Sunday, December 31, 2006

Reader's Diary #212- Kathy Shaidle: Lobotomy Magnificat (FINISHED)

As another year dies, so it seems must the famous and infamous. James Brown, Gerald Ford, Saddam Hussein. An odd trio for sure. Fitting that I'd finish Kathy Shaidle's Lobotomy Magnificat now, at this time of year.

While the three of these characters might be a little too mainstream for Shaidle, I'm sure she could pull off a few masterpieces with these respective lives. Sinners and saints all found immortality in Shaidle's poems and while a blurb on the back implies that she is preoccupied with death, I think the opposite. In fact, her message seems to be that every life is a poem. Not all are poems about roses, mind you, but poems nonetheless.

And the party was going just fine until Frida Kahlo showed up. She's quickly becoming the Samuel L. Jackson of these shindigs. Of course everyone gathered around asking about her accident, leaving me with just my brandy-soaked cocktail weenie as company. As if they hadn't heard her story before.

Don't get me wrong, I've nothing personally against the unibrowed lady, but after the onslaught of movies and poems, I'm just about Frida'd out. When Lobotomy Magnifcat was published in 1998, maybe there was more of a danger of her being lost to history, but since then Hollywood, Fate, or someone or other decided to make her the artiste-du-jour again. Shaidle couldn't have foreseen this of course (or maybe she could, maybe she was partly responsible for the sudden fascination) and so, it's just a minor problem.

Regardless, Shaidle has a masterful and often unique way of reflecting on lives of the past. I bet when she sings "Auld Lang Syne" she does it loudest. Good for her.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Reader's Diary #211- Heather O'Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals (up to p. 105)



Lullabies For Little Criminals, with Natasha and Other Stories, are the two Harper Perennial books found in the upcoming Canada Reads on CBC. For those of you who haven't picked up copies yet, look closely at the bottom right-hand corner of the cover of these books for the P.S..

According to the Harper Perennial's website, these P.S.s (post-scripts, maybe?) are meant to mimic the "extras" found on DVDs. Unlike DVD extras however, I actually enjoy these (though I doubt they'll make any difference to the book sales). These book extras include things like interviews, author-recommended books, and bios.

I bring it up now because I sort of cheated and skipped to O'Neill's P.S. before finishing the book (luckily there are no spoilers). She's an interesting woman, no doubt about, but unfortunately she did support a theory I've had for some time: if I want my children to grow up to be artists, I need to start being mean to them and divorce their mom. Oh well, I hope they'll be happy with manual labour.

That's all off topic of course. Getting back to the book at hand, I am enjoying it. But then, who doesn't enjoy a good old fashioned heroin tale, am I right? Basketball Diaries, Trainspotting, ah. I gost ta get me some schmack. And gee whiz, future employers, can't a guy make a drug joke from time to time?

One of the best things I like about Lullabies so far, is the strength O'Neill has given the children in the book. Furthermore, the strength comes from their imaginations essentially. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that an author should see the value in imagination, but I don't think the world at large does. The majority of adults don't seem to have a problem with children's imagination per se, but I don't think they take it seriously either- basically it's considered frivolous. Yet Baby, O'Neill's 12 year old protagonist, uses her imagination to keep her sane and optimistic in a world that would crush most adults (including her father). And it's nothing extravagant either- she hasn't given Baby a collection of imaginary friends, she doesn't go off on Walter Mitty like daydreams, and she doesn't come across as ridiculously naive, yet she remains optimistic, she loves her dad despite his obvious flaws, and copes. As I write this I realize that maybe it isn't imagination at all- it's just a positive outlook on life. Either way, it's something more common to children than to adults. There's one chapter in which Baby recounts being teased, mostly about her bizarre father but also about her looks, name and so on. It's pretty merciless and relentless, yet she ends the chapter by saying how the treatment made her go off and read by herself, write a book report and get 100%. It made her feel good, "Not great, of course, but it made [her] feel calmer." And that showcases her personality quite well.

Yet, the brilliance of O'Neill's work (asides from insanely funny wit), is O'Neill's choice of placing Baby at twelve- the "doorstep," according to her, of adulthood. Now we see the coping mechanisms begin to crumble- she wants to try drugs, begins to dwell on the negative and so forth. Several times she makes comments about how sad it is when a childhood slips away (or you are booted from it), and you begin to see why.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #210- Kathy Shaidle: Lobotomy Magnificat (up to "Dusting For Fingerprints in Hamilton, Ontario")


In school, my typical answer to "fitting the curriculum in" is to work"cross-curriculum". Easier said than done, the key is finding overlaps in various subjects and working on mutual or complimentary objectives at the same time. I've typically taught primary grades so history hasn't been an issue, but Kathy Shaidle's Lobotomy Magnificat could offer help in fusing History and English in high school.
I've seen plenty of poems that touch upon historical figures, but I haven't seen that many entire collections as preoccupied with history as this one (and few that do it as well). John F. Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Thomas Merton and Evelyn Dick are just some of Shaidle's targets (sorry JFK, bad choice of words). Yet while Shaidle's focus seems to be historical events and people, her poems are quite well varied. Shaidle often becomes the character, changing the voice like a professional impressionist. At other times she looks at events through a poet's glasses, comparing Kennedy's assassination to a thunderstorm for instance.
A favourite is "Restoration Conspiracy Notebook". Telling the bizarre story of Laszlo Toth, Shaidle writes in matter-of-fact sentences (that remind me of the Kids In The Hall fact girl). It opens with the line, "The Pieta is a marble statue of the Virgin Mary holding/ the body of Christ" and retells the ordeal of it's destruction and restoration while occasionally throwing in references to rapes, abortions and Catholic interference/influence. Some of the contrasted images could easily cause a reader to jump to conclusions about Shaidle's point- perhaps Toth's actions are a symptom of global and historical hatred towards women? Yet! Shaidle cleverly takes the heavy topics and covers them in a "Conspiracy" gloss which not only takes the edge off, but leads the reader to question if her theories were simply meant as satire.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #209- David Bezmozgis: Natasha and Other Stories (FINISHED)

Great book. Two things stand out:

1. Bezmozgis says so much with so little. His writing comes across as factual, almost void of any flowery language whatsoever. And while I love occasional similes and metaphors, I found Bezmozgis' style refreshing. It reminded me of haiku. Traditional haiku, as is my understanding, was skimpy on figurative language, opting instead to describe a moment in nature that could inspire any number of epiphanies within readers. Like a still life painting, I suppose. But see how hard that is? Already I've compared Bezmozgis' writing to a haiku and to a still life painting.

2. Growing up Jewish in Toronto was very different than growing up in outport Newfoundland. Yes, I have a penchant for stating the obvious, but it was another reason I enjoyed this book. As this blog would attest, I read a lot of Newfoundland and Arctic books. Maybe it's pride, maybe it's trying to connect to my roots and to my new home, maybe there's a comfort in familiarity- whatever the reason, the downside is missing out on other facets of life in Canada (or the world at large for that matter). Reading Natasha and Other Stories was a great reminder to broaden my library and also that the Canadian experience does not exist.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Reader's Diary #208: Clement Moore*: The Night Before Christmas


The Night Before Christmas, or A Visit From St. Nicholas as it was originally titled, is, according to Wikipedia, "largely responsible for the contemporary American conception of Santa Claus, including his appearance". False. In fact, if anything, we have gone out of our way to ignore Moore's rather remarkable declaration that Santa Claus was a little person, perhaps even a "jolly old elf".
Surely the Santa who we know, the bearded guy that buys an extra large red and white suit at a Big and Tall store and offers up his lap to children at the local mall, is not the same Santa that Moore wrote about driving a "miniature sleigh" pulled by "eight tiny reindeer". Yes, he was described as "old" but "little" as well, remember? I doubt the little hooves of Moore's reindeer could have pulled Tim Allen's behemoth version either. His "droll little mouth", his "little round belly"? My friends, for a moore accurate version of St. Nicholas, look to the Travelocity gnome, not to the Coca-Cola guzzling giant.
*Incidentally, Moore may not be the actual author of this beloved Christmas classic. It may have been Major Henry Livingston. The evidence cited by Wikipedia certainly presents a more favourable case for the latter.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #207- David Bezmozgis: Natasha and Other Stories (up to "The Second Strongest Man")

With Canada Reads just over two months away, my awesome wife gave me a headstart with the readings. I had expected some of the titles for Christmas, but last week she surprised me with all 5 for my birthday.

