Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Quick Book Reviews

The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade
William St. Clair

This fine and concise book by William St. Clair focuses on the life of one specific building; Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, which I was fortunate enough to visit back in 2000. St. Clair examines all facets of the Castle and debunks many myths. The focus is, of course, on the role of the Castle as a facilitator for the slave trade and St. Clair paints a vivid picture of all of those involved, from the ships’ Captains to the local tribal Chiefs to the slaves working in the Castle itself. The most striking aspect of the trade and life at the Castle, as portrayed by St. Clair, is the sheer normalcy of it all. Overall, it is an impressive piece of work and St. Clair’s writing style has a sufficiently loose feel to it that will engage most readers.

There are some problems, though. First of all, the discussion of the outgoing slaves and their life at the Castle is only briefly discussed. I certainly would have expected more, but this is perhaps because most of St. Clair research is based on the Castle’s archival documents and very little about the slaves was likely recorded. I would have also have liked to see more discussion of the Castle’s history post-1850 or so as that is only briefly touched upon. It would have also been helpful to provide a brief overview of local tribes and geography to provide context. Related to that point, some political context was needed to makes sense of certain events such as the Asante War of the 1870s. All in all, it is an excellent work and highly recommended for anyone interested in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai

The 2006 Mann Booker Prize winner. This novel has a dreamlike feel to it, as the reader is transported to northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas. We are introduced to each character slowly and their personalities and motivations are revealed as certain political events transpire around them. All of the is counterbalanced by a subplot involved one character searching for the American dream in a series of below minimum wage kitchen jobs. Many big issues are raised in these pages, including the clash between colonial sensibilities and the modern Indian identity is ever present, but ultimately no resolution is reached. It’s lovely but a little rudderless – a collection of arias rather than a full opera.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Notes From the Boob Tube

I don't want as much TV as I once did. That's a good thing. There's still some decent stuff on there, though. Here's what I've been watching:

My Name is Earl
I was a pretty big fan after Season One, but had doubts that they could keep the momentum going into Season Two. I’ve often found that high concept stuff runs out of gas when the writer can’t find new use to take advantage of the gimmick. I guess this ‘crossing things off the list’ thing has legs though, as Season Two has been better than Season One. Of course, some shows are stronger than others (the “My Name is Randy, My Name is Joy etc…” episode is the highlight so far), but even the weaker episodes have a few good laughs. The interaction between Joy and Marlee Matlin as her lawyer is beyond funny.

The Office
The highlight of my week. Is that sad? I don’t actually think so. I am of the camp where I enjoy both the British and American versions, but I honestly laugh out loud much more with Michael, Dwight & Co. I never thought that a TV show could come up with a line as good as Phyllis’ “It says ‘bushiest beaver’” from Season One, but there has been plenty of jaw dropping humour this season. At the conclusion of each episode, I have a sense of dread that this is all too good to be true and the cast will all start to exit for other projects, and we the viewer are left with a bit hole in our hearts. Nothing on TV makes me nearly as happy as this show.

Ugly Betty
They had me from the start – it was nice to see a good fish out of water story on TV. The thing is, after a few episodes it began to feel like a bit of a skipping record. We have so many job switches, cliffhangers, controversies and bits of stunt casting that you’d think this show had been on the air for 5 seasons. While those kind of tricks may keep things moving, they don’t do much for character development. I’m watching out of habit now, but it’s on the verge of being dropped from my viewing rotation.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Would you think I was shallow and anti-intellectual if I said I was more intrigued by the behind the scenes drama of a late night comedy show than those at the White House? That’s kind of where I’m sitting now. I hope this show is able to survive as it maintains a pretty high quality and it’s nice to have something other than a procedural or reality TV in an hour-long format. The cast is strong – I am particularly impressed by Amanda Peet (not just a pretty face) and Steven Weber. The thing is – Aaron Sorkin is Aaron Sorkin. He writes what he knows and as such, it gets a bit repetitive. Sometimes I feel like this show is so close to Sports Night that I keep wondering when Benson will show up. Still, I’m pulling for this one but I don’t know that I follow it religiously.

30 Rock
The Bizarro Studio 60. I cringed through the first episode. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. Everything seemed wrong - flat jokes, bad pacing etc... I was certain that it would implode within a month. I felt for the cast as there is plenty of talent on the show, it just didn't work. What happened next? It got better. A hell of a lot better. The show developed its own style, its own identity and hits a level of absurdist humour that you cannot find elsewhere. Now, it's the funniest thing on TV other that the Office. What a comeback. This is great stuff and Alec Baldwin seems to be having the time of his life.

