Discovering New Authors

Book swapping

(Photo by Seika Natsuki a.k.a. nSeika)

In this day and age of readily available ebooks and online shopping, there has been a lot written about the demise of “bricks and mortar” stores, both large chains and independents. Sure there are economic factors at play in both retail and in publishing industries driving this decline, but the deeper issue for me is that its becoming more and more challenging for readers and authors to find each other.

Ever since dime store paperbacks were introduced to the North American public in 1939, part of the key to their success was their distribution. Instead of relying solely on book stores, the publishers of Pocket Books teamed with magazine distributors and got their product into places where the average public were more likely to encounter and buy them – drugstores, train stations, and newsstands. There’s a really great article at Mental Floss –  How Paperbacks Transformed the Way America Reads – by Andrew Shaffer. Many people took chances on new authors and titles simply because it was affordable and available.

Paperbacks and ebooks have largely remained “affordable”, but its become increasing difficult to encounter these books in the flesh. Growing up a lot of authors I discovered was by taking a chance on a questionable looking SF title on the wire rack at the convenience store simply because it was in front of me. Those markets are fast dwindling and discovering authors has largely gone electronic via social media and websites like Goodreads. I follow a lot of up-and-coming authors and their publishers on Twitter, but the problem is laying my hands on their books aren’t as easy. Sure I could order them online and have them shipped or in many cases instantly download the ebook version, but a lot of the time I just want to hold the physical manifestation of the authors hard work in my hands and admire its beautiful cover and I want to do it NOW.

It’s then that I realize how small the selection has become at the local bricks and mortar stores. My town of 150,000 has just two book stores both run by the same chain, one is small store in a shopping centre while the other is a “box” store type outlet. The SF&F section at the larger store is perhaps two twelve foot long books shelves that run about chest height. While it might sound like a lot of shelf space its surprisingly not the variety and the depth of titles is limited. The store might carry ONE copy of a book by a specific author. The problem is the average person that didn’t grow up in a world with more selection and opportunity to discover new authors isn’t going to realize how narrow the choices have become.

TheLivesofTao_CoverEven I had forgotten how small my world had shrunk until I revisited one of my favourite Toronto book stores last month – The World’s Biggest Bookstore. Housed in a former bowling alley in downtown Toronto near the Eaton Centre it’s SF&F section is about five 20 foot long double sided shelves of SF&F books with a wide array of authors and sub-genres. I even saw a large display of a new and upcoming author by the name of Wesley Chu ( that I had not heard of before and his first novel “The Lives of Tao“. The novel is about a entity – Tao, from another planet that has survived hundreds of years on earth by occupying other people’s bodies and turning them into skilled assassins and hunters in order to fight an ongoing battle with another faction of his race bent on destroying earth. Tao is forced to occupy the body of an out-of-shape computer nerd – Roen Tan. Now I could have snagged one of the twenty or so copies at the store and went merrily on my way, leaving the other 19 copies for others to discover Wesley and his book, but I hesitated. You see I had three titles in my hand already and I thought to myself, I am going to a speciality store later today that sells ONLY SF&F titles called Bakka-Phoenix Books I’ll buy a copy there and support my “local” independent book store.

The cruel irony was Bakka-Phoenix did not have any copies of “The Lives of Tao”  in stock. I asked and the clerk to check and he said that they did not order any copies, but could order one in for me. Being from out of town, I declined but thanked him for his effort and bought another book by another author that they did carry.

Back home in my town of 150,000 I was preparing to order Wesley’s book online when I ventured into the big box store and what should I find – ONE bright and shiny copy of “The Lives of Tao” starring out at me from the book shelf. Of course I bought it, but in doing so I realized I was potentially depriving others from discovering while browsing the aisle.

I’m thankful for The World’s Biggest Bookstore for turning me onto him but I have to wonder in this shrinking world of retail book stores and opportunities for new discoveries where will people go to find new authors?

