Cars I have driven, October 2013-September 2014

Posted by on 13 Sep 2014 | Tagged as: Stuff

… a partial list.

Jeep Cherokee Patriot

Toyota Corolla

Volkswagen Jetta

Volkswagen Golf

Hyundai Sonata

Dodge Avenger

Mazda 3

Honda Civic

Chevy Cruze


CanLit: Genre Fiction

Posted by on 01 Feb 2014 | Tagged as: Books

One of my favourite young(ish) contemporary authors, Gary Shteyngart, recently caused a wave of consternation when he suggested that Canadian authors, for the most part, are loath to take risks because they want to qualify for grant funding. The customary hand-wringing ensued. Shteyngart has some legitimacy on this topic, having read more Canadian novels than many of us ever will as one of the judges of the Giller Prize in 2012, when Will Ferguson won for 419. (I still haven’t read it, but have some interest in reading it, which I can’t say about any of the other nominees that year — including Alex Ohlin’s Inside, which this excoriating review convinced me never to pick up.)

I’m sympathetic to Shteyngart. When I go into a bookstore and pick up a Canadian fiction title, I almost always put it back on the table because it sounds dreary and well-intentioned. I skim the book review sections in the Globe and the Star every weekend, and am only occasionally moved by a review to pick up any of the Canadian novels reviewed. My theory is  that mainstream CanLit can best be understood as a genre. There are different streams of the genre: historical CanLit, immigrant memory CanLit, meaningful small-town insight CanLit, novels-by-poets (shudder) CanLit, where every word has been worked over far, far too long  — but there is an underlying serious, diligent feeling to it all, which, as in all genre fiction, you either warm to, or you don’t.

(An aside: this morning on CBC radio I heard the description of the 5 new Canada Reads books. My favourite: one described as “a love letter to the Canadian wilderness, with gender issues”. Could there be anything more Canadian?)

I rarely read science fiction or fantasy, not because there aren’t good writers or good books, but because the underlying premise isn’t of great interest to me, and I use my reading time for other things. I really like well-written, but not ponderous, contemporary fiction about people who could (but don’t) exist, and there’s not a lot of that in the CanLit genre. Russell Smith, Lynn Coady, and others are able to publish that sort of book from time to time, and Alice Munro is one of the best. Adding foreign judges to the Giller jury sometime in the late 2000s has led to more contemporary and even humorous books making the cut.


December 31: “Eta vsyo”, DDT

Posted by on 01 Jan 2014 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

So, it’s the last day of the month and time to take a look back at this semi-successful Song of the Day project.

Posts: 24

Days of month: 31

The idea was to create my own writing exercise, giving myself something fixed to write about — songs — so that I would get in the habit of posting regularly. It worked fairly well until the Christmas holidays, when two weeks of travel and constant company made it harder to find time and, mostly, the right headspace to muse. I’ll continue with the occasional Song of the Day post, but since it has served its purpose of encouraging me to write, will remove the constrains of the exercise and expand the scope of posts as well.

What I’ve learned:

– it’s hard to write every day (but I already knew this). Need at least one break day a week.

– it feels natural to write in the first person on a blog, and fairly awkward to write in any other voice.

– there is a recording of everything you can think of on YouTube and Vimeo. I hadn’t fully appreciated the scope.

– a vacation might be a great time to write, but vacation with 10 family members and/or with 9 friends and their five children is not that vacation.

It’s the end of 2013, which was superior in every way to 2012, so my hopes for 2014 are high. I’ve already posted a DDT song once this month, but today’s song is called “That’s all” and that’s the right way to end this month of songs. I was in St. Petersburg this summer, and it made me happy to hear a busker playing this within the first few hours of arrival.

For the most part, I could only find concert versions of the song (a notable exception: a very weird orchestral performance celebrating the 10th year of the Russian Kultura channel, worth viewing because of the intense plastic oddness of the audience), so here’s one. There are some poetic Russian verses in between, but if you want to join in the singalong yourself, the chorus is:

Eta vsyo, shto ostanyetsya poslye menya

Eta vsyo, shto vozmu ya s saboy

That’s all that will remain after me/

That’s all that I’ll take with me.

Happy new year!


December 27: “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”, Kirsty MacColl (The Smiths)

Posted by on 29 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

It’s almost the end of this month-long Song of the Day project and I’ve fallen sorely behind. At the beginning of the month, looking ahead to Christmas vacation at the end, I thought that the last two weeks of the month would be when I could really spend some time crafting posts, thinking about songs and what they made me think about. I’d have so much more time, not needing to fit in posts between commuting, working out, and the flurry of Christmas preparations! However, since leaving on vacation, I’ve been surrounded by people — lots of people — almost constantly. This, as anyone who writes anything could probably have told me, is not the optimal writing environment. As well, my lax approach in the last week is consistent with my general tendency to perform well under pressure, and not particularly brilliantly the rest of the time. With little time available to write, I focused on it and got it done. With numerous blocks of time unspoken for and available for writing, I procrastinate.

Looking back at almost a month of somewhat random songs, it’s also clear that my musical taste developed in the 20th century… and for the most part is still rooted there. There are songs from the last decade or so I like, and am even somewhat evangelical and obsessive about, but so far, they haven’t been the ones that make me want to write about them. Maybe more time needs to pass before I can appreciate their place in my soundtrack.

This time of year is when everyone relearns the name of the late Kirsty MacColl, the female singer on the Pogues’ “Fairytale in New York.” I first heard her when she covered Billy Bragg’s “A New England,” and I love this cover of the Smiths’ “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby,” even more. For the most part, there haven’t been a lot of Smiths covers that I know of, perhaps because there’s an assumption that without Morrissey’s morose tones, the songs don’t work. This , I think, proves that’s not true — if anything, the almost gleeful tone enhances the song’s lyrics. This was part of a great mixed tape someone made me once. I lost the tape many years ago, but still have the cover with the track listings.



