literature

A Feast for the Senses

There seems to have been an influx of amazing books, movies, and music in my life lately – incredible stories, stunning effects, brilliant lyricism, and sheer imagination that just make me want to give humanity a standing ovation. It seems almost unfair not to share the joy with everyone else! If you’re looking for recommendations, I’d highly recommend checking any of these out:
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I’d originally seen The Ghosts of Belfast (“The Twelve” in Europe) last year in one of Chicago’s many wonderful bookshops, and had made a note to order it as soon as I got back home (I’d only taken a rucksack, which was chock-full by the time I had to leave!). Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be released in Canada for another six months, so I pre-ordered it as soon as I could. The premise captivated me immediately: Gerry Fegan, an ex-IRA hit man is haunted by the ghosts of the 12 people he killed, and soon realises the only way they will give him rest is to systematically assassinate the men who gave him his orders. What a brilliant premise!

I’d never ventured into the realm of thrillers or crime fiction before, but when it’s mixed with otherworldly elements (and set in my favourite place on earth), it’s the ideal way to start. It took a bit of getting used to a story comprised primarily of heavy-cursing men and politics I hadn’t studied in as much depth as I would’ve liked, but I was soon fully absorbed in the characters, and literally read with baited breath through chilling scenes of a dozen ghosts miming execution around the men Gerry encountered. Neville’s writing is nothing short of brilliant, and imagery of “bruised” and “scarred” landscapes was a literary feast that added to the ongoing air of trepidation. The story is a haunting rollercoaster of suspense, forbidden romance, politics, survival and the supernatural, and ends with an extraordinary twist that’ll make you want to stand up and give a round of applause.

I don’t often watch movies, but last week we saw two that ended up being a couple of the best I’d seen in a very long time. I knew I was going to like Source Code as soon as I heard the premise: an action, sci-fi thriller revolving around a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man, and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. He’s sent back into the last eight minutes of a passenger’s life before the explosion repeatedly until he discovers enough detail to find the bomb, and stop the bomber’s future attacks. Most of you will know that I probably wouldn’t need to even know the synopsis if a movie’s filed under “sci-fi” and “thriller” (Inception and District 9 are some of the best premises I’ve ever seen), and this was just another to add to the list. Great visuals of a city I’d fallen in love with last year combined with great imagination and another excellent twist at the end that left me thinking about it for days. Trekkies will be fans: the story was reminiscent of the Voyager episode Relativity where a character is sent back in time repeatedly to find a bomb and discover the identity of the bomber to stop the destruction of the ship. But this time, “it’s not time travel. It’s time… reassignment.” Epic.

We also watched The Experiment, a remake of a 2001 German movie – a highly intense film about a real-life, controversial psychological study in which 26 men are chosen to participate into the roles of prisoners and guards for 14 days in an environment simulating a state penitentiary that ultimately spirals out of control. I’ve always liked Adrien Brody – he’s had interesting roles in several movies I personally enjoyed thoroughly, but seem to have fallen below the radar of critical acclaim (The Jacket; The Village), but this is probably my favourite performance of his. (Though this may have been slightly affected by his long hair and gorgeous tattoos). When I watched this, I had no idea it was based on a true story, which made the already frightening premise even more disturbing upon discovery, but the psychological aspect made it simultaneously fascinating and thoroughly gripping. Vanessa, this one’s for you!

Lastly, I can’t not mention my favourite album around at the moment. There was a tonne of hype about these guys when their first demo leaked on the Internet, and it started getting national radioplay before a proper recording had even been made! The Vaccines’ album, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? is a short punch (less than forty minutes total, which each song clocking in around two minutes) of feel-good, infectious good old punk rock. And the first single off it is so catchy it makes me a)  jump around wherever I happen to be, b) air drum my arms off (or c) a frantic, flailing, highly attractive combination of the two) every time I hear it. We played them on the radio a few weeks ago, and even had people write in to ask for the tracklisting because they liked them so much! Crank it up!

What movies, books or bands are rocking your world lately?

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A Basic Tool in the Living of a Good Life

Every day I take the bus home from work, I spend a few minutes waiting at the stop outside the city’s biggest library, outside the entrance of which I see these words immortalised on a stone plaque, subtly reminding me I really should be reading more. One of my goals for 2010 was to read at least a book a month. I know this sounds ridiculous, what with certain dedicated people attempting to hit A HUNDRED in a year (!), but I had to start with something – over the last few years, my reading time has gone from being spent absorbed by books to being spent in front of a computer screen. Though blogs do equal great connections and often provide fantastic food for thought, I seem to have fallen off the literary bandwagon along the way. Which is a Big Deal, because the written word is one of the things I hold dearest to my heart! I don’t know about you, but I have several bookcases in my house, each half full of books that either have broken spines and folded pages through countless loving re-reads, or books that are as pristine as the day they arrived, never having been cracked open once. I seem to fall in love with blurbs and recommendations and hastily stock my shelves, but when it comes to making the time to sit down and actually read, these days, I’m pretty rubbish. I think it comes from the mentality of always having to be doing something “productive” – working, cleaning the house, doing laundry, writing, replying to e-mails, going to appointments… if I have three hours to myself on a Sunday night, I feel like I should be putting them to good use. Working at something. Not relishing in great literature – I almost feel guilty doing it.

But last weekend, I was given those three hours. And instead of making beds or ironing clothes, I put on some beautiful background music, poured a glass of merlot, and cracked open the Deathly Hallows. I’m late enough to the Potter Party as it is – and I love the stories dearly – so by jove, I was going to take some time to read something I truly enjoy, without feeling guilty about it! Life’s too short, sometimes, for doing the dishes.