So far, I'm just two short stories into Natasha and Other Stories. Both are pleasant reads with a nostalgia that rings so true I have to keep reminding myself that they're fiction, not memoirs. Both "Tapka" and "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist" deal with life lessons and remind me somewhat of The Wonder Years. However, they're from a Jewish point of view, so imagine that Paul had a spin off.

"Tapka" is definitely the superior of the two stories. There's just so much buried under this story, cleverly disguised as simple. On the surface it looks like a story about a mishap that tears apart a friendship almost as quickly as it began, yet underneath it there are complex themes of miscommunication and values.

On an off topic, why am I being haunted by Babel? First the Brad Pitt flick plays here. Then it comes up as a character's name in Lighthousekeeping. Next it's referenced in Riffs. And now in the cover blurbs of Natasha, there is a quote from Isaac Babel. Maybe someone's trying to tell me something...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reader's Diary #206: Dennis Lee- Riffs (FINISHED)

I'm not sure if I have a favourite children's poet, but I know for many it's Dennis Lee. Unmistakeably, his work for children (Garbage Delight, Alligator Pie, etc) has overshadowed his more mature work, but it shouldn't. From what I've read, he's gifted no matter what he writes.

Riffs is a fantastic piece of poetic fiction. While it would be trite to say it's a roller coaster ride, the more accepted cliche for this book seems to be jazz music. Both comparisons work. The story behind the poems is a love affair- the beginning, the middle, and the end. And Lee takes you through all the beautiful and sordid details while capturing the emotions of such a tale as only a brilliant poet can. When he's ecstatic the poems are erratic. When he's contemplative, the poems are structured. When he's horny, he's heavy on the "h" words. I can't stress enough how much I loved this book.

Occasionally, it was easy to conjure up images of Mike Myers in So I Married An Axe Murderer with his cliched jazz/hip lingo (jive, hot potato momma, cosmos, and so on) and I'm sure some people might find it distracting or annoying, but to me, it just gave the voice a character, or maybe it gave the character a voice, ya dig?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reader's Diary #205: Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping (FINISHED!)

If you're like me, when you're feeling under the weather, you're hard to please. Songs you typically enjoy are grating, comedies you normally laugh at are annoying, and books you'd probably be into just lack that oomph you're looking for. The latter might just be the case here, so feel free to consider it a disclaimer...

I'll start with the good. I liked the "cameos" of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Darwin. Not only because messing around with historical characters is always fun, but also because both were good choices to expand on her story theme. Stevenson, and in particular his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde book, could be used to illustrate many points; for instance, story characters have more than one side and neither side's escapades by themselves is a complete story (I think Winterson goes further by suggesting that the idea of a "complete story" is fictional anyhow).

Darwin appears after Babel Dark discovers a rich fossil bed. Babel is a clergyman, and the fossils along with Darwin's Origin of Species throws him into a bit of emotional turmoil. Stories, as it seems, are open to interpretation, subject to change, and often coincide with multiple versions.

Interesting stuff, right? It was a quick read and did hold my attention. Winterson's stories themselves though didn't quite measure up to her theses. Towards the end, any investment I had in the characters of Pew and Silver was gone, lost in a quagmire of broken fragments and attempts at originality. I understand that fragmentation was another part of Winterson's point, but it didn't seem to work for me. I was just left confused. Likewise, with the poetic parts. Even down to the character names, Winterson tried hard to infuse the book with metaphors and other figurative language, symbols, and other poetic elements. And like poems, further reads of the book might bring it more into focus. Still the poetic attributes seemed inconsistent with the brash and obvious tactics that Winterson employed while injecting (what I feel) are her own opinions on storytelling. I mentioned this in my last post, but I'll end with another example. Maybe I'm committing a sin here by confusing Winterson's opinions with that of one of her characters, but in my defense, the whole book echoes this sentiment and so I don't think I'm stretching the truth...
"I do not accept that life has an ordinary shape, or that there is anything
ordinary about life at all. We make it ordinary, but it is not."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reader's Diary #204- T.S. Eliot: Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats (FINISHED)

T.S. Eliot is one of those poets everyone seems to know. Yet I've never known any of his work except "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and I have a passing familiarity with "The Waste Lands" (which I have to admit is only via Stephen King). So I went out to get more acquainted with the chap.

Perhaps I could have done without Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. It's quirky, but not enough so keep this reader's attention (not even for a mere 64 pages). Eliot's joke seems to be assigning anthropomorphic attributes to cats. For anyone with a cat (self included) that is not a difficult task. Mine for instance, is a slightly bitter fellow, who seems to think it's just me and him against the world.


It is said that Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats was written for children. Perhaps some children would be interested in the work. There are some pretty inventive rhymes and rhyme schemes but the language is sometimes dated and mature. Though perhaps words like "ineffable" would intimidate children no more than fiffer-feffer-feff, and maybe doesn't need to be treated with any more seriousness than any imaginary Seuss creature.


Also disappointing were the Edward Gorey illustrations. As I've blogged about in an earlier post, one of the charms of Gorey's work is the underlying sinister feel. Here I'm afraid his talents were wasted and his work seems lackluster and uninspired.


On a couple of interesting side notes, while checking up a bit of background information for this blog I discovered that this book was the basis for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Cats"- how do I miss this stuff? I also came across this humorous blog posting- much funnier than Eliot's work.


The opening poem, "The Naming Of Cats", is one of the better poems in the book. It reminded me of a certain section of Sullivan's The Dying Days actually. It made me want to pose a question to any cat-lovers out there: What is your cat's name? And why did you choose it?


My cat is "Touton". My wife and I got him about a month before we originally moved to Nunavut and we wanted a name that reminded us of where we came from. Anyone from Newfoundland will know what a touton is, but for the uninformed, I'll let you do the legwork and check out the link to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Here is Touton in his Christmas glory:


Friday, December 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #203- Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping (Up to "That day in the lighthouse")


Much to the chagrin of some of our book club members, it is Lighthousekeeping not Light Housekeeping.
Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping is essentially a story about stories. It's told in a quirky, almost fable-like way. It has eccentric, larger-than-life characters, stories and personalities are revealed almost like the unravelling of a mystery, and the sole theme, stories, is always at the forefront. This last issue made me nervous. Would it become too obvious? Too preachy? One of the themes of Three Day Road was story-telling as well, but I liked that Boyden didn't force his theories. Winterson absolutely does force it. Take the following dialogue:

"Tell me a story, Pew.
What kind of story, child?
A story with a happy
ending.
There's no such thing in all the world.
As a happy ending?
As an ending."

