Arguing With Andre Alexis, Again

A few weeks ago, I wrote  a response to an essay Andre Alexis published in The Walrus about the state of criticism in Canada. Now Alexis has answered my criticism. You can find the parry and thrust of our debate here, but to save time I’ve also pasted our recent discussion  down below. This will be of especial interest to fans of CanLit and John Metcalf.

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An evening out in NYC

Any sans everything readers out and about in Manhattan tomorrow evening may wish to add some artistic spice to their peregrinations by dropping by the fashionable hat shop Selima at 7 Bond Street (betweenish and slightly southish of the Greenwich and East Villages) for DOYOULOVEME?, an installation (and “fashion night out”) by the fabulously original illustrator and artist Marguerita Bornstein.

"Hitler-in-the-box" (Marguerita Bornstein, 1999)

Canada’s Greatest Books

What are Canada’s best 100 books? This is a question Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor Adams are hoping to answer by polling Canadian readers. They plan to sift through the results and publish the list of those that receive the most votes as Canada’s 100 Greatest Books, a kind of sequel to their fun 2009 compilation, Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books. Readers are asked to email in their top ten favourites. “The criterion is simple,” Clare and Adams write on their Web site. “Only works of fiction and non-fiction written by Canadian authors and that involve Canada in some capacity will be accepted.”

I had some important work to do when I came across the best Canadian books project—so naturally I had to compile my own top ten list on the spot. There are different ways to define best, and in my case, I decided to focus on books I not only considered important, but enjoyed reading. That meant I did not include books like George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, an undeniably significant book on historical grounds, but one that has never really spoken to me on a personal level. Rather than rank my top ten I’ve listed them chronologically. Here are the first five, with the rest to follow. Continue reading

Now welcom somer

Summer mosaic (Ian Mason, May 30, 2010)

A little something I worked up today with a camera and the ever-handy GIMP photo editor. I had some ambitions to push colour saturations in each picture to create a kind of gradient across the piece, but decided to stick with realistic colour instead. It was such a gorgeous Sunday — why try to improve it?

Cyrus Habib: Hic Rhodes, Hic Saltus

Below is a fascinating interview of Cyrus Habib by Chesa Boudin; I am reprinting it from The Rhodes Project. I am proud to count Cyrus as a friend, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting Chesa on a few occasions. Apologies for my obscure Hegelian pun in the title of this post.

Chesa Boudin earned two master’s degrees from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (Illinois, Merton and St. Antony’s, 2003). In April 2009, Scribner published his latest book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. He is currently in his second year at the Yale Law School.

Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns, 2003) an interview

Chesa Boudin

At the Bon Voyage Weekend in September 2003, my class of newly-selected Rhodes Scholars descended on the Jury’s Hotel in DuPont Circle. Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns) was easily the best dressed member of the group. His Armani tie complimented his tailored shirt and crisp pinstripe suit. He had a penchant for details – manicured fingernails, a unique wrist watch, cufflinks, and matching accessories. No matter the setting, he had on perfect designer sunglasses and would often switch between several in the course of a day. This focus on the aesthetic may seem odd for an intellectual powerhouse like Cyrus – or for the introduction to this interview. However, his attention to visual detail is particularly noteworthy because Cyrus is completely blind.

As a child Cyrus was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. In his case it struck one eye, and then the other. He was lucky to receive world-class treatment that prevented the cancer from metastasizing to his brain; he was unlucky in that it left him with no eyesight whatsoever and unable even to distinguish light from dark. Unlike someone blind from birth, Cyrus has an abundance of vivid visual memory from before he lost his sight. Since Cyrus lost his vision in 1989, he imagines everyone today with mullet haircuts and plaid polyester pants. While he can no longer see red or green, he has an acute visual image of those colors and knows not to mix and match them except during the Christmas season. And if Cyrus has a conversation about a skyscraper or a forest, he can actually picture the subject in his head, rather than understanding or imagining it through verbal context as someone blind from birth would have to do. These memories, combined with an uncanny sense of physical space allow him to navigate the world so smoothly that on first encounters he often passes as not being blind at all. Yet for the last twenty years his brain has not accumulated any new visual memory, leaving space to develop in other areas – his sense of smell and hearing, his memory, and his ability to master complex information quickly epitomize the word “extraordinary.”

