The English beast

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website my review of David Goudreault’s Mama’s Boy (an English translation by JC Sutcliffe of La bête à sa mere) has been posted. I really enjoyed this little book, which is just the first part of a trilogy.

Sutcliffe’s translation of François Blais’s Document 1 is also very good. Both books are published by Book*hug, who have done a first-rate design job as well. Definitely worth checking out.

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Billion dollar babies

A recent cover story in Forbes Magazine heralds Kylie Jenner, who is a month shy of turning 21, as being the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

Some have criticized Forbes for their definition of “self-made,” arguing that Jenner was born into wealth and celebrity. This is true, but today she is apparently worth more than the rest of her extended family combined, so I guess she must have done something on her own. I wouldn’t deny her the title.

I also wasn’t too surprised at her age. We’ve been hearing about boy billionaires for years now, and the tech industry in particular has already thrown up more than a few. If Jenner does become a billionaire in the next year or so — and once you’ve accumulated that amount of wealth, increasing it becomes almost inevitable — then she’ll be beating out Mark Zuckerberg, who became a billiionaire at the age of 23. These things happen in our lottery economy.

What I did find surprising was just how lucrative the cosmetics industry is. When Lilian Bettencourt died last year she was said to have been the richest woman in the world, due to her having inherited the L’Oréal fortune from her father. But Kylie Jenner only launched her own cosmetic brand in 2016 and Forbes today values it at nearly $800 million (it did an estimated $330 million in sales last year). That’s amazing growth. Markups and profit margins in cosmetics I know are high, but this sounds like a license to print money.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between cheap and very expensive cosmetics, either in terms of what they cost to produce or how well they actually work, so marketing is very important. Jenner has taken her name and fame and successfully branded herself, as is often recommended to young entrepreneurial types. Her stunning success, in other words, is another example of the triumph of celebrity in our time, as if any more were needed after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This is something that I think we really need to be more concerned about.

Colour films

Mop on. Mop off.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Colour Out of Space.” Lovecraft has always been hard to put on screen and I’m afraid most of these movies aren’t very good (bordering on terrible). But the two most recent, the German film Die Farbe and the even stranger Swedish production Feed the Light are interesting, low-budget experiments that I’d recommend.

Here’s the list:

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” from Creepshow (1982)
The Curse (1987)
Colour from the Dark (2008)
Die Farbe (2010)
Feed the Light (2014)

Post-Postman

Quick responses to a couple of questions raised in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) by Neil Postman:

Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?

Well, I think that one’s already been answered.

My point is that, with the Cold War at an end, our political leaders now struggle, as never before, to find a vital narrative and accompanying symbols that would awaken a national spirit and a sense of resolve. The citizens themselves struggle as well. Having drained many of their traditional symbols of serious meaning, they resort, somewhat pitifully, to sporting yellow ribbon as a means of symbolizing their fealty to a cause. After the war, the yellow ribbons will fade from sight, but the question of who we are and we represent will remain. Is it possible that the only symbol left to use will be an F-15 fighter plane guided by an advanced computer system?

We’ve gone one better, Neil. Now we have drones.

Begin again, and again


Over at Alex on Film I’ve added notes on three movies taking the premise that an individual has to relive the same day in their life over again and again in a loop until some condition is met. I think Groundhog Day (1993) was the first, or at least the best known film to do this. We still call it a Groundhog Day plot. More recently the idea has proven itself to be highly portable, being featured in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Happy Death Day (2017).

What I find interesting is how different, in most other respects, these films are. In Groundhog Day the time loop has a vaguely spiritual dimension to it, related to Buddhist teachings or Nietzsche’s eternal return. In Edge of Tomorrow there’s a ridiculous explanation for it based on some connection between alien biology and time travel. This is a throwaway, as the real connection being made is to video game play. In Happy Death Day it seems like the device is being invoked in a more ironic way. What do these different approaches have in common? I’m not sure. I can’t help thinking there’s some deeper connection though.

Election round-up

Thoughts on the 2018 Ontario provincial election.

