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Friday, Feb 25, 2011
Mills revisits fond memories of reading the Guinness Book of World Records as a child (it sure beats Nightmare on Elm Street), and the lasting distortion the series has wrought upon her life.

A while back I was reading an article on the potential of celebrity children to feel frankly a little silly about being named, say, Peaches Honeybloom Geldof, once they come of age and start wanting careers of their own.


Besides real sympathy, the whole thing—as things are wont to do to me at the oddest moments—triggered off nostalgic flashbacks to my boon companion of rainy afternoons past: the Guinness Book of World Records. Now, I’m not talking about the post-millennium “Guinness World Records’; in fact, leafing through these new ‘relevant’ editions, all foil-gilt covers and colourblocked gossip (“Most Successful Plastic Surgery!”) makes me kind of sad.


The Guinness book of my preteen-hood was a fat Bantam Books paperback, densely packed with doggedly businesslike prose (“The claims of M. Michael Lotito to have eaten a bicycle must, however, be regarded as apocryphal.”) The combination of kaleidoscopic detail and determination to make sense of it was just endlessly charming to me. I can’t really recommend a better way to inspire wholesale fascination with the human experience.


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Thursday, Jan 20, 2011
In Jane and the Stillroom Maid, The Devonshires provide the emotional flourishes, Mr. Collins provides the comedy relief, and early-19th-century medicine the fascination that drives this increasingly dark murder mystery.

I’m not ordinarily a huge fan of novelists that use real historical figures. Even if the author is skilled enough to incorporate fact into fiction without coming off as annoyingly arch about their own cleverness, their affection inevitably starts to come off as blatant hero-worship, what I believe is known these days as a ‘Canon Sue’.


This happens to Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding series after awhile. The first three or four, before Jeremy becomes fairly convinced that his boss is God or the closest earthly equivalent, are still very readable. When you then start slamming Benjamin Franklin, though… you’d better be wielding more than “younger brother of the guy who wrote Tom Jones”.


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Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010
The characters throughout are, for the most part, miserable, with the gay characters the most miserable of all.

One of the qualities about Japanese literature to admire is the brevity. So often readers are presented with contemporary novels that are needlessly long, and endlessly describe boringly with a lack of insight. Forbidden Colors still has quite a bit going for it, in that it has Mishima’s stamp of skilled wording and numerous passages that are both lyrical and philosophical. Yet, what works against Forbidden Colors is the fact that the book, unlike many other Japanese novels of Mishima’s era, happens to be a bit verbose. Finishing at over 400 pages, this novel felt unnecessarily long, especially if comparing it to James Baldwin’s thin gem Giovanni’s Room, which is only a fraction of the length yet still seems to have characters more resonant than in Mishima’s similarly themed Forbidden Colors.


Yuichi is a young man trapped within a loveless marriage. He pretty much hates women, is repulsed by the thought of his wife bearing his child, and so he frequents gay bars and meets many a men while engaging in sex with them. Oh yes, there is sex and lots of it. Pretty much all man on man sex, however, though if a heterosexual, erotic scene slipped in, I must have missed it because while there are some mentionings of Yuichi getting it on with his wife, the scene is in no way ‘erotic’ but rather, we are presented with his repulsion. At one point he even concludes that he is unable to engage with her unless there is a mirror in front of him.


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Thursday, Jul 29, 2010

Romance, murder mysteries, hidden notes: the public library is a fertile source for artistic inspiration. I’m not talking about the classic works of literature and bestsellers that line the shelves. I’m not talking about the DVD or CD collections or orderly archives either. Let’s face it; the public library attracts all sorts of strange characters. The people watching can be entertaining, and occasionally disturbing.


These eccentric patrons might not be so enthralling to the library staff that attempts to maintain order while serving the public. Toronto author Martha Baillie’s 2009 novel The Incident Report is about one of these librarians, the concise protagonist Miriam. It is written as a series of reports filed by her that range from a few lines to a few pages. Piece by piece, Miriam documents the chaos that is her work life and slowly her personal life filters in as well. The nature of the work requires a certain detachment, so Miriam’s personality, her insecurities and fears, are semi-obscured behind day-to-day dealings with drunks and porn-viewers.


Globe and Mail reviewer Karen Luscombe calls Baillie’s novel a “psychological maelstrom.” As Miriam attempts to track and order the quotidian events that define her life, the chaotic nature of human interaction derails her time and again. From falling for the mysterious young man who reads children’s literature in the park at lunchtime, to discovering occasionally threatening handwritten notes hidden around the library, Miriam’s incident reports are fascinating.


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Tuesday, Jul 20, 2010
A 50-year-old copy of a pulp fiction novel on advertising in Detroit is the starting point for an investigation into a bit of late 20th-century pop culture.

A while back a friend of mine gave me a vintage pulp fiction paperback in the hope that I would write about it for his webzine, thedetroiter.com. He’d gotten it from another acquaintance who had picked it up in a flea market and given it to him because of its title, The Detroiters.


My friend has since given up the reins of the zine (although it still exists in a debilitated state, not unlike its namesake city) and he relocated to the Big Apple. But I always wanted to do something on the book, and so here it is.


Published by Bantam in 1958, The Detroiters is the story of David Manning, a Madison Avenue ad man who is recruited by the Detroit agency Edson Smith Company to service its largest client, the fictional car maker Coronado Motors Corporation, and its autocratic (no pun intended) CEO Orrin V. Sanders, known to the trade as Vic. It’s the classic tale of an American bourgeois striver, a story told time and again in novels like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. But the moral is at least as old as Greek mythology: like Clyde Griffiths, Jay Gatsby, and Tom Rath, the hero of The Detroiters is a modern-day Icarus flying too close to the sun.


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