Sportsnet magazine: What’s it like to play with the Sedin twins?

SEDINSAs a kid, I was always envious of the lives of twins. It seemed like there could be no better friend than someone with whom you shared cramped quarters while kicking around in the womb. Having a twin just seemed like so much fun.1

Fun is an apt descriptor for what it’s like to watch Henrik and Daniel Sedin play together. The Vancouver Canucks’ captain and alternate captain from the tiny hockey hotspot of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, are identical-twin linemates with eerily similar career points totals. Their chemistry together on the Canucks’ top line is a little surreal. So I’ve always wondered—partly because of the uncanny connection they share, and yes, partly because of my weird twin-obsession—what’s it like to be that third guy on a line with them? Doesn’t that guy feel left out?

For the most recent issue of Sportsnet magazine, I set out to answer that question, speaking with thirteen of the Sedins’ linemates—everyone from Trent Klatt, the first guy to line up with the twins when they joined the NHL, to Markus Naslund to Alex Burrows to their current linemate, Radim Vrbata.

Naslund, who was matched with the twins in Vancouver on what was dubbed “The Ikea Line,” knew the twins back when they were just kids hanging around the local hockey rink in Ornskoldsvik. “I remember two twins following their older brothers around,” he told me—and he paused and chuckled for half a second when he said “twins.” Naslund talked about playing with the Sedins at a charity hockey game before they came to the NHL. They were shy guys, but on the ice, you could tell they were exceptionally talented.

Vrbata told me the Sedins’ special connection was the reason he signed with the team. But he admitted that being that third guy is a “unique” situation. “You play with guys who might have chemistry because they’ve played together a couple years,” he said. “But they’ve been together their whole lives, and you can see that sometimes it’s like they have one mind.”

I talked to Trevor Linden, now president of the Canucks,2 who remembered his time on their line more than a decade ago. He said the Sedins knew each other so well that they didn’t need to communicate with each other on the ice. Burrows told me the twins do communicate but that they sound “like dolphins” (!).

Everyone talked about the twins’ chemistry, but the weirdest stuff came when I asked these guys—let’s call them “Sedin triplets”—whether or not they’re able to tell Henrik and Daniel apart. The answers varied: some insisted they could tell pretty easily, while others admitted to having no idea who is who. So how do you tell them apart, and which of their linemates has mastered the art? Read the story to find out.

  1. Not to mention that some of the best movies are twin movies: Dead Ringers is tops, of course, and also everything starring the Olsen twins. 

  2. Full disclosure: I grew up in Vancouver and had a Trevor Linden poster on my childhood-bedroom wall. When I interviewed him, I resisted the urge to address him solely as “Captain Canuckkkkkk!!!” 

Red Army at TIFF

I attended a screening of the documentary Red Army last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Gabe Polsky—it’s his first full-length feature—the film explores the ups and downs of the eponymous hockey team through the eyes of one if its biggest stars, the charismatic-if-somewhat-uncooperative Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov. Here’s my review for Sportsnet.

Emily Gould’s debut novel, and does an author’s biography matter?

Here’s an old but ever unanswered question: Does an author’s biography help or hinder our interpretation (and enjoyment) of a novel? Are our readings of fiction more valid if they’re informed by knowledge of a writer’s life, or are those details unhelpful and irrelevant?

I was thinking about this question when reading a few pieces on Emily Gould’s Friendship, her debut novel, which I recently reviewed for Maclean’s. The book focuses on the relationship between two women who are struggling to more or less grow up. One of the characters, Amy, is a former blogger who was at one point mildly famous before being fired from her job. Gould is herself a well-known blogger and a former editor at Gawker; she’s often outspoken and seems to be something of a polarizing figure, from what I can tell (I live in Canada, where feuds and controversy within our literary landscape tend to be both tepid and fairly rare1).

Because of space constraints—I only had 350 words—I chose not to mention Gould’s personal history as a blogger; I didn’t think it was necessary to a brief outline of the book and an appreciation of the author’s accomplishments. Reading other reviews, though, Gould’s biography seems to be a major focus—or at least, it’s pretty often the jumping off point. Probably it’s because there’s scandal to write about—an appearance on CNN in which she was scolded by Jimmy Kimmel, for example—which is pretty rare for first-time novelists. It struck me that had the author not had an at-times-controversial and fairly public life, the novel itself might be the primary focus of more reviews.

The danger with investing too much in the details of an author’s life, I think, is that it can skew our perception of a work; we often end up conflating the author with her characters. Is [character’s name] you? is one of the more boring questions you can ask a writer, I think. But while I can see the value of ignoring an author’s background, there’s also a case to be made for the potentially illuminating bits of a person’s life experience.

