Monthly Archives: October 2009

Bag of Bones, Stephen King

Pocket, 1999 mass-market reprint of 1998 original, 732 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-671-02423-9

Halfway through Bag of Bones, I realized that I had come to take Stephen King for granted.  It’s easy to do so: With a decades-long body of work that makes even so-called prolific authors look like slackers, King has been a fixture of the American publishing scene for decades, and while he’s had both high and low points, his work delivers a dependable reading experience.  Studying my reading history, I see that I tend to read King in big batches every five years or so, running up his back-catalogue until I’m (relatively) caught up once again.

Now it’s time for another batch, because clearly I had forgotten how much fun a King novel could be.

Not that Bag of Bones is fun in itself: After all, it begins with the death of our narrator’s wife.  Things don’t necessarily get any better after that: For four years, our scribbling protagonist is physically unable to write even one line of fiction.  It’s only when he returns to their summer home and finds out that she may have been up to a secret project that something changes in him.  This being a King story, our grieving narrator soon finds himself stuck between vengeful ghosts, benevolent spirits, an obsessed billionaire and a cute single mother.

As a reflection of King’s pet themes, Bag of Bones starts out respectably: Our narrator’s status as a well-selling writer of romantic thrillers allows him to talk about the publishing industry with insider’s knowledge, and King manages to make something as esoteric as writer’s block seems accessible to everyone.  Later on, a few twists end up being referred to as plot devices by an all-too-aware narrator.  What’s less familiar is the theme not just of matrimony, but of domestic intimacy that emerges from Bag of Bones’ description of a widower being reminded of what he shared with his deceased wife.  For some reason, that’s an aspect of life that few writers attempt, let alone pull off convincingly.

But Bag of Bones was, for me, another opportunity to be immersed all over again in King’s prose style.  He doesn’t have much of a reputation as a stylist because his writing seems so clear, but the way he manages the technical aspects of his prose are still nothing short of amazing: Inner monologue, action, explanations and flashbacks proceed seamlessly, and the voice of the narrator holds it all together.  The only passages that seem atypical are a pair of lengthy dream sequences that eventually prove far more important to the plot than they seem at first.  Still, King’s prose has rarely been as pitch-perfect as it is here, and he is able to highlight various emotional tones from joy to dread to despair.

Structure-wise, there are a number of sharp turns in the story, some of whom feel gratuitous at first, but all eventually coalesce by the end of the book.  While Bag of Bones is a ghost story, it multiplies the parties involved (both real and occult) to an extent where the usual plot templates don’t readily apply.  The portrayal of small Maine communities has always been one of King’s strengths, and he once again excels at that here.  Add to that the more literary ambitions of a story in which half the battle is a widower getting over his grief and there’s a good chance that non-genre readers pulled away from King’s more bloodthirsty reputation will find much to like in this more nuanced story.  (It’s no accident if the title alone has literal, metaphorical and thematic interpretations.)

Bag of Bones may not have the conceptual punch of some of King’s other novels, but it all adds up to a big book that’s worth the time to read.  It’s well-crafted, strongly characterized, entirely within King’s pet themes and yet a step beyond into powerful reality-based fiction.  It’s a deft blend of genre horror and character-driven fiction.  It’s also a reminder, even ten years after publication, that I happily still have a lot of King left to read: I ended up drawing a list of his titles that I haven’t read yet, and ended up with enough material for the next two years.  By then, he will have probably published three or four new books.  But that’s OK: The only danger in that much of a good thing is that we come to expect it without a proper amount of gratitude.

Good Hair (2009)

(In theaters, October 2009) Don’t be fooled by writer/director Chris Rock’s comic reputation, the frivolous-sounding subject of “Black Hair” and the constant laughter from audiences watching this film: Good Hair is a serious film tackling real issues with a substantial impacts on a number of us. Hair is not just hair: It’s a political statement, it’s a booming business, it’s a signifier of relationship intimacy, it’ s a measure of how much people with non-straight hair are willing to sacrifice in order to fit in. But as Rock comes to discover in his quest to understand the way black women feel about their hair, the topic quickly expands to touch upon economic servitude, third-world exploitation, dating patterns and appearance alteration. Thanks to Rock’s comic instincts, Good Hair touches upon those issues with a deft touch, sometimes even extracting jaw-dropping ignorant statements from simple showboating. It’s a deft balance, especially given the number of time where the images on-screen call for outrage. What’s also noteworthy are the candid celebrity interviews that dot the film, with a number of black actresses willing to speak frankly about the nature of what’s on their hair. Some of the interview moments are fantastic: Al Sharpton actually makes sense, Ice-T gets to be the voice of reason, Tracie Thoms is both hot and funny, while Maya Angelou manages to one-up one of Rock’s punchlines to earn an even bigger laugh than him. Hilarious, but also eye-opening (Rock does a good job at mirroring white viewers’ “You’ve got to be kidding me” expressions.), Good Hair will make quite a few viewers wonder “ Why didn’t I know that?” and give them a renewed appreciation for women with short hair. See it, if you can, with a big vocal crowd: It’s a movie that demands and benefits from audience participation. It’s an open question as to whether the same subject could or should be treated with self-righteous indignation and rage… and whether such a documentary would be better, or even appropriate. The real tragedy here may not be the unimaginable sacrifices made to the ideal of good hair, but the “eh, what are you going to do?” acceptance that this is what people do.

