Friday, February 25, 2011

Book 8 - Murder, Incest & Cat Food Sandwiches: Collected Confessions from

By Scott Huot and GW Brazier

A book giveaway shelf was setup at our workplace, and I actually found a couple of books that were worth taking: a like-new copy of Catch-22, as well as a trade paperback of Barney’s Version, which I’m currently reading. Another good find was Murder, Incest and Cat Food Sandwiches, a selection of the “best” confessions from

Launched in 2000, the website was organized according to the seven deadly sins. You could either make an anonymous confession according to sin category or simply “eavesdrop” on the thousands upon thousands of confessions, which range from harmless and hilarious to downright pathetic and debased. As the title promises, there is a murder (accidental), more than a couple of incestuous admissions, and an act of sweet revenge where a victim got tired of finding his lunch stolen from the shared fridge at work. So guess what kind of sandwich he made one day in order to get even?

Sadly, is no longer operational, and the book is out of print. It was such a great idea. I remember being addicted to the website for the longest time, trying to keep it down to a few confessions a day (reading, not making, mind you). Yes, my addiction was based on a bit of that good ol’ schadenfraude and the reassurance in knowing there were many people out there who were way more pathetic than yours truly.

For instance, I remember a girl who confessed to being so lazy, she’d throw her dishes in the trash instead of cleaning them. Damn, and I thought I was lazy! The site comprised such an incredible range of human emotion, yet the book represented only a fraction of these confessions. The slim, minimally-designed book features only one confession per page with a total of over 200 pithy confessions makes for an all too quick read. The pamphlet-like feel of the book also makes it seem like a disposable item of amusement. It is truly a sin that the website is not maintained as an active archive of human frailty and fallibility.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book 7 – Open & Clothed: For the Passionate Clothes Lover

By Andrea Siegel

In high school, I admired and envied my best friend’s eclectic wardrobe and the ease with which she wore her clothes. Her mom was an interior designer who always had Vogue and other fashion rags around the house. My friend and her mom would visit sample sales and church rummage sales and find the most amazing clothes and jewelry. Sometimes they’d invite me along and that was how I first learned to develop a sartorial eye, though it took many years for me to find my own style.

It didn't come easy for me. There were much in the way of trial and error and embarrassing mistakes. But it was due to the fact that I had made an attempt to explore. It wasn't to emulate what I saw in magazines, or to find a social niche in going goth or punk, but to simply explore what appealed to me. And if it were not for my friend and her cool mom, my wardrobe would probably be pretty safe and boring. Eventually, I figured out what my own tastes were and what was right for me rather than what was dictated by fashion trends. And though I actually don’t like to shop very much, I enjoy clothes without being burdened with too much clothing anxiety (though as a woman it’s not always possible to be completely free of it).

Andrea Siegel always loved clothes. But she always felt that something wasn’t clicking. When she wrote about her history with clothes, I totally understood where she was coming from:

When I leafed through a fashion magazine, viewed mannequins in a shop window, or glanced at a beautifully dressed woman on the street, I could see how each outfit was assembled. However, I didn’t understand that I brought complicating factors to the equation, that my unique face, body, proportions, preferences, and history mattered. Because of my confusion about clothing, I spent attention, time, and money inefficiently.

I investigated the relationship between wardrobe and the big picture—how cultural constructs about sexuality, frivolity, family, death, fashion, and appropriateness influence clothing choice. By then using all my senses, not just sight, to discover what is beautiful to me, by broadening my appreciation to include all that has been considered beautiful, I discovered my place in the dance, the distinctive qualities that make me feel beautiful.

Many of the things that Open and Clothed teaches is already common sense for the savvy shopper, ie. how fashion is cyclical, how the industry is exploitative, where to find bargains as it’s not all about buying retail. But it still has a lot of relevant things to say with plenty of pointed remarks and well-known adages such as:

When a woman who loves shoes finds a shoe that is beautiful to her as well as comfortable, something akin to rapture occurs.

[sigh] How true!

