10.28.2010

FALL - Colin McAdam


“We were boys who wore suits, monkeys with manners. We didn’t have parents but were treated like babies. We were left on our own but had hundreds of rules to abide.”
Fall is one of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists. It is the coming of age story of two young men in their last year of high school and the girl they both revolve around: the beautiful and popular Fall. They attend St. Ebury’s, an exclusive boarding school in Ontario, Canada. The school caters to the children of diplomats and provides an elite education intended to send them off into the world well-equipped for the academic rigours of an Ivy League school, hopefully to follow in their parents’ footsteps. But despite the list of famous alumni and the distinguished careers of their parents, the students of St. Ebury are as much the victims of hierarchy as at any other high school. The hierarchy is based on relative wealth, appearance and social skills. In this hierarchy these two boys are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The story is told from their perspectives.
Julius, the handsome son of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, is wealthy and popular and has the sort of magnetic personality that draws both male and female peers to him. Noel is an awkward loner whose father is a Canadian diplomat posted in Australia. He is intelligent, enjoys reading the classics of literature and philosophy, and is introverted and organized. He also has a lazy eye and an odd demeanour that causes people to be somewhat wary of him. The two boys are brought together by accident when, in their senior year, Julius’ friends all assume the popular student already has a roommate, so he ends up in the unlikely company of Noel.
Perhaps because Noel’s narrative is written from a distance of more than two decades, it is fluid and introspective, full of the small details that make him appear aloof from the events as they unfold. The sections narrated by Julius, on the other hand, are written in a stream of consciousness format that speaks to the vibrancy and energy of youth. Though his view of the world is not as perceptive or detailed as Noel’s, his mind doesn’t chase him into such dark corners.
Colin McAdam is a master of small, evocative details. He manages to sift through all the minutiae of daily boarding school life and weave these details into the story so adeptly that they create a true feeling of what it is to be a boarding school student. Having attended boarding school myself, I remember what it felt like to arrive the week before classes started, to learn a new rhythm of life and become acquainted with the roommates and fellow boarders who would, for the duration of the school year, become a makeshift family of sorts. There is a subtle adjustment that takes place from living close to parental figures but with access to the wide world to the tiny, self-contained and over-regulated world of boarding school that is far from any sense of home and protected from the outside world as if under a bubble.
Fall is not a comfortable book. It is a story of love and hate; a story of obsession. Adolescence is fraught with desires and emotions we can neither suppress nor ignore, and the pressure applied by a boarding school environment simultaneously exaggerates and stifles them. Fall is an accurate account of what it’s like to teeter on the brink of adulthood while still restricted by an abundance of supervision and strict discipline. For those who enjoy character development over fast-paced plots, this book will be an engrossing read.

10.13.2010

SUBWAY ART - Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant

Subway Art is to graffiti books what Wild Style is to graffiti movies. It documents not only the genesis of a new art form, but also a period of urban history and the birth of hip hop culture. Originally published in 1984, it was the first book to take graffiti seriously as an art form, rather than just writing it off as an act of youthful vandalism by kids with too much time on their hands and too little discipline at home.

Heralded on the cover of the original printing of the book as "America's newest folk art," graffiti is not for the faint of heart; it's a dangerous art form. It's illegal and involves trespassing, so there's always the risk of being chased and apprehended by a security guard or police officer. There is also an added risk of injury - even death - for those whose chosen canvas is the sides of commuter trains. But despite (and in some part because of) these risks, graffiti has been described as more of a calling than a pastime for its creators. Even though it is buffed off trains, bridges, and buildings as fast as it is put on them, young artists take huge risks to create these ephemeral works for the sheer joy of glimpsing a train riding the rails with their piece coating it from end to end, for all to see. It can be an addiction, and those who create it love their work.

The book's authors have impressive credentials: Martha Cooper is a photojournalist specializing in Art and Anthropology with a diploma in Ethnology from Oxford University, and Henry Chalfant studied classical Greek at Stanford University and is a renowned stone sculptor as well as a well-known photographer. Cooper's photos have appeared in National Geographic, Audubon and Art News while Chalfant's photos and sculptures have been exhibited in both the United States and Europe. After moving to New York in the 1970s (early for Chalfant, late for Cooper), each individually developed a fascination with graffiti. They were the only two photographers seriously seeking out graffiti at that time, so they were destined to come across each other. Their relationship began with a showcase of their photographs, which led to a friendly competition to see who could get the most impressive photos. And so the project that led to this book was born.

