Friday, June 30, 2006

Reader's Diary #116- Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987 (FINISHED!)

I won't ramble on. It's finished. Though I can barely say that. Yes, technically my eyes drifted over every word. But let it suffice to say, I didn't attend to them much. Not that I didn't enjoy it at all. Some images I thought were pretty cool, but like dream images, they didn't seem all that relevant. I'm not a big believer in dream interpretation and to find meaning with Heaney's poems would have felt like just that. Now, if I were able to focus a little more maybe I could have enjoyed them. He does have all those things good poems should have (reputedly) but I just couldn't care. Blame it on summer, blame it on a lack of intelligence, blame it on the rain, but that's it.

And it should be mentioned that his preoccupation with Sweeney (no, not Todd or Julia- but a medieval Irish King who went mad and was turned into a bird) is annoying. But then, other people's obsessions usually are.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Reader's Diary #115- John Stevens (Editor): Best Canadian Short Stories (up to "Every Day of His Life")

Stevens had divided up this collection of stories into themes, the first two being sort of a battle of the sexes; 1. Men and Women: Romantic and Comic Views and 2. Men and Women: Tragic and Ironic Views. Why he picked such themes is a little unclear. But what's even more baffling is that in the first section, there are five stories of which NONE are written by a female. Maybe it's my inner feminist coming out, but isn't the thesis a little incomplete and one-sided without that? Sure the hero in Charles G.D. Roberts' "The Cabin Door" is a female, and sure female characters make an appearance at least in the others, but still a female author would have been nice. But then, look at the section title: Romantic and Comic views. While I think Stevens could have found a female author or two writing romantic stories in 81 when the collection was written, I think he'd have had a difficult time finding comic female authors. Munro, Shields, Atwood and Laurence while all successful and arguably all very talented, haven't compiled a great list of funny fiction have they? Maybe Stevens' would have an easier time today as Canada's female authors seem to be infusing more comic elements into their work. Both Miriam Toews and Lisa Moore come to mind. As does newcomer Tina Chaulk whose book "This Much Is True" is apparently laugh out loud funny. I hope so, Canada has its share of intelligent writers. Let's hope funny gets its day as well (not that it has to be one or the other).

Speaking of funny, not many of these are hilarious. Leacock's "The Mariposa Bank Mystery" is the best of the lot so far, but even its cheeky humour doesn't compare with his "My Financial Career". The first time I read that one I woke my wife up with my laughing. She wasn't amused- but man o man, was I!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #114- Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987 (up to "Station Island")

There's a line in Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" that goes, "wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." Apparently he's grown to dislike the lyric, yet acknowledges that it resonates with a lot of people. There's a similar line in Heaney's "The Railway Children": "We were small and thought we knew nothing worth knowing." It's not as direct as Seger's, but there's a definite connection. The key to Heaney's sentiment is in the word "thought". It is obvious that the voice (Heaney's or not) presents a slightly different take than the Seger lyric. While Seger's claim is that young people are essentially ignorant (yet blissful), Heaney's claim is that children are not as ignorant as they think they are. Nice little psychological debate, eh?

Putting Seger (thankfully) aside for the time being- "The Railway Children" is a rare poem in this collection- rare because I actually like love it. It'll be photocopied and added to ye old binder for sure. Why do I like it so much? I'll start with the reference to the wisdom of children- as a teacher (who's moving to IQALUIT by the way!) I have to, and do, believe that children are wiser than we (or they) usually give credit. Furthermore, it's full of hope and such beautiful imagery that it makes you believe that the way children look at the world is maybe more poetic than adults- and maybe they're onto something.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Reader's Diary #113- John Stevens (Editor): Best Canadian Short Stories (up to

I read in Reader's Digest recently that fewer Canadians read poetry than any other genre of writing. For me however, I'm more neglectful of short stories. I do enjoy them, don't get me wrong, but I've just never been likely to buy a collection or borrow one from the library. The last collection I read was Kilter: 55 Fictions by John Gould (which you should read, if you haven't already). Recently, while talking with my wife's uncle who teaches a short story course, I made a conscious decision to read more. It's really a fun genre and just as important as any other.

incidentally my favourite short stories are obviously limited to those I have read. In fact, truth be known, it's probably more of a "Here Are Short Stories That I Remember" list. This "Top 10" comes to mind:
1. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty- by James Thurber
2. The Lottery - by Shirley Jackson
3. The Loons- by Margaret Laurence
4. The Monkey's Paw - by W.W. Jacobs
5. Lamb To The Slaughter - by Roald Dahl
6. My Financial Career- by Stephen Leacock
7. The Tell Tale Heart- by Edgar Allen Poe
8. Gift of the Magi- O. Henry
9. Quitters, Inc. - Stephen King
10. Ideas Die Hard- Isaac Asimov

Some of these I haven't read since high school, I might read them now and hate them, but I'm curious as to what your favourite short stories are. Most of the above stories are available through their links, so if you haven't read them before, I encourage you to do so and let me know what you think.