Post Script

I tweeted about my dilemma about not being able to pick up a copy of Wesley’s book at Bakka-Phoenix and Wesley immediately contacted the bookstore via twitter. Whatever he said he persuaded them to start carrying the book. In a round about way I may have inadvertently helped other Bakka-Phoenix patrons discover Wesley’s writing.

Dead Man (1995)

DeadManCoverJim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man follows the journey of a Cleveland accountant, William Blake (Johnny Depp) as he travels to the end of the rail road and America’s Western frontier in the late 1800s in search of work only to find his own death and spiritual awakening.

As a fan of Jarmusch’s earlier work Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991), I was up for whatever the director had to offer. The fact that Depp was staring in the movie made it a definite must-see for me when it was initially released in theatres.

Reaction to the movie when it was first release was divided; people either loved it or hated it. I definitely fell into the ‘love it’ category and still do love it nearly 20 years later. It has a languid, dream-like quality to it punctuated with brief moments of intense action and violence. I think that some people are also put off by Neil Young’s instrumental guitar score that can feel both alien and disconnected from the film at times, but for me worked to heighten the tension and underscore the surreal aspects of the landscape.

[Contains Spoilers]

Cleveland Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp)

Cleveland Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp)

A naïve city dweller, Blake heads west from Cleveland on the rail road to an industrial town aptly named Machine at the end of the line with the promise of a job in an iron foundry run by John Dickson (Robert Mitchum). Blake arrives to find that the job he had been promised has already been filled and demands to speak with Dickson, only to be laughed out of the office. Nearly penniless, Blake buys some whiskey and sits down to contemplate his next move. He witnesses a flower girl named Thel (Mili Avital) roughed up by a drunk patron and comes to her aid. After walking her back to her room, the two exchange stories and end up in bed together. Discovered by Thel’s jealous ex-boyfriend Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) the encounter turns violent leaving both Thel and Charlie dead, and Blake mortally wounded with a bullet lodged near his heart. Fearing for his life Blake escapes with Thel’s revolver and Charlie’s horse. As fate would have it Charlie is the son of John Dickinson who brings his money and influence to bear, hiring ruthless bounty hunters as well as putting out a bounty for Blake’s capture or death for anyone who wants it.


Thel: Watch it. It’s loaded.
Blake: Why do you have this?
Thel: Because this is America.

On death’s doorstep from his gunshot wound, Blake is found by a Native American called Nobody who tries to cut out the “white man’s metal” from Blake’s wound while he sleeps. Nobody becomes Blake’s guide leading him through the wilderness on his journey. Played by Canadian born actor Gary Farmer, Nobody is worldlier than his “educated” friend having been at one time enslaved and shipped to Europe to show off as a “savage”. Nobody is familiar with the work of William Blake’s poet/artist namesake quoting his poetry throughout the movie even when Blake himself is oblivious, calling Nobody’s seemingly mystic ramblings “Indian malarkey”. As cryptic as Nobody’s wisdom is sometimes, it’s his direct bare dialogue that is comedic and often poignant. Nobody’s recurring refrain of “Stupid fucking white man” and constant question of “Got any tobacco?” serve to underscore the absurdity of many of the situations they find themselves in.


Got any tobacco? – Blake (Johnny Depp) and Nobody (Gary Farmer)

In his weakened state Blake’s journey becomes a foggy, disjointed, series of interactions with those chasing him and those people that he and Nobody encounter along the way. These encounters fluctuate between the absurd, such as the encounter with Sally (Iggy Pop) and her band of misfit trappers, and the heartbreaking such as a scene of a burned out Indian settlement along the river bank.

Wanted_WilliamBlakeDepp goes into full on subdued mode in his role as Blake in the first half of the film, being a passive participant in his journey reacting to the alien circumstances and environment. It’s not until after Nobody has abandoned him on his quest does Blake wake up to his fate and become an active participant in his journey. Depp’s bewildered and confused expressions evaporate as Blake takes charge, confronting some of his hunters with a stone faced look of determination. With guns trained on him, they ask: “Are you William Blake?” He coolly responds “Do you know my Poetry?” before shooting them dead.

