Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Last CollectionThe Last Collection by Seymour Blicker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely hysterical and thoroughly enjoyable. Canada is not known for its satirical novels, but in Shmucks and The Last Collection Seymour Blicker proves himself to be equal to the masters of the genre, especially the Jewish sub genre, which has it's own style and flavour. This novel is especially reminiscent of Woody Allen's wackiest. Memorable characters include a particularly neurotic psychiatrist who's office features tropical decor and a remote controlled recliner chair that spins and rises to the ceiling, and a Jewish thug with a soft spot. Blicker does what all the best authors do, he turns the tables on the characters and at the same time on the reader. The cons get conned, and we can't ever really be sure who is the genuine article. And therein lies the deeper resonance of this novel, as in all superior satire, the layers of truth and deceit are revealed. The last collection referred to in the title is not only collection on a debt, or the mental illness of hoarding and greed which afflicts the protagonist and which gets him into debt in the first place. But it also cleverly refers to the collection of moral sins that one party wants to atone for and the collection of guilt that the other party wants to liberate themselves from.

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hopelessly Hopeful Jew

Why did you think it was so easy to exterminate your people? You're weakness. I saw it. Everyday I saw it. Everyone of them thinking only of how to avoid being flogged or kicked or killed. Everyone thinking only of themselves. Why do you think it only took four soldiers to lead a thousand people to the gas chambers? Because not one out of thousands had the courage to resist. Not one would sacrifice himself! Not even when we took they're children away! So I knew then, that you people had no right to live! You had no right

As it is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, it's been a week to think about the Holocaust. The lines above come from a 2011 film called The Debt which I saw on the weekend. Not a great film but the lines have stayed with me for days. They are spoken by a former sadistic Nazi doctor called "The Surgeon of Birkenau," a character clearly modeled after Mengele. He says this to one of his captors, member of a team of Mossad agents who traveled to East Germany in the early 1960s on a mission to bring him back to Israel to stand trial, obviously based on the successful abduction of Adolph Eichmann. The most riveting part of the film begins when the plan to whisk the ex-Nazi out of Germany fails and the Mossad agents are forced to hold him. The longer it takes to formulate a new plan to get him out of Europe the more the Nazi surgeon can toy with their minds and hearts, essentially exploiting perceived weaknesses. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't take it far enough, but I found the psychological manipulation and subtle control he begins to exert on the highly-trained agents extremely compelling. The lines quoted above spoke to me in particular because I've always wondered how it was possible that, aside from the odd episode of heroism and rebellion that we've all heard about like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, millions of Jews seemed to sleepwalk to their inevitable demise. We've heard explanations for this. About the disbelief, particularly among German and Austrian Jews, that the country and culture to which they felt so loyal, could betray them. We know that the Nazis perpetrated mass-deception, telling the Jews that they were going to be put to work, hence the words inscribed in black wrought iron "Arbeit Macht Frei" on the entrance gate of the camps. And yet, the explanations never seemed to me completely sufficient. Millions upon millions of Jews, were put to death with relatively ease. As the character Vogel says, "It took four soldiers to lead a thousand Jews to the gas chamber." Could he be right that it was because the Jews were inherently weak, that they were too selfish to make the personal sacrifice to save their brethren if not themselves. The thought disturbed me. And then I had another thought. Maybe it wasn't because they were selfish. Maybe it was because as Jews we are programmed to be hopeful. We are culturally and religiously hardwired to believe that there is always a Promised Land if only we can get through the trials and tribulations of the wilderness. And so even when parents were separated from their children on the selection ramp, and even when they had their belongings stripped from them and were told to line up for disinfecting showers, their hopelessly hopeful minds continued to believe with every fiber of their souls that all would end well, families would be reunited in hugs, and they would survive. And then I thought about the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, which literally means The Hope, and I said to myself that the Nazi Surgeon could not be more wrong. He was wrong, tragically so, because he viewed hopefulness as weakness, and in doing so was himself expunged of any humanity, because hope is the very essence of being human. To deny hope in others, or to use it for personal gain, to take advantage of it and use it for manipulation, is a moral crime of the highest order. Perhaps maintaining hope in the face of unspeakable atrocities, and not willingness to die for a cause, is the greatest heroism of all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jean BĂ©liveau

Why the need to speak of him?
Why the need
To tell stories
About the time 
You saw him play
The game
In person
Or on TV
Or never did?
Or about the time 
He was there
In the flesh
You waited in line
And he took the time
To talk to you
To ask you how you are
Shake your hand
Smile?
Or the time he pointed
Called you over
Yes, you,
Offered to sign your shirt
Or an old program
Or a card?
Why the need to speak 
Of his presence
His prowess
His charisma
His talent
His common touch
His grace
His elegance
His humility?
Why the need to speak of him
As if you lost 
A mentor
teacher
neighbour
father
close friend?

