Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Desolation of Smaug and other thoughts

Yesterday, on her birthday, I took Madeline, one of her friends, and her siblings out to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Here’s my short review: apart from the book, it’s an exciting, well-made film. Smaug is fantastic. Martin Freeman is, once again, wonderful as Bilbo (I think he is, all around, the best cast actor in all the Tolkien films). And, once again, there were too many lengthy, chaotic battle scenes for my taste, but I suppose some people like that sort of thing. I was annoyed with where Jackson ended this film—there are ways the audience could have received a little more, at least partial, closure—but it made sense from a marketing standpoint. All in all, I give this film a positive review.

Here are some lengthier reflections:

I think it was the film reviewer for The Globe and Mail that said “all goodwill Jackson earned with the Lord of the Rings trilogy is lost,” or something to that effect. I think he’s probably right. In terms of what those you might call Tolkien purists, the omissions, changes, and additions to Tolkien’s books in the LotR films were for the most part forgivable and forgiven. The first film in The Hobbit trilogy took some more egregious liberties with Tolkien’s story than the LotR films. This second in the series takes the liberties to the next level, to the point that in its details the film becoming a different story than the book, even if the overall plot is the same. I remember when I first heard that The Hobbit was going to be a two-part film. I thought that was already a bit much, given that the entirety of The Hobbit novel is shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings. Then he changed it to a trilogy! I now know why and how: more orcs, more fighting, inferred elements of the book added, more orcs, more fighting, more stubborn dwarves, more orcs, a new love interest (what would the spawn of an elf and a dwarf look like?), more fighting…

I’m of the opinion that as a rule the book is better than the film, but I also realize that by nature books and films will by necessity tell the same story differently. A literary/film theory about why this is so is beyond my skill. It just seems evident that this is the case: a film essentially has to be different than the book. There’s a good reason Tolkien would never hand over the film rights to his books (and it’s not clear to me how or why his estate, after his son Christopher made his disgust with the LotR films clear, gave up the rights to The Hobbit as well). As I was watching the movie, it occurred to me that a true-to-the-book film version probably wouldn’t have connected with a broad audience. For instance, it’s a children’s story whose plot moves along very quickly. And detailed battle scenes are, as in all of Tolkien’s work, lacking. In addition, in making the LotR films first, Jackson was almost forced into making the connection between them and The Hobbit clearer; in the interest of the film franchise, he could not make a children’s film version of The Hobbit after making LotR.

That’s not to say that I’m happy about the changes to the story. But I try to look at the movies as something other than an adaptation. The problem isn’t with the films so much, or even director Peter Jackson. The problem is with me and everyone other diehard Tolkien fan who has read these books numerous times and for whom the events and characters played out in a certain way in my imagination (augmented by Tolkien artists I knew prior to the films, as well as the 1977 Hobbit animated adaptation). Does Gandalf look like Ian McKellen does in the films? Yes. Does he speak and behave the way Ian McKellen does in character? Not really. Same goes for most of the other characters. (This is why I think Martin Freeman is great, because he gets it all pretty close to my imagination.) The reality is that, with the exception of some of the egregious changes to Tolkien’s stories, there is little Jackson could have done that would have completely pleased fans. The LotR films got fairly close, though I like them less after repeated viewings. With The Hobbit it’s almost as if Jackson came to terms with this and just forged ahead with what he thought would be a great film loosely based on the book.

Is The Hobbit a faithful interpretation of the book? Not really. Is it a good film? Yes.

An old Inuit song for Advent

Just finished Farley Mowat’s classic book, Never Cry Wolf. It’s apparently autobiographical, though this is controversial. Whatever the case may be—fact or fiction—it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. In anticipation of finishing the book, I put the 1984 Disney film-of-the-book on my birthday wish list and Dixie was kind enough to gift it to me. I watched it last night.

The plot of both the the book and the film follows a biologist who the government sent to the Canadian north to study the relationship of arctic wolves to the declining caribou population. In the more specific details the film is quite different from the book, but it’s beautifully done and stands on its own.

The film ends with an epilogue, an “Old Inuit Song”, which I thought quite beautiful:

I think over again my small adventures,

My fears,
These small ones that seemed so big,

For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,

To live and to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

A fitting song, it seems, for Advent.

