Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book 18 – Jesus’ Son

By Denis Johnson

I had two doubles and immediately it was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now finally awake.

I had seen the 1999 film adaptation but can’t say I really remember it. When a pile of copies were discounted at the very cool Dog Eared Books in San Francisco, I thought why the hell not? And it was a breezy read made up of chronologically nonlinear, interconnected stories told from the perspective of FH (guess what it stands for), a rather muddled and detached individual due to his being a recovering/relapsing heroin junkie.

This is why drug addict stories can be so oft-putting. A character in a foggy drug haze is like an indulgent excuse to write elliptical narratives full of obliquely descriptive prose. Yet Johnson seems aware of this tendency and for the most part, he strikes a nice balance in his Pacific Northwest indie version of a bildungsroman.

All in all, they were still kind of vaguely boring stories randomly punctuated by bizarre occurrences and thoughtful, sometimes brilliant, prose. The kind of writing that tends to impress and/or inspire college students. Don’t get me wrong, there were some memorable moments, such as when FH becomes obsessed with spying on a Mennonite couple at their home after catching the wife singing in the shower through an open window. I enjoyed the stories well enough, but the writing is the kind that leaves an impression on you, rather than any kind of significant impact.

One thing I will give Johnson credit for is how he describes remarkable events - hilarious or tragic - witnessed by FH at the hospital. It wouldn’t be surprising if the author had also worked as a hospital orderly himself.

One time a man arrived at the emergency ward with a hunting knife stuck in his eye - it was buried to the hilt! - courtesy of his wife. The whole incident – arrival, diagnosis, cure - was described in less than four pages but was worth possibly all the anecdotes combined in Vincent Lam’s novel Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures.

Both books are like collections of well-observed moments and vignettes that sometimes work but are also sometimes uneven in their delivery. At least when Johson writes from the perspective of a mentally unstable person, it rings truer since you get the sense that he’s really been lost in those deep dark places before.

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book 17 – A Fine Ending

By Louis Rastelli

I remember seeing copies of Rastelli’s book on display a couple of years ago at Expozine, the annual small press/comic/zine fair held in a church basement near where we live. I wasn’t curious enough to shell out the 13 bucks for it back then, but I sure didn’t hesitate when I saw it going for $2 at my fave thrift store Chainon. I learned later that Rastelli actually co-founded Expozine, and he was also involved in launching Distroboto, the network of converted cigarette vending machines that sell artwork, comics and other neat stuff all over the city. So Rastelli is a bit of a fixture in the local arts community, the kind of all-encompassing guy who’s dabbled in a little bit of everything. A Fine Ending is his first novel, which is a fictionalized account of his experience living in the Plateau as a struggling young musician.

I was sort of curious about this book because it takes place in and around Montreal’s Plateau as the 1990’s were drawing to an end. I remember visiting Montreal in the summer of 1991 as a fresh-faced high school grad. The Anglos were getting the hell out of dodge, “Á louer” signs were everywhere and it was possible rent a sweet apartment for $200 a month or less. This was back when the Plateau was still considered a working class neighbourhood and beer n’ weed were sold openly at Parc Mont-Royal during the Sunday tam-tam. It was also the best time for non-French speaking students, artists and musician to be living in Montreal, as you could live pretty well on next to nothing since there weren’t a lot of quality jobs going around.

But I also had my trepidations embarking on this novel, as it’s also been described as “a timeless portrait of the spirit of bohemia” and “a warm-hearted account of an artistic community’s defining years.” Ugh. Thankfully, A Fine Ending wasn’t as annoying as the blurbs made it out to be and turned out to be a very unassuming account of the life of a thoughtful, happy-go-lucky twenty-something guy. Rastelli did do a good job in capturing the vibe of that time and his novel is punctuated with interesting descriptions of old landmarks and establishments. Highlights include a first-person account of the ice storm that hit the city in winter of 1998 and the discovery of an abandoned warehouse called the Darling Foundry and the subsequent raiding of its contents.

