Thursday, 20 December 2012

Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (a review)

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."
- William Shakespeare

As I've said before, and I'm sure I'll say again, I get nervous when it comes time to review the classics.  Who am I to doubt or impugn the works of the late, the great, the canonized and the deified juggernauts of literature? I don't even have a master's degree in English... but I do have an MLIS, which at the very least qualifies me as an avid consumer and promoter of books, if not a suitable judge of their character and quality. But that aside, I still find it hard to offer criticism to works which have not only stood the test of time, but have found their way into our collective consciousness to the point that themes of these works have become the tropes and memes of everyday life and contemporary entertainment.

And today, the case in point for all of this is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Even if you have not actively sat down and read this novel, you already know the story.  A young man, in the bloom and vigor of his youth, sits for a portrait.  The beautiful result moves him not to delight but despair, and he makes the now cliched "deal with the devil" that the portrait shall age in his place.  A lifetime of debauchery follows, with the painting baring the scars and wrinkles of the man's misdeeds.  And of course, all ends tragically.

This story has been adapted, appropriated and otherwise borrowed from so much for other books and films that it is a very well-known theme.  As a result, I went into Wilde's work already knowing what would happen and how it would end*.  I don't have this problem with most of the books I decide to review.  Consequently, I'm going to set aside any criticism about the premise of the story (which obviously has been good enough to be repeated so often), and focus instead on some of the other elements of the work such as the character development and pacing.

* As a side note: I find it strange and somewhat hilarious that my strongest exposure to this story prior the reading the novel was Brian De Palma's film The Phantom of the Paradise, which crosses the stories of Dorian Gray, The Phantom of the Opera and the legendary tale of Faust.  It's a very strange B-movie with a great soundtrack courtesy of Paul Williams, I recommend it.

Damn fine show-tunes.

First of all, this book is so very, very reflective of Oscar Wilde and his fate.  Dorian Gray is the consummate dandy (a term which I feel is almost impossible to describe Wilde without employing), enjoying a life of relaxing hobbies, socializing, and focusing incessantly on physical appearance.  Scandal and gossip abound for both Wilde and his fictional counterpart.  And while The Picture of Dorian Gray was written before Wilde's imprisonment and exile, it seems quite prophetic in all these regards.  The difference being that Dorian Gray falls from grace in a much less catastrophic fashion, maintaining his unholy outward appearance while his moral structure and social life slowly begin to crumble.  

Oscar, King of the Dandies.

Interesting parallels between author and character aside, the character of Dorian Gray is quite the tabula rasa at the beginning of the story.  He's a vacuous pretty-boy with not a care in the world, until he is introduced to Harry (Lord Henry). Harry is not only a corrupting factor in Gray's life, but is very nearly the devil himself.  It is Harry who whispers the seeds of malcontent in Gray's ear and plants the initial buds of doubt.  It is Harry who introduces Gray to a lifestyle heavy with temptation and sin.  Without Harry, Gray would not have struck his unholy bargain that the painting would age in his stead.  And while Harry seems to do none of these things out of malice, his impact on Dorian Gray is as undeniable as if it he had been purposefully leading him astray.  As a realistic story, the devil is never directly portrayed or communicated with when Gray makes his fateful trade, but Harry seems to suit the role just a bit too well for it to be coincidental.

Generally speaking, the pacing in The Picture of Dorian Grey is a bit unusual.  The first segments of time pass very slowly, until Dorian Gray takes interest in the actress Sibyl.  From there the pacing picks up a bit, until the reader is slammed against the truly bizarre chapter which details the contents of the book which Gray is given by Harry.  And while this strange chapter seems to demarcate the two halves of the story, I found it's long-winded, overly descriptive passages to be pretty much unreadable.  I ended up skipping long sections of the chapter (which was over 50 pages long in my version).  Following this chapter we move several years ahead, and pacing resumes a somewhat regular flow.  While I appreciated the impact and need to go into detail about Dorian Gray's first act of cruelty (that against Sibyl), I felt that this section of the novel could have been a bit shorter in order that the reader be moved into the action a bit more quickly.  The first chapters are a bit dry and I hope that not too many readers have given up on this novel too soon because of that.

Dorian Gray himself is both frustrating and relateable.  While part of me wanted to shake him for being a classically-trained asshole for good parts of the book, another part of me wanted to see him redeemed, repentant, and relieved of his curse.  These mixed feelings are the sign of true character development.  When Gray's vengeful stalker is killed, it is both a breath of relief and a moment of annoyance that Gray had escaped punishment for his crimes yet again.  Being able to elicit such strong reactions in the reader is a true sign of a great writer, which Wilde doubtlessly was.

Wilde, like his character Dorian Gray, was also subject to a tragic end, one very much unsuitable for someone with such a creative, provocative writing style and imagination.  And while his works are few, I've enjoyed this one immensely, and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fiction and wants to read one of the great common themes of literature couched in a rich cast of characters.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (and Ladies) - best Christmas albums from the dearly departed

I’m more than just a little bit of a fan of Christmas music.  People always bitch about hearing it on the radio (starting in November, 99.3 has it 24/7!), in the stores, and pretty much everywhere you go.  I am not one of these people who complain.  In fact, I am probably the one in the background who has it cranked up to 11.  I have more than 700 Christmas songs on my lappy, playing on infinite loop for the entirety of December.  This includes all the soundtracks to the classic stop-motion, muppet and traditional Christmas cartoons.  It also includes all of the beautiful religious songs, and while religious I am not, these are by far the best and most beautiful of the Christmas tunes, and I love them.  Christmas music amps up my already profound Christmas fervor to ridiculous levels which suggest that someone let the ADHD kid eat all the candy canes.


