Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Reads of 2010

Since it's the last day of 2010, I thought I'd share my favourite reads of the year.

First, I should mention that this list is my favourite reads from the past year, and not a "best books that were published in 2010" - given that I'm really far behind in my reading, constantly playing catch-up, and continually going back to read classics I have missed, I doubt I'd be able to stick to just newly published books.

Here's an interesting stat. Of the books I read in 2010, 9% of the books I read were ebooks (the most noteable one being Stephen King's Under The Dome, which at 1000 pages, I read on the app on my iPhone, and which took me ten months to complete, reading mostly in 5 to 10 minute pockets of time), 25% of the books I actually listened to unabridged audio versions of, and 66% of the books were physical books that I read.

It seems that I have had less and less time to actually sit down and read (either physical books or ebooks), but that more and more of my reading is taking place during other times. I did a lot of running this past year, which was perfect for offering me more time to listen to audio books. Otherwise, the only time I tend to have to listen to books (and podcasts) would be when I'm commuting to work, which is typically less than half an hour a day.

So, in no particular order, here are my 10 favourite reads from 2010.

Room by Emma Donoghue
An amazing story told through the point of view of a 5 year old boy who is raised as a captive in an 11 foot square shed with his mother. This book was a beautifully scripted narrative in that the narrator himself isn't aware of the things going on, and yet the reader knows precisely what's happening.  Brilliantly done, a wonderful juxtaposition of innocence and evil.

Annabel - Kathleen Winter

This is a beautiful story about a child born with both sexes - the parents decide to give the child an operation and raise it as a boy named Wayne. But inside, the female, Annabel, still exists. It's a fantastic look at the conflict involved in identity

The High Road - Terry Fallis

Wonderful and hilarious, this great story continues from THE BEST LAID PLANS pretty much the next day after the end of the first novel. I loved the fact that you learn more about Angus and his relationship with his deceased wife.  It's a great follow-up novel that made me want to go back and read the first one again. Like in the first novel, there are gut-splitting scenes alongside deeply touching moments. Fallis deftly moves between the two quite effectively.

The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch

This book was an incredible read, and not at all what I expected.  I'd thought that the content of the book was going to be Pausch's last lecture itself, but instead, it used the lecture as a central point to discuss his life, his illness, and the manner by which he completely accepted his fate and continued to want to inspire, encourage and teach.  This is an inspiring, engaging, life-changing sort of book.

The Passage - Justin Cronin
This post-apocalyptic story of survivors in a world over-run by vampires (known as virals) - yes, scary vampires, not the pleasant dignified and classy ones who hang out among mortals which are so popular in vampire literature lately - is an epic adventure of almost 800 pages.

Never Look Away - Linwood Barclay
Another phenomenal thriller from Barclay - this one begins with a missing child at a local theme park, but explodes into something that is far more interesting and unexpected. Here's one way I can describe how "unputdownable it is": I picked it up after someone stole THE PASSAGE from me and I had only about 60 pages left -- I started reading NEVER LOOK AWAY but, even after I bought THE PASSAGE again, I had to keep reading this one.  When I finally could put it down (because I had finished it), I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Ouroboros - Michael Kelly & Carol Weeks
A wonderfully haunting and beautiful love story of two close couples and what happens when one of them loses a spouse. This is one of those books that is so beautifully written that you don't want it to end. Weekes and Kelly are masterful at playing with the reader's emotions, both the sense of loss and the atmosphere of horror. As a reader, you can't help but be drawn deeply in to experience both and to be left haunted by the time you put the book down.

Drive - Daniel Pink
A look at what really motivates people, based upon statistics and facts that have been known for years, but which we tend to contiually overlook. People are NOT motivated by a higher salary, they're not motivated by a potential cash bonus -- people are ultimately motivated by interesting work and by being able to embrace autonomy, mastery and purpose. Pink brings it home repeatedly through the book in a captivating and interesting way.  This is a phenomenal book -- definitely a MUST READ for managers.

Watch - Robert J. Sawyer
The incredible continuation of the WWW trilogy, even better than WAKE. Sawyer manages to create an character unlike any I have read before -- the WWW itself actually becoming conscious, and showing how, nurtured in the proper way, by Caitlin, the blind girl whose eyes it first sees the world through, it isn't a scary thing at all, but something to marvel at, something to continue to nurture and protect. A secret government agency doesn't see it that way, and is determined to "shut it down" before it can harm humanity.  The novel,  beautifully questions who the real "monster" is and is another brilliant story by Sawyer that entertains and makes you think.

