Author Archives: harrisrh

A Little Heartbreak, A Dose of Literary Reality

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I’m hoping this was just a speed bump on the road called Jack Reacher.

I just finished Lee Child’s latest addition to the Jack Reacher series, Past Tense, and was…What’s the word…Saddened? Untitillated? Underwhelmed?

JR is once again the middle of Nowhere, USA. He’s kinda/sorta looking for his father’s birthplace. He gets into a few fights. He wins them all handily. The end.

Of the roughly 3,454 books I’ve read by Mr. Child, this was the first time I felt let down, something many of us have experienced at one time or another with authors/artists we love. We are, after all, human. No artist can remain at the top of their A game forever (although a solid argument could be made for Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, Mr. Picasso’s baptismal name).

I remember the first time this happened to me as a reader of fiction, feeling somewhat crestfallen, that is. I fell in love with Tolstoy at a young age, starting with War and Peace, moving onto Anna Karenina (which his old comrade Dostoyevsky called “the greatest love story ever written”), and culminating in his last novel, Resurrection, in 1899, which had a great premise but ultimately fell flat.

Then it happened with Murakami Haruki. I loved A Wild Sheep Chase. What followed (in English translation) was Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and then his opus, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. From there, things went south for me (but not west of the sun), including Murakami’s choice for his new translator. It began with Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, and then — contrary to what some believe — 1Q84.

Alternatively, there are some “red wine” authors that seem to get better with age, like Ayn Rand (I know, I know…This will be controversial with certain readers), who went from We the Living (amazing, with a terrific ending) to The Fountainhead (profound, nearly led to a complete nuclear meltdown for Ms. Rand) to her true opus, Atlas Shrugged (which had a profound influence on philosophy, politics and social movements). The same could be said of Somerset Maugham, who started relatively early with Of Human Bondage, then The Moon and Sixpence and then, at the tail end of his career as a novelist, his opus, The Razor’s Edge.

Finally, there are the yo-yos of the literary world. Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He broke out to wild acclaim in 1846 with a novella called Poor Folk, and didn’t get 15 minutes of fame; he got, quite literally, 15 days of being what Guardian contributor Daniel Kalder called a “cause celebre.” It would be 20 years (of being pissed on and heckled) until Fedya D regained his rightful place as a master of fiction after the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. His last novel, seen by many to be his opus, was The Brothers Karamazov.

As a final note, and as it pertains to the genesis of this post, 61 Hours and Worth Dying For are my two favourite Reacher novels to date.

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They’re Ba~~~ck

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As part of their Thank You Canada Tour (@thethankyoutour) last year, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated ice dance skaters in Olympic history, took their farewell tour across every Canadian province along with some of their BFF skating colleagues.

Tonight, Sunday, February 10, CTV will be broadcasting one of these performances. If you want to see some pretty sick (but not ill) figure skaters doing some pretty wicked hot (but chilly at ice level) things with a pair of skates, go to CTV.ca tonight at 7 p.m. EST, or click on this link to stream live.

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Creating More Memorable Memories

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@larrykim has an interesting article on memory and memory formation called “Want to Improve Your Memory? Science Tells Us the Key (and It Can Actually Be Fun).”

I’ve long been fascinated by memory. From mnemonics (devices for aiding one’s memory) to art (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner both posited the question of whether implanted memories made a person inhuman) to science and health (does the onset of Alzheimer’s, for example, take away our humanity/humanness?) to  why long-term memories can sometimes be stronger than short-term memories.

Ancient Greeks and Romans were drawn to mnemonics for the obvious reason of retaining more information, but also because they believed it made them better orators. I read once that the origin of mnemonics came from a house fire in ancient Athens. Everybody who was present perished in the blaze except for one man. Amazingly, he was able to identify the charred corpses of the dead based on nothing more than their location within the house. Thus, it’s no surprise that early instructors of mnemonics used the analogy of the rooms/walls/doors/widows in a house to compartmentalize the acquisition of knowledge.

But back to Mr. Kim’s article and his advice for giving your mind a good ol’ lube job:

Try these tips for improving your recall when you want to remember important information:

  • Distract yourself. You might feel like you’re being super productive and focused by sticking to your work, but you’re less likely to recall it later.You’re not a bad person for taking a two-minute YouTube break, and for crying out loud, stop buying into the myth that multitasking = greater productivity.

  • Celebrate quick wins. Dopamine is released when you finish something, so have a list of small tasks you can tackle to get some quick wins in throughout the day.

  • Take regular body breaks. Get a jump rope. Run up a flight of office stairs. Even if all you have time to do in get up and do 10 jumping jacks beside the desk, you’re giving yourself a little boost of endorphins and dopamine.(Bonus: it’ll make you more creative, too.)