Anyway, rather than simply doing a list of my favorite CD’s, I’d like to do a bit of a tribute to some of the beautiful voices that have left us, but remain immortalized in their wonderful Christmas albums.   I’ve picked four very different works from four different genres – opera, folk, country and jazz.  However different they are from each other, I would consider them all to be canonical Christmas CD’s, and complete must-haves for any Christmas music fan.

Also, you have to know that music was better “back then”, and this is just a fact (don’t make me whip out Sinatra vs. Bieber on you). 

So here we go.

Christmas With Mario Lanza

The original album was produced in 1956, and is probably my single favorite Christmas album EVER.  Mario Lanza was an absolutely peerless tenor (along with being a total babe!), and this album shows his virtuosity and powerful voice at its best.  Unfortunately, Mario Lanza’s troubles were as great as his talents and he left the world far too soon at the age of only 38.  It’s very difficult to pick a favorite song from this album, but I very much enjoy seeing the multiple sides of Lanza’s talent.  On O Holy Night we get to hear Lanza using the full might, power, and volume of his incredible voice.  And then there are very soft and tender moments, like on The Virgin’s Slumber Song which is just so melodic and beautiful that it brings tears my eyes when I hear it.  This is just an amazing album from an amazing artist, with not a bad song on it.  Even if you aren’t a fan of opera, your Christmas album collection is really not complete without this work.

The Very Best of Burl Ives Christmas

While this compilation was put together in 1999, Ives recorded most of the songs found on this album in the 1960’s.  Ives was a prolific Christmas music singer, with several albums of Christmas music to his name during his lifetime, and several re-compilations after his death.  Ives’ folk sound suits so many of these Christmas songs perfectly.  And while he is known for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas which he sang in his role as Sam the snowman in the stop motion Christmas special, there are so many better songs by Ives on this compilation.  I’m particularly fond of his rendition of What Child is This, a Christmas song that seems not to be recorded very widely, but that Ives does an absolutely great job with.  While I have three Burl Ives Christmas CDs in my collection, if you are only going to pick one from the bunch, make it this collection for a good overall feel for Ives’ work and sound. 

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics - Gene Autry

I don’t usually dig country music at all.  And because it’s Christmas I’ll refrain from lambasting the genre all together (for now).  The tracks found on this CD were recorded in the late 40’s to early 50’s, and while there have been many other Gene Autry compilations created, this is the easiest one to obtain.  My favorite song has to be If it Doesn’t Snow on Christmas Day, I remember hearing this one as a child and I think that’s where my fondness for this album is rooted.  It’s a very fun song, told from a child’s perspective.  While Autry’s voice and ample twang cannot really be categorized as beautiful, it is certainly a unique sound which is instantly recognizable.  Even if like me you aren’t a country fan, this one makes a great addition to the collection purely for Autry’s unique sound and unusual take on some of the classics.

Ella Wishes you a Swinging Christmas

Great album, freaky cover.  Not sure what’s going on there with the trippy oil-slick unicorn...  anyway, this album from the lovely Ella Fitzgerald was originally released in 1960. As it's a jazz/swing album, obviously there's been a bit of liberty taken with the interpretation of some of the classics.  And while some of the songs are quirky to the point of near ridiculousness, the album has an absolutely fabulous version of Sleigh Ride which is irresistibly toe-tapping.  Fitzgerald’s amazing vocal range gets a pretty good workout on most of the tracks, if you can find a copy of this one I’d highly recommend adding it to your collection. 

Until next time. :)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Rankin-Bass' "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", the World War II allegory

As my friends know, I am someone who very rarely gets sick.  I chalk  this up to a healthy diet, occasional exercise, and that fact that I am in the so-called "prime of my life".  But, despite having a usually gold-plated and well-functioning immune system, I spent the last few days housebound with the flu and bored out of my mind.  Since basic housework would induce a coughing fit, I decided to go the route of least resistance and watched lots of awful daytime television, and several Christmas cartoons.

Christmas cartoons are a distinctive entity of their own within the world of animation.  For one reason or another, the standard rules that govern quality in animation, voice acting, and production seem not to apply.  And the general populace doesn't seem to care.  Classic Christmas cartoons made prior to 1980 seem to be above scrutiny because we have attached so many warm and fuzzy holiday memories to their otherwise shabby facades.   Without the sentiment, most of these cartoons would have been relegated to obscurity long ago.  And the kings of this shabby chic holiday fare have got to be Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr.

It's all business when it comes to puppets.