Linchpin - Seth Godin
A phenomenal book, inspiring, worth reading again - worth giving to people. Godin talks about work as being an art, and about the importance of work that you can put your heart and soul into -- thus resulting in becoming the Linchpins he keeps refering to (those whose work and efforts are indispensable). The world has become too competitive for a person to just plod through their days, and to continue to listen to the "lizard brain" (the part of the mind that is the main source of resistance in a person - the part that allows them to not give 150%, to just give up)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

HNT - Favourite HNT From 2010

This week the HNT theme is your favourite post from the year.  I spent a bit of time looking back at the HNT posts for 2010, and, while I can say that I certainly enjoy the weekly ritual and all of the personal things I reveal during HNT each week, it's tough to pick a favourite.

So, instead of highlighting a single one, I'll highlight the three F's of 2010 that I quite enjoyed.

HNT - Frightenstein (Originally posted Feb 18, 2010)

This is a post which reveals quite a bit about me - the fact that I'm a big chicken and that's part of what draws me to write scary stories.  The picture my Dad took of me being choked by Frankenstein's monster in Niagara Falls is among my favourites and it also represents one of my favourite memories of family vacation from my childhood.

HNT - Flashblackout (Originally posted June 10, 2010)

I quite like this self-protrait of me pretending to blackout while reading the novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer as part of celebrating the world-wide effort by fans of the TV series based on the novel to get ABC to change their decision of cancelling the show. Though I'm an amateur photographer and lack the basic photography skills, there's something I really like about the simple setup and framing of this shot, especially since I took it myself without any assistance nor a timer.

HNT - Father And Son BBQ (Originally posted October 14, 2010)

This post was a look at the simple joys of a father and son BBQing, and I compared my own experience of BBQing with my Dad to the joys of BBQing with my son.

So there are three of my favourite HNT posts of 2010.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Snowmen All Year

I recently bought a fun book for my son by Caralyn and Mark Beuhner. It's the third in their "snowmen" series, that started with Snowmen at Night, (click link to read my blog post about it back in 2006) a fantastical look at what snowmen actually do at night while everybody is sleeping, which explains why they look all droopy and disheveled.

It's a fantastic book and still one of my favourite kids books, which Alexander and I enjoy re-reading regularly.

Their second book was Snowmen at Christmas, a look at how Snowmen celebrate Christmas.  It follows the same theme, exploring what happens in the Snowman's secret world and all the celebrations they engage in once the rest of the world is asleep.
The latest book in that series is called Snowmen All Year and is a fun return to the snowmen theme, but this time with a different approach.

Snowmen All Year
This time, while the art is as beautiful as in the first two books, the premise isn't a look into the secret snowmen world at night; instead, it wonders what it would be like if your snowman could be with you the entire year.

It's a beautiful book, again told in rhyming verse -- I initially bought it for Alexander to give it to him as a Christmas gift. But I couldn't resist giving it to him early, and it has been a story that we've enjoyed reading, and talking about, plenty of times.

All three books also contain images hidden within and blended into the scenery. Little snowmen, Santa, a cat, a dinosaur, a rabbit.  So, after reading them, there's still a lot of fun to be had trying to find the images. (Alexander makes it a point to find EVERY hidden picture every time we read the book)

Two of my more popular (ie, I've received the most reader emails and comments about) horror short stories involve snowmen. Though different takes and approaches on the same premise (the concept of the relative shortness of the season and the inevitable melting), both stories were well received and I'd always wondered if I would ever return to write another snowman story. After all, I'm from Northern Ontario - snow is practically in my blood.

My story "That Old Silk Hat They Found" is a story told from a snowman's point of view upon first waking up. It's a dark humour look at what it might more realistically be like for "Frosty" to come alive.  You can listen to the entire story for free by clicking this link.

"Ides of March" is another snowman story, this one told by a man who witnesses two snowmen in a stolen truck rushing around to rescue their kin and drive north to escape the approach of spring.  You can read the opening of the story by clicking here.  Very soon I'll be recording a reading of it and pushing that out into the world.

Of course, the concept of a snowman surviving beyond spring -- well that just opens up entire new possibilities for this writer. Hmmmmmm.....