or this line,
"A beginning, a middle, and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have
difficulty with that method."
Furthermore, when Winterson presents them so matter-of-factly, it almost makes her seem cocky in her convictions, as if she is throwing out a brand new idea. But they are not! The idea that stories have no real beginnings or endings has been explored innumerable times. There's a scene in Forrest Gump when there's a recounting of all the Gumps that had gone before Forrest. In Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky has characters living through WWII who reflect about life during WWI. My point is that finding a movie, a book, a song, etc that says that history repeats itself, that events throughout time are connected through cause and effect, and will probably continue to do so, is not a difficult task.
Likewise, the divergence from stories with a "beginning, a middle, and an end" seems to me to be almost becoming the norm. I know in Canada if an author writes a straightforward, chronologically told story, there's a good chance s/he will be lambasted by the critics. (Make it from a single view point and we're likely to reinstate capital punishment.)
Basically, I think Winterson's points are not subtle enough and a little tired. Yet...
For all of this, I'm enjoying it. No, it may not be the cleverest of books (despite what you may have heard), but I'm still having a good time reading it. The characters are interesting and the tapestry is woven well. Often there are puns and tongue-in-cheek metaphors that keep it fun and while I read a few critics that praised her for being poetic, I'd say maybe just Poetry-Lite.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #202- Dorothy Livesay: Ice Age (FINISHED)

I have a binder in which I copy favourite or interesting poems I've read. It's incomplete to say the least. Admittedly, I'm very slack in making additions. Too often the books are overdue at the library long before I've a chance to copy anything from them. Oddly, the most frequent times that I actually remember to make copies is when I come across poems best described as horror. Maybe my subconscious is putting together a Halloween Poem collection- the Eddie Munster in me, I guess.

The last poem in Ice Age will be added to the macabre lot. "The Survivor" is a deliciously creepy tale of a woman and a corpse after a plane has crashed. The predictable happens; the survivor turns to the corpse for...sustenance. And then the unpredictable happens; the survivor herself begins to freeze and is devoured by the corpse. While I suspect the poem has more to say about growing old and one's slow separation from an ailing, aging body, it's brilliantly horrific even on the surface level.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #201- Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise (FINISHED)

Nemirovsky never did get around to including the plight of the Jewish people in her unfinished work, Suite Francaise. And while the key might be in the "unfinished", the two appendices at the end might give further clues. Here we discover that Nemirovsky had converted to Catholicism once she immigrated to France (a fact considered irrelevant by the Nazis). Still, the lack of any discussion of Jewish people by any of the characters seems a bit odd to me. Instead, Nemirovsky seems to focus on the differences between castes. Reading Nemirovsky's notes about her work, it seems to have been an overt decision to make that a focus, while also choosing to show an almost indifference to the events of the war itself. Still, while an expose on upperclasses appalled by the boorishness of the lowerclasses, and the lowerclasses appalled by the greed and shallowness of the upperclasses, presents an interesting take on war, not mentioning the Jews for this particular War is astounding. Sadly, Nemirovsky's own life provides the missing element- a remarkable but sad substitute for the ending she was never able to provide through fiction.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #200- Dorothy Livesay: Ice Age (up to "Winter Ascendant")

Dorothy Livesay was one of those pros. The ones that make it look easy. Unlike many of the other poets I've been reading lately, Livesay never seemed to forget her topic. Many of those in Sounds New, and Diana Brebner, always seemed to be preoccupied with the poem itself; Does it look right? Is it experimental enough? And while I'm not saying such things are irrelevant, it is obvious that many poets lose sight of what they were trying to say in the first place. Yet, Livesay was able to make the mechanics seem secondary; if the message required it, she'd use it, and if not, she didn't force it. And to Peter Van Toorn, editor of Sounds New, transcendence is not a new idea (or sound) of contemporary poetry, it's quickly becoming apparent that it is probably as old as poetry itself.

But I'm getting sidetracked. Ice Age was written late in the life and career of Dorothy Livesay. Maybe that's where her confidence or lack of self-consciousness as a poet came from. And while many of the poems do remind the reader that it is of an older woman looking back (some are written to her grandchildren, for instance) it does not feel old-fashioned or unhip. A favourite is "Widow" which tells of a woman masturbating while remembering her dead husband. She doesn't seem fulfilled at the end, as the loss remains her focus. I'm sure some would cringe at a grandmother writing such a poem, but it's this sort of honesty that makes Livesay's poetry so compelling. Another favourite is "Manifesto" which makes a large jump from murder to music. She talks of a human condition that makes us desire to commit irrational acts, such as murder, and theorizes that perhaps music gets us there without the guilt. It's a very profound piece and I'm still pondering it now, after reading it a dozen or so times.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reader's Diary #199- Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise (up to "Dolce" Chapter 4)


There is one thing that puzzles me about this book and Nemirovsky's intentions. When I think of WWII, the Jews are forever linked to that part of history. To me, the horror they went through is what defines the War. Yet, oddly there has been almost no mention of them. When any character's faith has been mentioned, it's been Catholic. I'm two thirds of the way through and the only reference to the Jews has been a single paragraph describing how some of the posters the Germans had put up around France showed caricatures of Jews and Englishmen. I realize that Nemirovsky was focussing on how the War affected specific individuals, but I wonder why she didn't write about a Jewish character. Did the plight of the Jews really seem so insignificant? Was that her point?

What makes the notable absence of Jews even more surprising is that Nemirosky herself was Jewish. She'd eventually be captured at die at a concentration camp. Another theory is that maybe she didn't want to face her worst fears, and Suite Francaise, with its bleakness, was all the escapism she could muster in such a troubled time.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #198- Diana Brebner: The Golden Lotus (FINISHED!!)

I was never able to get past the feeling that Brebner liked to play the part of a poet. Right down to the Greek references and unicorn (which hilariously did show up on page 79), page after page felt trite. Yet, Brebner won awards for her work as does everyone who publishes a book of poetry in this country. Or so it seems. Easy for me to preach from the pulpit of the unpublished, I guess.

Many of Brebner's poems revolved around paintings. Works by Karel Fabritius, Jan Vermeer, Mary Cassatt and Mary Pratt are the inspiration behind many of the poems contained in The Golden Lotus. I like the idea of art inspired by art- even if I wasn't fussy on Brebner's material. It made me think about the impact that the internet has on this type of poem. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that poetry publishers are going to invest a lot of money into the books. With returns just above abysmal (if they're lucky), it's no wonder that you don't see a lot of the paintings referenced by poems within the books themselves. I'm assuming that they'd have to pay for the right to use the images and so readers typically would be left in the dark about the artwork unless they had a familiarity with it from a previous experience. Now with the internet, the reader, should s/he be so inclined, can do some of the legwork and look up said artwork online. I wasn't able to find all of the paintings referenced in The Golden Lotus, but I was able to find some, and it made for a more complete reading experience.

What do you make of poems inspired by paintings, sculptures, and so on? Of course it all depends on what the poem has to say, and how well it says it, but for the most part I think art should be allowed to comment on art, just as on on any other facet of life. Different interpretations are always interesting and could only add to the value of the original artwork. I do wonder if some of the original artists would be upset, thinking that maybe their piece should stand on its own, but personally, if it was me, I'd just be interested in how my work was perceived. Any artists out there want to weigh in on this one?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #197- Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise (up to "Storm in June", Ch. 25)

In my first post about this book I mentioned that people were shedding their former selves by abandoning their material possessions and realizing what was truly important. That wasn't the case for everyone. Some characters had done the opposite. In the last moments before leaving, some took precious time to hide valuables in nooks and crannies, or else try to stash them in already crammed suitcases and cars.

I remembered this contrast and bring it up now because such differences have become my focus in the book. I love the different traits and personalities explored by Nemirovsky. How easy is it to group victims together as one homogeneous group? Yet it seems to have been one of Nemirovsky's goals to remind readers that this was not the case. In one of the most intense illustrations of contrasts, she writes,

"Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place."


Wow.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reader's Diary #196- Diana Brebner: The Golden Lotus (up to "Head of a Girl")

If you're like me, switching immediately from one book to the next is never an easy transition. Just as I get used to one author's style, I switch and have to begin all over again.

