MW Cook

An illiterate scribe

Category: review

Something to watch with the kids: Kubo and the Two Strings

I was impressed with the humour and melancholy, and how they both fit so well together in a children’s movie that managed to get both the honest bitterness and sweetness of real life into a myth for our times.

Damn, that sounds good.

And it should, because it’s a beautiful movie. No, not a movie. I’d go so far as to call it a film. A film that accepts the starkest realities of loss and death, while still laughing once in a while and learning to live meaningfully without the things you wish you could keep.

Kubo is a one-eyed boy who takes care of his mother while earning a living storytelling in the marketplace. He’s good at stories, because he can make origami heroes and monsters fight when he plays his shamisen. Looks awesome. Everything is more or less great until he stays out too late one night and his scary aunts show up and try to steal his eye. From there, it’s myth-making at its finest.

Go watch it with your kids. Though there’s a scary skeleton or two, so be advised about that.

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed

Source: khaledhosseini.com

On a scale of 1 to 10, Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, was Awesome-Sauce.  Here’s why:

  • The story is a wild ride that touches you right down in the viscerals with serious love and pain.
  • It has all the right elements that made The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns Awesome-Sauce: enticing, complex characters, powerfully real settings and delightful prose.
  • Hosseini pushes himself to tell a wider story than he has before, giving us more characters to invest in and telling a broader story that rightly shows the ripples of consequence choices of love, hate and neglect make.
  • The characters are deep and real. The reader understands the ones who hurt and sees the flaws in the ones who love.
  • When I finished reading it, I felt like a slightly different person. The way you feel after an awesome meal or workout.

Read Khaled Hosseini’s, And the Mountains Echoed. Some people have found it difficult to follow the story because of the relatively larger cast of characters. I say to you, try harder. It’ll be worth it.

Book Review: White Flour

On May 26, 2007, the Ku Klux Klan planned a march in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Opponents tried to figure out a way to oppose their racist, hateful messages without stooping to hatred themselves.  They decided to start a troop of clowns called the Coup Clutz Clowns who would intentionally misunderstand the Klan’s message and make gentle fun of it.

White Flour, by David LaMotte, tells that story in a picture book for children.

I was so excited when I first heard about this book.  I get a tad upset when I see some of the banal books out there that people try to push on children.  I swear if I see one more adaptation of Noah’s Ark I’m gonna snap.  I mean, what ding-dong thought that a story of divine genocide would be good for kids just because of the cute handful of animals that made it through the watery apocalypse?

But finally we have a book for children that is not patronizing.  A book that does not feel the need to dumb-down some of the most difficult dilemmas of life.  A book that tells our kids a story that they really need to hear.  The story of standing against violence and oppression without resorting to violence and oppression.  The story of using laughter and joy to combat hatred and bigotry.  The story of overcoming evil with good.  The story that shows that you don’t need fire in order to fight fire.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

– Martin Luther King Jr.

White Flour is an important book and I recommend it highly.  There are aspects of the story that parents will need to explain to their children, like what the KKK is all about and why it’s important to stand against messages of hate like theirs.  It’s important to me that my children see examples of people standing up against evil in pure, non-violent, non-hateful ways.  White Flour stands as a monument to a small group of people who found a Jesus-like way to push back the darkness of racism and hate.  I treasure this book and hope you all grab yourself a copy.

And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use!
So here’s to those who march in in their big red floppy shoes!

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

     My mother recommended this to me ages ago. I meant to read it. Really, mom, I did. But I forgot. I picked it up recently on a whim and did not remember a thing that my mom had said about it. And I’m really glad about that. Because if I had known what it was about, I probably would have left it alone.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a historical fiction about cathedral building.

     Erm… yay?

     Let’s be honest, it sounds crazy-boring. Most churches are boring. Old churches are even more boring. Building old churches sounds so boring that I feel like poking my eye just to get a distraction. And on top of all that, the book is nearly a thousand pages long. Wow.

     I’m so very glad that I had forgotten what the book was about.

     The author, Ken Follett, grabs you by the throat in his first line. And he doesn’t let go until the book is ending. His story is huge and he gives you characters to love and hate by the handful. And then he puts those characters through the grinder. What else could you ask for in a novel?

     In the end, the novel is about the inevitability of human suffering and the unbeatable human spirit that has been slowly, painfully, but assuredly making the world a better place.