Thursday, December 23, 2010

HNT - 3 Wishes 2010

I've been posting HNT, or Half-Nekkid Thursday, pictures for almost as long as I've been blogging. For those who don't know what HNT means, it's a weekly post which is meant to be a celebration of exposure. The basic rules are simple. You expose yourself, through a photo of which you should be the subject.

Interpretations of "nekkid" are varied when you look at HNT participants around the globe. In many cases, the "nekkid" refers to "naked" and translates into sexy and risque photos. I've dabbed into that occasionally over the years on Thursdays. Others simply chose a fitting photograph of themselves taken for the occasion - their new hair style, new nail polish, a picture of them in a unique setting, etc. And others often "exposure" something about their inner selves.  In that way, it's a wonderfully open creative pursuit, allowing interpretations far and wide. And it all started with a single blogger known as Osbasso, a musician from Montana.

HNT has introduced me to some pretty awesome people from all over the world, and even some folks I now know in my own city. It has been a way for social media to bring people together through a common fun theme. Because part of the ritual of HNT had been to go visit other HNTer's sites and leave comments.  When I first started I would often browse sites for hours, trying to visit as many people as I could and leave a comment. Over the years I'll admit to not doing that so much -- there's only so much time in the day, and sometimes those 4 to 5 hours of precious sleep are more important to this middle-aged guy.

Osbasso, the central blogger in HNT, delights in watching HNTers around the world interpret the Thursday ritual their own way. But on certain occasions, he suggests themes. The annual Three Wishes HNT post has been a way Osbasso has helped encourage HNT participants to get to know each other.  The suggestion is to find 3 HNTers that you don't know, read their blog, learn a bit about them and suggest a gift you'd give to them, if you had the actual means to do so.  It has been a great community building excise, and something I've done for several years now:  2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009.

Looking back, I've broken the rules pretty much every year. Let this year be no exception.

This year, my three wishes are for readers of this blog.  May you, dear reader, have these three things in 2011 if you don't already have them. These are three things that I have and which I cherish from the bottom of my heart. If I could pass these three things on to everyone, I would, because these three things are critically important to me, and something I would share with the whole world if it was within my means.

Someone Who Loves You

May you be blessed with someone who loves you, truly, simply and without any doubt. I am fortunate to be loved and to feel loved each and every day. Obviously by my beautiful wife and son, but it goes beyond that, because I'm not just talking about the deep and committed love of relationships that close, but a more general love, a feeling of camaraderie and friendship -- a "love thy neighbour" sort of love. Our pets are often the purest example of this type of unabashed and unalterting and committed love. When you return home, the simple lick, nudge, chirp or whatever your pet offers by way of greeting you is a typical sign of that love.

Not a day goes by that I don't try to pause and reflect on what it means to be loved and feel loved, by my dearest family and friends, but also by the multitude of colleagues I interact with on a daily, weekly, monthly and sometimes less often basis. But knowing that love, that collegial respect is there, helps lift my days.  So may YOU have that, and if you don't, may you find that in the coming year so you can embrace it.

Someone To Love
This year for Christmas, my son is learning first-hand that the giving, the loving, the caring, can be more fun, exciting, and fulfilling than the receiving. Having someone to love is, in itself, rewarding. And, again, I am blessed to be able to love and embrace my wife and son and dear family members, attempting to not let a day pass without ensuring they know that love, a love which doesn't just fill my heart, but regularly overflows in it's endless supply, exists.

And there's the beauty of giving love. You never run out. And again, I'm not talking about a passionate and soap opera type romance, here (although I'm not poo-pooing that). I'm just saying it's not the "be all and end all" when it comes to someone to love. In a similar way as mentioned above, there are likely people you encounter daily, weekly, etc. May you find ways, even if they are simple, subtle ones, to let them know you appreciate and love them. No, the mailman whom you recognize and have seen regularly for years, but whose name you might not know isn't going to react too well if you stop and tell him how much you love him (especially when he brings fun things that aren't bills), but perhaps you'll find ways to let that love, that appreciation be known.

John Lennon evoked the simple concept of that type of love in his song "Imagine" -- though he doesn't so much as use the word love. But what he's talking about is simple. The world is made a better place the more that each of us is able to pause and demonstrate that "brotherhood of man" -- gender terms aside (because we all know what he really meant), the concept is simple -- we're all on this planet together. Every single small thing you can do in your day to day life can be a demonstration of love and respect. Those little things can make the world a better place -- may you find simple and easy ways to embrace that whenever and wherever you can.