The book is a stunning array of photography that showcases some of the greatest works of graffiti of the time. It contains the work of Dondi White, Lady Pink, Futura, Seen and Blade, among others. It also features photographs of some of these legends at work, rare images given the illegality and nocturnal nature of the work and its relative obscurity. The resulting images are mesmerizing for anyone who loves graffiti. The book has little text, instead allowing the images speak for themselves.

The new edition of the book is hard-cover rather than the original soft-cover version. I was expecting it to be pretty much the same size as the original, but it is also much larger. The original was about the size of a magazine and not much thicker, the new version is over a foot high, hard-cover, and packs some weight to it. As a result the images (of which there are over 70 more than in the original) are much larger and printed on better quality paper, so they are a true joy to look at. Even if you've already got the 1984 version (as I do), I'd recommend picking up this anniversary edition - it's well worth the upgrade. Just make sure you've got a sturdy coffee table to keep this sucker on, because there's no way it's going to fit on your bookshelves.

10.02.2010

OUTLAW JOURNALIST: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON - William McKeen




"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his public image as a drug-crazed madman who flouted authority, despised monotony and had pretty much every adventure you could imagine - and some you couldn’t. Thompson lived his life at full throttle, a mile a minute thrill ride that others were lucky to jump on and off of with their skins and minds relatively intact. The fact that he managed to keep up the pace for as long as he did truly seems to be a miracle; he was a man whose guardian angel must have taken up drinking to deal with job stress. His work was always done at manic warp speed with deadlines looming and real or imaginary beasts threatening to break down the door at any moment.

As with his work, it's hard to tell where fact and fiction collide in the story of Hunter's life. It would be difficult to make up any stories wilder than his reality, which inclines the reader to consider any story about him to be true. His most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a loosely autobiographical account of one of his freelance writing assignments that turned into a crazy voyage. It was also the source of his alter-ego, Raoul Duke, the character who would dog his steps in the form of a Doonesbury cartoon caricature, "Uncle Duke," portraying him as an exaggerated version of who he was. The book was later adapted to film and made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, which has since become a cult classic. As a journalist, Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone magazine and is credited with inventing Gonzo Journalism (a style of writing whereby the author places himself at the centre of the story).

In his book, Outlaw Journalist, William McKeen sets about the daunting task of not only choosing a manageable selection from the many Hunter stories collected from friends, family and innocent bystanders, but putting them in chronological order. McKeen manages to string together one daring exploit after another to create a biography that is at once minutely detailed and that reads like an engrossing, fast-paced work of fiction. His book is meticulously researched and includes selections from interviews and observations from various sources, along with some of Hunter’s own. The result is a book that is detailed and thorough, taking you seamlessly through Hunter's life, from his young boyhood days in Louisville, Kentucky to his struggles to become a viable free-lance writer, his rise to notoriety and subsequent struggle with fame.

McKeen's portrayal of Dr. Thompson makes a human being out of the idol while leaving the legend intact. He portrays sides of Hunter that many of his fans have probably never seen - the sensitive and anxious creative force who, despite much proof to the contrary, sweated under deadlines and the pressure of his public image. Hunter is shown to be an idealist who suffered from his discovery that the American Dream (whatever that may mean) was, if not dead, missing in action. He found in the political climate of the late 1960s and 1970s a perfect outlet for his intensity. He embarked upon one adventure after another with a bottle of Wild Turkey in one hand and his trademark cigarette (complete with cigarette holder) in the other. By the end of the book you'll want to quit your job and go on an adventure with a pharmacy in the trunk and the cops hot on your trail, willing to brave the bats and fight the fear in pursuit of your own Dream. For anyone who's ever been curious about the man behind the legend, this book is an illuminating and inspiring romp. Engaging and accessible, it will grip you from the first page to the last.

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