Rankin-Bass is in your childhood, and probably still permeates your adult life whether you remember their shows, and whether you liked them or not.  Along with their bevvy of stop-motion Christmas specials, they also had a wealth of conventional cartoon productions including The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit and Thundercats. And while I could wax poetic for an entire post about Rankin-Bass and their prolific cartoonery (BTW, these two are still alive and STILL involved in animation!), I am focusing today on one particular stop-motion Christmas piece that has a bit more to it than just a simple children's tale.

This weekend I watched Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, a Rankin-Bass jem from 1970.  This one shows up on TV less frequently than Rudolph and Frosty, but is one of Rankin-Bass' better efforts in many regards.  My sister and I noticed something about this movie years ago when we were still in our teens.  The choice of ethnicities for the various characters seems to be particularly deliberate, to the end that the story actually becomes a World War II allegory, albeit one told from an American perspective.  Raising several characters as examples, I would like to suggest that Rankin-Bass not only did this on purpose, but that the hidden allegorical side of this movie makes it all the more clever, insightful and meaningful.

Burgermeister Meisterburger is clearly a Nazi.  And it's not only the German accent.  He is the lederhosen-wearing totalitarian dictator of Sombertown.  The fascist Burgermeister is introduced as an uncaring figure who persecutes the town's children (the Jews) by taking away all of their possessions and expecting them to do nothing but menial labour.  His immediate answer to the problems posed by Kris and allies is to incarcerate them. 

What is bizarre within the context of the WWII allegory is that the Burgermeister's sidekick Grimsby is British.  While Italian may have been more suitable in the context of the war, I took this choice of accent to reflect the British appeasement policies towards the Nazis leading up to the war.  Grimsby smiles and nods without any reflection regarding whether or not he agrees with the Burgermeister's policies on a personal level.

And then there is the hero, Kris Kringle, who is clearly representing the Americans.  He comes onto the scene after the persecution has already begun, and using his seemingly unending resources to attempt to intervene in the situation and remedy it.  And in the end, of course he saves the day, as goes the ending of every American-made war movie, ever.

How does he do it?  Elf slave labour (AKA conscription!).

The WWII undertones are a great reason why this movie is a real Rankin-Bass winner.  But the true soft spot in my heart is always a good sing-along song.  And so I leave you with the best of the bunch from this one, the duet between Kris (Mickey Rooney) and the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn):

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Temp-ting fate... or, 'tis the season to be sessional (a rant).

I try to talk about work as little as possible in my blog.  This is simply because I like having a job and I am not very cleverly disguised, and many of my coworkers are (or are possibly) reading my blog too.  And I wouldn't want to write anything that would (A) cause them chagrin or (B) cause my online life to become a problem.  Because I am one of those people who very much feels that it's not particularly healthy to be a two-headed monster when it comes to your work versus home life personalities.

Left is all business.  Right likes to get loaded and run amok.

I much prefer to just be myself, rather than be someone different at work from at home.  As a result, I think my coworkers would call me quirky (or maybe that's too polite... maybe more like brash and tactless, whatever).  But hopefully still keep a good professional opinion of me.  And because it isn't particularly professional to bitch about one's workplace/boss/job/etc., I try not to.

BUT.  Today I feel like I need to say something specifically on the subject of temporary employment.  As my friends know (and now all of you know too), I am a temp.  I'm not supposed to call it that, as we have a fancy term that is supposed to make me feel better about the fact that I get laid off every year for anywhere from three months to forever.   Now in this economy I know I am supposed to simply be grateful for the fact that I do have an amazing, well-paying job that I generally like.  And generally, I am pretty happy.  But as every other temp out there knows, there is always that niggling, incessant hum in the back of your brain that quietly reminds you day-in and day-out that YOU COULD LOSE YOUR JOB AT ANY MOMENT AND THEN YOU WOULD BE TOTALLY SCREWED.  And there's nothing I've found (because drinking isn't the solution to life's problems) that shuts this reminder off.  Even when things are going perfectly well it's still there because you never know if the contract is going to end on time or if it gets extended or if they'll have you back for another go round pending budget approval, etc.

But everyone else who's not temp seems to have forgotten what it is like to be temp, if they ever were in the first place.  Because to them we are exactly the same.  Except for the part about not having control over my own life because of minimal health benefits, no chance of having kids in the near future due to the lack of maternity/parental leave, no vacation, no sick days and no guarantee that I won't be destitute in six months time.

Being a temp causes a deep, unsettling paranoia.

A recent survey of my grad school classmates found that only TWO PEOPLE from my class of about forty had permanent, full-time employment.  So much for re-training for a more-employable career (face-palm).  Which means I am surrounded by thirty-eight of my temp brethren (and some unemployed too).  Which would be great, were it not for the fact that we are all probably plotting ways to murder each other to get one of the very few jobs in our chosen field that is permanent.

Because there's no honour among the tenuously employed.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Wal-mart: the good, the bad, and the ends justifying the means.

This last weekend, DH and I finally moved into our first home.  After four years of confinement in a 600sqft apartment with two over-sized, hyperactive felines, let me tell you that it was about damn time this happened.  I know that suffering is great for your character and all that garbage, but things were getting downright ridiculous/homicidal.  Thus, to get some living space, and to get away from our boozy neighbours, we moved on up.

Kind of... except I don't think my ex-neighbor owns a suit.

