Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review of Vonnegut's Armageddon in Retrospect

Mark Vonnegut, son and introduction author, states, “Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in.” He then reveals more and more about the man behind such well-crafted work and wit. In this volume the works themselves reveal much about Kurt Vonnegut and about his journey out from the heavy weight of war. I often wondered whether some of these works weren't published sooner (they were published posthumously) because they were too personal and whether they pre-dated Slaughterhouse-Five given that they lack the detachment and satirical intensity of that and later works.

At times the reader seems to be witnessing Vonnegut process his past. For example, a British lance corporal appears in both Spoils and Just You and Me, Sammy (different accounts of his escape from prison), presumably because Vonnegut had weighed his decision to await the Russian advance, something the corporal warns against. His protagonists have clear morals and clash with those who lack them. They question whether upholding their morals in such conditions was worth it — life was so much easier for collaborators. In these stories war seems to be much less about sides than about personal struggle. For example, in The Commandant's Desk liberators bring both good and evil (freedom and continued occupation).

By the end of the collection of essays he seems to have come to terms with the horrors he witnessed, but just enough to still warn others; however, he seems to have also realized the difficulty of communicating such a warning. In Happy Birthday, 1951 an old man attempts to dim the appeal of war to a young boy. In other words you might as well “write an anti-glacier book.” Great Day imagines a future army without war, so much so that they train via a time machine on long-distant battlefields. War will always be present even if it's just a fantasy in a utopia.  The title-story takes place in a future where scientists trap the Devil to overcome war, but there's a catch — it takes much effort to maintain peace.

In God Bless you, Dr. Kevorkian, written much later than most of these works he's gained a perspective through which he can argue the faults of war without raw emotion. Kilgore Trout, a recurring character of Vonnegut's, states regarding Kosovo:

NATO should have resisted the nearly irresistable temptation to be entertainers on television, to compete with movies of blowing up bridges … All cities and even little towns are world assets. … The homicidal paranoia and schizophrenia of ethnic cleansing does its worst quickly now, almost instantly, like a tidal wave or volcano … The disease used to take years. One thinks of Europeans killing off the Aborigines … The Tasmanian genocide, incidentally, is the only one of which I've heard which was one-hundred-percent successful.

Armageddon in Retrospect is adorned with ink and pencil sketches that call into question Vonnegut's assertion that the only thing he was good at was writing. The Unicorn Trap is the only story without a backdrop of modern warfare. Although it's set in Norman England, it still wrestles with the morality of conflict:

“Grand, all right,” said Elmer. He was a small man with a large-domed head. His blue eyes were restless with unhappy intelligence. His small frame was laced with scraggly ropes of muscle, the bonds of a thinking man forced to labor.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Graphic Novels

Few art mediums have worked as hard to gain credibility as graphic novels, perhaps fantasy and sci-fi in their quest to be regarded as literature. Legitimacy seems to have been granted given the expanding sections of this genre in libraries and bookstores, but many, including me remain sheepish when perusing them.

I jumped on the bandwagon with many when Batman: The Dark Night Returns and The Watchmen appeared on the scene. Both jump started the genre to such a degree that they're on the minds of many today due to their Hollywood adaptations. I became more impressed with this genre and moved through the works of Pekar (a full tribute is in the works).

The Adventuress by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler's Wife) was originally published by hand in the 80's. It reminds me of La passion de Jeanne d'Arc – the threshold, the tears behind those eyes, the isolation, and the nuns. Egypt also comes to mind: hands floating without arms hold veils, wine-glasses, and judgement; Eyes sometimes swirl but never blink or have a face. There's also alchemy, a cat, and transformation. The soul mourns a body with crossed arms folded under the chin. Ancient Greece comes to mind with play on weaving (Penelope); however, here a skirts unravelled to create a cocoon. The character seems to have conflicting emotions (thumoi) given the cleft figure and one that hugs and chokes itself. It's such a fantastical world that she, a moth, feasted on Napoleon's books.

