Friday, January 29, 2016

a story a day brings Santa to my yard

2015 Short Story Advent Calendar
- compiled by Michael Hingston

This is a brilliant idea for an advent calendar, for those of us who would rather read than choke down some cheap dollar store chocolate. The brainchild of Edmonton author Michael Hingston, the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar is a collection of 24 stories and one bonus novella, featuring Canadian and international authors. Many of the stories have never been published before and they were all handpicked by Hingston for inclusion into this compendium.

The advent calendar aspect (besides the concept of reading one story per day) comes from the fact that each story is individually sealed, with no identifying marks as to the title or even the author. So each day brings a literary surprise.

The cover of each booklet was designed by graphic artist Natalie Olsen and features simply a number which corresponds with the day of the month on which you are meant to read the story. But look carefully and you will find that the number is drawn in such a way as to give you a hint about what happens in the story. I found myself observing a little ritual of pouring over the cover, speculating about its contents, before carefully unsealing that day's story.

The stories come nestled in a solid cardboard box, reminiscent of the ones that hold the question cards in Trivial Pursuit or Cards Against Humanity, and the package looks quite attractive sitting on your coffee table or under your Christmas tree, waiting for you to read the next one.

I found it hard to find time to sit down and read first thing every morning and started falling behind. Eventually, though, I realized that late afternoon worked better for me, and that had the added bonus of letting me swap the accompanying cup of coffee for a wee snort of Christmas port. Port and short stories are my new favourite combination.

I loved both the concept and the beautiful design of the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar and I hope that 2016 brings another edition.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sin City: the good, the bad, the ugly

Las Vegas is a polarizing place; you either love it or hate it. I definitely did not love it.

Everything in Vegas, it seems, is fake. Fake volcanoes, fake Eiffel towers, fake Statues of Liberty. Even the grass is made of plastic. I did, however, get very excited when I spotted a stand of what I think were real trees...

I understand the whole mirage-in-the-desert concept upon which Las Vegas is built. I get that. I realize that there is a certain allure to playing make-believe with pretend glamour and reproductions of exotic locales that you may never get to in real life. I realize that a lot of people find escape in Vegas' excess, in its over-the-top tacky architecture and in those elusive pipe dreams of instant wealth that define the city

But I didn't realize, before our trip there last week, just how pervasive that I will have fun even if it kills me mindset is. And I never really realized how ultimately sad and desperate that mindset is. Just ask all those people with oxygen tanks, smoking and feeding slot machines for hours on end, how glamorous their Las Vegas lifestyle is.

That said, rant done, there were some things that I really enjoyed in Vegas. Behold then, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly list:

The Good:

The Continental Cup of Curling
On site and a five minute walk from our hotel room to our arena seats, this was four great days of curling featuring the very best curlers in the world, ending with a right-down-to-the-wire photo finish. 

The National Atomic Testing Museum
Fascinating display of the political, scientific and cultural history of the atomic arms race, including the astonishingly naive atomic testing that took place in the Nevada desert. Set up your lawn chair and watch the mushroom cloud!

Don't bother with the add-on Area 51 exhibition, though. It's pretty hokey and not terribly well done.

Casa di Amore
Billing itself as "Vegas the way it used to be" this old-timey neighbourhood Italian diner - far off the Strip - has wonderful food, throwback jazz singers providing dinner entertainment, and a cozy community feeling. More people kept arriving and they just kept bringing in more chairs. The highlight was when the band announced the 70th anniversary of a couple dining with their family. As the singer crooned a Sinatra tune just for them, the 90-year-old couple got up and danced together. We all clapped and got teary.

As if that's not enough, Casa di Amore will drive you home in a limo, for free. And they gave me a tee-shirt because I ordered the cannoli!

The Bad:

Cigarette Smoke
Smoking is allowed indoors in Las Vegas, at least in the casino areas. And there are very few indoor areas that are not casinos. It was disgusting and stinky and my eyes burned the entire time.

Gambling Overkill
I naively assumed that our hotel would have a normal hotel layout - front desk, lobby, some restaurants and services - and then have the obligatory casino in a room to the side. But no. The casino IS the hotel. You walk into the front door and are immediately assaulted by rows of slots machines all pinging away, lights flashing through the cigarette haze. Sure, there is no smoking in the restaurants, but they are all open to the casino, so it doesn't matter a tinker's damn. Anywhere you go in Vegas, you must pass through a casino to get there.

Plastic Carnival
I found the facade and the fakery, especially along The Strip, to be really disheartening and exhausting. It was like day six of the Calgary Stampede crammed into Disney World and stuffed into the Playboy Mansion. All the worst of society in one place.

The Ugly:

The myriad of seriously unhealthy looking people, many with walkers and the odd oxygen tank, wheezing their way through the casinos. 

Chain-smoking zombies endlessly feeding the machines, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the flashing colours, pausing only to order another drink.

Low rollers wandering from machine to machine, sucking on a beer, at 8:00 AM.