I know, PICTURES.  Forthcoming... after I get off the internet and pick up the boxes and other bits of moving mess.  Watch for it later in the week or early next.

Anyway. The house which has now become our lord, master, and taker of all our money has demanded several purchases.  Things like garbage cans, shower curtains, doorstops, dishwasher soap, a second laundry basket, recycling bags, etc.  Tonight we have to go shopping.  And so here I sit in an ethical dilemma... to Wal-mart, or not to Wal-mart.  That is the question.

Save money, live better, LOSE YOUR SOUL.

There are plenty (like, millions) of reasons not to shop at Wal-mart. Personally I take greatest issue with their disregard for workers rights both here and overseas.  Seems to have the same kind of misanthropic feelings towards their customers too.  Then there's the death of small business.  And the ridiculous crowds.  And the behemoth Supercenter stores which require a scooter to get around.  I try to avoid shopping there as much as I humanly (and humanely) can.

BUT.  There are times, like right now, where Wal-mart seems just too convenient to pass up.  All of the ridiculous things I need to feed the house beast are under one roof at Wal-mart.  And they are all on sale.  And honestly it makes me want to throw up my arms in disgust at myself that I'm going to go over there and give them a bunch of money to keep doing what they are doing.

What this all comes down to is whether or not the ends (cheapy cheap shit for bottomless house pit) justify the means (evil corporate bastardisms).  They don't.  But in this case, I might just have to hold my nose.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Red Hot Chili Peppers in Edmonton... or, a Frusciante too few.

People are going to start disbelieving my claim that the DH and I are homebodies.  We went out last night for our second concert in less than a month, and took in the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Rexall Place.

And I have lots of things to say about it.  And all of those things I have to preface with the fact that I saw RHCP when they came through in 2003 (I think it was '03) on the By The Way tour.  I was, and still am, an absolutely monstrously huge fan of the group.  But I have to admit all forthcoming statements, judgements, and general finickiness finds its roots in this first show.  The '03 show was the first major act rock concert I ever went to.  I was almost ten years younger than I am now (obviously), and full of very young person enthusiasm and found the whole concert experience left me overwhelmed, ecstatic and euphoric.

So ten years later I've been to lots of shows, seen lots of great acts, and the Peppers have gotten ten years older.  And it's a big ten years.  What remains to me as completely astounding about the '03 show was that they played for nearly THREE HOURS.  This time the show was a more standard length, and the energy level, while still very high, was noticeably lower than the unadulterated hyperactivity that was present the first time I saw them.

But I'm doing exactly what I didn't want to do with this review, which is compare it strictly against the last time I saw them.  So I'm going to stop doing that now and just try to judge it as is.

The biggest issue with this concert was the massive John Frusciante-shaped hole on stage.  I've got no particular qualms with Josh Klinghoffer, but he is no Frusciante and he never will be.  The nondescript guitar solos and Klinghoffer's downright painful imitation of Frusciante's amazing falsetto vocals made me want to cry.  Particularly Klinghoffer's backup vocals on Can't Stop and his guitar work on Californication, both were a poor shade of what Frusciante brings to the table.  And it made me pissed off that Frusciante is so mind-blowingly talented while being an obvious fickle bastard at the same time.  Unfortunately, unlike the last two times he "quit the band", this time I don't think he will be back.  RHCP are one of those bands that are not merely defined by their vocalist, it is really a team of talent that pulls it off.  One of those big talents is gone, and we are just going to have to get used to how the band sounds without him.

Moving on.  Anthony Kiedis.  There were no worries about lip-synched songs at this concert as Kiedis regularly seemed to forget the order of the lyrics to his own songs.  This has been a comment I've noticed in a good number of reviews from RHCP shows at other venues.  Not sure if it's on purpose or not.  At any rate, I found it distracting.  Kiedis seemed relatively low-energy compared to the usual "squirrel on PCP" dancing and general performance of the Chili Peppers.  Mind you, the guy IS FIFTY YEARS OLD and has been rocking for thirty years, so I think we can cut him some slack.

On the other hand, one would never believe that self-taught bass, trumpet and piano virtuoso Flea (who appears not to own any shirts) is also fifty years old.  His royal rock god highness treated the crowd to his usual hijinks as well as an amazing walking handstand around the stage.  I honestly could not believe that he is 50.  Flea seems to be one of the only band members (I won't shit on Chad Smith, the guy is hard to read sitting back there on his drums) who really, legitimately LOVES what he does.  Frusciante left, and Kiedis appears to be tired and just going through the motions.  But Flea is in love with performing, and for that his craft and the audience both love him back.

Overall, I have to say it was a good experience, but I also have to say that I will be surprised to see the Chili Peppers come through again.  Without Frusciante's trademark sound and with Kiedis slowing down I think that this might have been the last time I had the privilege to see the band live.  It was great to hear a mix of the old and new music, and to be in the crowd with the (very) old and new fans of the band.  While they may not be the same band they once were, the Chili Peppers have been rocking for nearly thirty years, may they continue to blow our minds and rock our socks. Amen.