(Second viewing, on DVD, April 2011) The documentary holds up to a second viewing: The laughs are still there, the insights are just as sharp, and Rock’s exploration of his subject seems just as revealing. What’s frustrating is the DVD: Aside from a commentary track with Rock and the co-producer of the film, there’s nothing else… even though the commentary repeatedly refers to a number of deleted scenes intended to be included on the DVD. It doesn’t help that the commentary itself is average and perhaps a bit drier than one would expect: While it does a lot to explain how a documentary can evolve into something quite different than envisioned (and how production challenges arise to meet heightened expectations), it doesn’t soar anywhere near the film itself.

Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Harper Collins, 2009, 270 pages, C$36.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-55468-608-7

Picture this: You go to a party, where your colossal intelligence immediately sets you apart from the crowd. You then meet another guy who seems just as eager to make fun of everyone else who’s there. Both of you are unstoppable put-down machines. In conversations, he’s the kind of wit that enjoys telling people when they’re wrong, and what they don’t know. At the end of the party, you go “I like feeling superior to other people, you like feeling superior to other people, we should totally hang out.”

You friends keep telling you that he’s not quite as wonderful as you think he is, but you brush it off. In fact, you find that his type of patter is great fun to other parties when you’re making conversation. Then, a while later, you meet the guy again. The magic happens again, except that at the end of the night, he starts going on an incoherent rant about how global warming is all a sham, and he can solve it using twenty dollars worth of duct tape and plastic bags. As you slowly step away from your once-best-friend-forever, you start thinking: what happened?

What happened, indeed, is the main question after reading Superfreakonomics, the follow up to Levitt & Dubner’s massively successful 2005 pop-economics book. Their conceptual overreach, contrarian shtick and intellectual contradictions all reach an apex during a fifth chapter tackling Global Warming, and they only serve to highlight the problems with the authors’ two books so far.

After all, most of Freakonomics was based on telling people that what they knew about the world was incomplete, wrong and that even their axioms did not reflect reality as it happened. Posing themselves as cold-eyed intellectual tough-guys led by the dispassionate forces of rationality and economics, Levitt & Dubner deal in trivia, reinforced by a little bit of cynical shock value. Telling people, in the first book, that crime had seldom been so low appealed to hard numbers; telling them that the decline may have been caused by abortion (in reducing the number of disadvantaged children turning to crime) is the classic example of shock-pandering: Pro-life people simply dislike the assertion, while pro-choice activists find something here to reinforce their biases.

As the prototypical guy who loves to know more than anyone else, I fell for Freakonomics from beginning to end, spouting trivia (“Pools are more dangerous than guns!”) at the slightest opportunity. I even gave a copy as a gift before the mounting amount of scepticism made me calm down. What’s not so great about being a contrarian is that is often leads one to take opposite viewpoints “just because”, and that can become a dogma in itself. Superfreakonomics and its prequel don’t just cater to those people; it flatters them for their bad habits.

So it is that scepticism is the word of the day in reading Superfreakonomics. The good news, I suppose, is that most of the book is on the level of Freakonomics: Engaging writing, memorable examples, careful use of anecdote to illustrate larger microeconomic points, interesting research and an overarching tendency to link specific examples to a larger theory. We learn about drunk-walking, prostitution economics (using words such as “pimpact”), terrorist profiling, unintended consequences, and monkey prostitutes. (There’s a joke to make here about two pop-economic vulgarizers’ obsession with prostitution that I’ll leave to snarkier commentators.) Along the way, Levitt & Dubner take a crowbar to a number of cherished beliefs, including altruism, substandard doctors, the Kitty Genovese murder, the effectiveness of child seats and, oh yes, global warming. References at the back of the book chew up 36 pages (50 with the index), or about 13% of the book (18.5% with the index), which tells you something both about the reference trail and the ridiculous size of this overpriced $37 book.

The first four chapters try to establish a framework that tells us two things at once: First, that the world is complicated and that there are unintended consequences to everything we do. But at the same time, Levitt & Dubner also try to sell us the idea that some solutions are simple: Even as they show how difficult it is to get doctors to wash their hands (even today), they also tell us that hand-washing is a simple solution to fatal problems.

These two ideas are not mutually incompatible, but they don’t go well together (one could say that it’s a simple idea with complex consequences) and this tension is nowhere more obvious than in the much-criticized fifth chapter, which tackles global warming with an “aw, shucks, it’s not as bad as you think and it can be fixed easily anyway.” Surefire way to earn controversy and sales, this viewpoint nonetheless exposes the book to substantial criticism. I’m certainly not qualified to take on issues of large-scale climatology, but the contrarian in me can’t help but notice that most of Chapter 5 is based on a single biased source: a visit to Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, a business that specializes in making money from ideas. Ideas about global warming, for instance. Ideas that the problem isn’t that bad (shock!) and can be solved with simple fixes (relief! –followed by check-writing). Superfreakonomics’ usually fast and far-reaching tone changes completely during this section, turning into a fawning profile of Intellectual Ventures that even had me wondering if they’d consider my résumé. I agree that Nathan Myhrvold is one of the coolest, smartest human beings on planet Earth… but I can’t help but flash back to the rest of the book and its insistence that altruism doesn’t exist, that well-meaning policies have unfortunate impacts and that the real world is, well, really complicated. When Superfreakonomics becomes similar to the kind of article that local papers write about con artists peddling their perpetual-motion machines, it’s time to put on the extra-sceptical goggles.

