Superfluous Matter
Books - Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer

The only thing linking the twenty-one short stories contained in this collection is the pedigree of the authors. Side-by-side are works by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, Christa Wolf, Woody Allen and John Updike.

But there is no central theme. The stories have been donated for use royalty-free by the authors and the proceeds of the sales of the book are being donated to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

And with no central theme it is difficult to write about the collection as a whole without discussing each story individually; a task too large for a single blog post.

So I'll just say that it is an excellent little book with stories that take you all over the world while touching on a huge range of the aspects of human life.

Books - Oryx and Crake; The Year of the Flood; and MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood recently released the final book of her speculative fiction trilogy that began in 2003 and with "Oryx and Crake." In order to properly prepare myself for "MaddAddam" I reread the first two books and so I should be able to talk about them here all at once with some level of clarity.

I use the term speculative fiction for the trilogy because that is how Atwood sees it. A less considered classification would file the novels as science fiction but that would be a disservice to the work. Atwood explicitly points out in the afterword that, "Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies of biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory." She has tried to paint the story of a plausible future, a task for which she is well-skilled (see "The Handmaid's Tale" for example). The trilogy is intensely dystopian for sure, but at no point are the events unimaginable.

MaddAddam follows a similar format to the other two books, tracking the trials of characters in a post-apocalyptic world while in parallel reliving the events leading up to the apocalypse through flashbacks to the characters' past. MaddAddam sees the characters of "Oryx and Crake" and those of "The Year of the Flood" meet up in the present and struggle to find safety and security in the new world. It provides a satisfying end to the trilogy without giving easy answers to the problems of the protagonists. It's not clear they will survive, but it is possible to see how they might.

Like the human protagonists, the future of the Crakers (a genetically-engineered species of neo-humans) is also left uncertain. They are peripheral characters in all three books, but even in that role it is possible to see them evolve and change. Their progenitor intended for them to be perfect and to avoid the mistakes of humanity's runaway intelligence, but it's not clear he succeeded.

I think all that is left unsaid is part of what is so great about the books. Atwood strikes a nice balance between explicit exposition and leaving things open to your own imagination. The unanswered questions are not frustrating, they are intriguing. They stick around in your mind for days.

This trilogy was excellent and I think it would appeal to anyone.

Bay Area Food

I went to the Bay Area in October and I had an absolutely fantastic time. But it wasn't the sort of trip that warrants an entry on my trips page. It was a trip of fun times with the best of friends. But there's no real cohesive narrative and not many photos so it wouldn't work well in my usual style.

Half-way through my trip I realized that everything I had eaten to that point was special so I started writing it all down and continued to do so for the rest of my time in California. I meant to make a quick post of it all upon returning home, but time gets away. So I'm doing it now, better late than never.

Saturday was the beginning. Mike and I hit up the Ferry Building where I had this epic turkey and avocado open-faced bagel sandwich thing from Wise Sons Deli along with a slice of Pluot-blackberry pie and a bunch of free hummus samples. Oh, and also what have to be the best tomatoes I've ever tasted. Seriously, it was like summer in my mouth. Is produce always that good in California? Later on we went to La Boulange Bakery and I had quiche, a really good almond croissant and this amazing mango pop. Finally, as if this wasn't all good enough, Mike and I went for dinner at the Nihon Whisky Lounge. We had an array of Japanese-style tapas dishes including a mushroom tempura that was so good. And I hate mushrooms. Plus I had three different new scotches which were all pretty great too (Nikka 21yo, Caol Ila 16yo, Ardbeg Corryvreckan). After dinner we got hummus, beer and mochi ice cream from Healthy Spirits, a speciality liquor store near Mike's house. All three of these things were great.

On Sunday we got up and met Frank, Jess and Michal for brunch at Gussie's where we had fried chicken with waffles, cheesy grits, buttermilk biscuits, deep fried cheesy grits and candied yams. This was served with brown sugar syrup and it was all totally delicious. Like stupid good, and incapacitating. So we rolled on home and didn't eat again until supper when we had homemade salad with more hummus and mochi ice cream as well as an ataulfo mango and some fresh guava. To drink we had this brilliant tea made by TWG in Singapore especially for Dean & Deluca. It was a mix of green and white and is possibly the best tea I've ever tasted.

On Monday I had mini bananas (so cute) with almond butter for breakfast and then went to this cool Mexican restaurant for lunch with some people from the Autodesk San Francisco office. The place was packed and I could tell why given the food. Dinner was with Mike and Sivanny at a Chinese restaurant called Spices 2 where we shared a bunch of dishes, the best of which was a basil and eggplant plate that was just so good. For dessert Mike and I shared a Blueberry Cheesecake crepe which was as good as it sounds.

Tuesday breakfast was a repeat, but for lunch I went back to the ferry building and had a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and a really good (but pricey) apple. For dinner Mike and I went to Super Duper Burger and had garlic fries and pickles in addition to one of the best burgers I've ever eaten. Then we went to a free Macallan Scotch tasting event where we got to try the 10yo, 12yo, 15yo and 18yo Macallan's while a Scottish MC led us through with tasting notes. Super amazing. After that we had spanakopita and some Stalk and Barrel whisky back at Mike's place.

On Wednesday I switched from staying at Mike's house to staying with Matt and Adrienne in Cupertino. For breakfast I finished up the mini bananas and then didn't eat again till I got to south bay. First I had some homemade fig newtons from Adrienne which were great and I hope to make myself soon. For dinner we had stuff from the Apple cafeteria including a really good salad and this thai-style soup along with a chickpea noodle dish. The Apple cafeteria is kind of glorious. For dessert we had some awesome apple cake Adrienne made using four different types of apples along with some "Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar" dark chocolate almonds and some chile-spiced dried mango, both from Trader Joe's.

On Thursday I had toast with fig butter for a quick breakfast and then met some co-workers back in San Francisco for brunch at Brenda's French Soul Food. First we shared some apple beignets which were basically the ideal form of doughnut. Then I had pork belly and a poached egg on top of cheesy grits with onion relish. I could eat that breakfast every single day and never tire of it. It was that good. I had lunch in the ILM cafeteria and it was sushi and seaweed salad prepared fresh in front on me by an actual sushi chef. So friggin' good. To drink I had raspberry-chia kombucha which seemed properly San Franciscan of me. For dinner I went back to Super Duper Burger with Matt and Adrienne and then I finished the day with the same food I started with: I took them back to Brenda's for more apple beignets. Oh, and later on we had the most gingery ginger beer I've ever tasted and it was great.

On Friday I had some yogurt and berries for breakfast before heading to the Cupertino Farmer's Market where I got to sample the best strawberries ever. They were fresh...on November 1!! Crazy. We bought a bunch of fresh produce to make a really good salad which we topped with a Meyer lemon and chile dressing. I also tried a sample of raw milk (tasted like normal milk) and a sample of persimmon. For dinner we did Mexican and I had a really yummy pork dish with a fresh strawberry-mango agua fresca. For dessert I had an excellent imperial stout from Stone Brewery and a chocolate-peanut butter malt ball from Whole Foods.