*Sidenote rant: Rexall is an absolutely shitty excuse for a concert venue.  The seats and sightlines are awful.  The sooner the new arena gets built, the better.  Step to it, city council.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Ally Condie's "Crossed" (review)

Last week I wrote a review of the first, titular book in Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy (you can read it here if you’d like).  And of course THAT THING happened where you can’t stop thinking about a book until you get your hands on the next one in the series.  Of course I had a feeling this would happen.  But rather than wait to review the whole series, I decided to do individual reviews for each book.  This is partially because I didn’t want to forget any of the details, and partially because the last book in the series, Reached, has only just been released today.  And I’m like number 63 in line on the library holds list for that one.  So the show must go on.

Crossed is the second book in the Matched trilogy.  My main complaint against the otherwise delightful first book was the pacing.  It just seemed to lack action.  The second book definitely amps up the action quotient, showing the struggles of both Ky and Cassia by splitting the perspective of the book between these two with alternating chapters featuring their points of view.  Ky and his brethren are sent to the front lines of a war that is not so much being fought as staged, and there is no shortage of action as he comes under fire and is forced to make difficult choices.  Cassia’s story also gets significantly more action packed as she pursues Ky across unknown territory.  I enjoyed this dual perspective because it allowed for the story to effectively advance, despite the geographic distance between Ky and Cassia for a good portion of the book.  However, at times I found that I was confused as to whose perspective I was reading.  Because some of the chapters are so very short (only one page!), I seemed to forget that the perspective had changed.  This was particularly prominent in scenes where Ky and Cassia are talking to each other, it is hard to determine whose side the reader is viewing at those times.  Despite this, I don’t think the story could have been effectively told without using this tool, even though it was sloppily used at times.

The new characters were a very welcome addition to the story as well.  Indie and Eli provide a bit more depth and variety of emotional responses in the characters, which was not seen in the first book.  Indie especially seems to contain all the anger that Cassia and Ky hold about their lives, but are unable to express.  As Eli embodies the innocence of their previous lives/childhoods, I found it appropriate that he is left behind as the rest of the characters push for the Rising.  One character that does not get its full due in Crossed is the Society.  And while I appreciate that this part of the story is set in the fringes of the Society’s reach, I found it bizarre that the characters are able to complete so many of their actions without the supposedly omnipotent and omniscient Society noticing.  But maybe this gets addressed in Reached.

Overall, Crossed is a very fitting and exciting continuation of the series.  And, most of all, I appreciated not being left with a cliffhanger ending!  The ending (which I shan’t spoil) leaves the reader wanting more, but does not invoke the total desperation a la Hunger Games where you feel like you just might freak out and/or cry if you don’t find out what happens next.  But I do have high expectations and a nagging urge to read the last book, Reached.  

But for now I wait for the library to deliver, like it always does, in good time.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Scarves... the real crochet proving ground.

Have you ever crocheted until the doctor told you to stop because you went in there complaining your wrist was sore and it turns out you had a repetitive strain injury because you just wanted to finish that last metre of scarf?


Everybody kind of scoffs at the scarf as a knit or crochet project.  There is some sort of assumption that this is the thing that only beginners would deign to make.  The rest of us are too busy with complicated doilies or making sweaters or rugs or whatever.

The problem with this is, I hate making all of the so-called complicated things.  And while I hesitate to say I'm a crochet expert, I've been doing it for a long time and I do think I'm pretty darn good.  So supposedly I'm only supposed to make things that require a measure of skill.  But none of those things are any fucking fun.  A doily?  SERIOUSLY?  First of all, I hate tiny hooks.  Secondly, I hate tiny yarn.  And thirdly, no one uses doilies anymore!  Mom and I vend, we sell our stuff.  You try to sell a doily and people look at you like you are insane.  Despite the fact that a nice table doily is like a 20 hour project, apparently I should be giving them away for free.  And yet, people will pay good money for the simplest project of them all, a cozy scarf.  There is no logic in this, but I'll rant about our meager profit margins another day.

Sweaters also suck.  I tried to make a cardigan once...

And that's all there is to say about that.

And who crochets a rug?!  People are going to step on it and wreck it!  That's no way to treat something that you've spent 30-50 hours of quality time with.

So back to the humble scarf! The beginner is likely to make a scarf that is all singles or doubles, or an alternating pattern of one row of each, such as this:

Simple, pretty, and warm!

Not that I'm bashing any scarf that uses all singles or doubles.  Such a scarf can be beautiful and fun to make.  Or, if it is like this ribbed scarf, a real challenge because of it's time consuming nature:
Not quick.

It is entirely possible to get really creative when it comes to scarves and to create some really beautiful pieces which are even a moderate challenge (or at least not a total brain coma) for the more advanced crochet ninja.  So today I'm going to share a few of my favorite crochet scarf patterns that I've picked up from Ravelry.

The first one I want to share is a pattern for a lattice scarf (if you did it in green, it could be your "lettuce lattice"... heehee).  This one is mostly doubles, I made it as a Christmas gift a few years back.  What I like about this one is your yarn seems to go further than usual, and it makes a really nice straight edge down the sides of the scarf.  While this one looks good in a solid, in variegated the colours tend to lump up in interesting ways, it looks pretty cool:

Manly yes, but kitty likes it too.

Another fun one is this acacia scarf:

Love the colour on this one.

