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Archive for October, 2008

October 31st, 2008 • Posted in Uncategorized

Watch Todd Browning’s Freaks here…and witness the Rejection

Image from here.

This from the Channel 4 website:

In 1932, Tod Browning’s feature film Freaks gave an unprecedented insight into the world of the side show. It forced the audience to consider whether able-bodied people can ever really see beyond a disability. Featuring a large cast of genuine freak show artistes, the film revealed the supposedly normal members of the travelling circus as the true monsters, as a glamorous trapeze artiste plans to marry and murder a midget for his fortune.

Originally commissioned by MGM as a straightforward horror film, audiences were so shocked and nauseated that the studio withdrew it. Banned in Britain too, Freaks was rarely seen without major cuts until the 1960s. Later critics have also perceived the film as a subtle critique of the Hollywood studios, which generate vast profits by concentrating on the physical form rather than the creative talents of their leading players."

The key scene in this sexually charged movie occurs at around the 45 minute mark when ‘Freaks’ at the wedding party sing a song of acceptance to the ‘normal’ trapese artist bride, who, in a monstrous rejection, throws wine in their faces. The film ends in acceptance. The jilted midget is embraced by one of his own. "I love you." This movie, or at least response to it, ruined Browning’s career. He subsequently lived the life of a recluse, and died at 82 in 1962.

Watch the sixty four minute version of the film here. The original was 90, but apparently the studio quickly chopped (!) the more grotesque scenes, including castration of Hercules.

Following is the film’s ‘opening crawl’, from Stomp Tokyo:

Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL VISUAL ATTRACTION. a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter:


Somebody needs Nad’s!
In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill-luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversities were invariably cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia.

(Of course, American political leaders are strapping, virile examples of humanity. It really doesn’t need to be stated.)

HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE and LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world’s course. GOLIATH, CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB, and KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is worldwide.

(We’re glad to see that the confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster is not a recent phenomena, but was full in force a mere year after Boris Karloff made the Universal version of the monster famous. We suspect this whole thing was written quickly, and evidence suggests the crawl was added to the movie at the last minute to add some kind moral context to the proceedings. Caliban is misspelled, and the inclusion of defeated war enemy Wilhelm seems petty.)

The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it.

(Today that curse has a name: Jerry Springer.)

"I’ll get Dick Tracy this time for sure!"
Occasionally one of these unfortunates was taken to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving.

(This is another good description of the Jerry Springer Show. )

For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one.

They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of other people.

Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be retold is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives.

Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.

(Considering the time frame, this is probably a reference to eugenics.)

Look Who’s Talking VIII.
With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of THE ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.

October 31st, 2008 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Wood, Greif, Franklin and Johnson on the Future of the Novel

 Image from here. 

Lauren Elkin,  writer, reader, and native New Yorker living in Paris points us to James Wood in conversation with Mark Greif of n+1 along with Ruth Franklin (The New Republic) and Dennis Loy Johnson (Moby Lives, again)on The Great American Novel and the NY Times’ Best Fiction in the last 25 years poll topped by Toni Morrison’s Beloved… from a couple of years ago.

Here’s a summary of the discussion, which, understandably I suppose, fails to predict what new form the novel might take in 2030. It does however provide some good ideas on where content is headed:

Wood suggests that the future great American novel will come from a hybrid of Delillo and Bellow: because the latter provides a metaphysical interest in progress of the soul lacking in the former, who excels in depicting a mind overloaded with information.

The NY Times list is criticized as being a reflection of what those polled thought most significant, most worthy of canonization, rather than what was most pleasurable.

The question arises: why no Foster Wallace, no Moody? Winners were all born in 1930s. None post 1945. Where were Infinite Jest, Fortress of Solitude, Middlesex? None of these novels showed up. Perhaps those polled were concerned not with aesthetics, but that which has been ‘burnished by posterity.’

When asked which writers best embody the brightest possibilities:

Franklin points to British author David Mitchell as important; one who tells stories in unconventional forms. She follows up with Jeff Eugenides, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. Suggests that American writers are not holding their own against foreigners. Greif picks Frenchman Michel Hollebecq as avant garde on subject matter: the aftermath of the sexual revolution, cloning islamoterrorists… ‘powerful if sloppy’. Wood praises Johnathan Letham’s Fortress of Solitude, and says Lydia Davis is capable of producing something innovative and great.

