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Off Track

Nora Young’s The Virtual Self, reviewed
The Virtual SelfMcClelland & Stewart

In step with her WiFi-connected pedometer, the modern “self-tracker” cradles her iPhone as she punches into an online database her mood on a five-point scale, her heart rate, and the calories she consumed for breakfast, then tweets out a GPS-tagged photo of the blue jay crossing her morning jog. The sum of all this updates her metaphorical “Data Map,” a “digital, statistical version of [her] real, physical self.”

As personal tracking tools come ever easier to our fingertips, our digital lives become increasingly complex and minutely detailed. Rather than dismissing self-tracking as the latest manifestation of an increasingly self-obsessed culture, in her new book, The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us, Nora Young argues that when “used properly”, the practice gives us the “chance to truly listen to the body, and to reground ourselves in the here and now.”

Young, who hosts Spark, the CBC Radio show that links technology and culture, waded through countless online services to log bodily functions, relationships, mental states, and habits — like RescueTime, an analytics service, popular with employers, that tracks a computer’s every working minute. Recording our daily activities forces self-awareness, she argues, inviting behaviour change with a rewarding “gold star” approach. Our basic captured data creates “a digital picture of ourselves”, she continues, resulting in a Data Map that is a “strong depiction of who we are.” (Recognizing this representational power, personal Timelines on Facebook — a visualization tool recently discussed by Ivor Tossell in The Walrus — serve, Young writes, as “repositories for people’s digital lives.”) (more…)

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Writing on the Edge of a Knife

Granta's masterful study of Pakistan — a nation defined by its stresses — is a tome for the ages

Granta’s study of Pakistan, a nation defined by its stresses, is a tome for the ages


Pakistan has never had a rosy history, but over the past decade it has been cast in an ever more frightening light. The flooding of the Indus River in 2010 brought to the world’s attention a nation that is ravaged by insurgency, constricted by a corrupt government, and left without the basic infrastructure that could have saved scores of lives from the deluge. But the Western mass media offered little more than a fleeting glimpse into the world of Pakistan’s people before its twenty-four-hour news stations quickly moved on. By contrast, the 112th issue of Granta — the UK literary journal which dates to 1889 — offers readers of journalism, fiction, and poetry a window into the terror and hope this troubled region faces, the difficulties of exile, and the scarred-but-enduring beauty of the arts in times of war.

One does not have to look far in the collection to see such scars. “The first year of Pakistan was marked by the staggering bloodletting that accompanied partition,” observes Jane Perlez in “Portrait of Jinnah,” a journalist’s survey of the region which introduces the measured chaos that follows. Kashmir, recognized by Salman Rushdie and others as a paradise on Earth, is reduced to rubble and terror by decades of war waged by foreign powers (“Kashmir’s Forever War,” Basharat Peer). Mohammed Hanif, penning fiction (“Butt & Bhatti”), unleashes a storm of gunshots, robberies, and tire fires after an altercation in a hospital hallway. Intizar Hussain, in his memoir “The House by the Gallows,” watches as public discourse degrades into mindless nationalism, and capital punishment becomes a spectator sport: “What an era General Zia had brought to Pakistan!” he writes, “The echoes of prayer and the roar of public hangings.”

The interaction between pieces is particularly noticeable where such transformations are concerned. While the emotional suffering in Nadeem Aslam’s “Leila in the Wilderness,” rooted in tradition, is drawn out over the course of a novella, Mohsin Hamid’s ”A Beheading” imagines the sudden and unexpected end of a life within only a few minutes’ worth of reading. The juxtaposition is meaningful: where moral lessons were once learned over the course of a life’s natural rhythms, they are now dished out at gunpoint or the gallows, by the state or terrorists, in a matter of moments. (more…)

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The Ladies’ Man’s Bad Seed

New albums by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave’s Grinderman, reviewed

New albums by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave’s Grinderman, reviewed

There’s something sinister and sad and kind of ugly about the first seconds of Leonard Cohen’s latest live album. Songs from the Road opens with a recording made one year ago today at Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv; the crowd applauds in 2/4 time as Cohen takes the stage to sing “Lover Lover Lover” from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The knee-jerk, gut-level reaction is that there’s something awfully gauche about clapping to a dirge whose refrain pleads, “Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.” It elevates the song to the status of arena rock standard, reducing this later-life Cohen to showman, to vendor of spectacle: a role which has been imposed upon him in the past five years.