The Pride of Baghdad presents war through the eyes of lions. At times the novel becomes too anthropomorphic — sex and rape, moral dilemmas (whether or not to eat humans) — but the point gets across. War starts when the zoo keepers throw them a donkey, enough food to last a while. Bombs blow up the pen's walls and they're free. They embark on a journey and on the way meet a wise turtle who states,

Tigris is the name of the river, dummy. … Everything's got a name. It's how we make crap belong to us. And this stretch of crap is my fishing hole.

There's black stuff under the earth, boy. Poison. When the walkers fight, they send it spewing into the sky, and spilling into the … into the sea.

Although the dialogue can be predictable, the illustrations make use colour very effectively, the dark grey and sepia of tragedy and bright tones for violence. On the whole, the work seems a little too surreal for war, but that might just be how lions view things.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

RSA Animates David Harvey Lecture

As soon as this post entered my twitter-stream, I re-tweeted it; however, I wanted to ensure no one missed it, so have posted it here. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce animates David Harvey's sagacious words:

Update: Kurt Vonnegut in his final speech had quite a lot to say about Marx:
I might as well clinch my reputation as a world-class nutcase by saying something good about Karl Marx, commonly believed in this country, and surely in Indian-no-place [Indianapolis], to have been one of the most evil people who ever lived.

He did invent Communism, which we have long been taught to hate, because we are so in love with Capitalism, which is what we call the casinos on Wall Street.

Communism is what Karl Marx hoped could be an economic scheme for making industrialized nations take good care of people, and especially of children and the old and disabled, as tribes and extended families used to do, before they were dispersed by the Industrial Revolution (Vonnegut, K. 2008. Armageddon in Retrospect, p. 23).

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup Fever - Final Impressions, A Canadian's View

At the beginning of every World Cup game I'm struck by the colonial influence on each nation's anthem. Western instruments, chorus lines, and structure predominate. There's no rumba, salsa, or cross-rhythm, and that's such a shame, given the diversity among each nation's fans and players. Fortunately, the music at taxi stands, airports, and fan parks weren't restricted to western notions, and, of course, the vuvuzellas made stadiums their own.

I took quite a few bus-taxis and buses to get around from my remote abode. Although people on the bus-taxis were quite friendly, especially when I repeatedly asked Illovo? or some other destination, people on the bus ignored me. I discussed this behaviour with a white South African after, and she attributed it to the fact that a white person on such buses is a rarity, never mind one with an accent. By the way, from what I've gathered South Africans refer to each other as black, white, or coloured (any ethnic mix other than the former two). I struggled with this terminology due to my North American sensibilities, but soon tired of unnecessarily tip-toeing around.

Another sensibility that I lost pretty quickly was pedestrian right-of-way. Drivers gave me courteous beeps, but such notions can be dangerous (I had a few close calls in my jet-lagged stupor). Like Europe, standard transmission dominates the market, so drivers are quite skilled, but the numerous construction projects made navigation difficult. I still can't get over the lack of seat-belt laws. I desperately wanted to fasten a belt around the new-born in the front seat. Although I wanted to stay and try to get tickets for the Brazil/Portugal, which turned out to be rather flat, the time had come for me to go. I made it to Sandton (an up-scale suburb into which a number of downtown businesses fled when the fence came down) and then to the GauTrain.

The train was filled with residents excited by the prospect of travelling at high-speed. They marvelled at the new smell and efficiency, and some claimed superiority to London's tube (not a fair comparison). I was buoyed by their enthusiasm. The driver came on the intercom, introduced herself, and announced we were travelling at 160 km/h. I was one of the few to leave the train; I picked up some last minute souvenirs and made for my gate. I flew Etihad to Abu Dhabi once more. There were many empty seats so I quickly grabbed a middle row, so I could stretch out later. The meal included a chicken tandoori breast and three bean salad and a choice of chicken tikka, grilled hake or penne in cream sauce. Then I slept. No movies needed on this leg. No World Cup on a single TV in the airport. What's with this place?