Not that it needs the connection, but the song put me in mind of Zechariah’s song in Luke 1, which says,

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 78-79)

Concert review: Dylan with Knopfler.

So I went to a Bob Dylan concert and I could barely understand a word he said.

No surprises there, of course. Dylan came through Edmonton with his band and Mark Knopfler last Tuesday, and I went with a friend. Dylan played an outdoor show in Lloydminster in August which I had wanted to attend, but that didn’t work out. I think an outdoor show would have been better, but I wouldn’t have seen Knopfler.

It wasn’t clear to me whether Knopfler was opening for Dylan or playing with Dylan and his band. As it turned out, it was more of a double-billing. Knopfler essentially played his own full-length concert before Dylan. And that’s perhaps how it should be. Dylan may be a legend, but Knopfler’s no slouch either.

The Knopfler set was excellent. I didn’t come to see Knopfler; he was a bonus and I had no idea what to expect. He played what was as far as I could tell mostly new material. Only his encore went back to his Dire Straits days. That song (“So Far Away”) sounded vaguely familiar, but it was the cheering from the audience that clued me in. Knopfler’s sound (new album released just a couple of weeks ago, I think) these days hovers around the Celtic–mandolins, flutes, fiddles, etc–with a touch of country blues, but always with his signature finger-picking stratocaster sound. The Edmonton Journal Review said that “Their flute and fiddle tunes sometimes bordered on Zamfir and Titanic cheese.” False. This is only cheese if you have something against the flute and fiddle in the first place. Don’t bring Zamfir or Titanic (i.e. the James Cameron film) into this. There was no cheese in Knopflers music. But there was bittersweetness, melancholy, and much beauty, and at times it bordered on the spiritually moving (I may or may not have closed my eyes prayerfully at one point).

Knopfler was appreciative of and engaging with the audience–thanking us, telling us he was having a great time. Whether he was or not doesn’t matter. He engaged us (you can probably anticipate where this is going). His sound was tight, crisp, and well-mixed, and their technicians made good, mood-appropriate use of the stage lights. After Knopfler’s show I was that much more of a Knopfler fan.

Dylan… I went in with high expectations, low expectations, and not knowing what to expect. I had various stories about how Dylan does not interact with the audience at all, that I wouldn’t recognize any of the songs, that he is either on or off and if he’s off he’s really off. So here’s the lowdown: it was underneath a number of issues, a great concert. Actually, it was really only one issue: sound. It was way too loud. This is a common problem at concerts, but Knopfler managed to be loud without having all his music become a wash of lows. I wish I had remembered to bring earplugs–I don’t know how many concerts I’ve been too where it was clear that plugging my ears provided the perfect filter, presenting me with crisp, balanced sound and distinct instruments. But I didn’t want to sit with my fingers in my ears all night. Well there was also the lighting–which mostly had kind of a streetlights-in-Paris kind of feel, which is nice, but does not work well in such a large setting–and the fact that when Dylan was sitting at the keyboard he was nearly indistinguishable from the stage set.

He didn’t really interact with the audience. I was suprised to see him get up from his keyboard and walk around stage singing. He may have even gestured at the audience, though with my eyesight at my seats I couldn’t really tell. He even spoke outside of introducing the band: he bleated something about not playing his best or something (which I later learned was an apology for a poor cover of a Gordon Lightfoot song).

It was true what they said about not recognizing the songs: pretty much every song had a new arrangements. The only songs remotely close to the original were “Watching the River Flow” (the opening number) and “Summer Days” (from Love and Theft). With the rest of the songs it took some careful listening to Dylan’s semi-intelligible, and in the words of the Edmonton Journal writer, “raspy, cram-all-his-lyrics-into-one-sentence delivery” to discover what song he was doing. The set included “Things Have Changed,” his Oscar-winning 2000 song, but with a polka beat; “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”; “Tangled Up in Blue”; “Thunder on the Mountain.” The set included 15 songs total. I recognized most of them, but here’s perhaps the biggest oddity of the evening: he did not play a single song from his recently released album Tempest. Sort of bizarre, but then maybe by the time an album is recorded an artist is sick of those songs. Only slightly less disappointing than the mix was his one-song encore. It was “Blowing in the Wind,” mind you, but one song? Not a good encore.

