Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Easy Freestyle - book review

"Easy Freestyle", by Terry Laughlin

My rating: 3/5

This is a guide that teaches you do swim freestyle, or crawl If you prefer.

I’ve often found that in any approach to a discipline with any physical aspect to it, you’ll have a die-hard materialist approach on one end of the spectrum, and an eastern-looking mindful approach on the other. The materialist approach will draw scientific-minded individuals, masochists and alpha individuals, the other will draw magicians, social misfits, hippies and strong silent types. None of these categories are mutually exclusive, of course, so a lot of people won’t stick to a single approach.

If you came to martial arts and found your prefer tai-chi to boxing, or enjoy running through the pose method/chi-running and never do intervals or fartleks, if you prefer U2’s “One” to U2’s “Pride”, if you would rather watch Jeff Bridges in “the Big Lebowski” than Jeff Bridges in “Tron”, if you love the faraway surfer’s gaze when they talk about “the wave” yet hate the surfer’s obsession with six-pack abs, etc. etc., there is a strong chance that you will enjoy learning to swim the crawl through this guide.

It uses a method called “Total Immersion”. Such an evocative name, no? “Total” speaks of oneness, being at peace with oneself. “Immersion” points toward a holistic approach.

Is it the real deal? Or a marketing ploy? I don’t care, really. I’m just reviewing the guide from a literary point of view. The fact of the matter is, if you spend enough hours in the pool trying to swim freestyle, I’m sure it’ll eventually work for you. What you need, to really get into it, is a narrative. The narrative begins with you not being able to swim a pool length without puffing your lungs out, and ends with you doing dozens of them without stopping, somersaulting underwater off the wall at either end. You need a guide or an instructor to provide the plot.

This guide is the mindful type. It teaches through exercises that promote relaxation and calm in the water. It starts by showing you how to glide in the water, minimize your drag, feel at ease and calm just slowly moving through just under the surface. It’s called the “superman glide”, during which you push off from your feet in the shallow water and let yourself glide with both arms extended in front of you. 

From the “superman glide”, you learn to flutter your legs behind you, just enough to balance yourself in the water, not let your legs sink, maintain a streamlined form.

From the flutter, you learn to hold one arm ahead of you and another tucked into your side, the “skating” position. Then, you learn to roll your shoulder up, just enough to allow your head to turn, your face to emerge from the water and your mouth to suck air.

It goes on, a series of small, attainable levels of proficiency that eventually turn into a freestyle swim.

It teaches how to swim “with your body” instead of against it. It explains that you must let gravity work for you instead of fighting it (this is generally where the scientists get off the bus).

It speaks of “Perpetual Motion Propulsion” and the ZenSkate.

It offers images of a laser emitted from the top of your head pointing the way toward which your energies will be channelled.

If you look up “Total Immersion” on the internet, you’ll find some videos that demo the method. You’ll see people gliding gracefully through the water, apparently effortlessly, with the leg kick and arm movement synchronized (this is what is referred to as a two-beat kick). Look up some more, and you’ll come upon internet forums (oh, the brackish acidity of an internet forum!) where swimmers clamour about the “Swim Smooth” method being superior to the “Total Immersion” because the “Total Immersion” teaches fluidity at the expense of speed and performance, and puts a limit on your progression. Other swimmers clamour that they were hopeless in the pool until they tried “Total Immersion” and have never looked back since.

I’m going to go with this method (no, I haven’t yet done so), for the simple reason that I’ll sound a lot cooler talking about “Total Immersion” to people at social events, and if I’m talking to a swimmer I’ll just change the subject anyhow. I really hate hearing athletes recount their achievements and when they do I excuse myself and head for the buffet.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Catcher in the Rye - book review

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinder - book review

My rating: 5/5!

The first time I read this book was in the mid-80’s, in high school. I went to a French-speaking high school about a hundred kilometers west of Montréal. At the time, everyone was listening to U2 and Tears for Fears and The Cure and only the anglophone minority of which I was a part actually understood the words to those songs. That used to kill me. You’d have a high school dance and everyone would be kind of surf-dancing to “Boys don’t cry” and most of them had no idea what the song was about, but it didn’t keep them from adopting that pouting stance with their front hair hanging over the left side of their downcast faces.