Despite the meandering path the characters and the story take through the American West, it feels as if its building to something with Nobody and Blake looking to get to the ocean where Blake can be reunited with the spirit world, and with the psychotic bounty hunter Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) closing in on their trail.

While film does end on a climatic note, the narrative itself is anti-climatic with the characters stories ending abruptly with their deaths. As in real life, death doesn’t always make for a neat narrative resolution, but rather leaves the survivors with the task of struggling to find meaning in the arc of the character’s lives. While many viewers are left feeling cheated by the ending of the movie (That’s it?, was the reaction I remember many people having watching it in the theatre and on DVD.) I can’t imagine the film ending in any other way and wonder what people were expecting was going to happen.

In retrospect I am not sure why I have more patience for a film like Dead Man which clocks in at 121 minutes, than say Ed Wood which is just slightly longer at 127 minutes. Perhaps, it’s because a movie like Ed Wood feels like its trying to cram too much narrative into the time its given, where as a movie like Dead Man gives the narrative and characters room to breathe without rushing the story along.

While Depp is the central character in this movie and helps make Blake’s transformation believable, the film succeeds as a result of a group effort from Jarmusch’s directing to the unbelievable ensemble cast and all the cinematography and art direction in between. A film with a lot of subtle and not so subtle commentary on the fabric of the America, its a film I’d highly recommend.

By the Numbers…

  • Dead Man is Depp’s second role in a black and white film after Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).
  • Depp’s character William Blake wears a Jaxon or John Bull Topper throughout the film. It’s the third film in which his character wears a distinctive hat. The other two films being Benny and Joon (1993) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995).
  • It’s the second film in which a character played by Depp has a connection to Native American or Aboriginal character. The other was the Inuit hunter in Arizona Dream (1992).
  • The first line of dialogue is not spoken until almost 6 minutes into the film.

Up Next…

The 1995 “mainstream” movie Nick of Time in which Johnny plays someone’s DAD!

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

In Don Juan DeMarco, Depp plays the title character, a seemingly delusional 20-something who believes he is the direct descendant of Don Juan and dresses like “Zorro” complete with mask and sword. The movie opens with Don Juan seducing one last woman before preparing to sacrifice himself in a duel with his great rival since he can’t have the woman of his dreams, the beautiful Dona Ana. Dr. Jack Mickler an ageing psychiatrist, played by Marlon Brando, is days from retiring when he gets the call to talk down the suicidal Don Juan. Pretending to be Don Juan’s rival’s uncle – Don Octavio DeFlores, Mickler gets Don Juan into a psychiatric hospital where the county gets an order to hold him for assessment. Mickler has 10 days to assess him before they have to decide to commit him or release him. Mickler is forced to try to unravel Don Juan’s incredible tale before the clock runs out on the holding order and his own career.

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco...

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco…

Don Juan DeMarco is a charming film with Depp managing to lose himself in the character of Don Juan, so convincingly that it’s almost as if he’s a time traveller plopped down in the present from some 16th or 17th century romantic fairytale. Even when Dr. Mickler is trying to poke holes in Don Juan’s story pointing out the anachronistic nature of his life growing up in a remote village in Mexico that still embraces duels with swords, Don Juan never wavers in his conviction. His own fantastic story seems less delusional since he acknowledges the reality of the situation that he is being held in a psychiatric hospital and that he accepts that his story seems unbelievable to those around him.

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Don Juan’s charm allows him to win over his attendants male and female alike and infuse everyone around him with a new found zest for life and love, Dr. Mickler included. Mickler’s own romantic life is awakened with his wife (Faye Dunaway) who he begins to see in a new light.