Too bad, really, because it’s a classic case of “you should have stopped talking earlier”: Levitt & Dubdner correctly identified global warming (or rather, Global Warming) as the sacrosanct issue of the time, the closest analogue to religious belief that their pool of potential readers may have. The impulse to apply their usual everything-you-know-is-wrong shtick must have been irresistible. Alas, it also carries consequences –such as turning readers against them. What’s the cost/benefit analysis of that scenario? Who wants to reward trolls?

On the other hand, overreach is a good antidote against uncritical belief about the rest of the book, which isn’t such a bad thing after all. Chapter 5 put aside, Superfreakonomics manages to recreate the electric huh-a-page reading experience of the original, which already isn’t too shabby. Readers may want, however, to wait a while until a “revised and expanded edition” comes out: not only will it fix errors in the main text (much as the original Freakonomics was corrected a year after release) and allow pundits to publish their debunking essays, but chances are that the paperback edition will be a better value for money than this unjustifiably overpriced hardcover. Savvy readers and freakonomists can probably agree on one thing: paying nearly $40 for an airy 220-pages main text makes no economic sense at all.

Emergency, Neil Strauss

Harper, 2009, 418 pages, C$21.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-089877-9

I don’t laugh at survivalists.

While their threat-assessment algorithms may be out of whack, their basic message of self-reliance isn’t something I’m willing to dismiss easily: Our civilization is far more interdependent that even a generation ago, and I don’t have half the survival skills that my father (skilled wood-worker, outdoorsman, scout leader) or my grandfather (farmer: owned a horse, could slaughter and eat backyard animals) had. Survivalism, correctly applied, is about being prepared and having useful skills. I’m still dead meat on the scale of “who’s most likely to survive the apocalypse”, but I didn’t suffer through the North American ice storm of 1998 and the Northeast Blackout of 2003 without making at least a few contingency plans.

It helps, I suppose, that I’m a Canadian and that our social security net has historically proven pretty effective in case of disaster. Neil Strauss, sadly, doesn’t have that luxury, and as he details during the first third of Emergency, he has spent most of this century’s first decade convincing himself that the end was nigh. What follows is a decade-long personal immersion in the survivalist subculture, where he comes to learn essential survival skills, reassess his life and eventually develop a surprising philosophy of how to best be prepared to survive emergencies.

This isn’t the first of Strauss’ personal journalism efforts. His best-known book so far, The Game, detailed his “penetration” of a not-so-secret subculture of pickup artists. A former music critic and ghost-writer to the stars (Emergency is filled with mentions and cameos of people such as Britney Spears, Tom Cruise and Leonard Cohen), Strauss may have emerged from The Game with a less-than-honourable reputation, but he knows how to write engagingly, and his descent in the survivalist mindset is hilarious to read about: Emergency, despite a somewhat depressing subject and a fairly lengthy narrative, is never less than a joy to read, especially when it charts Strauss’ evolution from a somewhat self-centred writer to a full-fledged member of his community… all thanks to his evolving conception of what it takes to survive the unthinkable.

Emergency may be billed as a book that “will save your life”, but it’s not a how-to manual as much as it’s a reasoned description of the survivalism mindset. It does have a few tips and tricks (many of them entertainingly presented as short comic-book pages illustrated by Bernard Chang, who previously collaborated with Strauss on The Game and the disappointing How to Make Money Like a Porn Star.) It’s a gateway of sorts for those looking into how to tackle survivalism: As Strauss investigates a second citizenship, money transfers outside the US, cache-making, goat-slaughtering and weapons training, it’s enough to make any sane reader consider whether they really have to fortitude to commit to such a lifestyle.

Because, no mistake about it, Strauss describes a life-altering experience. Without giving anything away about the book’s conclusion, Strauss hints that it’s impossible to be a serious survivalist without making permanent and irrevocable changes to the way one lives. This, I suspect (and testify), is likely to be the biggest stumbling block to most people’s quest for self-sufficiency: few of us have the resources, drive, time or interest (not to mention support from loved ones) to seriously pursue self-reliance. I may admire Strauss a lot for what he did in-between the beginning and the end of his Emergency voyage of discovery, but there’s no way I can do the same. Although… you never know: I ended up deliberately locking myself in the trunk of my car to experience a small chunk of what Strauss describes –can weapon training be far behind?

In the meantime, Emergency is a pretty solid read: After a shaky, whiny, self-pitying start, the book becomes stronger and stronger to end on a note of sheer admiration for Strauss’ odyssey. Beautifully designed (it even includes a treasure hunt through hidden clues), it’s a fun book to read, and that fun doesn’t preclude a number of gripping observations on the way we respond to unforeseen circumstances. I may be far more optimistic about human nature and the likelihood of widespread social breakdown than Strauss can be, but Emergency earns its right to make a vigorous case otherwise. After all, he suggest, the worst thing than a good survivalism outlook can do is make us a better, more capable human being.