  • Take the opportunity to try something new. It doesn’t have to mean learning a whole new skill. Maybe it’s a sensory surprise — run your hands over different materials, or go outside when it’s cold and come back in. Maybe (outside of a scent-free workplace) it means a warmer with different scented oils. The point is to create change in your workspace so it’s not always the same old, same old.

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Apostrophes!

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What an exciting title for a post! It don’t get much hotter than that little upper hook (and not its younger brother, the lower hook, a.k.a. the comma).

For regular readers of this blog, you might remember I did a post about Lynne Truss’s fabulous book on punctuation called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which is obviously about panda bears that have a meal, unload their pistols/shotguns, and then take their leave (as opposed to the diet of panda bears, which includes eating bamboo shoots and leaves). And all this confusion because of a single comma!

While there are some fairly straightforward rules to the use of apostrophes in the English language — see the amazing Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for more info on English grammar and punctuation) — perhaps their most confusing use has to do with the Romanization of foreign words.

Take, for example, these three words from Mi’kmaq (the plural of Mi’kmaw, the native peoples most populous in Newfoundland & Labrador, Quebec and Ontario) that have the exact same seven Latin letters, yet mean wildly different things because of the placement of the apostrophe(s).

kesalul — I love you
kesa’lul — I hurt you
ke’sa’lul — I throw you gently into a fire

I, for one, have no idea how to pronounce those three words differently based on their apostrophes, but would be very scared to tell my Mi’kmaw partner I love her for fear that I would be “killing her softly.”

Another example is the old McCune-Reischauer Romanization system, no longer used in South Korea, for the written Korean language, Hanguel (though North Korea still uses a modified variation of McCune-Reischauer). Take a gazing gander at these two examples:

않다 — ant’a — not (some action in the negative)

안타 — anta — a base hit in baseball

You don’t have to be a Machiavellian (i.e. cunning) linguist to see that the two words are spelled differently in Korean. But how the fork you’re supposed to pronounce those two words in distinct ways based on their Romanization is anyone’s guess.

On a final note, is it just me, or has the most egregious use/misuse of the apostrophe in today’s world of constant texting and instant messaging become our tendency to confuse “their” and “they’re”?

UPDATE: From the woman who tweeted about the apostrophe challenge with “I love you” in Mi’kmaw:

there are more people that liked this tweet than there are fluent mi’kmaw speakers.

let that sink in.

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The Sadness of Beautiful Things

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What a great title.

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but I got a signed copy of Simon Van Booy’s The Sadness of Beautiful Things not long ago, and cruised through it at breakneck speed. Thanks to Michelle T. for the heads-up on a writer I probably would have not otherwise come across.

One prolific reviewer on Goodreads named Angela M summed up my thoughts perfectly when she wrote:

I don’t always get the significance of book titles, but this is one that fits this small collection of stories so perfectly, every one of the eight beautifully written sad stories. I was amazed that in such few sentences, in such a short time that I could come to know and care about all of the characters. These stories are not connected in the way that some collections are that make you feel as if you’ve read a novel. These are distinct stories, yet they have much in common. Smooth, even writing that in its sparsity reveals so much; each is filled with love in some way making even the saddest thing about each of them somewhat more bearable.

This collection of deeply relatable tales is especially poignant if you have even a cursory knowledge of the State of New York, but is not essential in feeling the power of Van Booy’s words through the eight short stories that long resonate after you’ve finished the last page.

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The Golden Man Booker Prize

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Consider this: Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient won the Governor General’s Award and the Booker Prize. The film adaptation was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won nine (including best picture). It also won five BAFTA Awards and two Golden Globes.

However, it wasn’t until last year that Ondaatje received what is arguably the most prestigious honour in the English-speaking world of fiction. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, a special judging panel was put together to name the greatest Man Booker Prize of them all. And wouldn’t you know it? They named The English Patient the Golden Man Booker. (How did I not know this fact until today???)

Friends of mine who know my reading habits have grown bored over the years listening  to me wax poetic how The English Patient is quite possibly the greatest novel of the 20th century. Well, at least I know I have some like-minded friends over at the Man Booker Prize.

As an aside, if you’re curious which books Michael Ondaatje enjoys re-reading time and time again, check out this piece from Goodreads.

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(One of my favourite scenes from the film)

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A Cracked Egg, Eating Disorders & Pigs

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It’s a busy week. On the heels of Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day last week, which aims to help end the stigma surrounding mental health, that ridiculous Instagram egg is apparently feeling the effects — and pressure — of social media. The egg, it would seem, has cracked. It is also further proof that with each new social media site that goes up, we seem to be further devolving as online consumers. Click here to watch the video and accompanying article from the BBC.