On Saturday I had fancy Jersey Cow milk yogurt from France out of a ceramic jar with fresh berries and sprouted almonds for breakfast. To drink I had fresh squeezed orange juice which was even better than the fresh orange juice I had in Florida long ago. In Monterey I had an apple galette and a double espresso at this excellent hidden bakery. Then for lunch we ate corn chips with homemade roasted hatch pepper salsa, fancy old cheddar, fig butter, roasted honey peanut butter, crackers, almonds, strawberries, salt water taffy (bacon maple flavour and chile mango flavour) and more of the fancy salt and sugar coated chocolate almonds. For dinner we found this great Thai restaurant in Morgan Hill called Siam Thai where I had a seafood eggplant curry dish with really good spring rolls. For dessert we had a Kouign amann which is croissant-type pastry with caramelized sugar on it.

On Sunday, for breakfast, I had more of the fresh orange juice along with...a pumpkin croissant! So good! Also we shared a pomelo which is like a mild grapefruit that is super challenging to peel. Lunch was a stupid amount of amazing food from Oren's Hummus, including the best hummus and best baba ganoush I've ever eaten. The baba ganoush was so smokey, like a good scotch! I topped it off with a Turkish coffee and then went home to Toronto.

So yeah, there is my trip as told by the food. As epic as the food was, I had an even better time with the people I visited. So yeah, really good trip.

Books - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I've owned this book without reading it for some embarrassingly long amount of time. It's sat unloved on my shelf for at least ten years I'm sure. Now that I've read it, I've learned that this was my loss. Dickens isn't highly regarded for nothing apparently. Despite it's length and dense, sometimes archaic language it was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone. And if you think you're not in the mood for literature, remember that Science suggests it improves your social skills.

San Francisco

I spent my birthday week in San Francisco visiting friends and generally having an amazing time. Seriously, I've never had a longer streak of continuous fun (thanks everyone who made that happen!). I was going to write a post dedicated to the food I ate on the trip, because, well, holy crap it was gastronomically glorious. But I realized that there was something more significant to write about. That food post may still come though, because, again, glorious.

One of my best friends recently moved to the Bay Area as a result of an acquisition by the ubiquitous fruit company. His move was a large part of the reason for my recent visit. While staying with him both he and his wife (!!) mentioned that it is super bizarre that they now live in California. They live in a constant state of WTF?!?!

Upon returning home, in a state of jet-lagged clarity, I realized that their situation has a correspondence to my own. They thought they knew what their life would be and then it was upended and now everything is strange. For me, I found someone to love, worked through a typical set of relationship issues and then got married. Outrageously, my wife Kim then developed cancer and died just before our two-year anniversary. Ever since I've been living in a constant state of disruption. Or, more accurately, WTF?!?! Honestly, that is the most accurate description of my emotional state just over two years after my life was irrevocably altered.

Seriously, how does what happened to me happen? Obviously it was a statistical possibility but my mind still boggles. Not just at the loss of my wife, but the fact that I managed to develop a mature enough relationship to reach the state of marriage at all. I still don't really consider myself to be an adult.

I'm not sure that this clarity (or maybe it's just a slight reduction in the fog) around my current situation provides me with any next steps but it seems somehow significant.

Books - Prisoners of the North by Pierre Berton

The Canadian arctic is strangely gripping. I only spent a couple weeks there but I think of it often and I know I'll go back some day. I'd like to go further north and see the Arctic Ocean and I'd also like to see Torngat Mountains National Park at the northern tip of Labrador. After those, if there's still time in my life, I'd also like to explore the Yukon.

The stickiness of Canada's north-country is the theme linking the five people profiled by one of Canada's preeminent historians in this, his fiftieth and final book. Born in the Yukon, Pierre Berton shows himself to be a "prisoner of the North" as well with many personal asides and reminiscences woven into his biographies of the five protagonists.

This book was recommended to me by Rob before I went on my trip but I didn't have time to read it until now and I'm glad events transpired in that way. Only one of the five people in the book spends his time in the tundra area of my canoe trip and I felt Berton's description of that country was too negative. I understand that the tundra is harsh and unforgiving, but it is also surprisingly beautiful and deeply moving. Other than that minor detail I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The people profiled are: mining tycoon Joe Boyle (1867-1923); Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962); extensive traveller and facilitator of Arctic exploration Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875); eccentric woodsman John Hornby (1880-1927); and noted Canadian poet Robert Service (1874-1958).

There are some neat parallels between Joe Boyle and current environmental debates. While the Klondike gold rush was going on he went up and was the first to bring in large-scale, mechanized mining. The sort of mining that strips the earth and wreaks havoc on the environment. Although no one cared about it back then, it was hard not to think of the debate about the oil sands in Alberta and about gas fracking in the United States while reading his story. Apparently the damage done to the waterways up there is still clearly visible.

I'd never heard of Vilhjalmur Stefansson before reading this book, but I must say he was a bad-ass ahead of his time. Although he met with much criticism over the years (not all unfounded) it's hard not to be impressed with two things about him. First, unlike everyone else at the time, he did not consider the Inuit to be mindless savages. Instead he learned from them and as a result was able to thrive in the difficult environment he was exploring. He even adopted their diet, eating nothing but meat and fish for long periods of time without any ill-effects (pro-tip: This only works if you eat the whole animal, including offal, and if you eat at least some of the meat raw. Meat has enough vitamin C to stave off scurvy but cooking destroys it). The second bad-ass thing about Stefansson was that he had super-human strength and endurance. He would run for hours and days behind his dog sled, covering over twenty thousand miles in his career.

Lady Jane Franklin was probably the female equivalent of Stefansson of her day in terms of being a bad-ass. Over her life she travelled all over the world, spending lots of time in Australia with her husband when it was still a penal colony. She continued travelling extensively until just shortly before her death. And this was all at a time when travel was rather difficult. When her husband became lost-presumed-dead looking for the northwest passage she spent many years and much money organizing and financing voyages to discover his fate. She eventually succeeded and as a side effect the world's knowledge of the Canadian Arctic was improved dramatically.

I knew the tragic story of Hornby already from David Pelly's: "Thelon: A River Sanctuary" which I read in Fort Smith just before going on my canoe trip. Berton provides more detail in his book but I didn't learn anything new of significance. However, other than my complaint about his negative depiction of the tundra, I did find Berton's retelling to be much more entertaining than Pelly's.