It’s a part he’s played out of necessity and, one imagines, with great uneasiness. The elephant in the room is Cohen’s financial problem, the result of long-time business manager Kelley Lynch siphoning millions from his retirement account, leaving the usually reclusive poet/novelist/songwriter with little recourse but to churn out more work, and exhaustively tour the globe.

This air of obligation hangs heavy over most of his recent work, from the rushed-to-market feel of 2006’s Book of Longing, a compilation of poetry and illustrations that reads like the B-side to much of Cohen’s more accomplished writing, to the 2009 release of Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (also not very good), and now to this Songs from the Road — the second live album, following 2008’s Live in London, to survey his last two years of touring. But where the London release documented an entire, solitary concert, Songs from the Road stitches together various sets recorded in Tel Aviv, Helsinki, Glasgow, San Jose, England’s London, Ontario’s London, and elsewhere. It’s a best-of live album, padding out the catalogue of an artist whose output has been compiled into a bulk of best-of albums, including The Essential Leonard Cohen, The Best of Leonard Cohen, and the uninspiringly titled More Best of Leonard Cohen. (more…)

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Posted in Music  •  4 Comments

Coming Down From David Wants to Fly

A Hot Doc in hindsight

I had expected the premiere of David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly to be a modest proceeding. The premise of the documentary — recent film school grad devotes himself to Transcendental Meditation because David Lynch tells him to — is ridiculous.David Wants to Fly

© Adrian Stähli

I had expected the premiere of David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly to be a modest proceeding. The premise of the documentary — recent film school grad devotes himself to Transcendental Meditation because David Lynch tells him to — is ridiculous. There couldn’t be that many people who would skip Still Alive in Gaza for it.

I arrived late, then spent ten minutes looking for a seat. The place was packed. Eventually I squeezed myself between a slight grey-haired man and a boisterous couple who traded Lynch anecdotes as a Hot Docs programmer took the stage. “So, how many of you are here for your interest in Transcendental Meditation?” he asked. The small man next to me and a few others raised their hands. “And how many of you are here for your interest in David Lynch?” Hands shot up like reeds around the theatre. There was even some whooping. Of course! This was a Lynch fan event.

David Wants to Fly
is about whackos (David Lynch), lost film school grads (David Sieveking), and exploitation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his “TM movement”). It’s told through Sieveking’s personal narrative: He wants to make great movies, like his idol, David Lynch. At home in Berlin, he hears of a TM conference at Fairfield, Iowa’s Maharishi Peace Palace where Lynch will be speaking about, or rather advocating for, the practice. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  14 Comments

A Portrait of the Artist as an Elderly Woman

A Hot Doc, in capsule review
The Woman With the Five Elephants

When I am old, I want to look like Swetlana Geier, with her wide eyes and swishing skirts, and her long white hair swept up in a bun. I want to talk and think like her — with wit and depth and unfathomable understanding, in images and allusions to history and art. I want to live in her house — or, if that sounds too creepy, a house like hers, set in dark green woods but close to a market square where I can buy lettuce from the local lettuce lady, who parcels it in newspaper, that I will use when preparing dinner for my adoring flock of grandchildren, who come to visit often.

Geier, Germany’s pre-eminent translator of Russian literature, is hunched over and moves slowly, and often ends her thoughts with a softly spoken “yeah,” like she can’t believe how profound she is, either. Is it the Dostoevsky? I wonder, watching her. Is it reading the “five elephants” (i.e., great novels) of Dostoevsky — repeatedly, constantly, and with the intensity of focus required to translate them, as Geier does — that makes a person this aware and this beautiful? Or is it a natural side affect of being hyper-intelligent, sensual, and eighty-five?

These are probably not the questions that the director, Vadim Jendreyko, meant for me to ask. The themes of The Woman With the Five Elephants, raised in the context of Geier’s life story, are grand — literature, language, connection, reconnection — and I’m probably supposed to be dwelling on those. But I’m obsessed with Geier. (She cooks! She cleans! She saved Crime and Punishment from being known in Germany as Guilt and Atonement!) Everything else becomes important only insofar as it reveals her character and is shaped by her articulation. This isn’t a fault in the movie so much as proof of Geier’s power to take it over.

Unless Jendreyko made her up. He could have spun her, edited her into what he wanted her to be. It almost seems like he must have, she’s so perfectly wrought as Inspirational Character. It wouldn’t upset me if he had. Even if Geier were a fiction, she would still be full of truth.