A Vocation To Love
I was going to say "job" here, but it goes well beyond that. Yes, I am blessed to have a job that I love; but I'm also blessed to write, a pastime I do in my "non-working" hours which I sometimes earn income for, but which is more of a "calling" for me.  Some folks aren't as blessed as me to have jobs they love, and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by toiling in a job they despise.

So for those who are unable to break free of that, may they at least find a hobby, a calling, a volunteer effort, a thing to do in their spare time that they are truly passionate about, because that activity is likely to be what helps fulfill them in as powerful a way as loving and being loved.

And, of course, there are those who either aren't in the working world for whatever reason. Retired, in school, stay at home Moms, Dads, spouses, folks who are independently wealthy. My wish is that whatever "vocation" you are currently in that goes far beyond a job, may it be something that brings you joy and helps fill your days with a passion.


So there are three simple wishes. Three wishes that I would offer to anyone and everyone, but in particular, right now, directly to YOU, dear reader. 

And to illustrate my own incredible fortune in knowing and acknowledging that I have all three, here is a shot from a few years ago of me and Alexander hanging an ornament on our Christmas tree. It should illustrate, quite simply, all three things:  That I am loved by my son, that I love my son, and that I love the calling of fatherhood. (And let's not forget our pure joy in loving the task of decorating the Christmas tree, something Francine, Alexander and I love doing together -- a simple task that brings us so much joy)

So, Happy HNT and Merry Christmas to you and may you embrace love in all its glories.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Laughs Are So Delightful

This time of year I like to read books that include some sort of Christmas theme. There's something magical and special about the Christmas season that I quite enjoy.

And while I enjoy serious and inspirational writing, I will, of course, regularly return to humour.

This year, I'm enjoying two different yet funny Christmas themed books.

Holidays on Ice: StoriesLast year I treated myself to Holidays on Ice, a collection of humourous essays by David Sedaris. Of course, I never got around to reading it last year so I'm enjoying it this year. (It's like a gift to myself that keeps on giving)

The book immediately caught my attention when I spotted it on display, as I hadn't previously read anything by Sedaris, but have long wanted to.  Of course, the little hard-cover languished in a large pile of "oh I've got to read this" purchases I made late last year for the longest time. I think I discovered it some time around February and then kicked myself for not having picked it up to read during the Christmas season.  Of course, I'm rather pleased with myself for reading it now, striking the Christmas-reading phase while the proverbial iron is hot.

I'm still on the first essay "Santaland Diaries" which recounts his experiences as a Macy's Santaland Elf. It contains an incredible number of humorous bits about the experience, as anyone who has worked retail at Christmas time can imagine. But here's a quick sampling of the type of observations Sedaris makes.

Then there are the multimedia families in groups, who say, "All right now, let's get a shot of Anthony, Damascus, Theresa, Doug, Amy, Paul and Vanity -- can we squeeze them all together? Santa, how about you let Doug sit on your shoulders, can we do that?"
     During these visits the children are rarely allowed to discuss their desires with Santa. They are too busy being art-directed by the parents.
     "Vanity and Damascus, look over here, no, look here."
     "Santa, can you put your arms around Amy and shake hands with Paul at the same time?"
     "That's good. That's nice."
     I have seen parents sit their child upon Santa's lap and immediately proceed to groom: combing hair, arranging a hemline, straightening a necktie. I saw a parent spray their child's hair, Santa treated as if he were a false prop made of cement, turning his head and wincing as the hair spray stung his eyes.
- Excerpt from "Santaland Diaries" - David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice
It's certainly a good book, and even though I've just begun it, I know I'm going to continue to love the rest. I've already falled into his prose and escape into the good humour of the tales as if he is sitting across a table in a coffee shop recounting them to me.

The book is out in paperback this year with a different cover (although I'm a bit partial to the cover on the HC, with it's short glass filled with ice and what appears to be a vodka drink, the snowflake speckled glass sweating so tantalizingly.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas CarolsAnd I'm also enjoying re-reading Michael P. Spradlin's It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols.

The humour in this one is, as you would expect, a bit more low-brow and dark.

I read this last year, having to regular read bits aloud to Francine (careful to make sure our five year old son was not within ear-shot).  Illustrated by Jeff Weigel, it's a cute and hilarious little spoof of Christmas Carols, all to the zombie theme.