I've read two of Robert Service's poems before without knowing anything about the author. They're his two most famous: The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. He wrote thousands, none of them considered high art by the literary establishment of the time, but those two especially remain popular. Personally I find the rhyming schemes and his willingness to make up words to fit quite enjoyable. Berton's biography of Service is more personal than the other four. Service lived in Whitehorse when Berton was a child there and more than once he came to dinner at Berton's family's home. Berton also did an extended interview with Service for the CBC shortly before Service died.

This book is an excellent piece of Canadiana and I heartily recommend it. I think I'll seek out some other books by Pierre Berton in the future.

Books - To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North and William Shakespeare

Kickstarter is awesome. And dangerous to wallets. But also awesome. Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics, editor of the Machine of Death books and generally hilarious guy wrote a 700+ page version of Hamlet with updated language and in the format of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. He went to Kickstarter to raise the money to get it printed and published as an actual book. I had a bunch of those books when I was little so I really couldn't help but lend support (in return for a signed copy of the book).

The campaign ended up being the #1 most funded publishing project ever on Kickstarter. His goal was to raise $20,000 but the final count was $580,905 (that's 2904% funding). With all the extra money Mr. North increased the scope of the project significantly. Instead of a simple paperback with a few black-and-white illustrations the final product ended up having over 110 illustrations in full colour done by some of the best artists in the web-comic community. He also published a special hardcover version, signed all the books, made an e-book version, an audiobook version (how does that even work??) and a short choose-your-own-adventure prequel to Hamlet called "Poor Yorick." As a result of the huge support he has decided to do "Romeo and Juliet" in the same format. Plus he bumped up the rewards a bunch adding stickers and bookmarks and temporary tattoos and things. He also donated 400 copies of the book to schools and libraries.

But what about the book itself? Well it's awesome and hilarious as expected. Your first choice is which character to be: Hamlet, Ophelia or the king (Hamlet's Dad). If you play as the king you die right away (murdered by Claudius obviously), but then you get to continue reading as a ghost. The choices that follow the original play are marked with little Yorick skulls so I read those first. It's pretty funny because the narrator is constantly questioning you and pointing out how some parts of the original are kind of crazy from a modern perspective (e.g. how poorly Ophelia is treated and how she just takes it).

After reading through the original path I started flipping back and forth madly through all the other options and there is tons of awesome in the book. You can fight pirates, become a pirate, take down international terrorists or invent the thermometer. You can totally choose to not take revenge on Claudius and just be a really good person. Or you can double down on the mayhem in the original and make the ending even bloodier, killing literally everyone. There is a mini choose-your-own-adventure book embedded in the larger book and it is used in place of the play designed to "catch the conscience" of Claudius. As Ophelia you can challenge Queen Gertrude to a game of chess, to the death, and you actually get to pick some of the moves. And there's lots more too. It had me laughing on the subway while reading.

There are 3,001,181,439,094,525 possible different ways to read the book so obviously I haven't "finished" it. There is lots of overlap though, so I feel like I've achieved a good sampling. For now I'm putting it down and moving on to other books but I will definitely come back to this one for more adventures in Denmark (that I choose!).

TIFF 2013

For TIFF this year I saw three shows. I would have loved to see more but couldn't really justify the cost. I stuck to movies that are less likely to see wide distribution and made my choices with very little research or planning. Figuring out what to see at TIFF is daunting so I just don't try very hard and I pick stuff almost at random. Once again this strategy worked well for me. Overall I was very happy with the films I saw.

My first show was Short Cuts Canada Programme 1 which is a collection of six short films by Canadian directors. I chose this entirely because one of the films was the new one from Chris Landreth, a former employee of Alias and winner of an Oscar for his 2004 short, "Ryan." Chris's new film, "Subconscious Password" is fun stuff with crazy visuals that are typical of his style. The two other shorts I liked best from the collection were "Gloria Victoria" and "Remember Me." Four of the six films were in 3D, but Gloria Victoria made the best use of the technology I've ever seen anywhere. The animation style reminded me of the old-school, hand-drawn films of the NFB in the 1960s and 1970s, all impressionist and abstract. But to exploit the 3D Theodore Ushev layered many planes of such art and motion using the depth that is possible with stereoscopy. The images that flashed by were as intense as the music (the "Invasion" theme from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7) and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Jean-Francois Asselin's film "Remember Me" was the most accessible of all the shorts with a simple plot and a pretty unsubtle critique of social media. It was hilarious though and perfectly executed. The other three films were interesting but they didn't really speak to me for whatever reason. I didn't really understand "The Sparkling River" or "Pilgrims" without getting the Internet to explain them to me. And "Cochemare" was just bananas. It had some cool visuals but I was hoping for more substance as I loved the directors' previous film, Madame Tutli-Putli, which I first saw at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France in 2007.

For my second show I saw The Fake, a Korean animated film by Yeon Sang-ho. I chose this movie because I enjoy animated films and I love when directors make an animated film that is targeted entirely at a mature audience. I really believe in animation as a story-telling medium for all subject matter; it doesn't have to be just for kids stuff. Anyway, from the description and information about the director's previous film it is clear this is not a movie for children. And it was indeed a brutal film to watch. At the end I felt a bit like I did after watching Requiem for a Dream (although not quite as bad, nothing tops that movie for being able to evoke absolute depression). Despite the emotional toll I still found "The Fake" to be an excellent movie. It somehow made you care about the protagonist who, even at the end, is still a rather terrible person.

My final film of the festival was Asphalt Watches, a Canadian animated film by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver. This film was funded through an Indiegogo campaign (similar to Kickstarter) and is a crude animated retelling of eight days the pair spent hitchhiking in western Canada. The animation was done with Flash and is way less polished than South Park or even Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The narrative is very disjointed with no particular purpose and random things often happen for no particular reason. But somehow it all comes together to make...something. I'm not sure what, but it wasn't boring. The directors were there for Q&A at the end and they both seemed a bit surprised to be part of TIFF at all. It was as if they accidentally made the movie and were surprised that it even exists let alone that people like it. I enjoyed the movie myself, but I'm not sure why.

Canoeing the Thelon River

I've finished writing my journal for my recent canoe trip on the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. It includes tons of photos and videos as well a complete description of the whole trip. I also wrote up a special section on logistics which may be of interest to anyone who enjoys organizing canoe trips.


Since taking a more active interest in my diet and level of physical activity I have noticed improvements in my overall fitness to the point that I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm stronger and have more endurance and I can generally rely on my body to perform any task I'm interested in doing.

But healthy eating and regular exercise don't really prevent accidents.

Over the summer I've been playing in the weekly Ultimate Frisbee game organized by some people at work. It's lots of fun and a good change of pace from my usual activities (faster!). But at the game two weeks ago I collided rather brutally with another player, his shoulder driving hard into my rib cage on the right side of my body. It was totally an accident and at the time I shook it off and kept playing. However by the next morning it had become clear that I'd done some serious damage. I saw my doctor and she confirmed that I had either bruised, cracked or broken one or more ribs but that I had not injured any internal organs and there was no risk of doing so. She offered to order an x-ray but said it wouldn't change the treatment (the treatment for a broken rib being nothing except avoiding further blows to the chest). I chose to skip the unnecessary radiation.

