The Night of the Gun

Page One: Inside the New York Times is a 2011 documentary that gives viewers an unprecedented look into the New York Times newsroom. In the Digital age, the future of print journalism is uncertain – Page One sets out to illuminate the struggle between traditional and modern information-sharing. That is, until in walks addict-turned-journalist David Carr , whose wise-cracking, quick-witted awareness outshines the story of struggling newspaper.

The name sounded familiar, and a quick Google search came up with a memoir – one whose cover looked familiar. Turns out that, a few years ago, I’d bought a remaindered copy  of The Night of the Gun and forgotten about it. As happens when your collection of books threatens to overwhelm your life, I let this gem of a book fall to the bottom of an alarmingly large stack of unread books.

I’ll admit right now, this was a mistake on my part.

In broad terms, Carr’s story has been told before – addict hits rock bottom, redeems himself at the last moment. What makes Gun so remarkable isn’t necessarily the narrative itself – it is Carr’s approach, investigative journalism at its best. As he says:

When I set out to write a memoir, I decided to fact-check my life using the prosaic tools of journalism. For the past thirty years, give or take time served as a drunk and a lunatic, I have used those tools with alacrity. I decided to go back and ask the people who were there: the dealers I worked for, the friends I had, the women I dated, the bosses I screwed over. There would be police reports, mug shots from my career as a crook, and some medical records from my serial treatments.

With this framework in place, Gun becomes equal parts cautionary tale and philosophical reflection on the nature of memory: basically, we all want to rework history to be the hero of our own narrative. Case in point, The Night of the Gun is titled after a particular incident which Carr remembers as a close friend having pulled a gun on him;  decades later, he learns that it was actually he who drew the gun on his friend.

I’ll admit, Carr is far more engaging as a three-dimensional person than a narrative voice – his presence on screen (in my case, computer screen; thank you, Internet) renders the book a little dimmer in light of the swaggering, bitter old man with a cigarette between his lips. But it’s still an incredible story, told more honestly than other, more famous books of the genre.



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The Joy of Books

Happy New Year, fellow word nerds and bibliophiles!

Pardon the lack of content lately – My Digital Bookshelf is in the process of a creative branding overhaul, including a promise for more regular updates from yours truly. In the meantime, a beautiful video shot at Type Books in Toronto: because there’s nothing quite like a real book.


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Blue Nights

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights starts off much like its precursor, The Year of Magical Thinking – with a death, this time of Didion’s only child, Quintana Roo. Two years after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, passed away of a heart attack, Didion again finds herself at a loss.

Unlike Magical Thinking, however, Blue Nights is a slim little memoir . And though it’s littered with memories of Quintana Roo, Nights seems to deal more with the idea of physical and cognitive frailty than grief. At 76, Didion admits that she’s losing her process; she worries about  her “new inability to summon the right word, the apt thought, the connection that enables the words to make sense, the rhythm, the music itself”.

Where Magical Thinking felt seamless, Nights creates a cohesive whole because its individual pieces don’t fit – in this dissonance, you’re acutely aware of the author’s dwindling abilities. It’s a heartbreaking reminder that even the brightest, sharpest creative minds fall prey to inevitability – though it’s clear Didion has years of fight left in her.

Almost more impressive than the book itself is the accompanying short film, created by Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne. Two clips have been released so far, combining visual artistry with Didion’s lyrical narration to create a beautiful representation of the novel – as Dunne himself puts it “an audiobook for the eyes”.

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This is Not the End of the Book

“We are living in the first era in any civilization to have so many bookshops, so many beautiful, light-filled bookshops to wander around in, flicking through books.”

With every new incarnation of e-reader, literary enthusiasts the world over cringe. Our beloved libraries are already in jeopardy – how long ’til the book itself becomes an anachronistic little trinket, replaced entirely by its digital upgrade?

According to fellow bibliophiles Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, we’ve nothing to fear from the shift to digital approximation. Like the wheel, argues Eco, the essence of a book cannot be modified or improved upon. In fact, the Internet has made literacy all the more vital:

“The Internet has returned us to the alphabet … From now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen.”

The message is clear: E-books have their place, but the book is the eternal medium for reading.

Of course, what happens when you put two brilliant European intellects in a room and dedicate a book to their ensuing conversation?  You get three-hundred pages of witty, well-informed commentary on anything and everything book-related, from collecting – each boasts impressive collections of 40,000 + volumes including impressive numbers of rare texts- to the cultural significance of preserving our literary history. The conversational format makes this book delightfully readable, and it takes only a few pages to realize you are in the presence of two amazing, razor-sharp minds. This is Not the End of the Book probably won’t change the future of the printed word, but for those of us who treasure our paper-and-ink volumes, it’s a worthwhile addition to the bookshelves.