Even though this book was published in 1999, some things ring true more than ever:

The “individuality” and “statement” clothing, advertised by the industry, has a mass-produced extreme look. Not only does it lack uniqueness—thousands of pieces are made in each size—it also often looks remarkably unflattering. The clothes are meant to attract negative attention rather than enhancing the attractiveness of the wearer.

Maybe it’s because I’m older now and less tolerant of the latest fashion trends, but for the past several years or so, either clothes have gotten cheaper and uglier or I’m just having trouble finding clothes that are flattering or of decent quality. Anyway. It was still a lovely treat reading this book. And Siegel covers a lot of ground. It isn’t just frivolity that she's concerned about:

We who care passionately about clothes owe it ourselves to be educated about the numbers involved, to know who gets exploited and why. The fashion industry’s primary purpose is making money. We often forget this.

I also liked reading about what initially inspired the author to write this book. When she was in college in the early 80s, she always noticed how her Italian professor, “a kindly elegant gentleman of perhaps fifty”, was always beautifully dressed. His style was never ostentatious, just simple and pleasant to the eye, the material of good quality and cut, so his clothes always fit him perfectly. One day she boldly asked him what was up with that, and he gave a very serious and thoughtful response. In a nutshell, having lived through WW2, he saw terrible and unmentionable things. Though he likes to dress well for himself, he also feels a responsibility to look nice for other people.

I want to do a small kindness. It is important to bring harmony and beauty back to this troubled world. I do not feel I am the most beautiful person on earth, but rather that it was important to me to give in this way, to know that I am making a contribution.

She felt her old professor was on to something. Much like the famous Emerson quote: “The sense of being perfectly well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow.” But how does one achieve this sartorial karma? The book does explore at length the mantra: “Clothes must fit you, they must fit the occasion, and they must fit together.” Indeed, Siegel has little tolerance for those who dress sloppily or inappropriately because they either don’t care about appearances or think they are making a statement. She argues these stances have "everything to do with reacting against good taste and seeking to offend rather than finding what’s true for oneself." She goes on to say:

It’s important to dress in a way that respects our fundamental needs and desires, but denying our participation in a social context is dishonest. When we don’t own up to this social influence, it will operate on us rather than our having control of it.

This sounds very similar to the philosophy of Stacy and Clinton of the hit TLC show What Not To Wear (which I love to watch, btw). But unlike WNTW, which encourages you to spend thousands of dollars on a new wardrobe, Open & Clothed teaches the anxious shopper to exercise caution and restraint:

Often people who love to shop are, paradoxically, the ones who don’t feel satisfied with the results. Do you take unmet emotional needs shopping? Next time they cry out to go shopping, meet a need instead. Or if you feel an overpowering urge to shop, stop for a moment, take a breath, and figure out where you can be alone and not shop — the woods? An art museum? … Walk around or meditate.

She goes on to say: “You’re going to make mistakes. The idea of unerring judgment is a prison. As you practice, your mistakes will diminish… The only danger of making mistakes is spending way beyond what you can afford on something you cannot or will not return. A little soul-searching is in order to prevent reoccurrence.”

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the format. The 9.9 x 7.9 x 0.6 inch dimensions made it too big and cumbersome to carry it around or read it during a relaxing bath. That size is fine if there are nice illustrations but there were only black & white stock photos for each chapter. This was also partly a self-help book so there were some creative exercises (to make you a better dresser or to improve your wardrobe), but it doesn’t necessarily mean it had to look like an exercise book. For a book about cultivating clothing taste, it was definitely lacking in the well-designed book department!