     There is something very special about the book that makes you care about something you have no interest in. I don’t care about building churches. Even big churches. But Tom Builder cared. Prior Philip cared. And since I cared about Tom Builder and Prior Philip, suddenly I cared about their big church.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a great read. Its scope is huge, dealing every human struggle from intimate marital relationships to battles between kings and popes. Pick it up. You’ll love it. I swear.

Books You Should Read

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Pick them up and love them.

  • House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds
    This may be my favourite sci-fi. It’s long and kind of hard to get into, but worth the effort it demands. It takes place six million years in the future and is one of the most insightful speculative fictions I’ve seen.
    “I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.”
  • A Dance With Dragons – George R.R. Martin
    I was reading this series long before the HBO program made it famous. It stands apart from any fantasy series I’ve read. It’s gritty and harsh. Instead of heroes and villains, Martin writes real people. Every hero has a bit of a villain within. And nearly every villain has a spark of good.
    “The night was rank with the smell of man. … Only man stripped the skins from other beasts and wore their hides and hair.”
  • Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
    This is how vampire novels were meant to be. If you’ve seen the movies, please put them out of your head. The book is so much more special. It’s dark and wonderfully tender at the same time.
    “Real love is to offer your life at the feet of another, and that’s what people today are incapable of.”
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
    The start of a unique fantasy series. Only two books are out right now. A hero tells the tale of how his life went from homeless boy to the most feared mage in the world.
    “But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggards, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians and courtesans.”
  • The Way of Kings – Brandson Sanderson
    Sanderson’s first book in his epic series. It shows a lot of promise and uncovers a hugely complex universe.
    “The hallmark of insecurity is bravado.”
  • True Love – Thich Nhat Hanh
    A non-fiction in which the meditative master unpacks his views of love and how to centre your mental and physical self. A useful point of view for anyone interested in spirituality.
    “So you can walk in such a way that the Kingdom of God possible in the here and now, in such a way that peace and hoy are possible today, in such a way that the Pure Land is available under your feet.”
  • A New Kind of Christian – Brian McLaren
    I was surprised at how closely this book traced my own spiritual journeys over the past four or six years. Insightful and useful, though the storytelling is weak.
    “Carol, I’m not sure how long I’ll last. I know this must be scary for
    you. I’m sorry.

There. Now I’ve shared with you. What books should I read next?

Albums that Deserve to be on Repeat

I always approach the subject of music … cautiously.

For one, I know next to nothing about it. Though not for lack of trying, really. I learned to play guitar, but without a chord sheet in front of me I’m useless. And don’t you dare ask me to tune the thing. Music doesn’t flow from me. I get it and I appreciate it. But it will never come from me.

Also, there is always an element of judgement that comes in when people talk about their favorite music. Claiming to like, say, Justin Bieber will get you either ridiculed or praised depending on where you happen to say it. So deep in the part of my brain that is still insecure and self-conscious, I fear judgement if my preferred musics are not cool enough for whatever crowd I’m talking to.

But some music is special. Some music has that neat ability to reach inside my creative centre and stroke it gently to life. And I want to share those albums that do that.

1) Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog – Joss Whedon

If you have not seen Joss Whedon’s classic short film, you are missing out. On life. Seriously. It’s a mere fortyish minutes long and it deserves to be watched. You can find the entire show on Youtube. It’s witty, zany and full of fun. It’s a creative masterpiece. Go watch it. Seriously, don’t finish reading this blog until you’ve seen it. It’s better than this blog. And so is its soundtrack.

2) Siren Song of the Counter Culture – Rise Against

A fellow can get used to anything. Even screaming. Rise Against has been a favorite since I first heard them in Pakistan. Their anger-charged music touches something primal and pure. That righteous dissatisfaction with a screwed-up system. I was seriously sad when I found out they are coming to Toronto the day I fly to Pakistan.

3) Introspection – pjt

I went to school with this guy. Isn’t that cool? This whole album is great. All the songs cry out for freedom and authenticity. “I don’t believe it’s right / to let others define your life / I can do anything I’m interested in / And I’m interested in all that I can do.”

4) Aaja Nachle – Salim and Sulaiman Merchant

This Bollywood gem is about a girl returning to her hometown to convince her conservative neighbours to put on a play. It’s a celebration of the creative spirit and every single song carries that flag. “Stand apart from the crowd / Show us your dreams / Show Me Your Jalwa (glory)”

5) The End is Near – Five Iron Frenzy

These guys were huge with the Christian white kids in the 90s. But don’t hold that against them. They are worthy in their own right and rise above the shameless preaching of a lot of their contemporaries. This is one of their last albums and, I think, their zenith.