Astro Boy (2009)

(In theatres, October 2009) My familiarity with the original anime series is far and fuzzy enough that I won’t spend a lot of time criticizing Astro Boy for its adherence (or lack thereof) to the canon. Which may be for the best, since there’s enough to criticize in the film considered by itself. Ignoring the fact that kid’s movies don’t necessarily justify lazy screenwriting, the script is crammed with dumb Science Fiction clichés (Good/evil substances? Check. Memories from a cloned hair? Check. No concept of mass/space preservation? Double check.) and just-as-stupid plot shortcuts. Whatever depth there may be to the invented universe of the story is either ignored or trivialized, with what we can assume to be thousands of deaths hidden in the background. It’s a surprisingly violent film as well, with its lead characters being simply vaporized early in the story and numerous battles taking up much of the film’s running time. Ultimately, it’s the unevenness of the script that becomes Astro Boy’s greatest irritant: It panders to kids, serves them intense action sequences, wallows in lame dialogue and unconvincing subplots. A number of the robot gags feel as if they had been done far more skilfully in Robots, Inc. At least things move quickly: the pacing is quick, which is just as well when things drag on on the surface-bound segments. Otherwise, well, it’s the kind of average animated kids’ film that serves to put Pixar’s productions in such flattering light. Even when the result is just average, it makes us with for something better.

The Stepfather (2009)

(In theatres, October 2009) There’s a market for “fill-in movies”: Those utterly average instances of their chosen genre, serving no higher purpose that to keep theatres in business as we wait for the next worthwhile films. So it is that The Stepfather, remake of an eighties film I now have even less interest in, exists: to present a familiar story in an even more familiar way, entertaining compliant audiences in rote fashion. There’s little about the film that can’t be deduced from the trailer: Teenager comes back home after a lengthy absence to find his mom remarried to a mysterious stranger with mood swings and old-fashioned family-first morals. But the titular stepfather is worse than your usual garden-variety Republican: he’s a serial killer who regularly disposes of his step-families, although that isn’t much of a spoiler given how the very first scene of the film leisurely establishes that plot point. There isn’t much left to do than to sit back as the film goes through the expected plot beats (sometimes more than once) and concludes with the final fight between protagonist and villain. There’s a final flourish that, frankly, will make audiences angry at the filmmakers: The Stepfather simply isn’t good enough to deserve its off-kilter ending. This being said, it’s not all bad: Dylan Walsh (looking like about a dozen different other actors) is pretty good in the lead role, the direction is a bit better than you’d expect for a middle-of-the-road thriller and a few modern touches update the story to 2009. But that’s not much than a bit of polish on a deeply unimpressive result. The scares are obvious (including the requisite meowing cat), the antagonist has big overdone flaws (and yet, little motivation), the twists are non-existent and the obviousness of the entire film just makes it seem to last even longer. For those who really want to see a thriller now, The Stepfather is just a bit better than straight-to-DVD releases… but not by much.

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

(In theatres, October 2009) There’s been a curious lack of straight-up thrillers in theatres recently, but it’s not overcooked, under-thought efforts like this one that are going to revive interest in the genre. Nominally the story of a grieving father whose vengeance efforts against a pragmatic DA become excessive, Law Abiding Citizen never manages to convince us of the superiority of the hero against the villain. Gerald Butler’s scary-smart vigilante is so compelling (especially alongside Jamie Foxx’s dull protagonist) that we never completely stop rooting for whatever he’s doing. The ending feels like a defeat at the hands of an undeserving hero, and a particularly dumb one at that: No one in their right mind would take the chances leading to the final detonation. But then again, much of Law Abiding Citizen is preposterous to begin with, what with an omniscient villain, nick-of-time plans, unbelievable contrivances and more Hollywood conveniences than you’d believe. What’s worse, perhaps, is that Kurt Wimmer’s script is not without a few good moments (the “cell phone scene” is a pure shocker; Philadelphia is fine; the ramifications of the villain’s day-job are worth a film in themselves) while Gary F. Gray’s direction makes a generous use of pans, helicopters, smooth transitions and crane-mounted cameras. There’s a sheer anarchistic glee in seeing a city’s judicial system being taken apart for pure vengeance, so you can imagine the disappointment when it all fails to cohere in anything better than an average pot-boiler thriller. This is one of those films where the trailer is quite a bit better than the actual film, and not just because hero and villains are so obviously mismatched.

Quantico, Greg Bear

Vanguard Press, 2008 revised edition of 2005 original, 478 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59315-473-8

For readers, every new Greg Bear novel is an exercise in gambling. His career spans the best like the worst, although recent work have been on a downward trend. His forays in thriller fiction (Vitals) haven’t always been successful, and Quantico’s troubled path to publication (Vanguard Press isn’t a top-tier publisher for genre fiction, much less one of Greg Bear’s usual publishers) was not a promising sign.

Happily, it turns out that Quantico is merely average, and not a disaster of Vitals proportions. It’s a too-earnest techno-thriller convinced of its own self-importance and it’s generally duller than any genre reader has any right to expect, but it has a few ideas in its mind, and offers a number of interesting moments.

It takes place about a decade in the future, at a time where the United States are still deeply obsessed about the War on Terror. 9/11 has been followed by something called 10/4 (details unspecified), and the gloom of the Bush years still seems to be prevalent throughout the novel. The biggest difference is that home-grown terrorists seem to have become as dangerous as foreign ones: As the novel opens, FBI agents are on the verge of capturing an important cult leader. What they find in the wreckage of the operation, though, goes well beyond anything anyone had imagined: At a time where bio-terrorism is cheap, there’s a lot more to fear from viruses than explosives.