Another quibble was the lack of structure. Though the chapters were organized in a logical way, Siegel makes use of so many references, sometimes they're grouped together in a hodgepodge manner, instead of being integrated into a coherent thesis. The book is filled with quotes, interviews, lists, questionnaires, advice, exercises, footnotes… Granted, there are many excellent quotes as Siegel researches archives and interviews many friends, colleagues and well-known pros in the fashion industry. If only she integrated all these in a more book-like structure, this would’ve made a high level tome. In the end though, it makes for a great browsing book for anyone who has a passing or passionate interest in clothes. And that's not necessarily a terrible thing either.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book 6 – Ripley Under Ground

Patricia Highsmith

I didn’t mean to read another Highsmith book so soon (see Strangers On a Train) , but I didn’t want to bring the thickish Barney’s Version with me on the train ride to Toronto. I wanted something more economically written and anyway, I was just dying to read the next Ripley installment.

The sequel takes place six years after The Talented Mr Ripley left off. Tom is living comfortably in the French countryside with his modest art collection and recently married to a free-spirited and somewhat amoral French heiress. In the past few years, Tom has somehow gotten himself involved in an art forgery conspiracy, as well as a fencing operation as a side gig. Oh Tom, ever resourceful, ever so shady! Naturally, Tom’s comfortable existence becomes threatened when an American businessman suspects that one of his Derwatt paintings is a fake.

Ripley Under Ground was definitely inferior to The Talented Mr. Ripley. One of the reasons I like the first book so much is because Tom Ripley is a sympathetic character. You could understand why he killed his friend Dickie Greenleaf. There are also certain moments throughout the novel where Ripley contemplates what he has done. With Ripley Under Ground, those moments are fewer and far between, and they don’t ring as true. Perhaps it has to do with the 15 year lag between the first two Ripley books.

The theme of authenticity versus fakery or forgery is explored early on but seems to sputter out after the halfway point. Bernard Tufts is a talented artist in his own right but is psychologically suffering from the years of forging the paintings of his dead friend Derwatt and living a lie. Tom, of course, sees things differently and regards Bernard as a kind of Van Meegeren, and loved the fake Derwatts as much as the real ones. He can’t understand why people like Murchison get so worked up about a fake painting.

He brought up Van Meegeren, with whose career Murchison was acquainted. Van Meegeren’s forgeries of Vermeer had finally achieved some value of their own. Van Meegeren may have stated it first in self-defence, in bravado, but aesthetically there was no doubt that Van Meegeren’s inventions of ‘new’ Vermeers had given pleasure to the people who had bought them.

‘I cannot understand your total disconnection with the truth of things,’ Murchison said. ‘An artist’s style is his truth, his honesty. Has another man the right to copy it, in the same way that a man copies another man’s signature? And for the same purpose, to draw on his reputation, his bank account?...’

The irony is naturally lost on Tom. Though he admires Murchison's intelligence and ends up even liking him (in the wine cellar while his housekeeper is washing dishes upstairs!), he murders Murchison anyway because he couldn’t be convinced to see things Tom’s way, which is skewed but nevertheless has an internal logic of its own.

Several times I had to suspend my disbelief at how Tom could get away with murder, though it is quite funny to read how his neighbours do not notice “his pink and almost bleeding palms, sore from the ropes around Murchison” as they make pleasant chitchat. When he confesses to his co-conspirators about murdering Murchison (Highsmith did have a knack for finding great names), they were dumbfounded but never questioned Tom’s sanity or what they were getting themselves into. There is never really a moment of danger that involves those who are close to Tom (close as in proximity if not in intimacy), his wife or housekeeper, who may suspect him of being a murderer. Tom dispatched Murchison before he could become a real threat. Subsequently his influence on Bernard to commit suicide in Vienna seemed almost effortless (Highsmith did not quite pull off the contrast between the two mentally unstable individuals – one who is emotional-less, the other emotionally volatile). And the London inspector seemed intelligent but conveniently ineffective.

I do enjoy how Highsmith writes about contemporary life in European cities, like how Tom appreciates London graffiti as he spots a defaced poster of the hit 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet and then goes shopping for his wife, buying her a pair of “flared hipsters of black wool, waist twenty-six.” These minute details add a nice flair of sophistication to the setting.

Sadly, due to my disappointment in the sequel, I may postpone reading the third book, Ripley’s Game, which is in Olman’s collection. There are plenty of other on-deck books to read!