I blogged about this in detail last year (check it out for a video trailer and further ramblings from me about the book), but thought I'd share the opening of a carol sung to the tune of "Winter Wonderland"

Undead moan, are you listening?
In the lane, blood is glistening.
A horrible sight,
We're screaming tonight,
Runnin' through a Zombie wonderland.

Already turned, is our neighbor!
Zombies here, I belabor.
They moan their own song,
As we scream along,
Sprintin' through a Zombie wonderland.

- Excerpt from "Zombie Wonderland" - Michael P. Spradlin, It's Beginning To Lot a Lot Like Zombies
The book is just chok-full of morbid and delightful zombie carols, the perfect antidote for when you tire of hearing the same songs over and over again from about the end of October.  (Flipping the lyrics in your mind helps give you a new way to enjoy the same old classics)

So there you have it.  Two great ideas for humorous Christmas reading. It's not to late to nip into your local bookstore and check them out, either for yourself or as a special "stocking stuffer" treat for a loved one who needs a good laugh.

Or, if you get a gift card for your favourite bookstore for Christmas, hopefully these are two ideas that help you spend it (and will, of course, help the bookstores and publishers if any stock of these are left AFTER Christmas -- you'll also be doing YOUR part for the environment by purchasing it after Christmas, as you'll help reduce carbon footprint emissions of the books being returned to the publishers at the end of the season)

The books are also available in ebook format - has them, check them out by clicking Holidays On Ice or It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Zombies.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pictures From The Vinyl Cafe

Last night Stuart McLean's final stop on the 2010 Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour took place in Hamilton.  Francine and I were there (it has become a tradition not just to listen to Stuart's CBC show on Sunday afternoons, but also to attend the annual show)

Stuart's guests were Matt Anderson and Jackie Richardson -- two amazingly talented performers with incredible voices and stage presence. Also touring with Stuart, providing music to backup Matt & Jackie as well as various bits for Stuart, were the delightful and talented team of John Sheard on piano Dennis Pendrith on standup bass.

As always, it was a great show; a wonderful mixture of music, Dave & Morley stories and audience participation.

During intermission, Francine and I were fortunate to be among the folks invited backstage to meet Stuart. This gave me a chance to thank him in person for a recent show in which he focused on the unique appeal of the local community bookstore and spoke to three different booksellers from across Canada.

Even though we have several signed copies of Stuart's books, we couldn't resist the temptation of bringing a copy of his latest book, The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks, and getting him to sign it.If you're looking for a last minute Christmas gift, this book (or one of almost a dozen of Stuart's other books, or the many CD's of his stories) make a great gift.

Yes, more evidence that I'm a writer, NOT a photographer

The concert was the perfect lead-in to Christmas and a family tradition that we plan on continuing. Alexander is now getting old enough to be able to sit through a show, and we're planning on bringing him along with us next year. (He has already heard a few of Stuart's stories -- he loved "Waterslide" -- and over the holiday's we'll likely treat him with "Polly Anderson's Christmas Party" and "Dave Cooks a Turkey" -- two classics. (Follow this link to listen to quick excerpts from these stories)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Silly Christmas Lyric Meme: Here Comes Santa Claus

In 2006 I started a silly Christmas lyric meme where I take a song we hear countless times and point out a part of it that makes we wonder, confuses me or is worth exploring if merely for the humour of it . . . (feel free to play along and share your own silly thoughts about Christmas lyrics on your own blog)

The Rules: Pick a Christmas lyric that inspires silly thought and discuss it. Then either tag people or simply invite your readers to chime in with their own silliness.

Feel free to use the "Cousin Eddie" image by copying the following code and replacing the '(' and ')' with '<' and '>' :

(a href="")(img src="" alt="Mark Leslie's Silly Christmas Lyric meme" /)

The Song: Here Comes Santa Claus. Originally written by Gene Autry (1907-1998) and Oakley Haldeman (1909-1986) and first recorded by Gene Autry in 1947.

Lyrics In Question: "So jump in bed and cover your head 'cause Santa Claus comes tonight."

The Comment:  Before I dig into the lyrics I should mention that I've long been interested in the juxtaposition between the religious and the fantastical elements of Christmas in this song.  It mentions peace on earth coming to all if you just follow the light, hanging your stockings and saying your prayers, and Santa knowing that we're all God's children.  While there are Christmas songs that either focus on Santa or carols that focus on the birth of Jesus and religious origins of Christmas, it's rare for a song to do both. This one interestingly does just that.