Claudia had that look too. She had this shock of really blond hair that hung down about to her cheek. She didn’t pout, though. She ruined the goddamn look by smiling all the time. God, she had a beautiful smile. She was part of the anglophone minority too on account of her parents being German, so we’d trade cassettes and joke about song lyrics and that tv show Moonlighting. I’d seek her out in the recreation hall at lunchtime, I could recognize her from way back at the end of the hall just from the set of her shoulders, even though in the mid-80’s in private schools everyone wore these jackets with huge shoulder pads, boys included, and some even went as far as to roll up the sleeves of their jackets even when they were wearing a shirt and tie, like they were in Miami Vice or something. That fad died pretty quick, but you can be sure that the French speakers were among the last ones to maintain it. So I’d seek out Claudia, she had a really straight back and she always stood with one leg straight and the other kind of bent at the knee and slightly in front of her, and this being a private school she’d be in a skirt, which was just torture, and I’d sidle up and act real cool and bored with both hands in my pockets wrinkling my blazer at the hips like I hardly cared about anything and was just passing by to talk to her because why not.

At the time I was a huge cynic, the way teenagers can be when they want to appear older, and all my jokes were cynical, and Claudia would laugh at them anyway and she’d add “oh, Renaaaay, Renaaay, Renaaaay” like that, pronouncing it like “heyyyy” and I’d drop the cynical act for a moment before returning to it later.

Anyways, my English teacher recommended we read the Catcher in the Rye and told us we’d find it very funny. I don’t think anyone else in my class read it, just me, and I didn’t find it funny much, but I really identified to Holden Caulfield. I think you have to be an adult to find it funny. I mostly read it and pictured myself as Holden getting kicked out of school and wandering around New York and being simultaneously charmed and repulsed by humanity. Just the opening page was enough to grasp my attention, and though the school I went to didn’t advertise with horse-riding ads, the following paragraph about Holden’s school Pencey spoke to me directly:

‘They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place. And underneath the guy on the horse's picture, it always says: "Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men." Strictly for the birds. They don't do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn't know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way.’

And, of course, I pictured my best friend Claudia as the character of Jane. Only it didn’t really fit, because Jane had a lousy childhood and Claudia was a happy girl who ruined her goddamn pouty look by smiling all the time. Anyways, there is this scene in the book where Holden describes how he came close to necking with Jane, and Jane’s stepfather comes around and asks her where his cigarettes are, and Jane doesn’t answer him:

‘Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn't even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares--boy, I can still see it. She just rubbed it into the board with her finger. I don't know why, but it bothered hell out of me. So what I did was, I went over and made her move over on the glider so that I could sit down next to her--I practically sat down in her lap, as a matter of fact. Then she really started to cry, and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her all over--anywhere--her eyes, her nose, her forehead, her eyebrows and all, her ears--her whole face except her mouth and all. She sort of wouldn't let me get to her mouth. Anyway, it was the closest we ever got to necking. After a while, she got up and went in and put on this red and white sweater she had, that knocked me out, and we went to a goddam movie.’

You can bet your boots I read that and pictured myself kissing Claudia. I must have read that single paragraph a dozen times over until it was etched in my mind. There was no way I was going to be around if and when Claudia cried, she was a happy girl, but I goddamn well read it over and over and pictured Claudia putting on that red and white sweater and us going to a movie anyway.

Claudia actually made an atheist out of me. She sat at a desk just behind me and in religious studies, she’d lean forward and whisper in my ear, just to goad me, asking me if I believed in what it was we were being taught, and of course I defended the existence of God as well I could by using Voltaire’s argument about there being no clock without a clock-maker, and we’d have a whispered argument right there in class. Teenagers in religious schools entertain a kind of familiarity toward faith. As in the following passage that describes the guy after whom was named a wing of the school Holden attends:

‘ It was named after this guy Ossenburger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. Anyway, he gave Pencey a pile of dough, and they named our wing alter him.
He told us we should always pray to God--talk to Him and all-wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs. The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart.’

Claudia worked at me for two weeks, we’d have these whispered arguments in class, and she actually convinced me that I was mostly praying for no good reason, and I was really impressed by the way she did it and I got even more infatuated with her than I already was.

Good ol’ Claudia. She didn’t play checkers that I knew of. She liked ping-pong, and she could laugh at losing a game.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Review of: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan - book review

My rating: 1/5

What a bunch of crap.

A thing I find unbearable is the forced pathos of one-dimensional characters.