I suspected that was the case with "The Golden Lotus". I just could not get into it at all. Sadly, with the exception of one poem, I still can't. Goodbye "bad transition" theory.

My major problem with her work is her rigid style. For a poet, she wasn't all that adventurous. Three major issues stick out:

1. She overrelies on couplets. There are occasional branches, but for the most part she tends to use two lines-break-two lines-break-and so forth. Actually, they're pseudo-couplets at that. Often she used an ABAB rhyme scheme, more commonly known in quatrains, but with a break between the two sets of lines. Furthermore, each line is most often continuous, flowing into the next, even across the line breaks. In one or two of these poems an argument can be made as to why the form she's chosen fits the theme. However, for the most part, it feels arbitrary, as if written simply to look like a poem.

2. She repeats herself WAY too much. You can be sure if the title is "Fallen" for example, you're going to see the word "fallen" or some variant at least half a dozen times. Like the couplet problem, the repetition could be defended in some instances, but in others it's just an annoyance that distracts from any good qualities the poem might have had.

3. Too often the poems seem like cliches of poetry. Even the title feels overdone. Furthermore, there are occasional attempts at transcendentalism (there's that word again) which just remind me of the hippy connotations people have with the word. In "The Walls- Thrall" Brebner writes, "...the stars are swimming, dipping/ like porpoises, or angels, in and out". I was expecting a unicorn to show up at any second.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Canada Reads 2007 is Announced!

Thanks to Barbara for pointing this out to me (Barbara, whom I met through my blogs about Canada Reads last year, btw):

Canada Reads 2007 has been announced! I checked last week and saw the site hadn't been updated, but I wasn't been checking it out regularly. I misunderstood last year that the championship this year would be the winning panelists and their books from the past five years. Instead, only the panelists will be returning! Even though I was looking forward to hearing which book would have been picked (I was hoping Rockbound) it will be nice to hear all new arguments and get new books for Christmas.

Canada Reads 2007 will air Feb. 26- March 2.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Reader's Diary #195- Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise (up to p. 50)

I have to admit, when my bookclub voted on Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, I thought I was surrounded by a bunch of pretentious snobs. If they are, this book was not the proof I was looking for.

I also have to admit, I hadn't heard of it. In hindsight, that would explain my ignorant thoughts. So when I got home, I wikipedia'd (have we made that a verb yet?)Irene Nemirovsky. If the author's own life, including the time when she wrote the novel, is any indication, the book should be interesting.

So far, it is. Apparently, Nemirovsky set out to write a 20th century version of War and Peace. Certainly, there are similarities. Switching back and forth between characters, focusing on society's layers (class, religion, even different occupations) it seems as if she was trying to touch upon all the varieties of people that would be affected by the War (i.e., World War II). The war itself, and the exodus of characters from Paris, again is reminiscent of Tolstoy's classic. It's been a while since I read War and Peace, but I do remember that, while liking the book, I was overwhelmed with the number of characters. I've heard a few people say that they found that to be the case here as well, but so far I've been able to keep track. However, I am only 50 pages in...

One of the more compelling facets of the book is the tragic irony. As in Kevin Major's No Man's Land, the outcome is known by the reader. As I read Major's book about Newfoundlanders fighting in France during World War I, I remember wishing I could have read about the French people themselves, to get their perspective in the whole tragedy. While this is a different war, I'm finally getting to see those whose country is being torn apart. In that essence, it's a little more like Ordeal in Cambodia. In that book, while escaping the Khmer Rouge, Vek Huong Taing and his wife were strengthened in their identity (Christians) while in Suite Francaise there are already signs of people shedding their former identities as they are coming to realize they had been defining themselves by material possessions. A contrast yes, but both fascinating, and I'm sure accurate possibilities of the effect of war and of forced exodus on individual people. In both cases, (arguably) people keep their good traits and discard the bad ones in time of crisis. However, I'm sure that a person's personality can change for the worse as well- extreme cynicism, despair, and so on. I haven't encountered that in Nemirovsky's novel yet, but with such an array of characters I hope I do. Not that I have a sadistic desire to see people suffer, I just think some representation of the darker side of the effect of war might be necessary- like that of Elijah in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, only with civilians rather than soldiers.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #194- Peter Van Toorn (editor): Sounds New (FINISHED)

For this, my last posting about Sounds New, I'm going to avoid talking of transcendence. I'm afraid I've been selling the book short by focusing only on that aspect. Instead I'm going to focus on one poet in particular, Emanuel Lowi.

Lowi is represented here with three poems: "stone point", "At The Great Whale River Social Club" and "What I keep in my kitchen." The first of these poems really caught my eye. Written to look like steps, "stone point" is written as from an Inuk perspective, and has mystic elements. Yet despite having such elements, it feels more like a traditional poem than many of the others in the collection. Like traditional poetry (and other art forms for that matter), I think that "stone point" looks through reality to find the truth. Despite talking about "spirit-songs" and "amniotic dawn", Lowi reminds us that these "truths" are derived from nature and first-hand experiences. "Stiff as antlers", "animal stomach" and "cliffsides and slopes" are just a few of the hard, nature-based images. Compared to many of the others poets in the collection, who seemed to look away from reality to find the truth, I found "stone point" oddly traditional and refreshing at the same time.

"At the Great Whale River Social Club" was similar. Somewhat of a short story, it felt like an Al Purdy poem. Quickly I was becoming a fan of Lowi.

Then came "What I keep in my kitchen". My first reaction was that it was some sort of joke. With the previous couple of poems, it was apparent that Lowi had talent. I initially suspected that he had tried to see if it would get published, or maybe that it was a way to prove the cluelessness and sycophantic nature of his supporters. Basically, the poem does what the title suggests, it gives an inventory of items in his kitchen. I've read a similar poems in the past; one that itemized the contents of a purse. Poems such as these seem like jokes at best, arrogant self-centeredness at worst. However... I read and reread "What I keep in my kitchen." I liked the first two so much, I just had to get at the bottom of it. Certain facts started to become apparent; it was told through an apparent vegetarian's voice. Mostly, he listed herbs, a few fruits and vegetables, lentils, tofu and a couple condiments. Still, this didn't solve the mystery as to why he decided to let the reader into his kitchen (or think a reader would be interested). Then I noticed the one and only poetic element. The only non-nouns in the entire poem, come right at the end as an eggplant is described as "one gentle eggplant". It's amazing how a little adjective can haunt me so much. Why weren't the peanuts, for instance, gentle? Why wasn't the saffron say, seductive? The mystery has gotten to me. Perhaps even more than William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." And for that I give credit to Lowi. Even if it was a gag poem, it's caused me to think.

Writer's Diary #13- Untitled (or Conclusion) editted

When    I    lived
up North
I saw snow
mounds as dead;
corpses quilted
in heavy white.

Down South
these graves (and mine) would go
unmarked
if not for the footprints
of millions.


Just a small change. "In the North" was changed to "up North". Primarily, this is to keep the two stanzas more cohesive. But I also like how up/down fits more with the message I'm trying to convey.

As you can tell, I'm considering the title, "Conclusion" as well.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Writer's Diary #12: Untitled

I hate publishing my poetry immediately after a write the first draft, yet for some masochistic reason I can't stop myself. At least I always remember to add the disclaimer that it's a first draft. That way, if there are major problems, or if I look back later and roll my eyes, at least I can take comfort in the fact that it needed a lot more work. Anyway...

When    I    lived
in the North
I saw snow
mounds as dead;
corpses quilted
in heavy white.

