Thursday, March 31, 2005

March random reviews


Books in brief:
  • Any Human Heart by William Boyd. The entire 20th century is seen through the eyes of Logan Mountstuart, a writer, spy, and art dealer whose ordinary life has extraordinary insight into not just the human heart, but recent human history.
  • Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore. Moore is a complete and utter nutcase - and I mean that as a huge compliment. This is the debut novel of the author of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Sadly immortal Travis is trying to rid himself of the demon Catch, who tends to eat anyone Travis gets close to. Mayhem ensues, but despite the ridiculousness of the premise, these are characters to care about.
"If a man isn't willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he's no good."
- Ezra Pound

Monday, March 28, 2005

Canadian, eh?

My nationality is never a conscious part of my identity until I'm away from Canada, or dealing with an international audience over the Internet. For example, I get a kick out of discussions poking fun at Canadian accents. For the record, we don't have an accent. Everyone else in the world does.

Actually, there are a variety of regional accents in Canada, but I'm always pegged as American by Americans. That is, until I say “zed” instead of “zee” or “tuque” instead of ... well, I don't know, what else do you call the knitted winter hat?

But I do have an “accent” in writing. One great thing about being Canadian is that we can pretty much spell however we please, picking either the American or British standard depending on our mood. I grew up spelling colour and centre and defence and cheque, but tyre and programme are just wrong. I should be used to switching allegiances since I've had to use Canadian Press style with some jobs, American Press style in others. Problem is, the more I switch between the two, the more I get confused. The -our and -tre endings are easy, but organize or organise? Gray or grey? I don't know anymore what's natural for me, which means that nothing's natural anymore. I'm grateful for Canadian broadmindedness, which extends beyond gay marriage and decriminalizing marijuana possession to encompass something close to my heart – institutionalized lax spelling.

“Exile gives perspective, making every emigrant an anthropologist and relativist. To have a deep experience of two cultures is to know that no culture is absolute, to discover that the seemingly natural aspects of our identities and social reality can be arranged, shaped, or articulated in another way.”
- Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

Friday, March 18, 2005

A gift of Fry & Laurie

My friend William's birthday is coming up. We've known each other for almost 20 years, which could have been two decades littered with the ghosts of presents unwanted, except we share the philosophy that gifts are optional unless you feel inspired. And I was inspired this year.

I made an offhand mention of Stephen Fry's novel The Stars’ Tennis Balls in a recent review. (I just discovered the book is titled Revenge in the U.S. – not only is that too bland for Fry, but it ruins the review's already lame joke.) It’s a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo set in the dot com age, and it occurred to me that William loves the original Dumas story and is a computer geek, so he might get a kick out of the Fry version. There’s also the danger he’ll hate it because of that familiar-but-not quality, but life's all about risk, isn't it? Fry has written a few witty, literary bestsellers. This is not one of my favourites. I liked it fine until the gory revenge scenes towards the end - I don't do well with gore. But William and I are not alike.

So after picking up The Stars' Tennis Balls, I got the idea of a theme present, and also bought him a copy of The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. Yes, that Hugh Laurie. It has been aptly described as James Bond meets P.G. Wodehouse. It’s not my typical reading material, but I'm glad I stumbled across it. It's hilarious and gripping and even sweet and thought-provoking - plus, the humour is very Lauriesque and I’m a fan.

A bigger fan now that I've seen his brilliant performance in the TV show House, as a snarky doctor with a heart of snark. What’s even more impressive is that it’s a completely different kind of brilliance from his likeable idiots of Blackadder or Jeeves and Wooster, which is different again from the brilliance of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, their hysterically odd sketch comedy show. It’s extremely unfair. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry possess far too high a percentage of the available creative talent in the world. Accomplished actors and writers both, who between them dabble in directing and music. I can tie my shoelaces in pretty bows. I would hate them, only I love them.

Anyway, to make the present complete and the theme obvious, I added a bit of A Bit of Fry & Laurie (which the BBC really needs to release on DVD. Please?). I could have picked Blackadder or Jeeves and Wooster or Peter’s Friends, but with this, it’s right there in the title, so William doesn’t even have to read the credits to understand my thought process. Not that he’ll be impressed, but at least he’ll understand.

Oh, and shhhh, his birthday isn’t until April, so he doesn’t know about this yet. Wait ... this isn’t public, is it?

“We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them.”
- John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

In defence of the trivial

It's been a rough couple of weeks - not for me personally, but for people I work with and admire greatly. My day job is with a health care organization that is under scrutiny after a top-level firing, patient deaths, and horrendous infections. Our dedicated, talented health care workers are forced to work under difficult circumstances, and the consequences of inevitable mistakes can be tragic. If I misplace a comma, people don't die. I can only imagine the pressure and empathize with those involved.

Because our jobs also involve keeping tabs on media coverage, the water cooler talk among my communications colleagues and I has been the spate of incredibly sad national and local news over the last few days: four Mounties die in the line of duty; a 5-year-old girl thrown from an overpass by her father; a young gas station attendant killed after trying to stop a fill-and-dash driver.

So, after another depressing day of media headlines and postings about flesh eating disease and plans to heal a sick health care system, I headed home excited about what awaited me: Bringing Up Baby, for a fix of one of my favourite dead actors, Cary Grant, in one of my favourite movies, and House, my favourite tv show featuring my favourite tv doctor played by one of my favourite living actors, Hugh Laurie. Does my joy over a silly movie and flawed television show make me feel shallow, after the life and death stuff I left behind? Nope.

Entertainment is important. I mean, obviously entertainment serves to distract us from the blacker moments of life; just because bad things happen doesn't mean we have to perpetually wallow in the darkness. But can I really say entertainment is important? Sure.

On September 11, 2001, I was the Living section editor for a newspaper in Mexico. The planned feature story had to be scrapped, but what to put in its place? Page after page of analysing death and terrorism followed by, what, a feature on the latest movie release? My job felt very insignificant that day. The section cover ended up being a pastiche of the entertainment industry's response to the tragedy – the Latin Grammys ceremony cancelled (Mexico, remember – they'd care), the Emmys postponed and toned down. Not important stuff in itself, but it started me thinking consciously about how crucial the very existence of this other world is, this fictional world of movies and books and television.

I read, I write, I watch movies and television to transport myself into another life. Mostly because one life just isn't enough, and I can live vicariously through fictional characters. Sometimes, like with 9/11, to transcend the bleak realities of life around me, and sometimes to get another perspective on reality. I don't just watch these zany paleontologists and dedicated doctors, I enter their world, along with the worlds of determined female boxers and crazed Hollywood moguls and whimsical Scottish writers and depressed wine lovers and on and on. It enriches me. It helps me understand more fully the world outside myself. It allows me to imagine and to empathize.

"One's own sorrow, how bearable, how understandable,
but the misery of another person, a separate being,
how unimaginably terrible, of what unseen quality,
unknown duration, inconceivable anguish!"
- Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Beautiful Visit