I think the Edmonton Journal headline was right–”Knopfler outshines Dylan at Rexall Place concert”–but not because Dylan and his band played a poor set. Underneath the poor mix was a great band playing some excellent arrangement of classic Dylan songs. I’m glad I got to see Dylan. I even bought a t-shirt. And you know what? I’d go to another one of his concerts in a heartbeat (but maybe I’d opt for an outdoor show), though I have the feeling there won’t be many more of those.

But Knopfler earned an album sale or two from me.

To Rome with Love (Review in a Nutshell)

Dixie and I saw Woody Allen’s new film, To Rome with Love, tonight. The film spans a day or two in the lives of four couples who live in or are visiting Rome. It’s not getting great reviews: its metascore is 55 and Rotten Tomatoes has declared it rotten with a 45% rating. I can see why. It was funny throughout, and the story lines are clever at several points, but the film lacks the energy and edginess of Allen’s best work. To Rome seems somewhat meandering and slapped-together.

But I’m with Roger Ebert on this one. He gives it 3 stars out of a possible 4 and says:

“To Rome With Love isn’t great Woody Allen. Here is a man who has made a feature every year since 1969, give or take a few, and if they cannot all be great Woody, it’s churlish to complain if they’re only good Woody.”

It’s a poor film when compared to other Woody Allen films; that it comes on the heels of last year’s wonderful Midnight in Paris doesn’t help.

And as I watched the film, I began to realize something. The plots of the four independent stories, some of which border on the absurd, are closer in feel to the material in Allen’s books of short stories, essays, and plays from the 70s and early 80s than to what one has historically found in his films. For instance, the Roberto Benigni’s story line, in which his character, who is a normal, almost dull individual, becomes famous for no other reason than having become famous, put me immediately in mind of “The Metterling Lists,” a satirical essay analyzing the laundry lists of a man named Metterling. Those books were a delight, but that kind of thing may not translate well into film.

Early 90s Canadiana.

I was doing dishes and listening to Arcade Fire’s last album, The Suburbs, and the wailing background guitar part on the song “Empty Room” sounded a lot like old-school Sloan. (It’s not impossible that Arcade Fire was influenced by the sound of Sloan, as they’re both Canadian bands–Sloan from Halifax, Arcade Fire from Montreal.) So I switched to Sloan’s debut album Smeared, which in my recollection was the first popular foray into grunge by a Canadian band. Smeared was released in 1992 on Geffen Records, almost 2 years after Nirvana’s Nevermind (also on Geffen) and a year after Pearl Jam’s Ten.

Remember the glory days of The Eagle & Child, when we would play “Name that Film” or “Name that Song” based on a couple of lines or lyrics, and I would give the winner a star or, later, a pilcrow? That was awesome. Anyway, my listen to Sloan prompted a Facebook edition of “Name that Song,” with these lyrics:

She wrote out a story about her life
I think it included something about me
I’m not sure of that but I’m sure of one thing
Her spelling’s atrocious
She told me to read between the lines
And tell her exactly what I got out of it
I told her affection had two F’s
Especially when you’re dealing with me

The lyrics are from “Underwhelmed,” the first single off of Smeared. Clever lyrics, catchy hooks, and grunge: the right mix for me at the time. I loved it immediately and purchased the album (on cassette!) which quickly became my favourite.

Here comes some early-90s Canadiana: I first heard the song “Underwhelmed” when CBC’s Street Cents played the official music video during an episode. Here it is:

This was back in Street Cents’ glory days, with Jonathan Torrens, Jamie Bradley, and Lisa Ha hosting, as well as Ken Pompadour, Buyco, and products that were “fit for the pit.” (I’m a Jonathan Torrens fan to this day.)

On their second album, 1994′s Twice Removed, Sloan left the grunge sound behind, switching to a more Beatles-esque alt-pop sound. It was a great album, though I thought the Chart 1996 reader’s poll declaring it the greatest Canadian album of all time to be more than a bit audacious.

And that, folks, is a bit of a stroll down memory lane, all thanks to Arcade Fire.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel only tells the truth about tea and biscuits.