Down South
these graves (and mine) would go
unmarked
if not for the footprints
of millions.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Reader's Diary #193- J.D.Salinger: Franny and Zooey (FINISHED)


Twice this week I've liked something, yet am unable to recommend it. First I went to see Running With Scissors and now I've finished Franny and Zooey. For different reasons, I can understand someone not liking either. Running With Scissors, while very wacky, is dark and arguably depressing. Franny and Zooey is very short on plot.

While I don't want to compare every book to a movie, one aspect of Franny and Zooey reminded me of Before Sunrise. No, it wasn't a love story, but both works were almost completely comprised of talking. In its entirety, Franny and Zooey is made up of three conversations; Franny and her boyfriend Lane, Zooey and his mother Bessie, and Franny and Zooey. Some would undoubtedly consider it boring, but I personally liked it. I loved (and yet hated) the characters, and it inspired a lot of moments of self-reflection.

Like Franny, I've wrestled with selflessness versus selfishness, I've struggled with religion, and I'm still trying to balance my condemnation of phoniness with being overly judgmental. Usually I make my peace by telling myself how such philosophical pursuits are a product of an affluent society; we have clothes, hamburgers and DVD players so we waste our time worrying about the higher order crap. As a species, we seem to require a certain amount of stress in our life.

Yet somehow, it's hard to stay focused on what truly matters. And for the times that we don't, Franny and Zooey just might be the perfect book. I didn't always agree with the philosophy of the characters, but it was nice to have something to consider. For instance, as Zooey talks with Franny about her dedication to the Jesus Prayer (a la The Way of The Pilgrim), he criticizes her for not getting to know Jesus first. I've agreed with such arguments in the past. In fact, it's the primary reason that I don't often vote. I feel terribly irresponsible voting when I don't know every single issue and each party's stance. The problem with the voting scenario, of course, is that most of those that do vote, aren't completely informed either! And the problem with Zooey's argument, is similar. Who really knows Jesus? People spend their entire lives studying the man and still don't have all the answers. But does that mean no one should have faith? Maybe it comes down to moderation again. As I get older, I realize that moderation is my answer to everything. In this case, some knowledge is necessary to make informed decisions of whom (or what) one is dedicating their lives, but if one is to wait to know everything, they'll be waiting forever.

In the end, Zooey makes a bizarre case for Jesus being a metaphorical fat lady that lives in everyone outside ourselves, and for a second I thought I was reading a new age poem from Sounds New. (It's funny how random book choices often overlap with one another, isn't it?) I'm not sure I get his point yet, unlike Franny, who finally found innerpeace with Zooey's theory. Still, it's one of those books that will stick with me and make me think. For the next day or so anyway. Unless I see a World Vision ad before then.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reader's Diary #192- Peter Van Toorn (editor): Sounds New (up to Phil Muscovitch's "Water")

The title of this particular collection is Sounds New not Sounds New Age. In my last posting however, I implied that it was full of new age nuances. I still hold that a number of these poems fit under a new age umbrella, just as much as they fit under a "transcendental" label. At first that made me a little squeamish about the poems. To me, the term "new age" conjures up images of flaky fad followers looking for the next cereal box religion. Yet when I read the "new age" wikipedia article, I realized that I'm not all that far from new age beliefs my own self! Don't worry, I won't be ordering any Yanni cds yet, but I realized that my mind needs some opening.

I also realized that as I'm reading through this book, I've caught myself thinking, "Oh geez, what would Robert Frost think of these?" and I have no idea why I do this. I'm not a huge Robert Frost fan (though I do like his work) so why I use him as a benchmark for poetry, I have no idea. Ingrained snobbery I guess. New and Used Records blogger, Will posted about the liberating aspect of the "art is dead" opinion. The argument is that a definition of art no longer exists, and basically it now belongs to anyone. While Will waxed philosophical about how all this applies to punk music, I think poets have benefited from the approach as well.

Since the 1800s Walt Whitman and others have opened poetry up to freestyle to much debate, yet the freedom has now become the norm rather than the exception. Recently there's been a resurgence in form poetry, and like music, poetry finally seems to embracing variety. There's a value to both, just as there's value to rock and jazz and punk and polka. Okay, so maybe not polka.

So if free form poetry isn't new, what makes the poems in this particular book new? Certainly there's a bigger insistence on transcendence and there's a much more obvious attempt from these poets to mesh the material world with the spiritual world, yet the underlying theme isn't new. I'd argue that poets have been doing that from the get go. Only this time, the transparency of the endevour gets annoying. I try and try to open my mind, but again I come up against my "new age" prejudice. One exception to this is Michael Anderson's "The music of the spheres is jazz". In this couplet poem, Anderson uses the stars and jazz to create a magic, romance-filled night. He doesn't beat the reader over the head with his point as many of the others do in this collection, yet I still feel he manages to make the connections between the spheres, as it were. Jazz as a representation of love and maybe even the creation of the universe? It follows complex rules, yet relies on improvisation. Sounds in line with my theory.

But it's not all transcendence which makes these poems "sound new". There's also the occasional burst of vulgarity and cheap shock tactics. Shock art, or rather what is labeled as "shocking" rarely is. Usually it's a slow news day and some brainless entertainment show is telling us how shocked we should be that Britney has kissed Madonna or that some South American artist has painted a picture of Jesus shooting heroin. Unfortunately, we sometimes judge dated material by today's standards and end up thinking works like Cohen's Beautiful Losers is boring in its lame attempts to electrify our mundane existence. Yet, we need to remember context. Back in the 60's Cohen was breaking taboos. Sounds New however, was first published in 1990, and if memory serves Jane's Addiction had declared Nothing's Shocking a few years earlier. So when I read poets like Ian Stephens write "I pull out my cock/ I tie a boot-lace around my balls" or William Scott Neale write "I am the tongue on your ass-hole" I immediately yawn and walk away. Actually that's not true. I am offended. I am not offended by the content (or imagery), I'm offended by the smug attitude that shouts in my face, "I'm more open minded and liberal than you, conservative pig!" Why the hell do they always seem to make that assumption? They're writing, for the most part, for poets! Generally a pretty liberal group anyway. Most likely it'll never be read at the next Pentecostal convention, so why bother? Heck, even if it was, why bother? Is shocking someone you obviously feel morally superior over really all that of a kick?

Anyway, I've rambled, I've ranted, I've gotten a little off topic. I should go.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Reader's Diary #191- J.D.Salinger: Fran and Zooey (up to p. 105)

The basic moral behind Daniel Keyes' Flowers For Algernon is "ignorance is bliss". The fact that such an adage even exists says that this is not a novel idea (pardon the pun).

While perhaps not quite as cleverly executed as Keyes' book, Franny and Zooey explores this theme as well. Yet while not living up to the Keyes' masterpiece, Salinger does add an extra element; religion.

Only halfway in, I'm a little unsure as to what point he is trying to make but I do have a few theories:

1. Faith in a higher power doesn't assure happiness either (and if this is the point, I'm left thinking that if money, intelligence and religion can't deliver happiness, what can? Oh right, sex.)

2. Faith is the answer to happiness. While completely opposite to my first theory, I don't know how the book is going to turn out. Perhaps this religion-induced depression Franny is going through will turn around.