Johnson tells us that most new novels he sees involve art imitating art: novels, instead of being rooted in the word, aim to produce the same kind of buzz as movies and rock and roll. They are egocentric acts. Authors instead of talking to him about their literary loves, boast of ability to perform at readings and how good they are at selling. Wood talks of the pressure on young writers to market, to succeed. Johnson repeats that experimental literature will increasingly originate from independent publishing houses.

Little is conjectured about the future form of the novel. Wood provides a useful summary of content and themes which will dominate in the coming years: American power, fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic, immigration…these topics will join with the novelistic preoccupation with information, the mediation of the self, fragile or endlessly mediated subjectivity, and history. Hybridization, and the collision of ethnicity is now commonplace; ‘part of the air novelists breathe.’

Greif ends by emphasizing the importance of lag. The great WWll novel isn’t From Here to Eternity, its Catch 22 written in the early 1960s. Similarly, the great 9/11 novel probably wont be written until the 2020s.

Not a bad summary of content. But, again, a lack of insightful speculation on what new form the novel might take. Perhaps because once you’ve done consciousness, subconsciousness and dreams…there is no other place to go. Broadly speaking, Joyce did it all. If we take the novel as a work of imagination using words on the page, we probably can go no further.

If however, we talk technology and virtual reality, it seems to me that new continents appear…the putting of others into simulated situations. Creating worlds experienced not just in the mind of the reader, but through their senses as well.The author remains responsible for selecting the smells, sights, sounds…the general sensible conditions…and the story…the techno geek enables the ‘reader’ to experience the situation…

As with all mediums of the imagination, accurate depiction of character, and interest-holding plot lines will be of central concern to writer and reader/experiencer.

October 31st, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Movie Review: Manufactured Landscapes: Big Beauty deserves big Venue

Shipbreaking No. 1, Chittagong, Bangladesh 2000

MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES is a feature length documentary on the paradoxically sumptuous work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. His captivating large scale photographs of ‘manufactured landscapes’ – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, dams, along with giant industrial equipment and transportation vehicles – are featured in the journeys he takes to extraordinary sites of industrial activity. They document man’s impact on the planet. Starting with nickel ore mines for example, his work shows the immense scale of how we extract raw materials from the ground, how it’s transported, processed, discarded, recycled and returned to the earth. His photographs have been described as "stunning" and "beautiful," but they are at the same time shocking and disturbing.

The film follows Burtynsky to China as he photographs the evidence and effects of massive industrial revolution. Sites such as the Three Gorges Dam, by far the largest dam in the world, and a factory floor over a kilometre long, point to the human cost of such revolutions. One of the most striking aspects of this film is how it depicts the monotonous existence of Chinese workers. One in particular is shown testing the spray nozels that go on irons. All day long, every day, this is what she does. One has to wonder where and how the Chinese people came to be so submissive, and, why they continue to put up with such pathetic existences in light of the lives of luxury they must see some of their more affluent, newly rich countrymen living.

The ironic, contradictory juxtaposition of beauty, consumption and destruction are seen in a Chinese town filled with scrap metal and discarded computer parts. Workers sieve zombie-like through this strangely sublime mess for re-usable materials. The rest is thrown out and buried. Pollution from it seeps into the water table.The film also shows us huge transport vessels close up, massive parking lots full of cars for export, and my favourite, the hulls of giant oil tankers beached somewhere in the sands of Bangladesh.

We need, says Burtynsky, to see in order to know nature. Similarly, we need to observe in order to understand how humankind has altered the landscape.

The film bears witness both to the ‘epicentres of industrial endeavour and the dumping grounds of its waste.’ without being didactic or judgmental. Here’s the evidence it says. There are no simple answers. It does open eyes, but I saw the film on a TV screen. It suffers as a result. Rent Manufactured Landscapes on DVD for its message. But, to do justice to the majesty of Burtinsky’s strikingly beautiful art, seek out an exhibition, or attend this movie at a repertory theatre next time it comes around.