The parts that most affected me most, unsurprisingly, were the ones about the cats. Cats appear throughout the novel as a kind of litmus test of variable morality and hypocritical values that can be so infuriating in certain people. Rastelli obviously loves kitties and he writes about looking after his friend’s cats while they’re away on tour or taking his cat Bindy for autumn walks in the park. But he also depicts some heartbreaking passages about cats dying needlessly, not due to any blatant cruelty, but from neglect and indifference from self-absorbed twenty-somethings and drug-addicted roommates. You have a feeling those horrible stories were probably all too true.

My only real complaint is the lack of any discernible style in Rastelli's writing, which has a straightforward expository manner but comes across as rather bland. Though the tone is colloquial, there is little in the way of certain turns of phrases that marks a novel with a distinctive voice. Perhaps this was done consciously, to make the story more universal, or perhaps this has something to do with Rastelli being a fully bilingual Montreal native. Here’s a sample:

“I’d recently grilled my own parents for stories from their past, and told Rick about how much more clearly I could imagine the old city from these first-hand stories than I could when reading about it in books. They explained how, in the days when there were still more horses than cars, every few blocks, on the main streets, there would be cisterns full of water for the horses to drink from. When my dad tried to get my mom to remember a particularly large cistern on the corner of Sherbrooke and St. Laurent, I was able to picture the scene perfectly – all these horse-drawn carriages would have been idling right where that big gas station now sits. “

It's an interesting passage about Montreal's past but it also feels like reading a journal entry from an educated European who writes in perfect English, but English isn’t his first language. Which is kind of ironic, considering that Rastelli consciously omitted any Francophone presence, even going so far as to not mentioning the 1995 referendum. Rastelli explains:

“…the fact is that our circle was overwhelmingly anglophone. I used to joke that it was impossible to meet anyone who was actually from Montreal. It was when the Plateau started becoming a melting pot of other Canadians. I can hardly count the number of people I know here from Halifax, Winnipeg, Victoria. In a way that serves the story well, because it keeps it more universal. It's obviously very strongly tied to Montreal, but other cities and artists' scenes aren't terribly different - cheap rents, fairly typical cliques of people."

A Fine Ending was enjoyable, but it’d probably only interest those who are curious to get a feel for what the Montreal scene was like in the 90’s or for those who were actually there and would like to rekindle a bit of nostalgia.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Book 16 - 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die

Steven Jay Schneider

I must admit this caught my eye when shopping at Winners - of all places - since books are rather uncommon there and you don’t often see a freaky close-up of demon-faced Linda Blair staring at you from a pile of girlie consumer items!

Though pocket-sized, it was a dense and informative 400+ pages, which I proceeded to actually read from front to back. Here is a fair review, which I think pretty much sums up how I felt. With contributions from over three dozen film critics and academics, the book did a great job appealing to a range of readers, from those with a casual interest in horror flicks to more dedicated cinephiles.

For a general cinephile like myself, I’ve seen over half of the 101 films listed, with over 80% of the ones between 1970 and 2007 (the cutoff year). I discovered more than a handful of films (mostly earlier classics) which I’m curious to check out. But what’s more, the book inspired me to revisit some oldies which disturbed me as a kid on late-night TV (like The Omen and The Howling). Sure, I could easily have discovered some of these eventually for free on the internet, but sometimes it's just nice to have a fun, glossy book to flip through on the couch.

Most naturally, any remotely serious film fan is going to argue about what did or didn’t make the cut. I felt there were definitely some serious omissions, such as:

• Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers
• Alien
• John Carpenter’s The Thing
• The Changeling (the George C. Scott one, not the Angelina Jolie one)
• Near Dark
• Misery

These could have easily replaced Dellamorte Dellamore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hellraiser, the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters, Ju-On, or The Descent. With the exception of Dellamorte (which was atrociously cheesy and not scary at all - I don’t understand why film geeks love this flick so much), these films were generally okay or pretty good, but they don’t merit as must-sees before you die! Not when you've got some serious classics listed above that have been criminally omitted ;-)

If anyone is curious about the almost full list (it’s missing The Island of Lost Souls), I found one here.