Take Benny, for instance. Benny can't get an erection. So he puts gold flakes in his coffee and stares at his assistant's tits with various degrees of discretion. We get it. Why then are we led through the ritual over and over? Benny starts his day with a coffee, stares at assistant's tits, self-scans and finds no erection. Later, in the car with the assistant, he stares at her tits. No reaction. But wait! Later, he's banging on a cowbell accompanying a rock band he might be signing (he's a music producer), stares at his assistant's tits and, lo and behold! Erection! We are thus given to understand that music is a big part of his erection process. But then, he has his erection shattered by shameful memories that assail him. So now we understand that his erectile dysfunction is a product of a failed marriage, failed relationships and disaffection for the music industry. The ageing music fan who feels that music was once grand and is now a lifeless aseptic hulk is a tired, fatigued cliché that I hoped I wouldn't encounter in this book, only to have it thrown in my face. Benny is just a hodge podge of music producer clichés. Divorced. Has a son who he would like to be close to but who remains distant.

As for his assistant, Sasha, she has her own first-world problem, a galloping kleptomania of which secret she only divulges to her shrink, Coz. She mentally spells out that she and Coz are writing a narrative together that ends with her being cured of kleptomania (never mind that this is the readers’ job, not the writers’), which is just another way of saying that Coz is a stand-in for the author, which is rather facile (and also cliché). Add to this that she only seems to come awake, sexually, when her partner is remotely aware of her stash of stolen goods. So her character is basically Benny, only younger and pretty (i.e. female cliché) while Benny is older, wilful and entrepreneurial (male cliché).

Then comes Rhea, who used to love Benny, and they were part of a punk band called the Flaming Dildos (wow, how long did it take to come up with that name?), and they went to concerts and they'd all dance near the stage and Rhea mentions that Benny was the only one who really listened to the music. How cute. Benny is special. Benny profoundly cares about music in the midst of a jaded generation of hedonistic party-goers.

This nauseating assembly of trite point-of-view fragments appears to hail from the we-live-in-new-york-and-make-lots-of-money-and-sleep-with-the-wrong-people-and-share-it-with-our-shrink school of literature and film. It’s basically a soap opera, wherein the reader is invited to keep track of who’s screwing who, and try to muster some form of reaction to it that somehow ignores the fact that this book is about people with, yes, I’ll say it again, first-world problems.

Oh sure, it has its’ share of divorces, suicides, betrayals, but the problems are self-inflicted, and I’d much rather be reading about people fighting real diseases than people succumbing to the psychological equivalent of auto-immune disorders.

Mostly though, the writing is terrible. The situations are forced, and there’s no depth or insight anywhere. And it’s fraught with clichés.

Take the following extract, about Lou (music producer) and Mindy (anthropology student) on a safari:

‘After his swim, Lou goes in search of spears and snorkeling gear, resisting his temptation to follow Mindy back to their room, though clearly she’d like him to. She’s gone bananas in the sack since they left the tents (women can be funny about tents) – hungry for it now, pawing off Lou’s clothes at odd moments, ready to start again when he’s barely finished. He feels tenderly toward Mindy, now that the trip is winding down. She’s studying something at Berkeley, and Lou has never traveled for a woman. It’s doubtful that he’ll lay eyes on her again.’

Sound schematic? The whole book is like that! Guess how this story ends? Lou marries Mindy, because though he was going to dump her, she made him jealous by eyeing another male. I had trouble reading it because I was rolling my eyes the whole time.

Are we ready for another example? Here goes, a history of a character Jules who’s a failed writer:
‘he’d gotten himself a job at Harper’s, an apartment on Eighty-first and York, and three roommates – two of whom now edited magazines. The third had won a Pulitzer.’

Not only is this blatantly schematic, it’s hardly believable. The writing style is contemporary, which could lull into an illusion of realism, if everything wasn’t so over-the-top, trading loudness for substance.

This is the eerie announcement that the worst of television has found its way into literature.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s one more example, about a rock-and-roll guitarist (everyone in this book is either a musician or screwing one or hoping to screw one):
‘Bosco was unrecognizable as the scrawny, stovepipe-panted practitioner of a late-eighties sound somewhere between punk and ska, a hive of redheaded mania who had made Iggy Pop look indolent onstage. More than once, club owners had called 911 during Conduits shows, convinced that Bosco was having a seizure.’

Forget, for a moment, the shameless (and lazy) name-dropping of Iggy Pop. Are we really supposed to believe that a club owner will see a guitarist being vigorous onstage and call 911 because it looks like a seizure? Are we further supposed to believe that this has happened multiple times?


Gimme a break.