A recent piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review posed the question of just how relevant an author’s biography ought to be. Thomas Mallon and Adam Kirsch weighed in, with Mallon championing biography—the way it can enhance our interpretations or make works more vivid. He writes:

Applying the writer’s biography to one’s reading of a novel strikes me as less a matter of cheating or impurity than an additional, incidental pleasure: Ah, I know where that came from. David Copperfield’s time in Mr. Murdstone’s wine warehouse acquires only more poignancy from one’s being aware of the young Dickens’s own scarifying time inside the blacking factory.

Kirsch seems more interested in the implied author a reader perceives in a work of fiction: “The self that matters to us as readers is the one we encounter in, or hypothesize from, the novelist’s pages.” Biographical details about an author can inform our readings, he writes, “to clarify the factors that shape the work—to show how life and work were both shaped by the same set of problems and drives.”

I find Kirsch especially persuasive. It’s a common-sense approach, but one that bears thinking about. Information that comes from outside a text is most often necessary to guide our interpretation—whether it’s a new word we’re encountering, a foreign concept or some historical or cultural details that require careful parsing. Information about an author, too, can help to clarify and sharpen what’s in the book, but we shouldn’t let it overtake what we’re reading, and we shouldn’t assume that writers are writing directly from their lives. I think of this situation a bit like paintings and the notion of a pentimento. Knowing, say, that Vermeer had painted an image of Cupid within the frame of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window but later painted over it might tell us something about what he meant to convey—by showing us what he decided to cover up. That knowledge—which comes from outside the work itself—can help us to guess at his intentions.2 But that hidden Cupid shouldn’t be the driving force of our understanding and appreciation of the painting. Likewise, knowing that Emily Gould worked at Gawker and has a blog gives me a sense that she’s familiar with the environment she writes about, but it’s not the basis for my reading of her novel.

  1. Feuds aren’t unheard of, though! In the same issue of Maclean’s, there’s a good piece by Anne Kingston about the animosity between David “I’m not interested in teaching books by women” Gilmour and André Alexis. 

  2. Though to be fair, there’s also the tricky question of whether the author’s interpretation of a book is necessarily the only one. It’s a bit like Ridley Scott blurting out that Rick Deckard is definitely a replicant—dissolving the ambiguity that gives Blade Runner so much of its tension (that is, if you take him at his word—I prefer to try and forget. La la la, didn’t happen!)  

There Will Be Blood

Ever since I started taking the subway to work, I’ve been listening to Jonny Greenwood’s score from There Will Be Blood. I listen to it almost religiously—it evokes an unsettling feeling that seems well-suited to being stuck underground with a group of (often angry) strangers. The subway tends to bring out the worst in people; commuters can be rude and ruthless. When I see people jostling for seats or aggressively pushing past one another, I imagine them all speaking with the voice of Henry Plainview: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” So nothing sounds more apt on the morning train than a little dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM-dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM! By the time I get to my desk at work, I usually feel compelled to yell out, for no particular reason, “There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet!”

Naturally, I was pretty excited to buy my ticket to this event: On September 19 and 20, Wordless Music Orchestra will perform the score from There Will Be Blood at a screening at the United Palace Theater in New York. Greenwood, who has since collaborated with P.T. Anderson on The Master,1 will be there, playing the super-creepy-sounding ondes Martenot.

  1. He’s also apparently composing the score for Anderson’s forthcoming adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

I grow, I prosper

I reviewed Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings—a modern-day reimagining of King Lear set on a fictional maritime island—for Maclean’s. The article is tagged “Book reviews” and “Lobster” on their website, which seems funny because there’s no actual mention of lobsters in the review. Still, I’m proud to find my work on this page: Bucket list = shrinking.

Fuck me, I love Geoff Dyer

In the latest London Review of Books, Geoff Dyer writes about moving to Venice Beach and, shortly thereafter, having a stroke:

. . . I bent down to push some rubbish into the already stuffed bin. When I stood up half the world had disappeared. It had disappeared but it was still there, sort of. The kitchen wall was visible but it didn’t seem quite right: familiar but changed, as happens in dreams. Ah, now here was something I recognised: a strip of brown wood against the pale yellow wall. It was the frame of the mirror: I was looking into a mirror but, like a vampire, I couldn’t see my reflection. The mirror had become a window, but all that could be seen in this window was the wall on the other side of the room, behind me or behind where I used to be. Where had I gone?

The piece is brilliant—funny and sad, and frightening, too. Also, apparently Dyer is/was something of a pastry addict?

And because there can never be enough Geoff Dyer on the Internet, the Paris Review’s must-read Art of Non-Fiction No. 6 (from the Winter 2013 issue) is now online. Dyer takes issue with the classification of his work—the division between fiction and non-fiction—because, as he says, “It’s just a bunch of books.” He talks about writing, travelling, drugs, and disliking the term “creative nonfiction”:

David Hare said that the two most depressing words in the English language are literary fiction. I couldn’t agree more. But we might soon have to add that the two most depressing words in the American language are creative nonfiction. If creative nonfiction means stuff like that Sheila Heti book,1 then give me straight-down-the-line, non-creative history books any day. I’m not interested in creative nonfiction, and I’m not interested in literary fiction. I’m interested in great books—which come in different shapes and forms now, many more than were previously admitted. My objection is to people in the novelists’ camp with their unquestioned assumption that the novel, irrespective of the quality of a given instance of it, is somehow superior.