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Ten Thousand Saints

If Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints is what a debut novel should look like, then I (and many other authors, aspiring and published alike) should just give up on the pipe dream now. No other book in recent memory has resounded with me for so long   – in fact, Saints raised the bar so high that I didn’t read anything else for a week after I’d turned the last page, because nothing I read next could compare.

Ten Thousand Saints is, at its heart, a story about two best friends named Teddy and Jude – one of whom has to grow up too fast, and the other of whom never gets the chance to. When Teddy dies of an accidental overdose, he leaves behind a world devastated by his absence – and a pregnant one-night stand, Jude’s fifteen-year-old stepsister, Eliza. The grieving characters form a makeshift family around this pregnancy, every member hoping to keep Teddy’s memory alive for just a little longer.

While Henderson’s Saints spans time and space, navigating deftly from 1987 through 2000, Vermont to New York City, it’s also a book of great cultural and historical awareness. Her characters are each intimately affected by the straight-edged music scene; one in particular feels the devastating power of the early AIDS epidemic. Sexuality, sexual orientation; drugs, alcohol and excess – while admittedly extreme, the novel’s underlying themes are all handled with great understanding.

And if, amidst the guitar riffs and drumbeats, the reader starts to feel a little overwhelmed by the noise, it’s at the precise instant when the characters, too, are reaching their breaking point.

Saints is meant to challenge. It strives to overwhelm.

And it does so remarkably well.

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In Honour of Banned Books Week

And because I’m terribly exhausted tonight;

(click to enlarge images).


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The Night Circus

First of all, yet another apology (hopefully the last of its kind for awhile) for the prolonged lapse between posts. I promise, though, it’s not for lack of wonderful books – I’ve merely spent more time reading than writing.

…I also recently acquired a rather feisty little black lab puppy, if that makes things any more forgivable.

In my six-month absence, a few books have left an indelible impression on me – they are stories I carried with me for days, sometimes weeks, after I’d turned the last page. The most recent of these is Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus.

At the centre of this novel is the aptly named Le Cirque de Rêves, a magical travelling circus that arrives unannounced in fields across the globe, opening its gates only between the hours of dusk and dawn. Unbeknownst to most, Le Cirque was created to serve as the duelling grounds for two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who are chosen as the latest competitors in a longstanding feud between Celia’s father, Prospero the Enchanter, and his rival, Mr A H. Of course, it’s in the field of battle that our young protagonists fall in love.

While seemingly reminiscent of the sweeping magical landscape we all know from Harry Potter, Morgenstern’s Circus is a far more lush reality. Her imagery is impeccable, and the story unfolds just slowly enough to drive this particular reader tantalizingly close to insanity. Its primary love story is one I can’t resist: ill-fated lovers struggling to rewrite the laws of the universe, because the world as they know it will not abide them.

Of course, the fact that I found great pleasure in Circus does not make it an easy, pleasurable read. The narrative weaves several stories together, in layers that skip back and forth through time. Even with a just few dozen pages to go, the story’s resolution eluded me – something that delighted as much as it frustrated me, but I know people who felt this pacing detracted from their enjoyment of the book. I also must admit that the narrative arc didn’t kindly deliver me at its conclusion, so much as unceremoniously dump me there.

At the very least, The Night Circus takes a touch more dedication and concentration than one would generally expect from its genre.

In the end, though, I feel Circus has lived up to its hype – the book itself is a work of  graphic art, and Morgenstern’s talent is clearly evident. It’s also a book that, despite the slightly misguided comparison, is well-suited for a post-Potter world.

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Big News for James Frey Fans

The controversial author has a new book on the way, titled The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. In it, the second coming of Christ takes place in The Bronx projects — but the Messiah turns out to be a former alcoholic who impregnates a prostitute.

In addition, an article on the New York Post website says:

Frey — who was famously ripped apart on TV by Oprah Winfrey and ostracized by the literary community over his partly fabricated memoir, “A Million Little Pieces” — has sidestepped traditional publishers and teamed up with gallery owner Larry Gagosian, who will publish just 11,000 copies in the US while Frey will self-publish online.
According to Frey’s website, the book will release April 14 and is available for preorder now.

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Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead

In his fascinating and informative book, the Game, Neil Strauss penetrated the secret society of pick-up artists to deliver a manual that was more than just the “Guide to Getting Laid” it is  often misinterpreted as. In Emergency, he taught us how to “be self-sufficient and survive without the system.”