But let's get down to the silly lyrical analysis. 

Given today's over-protective society and the fact that we can't trust people to be smart enough to make their own decisions and not do something stupid, I'm wondering when parent groups or some other organization seeking to make the world a better place might attempt to ban this song.

"Why?" you ask. (And before you attempt to guess, no it's not religious fanatics upset about Santa getting in the way of the real meaning of Christmas, nor non-religious fanatics pissed that God, peace and prayers are mentioned in a fun Santa song)

Well, isn't the reason obvious? I can already imagine people shouting out that his song can lead to needless injuries and mass suffication of children all over the world.

After all, jumping in bed is a frowned-upon activity that can lead to bruises and broken bones.  And if you were to cover your head with your blankets and sheets you might run out of oxygen in the night while sleeping. And that can be dangerous.

Thus, this song, in the minds of certain public interest groups, is a danger to society, should be removed from rotation in radio play (yes, even the cute Elvis version of the song), and in it's place public service announcements should remind children that while it's good to be asleep when Santa comes, there is no need to "jump in bed" (which can lead to serious injury) and "cover your head" (because that, of course, can lead to suffication)

So far, the song isn't banned and can still be heard on radio stations far and wide. So enjoy it for now, because you never know when someone might take offense to the inherint dangers in the song and attempt to save us all from having to be exposed to the dangerous instructions within.

What about you? Does this song inspire silly thoughts? Perhaps it's another song. Steal this idea for your own blog or share your thoughts in a comment here.

[To read my previous Silly Christmas Lyric commentary, check out 2009 (I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus), 2008 (Silent Night), 2007 (Silver Bells) and the original 2006 (The Christmas Song)]

Friday, December 17, 2010

Da Count - Spreading Joy

Putting out merchandise on a sales floor is easy to do.  It's also relatively simple to make an attractive and effective display.

And when you have a product that is "box-like" and a simple rectangle, there are only so many ways you can configure the display, right?

Sure. But given variances in colour, for example, you can make an otherwise simple display into something a little more appealing, something a little more attractive, something a little more eyecatching . . .

. . . something that perhaps spreads a little joy.

I was delighted to see this display at my local Metro grocery store on Upper James in Hamilton.  So pleased, in fact, that I paused to take a picture of it.

It was simple, yet effective.  And it brought a smile to my face.

Yes, the snowmen on top added to it, but it was the configuration of the red and white Dr. Pepper cases that make this display. Not sure if it was a corporate marketing initiative or something implemented at the one store I visited, but it certainly was effective.

So I'd like to count those little things we encounter in our days, small, seemingly insignificant things that put a tiny little positive and pleasant feeling in our hearts. Retailers have that ability to do it by making simple choices when building their displays.

They can "move a product" but they can also "move a person."


Thursday, December 16, 2010

HNT - Christmas Vacation At Chateau Leslie

Four years ago I made a mixed CD for Francine for Christmas. I had originally wanted to buy her the soundtrack for National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but, alas, I couldn't find it anywhere. 

(Okay, that's not entirely true - I could find over-priced used copies of it on eBay.  I could also find illegal downloads of the original sound-track too.  But neither one of those options appealed to me)

So, I made a list of the songs that appeared on the original sound-track, purchased the ones that I was able to through iTunes and also added other favourite Christmas songs that I knew Francine liked.  I then interspersed various short audio clips from the movie that appear between songs, often quotes from Cousin Eddy such as the "The shitter was full" clip)

The result was Chateau Leslie's Christmas Vacation soundtrack. 

The cover, of course, is the original "movie poster" with my own face in the place of Chevy Chase's. Watching the movie each year has become a tradition -- so has listening to the CD.

One of my favourites on the CD is the R&B/Jazzy "Hey Santa Claus" by The Moonglows, which, in the movie, is only used for about a 10 to 15 second clip played immediately prior to Clark's visit to the shopping mall where he gets distracted by the beautiful young lingere salesperson.

Of course the CD doesn't just contain songs from the modern Christmas classic written by John Hughes, but also music from other "Christmas" shows such as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the original animated one featuring the song by Thurle Ravenscroft - Mister Grinch), Burl Ives' "Holly Jolly Christmas" from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and "Christmas Time is Here" by Vince Guaraldi from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

So, though I couldn't buy the CD as I had originally intended, the project to put this together for Francine was a fun and worthwhile effort -- and it took me back to the days when making a mixed cassette tape for your best friend and then presenting it to them was a pretty special personalized thing.