  1. Small quibble, even though Dyer’s talking about the fuzziness of nomenclature anyway: Wasn’t this a novel? 

Darkman: The original Liam Neeson revenge movie

As a kid, I was obsessed with Sam Raimi’s Darkman. The movie has everything a girl could want: weird comedy, romance, a hero’s fatalistic embrace of vigilantism.1 A new collector’s edition was released on Blu-ray a few days ago, and the special features include interviews with Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand and Larry Drake—a.k.a. Robert Durant, the guy who slices people’s fingers off with a cigar cutter. The Dissolve’s Noel Murray wrote about Darkman this week, and his description might explain the movie’s (unintentional) appeal to children:

… Darkman was more in step with the world of comics circa 1990 than actual comic-book movies like Batman and Dick Tracy. It isn’t that Darkman is “mature,” exactly; Raimi’s love of slapstick violence and Looney Tunes sets a tone for Darkman’s action sequences that’s half Three Stooges, half Wile E. Coyote. But untethered from the demands of any major corporate franchise, Raimi was free to bend superhero archetypes to his own will, getting underneath the classic model of the driven avenger, revealing—and reveling in—how crackpot it all is.

It was only as an adult that I realized the extent of the film’s campiness. As a child, the tongue-in-cheek quality didn’t totally register; I figured this was how violence looked in the movies. I also didn’t fully see the extent to which Darkman really isn’t very sympathetic—something Murray points out in his review. When I was younger, Darkman’s destiny was wonderfully sad. I wished he could settle down with Julie Hastings (McDormand) once he got vengeance, as much as I knew he couldn’t. But the movie’s refusal to treat him as a conventional good guy makes it easier to stomach the brutality of his vendettas. Darkman, as Murray also notes, is an early example of the Liam Neeson Gets Revenge genre, except in this case, we don’t need to bother liking him—we only need to appreciate the zeal with which he dispatches his foes.

  1. Also, an R rating. 

Claire Denis at TIFF

Claire Denis and I own the same pants. (Owning the same pants as your hero almost but not quite feels like an achievement.) I learned this yesterday at a screening of Denis’s new film, Bastards. She was in town, wearing my pants, for TIFF’s retrospective of her work, “Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis,” and introduced the movie in person. Bastards is Denis’s take on noir, and it is bleak, unconventional and difficult (all attributes of a movie worth your time). I’m still digesting it—especially the final scene.

I also attended a screening of one of my favourites, Beau Travail,1 which features one of the most arresting dance scenes—maybe one of the greatest endings?—in any movie. The retrospective is on until November 10, so there’s still time to catch White Material, L’intrus, and a few others on the big screen.

  1. I love you, Denis Lavant. 

The trouble with 350-word book reviews

I wrote about Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light for the latest issue of Maclean’s. After the magazine hit newsstands, my dad sent me an email saying he’d read my review. “I think it was well-written,” he wrote, “but I don’t think I’ll read the book, judging by your description of it.” I’d intended to recommend the novel, so to Danticat, I apologize for costing you a sale.1

The difficulty with reviews this short—a function of a pretty trim books section—is that it can be hard to convey what you think about a book without lapsing into clichés or hyperbole; there’s no room to expand the way you’d like to. It’s also too easy to fall back on plot summary, which is banal, although I’m sometimes guilty of it myself. The solution is simply to try harder to compress what you want to say without letting that compression distort your ideas.

  1. Of course it’s not a reviewer’s job to sell books, but discovering a great one is a lot like finding a fantastic dentist—you feel compelled to share your good fortune. It’s the bookish version of “I know a guy!” 

Terrence Malick and the art of voice-over narration

Sometimes—usually on the subway—I get the voice of Sissy Spacek as Holly Sargis in Badlands stuck in my head. Spacek’s naive Texas drawl in the movie’s voice-over narration gives the film an especially chilly kind of existential dread. And then there’s the even more haunting voice of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. Over at The Dissolve, there’s an excellent video essay about Malick’s use of voice-over throughout his career. From the intro by Scott Tobias and Kevin B. Lee (co-authors of the essay):

The fundamental value of Terrence Malick’s films is in how they remind us that everything happens in the larger context of the natural world. The voiceover in Days Of Heaven unshackles the director from the humdrum business of over-the-shoulder shots and melodramatic confrontation, and widens the frame to bigger observations about the period and the astonishing beauty captured by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s cameras. Malick didn’t pick up the thread until he made The Thin Red Line two decades later, but it changed the way he made movies, and changed the way movies could be made.