(The Woman With the Five Elephants is screening at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival. Photo courtesy of Filmtank)
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Sam Lipsyte’s America

The second of two online addendums to "The Walrus Reads," from the magazine's May 2010 issue

Like both of his prior novels, Sam Lipsyte’s new book, The Ask, is not embarrassed by its preoccupations. Consider its opening paragraphs, a blast of violent prose that declares, in the exaggerated voice of one of the more charmingly silly characters, what it understands to be the United States’ current predicament:

America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.

We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.

The Ask by Sam LipsyteSam Lipsyte’s America, then, is in a bit of trouble. But for all the country’s woes, these sentences declare that the author’s art, at least, is well and thriving. The Ask is his first novel since Home Land (which seems more destined for cult classic status with each passing year, as word of its savage, hilarious, and addictive pleasures spread alongside the fantastic story of its rejection-filled road to publication) and it’s his bleakest, funniest, and saddest book, his most pitiless and essential work to date.

Quickly sketched, The Ask concerns the peregrinations of Milo Burke, a relatively unsuccessful advancement officer at an East Coast university, whose life is doubly disrupted by a fracture in his marriage and the reintroduction of an old friend, Purdy Stuart, whose wealth and status as a potential university donor have serious implications for Milo. Professionally indebted to Purdy, Milo becomes ensnared in a web of their old college pals and the sad life of Don, a double amputee Iraq war veteran who refers to his prosthetics as “his girls,” and who takes pleasure in discomfiting others by repeatedly massaging his stumps in their presence. (more…)

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The Walrus Reads More

The first of two online addendums to "The Walrus Reads," from the magazine's May 2010 issue

Ian McEwan’s Solar is a climate change novel in the same way that his 2005 effort Saturday is an Iraq war novel — which is to say, it both is and it isn’t. At their core, these books are concerned less with their apparent subjects than with capturing a particular sort of post-millennial malaise — the experience of living a privileged life within a gilded age that seems fated for extinction. The seeming apocalypses beyond the horizon are more than mere vehicles for this exploration, but not much more.

Solar by Ian McEwanSolar’s protagonist, John Beard, a Nobel laureate in physics, functions as a dark reflection of Saturday’s neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. Both are men of science who voice skepticism toward literature, and both are consumed with thoughts of global events from which they can’t escape.

But whereas Perowne is happily married (too happily for some critics’ tastes), Beard is a serial philanderer: four times divorced, and well at work on number five. While Perowne is an admirable humanist who altruistically employs his scientific knowledge, Beard is decades removed from the work that earned him renown, and he enjoys his lingering fame in a grotesquely indulgent manner that rivals Martin Amis’s John Self. Though dogmatic hawks and doves often missed the point, McEwan intended his readers to sympathize with, or at the very least understand, Perowne’s mixed feelings toward the impending Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Beard’s internal reactions to external events are hardly so generously rendered.

As the novel opens in 2000, Beard grows weary of the constant television chatter over the protracted American presidential election: “It could make no significant difference to the world at large… if Bush rather than Gore, Tweedledum rather than Tweedledee, was president for the first four or eight years of the twenty-first century.” This prediction is on its face ridiculous, and it’s particularly absurd that a former oilman and once-and-future environmentalist vying to become the most powerful person in the world should seem irrelevant to a scientist who, over the course of the novel, is charged with ensuring the survival of humanity in the face of climatological catastrophe. Of course, at the time Beard would hardly have been alone in harbouring these sentiments. Hindsight is what ripens this folly into farce, and what wonderful farce Solar has to offer.

Beard is himself a fitting metaphor for the planet he selfishly endeavours to save, and an aptly depressing synecdoche for the species that’s condemned it to its sorry state. At once bloated and sickly, short-sighted and obtuse, he’s an expertly cast comic caricature, yet he lacks the depth of McEwan’s most convincing creations. Still, when placed in circumstances like an Arctic expedition for artists and scientists (based on the experience that inspired McEwan to write the novel), Beard offers a hilarious window into the pettiness of human nature even when faced with events of world-historical significance. Such satirical set-pieces, though largely rendered in McEwan’s typically measured elegance, are where the parallels to Saturday break down; the earlier novel is far more directly earnest. Solar’s tone is more reminiscent of McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novella Amsterdam, which pits two former lovers of a deceased woman in a life-and-death struggle. Conspicuous in their absence, perhaps, are comparisons to his greatest novel, Atonement. But only a rarefied class of contemporary fiction earns such accolades, and to complain that Solar is eclipsed by McEwan’s earlier genius would be akin to Beard lamenting that he’s no Einstein. In the absence of perfection, a small measure of greatness works just fine.