While the original calls for a solid colour, I also made this one in a varigated colour.  I like this pattern because (although it is hard to see in a varigated colour) there is a bit of variation in the pattern.  You work two rows of half-doubles, then do two rows of clusters.  The overall result makes for a very nice scarf.  This is also one of very few patterns I've found in which the scarf is worked lengthwise instead of widthwise.  This allows for the possibility of doing long stripes as the pattern changes, which would look really neat.

And last but not least is the pattern I call the "honeymoon scarf" pattern, because the first time I made it was when I was on a 14 hour plane ride on the way to Japan for my honeymoon (it's real title is spring petals scarf).  You can get A LOT of crochet done in an environment like that...

Ah, memories.
This one is a bit tricky to get started.  While it's mostly groups of three doubles, they are tilted on an angle, and the stitch where they are worked stretches out to create a little wave of sorts.  I find this one to be a pretty fast pattern and also really addictive.  I'm currently making my fifth scarf using this pattern to give away for a Christmas gift this year.

So while none of these are real brain-scratchers to figure out (but who really wants to be driven to tears by a pattern anyway?), I found them to be fun winter wear that allows for a bit of personality and creativity.  And of course if you are like me the best part of all these scarves is not only in the making but the wearing.  And the pride of being able to say to your friends and co-workers, "yeah, I made it myself".  Good luck doing that with a doily.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Snowmageddon... or, the winter wonderland (a rant)

Edmontonians have some truly bizarre habits.  And today is a living example of one of these habits; our truly baffling relationship that we have with the weather.

It's snowing.  Yes, a LOT of snow.  Yes, it just keeps coming and the weather warning is out and OH MY GOD apparently we are all GOING TO DIE based on the level of conversation on twitter, generalized panic, marshmellow-shaped outerwear, and people leaving work early to beat the so called "rush" when the rush is actually a slushy crawl no matter where you are headed.

Despite the fact that this happens every single year, it seems that Edmontonians are unable to wrap their heads around the fact that it is indeed SNOWING.  Disregard the fact that we all, in some way or another, have chosen to live in what is eight months of the year a god-forsaken hell hole of frozen death, and have miraculously survived every other apparently unsurvivable winter up until this point.  The end is clearly nigh, as the photographic evidence will tell you:

You should probably just make your last will and testament now.

I have some theories about while we all collectively crap our pants (and forget how to drive) the first time we get a heavy winter storm.

Maybe if we keep talking about how awful the weather is, it will go away.  That works with people after all, therefore it must also work with the climate.  I think a good number of Edmontonians are so far into denial about the fact that they are staring down the barrel of EIGHT MORE MONTHS of this shit that they think they can wish the weather away by acting like this is as bad as it has ever been or ever will be.  These people are wrong... and clearly in denial about not only winter's arrival but also about the fact that February will be INFINITELY WORSE.  In February (AKA the month that lasts forever, despite having the fewest days,) there is no Christmas to look forward to, and the snowy scene above will have been the mainstay of our lives for the last FOUR MONTHS.

Is it possible that everyone just forgot that winter existed over the course of the summer?  Was the memory of soggy boots, frost-bitten fingertips and cars perpetually trapped in snowdrifts just too bloody painful to deal with?  How is it that we get caught by surprise by the first snow storm literally every single year?  Nobody puts on their goddamn snow tires, or finds the car sweeper brush so that they can clear a spot bigger than two pee-holes in the snow from which to see while they drive.  And then the snow comes and we act like this is the first time this has ever happened.  Are we actually so traumatized by the dark, cold depths of an Alberta winter that we forget them once the sun pops out in the spring and the trees start to bloom?  Probably.

And then there is the DARK.  I'm not actually going to go into the dark because it's unrelated to the snow, but in December when your UV lamp is on overdrive and you can't get out of bed because you're stricken with seasonal affective disorder and/or a lack of vitamin D, you will look at the snow and justifiably feel like crying.

I'm not saying we should never piss and moan about the weather, because I for one am obviously all about the pissing and moaning.  BUT. We should not be collectively freaking out every year when the snow comes.  It is a fact of life.  It will snow and be shitty hell outdoors for the next eight months.  DEAL.  Or, move to Vancouver, if you want to see what a city of people who are ACTUALLY terrified of snow really looks like.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Ally Condie's "Matched"... or, go ask Ally. (review)

"One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small.  And the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all."
- Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"

 We selected dystopian fiction for book club this month.  For me, this was pretty much like winning the genre lottery.  Next to my deep-seated love for magical realism, dystopian runs a close second in my favorite genre race.  I love the world building, I love the despotic governments, I love the underdog, (often underage) heroes/heroines, and I ESPECIALLY love that there is no guarantee of a happy ending.  When you're reading a dystopian story, anything goes.  Anything and everything could happen.  I absolutely adore the flexibility that this genre has that comes with this lack of rules.  It's not bound by the historical accuracy of westerns and historical fiction.  It is not bound by the required good feelings and happy endings of romance novels.  And most curious of all, it seems that any level of violence becomes pretty much completely acceptable if the novel is dystopian, even if the intended audience is children/teens.

So for dystopian month, I selected a book that I have been itching to read for months.  With the impeding release of Reached, I thought it would be a fantastic time to read Ally Condie's popular triology Matched, so I read the titular book of this series.