October 31st, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

It was a dark and stormy night when I came across…

…A reading copy of Virginia Woolf”s Death of the Moth (1943 wartime Readers Union edition, with missing frontispiece and dustjacket $4.00) here:


I then trotted up to, and enjoyed the food at an excellent Vietnamese restaurant on Bloor Street, read details of the moth’s demise and ‘The Art of Biography’, [from which I will quote during a planned interview with Victoria Glendinning], and then walked back to the sale along Bay Street where I took this addition to my collection of bookstore photos:

 Speaking of photograph collections. I recently set up a flickr group for used book sales. Here’s my latest contribution:


Please feel free to join in.

October 30th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Aslam and Federer separated at Birth?


I interviewed Nadeem Aslam recently at the IFOA. He reminded me of someone…stay tuned for our conversation. 

October 29th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

The Nauseating efforts of CBC Radio; Newscasters as Celebrities; the redeeming merits of Tom Allen


I share Rohan Maitzen’s distress over Mother Corp’s nauseating efforts to make CBC Radio a hipper, cooler place to park your ears…in so doing it imitates the worst of what it is theoretically trying to distinguish itself from: private sector commercialism enamoured with trivia, celebrity, sex and crime; loud mouthed DJs who find everything – death, dogshit, diapers – and anything, hysterically funny; newsrooms which mistake the urgent for the important. 

A public broadcaster should not, ideally, have to jump to the same puppeteer’s jerk. Newscasters should not, for example, be treated by their employers as celebrities. Have you seen the enormous, no, hugemungus photograph of Peter Mansbridge on the wall of the CBC building in Toronto? The only thing that matches its size I suspect is the man’s ego. Hard to blame him though, given that his employer must treat him like God. It’s the news that matters, not who reads it. Ratings shouldn’t be the priority. The use of that anonymous baritoned drip who reads headlines for The Current with such cynical dander, only succeeds in undermining all semblance of seriousness, and with it all claims to credibility. Depth of research and inquiry is what matters, not this pathetic appeal to urban cool. The focus should be on the quality of information, not the manner in which it is presented.

And now I’ll contradict myself…if only partly, by saying that one decision made by CBC Radio 2 during its transformation should be praised. A non-decision it is actually: the retention of Tom Allen as host of its national morning show. His fast paced erudition, humour and sense of the absurd represents what is best in radio, and sharply illustrates how important the presentation of entertainment (which news clearly is not, though it is clearly treated as such  by audience pandering, ratings chasing producers) can be. Despite a change from classical to contemporary, Tom’s intelligent presence continues to be felt and appreciated on a show that offers  "A deep blend of new and established artists across musical genres in a mix you won’t hear anywhere else. " Check out his show here. He’s even written a book. 

October 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Tips on how to run a successful used book Sale. Audio Interview with Beryl Barr

Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library, founded in 1946, is a not-for-profit organization for people interested in books and libraries. Its purpose is to stimulate public interest in the library, purchase library materials, and support other cultural and educational programs in Tompkins County. Each year since inception the Friends have held a book sale in Ithaca New York.

It now ranks among the ten largest (250,000 to 300,000 books, CDs, records, etc. per year) in the United States.

Beryl Barr

is the currently in charge of the Book Sale. I talked with her recently, and asked her to give listeners her top ten hints on how best to run a used book sale.

Here’s our conversation:

October 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Canada hosts the two best Author Festivals in the World

Just back from the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event together with Montreal’s Blue Metropolis, has to be the best if its kind in the world. Every year both Festivals bring together hundreds of acclaimed authors from around the planet. Both encourage attending authors to meet and mingle, the former in the Fall (meet, Toronto), the latter is the Spring (mingle, Montreal). I’m sure that more than just glowing jacket cover blurbs flow forth from these gatherings. Friendships and hangovers for a start. Insights, publishing deals, perhaps even the odd love affair or two, as well. One thing is certain: not enough Canadians are aware of these amazing, Olympian events. Directors Geoffrey Taylor and Linda Leith should be feted, congratulated, Order of Canada-ed for what they have accomplished.
What other English language festivals worldwide can boast of bringing together more authors of such outstanding quality?

Thanks to the assistance of Shane, Kelly (see below) and Alfreda in the media office,

my time interviewing the following authors was filled with nothing but smooth, hitch-free conversation.