3. Faith can lead to happiness, if chosen wisely, slowly and personally.

The mystery is one of the appealing qualities of this novel. The characters, too, are holding my attention. Zooey, could be a modern character, as a single 25 year old still living at home. Oddly, the best thing about his character is his cruelty. It's not often you get a protagonist this unlikeable, but the more he berates his mom like an ungrateful (but intellectual) brat, the more involved I become. Obviously his meanness is a symptom of his issues, and he seems to blame his older brothers for creating his smart and bitter persona. It's a page turner to see if he will end up helping his troubled sister Franny, or will instead fall deeper into his own misery-plagued existence.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Writer's Diary #11: Found in a Twillingate Pamphlet

At the last writer's club we left with the challenge to write a travel article. I haven't written an "article" as such, but it did inspire this poem about my home town:

When you go to Twillingate
                 you should
take a boat tour
you should take Cec's, no
you should take Sterling's, no
you should take that new one
                 you should
see a show
you should see Eleanor's, no
you should see The Split Peas, no
you should see my mom's
                 you should
shop at Stuckless's
eat at R and J's
quickly notice a familial theme
                 you should
stay at the Anchor Inn, no
at the HarbourLight'sCrewe'sHeritageHomeSeaBreezeParkTouliquetInn...
                 you should
come for the Fish, Fun, and Folk Festival
                 (you should
spend a lot of money)
*******************************************
                you should
know that at the end you will
know as much about them as they
know about you
and what you want
from a vacation

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reader's Diary #190- Peter Van Toorn (editor): Sounds New (up to Dwayne Perreault's "Acid Rain")

Transcendence. The word didn't strike fear in me, but I had assumed it would be too convoluted for me to ever understand.

Yet suddenly, the word is popping up everywhere. Mentioned in Franny and Zooey, in a recent wikipedia article I read, and now in Sounds New. Not one to go running from a word, I've tried to get a handle on it. From what I gather, it's about there being more than meets the eye and coming to terms with the fact that there are some things we might never be able to understand. I don't mind the term so much anymore (but it does make me think of New Age, and that ain't cool).

In the introduction to Sounds New, editor Peter Van Toorn discusses the idea of transcendence quite eloquently. He seems to suggest that we are at a golden age whereby artists and scientists have not only declared a truce, but have also become strange bedfellows. Artists, despite accusations of doing the opposite, seek truth. So do scientists. But now people are beginning to see that maybe their versions of the truth are not diametrically opposed. Mysticism? Maybe. I remember reading Stephen Hawking and looking back now, I think his theories fall into the category of scientific transcendence. In Sounds New, a bunch of poets from Quebec (circa late 80s) lead the trend.

My biggest challenge in reading this collection is in differentiating between the poets. It's not that they aren't different, but my initial bias sees them all as one voice: a late 80s, Montreal poet who focuses on transcendentalism. Van Toorn is as much to blame for this as I am, due to his introduction (however eloquent it might be) which tends to categorize the poets a little too narrowly. When I shake my head free of this skew, I can appreciate (or not) each poet for their individual styles and approaches.

One (unique) poet which has stood out for me so far is Ruth Taylor. Taylor had quite a large collection of her work represented here. I'm still a little undecided about her poems. Initially, I found her poems fun. Then they became whimsical. Then they became grating. More so than the other poets (in this book) I have read so far, she seemed to enjoy sounds, and lines like "O ominous oms of omniscience!" are not uncommon. Like Christian Bok, she experimented with the language. Before long though, her poems seem gimmicky and to me, seemed to sacrifice any point for the sake of a little alliteration. There's also smatterings of pop-culture references (ex. "Space. The Final Frontier.") and contemporary slang (ex. "Can you dig it?") that smacks of someone trying to be hip. It is only through occasional poems such as "Cabane Fever" in which Taylor seemed to actually think outside the turtleneck, and it is only then that her true talent showed through.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #189- J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey (up to "Zooey")


People who take themselves too seriously are easy to criticize. There are at least two ways to go about this; satire and cynicism. The only difference between the two is humour. Mordecai Richler's novels and the A Mighty Wind movie, are two of my favourite examples of satire. What's yours?

Salinger is a great example of the cynic. Who could forget Holden Caulfield's "phonies" from Catcher In The Rye? Franny and Zooey continues on with that theme, but instead of being critical of adults and the establishment, Franny and Zooey seems to narrow its focus to the educated. No, it's not an attack on the intellectual, but it does seem to differentiate between being wise and being well-schooled, sincere with phoney. (It reminded me of the chapter on "Credentialing Versus Educating" in Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead).

The first story, "Franny", may not be the thrill a page that some people go in for, but it's entertaining nonetheless. Basically set around a dinner conversation between a young university-aged couple, it could be easy to pass off the work as "philosophy-lite". But it's so much more than that. Yes, Franny rants about her professors, the shallowness of actors, and generally anyone she feels who puts on airs, while wrestling with the frivolity of life, but behind it all, what makes the story interesting is the character herself, and the mystery of her mental condition.

Initially the story appeared to be about Lane, Franny's boyfriend. It opened with Lane waiting at a train station for Franny to arrive. The first glimpse of Franny is through a letter she had written to Lane, and my impression of her wasn't great. Full of grammatical errors and allusions to Lane's education suggestions, Franny came across as less intelligent than Lane to say the least. But then the story began to turn 180 and it suddenly revolved around the newly arrived Franny. Furthermore, I could see her growth (still in progress) as a thinker, and more importantly how she had surpassed Lane (who appeared stalled and shallow as the story went on).

As Franny and Lane began eating, it quickly became apparent that all wasn't right between them. Lane initially monopolized the conversation by bragging about a paper he had written, but Franny quickly moved from showing disinterest, to challenging and insulting him, to taking over. Their relationship came into question for me, but then it started to seem more about Franny herself. Not only was she outgrowing Lane, she seemed to be outgrowing her former self.

At least that's my conclusion. Salinger is clever to make Franny's frame of mind a mystery. Clearly she is stressed (even taking a moment to cry in the bathroom), but whether it be about Lane or herself is never spelled out. Added to the mystery is when her development had taken place. I'm under the impression that the reader is witnessing a person grow at that very moment (i.e., that she didn't have conclusions prior to the meeting with Lane). She comes to some mighty revelations and wrestles with some pretty hefty thoughts in a short time frame, and towards the end appears to have a nervous breakdown. Personally, I believe Salinger simply condensed what many of us go through over a longer time frame into the course of a meal. Distancing herself from Lane may just be a symbol of our resistance to change, whether that resistance comes from inside or outside sources. And maybe the breakdown at the end is Salinger's way of suggesting that we should take philosophy slow.

Looking at it now, it reminds me of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. When you look at the way Franny wrote to Lane in her letter, it is clear her esteem needs weren't met. When you look at the way she judged people with prejudice, it is clear her self-actualization needs weren't met, yet she is trying to meet her self-transcendence needs, the one at the very top of the hierarchy, the one that some people never meet. Skipping the lower needs was a recipe for disaster, putting those at the very bottom, her psychological and safety needs, in jeopardy.

(Sorry about this)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reader's Diary #188- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (FINISHED)

In the afterword, Sullivan reveals that the Dying Days came out of a break-up, just as Christopher was going through one in the book. Just as Sullivan is working on his math doctorate, so is Christopher. So some elements were not a big stretch from reality. Who cares? The book was great. It's hardly the first cathartic piece to be created out of a failed relationship. And while I doubt there'll be any comparisons to the Rumours album, the idea of creating a fantasy world to escape the crud going on in the real one is still intriguing.

My suggestion to Sullivan is to keep a journal. Already a published author, game show contestant (much more of a rarity in Canada), and maybe a doctor of mathematics- I'd say he already has a few great chapters for a future memoir. And if he keeps writing (and I sincerely hope he does), it could only get more interesting.

True, I'm getting away from the book at hand but I've very little left to say. I enjoyed it immensely. I had a few minor problems as I've delved into earlier. The ending- what doesn't happen to Christopher- is a bit of let down for me, but reading was never supposed to be like eating at Burger King. The burger was great, even without the dill pickle.