Dixie and I went and saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on Saturday. We were easily the youngest people there. I realize that the target demographic is probably retirees, but I was nevertheless quite astounded at (impressed by?) the number of people that fit the demographic in the theatre. I felt a little out of place. Dixie felt right at home. She sat next to an older lady who thought Dixie had come with some of the seniors (from a nursing home, perhaps?). “Nope,” Dixie said, “I’m on a date.”

Anyway, it was a nice story overall and interesting setting, but I didn’t think the movie told the truth in several places. Lots of individualism and the American dream transplanted to India, and those stories are untrue as far as I can tell.

But here is one place the film did tell the truth:

Indian Man (referring to English Breakfast tea): You call it “builder’s tea”?

Evelyn (Judi Dench): Yes. We dunk biscuits into it.

Man: Dunk?

Evelyn: Means lowering the biscuit into the tea and letting it soak in there and trying to calculate the exact moment before the biscuit dissolves, when you whip it up into your mouth and enjoy the blissful union of biscuits and tea combined. It’s more relaxing than it sounds.

Indeed. Biscuits (particularly the Maria ones) are a delight when dunked in tea.

A Prairie Home Trip

PROLOGUE

Last weekend, Dixie and I left the kids at home with a friend and made the journey down to St. Paul, Minnesota to attend a taping of A Prairie Home Companion (APHC) with Garrison Keillor. Never heard of it? It doesn’t surprise me. Most people I know haven’t heard of it.

APHC is an old-time radio variety show. Garrison Keillor began the program in 1974. With some changes and a short hiatus, it has been going for 37 years. It combines music (often with famous musical guests), comedy-dramas, and humourous stories and monologues. Imagine CBC’s Vinyl Cafe, but more old-timey, twice as long, and much better (I like to think Stuart McLean is inspired by Keillor’s show). We showed a friend some video clips of the show, and she said, flatly, “That’s what you drove eight hours to see? Well, good for you guys.” Obviously, she didn’t see the value. Another said, after I told him about the trip, “That sounds like something parents would do.” I’m okay with that. There are times when I’m an old man at heart.

I first heard of Garrison Keillor in high school. Our art teacher would play his “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues while we painted and made pottery. Lake Wobegon is a fictional Minnesota created by Keillor (he has written books based on these stories). It is mostly populated with Norwegian Lutherans (although there is a Catholic Church–”Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility”). His stories follow the everyday adventures of the townspeople. I fell in love with these stories immediately. Dixie also grew up listening to “The News from Lake Wobegon”. I copied her parents cassettes of the stories and we spent hours listening to them on road trips. Later I bought all the CDs.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered APHC the radio show in which the Lake Wobegon stories are told. It has been playing on National Public Radio since 1974. I started listening to archived shows available on their website. Then the film, starring Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep, was released in 2006. It’s fictionalized account of the program, it’s quite an accurate in its representation, except that some of the characters on the real-life radio show were made into real people in the film version. Dixie and I both love the film.

Since we moved out here two years ago, we have been talking about going down to St. Paul to catch a taping before the show goes off the air. We would never be this close again, as far as we knew. So when the opportunity arose, we jumped on it. We also happened to discover that Garrison Keillor has announced his retirement in 2013. The show wouldn’t be the same without him; I imagine his retirement will mean the end of the show as well.

* * *

THE TRIP

After my Friday afternoon class, Dixie and I hopped into the van and headed south. We live only about 45 minutes from the American border. Border guards are not friendly folk, are they? I think they’re paid to be cranky. I thought maybe she was angry with me for interrupting her smoke break. She didn’t crack a smile.

We soon discovered that speed limits on U.S. secondary highways aren’t the same as on the Canadian equivalent. We had planned to take the 59, which runs south from Winnipeg, about 2 miles east of Otterburne. The 59 would take us to Detroit Lakes, MN, where we would head east on the U.S. 10. We didn’t like the idea of driving 90kph the whole way when we are used to driving 112kph (based on the functional Canadian speed limits). We filled up with gas just south of the border. The attendants told us we could drive 20mph (30kph) faster if we took the interstate, which was 30 kms west of us. And that’s exactly what we did. Better psychologically, but probably didn’t save us any time.