Stay tuned and listen, in the coming weeks, for chats with

Rivka Galchen

Nedeem Aslam

Joe Dunthorne

Aleksandar Hemon

Ross Raisin

Junot Diaz

Anne Enright

Nam Le

Joseph Boyden

Amitav Ghosh

But before this, a conversation with Beryl Barr,


co-ordinator of one of the biggest used book sales in the United States, and Rebecca Rosenblum,


author of Once [published by biblioasis] a collection of short stories which won this year’s Metcalf Rooke Award.

October 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

‘Must have’ Penguin Porn

Image from here.
Seven Hundred Penguins: required viewing for all bona fide book lovers. Not to missed? I fell hard for: Honor Blackman’s Book of Self Defence.

 Synopsis: "A collection of Penguin covers from Britain and around the world, Seven Hundred Penguins is a celebration of 700 Penguin jackets that remain visually distinctive and addictive to us today, from the beautiful to the garish, design classics to design oddities. A full-colour, sensuous delight, with one jacket on every page, the featured jackets represent the personal favourites of Penguin staff from offices all over the world, and run from Penguin’s birth in 1935 to the end of the twentieth century.

Throughout this beautiful book there are jackets that bring back a flood of memories of the first time a book was read; there is typography from Jan Tschicold; arresting illustrations; visual witticisms from Derek Birdsall; countless mutations of the much-loved Penguin grid. There are also, with no formula at all, jackets that just make sense."

There are also some gorgeous, spartan Pelicans caged in this book. 

Get yours here.

October 23rd, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Silverblatt talks with James Wood about Frontiers of the Novel and threats to Seriousness

Here are some notes taken from KCRW’s Bookworm broadcast, found here.

How Fiction Works can be characterized as an essay on the central mystery of what brings something to life on the page; care is taken not to kill it by talking about it.

Silverblatt suggests Wood’s criticism is animated by a level of passion and desperation, a need to go beyond criticism,

 The great joy of the literary critic says Wood [paraphrasing something Martin Amis has said] is that he uses the medium he talks about.  Her work is in its own fluid…Wood says he is not trying to out write, but rather to honour the language he is writing about. Silverblatt compares Wood to Walter De La Mare. Criticism is more than a  profession, mor too than a blocked creative impulse.

Silverblatt quotes Flaubert as wanting to retreat into invisibility. Wood’s writing, he says, does the opposite. We are meant to hear an impassioned voice. Critics Wood likes best [eg. Roland Barthes] are self contradictory. Barthes detested realism, yet constantly returned to it, paying it negative tribute. Murderous hostility toward it, yet there is evident awe and love. Wood freely admit to his own contradictions, pointing to how he ignored his own advice when writing  ‘theologically prosy’ novel. He likes the combination of the invisible author and the author signing himself into the style at the same time.

Silverblatt points to Wood championing novels which have historically broken form, yet criticizing current seekers of the new. This says Wood gets to the heart of an uncertainty in his criticism/sensibility. He is more alert to the breaking of old frontiers, than the conquering of new. Norman Rush is again praised. Wood, like all of us, is unsure of what new forms the novel can and must take. There are new challenges. New argos from Internet, Advertising, etc. One obvious new dimension is the current political situation, and how to convincingly represent the certainty of faith. Problem of  predicting the birth of new form. Silverblatt claims Joyce’s Ulysses did everything the novel knew how to do up to its point, and predicted what it would do for the next seventy years. So, in its time, did Melville’s Moby Dick. The two writers were different types of geniuses. Time changes the notion of genius.

Silverblatt sees How Fiction Works as sublime inventory
of things we once cherished, loved in fiction, and that novelists now
face an obligation to find a new way to cherish them, in a new world.  

What isn’t in short supply today says Wood is verbal talent. More really good novelists now than there was say fifty years ago. General level of journalistic criticism is up. What is under threat is seriousness. The creation of a grave sensibility. Where, when someone sits down to write, everything is at stake, humanly, metaphysically.

When Wood made this comment, I thought immediately of Matthew Arnold’s consideration of same as a tenet of greatness, and my conversation with young Montreal poet Michael Lista and the ‘risks’ he is taking with Joyce’s Ulysses, near plagarism and the life of a scientist who died working on the Manhattan Project. Listen here.