6) Last Night on Earth – Noah and the Whale

It was hard to pick only one album for these guys. I’ve only known about them for a little while but I’m seriously in love with them. Their songs touch on every part of humanity, from it’s highest to its lowest.


7) First Love – Emmy the Great

Silky sweet voice and melancholy songs. What could be better? She just came out with a new album, too, though I haven’t had a chance to hear it yet. She lives up to her name.



8) Exodus – Bob Marley

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t love Bob Marley, at least a little. His wild optimism and spirit of Love is infectious.

What songs and albums and artists have inspired you?



Innocence Lost

I used to stare at this painting every time I visited my artist friends in Peterborough. It’s the kind of painting that grabs by the throat with silky fingers and demands to be gazed at.

My wife must have noticed, because she secretly bought it for me this month.

Paintings used to confuse me. I can look at stories and film and draw meaning from them pretty naturally, but I couldn’t do that with paintings. Until one day I was asking my artist friend what the rules were.
“What rules?” she said.
“The rules in interpreting art. How do I know what the artist is trying to communicate? Do colours mean something? Shapes? Help me out here.” Can you sense my desperate need to have everything defined and quantified?
“No rules, silly. Don’t try to figure out what the artist was trying to say. What is the piece saying to you.
Sounds simple, eh? Probably something you already knew. But it changed everything for me. I could suddenly see life in an art form I hadn’t understood. I think that’s when I really fell in love with this one.

Go check out Needle and Nest Design. Buy something. Leave an encouraging comment. Pick up some inspiration for your own journey. I sure did. Love you, Ben and Mel.

I looked up at the sky
    for I was innocent and fearless
And the sky opened herself to me and showed me glorious things.
    Things of sunshine
    Things of green
    Things of life and light and lovelies uncountable.
And everything was bright and beautiful.
    I looked with the longing on a child, my scarlet hair flying in the wind.
    I drank with reckless abandon, caring not for the cliche.
    In my hunger.
    In my desire.
    In passion, pure and pleasured.
Oh, it was good.

I looked up at the sky
    feared.
For the sky had died.
    Grey.
    Dark.
    Cold.
Silent stony streams with flowed dryly beneath me.
    I tilted my head to the heavens, lips parted in desire for something loved and lost.
    Hair torn by unknown hands, dipped in oil I could not rinse.
My thirst abandoned me.
    and my hunger
    desire
    blah.

Twit. Twitter. Tweet.
    Red, flitting and flying about.
    It landed before me, upon the crooked finger of a branch clinging to life.
    I wanted to touch.
    I wanted to reach.
    But I remembered the taint upon my head.
Twit. Twitter. Tweet.
    It bore its own mark
    yet was beautiful still.
    Yet was beautiful still.
    Yet loved still.
Am I still lovely?
    (yes)
Am I still beautiful?
    (yes)
I am pale and thin. I am sick and stained. But do you still look upon me with desire?
    (for the good is greater than the taint)
    Yes?
    (and the root is purer than the branch)
    Yes?
    (and dare not say otherwise, bride)
I looked up again, the bird was full of love and taint together.
    May I touch your bird?
    (darling, it was for that reason i sent him)

Review: The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Even after all these centuries, seeing a thunderclast up close made Kalak shiver. The beast’s hand was as long as a man was tall. He’d been killed by hands like those before, and it hadn’t been pleasant.
Of course, dying rarely was.

Even without his contribution to The Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson is a valuable voice in the realm of fantasy. The Way of Kings, the first book in The Stormlight Archive, is his first shot at something with a scope as large as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. I was a little wary as I picked it up.

I shouldn’t have been.

Like all of his books, the magic system is delicately defined and clever. But unlike books like Mistborn, the world is huge. I was worried about that only because when you read something with so many PoV characters you tend to love some and hate others. That’s what we all found with the Wheel of Time, right? (Oh no, not another Elayne chapter!) But with The Way of Kings I was surprised to see that I wanted to know what was happening with every character.

I enjoy how Sanderson is never afraid of pitting philosophies against each other in his works. Just like in Mistborn he examines concepts of sin vs purity, atheism vs religion and mortality vs ascendancy. And he does it all in ways that do not seem trite or preachy.