(Jacket photo courtesy Random House Canada)
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Guy Gavriel Kay’s History Lesson

Under Heaven, reviewed

Under HeavenTo begin, a disclosure: the following is not meant as a proper review of Guy Gavriel Kay‘s new novel, Under Heaven. I know Guy, and will be interviewing him on stage this Thursday evening at the Toronto Reference Library for the public launch of the book; that relationship means I cannot be expected to offer an objective opinion on it. Yet it is a book that I adore in my entirely un-objective way. While I can make no claim to write disinterestedly, I hope to do so passionately.

Simply put, Under Heaven is one of the most exhilarating novels I’ve read. But what makes it so exhilarating is in large part its majestic plot, and, in deference to Guy’s documented preference for plot details remaining secrets for the reader to discover, I will refrain from revealing them. (Something I’m happy to do — the reviews I’ve read so far have been universally positive, but they’ve also demonstrated how difficult and unsatisfying it is to reduce such a complex web of characters and destinies to the requisite outline.) Suffice it to say that the novel records the movings about of a large cast of characters in a country called Kitai, inspired by Tang Dynasty China.

Under Heaven will be praised as an epic novel, and understandably so. It’s a sweeping adventure about emperors and generals, rivalries and dynasties. But if historical epics are often the accounts of great men doing important things, this one represents a democratization of the form, arguing through its comprehensiveness that any point in space and time is the sum of far more than the will of the empowered. It is about small moments, too — the love a brother feels for his lost sister, the life of a crippled alleyway beggar, a poet yearning for the moon. This breadth of scope, this inclusive impulse, is part of the book’s effort to take the measure of an entire society, from the glittering sheen of the Ta-Ming Palace to the coarse fabric in which a lowly soldier drapes himself. (more…)

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Polaris Landing


Full disclosure: for roughly four years in high school, I played in a band called Scare Tactic with Jonah “Guinea Beat/Mr. Jo” Falco, drummer for Canada’s best hard-core punk band, Fucked Up. Long before they won 2009’s Polaris Music Prize, for Canadian album of the year, the Toronto sextet recorded one of their earliest demos in my basement.

There are a lot of good bands out there, but a rare few have It, that intangible quality that one can sense only once they’ve taken the stage. When It happens, you don’t care about your job, you don’t care about your girlfriend — nothing else matters. I recently saw hard rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures blow out the back wall of Toronto’s Sound Academy. They had It.

Scare Tactic ended amicably, so I was very interested to discover a posting on Fucked Up’s blog announcing a secret concert somewhere in T.O. this week. A phonecall to Falco landed me on the guest list at Lee’s Palace, where the band jumped onto a Wednesday night bill headlined by the U.K.’s The Horrors. The Polaris winners opened their set with a hypnotic four guitar and bass intro. Singer Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham strode on stage wearing a red baseball hat, white basketball shorts and a blue T-shirt with the pro-dog slogan “Pugs Not Drugs.” The hat held firm for most of the show, but the shirt lasted less than two songs. As is his customary style, Pink Eyes let his gut fly free. (Thankfully, his shorts stayed on.) More impressively, he took command of the crowd in a way that only an experienced front man can. He glared at the crowd, stalked the stage, and climbed onto speakers; he finished the set by prowling around the audience, screaming in people’s faces and standing on top of tables. The band, made up of Falco (drums/guitar), Mike “10,000 Marbles” Haliechuk (guitar), Josh “Gulag” Zucker (guitar), Ben “Young Governor” Cook (guitar) and Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda (bass), played with tightness forged by countless tours. Fucked Up made excellent use of their multiple guitar assault. Each guitar added something different to every song, rather than just doubling or tripling specific parts. Despite Damian’s repeated insistence that this was just a warm-up show with a “half-assed,” thirty-minute set, the experience was far better than that.

I left the punk scene shortly after my six years with various incarnations of Scare Tactic. My tastes have since shifted toward metal and rock ’n’ roll. I don’t listen to much hard-core nowadays, but have no doubt why Fucked Up beat out such indie luminaries as Metric for this year’s Polaris. Simply put, it’s because they deserved it. The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up’s winning disc, is a hell of an album. Forget the offensive name (chosen, Falco has told me, because the band was never meant to last); Fucked Up is the real deal, a great band that will undoubtedly enjoy more hard-earned success. They have It.

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Posted in Music  •  1 Comment
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