Why the need?
Indeed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Microserfs
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The thought that I had as I came to the conclusion of this novel is that if this book were transported back in time 100 years readers from that time would barely recognize it as written in English. I mean we read novels written 100, even 200 and 300 years ago with ease and pleasure (Dickens, Jane Austen etc.) They are stories we can still recognize. The language starts getting dicey for us about 500 years ago, Shakespeare's time. The language requires deciphering, and the references some research and context. Now I'm not saying that Douglas Coupland is the Shakespeare of the digital age - he doesn't possess Shakespeare's gift for drama, narrative or lyricism. But there is something undeniably compelling about a writer who can absorb so much of contemporary culture, process it through the machine of his imagination, and fashion a document that accurately and poignantly captures the strangeness, rhythm, language, and condition of our special time and place. So will Microserfs, a book that describes a group of coders working for the GM of the digital age, be read 100 years from now? It just might.    


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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy


Either this is the classic of American literature that people say it is, or it's a bloated, essentially characterless, thinly-plotted, portrait masquerading as a novel. I'm not sure, so no stars, but it's probably both. One thing I do know is that reading this novel was an ordeal in almost every sense of the word, no doubt intended by the author, which is why it's hard to recommend. It's unlike anything I've ever read. There are characters, but they remain essentially faceless throughout. There is gory violence on virtually every page as the narrative meanders through the starkly beautiful epic landscape of the American west circa 1870s. The mountains, plains and deserts are in fact the only relatable character, and they are rendered in a language that is lushly gorgeous and draws attention to itself with jargon and syntax that is almost biblical - echoing a biblical/religious subtext and theme throughout. I have no doubt that this depiction of the bloodlust, brutality and immorality that characterized the conquest of the American frontier is closer to the truth than anything that has been written before, or perhaps since. So is the novel important? I guess so. But unless an ordeal is what you're looking for in a novel and one without characters to relate to, and very little in the way of plot or redemption, I can't recommend it.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

Approaching 50

As I approach 50 -  

I laugh less but appreciate it much more
I enjoy Johnny Cash's music
I find women of different shapes and sizes beautiful and attractive
I understand the value of hard work
Why it happened doesn't seem to matter as much as the fact that it happened
I am slower to anger, quicker to cry
I am slower at almost everything, but time seems to move faster
Memories are less about events and more about people
Family is more important
I fear less in general, except flying (which I fear more)
I take myself less seriously and others more seriously
I appreciate a good pair of shoes
I don't think about the goal as often
I appreciate a good night's sleep and take it less for granted
Words matter more
On some level it all feels like entertainment
I appreciate animals more but want to own one less
I believe more in fate, intangibles, positive energy, karma
Children seem smarter
Music seems more miraculous
It's more about finding enjoyment, pleasures in small things
I am happier to be exactly where I am

Monday, July 21, 2014

God Telling A Joke by Dave Margoshes

God Telling a Joke and Other StoriesGod Telling a Joke and Other Stories by Dave Margoshes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once I started reading this splendid new collection of stories I could not put it down, one story led seamlessly and effortlessly into the next. Notwithstanding his 16 books of short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry and his many awards and citations, Dave Margoshes remains a relative unknown, which is perplexing for such a fine writer who has been producing consistently good writing for decades. This new collection is as good as anything he's ever written, graceful, moving, witty, polished stories filled with a diverse range of authentic memorable characters. Even better is the humour that runs through the book - which might be Dave's funniest - but I don't mean Jerry Seinfeld funny, I mean a rich resonant earned humour that is the product of a seasoned pro. This is a writer who's in it for the long haul, who understands that clever does not mean good, and that the journey is greater than the destination.


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