Perhaps the best thing about Quantico is its portrait of a future FBI where law-enforcement technology has kept up with threats. Bear has done his research, and the tools he gives to his heroes do much to ground his novel in foreseeable reality. The three young FBI agents who become the protagonist of the story are exemplary recruits, and through them he’s able to perpetuate the mystique of the Bureau. Quantico is also bolstered with what sounds like authentic police lore and lingo, making feel like an unusually well-detailed thriller at a time where spectacle seems de rigueur.

The plot itself isn’t quite so successful: it depends on an implausible yet tired antagonist (ah, the good old idiot-savant bio-terrorist…), meanders quite a bit on its way to a conclusion and generally feels like something we’ve seen far too often before. Part of the issue is that Bear may not know how to write thrillers on a sentence-per-sentence level. His flat narration makes little distinction between exposition and action scenes, with the result that even the book’s most suspenseful moments come across as flatter than they deserve.

All of that is damning enough, but then I realized midway through the novel that I wasn’t enjoying any of it. To put it simply, Quantico isn’t particularly good beach reading and it took me until the end of the novel to figure out why. As I waded in the supplementary material added to the mass-market paperback edition, my unease grew clearer: After a deleted scene, an afterword, a Q&A (badly edited to repeat almost verbatim passages from the afterword a few pages before) and a lengthy annotated bibliography, it struck me that Quantico wasn’t just begging to be taken seriously: It was demanding, with great force, to be accepted as a serious and important statement on the future of terrorism in the United States. Every appeal to authority, research and verisimilitude only underscored the misguided aims of the novel.

Basically, Quantico gave up on entertaining the reader before it even began. Self-obsessed with Making a Statement, it ends up being an annoyingly shrill retread of catastrophic thinking. It reads, even less than a year in the Obama administration, like an escaped convict from the Bush Terror Years, paranoid at even the slightest provocation, and retreating in its own safe place with somber declarations than only clear-eyed patriots can think about the unthinkable.

Somber predictions of doom and gloom with little escape aren’t exactly what I need from my entertainment reading. Genre reading protocols are amenable to pessimistic takes on reality (after all, it seems as if most thriller and military fiction writers are obsessed with ever-more-exotic threats to the fabric of the nation), but a good chunk of my favourite thrillers actually dare to envision the possibility of a better future… once threats are disposed of. Quantico is too dour, too obsessed with never-ending danger to be any fun. There’s a public for that, I suppose.

As I write this review and check my sources, I see that Quantico will soon be followed by Mariposa, a follow-up featuring most of the characters. This does not bode well: thrillers are rarely suited to recurring series… especially in dealing with consequences of previous volumes. Most writers avoid the problem by pretending that previous volumes don’t exist (something that still drives me slightly nuts about Lee Child’s “Reacher” series), but that supposes that previous volumes are worth reading at all. Given how Quantico struggles to even maintain a base level of interest , I’m not going to be among those special-ordering Mariposa upon publication. Especially if it still swears up and down to be taken seriously.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

(In theatres, October 2009) Here’s a new rule in reviewing horror movies: Do it the next morning. Because it’s in Paranormal Activity‘s nature to lodge itself in its viewers’ brains in a tightly coiled memory loop that only unfurls once they’re defenceless in bed and exposed in the dark. During the film itself, Paranormal Activity isn’t much to look at: shot in seven days with a handful of actors and a budget of $15,000 dollars, it brings back memories of The Blair Witch Project (already celebrating its tenth year!) and a growing number of amateur HD films. But there’s nothing amateur in the way Oren Peli’s movie slowly cranks up the uncanny nature of is supernatural intrusions: From sounds to shadows to even more disturbing signs, Paranormal Activity tighten the screws so gradually that by the time the film hits its final chilling seconds, it’s easy to be completely engrossed in what’s happening. The two lead actors are believable, and the film milks a surprising amount of plotting from what is essentially a two-players piece. There are no jumps as much as there are chills, and the restrained number of disturbing images only makes them more effective. After seeing the horror genre sinking deeper into gross carnography during the past few years, it’s a refreshing to see a horror film go back to the stripped-down basics and become even more effective thanks to its lack of polish. Unlike a number of cheap horror movies making to theatres on extended word-of-mouth, Paranormal Activity actually deserves some of the hype. At least, if one considers how quickly and repeatedly it comes back to mind when trying to go to sleep…

Better than Sex, Hunter S. Thompson

Ballantine Books, 1995 re-edition of 1994 original, 245 pages, C$20.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-39635-8

Every critical assessment of Hunter S. Thompson’s work is clear on at least one thing: His latter-career work isn’t nearly as interesting as his early-seventies days of glory. Better than Sex certainly bolsters that theory, its focus on the 1992 Presidential race being so closely comparable to Thompson’s own classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

Twenty years later, though, Thompson isn’t flying around the country to cover the presidential campaign: He’s sitting at home, often drunk, and watching the whole thing via satellite TV. The bile, the verve, the insults are still there, but the insights… not so much. Oh, it’s not a strictly couch-bound book: Thompson did play a gonzo role of sorts in meeting then-candidate Bill Clinton with other Rolling Stones writers early in the 1992 campaign, but most of the book is spent commenting events as they happen on TV, along with long digressions on the Reagan/Bush years and memories of Thompson’s own political experiences.