This is getting too detailed…

We arrived at our hotel at about 10:30pm and went straight to bed. The next morning walked a couple of blocks to Mickey’s Dining Car. It’s a 24 hour/365 day diner that’s been in operation since 1937. It’s really a greasy spoon–not very clean, but quaint. It’s on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Breakfast was delicious.

Outside Mickey's Diner

I’ve always wanted to eat at the counter in a diner.

Diner-Marc

There was a lady with a small child there when we arrived. The child was wandering around and the mother said, “Go back to the seat. You shouldn’t be ‘wacking’ around the aisles.” A true Minnesotan woman, I guess.

Diner-Dixie

In the background behind Dixie (to her left) is the booth where Meryl Streep sat with the other cast members in the film.

Afterwards we drove out to the Mall of America. It’s apparently bigger than the West Edmonton Mall, but once inside it really didn’t feel that way. It was quite tastefully arranged, actually. I rarely felt like I was in a massive temple to consumerism . No–actually, I did (what economic downturn?), but it was a tasteful temple. Not boxy, but lots of curves and soft colours. Dixie bought some boots. I bought a cast-iron teapot.

After the Mall of America we got ready for the show, which started at 4:45. It’s broadcast live. The in-studio audience gets 15 minutes of extra music and talk. They play a couple of numbers, Garrison Keillor does a bit of talking–letting us know what is coming up in the show, a practice run of a song or two which we are to sing along with during the chorus. And then the broadcast show begins.

Beginning of the show

Lives of the Cowboys

Some more pictures here. We discovered on our arrival that the camera had unfortunately been on for who knows how long and our battery was nearly dead. So we were unable to take many pictures.

We waited for Garrison afterwards. He did eventually come out, but it seems that he had to get to the opera, where his wife plays in the orchestra. I’m pretty sure he deliberately avoided eye-contact with his fans (with, I am sure, feelings of deep regret).

Click here to listen to the archive of the broadcast we attended. Listen on some quiet evening at home. Get a cup of coffee or tea, dim the lights, sit in a comfortable chair and put your feet up or lay on the couch, and take in the warm, down-home sounds of A Prairie Home Companion.

The show really was wonderful. I’m glad we went. I will say quite honestly, though, that being in the live audience is not much different than sitting at home and listening on the radio/internet. The show really is directed at the radio audience (contrary to what I told Andrew)–Garrison wanders around, technical people walk onto stage with papers for Garrison to read, Garrison gestures to offstage people during songs, etc. It was really an interesting experience, but not ultimately that different than the at-home experience. This is, I suppose, just as it should be. And you know what? I’d go back in a second.

Afterwards we walked to the St. Paul Grill, where we had an extravagant and delicious supper. It’s the kind of place where you have to order all your side dishes separately, otherwise you’ll end up with a steak on an otherwise empty plate. Dixie tells me the technical term for this is “a la carte”. The tip for that meal was the same amount as the entire cost of that morning’s breakfast (including tip) at Mickey’s.

As a bonus, I accidentally spilled half of my glass of wine on the floor and some of it splashed into the purse belonging to the lady at the table next to ours. Then they replaced that glass with a full one at no charge (a benefit of a hoity-toity restaurant?). And THEN Wallace Shawn walked by. That’s right–the “Inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride! He’s actually a respected stage actor, but I thought it would be funny to walk up to him and praise him for obscure and non-artsy work he’s done. “I loved your voice-over work in The Incredibles!” or “I always thought the strongest episodes of The Cosby Show were the ones with you in them.” Of course, I didn’t say anything to him. Because I’m intimidated by even M-list celebrities. And he was wearing intimidating artsy-fartsy clothing: black pants and shoes; a black turtleneck cotton shirt.

The next day we drove to the Cathedral Hill area, where Garrison Keillor lives. We didn’t find (or, in fact, look for) his house. However, he is the proprietor of an independent bookstore–Common Good Books–and we went there. Cathedral Hill is a beautiful area of St. Paul, filled with Victorian homes and coffee shops and Mr. Keillor’s excellent bookshop. It’s got the largest poetry section I’ve ever seen in a bookstore–it was easily 4 or 5 times the size of any other section there. And his own books? They’re tucked away, way back in a little out-of-the-way nook with the travel literature. We spent more than an hour there. Bought some books.