So for the last two weeks I've been taking it easy, trying not to cough (painful) or sneeze (excruciating). I skipped climbing and yoga and I have put myself on the DL for Ultimate Frisbee for the rest of the season.

There has been some improvement since the injury so last night I decided to try climbing again to see where I'm at. I kept to the easy stuff and although I was able to climb it was fairly uncomfortable and unpleasant. I did not get a good workout.

I'm extremely frustrated by this. I know I will heal eventually and that I'm fortunate (1) to not have hurt myself worse; (2) to live in a country where I could easily and quickly get checked out by a doctor without fear of financial ruin; (3) be fit enough to participate in such a sport; and (4) be fit enough that I'll probably heal fast. But still, I've gotten myself into a spot where I actually desire regular exercise and feel groggy and sluggish if I don't get it. I've been walking more to compensate, but that's not enough and anything that involves my upper body, heavy breathing or excessive jostling is not super fun right now.

I guess I just don't like being reminded of the frailty of the human body. Despite my best efforts, a split-second of physical contact has grounded me from climbing at my limit for probably six to eight weeks. Not cool.

I guess until we become cyborgs all a person can do is keep fit, eat well and hope for the best.

Books - This is How You Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki !

This book is a sequel to the amazing Machine of Death which was released with great success in 2010. Like the original, it's a collection of stories based around a very simple premise: the idea that there exists a machine which given a drop of your blood will give you a slip of paper with a few words describing how you will die. It's always correct but it doesn't give a date and it can be frustratingly vague. The stories are contributed by random Internet people and are selected and edited by a team of web-publishing superheros.

The new book takes the premise in dozens of wonderful new directions and although some stories are less polished than others, most are truly fantastic. The work switches back and forth between hilarious and surprisingly moving very quickly.

I really like the idea of a collection of work all based on a particular constraint. The Machine of Death provides a surprisingly effective vehicle for all sorts of storytelling styles and the issues explored are incredibly diverse. Rather than limit the authors, the constraint opens up huge realms of creativity.

I highly recommend both books. You can download a PDF of the whole first book for free from their website (and an eight-story sample of the second). But I do encourage you to buy the books (in whatever format suits you) as you'll be supporting independent publishing.

Books - Discovering Eden by Alex M. Hall

The guide for my recent canoe trip, owner of Canoe Arctic, was a man named Alex Hall. He's spent over forty years paddling in the Arctic and over thirty of those years leading guided canoe trips like mine. He is widely recognized as the leading authority on the Thelon River and surrounding region.

In 2003 he published a memoir of his experiences and although it is now out of print I was able to get a copy directly from him (signed and dated with a personal note). Upon returning to civilization I sat down to read the book and was instantly transported back to the tundra. Even though I was able to get a good idea of his general awesomeness on the trip, I didn't realize the scope of his experience until reading his book.

His first trip in 1971 was only the eleventh "recreational" canoe trip on the Thelon river. In 1973, he and a friend spent 77 days paddling over 1850 kilometres from the northern border of Saskatchewan all the way to the Arctic Ocean. He's been back and forth on many northern river systems more often than any living person. He has also spent countless hours successfully campaigning against mining companies trying to open up mines in some of the protected areas. This was my guide and at over 70 years of age he's still amazing.

The book is a perfect reminder of my trip and I'm so glad to have a copy. If you're interested in reading it, the Toronto Public Library has a few or if you're lucky I might loan you mine. It's very engaging and almost certainly gives a better feel for the tundra than the trip journal I'll eventually write.


I always say that I want to code up a recipe feature for my blog to make it easy to post the things I cook. I suspect this may never happen, as I never quite have the time. Or, to put it better, I never make that particular task a priority in my life.

So in lieu of that, I'm posting a photo/description of my supper tonight because it was awesome. I picked up a nice piece of sustainably harvested, wild Arctic char at the market today and the Internet told me to make a quick avocado relish to go with it. I pan-fried the fish in ghee after putting some cuts in the skin to help it crisp nicely (I can't tell if fish skin or chicken skin is better, but both are best when crispy and rubbed with salt and pepper). Then I roasted asparagus in olive oil with shallots, garlic, cherry tomatoes, Aleppo chili pepper, turmeric, salt, and pepper. I also roasted some Okinawan (purple) sweet potatoes in freshly rendered, grass-fed beef fat (I roasted some marrow bones on Friday, ate the marrow with a parsley-shallot salad, saved the rendered fat for cooking, and am now turning the bones slowly into beef broth: 36 hours on a slow simmer with an oxtail and some beef neck bones). To drink I squeezed some lemon juice into the bottom of a glass, muddled in some fresh raspberries, then filled the glass with water and let it chill/settle/become awesome in the fridge for a few hours.

As complicated as this all sounds, it was only an hour of work to pull together (not counting the time spent rendering the precious precious beef fat, but that and the stock will be used for many many other purposes). Also, nothing here was tricky. Probably the hardest part is avoiding overcooking the fish, but that is just a matter of practice. I'm still not great with fish, but tonight I nailed it! Delicious!!

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Books - Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (50th Anniversary Edition)

I frequently peruse lists of books with names like, "The 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century" and then I use those lists to inform my own reading choices. It was with such a context that I picked up "Naked Lunch," not really knowing anything else about it.

It turns out to be one of the seminal novels of the Beat Generation. Both Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and Jack Kerouac (On The Road) collaborated with Burroughs to edit and piece together a mountain of notes and half-written stories produced by Burroughs over a decade during which he was mostly in the thrall of opiate addiction (morphine, heroin, codeine, demerol, and more). Apparently the novel is widely considered a landmark publication in American Literature. At publication it was also considered to be extremely controversial both for its subject matter (drug use, violence, homosexuality, paedophilia) and intentionally gratuitous use of obscene language. It was banned in a bunch of places, but the ban was later overturned on appeal based on the testimony of several prominent authors who argued the book has social value and thus is not subject to the laws on obscenity.

The 50th Anniversary Edition contains about one hundred pages of appendices including a rather illuminating article written by Burroughs about his drug experiences that was published in The British Journal of Addiction.

The actual book itself It's a series of chapters that can be read in any order and are only vaguely related to each other. As far as I can tell the paragraphs and sentences of each chapter are only vaguely related to each other as well. Hell, even the words in a single sentence seem to be at odds with each other at times. For the most part I really had no idea what was happening. The only way I can describe it is like a much crazier version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Also, I can certainly see why it riled up the censors back in the day.