Design-wise, the book reflects the scattered nature of its writings: A sometimes-collage of various disparate elements (including pictures, memos, faxes, buttons, newspaper excerpt and a time-line running throughout the book), Better Than Sex can often be more confusing than enlightening in addressing its reader: Some pieces start out as being on a letterhead, then flow into the book’s typical typeface without transition. While the effect highlights Thompson’s favourite device of blending reality with fiction, it also reminds us of the sham nature of many of Thompson’s so-called letters to other recipients.

A further problem in reading about the 1992 election a bit more than 15 years after the fact is that it’s an inglorious period to recall right now. It’s not recent enough to be interesting for our own purposes (in American political terms, 1992 is at least three generations ago), while not being distant enough to take on a patina of historical respectability. Then there’s our unfair knowledge that the true course of the Clinton administration would be far weirder than even Thompson could imagine.

This being said, it’s no accident if the better parts of Better Than Sex are the more outrageously fictional sections. Thompson being told about Clinton’s childhood bully is one of the book’s highlights, for instance, and so is his fanciful account of running amok in Little Rock, Arkansas on the night of the 1992 presidential election. (The latter even features Thompson being cheated out of his money by James Carville, with a cameo appearance by Mary Matalin.) Perhaps the third high point of the book is the Rolling Stones meeting with Clinton, although it’s completely coloured by Thompson’s negative impression of Clinton and his early answer to drug-enforcement questions. (In the Gonzo oral biography, readers will find a more balanced assessment of how the meeting truly went and how Thompson didn’t contribute much to the discussion beyond a few early grumpy remarks.) Honourable mentions would have to go to Thompson’s Nixon obituary, which closes the book and is enjoyable not just for its unrelenting vitriol, but also as an epitaph of sorts for the politics with which Thompson was most comfortable.

Otherwise, Better Than Sex generally reads like a desk-bound attempt to recreate the magic of what Thompson was able to capture in his 1972 memoir. From a transfer of his relationship from Frank Mankiewicz to James Carville and his ineffective attempts to contribute to the Clinton Campaign just like he hobnobbed with the McGovern staffers, Thompson comes across as a writer long past his prime, trying to ingratiate himself with a crowd that doesn’t have much use for him or his era. It inevitably leads to a screed against the “healthy and clean and cautious” Clintonistas, but the contrast couldn’t be clearer. (It’s probably mean to mention that Clinton actually won, unlike McGovern or Thompson himself.)

As a chunk of Thompson’s bibliography, Better Than Sex shows nothing more exciting than self-repetitive nature of Thompson’s latter work. It milks some expressions for all their worth (in addition to the usual Thompson gonzo standbys, the worst offender here is “Politics is the art of controlling one’s environment”; a good sentiment, but repeated so often that it loses much of its freshness), relies on gold old-fashioned invective as a rhetorical crutch and repeats elements of the Thompson biography that really have nothing new to teach us. It’s still entertaining (which is more than one can say about most political memoirs from 1994) but it also calls to mind better and bolder Thompson books.

Bottle Shock (2008)

(On DVD, October 2009) There may not be anything complicated or new about Bottle Shock, but it’s hard to dislike a gentle comedy that meets most of its objectives and ends on an entirely pleasant note. The heavily dramatized story of a wine tasting that “shook the world” in recognizing that American wines could compete with French ones, Bottle Shock is perhaps most pleasant when it delves a little bit into the minutiae and passion of oenophiles, whether on the wine-making or wine-tasting side. I’m not a drinker, but I always appreciate representations of people who love their work and hobbies –and Bottle Shock treats both with a lot of respect. Otherwise, the film features an impressive number of B-list names: Alan Rickman is a hoot as an Englishmen twice-removed, while Chris Pine turns in a performance that makes his take on Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek seem inevitable. It helps that the surroundings are as charming as the characters or the comedic arc: The film opens on a number of terrific flyover shots of the Napa Valley that would seem computer-generated if they weren’t in a low-budget feature. Not all films have to push the envelope if they happen to strike viewers at the right angle, and Bottle Rocket handles a conventional narrative with a bit of competence. The few notes that sounds repeatedly false are the film’s nationalistic insistence (along with a bit of French-bashing) and an odd scene near the end where characters have an uncanny ability to peer into the future of a world where oenophiles can enjoys wines from all over the world. (This isn’t that kind of meta-comedy, so let’s leave the fourth wall intact, shall we?) There’s also a bizarre romantic interlude that’s good for a bit of jealousy and… not much else. (Although there’s a payoff of sorts in the deleted scenes.) As an underdog comedy promoting hard work and determination over inherited privilege, it’s about as predictable as you may think… but that’s a limited criticism when it’s not the kind of film meant to be dissected. Just watch the thing, don’t expect much and enjoy. The DVD features an audio commentary track that is as enjoyable as the film itself, plus a bland documentary on the making of the film and a promotional piece on Chateau Montelena that acts as an epilogue to the film.

Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky

Penguin, 2009 updated re-edition of 2008 original, 344 pages, C$17.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-14-311494-9

Hang around Web 2.0 circles long enough and you will meet them. The social media gurus who gravely intone that Here Comes Everybody was “deeply influential” to their thinking. (Then they make a pause, steeple their fingers and gravely repeat for emphasis: “Deeply influential”.) Never mind that the book is not much more than a year old: Web 2.0 moves so fast (“That tweet is, like, a week old, man!”) that actual books published in 2008 might as well carry the historical gravitas of stone tablets and brass statues of the founding fathers.