Amazing Race All-Star Edition
The Amazing Race is the one network reality show that I’ve stuck with through the years. Maybe it’s the wanderlust filled traveler in me, but I love seeing other parts of the world and I really love to watch people struggle to communicate (speaking English with a Spanish accent isn’t the same as speaking Spanish people!). I’ve watched every year since Season 2 (except the Family Edition, which I bailed on) and I was pretty impressed with the All-Star teams on paper – seemed like a decent combination of personality and skill. I was wrong. After only one episode, I am ready to strangle about half of the teams. There are 3, maybe 4 teams who can win this them without an intervention of God (or the producers) – let the others get booted in a massive elimination.

Property Virgins
Really only of interest to snoopy people who follow the Toronto real estate market (like me!); this HGTV show is a blast. The host is a no nonsense real estate agent who loves to give first time buyers a dose of reality (“So that’s the kind of house you like? Too bad – you can’t afford it”). The agent picks 3 homes in the couples’ budget and they tour each of them – surprisingly most couples end up buying one of them (I’d recommend checking out more than 3 houses before buying). If you watch closely enough, you can actually see the couples’ dreams vanish into thin air. It’s fascinating to watch expectations lower to the point where they settle for a hunk of junk in a neighbourhood they would never have considered. It’s great stuff and I’m hooked.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Memoirs of a Bronze Age Baby: Batman and the Outsiders #1

There are some events in comic book history that exist as major milestones on a personal level, but not resonate the same way across the industry. The appearance of Batman and the Outsiders #1 on the racks was a major event for me. This was not simply due to the fact that it was a new title with my favourite characters as headliner, but also because it was conclusive proof that my favourite title (Brave and the Bold) was dead. I was on 9 years old at the time, so I did not really full appreciate the ins and outs of the industry. To my mind, a comic book title was still alive and well until it stopped showing up at the store.

Although I was sad that the B&B was gone, this cover certainly grabbed my attention and raised my hopes. At that stage in my life (I was 10 years old), I’d have followed Batman anywhere. Although, I don’t think the series ever got close to the level of Brave and the Bold, it got off to a very strong start here. We see the classic Aaparo Batman, intent on rescuing his friend Lucius Fox. When the JLA turns him down, Bats heads out on his own, with a little help from Black Lightning. The scene where Batman resigns from the JLA is still one of the best ‘Batman tells Superman to go fly a kite’ moments of all time.

The supporting cast is introduced slowly, we know Black Lightning and Metamorpho, but there’s plenty of mystery around Katana, Halo and Geo-Force. There was so much to love about this issue, so much potential. At the time, it seemed like such a watershed moment – but I can see now that I was just a silly kid who thought this was the next JLA. Can you blame a guy for Jim Aparo would keep drawing Batman forever?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

TwoMorrows Reviews Today!

Alter Ego #64

I’ve been finding this mag (to which I’ve subscribed for 3 years or so) to be a bit hit and miss lately – for every interesting article on some nearly forgotten comic book creator, there’s something that just does not interest me. This particular issue is no different.

There’s quite a bit that I enjoyed: the overview of the Monster Society of Evil should please most Fawcett fans and the short article on Bud Thompson was a pleasant surprise as he is someone about whom I always wanted to know more. On the downside, however, the whole ‘Timely Pin-Up’ business seemed cute the first time around, not so much these days. The flashbacks to the 1966 convention were initially fairly interesting, but I find them to be tiresome now and I’d rather reading more creator profiles. All in all, I enjoyed this issue – but I don’t think there’s much there to attract a non-Fawcett fan.

Back Issue #20

When Back Issue was initially launched, I was a bit of a naysayer as I didn’t really see how it could replace with TwoMorrows had lost in Comic Book Artist. I was also in a particularly bad mood as that was around the time Comic Book Marketplace was cancelled. I was wrong, and I am a now a subscriber. The good people have followed up the stellar Don Newton issue with another great one with a superb mixture of features.

My attention was automatically grabbed by the Englehart/Buscema interview about Captain America’s post-Secret Empire soul searching. I was so impressed with Englehart’s praise of our Pal Sal’s artwork that I fired him an email. He responded promptly with even more praise! It’s nice to know that underappreciated artists like Sal are admired by their peers.

This issue also has a great piece on the origins of Firestorm and how can anyone not love a mag that is willing to dedicate a half-dozen pages to the Human Fly? You cannot find this stuff anywhere else, folks. My only criticism of Back Issue at this stage is that I wish they would widen their mandate to reach further back into the past. There are still plenty of creators who work pre-1970 around to give interviews – let’s talk to them before it is too late!