We’re also at the tail end of Canada’s national Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW). Although many of us associate eating disorders with ultra-skinny models trying to reach that elusive -1 size waist, it’s actually a lot more pervasive throughout society than you might think (and something I wrote about through Ali in A Father’s Son). In fact, I was surprised to learn that 1 in 4 people who suffer from an eating disorder are male.

Finally, today marks the first day of the Lunar New Year, and unless you’ve been buried under a huge egg, you know that this is the Year of the Pig. I don’t put too much stock into horoscopes, but for that it’s worth, the pig is associated with winter, the energy of yin, and the element of water. It’s closest Western zodiac signs are Scorpio and Sagittarius.

Cat lovers will probably not be big fans of the pig. According to Chinese mythology, after the first 11 animals raced to greet the Jade Emperor, the rat riding in on the back of the ox before slyly jumping ahead at the last minute (which is why the rat is numero uno in the Chinese zodiac and often considered the cleverest of all the animals), the Jade Emperor sent the rat to fetch a 12th animal.

Originally it was supposed to be a cat, but the rat had other plans, tricking the innocent feline while ushering the pig to meet the Jade Emperor. A sad day, really, for cats everywhere.

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The 50-page Rule: “Tension Is Important!”

 

 

Years ago — a time when men were kind, when their voices were soft, and their words inviting; a time when love was blind, and the world was a song, and the song was exciting — I would muscle my way through books I didn’t even really like. The point was: I had to finish it.

By the time I was thirty, I narrowed it down to 200 pages for an author to grab my attention. (In fact, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was the only book I finished after almost giving up at the 200-page mark.)

Then came forty and I scaled it down to 100 pages. Today, you’ve got 50 pages to capture my resolve to slog through more words.

Which brings me to the book I was reading until earlier last night, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. If agents, publishers and arts councils give you anywhere from 1-20 pages (double-spaced) to catch their eye, then why should we the public have to invest so much more time?

As Mr. Bob (above, Bill Murray) is told in Lost in Translation by his Japanese director for the Suntory whiskey ad, he needs “more intenshitty” and “more tenshun.” The same is true for fiction. You’ve got to bring something to the table early on, or else fogetta ’bout it.

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The Only Story

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“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question…Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives; there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.”

So the reader begins their journey down the rabbit hole of Paul and Susan’s relationship. However, this is no ordinary love story that focuses on rainbows and “notebooks” and happily-ever-after endings. It’s a searing look at how we love/hate ourselves — and our partners.

Julian Barnes, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending, does a masterful job of documenting a fictional story about a nineteen-year-old English student back home for the summer after his first year of university. Paul joins a local tennis club and is soon teamed up with Susan, a mid-forties housewife and mother of two, for a mixed doubles tournament, and a romance quickly blossoms.

Unlike The Graduate (film) or Cougar (TV show), The Only Story is neither an intergenerational story that begs the question: mother or daughter? Nor is it a superficial glimpse into the lives of a young man with an older woman.

Instead, it is a beautiful tale of how disastrous we as individuals can be in the pursuit of love and the deflection of hardship. It also happens to feature some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read since Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Case in point:

“An entry from his notebook which had survived several inspections: ‘In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd’. He had liked this remark since first discovering it. Because for him it opened out into a wider thought: that love itself is never absurd, and neither are any of its participants. Despite all of the stern orthodoxies of feeling and behaviour that a society may seek to impose, love slips past them. You sometimes saw, in the farmyard, improbable forms of attachment — the goose in love with the donkey, the kitten playing safely between the paws of the chained-up mastiff. And in the human farmyard, there existed forms of attachment which were just as unlikely; and yet never, to their participants, absurd.”

The book is set in three parts, starting in the 1960s and culminating sometime in the 21st century (dates aren’t used, so the reader needs to be astute to cultural markings and historical events). What’s also interesting is how Barnes fluidly switches between the first, second and third person in the narrative. Rather than confuse the reader, it provides a unique angle to the words being written: subjective or objective? Heartfelt or surgical in precision? Real or imagined?

One of my favourite quotes from the story comes right near the end, when Barnes writes the following:

“‘We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time’. Back then it had sounded like a counsel of despair; now, it struck him as normal, and emotionally practical.”

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This.

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I had no interest in figure skating before Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated into my life.

Maybe this is why we need the Olympics. To reach higher. To aspire to greater heights. To be the best we can be. To bring art and dance and sport together.

To elevate us.

And that’s what these two decorated Olympians did. They  made us better as people because they showed us, through a figure skate dance, how and why we can do more. As humans. As people.

This is what the Olympics is about.

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