After a drowsy day in Frankfurt I boarded a Swiss Air flight to Zurich. The stewardess had a topless picture of Drogba on her serving station and defended her choice, stating that he was her motivation. Swiss chocolate and a great Duty Free catalogue made their low take-off-and-landing priority bearable. I then flew Swiss Air to Montreal. The service, chocolate, and Movenpick ice cream was excellent, but the entertainment system ran on a rotation so you couldn't watch what you wanted when you wanted. The kicker, however, came when I boarded an Air Canada plane and paid $7 for a stale wrap.

Canada really needs to welcome its citizens. Rather than calculating potential tax revenue, citizens shouldn't have to fill out forms or stand in a general line. Where's the Canadian Passports line? It's as rare as a default choice of "Canada" on a Canadian website form. Anyway, I'm back; nearly over 29 hours in the air and nearly acclimatized to Victoria's poky drivers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Fever - Argentina Game, A Canadian's View

For the game, Argentina vs. South Korea, I had incredible seats very close to the field and not far from the goal. I saw three of the five cumulative goals. Messi appears even faster in person than on TV. It's too bad he didn't score, but his goal setup was invaluable. The crowd roared most, even overcoming the vuvuzellas's drone, when Maradona tapped the ball.

The only drawback was the belligerent Americans behind me; however, one benefit of their loudness was their attempt to start a wave. We nearly got one going and had lots of fun. Canadians were there, too; one wore a huge maple-leaf hat and the others were grad students who asked me to fill out a very long survey on the World Cup. They got half their way paid for. Not a bad way to go. I was surprised to find out that the attendance was a few thousand lower than the Holland game.

The park and ride bus service was excellent and got back with enough time to watch the end of the Nigeria game. It's very unfortunate that Nigeria lost on home soil, so to speak. Chris, a Ugandan staying at the same place as I, noted that he's been disappointed with Nigeria since the 90's. After the game I experienced my first brownout, but the power came back in time to watch the Mexico game and power my microwave dinner. One benefit of the darkness was seeing the Southern Cross without artificial light obscuring it. Very beautiful!

As I'm writing this, the patrons of this internet cafe are watching WWE. Western culture's everywhere.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup Fever - Johannesburg Impressions, A Canadian's View

Whenever I travel outside of North America I'm astonished by the grip of western culture. Johannesburg is no exception; a mall culture is particularly strong here. Malls host all the parties and have all the big screens and FIFA centers. They seem to be “the place to go”, much more so even than in North America. Thankfully, there's little evidence of big box stores although the city is car-centered and lacks efficient public transit. Nevertheless, this role's been filled by shuttle taxis which, although intimidating to visitors, seem quite effective. I was surprised at the lack of seatbelt use especially in the case of infants who rest on their mothers' laps in the front seat. There are some traces of the colonial past, the architecture and rusks appearing on aisle markers in grocery stores. Despite all this evidence of western culture many things set this city apart.
  • Some malls contain flea markets. Only a few are heated.
  • Entertaining store names and slogans:

Pick n Pay (As opposed to Pick n Run?) Their by-line, “Inspired by you,” has little to do with their brand.

Mr. Delivery for pizza.

Clicks Pharmacy: Clicks Clubcard. Saving is the point.

  • Fences. Electric, concrete, and steel. Every structure is well fortified. Perhaps the most striking example is the university whose fortifications seem to contravene tenants of higher learning, such as openness and right to protest.
  • BP appears to be doing quite well and has been running ads promoting their non-Fair Trade coffee.
  • No headphones on people. People spend time at bus stops in conversation.
  • Noises, of so many kinds, fill the air. Drivers toot horns to alert pedestrians who have no right of way here. Vuvuzellas fill the air, especially when South Africa is playing, then they begin at dawn and last until dusk.

People here are very friendly and most are quite excited to meet a Canadian. They ask many questions about Canada. Some, assuming I'm a white local have even asked me for directions. I've spent the most time speaking with Victor, the caretaker and my host, Alima. Victor is from Malawi and is working here to support his family back home. He's hoping to start an IT business here or a kindergarten back in Malawi. If anyone knows of some free school supplies, let me know.

Alima is fiery, passionate, and very kind. She addresses every black South African as brother or sister. They have a really cool culture which blinds the visitor to all the uncompleted projects, delays, bus strikes, leaky taps and lack of recycling.