I'm not sure that I'd recommend the book (although I suspect it improves on a second or third reading), but if you do read it I highly recommend seeking out the 50th Anniversary Edition. The appendices supply a ton of much-needed context. They also provide a stunning contrast in style to the novel itself. The book is hard to read and follow and then you stumble to the end (without warning) and into the appendices which are written with the intent to communicate information clearly and concisely. They are like a breath of fresh air. So I guess I recommend the book as a way to gain a better appreciation for clearly written narrative and dialogue.

Books - The Short Novels of John Steinbeck

My mom took note of my enjoyment of The Grapes of Wrath and for Christmas picked up this collection of Steinbeck's short novels for me. It includes "Torilla Flat," "The Moon Is Down," "The Red Pony," "Of Mice And Men," "Cannery Row" and "The Pearl."

None of the novels are big, but together they make for a rather large book. With some hesitation about the weight I brought it on my recent canoe trip. There was more rain than expected so I'm glad I brought a big book because it was just long enough to last the duration.

All of the novels were fantastic, but I particularly enjoyed "The Moon Is Down" for its biting and original satire of war and "Cannery Row" for its heartwarming and seemingly disconnected set of stories concerning the inhabitants of a fairly destitute neighbourhood in California. "The Pearl" was also great for its more myth-like structure.

Steinbeck is a fantastic author and I'm so glad my mom picked this collection up for me because I'm not sure I would have got to all of the novels on my own.

Books - The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Although a short book, this one took me a while to finish as I was reading it while getting ready for my canoe trip and hosting Patrick and Toni and Kiera before Sue's wedding. I managed to finish it before leaving but it remains a bit muddled in my mind. Regardless, I definitely enjoyed the book as I've enjoyed all of Vonnegut's work. His blend of science fiction and social commentary is fantastic and I love how his stories always seem to just snap into place at the end. Like he plans them or something.

Canoe Arctic

I'm back from my canoe trip on the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. It was fantastic!! The weather was challenging at times and at other times the bugs were insane but overall the experience was truly amazing. The tundra is unlike anywhere I've been before and I saw lots of really cool plants and animals. My group and I paddled over 210 kilometres including many sets of rapids and a single big portage. All seven other people on the trip were fun and interesting and our guide Alex was brilliant.

I'll be starting a trip journal with lots of photos soon, but I probably won't be done before the end of August.

Family Europe Trip 2013

I made a final push this afternoon and finished off my trip journal for my family's recent trip to Europe. There are lots of photos and videos and stories if you're interested.

It was a fantastic trip!

Books - The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

I've been working steadily on my travel journal for our trip to France, but I also just finished another book so it's time to blog about it.

Like The Wheel of Time, the Dark Tower series from Stephen King is one of the defining reading experiences from my childhood. Stephen King is unfairly branded a "horror" author due to his early work, but this series is much closer to fantasy than to anything else. I loved it growing up and I also loved how he'd tie it back and forth to other books he wrote that weren't explicitly Dark Tower novels.

King finished the series in 2004, but he recently released "The Wind Through the Keyhole" which is a short novel set between the fourth and fifth books. I love the whole Dark Tower and gunslinger mythology he's built up so I knew I'd enjoy this addition as well. The book features nested story-tellling and gives further insight to Roland's past. Any fan of the series should definitely check it out.

Family Vacation

On Sunday my mom, my brother and I returned from an epic two week family vacation in Europe spanning the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Iceland (with my brother joining us direct from an additional two week trip of his own in Australia). We had a great time and the trip is the reason I haven't blogged lately (first I was busy preparing, then I was on the trip).

Now that I'm back I'm going to start working on a trip journal complete with lots of photos and fun stories. I intend to finish before I leave for my next trip in July: canoeing in the Northwest Territories!

In the meantime, here is a photo of Mont Saint-Michel at sunset.

Mont Saint-Michel at sunset
Mont Saint-Michel at sunset
Books - A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

After twenty-three years and the death of the original author the fantasy series "The Wheel of Time" is complete. The series is fourteen books long (plus one novella) and weighs in at 4,056,130 words. I started reading it in high school, in 1995, so I've been paying attention to it for eighteen years. More than half of my life. I've known the characters of the series longer than most of my friends.

When Robert Jordan died in 2007 it was a bit of a shock and I was sad that I'd never learn how the series finished. But he had copious notes and even parts of the final books already written so Brandon Sanderson was able to pick up where he left off and finish the last three books. I do not have any serious complaints about the new author. He remained true enough to the original style.

I won't go into any detail about the book as I don't want to spoil it for anyone who cares. I will just say that the entire books is a climax. Each book in the series has a pretty good "exciting" part towards the end, but this book is just non-stop excitement from start to finish. Don't start reading it if you can't afford a few hours to go inexplicably missing.

Objectively the series is pretty fluffy. It's not going to change the world. I don't think I'd recommend starting it if you are already an adult. But it's been such a large part of my past that even though it got a bit annoying around book nine or ten I never doubted that I would keep reading until the end. And now that it is done I feel a small but measurable amount older.


I've blogged a lot about physical health lately, particularly diet. But I've also been reading a couple of "lifestyle" blogs: Mr. Money Mustache and Raptitude which are more about financial and psychological health respectively. Both are excellent and I encourage everyone to read them.

Mr. Money Mustache is ostensibly about early retirement (for the average middle class working family), but it's a lot deeper than that. It really comes quite close to covering the same ground as Raptitude, but from the angle of personal finance. Early retirement is easy: spend significantly less than you earn. The author of the blog retired with his wife at age 30 in order to concentrate full time on raising their son. They did this by trimming expenses down to about $25,000/year and then saving money until the passive income generated by their investments covered that budget. The interesting stuff comes as he describes where they made cuts and how those cuts actually improved their quality of life. Our society is full of ridiculous ways to spend money and it's pretty easy to argue that most of those ways do not return an appropriate amount of happiness per dollar spent. At no time does Mr. Money Mustache or his family feel "deprived." In fact they feel more free and happy every single day.

Raptitude attacks the quest for personal fulfilment in a more direct way. The author talks a lot about mindfulness -- the attempt to really experience the present moment. It's so easy to spend a whole day worrying about the future or regretting and reliving the past. But the past and present don't really exist. The past is gone and all that remains is a collection of memories in faulty human brains. The future is at best a murky unknown. The present is really the only thing there is and it is our tendency in the western world to waste it. He is not saying that one should forget the past or avoid planning for the future but that those things should not overwhelm the experience of the present.

Both blogs regularly come back to the same theme. The western world is a friggin' wonderland. The things we have access to and the comforts and freedoms we enjoy are unparalleled in human history. And all of this amazing stuff is accessible for very little money. Never has food been cheaper as a percent of income. Access to information and communications is essentially unlimited via the Internet. We can travel anywhere on earth cheaper and faster than ever before. Medical science has extended life expectancies immensely. Go back just one hundred years, a blink of the eye in the history of humanity, and the world offered so much less at a much higher cost.