Now let me preface this review by saying I have read A LOT of dystopian works.  And while that doesn't make me an expert, it makes me an avid reader, super-huge fan, and a pretty picky clientele.  I was very intrigued by the whole premise of the mistaken match, and devoured Matched over the course of about four days (this is incredibly fast for me, I am a very slow and deliberate reader).

The first thing that I noticed about Matched is the simplicity of the language.  Now while the lack of variety in adjectives or five-point words could be annoying for the reader, I treated the level of the writing to reflect the context of the story.  The characters' restricted access to literature and other forms of expression explain the simplistic verbiage; it is written as the first-person protagonist Cassia would speak.  It is rife with simple words and short sentences which are low on detail.  But every now and then there is a sentence that will pop out as being much more complex, and these are instances where Cassia is questioning the Society.  As a result, I found this style of writing to be highly reflective of the mental state of the characters.

However, I do have to complain about the slow pace of the work.  While I still found it highly engaging, I worry that this may have been because I love the genre so much and less that I was desperate to find out about what happened next.  The story feels like it is dragging its feet a bit.  And while this was probably to allow for more character development and the progress of the relationships between Cassia, Zander and Ky, I feel like the story could have used a few less of the moments where not a lot is happening.  Apparently the pacing improves and things get a bit more fast-paced in the later books of the series (which I have on hold at the library!).

Matched reminded me of several other books that I've read.  I felt that it is a bit like a combination of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  The perspective is like The Hunger Games in reverse; we see the world of the privileged city dwellers instead of the abused outliers living in rural regions.  And Brave New World came to mind because of the societal control aspects, the constant monitoring and assigned careers, as well as the plight of those marked from birth as unacceptable.

In terms of the violence that is usually found in dystopian works, I found that Matched was actually pretty non-violent and generally low-key when it came to physical threats towards the characters.  But keep in mind that this is in comparison to the hyper-violence in comparable works including The Hunger Games and Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking triology.  Much more is implied in Matched, which I think greatly compliments the aspects of the Society as being both a menace and a protector, and fits well with the bland wording as well.  The reader is not quite sure exactly what sort of fate will befall a citizen if they fall out of favor with society.  And not knowing/not seeing the evil and the violence quite as much helps to make the book that much creepier and enticing.

So in conclusion, I would say that Matched is not the scariest, nor the most violent, nor the most eloquently written dystopian fiction work that I have ever read.  But it is exceptionally well-balanced, and creates those feelings within the reader that only seem to come with dystopian works... the little worry in the back of one's mind that this could happen to us.

Watch for a follow-up review of the next book in this triology, Crossed, in the near future.

Friday, 2 November 2012

I saved 400 lives this year, ask me how.

A beautiful image of a mother and her baby.

Today, one day after World Vegan Day, I am celebrating my second "vegeversary". I have now been a vegan for two full years.  :)  This also marks four and a half years of being a vegetarian.

So I thought that today would be an excellent day to not only reminisce on what brought me to this lifestyle, but also talk about how I've stayed veg all this time (although people who are in the same lifestyle I am sure will agree, it would be much harder to eat meat knowing what we know and feeling how we do).

Anyway.  Way back in ye olde 2008 I was working in the northern middle of nowhere, and living with a guy who turned out to be a real jerkface.  Now, when jerkface and I broke up, I took the opportunity as my life was changing to make the lifestyle changes I had been wanting to make for a long time, but was too intimidated by jerkface to make them.  It is amazing how complacent and accepting of the status quo I had been until we broke up.  Getting out from under his control was like snapping out of a daze.  I was suddenly, vibrantly, alive.  At that point I feel like I finally grew up as well, and started taking responsibility for my actions.  I took responsibility for my physical health, and also took responsibility for the lives that I was taking on a daily basis by choosing to consume meat.  I made the decision to no longer hide from the facts and nod along with the rest of society.  And along with this I realized that it is not possible to actually love animals if one is taking their lives.

The last meat I ever intentionally consumed (we've all been slipped meat broth by accident at one point or another I'm sure) was the salami on a sandwich on the first of July, 2008.  After that there was no going back.  I knew that I didn't want to be a person who caused a baby calf to be torn from it's mom to spend a short, miserable life in a veal crate.  I didn't want to be a person who sanctioned the cruelty of factory farms, and the terror of animals at slaughter.  I began to look at the freezer case at the grocery store much differently.  Instead of a mouthwatering steak, I saw only the decaying corpse of an animal, stripped of it's identity into something unidentifiable.  I'm sure a human processed in the same way would look very much the same.  But these shopping trips also made me realize that I had very little in the way of culinary skills.  My entire adult life to that point I had been cooking by slapping frozen processed foods onto a baking tray, or making instant foods.  I was a complete cooking newbie despite having been on my own for several years.  Naturally, the result of no more frozen chicken fingers was that I finally learned how to cook.  I learned the delicate spicing of Indian chickpea and lentil dishes.  I learned the secret to creating faux meats from TVP, tofu and vital wheat gluten.  I expanded by cooking repertoire to include foods I had never even heard of prior to going vegetarian.  And slowly but surely, weight started to melt off.  It was so gradual I barely noticed it, but after eight months of vegetarian meals and occasional moderate exercise, I lost 20 pounds and achieved my ideal weight.  And I've been there ever since.