A note on security: Although security is a major concern here, I've not felt threatened once. (I walk or taxi everywhere.) I have, however, felt a certain fear in the air, heard conversations about car-jacking, and seen reports of home invasions. This is enough to restrict my travel at night to well-worn routes.

World Cup Fever - FIFA Critique, A Canadian's View

At first glance the FIFA ticketing process seemed quite robust. I entered my choices in the first round of the lottery, was billed a few months later, and received an email notifying me that I'd purchased tickets a month or so after that. The trouble began when I tried to determine what matches I was seeing, in order to arrange all the necessary travel arrangements. My FIFA on-line account contained no information about the tickets I'd purchased. All that was there were FIFA bingo and fantasy football. No comparison to the VANOC site, which I'd used a few months before. I was informed that I'd receive a ticket confirmation in the mail by May 1st, which was extended to the middle of May. I emailed and got no response, I phoned and never got an agent. Eventually, I did receive the confirmation and was very pleased with my tickets, but the process was very stressful.

Note: After talking to a number of fans, some shared my experience, and it appeared to be restricted to the first two rounds of ticket sales.

Upon arrival at 5:00 am I learned that the automatic booths at the airport (a major ticket collection location) were closed outside of business hours. Imagine if ABMs were closed outside of a bank's hours. What's the point? Then there was the run-around I received prior to my first match. Only one private security guard knew where to pick up tickets. He told me that fans were in tears at the opening game, believing that they wouldn't be able to enter the stadium.

The name and passport number that I'd entered for me and a guest was not checked; furthermore, all the tickets had only my name on it. So much for all the rules on security and application forms to trade or sell tickets. FIFA created a convoluted system, required people to adhere to it and then abandoned it.

Once inside the arena everything ran smoothly and there was a surplus of information volunteers. The match was an incredible experience, but FIFA has to do much better in this modern age. Maybe that day will come when some form of television replay gets incorporated into the officiating.

I am surprised that empty seats have been shown on TV. Apparently in 2002 buses went into the Asian countryside to get spectators to fill seats. The only deception here was the 1,000 or so Chinese actors at the North Korean game.

On a separate note, SABC provides local commentary for all the African nation matches, which provides a different take on the game that I quite enjoy.

World Cup Fever - The Holland Game, A Canadian's View

I'm sitting here in a South African house huddled around a space-heater while the weather forecaster states that it will go down to minus 3 tonight and that snow has fallen in some parts of the country. I notice that the forecaster uses clucks in her speech and that the kids in a snowball fight behind her must be a rare sight. Two days ago, I was in the same seat when Daf, attired in a bright orange suit, came through the front door with Marcel on his heels. These were the house-guests I was expecting, but had no idea they would be Dutch fans. I was there to support Holland, so was quite happy. The orange clad Blues Brothers set to decorating a house that had only sported a few South Africa flags.

The next morning everyone was quite excited about the game and dressed in their finest orange. Daf was kind enough to give me a cool hat with red, white, and blue dinosaur spines across the top. Chantal, Daf's girlfriend had arrived in the night and soon some other fans showed up. We got a ride to the stadium in threes. About 2km from the stadium we got out of the car to walk due to the congestion. Every three cars we passed cheered, clapped or honked. As the enormous calabash stadium drew near people started to ask if they could get their picture taken with Marcel and Daf, and sometimes all of us.

Then began an extremely frustrating time of tracking down my tickets. Volunteers were either uninformed or misinformed; furthermore they were too few in number. We finally found someone who knew where we needed to go and escorted us there. We entered the stadium to find the Dutch party. Holland supporters usually party in a city square before the game and then follow a double-decker bus to the stadium, but here, likely due to the remote location of the stadium and security concerns, the party was inside the stadium. We sang songs, danced, drank, chanted, and cheered. Marcel and Daf gave a number of interviews, and I gave one. I was assured by the reporter that it would appear here.