All in all, a solid piece of work, but keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who rarely reads fantasy...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Writer's Diary #10- Alex Colville's Horse and Train Painting (Edited)

Despite my initial reservations with last week's Writer's Club, I woke up this morning feeling better about the whole thing. In fact, some of the more constructive criticisms came back to me and I think I was able to salvage something. Here is an edited version of a poem I posted a while back...


(THEY FORGET ME-
THEY RENDER MY
ESSENCE INTO
VILE GREASE)
TRAIN AGAINST HORSE
AGAINST ME AND
THEY WILL REGRET
THIS.
Someone who had done some riding before pointed out that the rhythm I had chosen initially matched a horse's canter rather than a gallop, as the picture would suggest. Knowing nothing about horse gaits, I checked it up and sure enough, she was right. So I worked on changing this and liked where it took me. Now I think the four syllables per line (with two exceptions) also more closely matches the "chuga chuga" of a train as well.
You'll also notice a few other changes. The most obvious of these is the caps. I told the group that I had wanted to keep the voice slightly ambiguous, and open to several interpretations- the horse, Alex Colville, and God to name but three. The God scenario, as one person pointed out, seemed inconsistent with the initial opening lines, "They do not/ respect me", with "me" being lowercase. However, switching it to a capital "Me" destroyed any other interpretations. So I tried all caps, and liked the urgency it put into the poem. More importantly it left all interpretations in tact.
There are a few more changes as well. "Distill" for instance, was changed to "rendering". I felt it fit better with "grease" and "rendering" of course, has the other connotation of being an artist's work (as in Alex Colville's "Horse and Train" rendering.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #187- Adrienne Rich: Your Native Land, Your Life (FINISHED)

A common theme running through most of the poems in the latter sections of this book is isolation. Many of these are self exploratory as Rich seems to list off reasons (real or imagined depends on your degree of cynicism) as to why she feels separate from others in her country (including men, non-Jews, the healthy, and the straight).

I'm not usually a fan of political poems, but I do like these. Rather than the preachy, holier-than-though, patronizing political poems of someone like Milton Acorn, Rich is more reflective in the process. Her humility towards these issues are probably a little surprising to those who would paint her as a "militant feminist". In fact, the strongest poems in this entire collection are those which show Rich's reluctance as a hero. In "North American Time" Rich writes, "Everything we write/ will be used against us." personally, I find this approach more effective in relaying a political message. I find it hard to trust anyone who is too set in their convictions.

My favourite section is the third, "Contradictions: Tracking Poems". Here Rich's sense of separation seems to jump to the next logical conclusion, loneliness. You know how people talk about money- that it doesn't buy happiness? Rich, in my mind, delivers a similar message about success. Few poets make it to her level, yet she can start poems with "You who think I find words for everything" indicating so much: that she's somewhat resentful of the expectations, of her own illusion, and of the challenge of maintaining that image. Yet, far from depressing me, I actually think I find it all a little hopeful. I remarked in a recent poem about my own feelings of isolation as a poet. It's nice to see that I am not alone. Rich creates her own camaraderie when she writes directly to the reader (in this case, me), "You for whom I write this". No, I'm not that deranged fan who thinks he's being spoken to, but I do feel Rich was reaching out to her reader's with such a singular wording. Poetry, while isolating, can also have the opposite effect. Maybe even more so- because when you make a connection, it's very personal. Salvation through poetry? Maybe, maybe not. But for the time being, that works for me.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Reader's Diary #186- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (up to ch. 18)

The benefit to writing in individual chunks about a novel I'm reading is that it gives me time to reflect on said chunks, instead of the novel as a whole. I find that it's made me a much more critical reader.

The drawback is that I'm giving certain impressions of a book without yet having read the whole thing. I can only hope that the people (all 3 of you) checking out my blog realize that these are not final assessments unless it says "FINISHED" at the top.

So, when I wrote earlier that I wished Christopher would reflect more upon his ex, I had no way of knowing that would happen in due time. By holding off with that part, Sullivan was able to let the issue ferment and come to a superbly written climax that ties into Christopher's newly discovered world.

And when I implied that there were a few cheesy moments, I would have added the endings of certain chapters. For example, "And this time, there was nothing he could do to save himself." It's very similar to the tactics Dan Brown used in The Davinci Code. I know some people go in for such a thing, but I personally don't need a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to maintain my interest.

But I really, REALLY need to end this entry on a positive note. Because, despite the occasional slice of cheese, Sullivan's writing has impressed me. A lot. It's not only the great vocab (I admit, I've had to look up more than one of his words), it's also the risks. Far from the straightforward narrative told in the third person, Sullivan takes a lot of chances that he executes expertly. It's not just the occasional jump to another character's perspective, it's also things like in Chapter 10, when the chapter is broken up into "flashes" as Christopher wrestles with consciousness. It's also Chapter 14 with brief glances into St. John's and a handful of the inhabitants, some that don't play an overly significant part in the story, but still add to Sullivan's attempt to take a panoramic view of the the time and place. My favourite of these is the gender-switching child in Bowring Park. It is the perfect embodiment of the city's memories that Sullivan has tried to reinforce as an essential part of his tale.

Then there's Chapter 15. It is ingenious. There's something so classical about his "Gan Aireactail" challenging Christopher to betray his true self, by portraying his ex-girlfriend in various scenarios. Not only does it tie Christopher's two world's together, it is also the perfect psychology of a break-up. These are not just challenges by a fantasy-world demon, these are interpersonal demons as well. It's a very clever section.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #185- Adrienne Rich: Your Native Land, Your Life (up to "Contradictions: Tracking Poems")

Rich's "Poetry: II, Chicago" could almost as easily be titled "Poets". I read it as a gift from one poet to another, and I needed it right about now.

Last week I went to my first book club meeting. It went okay but at the end, when it was time to vote on the next book, my poetry selection (P.K. Page's Hand Luggage) wasn't even considered. I can't say I was shocked. Not even when I heard a few mutters that they "never read poetry."

Then on Tuesday I went to my second writer's club meeting. Again there were some mutterings, almost bragging, that they don't read/like/understand poetry. Even amongst the literati, poetry doesn't get respect.

The whole thing has gotten me down. And it's made me question what I'm doing as a poet. I've criticized many poets in the past about their over-reliance on Greek references and words like ephemeral, ethereal and gossamer. I've argued that poets have no right to complain that they aren't reaching the people if they continue to stick to such stereotypical pulp. Yet, when I get "advice" from metrophobes, that my poems aren't coherent after a single read, I get defensive. Can such people really critique a poem? If they can't appreciate Frost, Rich, or Page for example, should I care what they have to say? Basically, I started to question who I want my audience to be; other poets (or at the very least, other poetry lovers), or common-folk? I concluded that I'm writing for myself, for poets and for poetry readers. As for the others, who needs the disrespect? Someone else can bring the poetry to the people. I think people should go to the poetry. Does this mean I'm going to allude to Adonis in my next poem? Definitely not. Poets writing for poets is no excuse for cliches.

Does this mean I'm not able to take constructive criticism? Maybe. But, in my defense, I can appreciate valid comments. At writing club, one man in particular, a non-poetry reader even, reminded me as I wrote about the smell of spruce trees, that "smell" often has connotations of stench, offering up the word "scent" instead. That I can appreciate. That is why I'm not giving up on the writing club. It's the "I just don't understand" said snidely under one's breath that irks me. There's not a lot of poems that I "get" right away, after a quick glance over in 2 minutes or less. This is the fun of poetry. Multiple meanings to words and phrases, instead of just the literal. Inventive ways of expressing an idea rather than a straightforward essay. Different possible interpretations. Basically, all of the reasons people dislike poetry.

It's a lonely existence for a poet and the void has really made it's presence felt this past week.