So just a thought for those out there looking for the perfect Christmas gift for that special someone. It might seem like the "cheap thing" to do (although purchasing each song for 99 cents might cost more than a full CD would cost anyway)*, but if you get the songlist right and put some care into compiling something that's perfectly suitable, perhaps it can be a gift that will be cherished and enjoyed for years to come.

* Yes, I'm fully aware that I could likely have easily stole and downloaded all of the tracks I needed. But I do make an effort to respect the rights of copyright owners -- and besides the fact that I take issue with theft of creative property, the process of hunting down and purchasing downloaded versions of each track I wanted to use, as well as using music I had purchased via traditional retail channels was a lot more fun. The effort and work involved gave me a real sense of accomplishment. I mean, what's the alternative? "Here you go, Honey! I stole your Christmas gift from over a dozen different artists. Merry Christmas!"  And, not being a copyright expert, perhaps I did technically violate the law in creating a mixed CD for personal use -- but I was simply copying and mixing products I had already purchased -- so for me, it's more of a morality issue than a legal one.  (Stepping down off my little soap box now)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bearing A Gift Beyond Price

So there's this recent talk about a threat to the CBC.  And there's a petition.

I don't want to be one of those people who just let things happen without letting my voice be heard. I don't want to be one of those people who just let things pass by thinking "oh, that's a shame" and then, years later, wonder what happened and miss something I didn't realize offered me so much.

I've therefore embedded the petition on my blog in the hopes that it reaches just one person who doesn't want to see this priceless resource that has added so much to Canadian culture be tossed aside.

Perhaps the threat is real, perhaps it's an over-reaction to a short offhand comment. But I don't want to take the chance.  Besides, it never hurts to show your support for something that continues to add value and make a positive difference in continuing to offer the Canadian voice to be heard.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Posters From Postertext

I caught this via a friend's link on Facebook -- Postertext allows people to hang their favourite books on the wall with a book's entire text aranged to depict a memorable scene from the book.

What a cool concept, an incredible gift for book lovers, and a pretty amazing conversation piece to hang in your home.

I think it'd be cool if book retailers looked at carrying some of these in stock.  It's too late for this Christmas season, but what an amazing gift. Of course the merchandising possibilities are pretty cool with this, too.

They're also taking requests for books (and, of course, can only focus on classic literature -- likely due to it having to be in the public domain in order for them to be able to use the text)

But wouldn't it be cool if an author or publisher who owned the rights to a book sent them the complete text of their own novel and got them to make a Postertext version of it? What kind of awesome promotional opportunity would that be? Instead of sending out ARCs, you could send posters of your book to some selected places -- perhaps mount them or frame them and give them to your local library, local bars, restaurants or haunts where literary-minded folks hang out.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

HNT - The Book Is Dead

A few weeks ago I read a fascinating book by Sherman Young called The book is dead (long live the book).

It's a fascinating book written by a passionate book lover and digital consumer/producer.

Young's basic premise is that even though more books are published every year, books actually died a long time ago, well before the Internet, well before the dawn of digital books.  Young argues that we killed it ourselves a long time before, that most books actually published are not products of a "book culture" but rather anti-books -- cynical marketing-driven printed objects capitalizing on whatever is currently hot (popular celebrity bio of the day, anyone?)

He makes some interesting arguments, and goes back to look at historical book culture and publishing culture (the mystery and beauty and mystique it still holds on to in some ways today), runs through a brief history of publishing and reading, then ventures into speculation about the future of "books" and the future of the industry, and what is needed to evolve.

Young states he wrote the book because he loves books and wants a future in which reading still happens and books still matter.  His goal with the book is to begin a conversation that will continue on his blog of the same name as the title of the book:  The Book is Dead.  It's worth heading over then and reading, but I'd suggest reading the book first, as it is well-written, compelling and a really tightly packed look from the beginning of publishing to just a few years ago.