December 26: “Adventures in Solitude”, New Pornographers

Posted by on 27 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

You know those album tracks — remember album tracks? — that you don’t think you like and don’t pay any attention to, and then you hear them on their own and suddenly realize you actually like them? This is one of those. I love the New Pornographers, but Challengers has never been my favourite of their albums. Nonetheless, some of its tracks have clearly got their claws in me without my noticing. Surprisingly, it’s not a Neko song, as is evidenced by this performance of it where she hits a tambourine sporadically while the keyboardist sings with Carl Newman. It’s also more like an AC (i.e., Carl) Newman solo song than some of the most popular and more typical New Pornographers songs. But I like its slow, somewhat contemplative structure and the title, having had many adventures in solitude myself. (There is a story by the late Laurie Colwin called “The Lone Pilgrim” that I loved for the same reason — not only is it a great story that I re-read every few years, but I adopted the title as a personal motto). If pressed, I could probably write a Song of the Day post every day on a New Pornographers song, but this will do for now:

(There was no Christmas Day Song of the Day post)

December 24: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, Judy Garland (Martin/Blane)

Posted by on 24 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

We’ll have to muddle through sometime. Makes me cry, every time I see it.

December 23: “I’m a Cuckoo”, Belle and Sebastian

Posted by on 24 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

A song with a chorus that references Tokyo and a video full of running. If it were a Venn diagram the overlapping part would be miniscule (and the rest of it would be filled with Haruki Murakami’s wonderful book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running).

Great things about this song:

  • the horns
  • the regret: it’s about a romance gone bad, but there’s no suggestion that anyone should come back to anyone, it’s just over.
  • the sentiment of the chorus:

I’d rather be in Tokyo

I’d rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh

And watch the Sunday gang in Harajuku

There’s something wrong with me, I’m a cuckoo

Although, I share the sentiment only until that last line. Really, there are many, many times when I would rather be in Tokyo, walking from the Harajuku JR station along Takeshita Alley with 8 million teenagers. Nothing cuckoo about it.


At the end, to the left on Meiji-dori, there used to be a really good cafe with delicious French pastries.


Halfway down the alley, to the left is a road into a park surrounding a beautiful shrine.


Three reasons to want to be in Harajuku.

December 21/22: “99 Luftballons”, Nena

Posted by on 24 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts


So Khodorkovsky is released in John LeCarre cloak and dagger fashion, the same way Solzhenitsyn was released in the 1970s, with reports that he is going to Germany to join his sick mother. Except, someone calls his mother, who is still in Russia. Confusion reigns, at least on Twitter, where I see this exchange:

English former Russia correspondent: What is HAPPENING?

Russian responds (in Russian): The Soviet Union is happening. (Proizkhodit’ Sovyetskiy Soyuz.)

And he does land in Berlin, and his mother is flown there, and he holds a press conference the next day at the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie. (Someone has a sense of humour.) All reminiscent of the Cold War, and what song could be a more apt reminder of  the importance of Berlin during the Cold War than Nena’s 99 Luftballons?

December 20: “Vacation”, The Go-Gos

Posted by on 21 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts

Off until 2014!

December 19: “Rodina”, DDT

Posted by on 19 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: Music and Arts, Russia

I’m reading a book called Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, detailing the astonishingly ad hoc transfer of power, nuclear suitcase included, from Gorbachev to Yeltsin. Eight years after that shambolic, historic event, on December 31, 1999, I was home sick with the Sydney A flu watching Yeltsin transfer power to his then-Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who had arrived at that position out of nowhere months earlier and been hailed as, no exaggeration, a Russian Messiah.

So no surprise, really, that the end of this year is again providing news out of Russia. In one of his regular rambling, long-form press conferences, still-president Putin announced that the two jailed members of Pussy Riot would be released under an amnesty and he would sign a pardon for Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (It’s not yet clear, to be sure, that Khodorkovsky will agree to being pardoned.) This is, likely, too little, too late to turn the tide of very negative sentiment around the Sochi Olympics — and nothing in today’s press conference addressed concerns about gay rights or the power play in Ukraine. It is, though, a big development, one that hints again at the weakening of the Putin regime, and the potential for the re-entry, someday, of democracy — or something closer to it — in Russia.

That weakening accelerated at the beginning of 2012, with the first large-scale demonstrations in Russia in 20 years, in desperately cold temperatures, against election fraud. Violent arrests were made, protestors and supporters faced searches and seizures and trumped-up charges. Two steps back. At one of the rallies in February 2012, Yuri Shevchuk, lead singer of one of the longest-standing and most important Russian rock groups, DDT, sang their early 1990s song “Rodina” — Homeland — with some very strong lyrics about the Soviet police state. At a rally at the same square a few months later, in May, 2012, 400-500 people were detained, some arrested and tried, damping down the appetite for protest in the country and bringing home the fact that Putin’s Russia, awash in oil wealth and international brands, ridden with corruption, is a consumer version of the regime DDT wrote about 20 years ago:

God, how much truth is there in the eyes of the government whores,
God, how much faith is there in the hands of the fired executioners.
Please, don’t let them roll up their sleeves again
Please, don’t let them roll up the sleeves
Of eventful nights.

Black headlights in the neighboring yard,
Hatchways, handcuffs, a torn mouth.
How many times did my head rolled off the overflowing guillotine
And flew here, where is


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