And yet we take it all for granted constantly. Our sense of perspective is massively broken and we suffer for that. We take on massive amounts of debt requiring us to spend the best years of our life working to service that debt, often in jobs we don't enjoy. Our health suffers when we fail to think about the food we eat when presented with the unlimited smorgasbord that is the modern industrial food complex. The mindless accumulation of possessions has replaced real experiences and human interaction in the pursuit of happiness.

I hope to one day be half as good at life as the authors of these two blogs. In the meantime though I'm starting small. Both authors regularly issue challenges to themselves and in the spirit of that I'm embarking on a small challenge myself. Everytime I think to myself that I "have to" or "need to" do something I intend to mentally change the phase so that I "get to" do that thing.

Instead of "having" to get up early to go to work, I "get" to get up early so that I can go engage my mind and interact with interesting people at my job that pays me money. I "get" to do my morning exercises and revel in the movements of my body. I "get" to pay my taxes which let me enjoy the benefits of a modern collective society. I "get" to collect and take out the smelly compost and use the super cool tri-sorter garbage shoot in my apartment building. I don't own a car, but every time I drive one and have to wait in traffic I'll remember that I'm also getting to pilot a magical wonder box with continental range and a lazy-boy for the captain's chair.

And I "get" to write this blog post and freely express the ideas in my head.

Almost all the chores and annoyances of day-to-day life can be rephrased as privileges. Because for the minor stuff, the alternative one hundred years ago was probably a lot worse. I suspect that the bigger, harder parts of life can benefit from this outlook too but for now I'm starting small.

Books - Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

I thoroughly enjoyed Infinite Jest and ever since I've been on the lookout for more by DFW. Oblivion is a collection of eight short stories which have all the clever writing and run-on sentences of Infinite Jest but packaged up into much smaller and more manageable chunks. Not that they're any easier to read but being able to finish a story in a single sitting makes it a bit easier to wrap your head around it.

One day I want to re-read Infinite Jest but that day won't be coming any time soon. As an alternative I chose to read Oblivion through twice before moving on to my next book. The stories all seem to go in totally unexpected directions and knowing those shifts were coming helped inform my second reading. I was able to stop trying to see the shape of the story in my head and just enjoy the ride. Because the shapes, well they're not Euclidean.

The stories also leave loose ends hanging. It may be more accurate to say that they don't endeavour to tie up any ends at all and so everything is left open to speculation. The stories are satisfying, eventually, but they just...end. I was never ready for it. I suppose Infinite Jest was the same; I guess it's DFW's style. I see his works of fiction as not really stories but brief windows into interesting events with no beginning or end but just a fixed amount of time where those events may be observed. When a windows closes, things are done. And the length of time the window is open does not correspond to a traditional sense of completed narrative.

I won't go into any detail about any of the individual stories except to say that "Incarnations of Burned Children" was the most mind-breakingly frightening thing I've ever read. If you have children, probably don't read it OK? As for the rest, if you're thinking of tackling Infinite Jest but are not sure you want to make the investment then try those first. If no story makes you want to throw the book through the wall for it's abuse of what most people consider sensible fiction and you think you can tolerate a ten-fold increase in the quantity of such abuses, noting that the abuses of Oblivion are typical but by no means representative, then you just might enjoy DFW's magnum opus. Maybe.

I honestly don't think I'd recommend DFW to anyone in seriousness though. I hold my own enjoyment of them not with pride but more with some sort of weird shame. Because it's really just masochism. I can tolerate buckets of absurdity for tiny drops of magnificence or even just long pages of details about some obscure corner of human knowledge. I'm a bit strange.


Ever since I started thinking more about my health I find that I am allocating much more time (and slightly more money) to food. I've always cooked, but now I cook much more and when I'm not cooking I'm often thinking about my next cooking adventure. When I buy meat or eggs or fish I now spend more money to get versions of those things that are produced in a more natural way. I spend time researching new foods and recipes and means of preparation on the Internet. I read blogs and watch videos about food.

Last night I came to the realization that not only is there nothing wrong with these changes, they are almost certainly changes for the better.

For most of human history almost everyone in the world would spend most of their time and a huge percentage of their money just to get enough to eat. This meant people were much more aware of what their food was and where it came from. Now, at least in North America, people spend a comparatively miniscule proportion of their income on groceries and most people have little to no contact with the means of food production. And cooking? That's a dying art in the average North American home.

More than anything it seems to me that this increasing dissociation from food is the main cause of our society's numerous food related issues (obesity, diabetes, etc.). My own personal changes have suggested to me that the best dietary change one can make is to just eat real food. Lots and lots of vegetables. Some fruits and nuts. Non-gluttonous amounts of meat and eggs and fish that were produced in healthy natural ways. A bit of healthily produced dairy (hard to do in Canada, damn Canadian Dairy Commission). Extremely limited sugar and processed food (including bread).

However to make those changes one needs to know what real food is. It's not hard, but if no one ever tells you how do you figure it out? If you grow up in a home where your parents didn't cook and if your school does not teach you about food (do any??) why would you ever think to question what you eat?

My point is that I think it is right that I am spending more time and money on my food. It means I'm more actively engaging with it. I'm thinking about it and being conscious of it. If it means I have less money for more frivolous things then that is fine as such things don't really make a person happier anyway (more on that in a later post). And thinking larger, I'm starting to wonder how I can help improve the world through my passion for food.

Although this topic has been bubbling around in my brain for a while it solidified recently after watching a few TED Talks on Netflix about food. If you want to check them out then the ones I found most interesting were as follows (note interest does not always imply total agreement):

Books - 419 by Will Ferguson

I get most of my books from a used bookstore and so I'm rarely up to date on the latest offerings of the publishing world (with the exception of a few authors I follow more closely). Just before Christmas I read an article about Will Ferguson's latest, "419" and then the next day it won the Giller Prize. So I asked for the book for Christmas and I just finished reading it a couple weeks ago. I'm feeling so current and trendy!

Anyway, the book starts out following a Canadian family whose father commits suicide after losing all his money in a 419 Scam. The daughter starts to investigate it and eventually goes all the way to Nigeria to confront the perpetrator. For me that whole plot line was interesting enough but nothing special.

The novel really shines in its three other plot lines. Each follows a different Nigerian, filling in their back stories while also providing history on the country itself (particularly its involvement with international oil interests). It's a work of fiction so I have no idea how accurate Mr. Ferguson's depictions are, but they are very engaging and more than redeem the mediocre "419" part of the book.

It seemed like Mr. Ferguson was most interested in the Nigerian part of the story and just didn't have a good way to set it up. The "419" stuff is a convenient cross-over point with the western world but there was too much of it. It felt condescending. Like he thought his audience would suffer culture shock unless the "bizarre" Nigerian society was framed through a familiar context.

I don't mean to sound harsh, it is an excellent book (although major literary prize good...I dunno). I just wish it spent less time on the scam and more on the country that gave the scams their name.