Here's a quick peek at the Table of Contents

Chapter 1:  The book is dead
Chapter 2: What is a book?
Chapter 3: Nobody reads
Chapter 4: Everybody writes
Chapter 5: What do publishers do?
Chapter 6: Objects of desire
Chapter 7: Reconfiguration
Chapter 8: The heavenly library

I find it most intriguing that while the book was published in 2007 (written perhaps in 2006), and the publishing world has advanced dramatically in the past 4+ years (ebooks are now rising to become less of a "they're coming" object and more and more of a "they're here" phenomena), Young makes some observations and predictions regarding that future that are pretty bang-on.

As Young reaches the end of the book, he examines existing e-reading devices (which, back in 2006 was a far cry from what we have today -- we'd only seen the beginning of the true potential in that area) which he recognizes will continue to become better and easier to use -- he talks about the heavenly library, of books in the cloud, and of the vast potential that exists, not to kill the book, but to help breathe new life into it.

"Compared to cultural change," Young says, "building a convincing e-reading device is a cinch. Constructing an ecosystem that speaks to book culture will prove far more difficult than producing a readable electronic screen."

When I went to find the book, because upon discovering it I wanted to start reading it immediately, the first place I checked were ebook sources.  I mean, come on, it's a book about the book being dead. It was published in 2007. Surely it's no longer in print. Right? And surely I could reach out into the bold new world of publishing and be able to quickly purchase and download the book and begin reading it immediately. Right?

Interestingly, the book was still in print, but wasn't available in digital format. So I had to order a hard copy of it.

Oh well, at least it's nicer to present a picture of me reading the print version of the book rather than an ebook version, which is this week's HNT pic.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

This Blog Lacks Literary Merit

I recently listened to a great interview/discussion between Shelagh Rogers and Louise Penny on a special podcast extended interview section from Shelagh's CBC Radio show The Next Chapter.

It's a great discussion about Penny's Inspector Gamache series of crime novels, but one of my favourite parts are when they start talking about crime fiction and the Canadian literary landscape.

It was interesting to hear how when the Crime Writers of Canada has put in requests with the Canada Council for the Arts, their requests for money or support inevitably come back with the stamp LACKS LITERARY MERIT.

Penny also talks about how crime fiction is rarely ever even nominated for major literary awards for the same reason, and her and Rogers try to determine who decides what lierary merit is and why great crime novels which also happen to be just plain good novels are constantly overlooked.

Of crime fiction, Penny says, "These books are not about death, they're about life. The murder is a vehicle to examine all sorts of issues about human nature."

I feel the same way about good horror novels.

Horror, science Fiction and other speculative genres, of course, are also often similarly overlooked, as if the speculative elements, or their dark subject matter make their stories any less serious, the tales any less true. 

Not all that long ago, a colleague of mine who was extremely well read, balked and insisted she did not like science fiction when I recommended Robert J. Sawyer's novel Rollback to her. After I forced the book into her hands, telling her to ignore the genre label and just start reading the story and to stop when it got to writing or a part of the tale she didn't enjoy, she read the whole novel and loved it. Then she went on to read other novels by Sawyer, her initial hesitance tossed aside.

She realized that the novel was a beautiful love story.

As Sawyer has said, a good science fiction novel must be about something, it can't just be some half-baked "wouldn't it be neat if this happened" idea. The characters need to be real and the book has to make the reader think, engage them at a level that makes them consider something.

Rollback, while seeming to be about a person given the chance to extend their life using cutting edge technological advances in order to work on an important generation-spanning celestial communition project, is really, at its heart, a love story.  It's about a couple who have grown old together their whole life, and what happens to their intimate relationship when one of them has their body rejuvinated back to that of a twenty-year old.  (In other words it examines how a relationship is affected by a sudden and dramatic change taking place in one of the people in that relationship)

Similarly, Sawyer's FlashForward, on the surface a tale about what happens when humanity passes out for two minutes and receives a vision from their future, isn't about the speculative phenomenon so much as it's a novel about freewill (ie, if you were able to see what your future might be and didn't like it, would you be able to change it or are you destined to follow some pre-scripted plan?) - the premise came from Sawyer's own experience at a high school reunion in which "God, I wish I knew then what I know now," was a regularly repeated phrase when everyone was looking back on their teenages selves and how they imagined their lives might be twenty years into the future.

Me & Robert J. Sawyer at the McMaster launch for his novel, WATCH

So yes, this blog lacks literary merit.

So too do many fantastic novels if you judge them merely by the "subject" area assigned to them for the purposes of marketing them to readers, shelving them in bookstores and the online browse paths they fall under.