Books about “Web 2.0” social media naturally lend themselves to a number of pre-emptive criticisms: What makes them worth their weight in paper? What can they tell us that a trawl through boingboing’s archives won’t grep? Who is Shirky, where’s his RSS feed and how can he expect his book to remain interesting as it visibly curdles on the way from the printing plant to the bookstore shelves?

Fortunately, Shirky’s book lives up to most of the hype. What it brings to the discussion that a swarm of blog posts can’t deliver is perspective. What, Shirky asks, is fundamentally different about the web’ s social innovations? Is sending email such a basic change in the way our species communicates?

As it happens: yes, it is. The fundamental change is not that we can send email. The change is that the costs of communicating between ourselves are being lowered to, essentially, nothing. Never mind the technology: Once people understand that they can exchange with anyone around the planet with very little costs, quantity becomes a quality of its own. Shirky goes back to the invention of the printing press to bolster his argument that what’s happening nowadays is, in fact, new. That it presents mode of interaction and organization that have no clear analogues in history. That we are currently making up the rules (social as well as legislative) that will govern all of us and our descendants for the rest of history. Whew! Who knew Twitter could actually mean something?

Like most skilled pop-culture writers, Shirky knows how to go from the specific to the generic: in presenting examples of specific incidents and movements, he’s able to make his way to more sweeping conclusions that can be applied to other groups. Here Comes Everybody is particularly good at providing principles and hypotheses that can be applied to existing social groups. I was amused, for instance, to find out that Shirky’s theories dovetailed into my own observations about the changing nature of SF fandom over the past decade.

(OK, here’s an applied instance of Shirky’s theory in one short paragraph: The internet has driven down the price of interaction about Science-Fiction and Fantasy to practically nothing. In doing so, it has pretty much killed what was known as the “general local SF convention” which did nothing more than bring together “people who read the same kind of stuff”: SF fans can now visit countless blogs and forums to meet other people with the same interests, regardless of where they live. But at the same time, we’ve seen a bewildering splintering of interests, to the point where some Harry Potter fans can spend all of their time in Potter fandom. Ironically, this has led to the strengthening of the specialized-convention model in which people travel from all over the world to specialized events that cater to very specific, but very intense interests. These highly targeted conventions couldn’t be possible without the “humming background noise” of shallow interests provided by the Internet, creating the pool in which the really hard-core fans can be drawn with little effort. Aren’t new models of social interaction wonderful?)

Shirky has quite a bit more historical and organizational background than the average blogger, and so his book represents a solid bridge between social, historical and organizational theories as they can be applied to the web. Here Comes Everybody has depth, and it’s one of those books that can be re-read for refreshed insights every so often. It’s a pleasure to read (no dry theory here), it manages to unearth sub-pockets of the Internet that had escaped most people’s attention, and proves to be deeply inspirational in the way it suggests that the future is happening now.

If that sounds like Shirky’s book was deeply influential, just wait a while: the value of those books is always more obvious a while later, after we get to see what sticks in mind and what disappears. Time will tell whether it’s right. Somehow, though, Here Comes Everybody at least satisfies the initial test: It’s worth reading at least once, right now. At the end of it, you‘ll know at least as much as your local social media guru. Regardless of whether he’s been deeply influenced.

Logicomix, Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos H. Papadimitriou

Bloomsbury, 2009, 347 pages, C$28.50 tp, ISBN 978-1-59691-452-0

What a delightfully odd and wonderful book.

There’s nothing stating that Logicomix shouldn’t exist, and yet… the thought of a comic book explaining the foundations of mathematically-driven logic via the life of Bertrand Russell certainly ranks high on the list of “book one wouldn’t expect”. The event bigger surprise is that Logicomix is such an absorbing and successful work.

Scott McCloud would be proud, I suppose, given how clearly Logicomix espouses the principles he sets out in his trilogy of works about comic books. It takes an intellectually challenging subject, gives it life through dramatic events and meta-fiction interludes, hooks readers with beautiful and evocative art and delivers a reading experience unlike anything a prose writer would have been able to achieve. It’s a minor achievement –and not merely as a comic book.

The easiest dramatic arc to follow in Logicomix is the early life of British intellectual Bertrand Russell, as he grows up to become a logician and blossom alongside the birth of Logic as an academic discipline. Russell sought to explain logic not just as a subset of philosophy, but as being proven by mathematical theorems. (Hence his Principia Mathematica, 379 pages leading up to “From this proposition it will follow, when arithmetical addition has been defined, that 1+1=2.”) Russell may have indulged in intellectual sphere unattainable by ordinary humans, but his life was as dramatic as they came: He came from a well-bred but highly dysfunctional family, married often, rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest names in European intelligentsia (which included mentoring Wittgenstein)… and that’s just the first half of the book. (Such is the richness of Russell’ s life that among other things that Logicomix doesn’t have time to address in depth is the controversy about his pacifism leading to his academic dismissal, much more of his eventful domestic life and his survival of a plane crash that killed nearly half the other passengers.) Through Logicomix, Russell emerges as a sympathetic figure, maybe even a hero of sorts.