This past weekend Rob, Jeff, Simone and I all went to Mont Tremblant for some awesome snowboarding times and it was awesome. We flew Porter from the Toronto Island Airport direct to a teeny tiny airport near Tremblant. Then we rode all day Saturday and half the day Sunday at which point we collapsed into our hotel lounge area from exhaustion.

Much like climbing, snowboarding is mostly about confidence. Once you realize that you can perform the required movements or motions you can make so much progress. This trip definitely raised my confidence level. By the end the only reason I was falling was due to fatigue.

I would really really like to get out once more this season, but that will only be to Blue and so the weather will need to stay cold for another two weeks. I still can't believe I'm hoping for snow and cold weather.

Rob and the plane arriving at Mont Tremblant International Airport (YTM)
Rob and the plane arriving at Mont Tremblant International Airport (YTM)
Arrivals lounge at Mont Tremblant International Airport (YTM)
Arrivals lounge at Mont Tremblant International Airport (YTM)
View from part way down my first run of the trip
View from part way down my first run of the trip
View from part way down my second run of the trip
View from part way down my second run of the trip
Snowy frosty stuff on the trees
Snowy frosty stuff on the trees
Awesome view from the top of 'Edge Lift'
Awesome view from the top of 'Edge Lift'
Boarding the return flight home
Boarding the return flight home

The Academy Awards are tonight, right now actually. As much as the event itself is a fairly crass commercial spectacle celebrating crass commercialism, I do like movies and many of the movies nominated are often pretty good. So each year I make the effort to watch the best picture nominations before the awards and then skip the awards show itself and read the results the next morning. This got harder after they bumped the best picture category to ten nominees from five but it's still fun to try.

This year I saw all the movies I wanted to see, eight of the ten. I have no interest in Zero Dark Thirty and I've already seen Les live theatre...on Broadway, I don't need to see it as a movie (I've also read the novel by Victor Hugo).

Of the nominees my favourite movie for best picture was "Beasts of the Southern Wild." "Django Unchained" was tons of fun and I loved it immensely, but I don't want to live in a world where Quentin Tarantino can win best picture. It would mean either that he had abandoned his trademark style or that the world had become seriously demented.

Regarding the other nominees; "Silver Linings Playbook" was excellent but the ending was wrapped up way too neatly given the very real mental health issues faced by the main characters. "Life of Pi" was visually stunning and superbly acted. I don't have any real criticism for it, but I just enjoyed "Beasts" more. "Amour" was also outstanding but the subject matter and some of the events hit too close to home for me to really enjoy it. I liked "Lincoln" but it felt more like a documentary to me and as a movie I liked "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" more. I'm not sure what that means. Finally "Argo" had a great story and they did a good job, but it seemed to fall a bit flat, not sure why. I'm obviously not a proper critic.

Of course the movie I like is not necessarily the one that will win. If I had to guess which would win, I would probably pick "Lincoln."

Two other categories are close to my heart: best animated feature and best visual effects. For animated feature I have to go with "Brave." It may not be Pixar's best ever, but it's still really good. For effects I like "Life of Pi." The effects in "The Avengers" are definitely state of the art and set a new bar for action movies. But the effects in action movies have always been stunning and cool. "Life of Pi" applies the technology in a very different context and in many cases is able to make you forget that almost none of the setting or characters are real. Also, the company responsible for the effects, Rhythm and Hues, recently filed for bankruptcy. The effects industry has been a rough place for small and medium size studios lately and a win by this company might help bring some of the issues to light.

Books - Strange Tales by Rudyard Kipling

After two staggeringly epic sized reads I decided to change things up with a small collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling.

Growing up I participated in the Scouting movement for many years (Beavers, Cubs, Scouts and Venturers) and this movement was heavily influenced by Kipling's well known works "The Jungle Book", "Just So Stories", and "Kim". So when I was last browsing at BMV and noticed a collection of horror stories by Kipling I snapped it up right away. I had no idea that his range was so broad and I was intrigued to see his take on the genre.

The stories were mainly influenced by his time spent in India but there were a few that took their inspiration from the first World War. I preferred the ones set in India. Most seemed to be based on local myth and folklore, twisted and shaded by Victorian, colonial overload ideology. A lot of the dialogue is frightfully condescending and racist, but it also seems historically accurate given what I know of the history of Britain's rule over India.

As for the "horror" aspect, having grown up reading Stephen King I didn't find any of the stories particularly frightening but there were a few good skin-tinglingly creepy moments.

Books - The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

I missed out on comics as a kid; they were not part of my cultural consumption. Given my nerdy disposition they easily could have been, but for whatever reason it just didn't happen. Until The Sandman the only comic I'd read was The Watchmen and that was just a couple years ago.

Of course comic is not the right word for either work. Graphic novel is the accepted appellation among the community of people who follow this sort of thing closer than me. According to Peter Straub The Sandman actually qualifies as literature (or nothing else does).

I wholeheartedly agree.

The Sandman is a series of graphic novels with 75 issues that consumed Neil Gaiman's life from 1987 to 1996. He estimates it at over 2000 pages and considers it the largest thing he's ever written or ever will write. I recently acquired the whole set collected into ten volumes contained in a fancy slip-cover case. I read them all in extremely short order. I just couldn't stop.

I love Neil Gaiman's novels and short stories, but none of that matches The Sandman. He put everything he had into it and it shows. The choice of graphic novel as the format is irrelevant, it's way up there with my favourite books of all time.

I'm interested in reading other "literary" graphic novels, however I suspect that having read The Sandman and The Watchmen may have spoiled me. I'm hopeful for Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" though.

Positive Snowboarding

I had a great day today. That's kind of a big deal for me as it could be argued that I've had a a rather shitty go of it (I'm a tad inebriated now so you'll have to forgive the cusses in this post). To distinguish from other days this day was great on it's own and was not at all about that. I've had other great days since then (along with so many bad days), but at the end of them they're still about that because despite outward appearances I'm still (and probably forever) rather damaged. Today was different though. It was great on it's own.

I went snowboarding for the third time ever today and decided that it is a thing I like enough to invest money in buying equipment. I had a good lesson and a fantastic afternoon where I made real progress with my skills. It was too warm out, and the snow was imperfect and the atmosphere was typical dreary grey Ontario winter, but it was also awesome. Because the world is pretty fucking awesome when you think about it.