Afterwards, we checked out of our hotel and had lunch at an Italian bistro down the block. I order an Italian beer to wash down my slice of pizza. AND I WAS I.D.ed! First time. Unbelievable, with this beard. I’m a grizzly bear.

Then we went to Target. Basically Zellers with a different name. They won’t have much work to do when they convert Zellers in Canada.

And then we went home, this time by way of the 59/10. It was just as fast.

Albums I love: Fisherman’s Blues

I had never heard of The Waterboys until I looked into the soundtrack to Waking Ned Devine. Their wonderful song of love and longing, “Fisherman’s Blues”, opens the film. Apparently, The Waterboys were quite the pop-rock sensation in the early-mid ’80s.

This album, also called Fisherman’s Blues, is decidedly not a pop-rock album. At least, most of it isn’t. There are a couple of songs on the album which were inexplicably included on this album, were poorly chosen, sound-wise. Overall, however, the album has a strong, celtic/Irish feel. Lots of violins and mandolins and whatnot.

I’ve mentioned before that though I have always lived in land-locked areas, a part of me feels something deeply when I’m near the sea–a kind of longing or some such. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons I love the prairies and wheat-fields that move like waves in the wind. Inland seas. But I digress. The point I’m trying to get to is that the song “Fisherman’s Blues” for some reason awakens that longing in me. I’m not sure if it’s the song itself or if it’s its association with the film Waking Ned Devine, which is set in a tiny Irish village on the sea, but that’s what it does. Plus it’s just a great song.

“We Will Not Be Lovers” and “World Party” do not, as far as I’m concerned, belong on this album. Their only connection to the feel of this album is the fact that they are heavily violinned. Sandwiched in between these two songs is “Strange Boat”, a quiet, sad ballad.

After “World Party”, all is once again well on the album. The rest of the songs sound like they may well have been played for generations in dark Irish pubs on Saturday nights, which is perfect. Some of them are a little country and always put me in mind of the Saturday night Dixie and I spent dancing polkas and chartreuses and so on under paper lights at Danceland along Manitou Lake. Others are more traditional Irish ballads and bouncy love songs with a decidedly Irish sound. It also includes an excellent cover of (Irishman) Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” (with a bit of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” grafted in).

It’s all very Irish, let’s say. The collector’s edition comes with a second disc of original and cover material cut from the original release. Also very Irish. Perhaps even Irisher.

Once again, a terrible review of something, by yours truly. I’m sure I haven’t sold you on the album, but you should nevertheless check it out. It’s one of my favourites. It fills me with joy and happiness. I listen to it and all’s right with the world.

(You should also, incidentally, watch Waking Ned Devine.)

Desultory reading

I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. It came highly recommended–more than 10 years ago, mind you–from a friend who also recommended a number of other books I have loved. Were it not for him, I would not have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or Buechner’s Godric, for instance. It is a book chosen by Oprah for her book club (one wonders if she or any of her viewers actually read it). One friend told me–and this was confirmed in the publishing story in the back of the book–that it was said that this book, along with the book of Genesis, is required reading for the entire human race.

Solitude has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years. I made an attempt at reading it shortly after buying it, but didn’t make it much past 50 pages. It was too surreal and I kept losing track of all the names (there are many Aurelianos and Arcadios and Joses) and the plot. I picked it up again about a month ago and started reading from the beginning. This time the story captured me more than the first time, and I kept track of the names using the family tree printed in the front pages of the book.

Midway through I began to realize that the story wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not in any sort of linear sense. Nobody claimed that it would, but still, it really was just events in the lives of one family. I began to hope that there would be a payoff or resolution at the end, as a reward for the work of reading through the middle hump. There was a resolution and a payoff of sorts, but it was underwhelming. I certainly don’t see how it should be required reading.

What am I missing with some of these greats of Western literature? What do I need to “get” in order to understand the acclaim?

Here’s what I need to do: I need to stop reading books out of obligation. Obligation to the canon or to acclaim. If we’re talking about pleasure reading, obligation is opposite of the direction I want to go in.