The layer of sadness and desperation that seems to have settled over the fragile veneer of merry-making.


I wouldn't mind seeing some other areas of Nevada. I would love to see some desert tortoises, those atomic test sites, and some of the sandstone buttresses that have been shaped by wind and time. 

But I will bypass Las Vegas.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

just for one day

On the day David Bowie died, I woke up with chest pains. 

I spent the better part of the morning chewing low dose aspirin and checking Web MD. There is no particularly good time for it, of course, but two days before you are set to head south of the border for a week likely ranks right up there for Worst Possible Timing for a Suspected Heart Attack. Especially after the icon you have always considered to be immortal has just died.

As the morning progressed and the pains didn't manifest any further, I stopped blaming the fact that I had unwisely polished off the last of the Christmas chocolates the night before. I had, it seems, merely pulled a muscle while sleeping. 

I have never been a good sleeper, and as the aches and pains and twitchy legs of encroaching old age start to pile up, I have become somewhat of a nocturnal thrasher. It was bound to happen, I guess, especially since the cat (aka The Immovable Object) has taken to lying on my left arm and chest while I read in bed. I sometimes drift off while reading and wake up to a dead left arm, thinking that a stroke has finally taken me.

But for now, I survive and am excited to be heading stateside tomorrow to celebrate the Spousal Unit's retirement. I shall put on my red shoes and dance the blues.   

Sunday, January 03, 2016

to binge is human, to list ... also human

As we crest into January, I am stepping back from my normal practice of listing top music of the past year. I didn't really listen to a lot of new music in 2015, nor did I go to that many concerts.

But being an unrepentant list-maker, I have to rank something to commemorate the turning of the calendar. And while I may not have listened to much in 2015, I sure did binge-watch. And DAMN if there weren't some great series to eye-guzzle on the old Netflix this past year!

Here, then, are my favourite Netflix series that invaded my chesterfield nest in 2015:

1.  The Bridge

I pretty much had to toss a coin to decide between the first and second ranked shows, but in the end this Danish-Swedish co-production featuring a mesmerizing Asperger-ish police detective took the honours. The series begins with the discovery of a corpse in the middle of the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, placed precisely on the border. The Bridge is rivetting, at times cringe-inducing, and over way too soon.

2.  Luther

British crime drama featuring the eminently watchable Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, a brilliant, but self-destructive, investigator. I especially loved the twisted thrust and parry between Luther and his equally brilliant nemesis Alice Morgan. 

3.  The Fall

Here again, numbers three, four and five were neck and neck in their ability to hold me hostage on the couch and destroy my blink reflex. I pretty much had to draw straws here. 

The Fall is an elegant and terrifying psychological murder drama set in Belfast. Gillian Anderson is Stella Gibson, brought in from the Metropolitan Police to act as DSI. She proves without a doubt that Scully is all grown up and still not taking any shit from anybody.

4.  The Killing

I would love to see the original Danish series, because nobody does murder like the Scandinavians, but this American adaptation is utterly gripping. Set in one of my favourite cities, the moody rain-drenched Seattle, it's filmed largely in Vancouver, so there is the added fun of looking for recognizable landmarks. A few too many red herrings were thrown into season one, but the tension between the two damaged police investigators means all is forgiven.

5.  Broadchurch

Equal parts charming and heart-wrenching, Broadchurch is set in a close-knit English coastal town, where the murder of a young boy threatens to tear apart the threads of the community. Not being a Whovian, I didn't realize at first the significance of David Tennant playing the role of the taciturn inspector from away who takes over the investigation. But his snarling Scottish brogue soon had me convinced.

6.  Dicte

Evidently I hold Scandinavian tv series to higher standards than I do North American ones, because I was quite shocked to realize that this Danish show is actually a little formulaic. Despite its "plucky lady reporter solves crimes" stereotype, however, Dicte is really very charming. I liked the characters, the friendships, the laid-back sexuality and easygoing partner-swapping. Heck, I even liked dancing to the cheesy theme music.

7.  Wallander

Again, I would love to see the original series, but this British remake of a Swedish crime drama is really good. I appreciate that they maintained the Swedish setting, instead of trying to wedge it into Sussex or California, even though it is a little disconcerting to have all the Swedes speak with British accents. Damned enthralling show, though.

8.  Lilyhammer

NYC mobster turns witness and gets relocated to Norway to protect him from retaliation. Need I say more? A light-hearted, hilarious fish-out-of-water series.

9.  Death in Paradise

Another fish-out-of-water, in a different ocean. A British police inspector, who only wants a decent cup of tea and a nice beef roast on Sundays, is transferred to a small Caribbean island. He hates it. The Spousal Unit refers to this show as "our generation's Matlock". The beaches are pristine and the murders are squeaky-clean and solved at the end of each episode. It's utter escapism.

Evidently, I did a lot of Netflixing in 2015. With River, Narcos and Hinterland queued up on the old viewing machine, I see no reason to change anything for 2016.

What have you been eye-guzzling? Any recommendations?