Despite having had a shitty go of it I also recognize that I'm absurdly privileged. Absurd isn't nearly a strong enough adjective but it's the best I've got right now. I'm a white straight male with a high IQ who grew up in a middle class, nominatively Protestant household in a first world country as the child of parents who both pursued and encouraged post-secondary education. All of that made it easy for me to obtain a Computer Science degree that has enabled me to get a job which pays me enough to live an upper middle class lifestyle as an independent adult without any debt. When the shitty thing did happen to me, it happened in a country where we could access excellent health care without incurring financial disaster. The only anti-privilege I can think of in my life was the divorce of my parents when I was in grade seven. But around half my friends at the time came from "broken" households so it's hard to argue that I was part of some oppressed minority. Plus my parent's divorce was mostly amicable from my point of view so I'm even privileged within the group of children of "broken" households. All these things put me ahead of such a large portion of the population of the world that it isn't worth coming up with an actual number. It rounds up to 100% in all contexts.

So yeah, a bad thing happened to me, but the world is still awesome and I am in a position where I feel like I must strive to acknowledge that. What on earth could I possibly complain about? There is so much to see and do and there is stuff that is basically magic happening all the time. My iPhone 4S is a super-computer in my pocket. Magic. In May my brother and I are taking my mom to France. We'll travel over 6000km and it will only take about 8 hours and we'll do it by FLYING and the flight will cost less than $1000 each round trip. Magic. I'm free to post my thoughts to a blog on the Internet which is just millions of piles of Magic. I spent a whole day today doing controlled falls down a really big hill in glorious nature instead of fighting bears and struggling to survive the winter. Not magic, but still pretty awesome that I not only have the spare time but that western society has oriented itself in such a way that it was not hard or prohibitively expensive for me to spend my spare time in such a frivolous way.

Maybe it's the endorphins from a day outside exercising, or maybe it's the four pints of medium-strength (~6%) beer enjoyed in the company of happy fun people but I'm in a good mood this evening because today was a great day.

Books - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

It's not that I haven't been reading lately, or even that I've been skipping blogging about the books I read. The reason I haven't posted about a book since the end of October is that the book I was reading since then was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It is an epic-sized book in every sense. 981 pages of small type (in trade paperback format), followed by 96 pages of endnotes in even smaller type (which are required reading to actually understand what is going on). Beyond the physical size (and weight!), the actual text is daunting and challenging. It takes place in the near future but much has changed in the world and the book doesn't waste much time explaining the lay of the land. You just sort of pick it up along the way. Add invented slang, a large cast of characters (who are never thoroughly introduced), intense non-linearity, and obscure self-references and you get a book that requires significant attention while reading if you want to make progress.

I am glad I read it, but it was hard work and took a long time is what I'm saying.

I don't even know how to talk about it here, so I'm going to defer to the comments of smarter people than myself. One remark I quite liked came from Jay McInerney in his review of the book for the New York Times: "While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences." The writing is spectacular but sometimes it goes off on tangents, and those tangents grow their own tangents and you find yourself so far from where you started that you're not even sure you're reading the same book. Like the endnotes, of which there are 388, some of them have their own footnotes!

Fortunately for me, I think, I enjoy tangents. Even when whole chapters pass that have nothing to do with the plot of the book, it's all still fascinating and engaging. I loved the language and words he used, like cardioid and demapping, but most of all the idiom "howling fantods," defined perfectly by Urban Dictionary:

A stage 4 case of the heebie jeebies.

Realizing that, after all this time, as I approach the end of this 981 page novel with 96 pages of footnotes, as much as I have loved every run-on sentence and obscure pharmacological reference I still cannot coherently answer the frequently-asked and painfully-simple airplane-seatmate question "what's it about?" has giving me a serious case of the howling fantods.

There is much reference to Québec separatism, despite being an American novel written by an American. In the near-future world of the novel (remembering that it was written pre-referendum in the 1990s) the cause of separatism has escalated rather than calmed, with multiple Québec terrorist groups causing problems all over North America (including the assassination of Jean Chrétien apparently). Although that all sounds serious, it's presented in a pretty ridiculous, slap-stick manner that is endlessly amusing (to me at least). The chief terrorist group of the book is Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (AFR), the wheelchair assassins, whose back-story consumes eight pages of endnotes and is far to involved to cover here. It's all great stuff though and any book that spends time discussing Canada in any way always seems more engaging to me.

The book finishes at a strange point with many unanswered questions. Upon completion I remembered that the very first twenty pages or so take place about a year after the events at end of the book. I went back and re-read them, only to realize that that section has a whole different meaning than my first interpretation. This is a book that must be read multiple times in order to extract all it has to offer, but I'm not sure I'll be up to trying again for a couple years. I poked around online for interpretations and it appears to be an activity of some interest on the Internet, piecing together what may have happened in the year between the end of the novel and the events of the first twenty pages.

This hasn't been a very coherent blog post. Despite my attempts to improve my writing skills I do not have the talent necessary to discuss a book of this magnitude in any meaningful way. It is just too big. If you're interested in learning more, check out the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition written by David Eggers; it's spot on.

Myself, I will close with the synopsis from the original edition in an attempt to at least convey what the book was about.

Infinite Jest is the name of a movie said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch it. People die happily, viewing it in endless repetition. The novel Infinite Jest is the story of this addictive entertainment, and in particular how it affects a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts and a nearby tennis academy, whose students have many budding addictions of their own. As the novel unfolds, various individuals, organizations, and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends, and the denizens of the tennis school and the halfway house are caught up in increasingly desperate efforts to control the movie - as is a cast including burglars, transvestite muggers, scam artists, medical professionals, pro football stars, bookies, drug addicts both active and recovering, film students, political assassins, and one of the most endearingly messed-up families ever captured in a novel. On this outrageous frame hangs an exploration of essential questions about what entertainment is, and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment interacts with our need to connect with other humans; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. The huge cast and multilevel narrative serve a story that accelerates to a breathtaking, heartbreaking, unforgettable conclusion. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human - and one of those rare books that renew the very idea of what a novel can do.

Holiday Review

As usual, the holidays were a busy time for me this year. I failed at all my relaxation goals (like finishing the epic-sized book I've been reading for the past month) and spent the whole break in a constant state of activity. Fortunately the activity was all fantastic and normally involved spending time with amazing people. I saw old friends and family and also enjoyed the company of a surprising number of new people, all of whom were awesome too.

Using as few words as possible my holidays went roughly like this: The Hobbit, board games and scotch, full-day Civilization game, Christmas with my mom's side (ultra special guests: Shannon, Gareth and little monster), Christmas with my dad's side, family Christmas in London and then in Toronto (with Django), Christmas in Ottawa with lots of snow and hatchets, Christmas in Caledonia with pizza and marbles, market in London, Life of Pi, New Year's Party at my place, hanging with Mike in Toronto, hummus, Yerba Mate, more scotch and amazing beers.

I totally abandoned all my recent health changes for the holidays and I definitely notice the effects. I'm sluggish and five pounds of fat that magically melted off my body over the last three months has completely returned. I'm eager to get back to "standard operating procedure" and kicked it off this evening with a big-ass salad piled high with avocado. Gonna focus on large quantities of veggies for a bit while I wait for my body to once again stop craving sugar and flour.

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