coming up behind us on an empty street -- is so effectively evoked that the idea of introducing a mystery runs the risk of cheapening or exploiting the real emotion. To go into exactly why this isn't the case would blow a great read, so I'll leave that for you to discover.

The timing might seem prime for the kind of eyes The Devil You Know looks at the world with. With 2014's Ghomeshi and Cosby revelations, and more recently the Dalhousie debacle, it seems like the log's been toed over and the gross, wriggling mess underneath has been exposed. But this misery is not news. Women being on the receiving end of such ceaseless-feeling repugnance is a fact, not news. Like the dummy 20-something I was when women, peers, were being attacked around the corner from me, it took me being even slightly effected to take notice. At the book's outset, Evie is tasked with using the history of damaged and deleted women in Ontario to prove that has been getting worse. "But I wasn't sure that was true," Evie admits. "I'd already learned that I could pick any year, any time, any place, and run a search that included the term 'missing girl' with good success. With the history of national news wide open before you, all you need to do is close your eyes and let your finger fall on a random date."
 

- Andrew