There are lots of books I want to read this year. One that’s come up in many a conversation of late: Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz; written in the ’60s by an early cosmetic surgeon, it tells of his findings around the topic of self-image, comparing people who undergo surgery with people who simply follow a system of ideas and attitudes instead. He stumbled on several interesting phenomena: he found the plastic surgery patients often went in with expectations of self-image that weren’t met by the surgery, and continued to behave as “ugly” or “inferior” even after significant procedures had been performed. However, a system of behavioural therapy techniques and shifts in mental focus without surgery resulted in increased self-esteem. It’s no secret I’d love to get surgery if I could, but I can’t shake the advice my nearest and dearest are giving – to read this book, and try working on inner attitudes instead.

One of the first books I’m picking up post-Potter is one my eye was drawn to in a bookshop in Chicago last September – a new hardback I hadn’t had room to bring home, and one that wasn’t released in Canada until recently. It’s going to be a delve into unfamiliar territory – thriller crime fiction! Now, I’m one of the biggest scaredy-cats around – I’m the girl who went home and stayed awake for 48 hours following The Ring and to this day refuses to watch anything rated R – but I couldn’t pass up the intriguing premise of Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast. It’s been lauded as one of the best Irish novels ever, a superb thriller, and impossible to put down, and on top of being set in one of my favourite places in the world, it’s got more than a hint of the supernatural. Which pretty much equals complete amazeballs. The premise basically follows an ex-IRA killer in northern Ireland who, now that peace has come, is being haunted by the ghosts of twelve of his innocent victims, and in order to appease them – he has to kill the men who gave him orders. Fascinating! I’m slightly nervous, but thoroughly captivated, and I think it’s great to branch out of the familiar every once in a while.

As you know, I’m also a huge lover of the classics. I’d name my first-born after Chaucer if ‘Geoffrey’ wasn’t such an atrocity. 🙂 It’s definitely a goal of mine to add a few more to the archive this year, and I’m starting with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I’ve been in love with the song since childhood, and the story sounds utterly haunting, desperately romantic, and fantastically passionate. I can’t wait for this one – and to watch the recent BBC remake, too!

There are a few others on the list for 2011: Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mixtape, the “unadulterated nostalgia-geekfest” that is Dalek I Loved You, the hot pick around the blogosphere from 2010, The Hunger Games, and a recent recommendation, Primates and Philosophers, a collection of essays exploring the nature and evolution of human ethics and morality. If I can stick to it, I think this year’s going to be a brilliant goody bag of fantasy, thrills, imagination and education. What’s on your list for 2011? Anything else I couldn’t possibly miss on mine?

Heroes

What constitutes a hero?

As a child, my hero was probably either Captain Jean-Luc Picard, or someone named Saracen/Zodiac/Wolf/Unicorn/Trojan off of Gladiators (yes, really – was there a Trojan in US Gladiators?), and as a teenager, my heroes grew into those of the English language.  I devoured all the Shakespeare I could, used Peake in an art project, and memorised Chaucer by heart.  As an adult, my heroes once again changed.  No longer celebrities or people who passed away hundreds of years ago, today I look up to people who simply desire to change the world.

According to the dictionary, the primary definition of ‘hero’ (in a non-sandwich related sense) is “a man of great strength and courage”, with a further definition of “someone admired for his qualities or achievements, and regarded as an ideal or model”.   Now, there are a lot of people out there who use their talents, morals and dedication to make a positive difference in the world, and significantly less caped, muscular crusaders zipping about the skies battling evil, and I think these people ought to be given a lot of credit.  Heroes of the written word and the silver screen may have battled monsters and other terrible foes, but they did it for the sake of others.  Translate it to the real world, and your everyday heroes may not be the strongest, handsomest, butt-kickingest demon-slayers, but courage, altruism and grace are certainly transferable skills.

So my heroes today are people that change the world.  People who volunteer for hours on end for a cause to help the less fortunate.  People who give up their Christmases to give the homeless food and somewhere warm to eat it.  The kind-hearted geniuses that came up with It Starts With Us, and everyone who carries out every single one of their weekly missions.  People who go on great feats of endurance to raise money for charity, and people who decide to use their talents to make the world a better place.

One of the people who’ve made my world a better place is author Neil Gaiman.

In a world where future generations of kids will develop arthritis and obesity sitting in front of televisions and computer screens, he churns out literary ingenuity, satiates our appetite for imagination and transports us to other worlds full of fantastic characters that’ll have you begging for his next book two birthdays before its publication date.  He’ll lead you through familiar places – the London underground, an American road trip, give you a relatable protagonist (a young Scottish businessman, maybe, who helps a girl on the street, or perhaps a recently released convict, let out early on account of the death of his wife), add in centuries worth of folklore, cultural symbols and mythology and transport you on journeys you’ll never forget.  There’s not a whiff of a wizard or a dragon that give the realm of fantasy such a stereotype, but his wit, intellect and sheer imagination make him a master of the genre.  I’ve loved Neil Gaiman for years now, loved him for all the times he’s made me rush home or cancel plans just so I could savour another journey into the impossible, and loved him for everything he’s left for generations to come.

And this afternoon, I found out he was coming to Winnipeg.  I read the words and my initial reaction was to scream, however managed to temporarily stifle my exhilaration by quickly holding my breath.  I couldn’t hold it in, so I quickly did some laps around the office and did everything I could not to skip through reception.  NEIL F***ING GAIMAN IS COMING TO WINNIPEG.  You never think you’ll actually meet your hero – so what the heck do you say if you do?  I met someone from Star Trek a few years ago at a convention (hush), and naturally proceeded to clam up, turn beet red and squeal something unintelligible while he signed a photograph for me.  I don’t want to make an even bigger arse of myself in front of the most talented and respectable man in the world.

So if you had the chance to meet your hero, what the devil would you say to them?