(1) They changed the location of my polling station from a hotel that’s just down the street to a public school out in the boonies. I didn’t appreciate this at all. Kids are still in school so the hallways were filled with ankle-biters. I arrived just before the poll opened so I sat on a bench outside the principal’s office. They told me I had to wait outside the building. I didn’t move. Bad enough they had to change the location to such an unsuitable place. I wasn’t going to be inconvenienced any more.

(2) I really hate the first-past-the-post system. The PCs got a resounding majority with just barely over 40% of the total vote. But I no longer wonder how much longer this bullshit will go on. I know it’s never going to end.

(3) Province-wide the voter turnout was considered very good, at around 58%. This was up significantly from the 2014 election when it had been 51%. This underlines a depressing reality: that in most elections, federal and provincial, here and in the U.S., roughly 40% of the electorate are never going to vote. Never. You can’t make them.

(4) In his victory speech Doug Ford declared Ontario now “open for business.” Why does that sound so threatening? It shouldn’t, but it does. It also reinforces the widening gulf between what are the two main party positions, again both here and in the U.S.: the party of business and the party of the state, private vs. public sector.

(5) Ford gets compared to Trump a lot. I think he’s smarter. Plus he can actually deliver a speech. But he may be an even nastier guy.

(6) The collapse of the Liberals isn’t that surprising. Basically what happened was a re-run of what happened to the PCs federally in the 1993 election, when the party was wiped out nation-wide. This was because the PCs had unexpectedly won a majority in the previous (1988) federal election, at a time when they were deeply unpopular. The spring of resentment against them was then pressed even tighter for another five years before it could finally be unleashed. Similarly, the provincial Liberals won an unexpected majority in 2014, despite being widely disliked, mainly due to the hopelessness of the PC leader Tim Hudak. Again, the spring of resentment was pressed tight, and when it came to be released the party was swept away.

(7) Of course the Liberals will be back. After fifteen years (or whatever it’s been) voters just wanted to punish them with a time out.

(8) In my own riding the Greens got their only seat, which was their first ever. I’m glad they’ll have a voice at Queen’s Park but I don’t know where they go from here. At some point the party has to make the case for a green economy and get people to buy into it. We seem so far from that now.

(9) I don’t know where the NDP go either. Their “success” was only to inherit the Liberal’s doomed position. Now they can’t do much, given their seat total, and are probably just going to be placeholders until people go back to the Libs. How do the NDP make the case for being a real opposition? I can’t think of anything other than aligning themselves even more with public sector unionism.

(10) Justin Trudeau should be happy. Ford is a perfect foil for him to play off, and since Canadians tend to like divided provincial and federal government a Ford majority in Ontario should keep the province’s federal seats with the Liberals. Especially since . . .

(11) I think Ford will be a lousy premier. Though I suppose his “ready to govern” cabinet might help him avoid the worst of it. He’s going to say the province’s financial situation is worse than anyone knew, which I can actually believe. This is going to lead to cuts in services and other belt-tightening measures. Round and round we go.

Talking about books

Every now and then you read a book that you don’t want to review so much as enter into a conversation with. Here are some excerpts from a dialogue between myself and Joe Queenan’s One for the Books.

Somewhere along the line, I got into the habit of reading several books simultaneously. “Several” soon became “many,” and “many” soon became “too many.” . . . In my adult life I cannot remember a single time when I was reading fewer than fifteen books, though at certain points this figure has spiraled far higher. I am not talking about books I have delved into, perused, and set aside, like Finnegans Wake or Middlemarch, which I first took a crack at in 1978, or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have been reading, on and off, since I was about twelve. That would get me up way over a hundred. No, I am talking about books I am actively reading, books that are right there on my nightstand and are not leaving there until I am done with them. Right now, the number is thirty-two.

Right now, the number for me is forty-three . Most of these are piled up on the headboard of my bed, which is where I do most of my reading. Queenan says he doesn’t understand how anyone can read in bed. I don’t understand how anyone can read any other way.