The Way of Kings tells the tale of a world at war from the point of view of warring surgeons, thieving scholars and mournful killers. The plot is deep and intricate. The characters are living and lovable. The cultures are many and true. I’m excited to see where this series will go. Pick it up. You won’t regret it.

Quotes:

– “Well, I myself find that respect is like manure. Use it where needed, and growth will flourish. Spread it on too thick, and things just start to smell.”

– “This last year in particular, you’ve become to be the person the others all claim that they are. Can’t you see how intriguing that makes you?”

– “You wonder why I reject the devotaries.”
“I do.”
“Most of them seek to stop the questions.”

– “Just an idle comment, nothing more.” He reached over, laying a hand on Kaladin’s shoulder. “My comments are often idle. I never can get them to do any solid work.”

Review: Sabriel – Garth Nix

It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a clouded sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.

I didn’t find out this was technically a young adult novel until after I finished it. And I’m glad of that. Sometimes the labels people put on a book taint it before you get a chance to read it.

Sabriel is a fantasy about the daughter of an undead-slaying necromancer. Raised in a setting that feels like 20th-century earth, she is forced to leave school behind and seek her father deep within the Old Kingdom, a place rich with danger, magic and undead nasty thingies. Sabriel is full of great settings and intrigue. The most attractive part for me was the depth of the world and magics that made it.

The world is divided into two places. Ancelstierre, which is similar to earth a hundred years ago, and the Old Kingdom. They are separated by a great wall which holds back the undead yuckies and magics that try to pour down from the Old Kingdom.

The story was great. The plot was completely driven by the characters and deep. The writing, however, was a little clunky now and then, and that tend to be distracting. Also, the story was told strictly from the point of view of Sabriel herself. Usually I resonate with a book better when there are multiple views points to distract me. But I think that’s more of a failing with me than it is with the book. It’s the first in a series, and I still haven’t decided if I’m going to plunge ahead and get the rest of them. But if you like fantasy and teen novels and deeper-than-usual-coming-of-age tales, give Sabriel a whirl.

Quotes:

Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.

Fear and realization of ignorance were strong medicines against stupid pride.

Review – Introspection – P.J. Tremblay

For 23 years, I had been living the life of someone else. For 2 years, I became intentionally undone. For 2 years, I initiated the development of my true identity. This year, only the strongest songs of that on-going journey have reached this album.

I don’t usually dare reviewing music. I find it hard to say anything intelligent about most music because it’s like trying to comment on an art form that I know next to nothing about. But I recently realized that you don’t need to say intelligent things to say worthwhile things, so on we go!

I just got this album and it’s been playing in my car non-stop. Loving it. You know how a lot of artists seem to have just one kind of song that they repackage again and again? Not this guy. Each song stands apart from the rest, truly original. I sat for about half and hour trying to figure out which genre to list it under on my iTunes. It refuses to confirm to any box, which I guess it really the point.

The whole album is the story of the artist’s journey from a superficial existence toward something authentic, real and ultimately much more satisfying than anything artificial could be. As I listened to it for the first time I resonated with so many of his feelings and observations. I think this album will really connect with anyone who has felt that their life is heading in the wrong way and there needs to be a change. Especially with people who have already started to make that change.

Even without the lyrics which chronicle the journeys of the artist, the music itself is soothing and energizing. Head over to the artist’s site and buy it! You won’t regret it, I swear. Good stuff, Phil. Good freakin’ stuff.

Quotes:

Is it just me, or is it so absurd that elephants have gone unheard?
I can’t live like this now, communicate with me somehow
I am not your enemy
I just see things differently
Too much time’s been spent in fear
You can at least respect me here
– Is This Thing On?

Breathe the breeze
And just seize the seas
Just leave the worry to someone who aint free… that aint me
– Free

I lived oh so Christianly, devout as I could ever be
Lived a way that would look alright, but I was so lost inside
I’m not strong, I’m just not afraid of being weak

So I took all the things in my life that were stained and threw them out my door
Started new with a genuineness that gives me peace for evermore
I’m not strong, I’m just not afraid of being weak
– I’m Not Strong, I’m Just Not Afraid of Being Weak

I don’t believe it’s right
to let others define your life
I can do anything I’m interested in
and I’m interested in all that I can do
– The CarTune Song