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Fill ‘er up, sir?

Frank (May 16, 2010)

The nice thing about doing figure work but not doing portraits is that when your drawing goes south on you, there’s no one to look over your shoulder and say “Um, thanks Ian, but that doesn’t really look at all like me.” Having a reference is one thing, but a live person with a sense of identity can play havoc with your artistic morale.

The above picture started out as an exercise in reproducing a compelling self-portrait done by the great fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta, who died last week. As I worked on it, I realized the eyes were too big, the mouth too pursed, the neck too thin. But since Frank has far cooler things to do now than look over my shoulder, I’m free to reassure myself that the drawing at least looks like someone might — perhaps a Christopher Walken-esque movie villain from the mid-1960s, the kind of character who works at a country gas station, speaks quietly, and has murder on his mind.

Motion arrested

Detail from "The Rehearsal" (c. 1873-78), by Edgar Degas
Detail from "The Rehearsal" (c. 1873-78), by Edgar Degas

It is a strange yet common tendency of the beginner artist to think that the use of a reference object or image — a live model, for example, or a photograph — is somehow cheating. The beginner thinks, as I have thought at times, that a true artist is able to generate beautiful pictures directly from his or her imagination, without having to “copy” from something in front of them. Of course, this idea is both accurate and completely misleading. Many artists, through rigorous training and ongoing practice, have internalized the makeup and proportions of the human body (to take a common subject) and can render it at will — this being more than adequate a skill for artists employed in the fields of, say, fashion design or advertising. But many other artists regularly use live models or photographs as reference points, either because they are trying to capture the look of a specific person (rather than an imaginary one), or because they are trying to understand more perfectly the human form itself. Some, of course, are trying to do both.

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Heer, There, Everywhere

 

Adorno: almost as cute as Natalie Portman.

 Natalie Portman: a good beach conversationalist for Adorno?

“What have you been up to?” That’s a question that no reader of this blog has asked me. Still, here is the answer:

1. I’ve been writing literary essays for The Walrus, Canada’s answer to Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly. My long review essay on “the Holocaust novel” can be found here. It touches on everybody from T.W. Adorno to Natalie Portman to Art Spiegelman.  I also wrote a briefer, but related, review of Keith Oatley’s new novel, a review which can be found on the bottom of this page. Finally, I have a little essay on the difference between reading a writer and listening to him or her read, which is here.

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Joseph Epstein: Nostalgia for the Empire and the Closet

Lawrence of Arabia: In the closet and a servant of empire.

My previous essay about Commentary earned me a rebuke from a friend who happens to be a former contributor to that journal. I had suggested that Robert Alter was the only first-rate writer still contributing to Commentary.

What about Joseph Epstein? My friend asked. Or Terry Teachout? Or Ruth Wisse? Or Victor Hanson Davis? Or James Q. Wilson? Or Daniel Pipes?

Most of these are not names that make my heart beat faster when I see them plastered on a magazine cover but I’m happy to make exceptions for Terry Teachout and most especially for Joseph Epstein. I’ve praised both men repeatedly in book reviews.

Epstein is a top-notch personal essayist, who has revived the ruminative, free-ranging tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Among more modern essayists, he’s the peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal (not company he’d be completely comfortable with, sadly).  He’s also a very entertaining short story writer. Mind you, if literature were organized the way baseball was, Epstein wouldn’t be playing with the New York Yankees against heavy-hitters like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant but would have to have to content himself with life on a farm team in Albany or Akron. Still, the Akron Aeros have some good players and Epstein’s fiction has given me a great deal of pleasure.

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Things you can do with paper: 6 months in

Concerned woman (Feb 13, 2010), by Ian Garrick Mason

I had a bit of a crisis a couple of weeks back. I’d been working diligently on this whole “learning to draw” project for five and a half months, and had steadily worked my way through ups and downs to a point where I could say that my skills had progressed from “really very bad” to “mediocre”. This was a significant source of personal pride for me, as I hadn’t been sure when I started that I would manage to reach any higher level of artistic competence at all. I was feeling pretty good, frankly.

Then I watched Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary on Valentino.

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