I’ve only read the first few pages of Finnegans Wake and have no great interest in reading any more. I still have a copy though so I might get back to it . . . someday. I’ve read Middlemarch a couple of times and hope to again before I die. Gibbon I’ve read and still dip into it whenever I have a chance.

Only the greatest books can withstand the damage inflicted on their reputations by bad movies: The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice. Hollywood has always been reasonable good at turning electrifying hooey like Gone with the Wind and The Bridges of Madison County into movies that are far superior to the novels that begat them. But it has trouble when it takes a run at War and Peace. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with serious fiction, so it does what it does best: It annihilates it.

So true. My own version of the general rule is just that bad novels make good movies. But only a certain kind of bad novel. That type of bad novel, in turn, becomes popular both among authors and audiences, who have now been trained in what to expect.

I am deadly serious about the way I parcel out my reading time. I may have time for this, but I do not have time for that. Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from Tristram Shandy to Le Colonel Chabert, with titles by authors as celebrated as Goethe and as obscure as Juan Filloy. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of pure genius, 500 oddities, and 168 examples of first-class trash.

I think every confirmed reader does this sort of rough accounting once they make it to a certain age. They often also say things like “I’ve got to quite wasting so much of my time on lousy books.” I’ve made the same resolution. And yet, one still keeps reaching for the trash. Even the second- and third-class stuff. I think there are times when we need that diversity in the quality of what we read. If all we did was read the classics life would get pretty boring.

But the numbers! I think I have close to 2,000 books in my “to-read” pile now, and it is growing every day. I’ll never read them all.

Critics are mostly servile muttonheads, lacking the nerve to call out famous authors for their daft plots and slovenly prose. Academics fear that an untoward word will hurt them somewhere down the line when their own daft, slovenly books come up for review. Blurbs in particular can no longer be trusted. Usually they are written by liars and sycophants to advance the careers of bozos and sluts.

Bozos and sluts? I don’t know. The rest of it is mostly right though.

Unless you are a complete idiot, genre fiction will eventually tire you out.

I’m not sure. It depends how much of it you take on. If 90% of everything is crap then if you stick within a single genre for a long period of time you’ll probably get tired of the regular fare. But here’s the thing: genres of fiction have been around for a long time, suggesting that, as with any literary form, they are inexhaustible. One sticks with them because they’re always being made new. I’ve written a regular SF column for several years now, and while a lot of what I read can start to seem the same, I do come across interesting new works every month.

Then again, I may be a complete idiot.

Can an obsession with reading prove detrimental to one’s well-being? Yes, I think it can.

Reading as mental illness. Well, it certainly seems that way today!

Any obsession is, almost by definition, unhealthy. I think Queenan’s point is more that reading removes us from reality. I’d agree with this, but while it may be detrimental to my well-being I think it’s a price worth paying, since I despise reality.

I have spent countless hours over the years chatting with people about Anne Tyler, Tom Robbins, and David Lodge, all of them fine, accessible writes, none of them writers I especially enjoy. Conversely, I have never discussed Juvenal’s work with anyone. It’s been years since anyone I know has mentioned John Donne in my presence. Decades go by without anyone breathing a word regarding Italo Svevo, Italo Calvino, or anybody else I admire named Italo. Among my favorite writers are Marcel Aymé, Ivan Doig, J. G. Farrell, Georges Bernanos, Thomas Berger, Junichiro Tanizaki, Robert Coover, and Jean Giono. I have never once been engaged in a conversation about these writers.

Ah, the loneliness of the reader of serious literary fiction. I can relate (for what it’s worth, he also writes that “I have never had a wide-ranging conversation about Canadian literature with anyone. Nor do I expect to.”). From the list of names Queenan gives as his favourites the only one I share is J. G. Farrell. I’ve been a fan of Farrell for years, and have often pressed his novels upon friends. These advances have all been rejected. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who has read Farrell, though I think he is a relatively popular novelist. I’ve certainly never had a conversation with anyone about him. But then I wonder: Would I even want to, should the opportunity present itself? Perhaps not. Reading is a solitary activity. Every man dies, and reads, alone.