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight published a post about reading habits. He said this:

I don’t know about you, but I can create a stack of books to read and then a new book arrives in the mailbox and I decide to read the new book. On the day before we left for Israel Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, arrived, and I said to myself, “That’s a book to read on the flight.” And I did. Which decision illustrates the whole point of Jacobs’ new book: read at whim.

Why “whim”? Lower case “whim” in Jacobs’ dictionary means “thoughtless, directionless” but upper case Whim means this: “Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” (23). One of my favorite writers, who often writes about reading, calls this “desultory” reading — a kind of wandering and meandering from one book to another. More or less, that’s how I have been reading for years. What strikes me today as a “must-read” becomes sometimes a “read later” and sometimes to a “I’m not even interested now.” Whim is a good word for it, and it’s a good habit to establish.

Desultory reading is what I have done in the past, and I have read some wonderful books as a result. I once bought a book based solely on its cover art and the blurb on the back (but mostly the cover art). I liked that book enough to buy another by the same author, which became one of my favourites. Without reading at whim, without the serendipitous choice, I may never have read The Shipping News or Dracula.

Desultory reading choices are made by feeling. If I own the book, the choice is usually made at those times when I spend a few moments browsing my bookshelves and reading the first couple of paragraphs of the book. I’m not sure how it works in bookstores. I just know it’s feeling–guts. It’s serendipitous.

I sometimes muse about what I will read next. For a time, I thought the next work of fiction I would read is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that was again an obligation–it is acclaimed, it comes highly recommended by friends. But I didn’t feel the choice.

I didn’t know it was the wrong choice until a week or so ago, when I was again perusing my books. I opened The Kite Runner and read the short first chapter. I was hooked. The opening words spoke nostalgia and regret, for which I am a sucker.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Yes, this book was recommended to me. But I’m going to read it because it feels right. I might be disappointed. I might think it’s the best thing I’ve read in a while.

The key is serendipity.

Miscellaneous Musings

After two years, I have finally figured out why I have been blogging a lot less since entering seminary. My blogging was already on the wane prior to our move, but I had expected the intellectual stimulation of the seminary classroom to fuel the proverbial fires of this blog. That did not happen.

What I didn’t account for was this: seminary friends. And not just any seminary friends, but seminary friends who enjoy few things as much as discussing theology, to the point that almost anything we do together (such as a poker night) inevitably turns into a theological discussion.

The discussion I would normally try to generate on this blog, I am now having in the seminary classrooms, hallways, and in my home. I therefore feel less inclined to post my thoughts here.

This has made me realize that in this respect seminary is certainly a bubble. Nowhere else will I find so many people interested in which theological book I’m reading, or what Barth or Bonhoeffer or Wright has to say about something. I suspect I will be in for a sort of “culture shock” once I’m finished here. I expect my blogging volume will increase correspondingly.

* * *

There was a time when I thought “best of” and “favourite” lists were fun exercises. “Best album of the 90s”; “Favourite albums of all time”; “5 Desert Island Books”; etc. I am now at the point where I usually think this is a useless exercise, because the details of those lists change almost weekly, depending on mood and current taste.

It occurred to me, however, that a more objective approach to this list business is the “25 Most Played” feature on my iPod. I got quite excited about the potential results–what are my favourites based on actual frequency played rather than on nostalgia (which allows a favourite even if the CD hasn’t been played in years).

Last night I checked my iPod’s stats and was sorely disappointed in the results. Of course I should have expected this.

#1: “Grace and Peace” by Fernando Ortega, which we wake up to every morning.

The other 24 were the songs, sometimes duplicate, from the Barenaked Ladies’ children’s album, Snacktime, which Olivia goes to sleep to almost every night.

Alas.

* * *

I sometimes come up with strange ideas, ideas which probably seemed hilarious or brilliant (or both) at the time, but now seem more embarrassing than anything.

Consider, for instance, a note I wrote some years ago, presumably as an idea for a possible blog post. Dixie found it this morning as she was cleaning out some clutter. It was in a small box filled with notes and old receipts which we for some reason thought necessary to bring with us on our move to Manitoba.

I don’t know how long ago I wrote this, but here it is:

What would a world of uninhibited flatulence be like? A world in which we could fart freely, without embarrassment or fear of social recriminations? A world in which Dutch ovens would be given as loving gifts

Bizarre.