But the real protagonist of Logicomix is human thought itself, the way in which it stems from life and the way it builds upon itself. Logicomix becomes a spellbinding portrait of how great thinkers collaborate, argue, set their theories on paper and often see them superseded by better ideas inspired by their own work. The collaboration between Russell and Alfred North Whitehead is portrayed vividly, as are his (sometimes-fictionalized) contacts with other philosophers and logicians across the Continent. Best of all, Logicomix actually manages to teach a few interesting things to readers, including Russell’s own paradox of set containers. Wittgenstein’s path through life (easily as fascinating as Russell’s) is also sketched with good explanations of his early and latter schools of thought. Those whose education may not include solid primers in logic have nothing to fear and everything to gain from Logicomix’s vulgarization.

Another layer helps all elements of the book together and make it relevant to today’s audiences: an ongoing meta-fictional conversation between the book’s co-authors and the artists responsible for illustrating Logicomix: We’re meant to follow their progress as they argue about the book’s theses, the metaphors used to present its concepts and what needs to be left on the wayside. It eventually leads to an allegory-rich theatre show and a few highly promising concept for a sequel on computer science, the natural offspring of the concepts discussed throughout the book.

There’s no need to state how quickly I would buy such a sequel, or any follow-up comparable to Logicomix. For a chance discovery in the “Graphic Novel” section of the bookstore, I’m stunned at how successful Logicomix is at its stated goals. I’m not even bothered by the esoteric nature of the final pages given how I expect to re-read the book eventually and find new things in it. Scott McCloud preached in the wilderness for years about the particular strengths of the graphic novel as a form of expression, and now we have as clear an example of what he was espousing. The result is as accessible as it’s stunning: a primer about logic in graphic novel form. Never mind how some people are going to be blown away by this book: it’s due for a long life as a college textbook, an example of how mature graphic novels can be, and a good old read for anyone who wants a little substance in their entertainment reading.

Logicomix may be odd and wonderful, but the time is ripe for it to become a bit less sui generis.

5150 Rue des ormes [5150, Elm Street] (2009)

(In theatres, October 2009) I’m not going to be particularly objective in reviewing this film: Screenwriter Patrick Senécal (adapting his own novel) has been a good acquaintance of mine for years, I obtained tickets to the premier via a network of friendly contacts and I’ve got distant financial ties to the publisher of the original novel. Yeah, I’m biased. Still, it’s fun being biased when the movie being discussed is an accomplished piece of work like this one: a tight claustrophobic thriller, 5150 rue des Ormes manages to be a fair adaptation and a successful film on its own. The story of a teenager who gets trapped inside an ordinary family house by a psychotic man and his accomplice family, this is a thriller that means to lock you in a suburban dungeon along with an average protagonist. It gets much weirder than that, of course, especially when the true nature of the family patriarch’s madness is revealed, and when the hero comes to buy into his twisted rules. Some of the first hour is annoying: those who are expecting an action movie will be frustrated at the hero’s inability to grab a rifle, assault his captors or fiddle his way out of his dungeon. But this is a psychological thriller, not a shoot’em-up, and so we have to buy into some of the uncomfortable staging in order to get to the real core of the story. Fortunately, director Eric Tessier keeps things moving at a decent pace, and he can depend on a number of capable actors: Normand D’Amour is particularly effective as the evil patriarch, a thankless role on which much of the film depends. It all leads to an increasingly grotesque third act, and a deliberately unsatisfying conclusion that refuses to tie up all the threads. (Senécal fans already know that one of the characters missing in action eventually gets a sequel of sorts.) While not above a few credibility problems (duration of batteries in the video camera, length of beard, DNA evidence left at the scene of a murder, etc.), 5150 rue des Ormes is another solid thriller made-in-Quebec but fit to be seen anywhere on the planet.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

(In theatres, October 2009) I don’t need to be convinced by Michael Moore’s message: I see his movies as political entertainment, not doctoral thesis. While his grandstanding and simplifications are often grating, he is bringing a much-needed perspective to an American political discourse seemingly incapable of questioning its own axioms. Capitalism: A Love Story stakes out a rather daring position in questioning the accepted “free market” mantra that seems to run unchallenged throughout much of the US media. Moore’s film brings together a lot of known material, but there are occasionally a few good stories in the mix, and a few reminders of things that should outrage us still (such as “dead peasant insurance”). Much of the archival footage is interesting, and it’s to Moore’s credit that he’s able to mix diverse material (from personal sob stories to cool analysis to overarching theories) in such an entertaining fashion. Still, Capitalism may be tackling too broad a subject: the picture runs from one thing to another, outrageously simplifies complex issues (letting slide the false opposition of capitalism and democracy, it’s useful to remember that capitalism is always regulated in some fashion; the only question is where the draw the line) and doesn’t quite seem to deal with recent history fairly. The election of Barack Obama may have been felt as change, but as far as his financial policies go, it features a lot of the same players Moore sombrely denounces. (Kleptocracy, or plutocracy, would have been a better subject for the film.) The appeal to bailout conspiracy theories late in the movie is also a bit too cheap and easy considering the systemic complicity of everyone (including, especially, the viewers) in sustaining all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes. Ultimately, it also feels as if Moore fails to connect the pieces of his argument as efficiently as he did elsewhere: at times, viewers may feel as if they’re seeing bits and pieces of a much grander theory sketched in Moore’s previous films. It’s a bit ironic that when it comes to the dangers of amoral capitalism and industry captures of regulatory instruments, Moore has best able to express himself in the now-classic documentary The Corporation. Sure, Moore fans and viewers of a left-leaning persuasion will get their red meat’s worth of rhetoric. But there isn’t much here to persuade reluctant viewers to take another look at the unquestionable goodness of the free market.