It’s not until more than half way through the movie that Don Juan’s incredible story starts to show some signs of becoming unravelled as his paternal grandmother is found living in Queens begins to fill Dr. Mickler in on the “truth”. At this point both Dr. Mickler and we the audience have bought into Don Juan’s story and don’t want the fantasy to end.

The film does a good balancing act of resolving the central conflict while still allowing the audience and pivotal characters have their cake and eat it too. After all this IS a romantic fantasy and demands a happy ending.

Love wins the day - Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

Love wins the day – Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

I enjoyed the film and the performance of the principle actors Depp, Brando, and Dunaway. One of the reasons I appreciate Depp as an actor is because he has the ability to own a character by completely giving himself over to a character. He becomes the character to the point where the audience only sees the character and not necessarily the actor. A little aside, I had the privilege of seeing Michael Caine introduce “The Quiet American” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002. During his introduction Caine commented that when he watches one of his own performances he always catches glimpses of himself acting, but that his performance as Thomas Folwer in The Quiet American he found that he disappeared as an actor in the role. It is exactly Depp’s ability to become so engrossed and disappear in the role that suits him so well to these “character” roles. Actually, whenever someone describes Depp as a “character” actor I wince a little because it sounds as if they mean it in a demeaning way. Don’t get me wrong there are truly great character actors that serve a specific role in movies that act as pivotal characters, but are meant to be forgettable and meant to blend into the story and scenery. By contrast the characters that Depp so often plays are unique, larger than life personae that form the very heart of the story. There’s only one Edward Scissorhands, only one Capt. Jack Sparrow, and only one Don Juan Demarco. Yes he becomes engrossed in the characters and the characters become larger than life, but “character actor” is not the right way to describe what he does.

So you think you can act? - Two greats square off.

So you think you can act? – Two acting greats square off.

It’s been mentioned that when Depp signed on to play Don Juan DeMarco he did so under the condition that Brando be sought to play the role of Mickler. Whether true or not, Brando screen presence as an actor is still undeniable even at this late stage in his career. From the moment he is on screen he commands your attention. While Faye Dunaway is given little to do other than react to Brando’s attempts to rekindle their love life as a married couple in the film, she too has a presence about her that was previously demonstrated in her pairing with Depp in “Arizona Dream”.

In case you’re keeping score this is Depp’s tenth film, the first in which we see him with earrings, first with ‘funky’ facial hair in the form of a goatee and moustache, and the second film in which he wears a bandanna on his head in at least one scene – the first being a brief scene in Platoon. I guess you could debate the facial hair since Depp did have a pretty good pencil moustache going in Ed Wood.

As far as romantic comedies go it’s a light movie that has its charms, but it’s doubtful it will leave you with any renewed passion for life. It may however leave you with an earworm in the form of Bryan Adam’s title song Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman? which is used throughout the film as incidental music.

I bet you’re humming it right now…

Up next in the tribute rotation is the Jim Jarmusch indie film “Dead Man”.

Happy Birthday Johnny!

Happy 50th Birthday Johnny Depp!

Happy 50th Birthday Johnny Depp!

Happy Birthday to Johnny Depp who turns 50 today – June 9th.

If that isn’t hard enough to fathom, chew on this – the man has been acting in film and tv for THIRTY years. Yup you read that right. 30 years. I’ve been falling behind on my year long tribute to Depp and his career, but fear not I have not abandoned reviewing his 40+ films.

Just finished watching Don Juan Demarco the other night and need to finish writing the review.

Here’s a quick recap of the films (and TV) I have reviewed so far that either star or have an appearance by Depp.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Private Resort (1985)
Platoon (1986)
21 Jump Street (1987-1991)
Cry-Baby (1990)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Arizona Dream (1992)
Benny and Joon (1993)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
Ed Wood (1994)

10 down and 30+ to go. Up next is one of my favourite Depp films – Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Happy Birthday Johnny and here’s to many happy returns!