The newest book from “the Mike Tyson of Interviewers”, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, can be summarized quite nicely by its tagline:

You can tell a lot about somebody in a minute. If you choose the right minute. Here are 228 of them.

In it, readers are invited to “join” Neil Strauss as he interviews some of the most iconic celebrities in the world: from intimate conversation with Britney Spears to shooting guns with Ludacris. He makes Lady Gaga cry and shops for Pampers with Snoop Dogg. Assembled from the original interview tapes and transcripts, the book is a collection of telling moments that would have never made it to print otherwise.  As he says in the book’s Preamble:

So to put this book together, I went back to my original recordings, notes, and transcripts, and selected the best moments from the three-thousand-something articles I’ve written over the years. But instead of looking for the pieces that broke news or sold the most magazines, or received the best feedback, I searched for the truth or essence behind each person, story or experience. Often it came from something I’d previously ignored: an uncomfortable silence, a small misunderstanding, or a scattered thought that had been compressed into a sound bite. Other times it came from something more dramatic, like an emotional confession, a run-in with the police, or a drug-induced psychosis.

Funny enough, the book tells almost as much about its author as its subjects: Strauss is a typically intimate writer, and this book shows that his interview style is no different – it seems, at least, that the people he’s interviewing get a little something of Strauss himself in return for baring their own souls to the world.

The pop-culture junkie in me loves this book; the word-nerd might be a little in love with Strauss himself.

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Galatea 2.2

Published in 1995, Richard Power’s Galatea 2.2 isn’t exactly a recent read of mine. It is, however, the only book I reread as often as Lolita (which is to say, it’s one of only two books I read so often that the pages are permanently bowed – every other book I own is in nearly pristine condition).

Coincidentally, Powers was also introduced to me by the same professor who put Lolita on my first year Lit. syllabus and pretty much changed my life forever. Not to be dramatic or anything.

Galatea 2.2 is the pseudo-autobiographical story of Richard Powers himself; it’s uncertain which specific events of the novel are based in reality and which are altered to further plot, but it’s clearly a story meant to write away some of Powers’ personal demons. In the novel, Powers returns to his alma mater – simply known as “U” – after ending a beautiful but volatile, doomed relationship with a women referred to as “C”.  While spending the year as an in-house author at U, Powers meets a cognitive neurologist named Philip Lentz, who convinces him to participate in an experiment involving artificial intelligence. Lentz bets his fellow scientists that he can build a computer that can produce an analysis of a literary text that is indistinguishable from one produced by a human – thus proving that the human brain can be mapped by means of computer-based neural networks. It falls to Powers to “teach” this machine.

What follows is equal parts computer theory, cognitive science and soaring, heartbreaking prose. Powers manages to make every incarnation of “Imp[lementation] A”  (of which there are eight, from A to H) feel less about the technology and more about biology – each attempt to create a machine that thinks for itself is viewed as a birth. Every time the system stops or stalls, it’s like watching a toddler learn to walk.

Imp H, on the other hand, could link any set of things into a vast, standing constellation. But it had no nose, mouth, fingers, and only the most rudimentary eyes and ears. It was like some caterpillar trapped by sadistic children in a coffee can, a token breathing hole punched in its prison lid. What monstrous intelligence would fly off from such a creature’s chrysalis?

Powers’ greatest skill is his ability to perfectly balance intellectually engaging facts with emotionally wrenching story-telling; every scientific statement is well-researched and accompanied by a mini-tutorial, yet so prosaically written that you rarely notice the science. If textbooks were this beautifully written, I’d have been a neurologist instead of a starving artist.

Woven throughout the scientific story arc is the fictional Powers’ own love story, told to the final incarnation of the machine, Imp H. Doomed almost from the start, the romance spans years and continents before ultimately burning out, as most supernovas do. In its ashes, Powers is left isolated and struggling with a profound case of writer’s block:

The moment the manuscript left my hands, I went slack… instead of catharsis, I felt nothing. Anaesthesia.

What was I supposed to do for the rest of my life? The rest of the afternoon alone seemed unfillable. I went shopping. As always, retail left me with an ice-cream headache.

I figured I might write again, at least one, if the thing could start with that magic first line. But the train – that train I asked the reader to picture – was hung at departure.

Galatea 2.2 is a novel whose themes clash and clatter; philosophy wars with technology, science with the sheer power of emotion and human connection. And in the end, there’s so much carnage on either side, nobody knows who wins.

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