Fortunately Adrienne Rich came to the rescue. To paraphrase a few lines from the poem linked to above, she let me know I was not alone, that poetry belongs to me, and I have the right.

"Poetry: II, Chicago" isn't Hallmark, and that's precisely why I like it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #184- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (up to Chapter 14)


To really dumb down your book review, I suggest beginning with a quote from Skid Row's Sebastian Bach. Wait, make that a paraphrase. In a nutshell, he said that since most of the critics who wrote about their shows weren't metal fans anyway, their thoughts were irrelevant.

While it might be easy to pass off the comment as the arrogant whine of a crap hair metal band, it's not entirely stupid. I don't read a lot of fantasy books, and no doubt my reviews reflect that.

I've been pretty positive about The Dying Days to this point. It hasn't been hard, I've been enjoying the book. Would a true fantasy fan think it's good? Ask one.

Over at the Compulsive Overreader blog, Trudy Morgan-Cole writes "once you're reading fantasy you're already suspending disbelief" and goes on to say that she still had some trouble with some of the more unlikely events. I find myself pondering those as well.

I've been trying to keep an open mind. I admit, I've been known to snicker at the Dungeons and Dragons crowd (and for no other reason than snobbery, I guess). Same goes for fantasy novels. But as I say, I've been trying to keep an open mind. Every book doesn't need to be the CanLit "woman comes to terms with her yuppie Toronto upbringing" story to be good, right?

SPOILER ALERT!
With my newly open mind, I've accepted people walking through walls, talking cats, and insect people. So why is it then I have trouble with someone reaching into a man's chest and ripping out his heart? Or dialogue like "Nobody talks that way about a friend of mine." My theory is that there's a fine line between being a fantasy novel and being a caricature of a fantasy novel.
If Sullivan was writing a spoof of the genre, events such as these might be okay. However, the rest of the book doesn't feel like a spoof. In fact, I like how unapologetically Sullivan treats the genre. (There is no trace of shame in Christopher's "role-playing" past- in fact, it's considered an asset rather than a nerdy liability). Fortunately, the cartoonish events are few, and I am finding the story page turning.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #183- Adrienne Rich: Your Native Land, Your Life (up to "North American Time")


There's a collection of poems I read recently, I don't remember which, which opened several poems with Adrienne Rich quotations. So when I saw a book of hers at the local library I thought I'd give her a shot. In my ongoing goal to read all of the poetry in the local library, I would have gotten to her eventually anyway.

Wikipedia seems to paint her as a militant feminist lesbian poet, but the angry images that handle conjures up are not apparent in the first section, "Sources", of Your Native Land, Your Life. If anything, there's a degree of self-consciousness and introspection that seem askew from the confident warrior image Rich seems to be known for.

I'm quite enjoying her poems so far. Those in "Sources" reveal a personal journey in which Rich explores who and what has shaped the woman she has become. Everything from her country's history, to her father, her Jewish ancestry, and her interpretation of her own past are reviewed under a lens (albeit more of a poet's lens than a scientist). With such personal philosophical pursuits, there was a danger of her poems becoming too esoteric, but Rich masterfully avoids this. Amazing images like "decades of old wallpaper roses/ clinging to certain studs" keeps her poems grounded.

"Sources", as its title suggests, examines a myriad of character and soul building possibilities. While the long poem is subdivided into sections that could work individually, the effect of having them together, creates a chain that probably holds more truth than any on its own. There's a flow from anthropological (if that's a word), to sociological, to psychological that is quite intriguing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #182- Shannon Patrick Sullivan: The Dying Days (up to Chapter 8)


I had lived in St. John's for several years before I got around to taking one of Dale Jarvis' infamous "Haunted Hikes". Every city needs a Dale Jarvis. Basically, what he did was take patrons around to various dark alleys and side streets in the downtown core and entertain them with local ghost stories and folklore. I had even lived in the downtown part, yet I had no idea some of these stories (or even places, in the case of some alleys) existed.

After 7 years of getting to know Memorial University, I thought I knew the place pretty well. But in my final year, I had a student job that gained me access to service tunnels I didn't know existed. Everyone familiar with MUN knows about the MUNnel system, a system of underground tunnels that provides access to each school, the residences, the library and student centre. What most don't realize is that these tunnels pale in comparison to the extensive service tunnels that run parallel and adjacent (crossing underneath the MUNnels in several areas) and even to a greater number of buildings.

These two experiences proved to my paranoid self that yes, indeed there is more going on around me than I am at first aware.

Shannon Patrick Sullivan seems to have had this inkling as well, for it is a definite theme in The Dying Days. It's the revelations that keep the book compelling.

Certainly, Sullivan isn't the first to explore this theme. In fact, he even acknowledges the Harry Potter books in the story. And yes, there is a similar feel, but with the muggles of course, being from St. John's. For that difference alone, it would be enough to keep me interested. Luckily, that isn't the only difference.

I mentioned earlier that I don't read a lot of fantasy books. I also mentioned that I liked the pacing. Now, I'm finding the pacing a little too rushed. While Christopher finds himself deeper and deeper into this alternate version of St. John's, I'm finding I'm losing a little bit of the initial attraction to the plot. I would like to have had a little more character development and have the storyline slowed down slightly, giving him time to realistically adjust to the fantastic events unfolding around him. However, as I say, I don't read a lot of fantasy books, but from those that I have, I gather that the story is the most important part.

A while back I remember Rj blogging about Newfoundland's Fantasy Books. I hadn't read any of those he had mentioned, but was looking forward to checking out some of his suggestions. While The Dying Days wasn't mentioned (I don't think it was published at that point), I'm glad I started with it. It is quickly selling me on the genre.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #181- Margo Button: The Elders' Palace (FINISHED)


Margo Button's The Elders' Palace, at 64 pages, is one of the shortest collections of poetry I've ever read. It's made even shorter due to the fact that every other page is a Inuinnaqtun translation.

However, Button packs a lot of emotion into a very short collection. A lot of raw sadness. While she may be writing about the Inuit, her own pain seems to be the focus. As you read the book synopsis on the back cover you discover that the poet's son committed suicide. It is quite apparent when you start reading that Button used her poetry for catharsis. It's quite depressing at times when most of the images are of death; people and animals. Yet at the same time, there's a positive message underlying the book- that we can find solace in others. Even if they are of a different culture, they still know pain afterall.

In terms of quality, no particular poem sticks out as particularly fantastic, but neither could I pinpoint one that I didn't like. I did have a little concern over one poem entitled "The Children". As Button recounts a discussion with a woman named Ekvana, she recalls pushing Ekvana to admit some pain from giving away her daughter. As Button asks "But didn't it hurt to lose your child?" the poem ends with the line, "Ekvana raises her eyebrows." My concern is that it feels a little irresponsible of her [Button] to not add a footnote explaining the gesture. A reader from Southern Canada, unfamiliar with Inuit customs, would read that entirely different than those who live here. The Inuit raise their eyebrows to say "yes", and scrunch up their noses to mean "no". It's the equivalent of nodding and shaking ones' head in other parts of the globe. But someone unfamiliar with that meaning, could take it to mean Ekvana is asking, "Are you serious?" Or "Are you going to push me on this?". Knowing both interpretations, I like the line. The best poems have lots of phrases that could be taken many ways. However, without a note added, most readers probably would never have gotten the full meaning of that line.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Writer's Diary #9: Pumpkins

Hardly Poe, hardly finished, but at least it's time appropriate:


Pumpkin

I don't know why you're
being so unreasonable.
We've all had our heads
cut open.......our brains pulled out
left with stupid grins
for someone else
and cheap amusement.

So what if
it is November?
You were enjoyed.


(In the "cut open" line, I meant to leave a space as a caesura, not the dots, but again blogger won't let me leave a space.)