My seats were pretty good and the vuvuzelas not nearly as loud as I'd thought they'd be (I still wore earplugs). All around me were jubilant when the Netherlands' side scored a goal rather than winning by an own-goal. Many after were not too impressed by the Dutch side, but everyone concluded that it's better to start a little slower than come out blazing and lose to the likes of Russia and Portugal. Robbyn's appearance when they need him should also add a huge flame to the fire. Hup Holland Hup.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

World Cup Fever, A Canadian's View

My trip began in a dull dreary Vancouver. Calgary was even wetter during the six hour transit, so wet that the roofs were leaking. Buckets marked by placards collected the drops. Frankfurt was very warm 29, by comparison and muggy. After a day there I boarded a plane for Abu Dhabi. I had an emergency exit seat, which soon became vibrant with conversation. I talked with the two German guys on either side and the Slovakian stewardess in front.

When the plane landed one German and I sought out a screen to see the highlights of the first World Cup game. We could find none. They had TVs, but they showed volleyball and car racing. No soccer to be had. I asked an information steward and he mistook my request of “football” as “food court”. Not impressed, especially because the stewardess had told me of how many fans have been funnelling through the airport.

I'd rank the airports as follows (1=little effort; 2=some effort; 3=noticeable effort; and so on) Vancouver as a 3, Calgary a 2, Frankfurt a 3, and Abu Dhabi as a 1. Johannesburg, of course, was filled with welcome posters, red carpets for players, but what really set it apart was the multi-clad fans and horns, drums and chants.

The environment in Jo'burg airport is quite playful with announcers proclaiming that smokers violating the non-smoking policy will be banned from football games. On the last leg I got my first run in with England fans. My neighbour took up much more space than his small body would seem to be possible. He preempted the flight attendants' questions, slurring out “Lager” and “Bir”. I re pronounced his request and he got his beer. He must have had a prostrate condition, and if he does I have sympathy for him, because he went to the bathroom twice for every beer he consumed. Quite a different experience than the last flight.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What I learned at the Vancouver Olympics.

After a number of sun-filled glorious days at the Olympic games I thought I’d summarize my experience. Sorry about the lack of tweets but Internet wasn’t that accessible where I was staying.

  1. The crowd in Vancouver is awesome. Far from an unruly mob the crowd propelled and energized athletes and made mundane tasks, such as queueing, fun. Without a doubt the most powerful crowd was that at the Canada-US hockey game on Sunday. Only high-fives and embraces tempered the ear-splitting roar. Personally, I was at my best when some American fans in the next section started chanting, “U-S-A.” I promptly responded with my loudest “GoCanadaGo” rousing those around me to drown them out. Despite the loss it was the best hockey game I’ve ever been to, mostly due to the crowd.

  2. Translink stepped up to provide fast-efficient service. (Despite my reservations surrounding Translink’s paving of the Whistler rail line and media reports of long waits.)

  3. Events were were on-time, exciting, and well organized. The awesome volunteers and entertainers dimmed inconveniences such as security waits and the bottleneck at the pedestrian walkway into Canada Hockey Place.

  4. The pavilions were neither well-organized nor on-time, but exciting for the most part (Ontario’s 4–D movie and First Nations Pavilion’s daily sampler platter were my favourites). The largest lacuna was in web presence (the official site has no map and speaks in terms of the facilities “upon completion will have … .”) The best information on the web, though not easy to come by via Google (a lady in line showed me a print out), is at CityCaucus. Furthermore, no comprehensive schedule of entertainment seems to exist.

  5. Vancouver rocks when it’s sunny.

  6. The Olympics are magical; at least, they contain many magical moments. The most captivating for me (and my family) happened watching Virtue and Moir’s final skate. We had watched them live during the compulsory skate at the PNE, so we were quite enthused about the sport. Then we started watching the final round on TV, but had to leave part-way to catch the ferry. We got to Tsawwassen as fast as we could and ran into the terminal in search of a TV. We found a small (but vigorous) crowd huddled around the sole TV. Everyone clapped, cheered, and (some) cried, while our collective anticipation over the performance and score was quickened by the imminent message that boarding would ensue. Community. Magic. The Games.


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