The change from vegetarian to vegan came in much the same way as my initial adoption of vegetarianism had.  I educated myself, and I took responsibility for my actions.  I realized that I was not ok with the suffering of a mutilated, battery caged hen, who never sets foot outdoors, or feels the warmth of the sun.  I could no longer condone through my choices the miserable lives of perpetually pregnant dairy cows.  It was no longer just about not killing and eating animals.  It was about compassion.  It was realizing that farm animals do not suffer only in death, but that their whole lives are suffering.  And through demanding these products, I asked for them to suffer.

I know that there is no undoing the suffering I caused as an omnivore.  But that is why I do my best to make sure that the lives of these individuals who have died, and continue to die in genocidal quantities, are valued and respected.  In 2010, I had the red lotus of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, tattooed on my shoulder.  I see it and I remember that the primary tenet of my life is compassion.  I live my life now with the promise that I shall do no further harm to anyone, be they human or animal.  That all sentient individuals shall know no harm from me.  They will never fear me.

And I do the most I can for them in a world which unnecessarily murders them in the name of tradition.  As my vegan friends know, when sometimes we feel the injustice more deeply, it is so hard not to proselytize.  I try not to.  I feed my friends and family delicious homemade vegan meals.  I give out copies of my favorite recipes.  I invite people to join causes which support animals and look to end their suffering.  And I lead by example, the example of compassion for all, the great and small.  Sometimes it makes no difference.  But other times they ask to know more, and I know that there is always hope.

So today, to mark my "vegeversary" I made a donation to a local farm animal rescue society.  And promised to myself and the universe that I will not forget, or shirk the responsibility that comes with being human.  One person makes a difference (average of 400+ animals saved each year per person!).  Vegans, we are mavericks.  Don't give up.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cameron Carpenter & The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (review)

I will be the first person to admit that I don’t get out much.  But that’s just in my nature.  I am an absolutely fervent homebody.  I like my bed, I like sitting on my couch, I like doing my crochet, I like being with my DH and with my cats.  I just like being at home.  I am a creature of resolute contentment and stoicism when I’m at home.  As a result of this, DH (who is also a decadent homebody) and I don’t go out on the town very often.

However, there are certain things for which I will always venture out and about in the freshly wintered atmosphere of my beloved city.  Last night we traversed the slushy streets and strolled in the dark down to the Winspear Centre, to see a classic work in my absolute favorite genre of silent film.

I have been a serious fan of silent film for several years now, and I can say that it all started with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  And while I could wax poetic about its charms, I’ll save that for another blog entry on another day.  

The iconic Mensch-Maschine.

I have difficulty explaining what exactly it is about silent film that I find so enthralling and attractive.  Many would accuse them of being boring or campy.  I think the reason I find them so compelling is their purity.  They are the very roots of all we have come to know as modern cinema, yet less corrupted by modern phenomenon like product placement and overflowing egos.  Silent film is the progenitor of a medium which has come to define and reflect society.  To see cinema at its very roots is very humbling.  Immense efforts were undertaken not only to create the film in those early days, but also the decades (in some cases, quite nearly a century) of efforts to preserve, maintain and rediscover these works.  A silent film is not merely an entertainment, it’s a window to the past and a testament to the enduring importance of the arts.

But I digress (for now…), the film we saw last night was one of the finest works of German expressionist cinema, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920).  Musical accompaniment was provided by organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter, who furnished the piece with his own original score.

For anyone who hasn’t seen The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (yet), it is available at the EdmontonPublic Library, which as a sidenote I would like to say has done an absolutely fabulous job of collecting not only the well-known silent films but also many more of the obscure titles from all over the world.  The beauty of this movie comes not only in the surprise twist ending (from which M. Night Shyamalan surely took his cues) but in the fantastic sets, costumes, and overall cinematography.  The expressionist style is so perfectly captured in this film; the themes of madness found not only in the actions and mannerisms of the characters, but within the very construction of their world in the set design.  A right angle is nowhere to be found in the twisted streets and buildings.  

And then there is the soundtrack.  I was very excited to see and hear the Davis Concert Organ, the jewel of the Winspear Centre, in its full glory in the very capable hands of organist Cameron Carpenter.  Carpenter did not disappoint, his warm-up to the screening was a treat to watch, as his feet and hands flew about, creating an amazing spectacle which thrilled the audience.  While I was a bit nervous to find that Carpenter was playing his own original soundtrack to the film, this worry was unnecessary.  Carpenter performed very well, capturing the madness of the characters in the many variations of his theme.  There were times when I forgot that I was listening to a single organ, and believed that I could hear strings, trumpets, and a rumbling bass.  While I’m not sure that anyone could make a difficult instrument like the organ “look easy”, Carpenter’s frenetic playing made it sound like an orchestra and provided appropriate, beautiful accompaniment to the film.

So overall, I’m quite glad I went out last night.  The evening was a delight.  Kudos not only to Cameron Carpenter, but also to the long departed forefathers of film, whose works still draw a crowd, and still invite us to imagine.