So far in Best Canadian Short Stories I've only read Charles G. D. Roberts' "The Cabin Door". It's okay, but it made me aware of chauvinistic tendencies I didn't even know I had. The story is about a young woman returning home to visit her sick mother and ending up being cornered in a cabin by a bear. It's a heart thumper but I wonder if it would have had the same effect on me had it been a man? Maybe it's just the similarities to Goldilocks that had my inner caveman acting up, because I've had plenty of female friends far more adventuresome than I (mountain climbing on Baffin Island, Cambodia trips, etc). They'd be the ones chasing off the bear while I'd be hiding under a sleeping bag wondering how I was ever going to get my shorts clean. Yet the protagonist in "The Cabin Door" seemed somehow more threatened simply because she was female- the writer's intention or my own sexist residue?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Reader's Diary #112- William Shakespeare: King Lear (FINISHED!)

Typical for a Shakespeare play, King Lear has themes of revenge and repentance. But the major theme of King Lear, the one that people usually run to when defending its relevance in today's world, is ambition. Shakespeare creates a few power-hungry characters that stop at nothing to get what they want- lying, adultery, torture, and murder to name but a few of the sinister strategies. So it sounds like it could make a good read. And for hundreds of thousands of people, I'm sure it has. But I for one, am not one of those people. To me, Shakespeare comes across as bored. It started off fine, with his usual wit, intriguing characters and an action-filled plot.

With early scenes involving the "Fool", it looks like Shakespeare is on his way to creating another dark comedy- but then the Fool seems to have been forgotten about and so has the humour. Too bad.

In terms of character, I loved the initial complexity of Edmund and the virtue of Cordelia for instance. Yet the only character which held my interest throughout the entire play was King Lear. Cordelia became almost non-existent and Edmund simply turned into a typical run-of-the-mill villain, but Lear at least was compelling- though I'm not even sure if it's for the intended reason. Very often throughout the play I found myself thinking, "What a terrible leader!" He starts off by being shallow and vindictive, and quickly becomes a neurotic shell of a man filled with regret. The only explanation I could come up with was charisma. Despite the man's obvious flaws, he maintained very loyal followers. And before I forget, what ever happened to King Lear's wife? Or Gloster's? I don't have anything against single fathers, but there was no explanation to these notably missing moms at all!

Finally the plot. Oh dear, the plot. This was the biggest problem of all and where Shakespeare's boredom bares its molars. We have not one, but two characters going in disguise. Plus we have people professing the folly of their ways simply after hearing those typical grandiose speeches often quoted by pretentious windbags on The Cosby Show. And perhaps most unforgivable of all, everyone dies at the end. Not unforgivable because these characters were likeable, but unforgivable because that what he always did for a tragedy! Is there a Shakespeare tragedy that half the cast doesn't die at the end? I have this image of playing GI Joes with Shakespeare as a kid in the 1980s:

Shakespeare: I have an idea! Let us torch these vile swine.

Me: No way, everytime you come over we end up burning my toys.

Shakespeare: Then could we at least try nuking them in thy microwave?

Me: Cool!

(I guess maybe he was on to something.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #111- Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987 (up to "Sweeney Praises The Trees")

In an effort to not have these poems destroy my last shred of confidence, I picked one at random (well not entirely random- I wasn't going to tackle a three pager) and refused to give up on it. That little beast was "The Badgers".

Step One: Read the life clean out of the little bugger. I must have gone over "The Badgers" a good twenty times or so. I'm almost at the point where I can recite it.

Step Two: Check up every word you don't understand. In this case: duntings, sett, bogey, houseboy and redolent. Of course, these steps are entirely sequential. I checked up definitions after reading through the poem a couple or three times, and then went back to the poem again and so forth.

Step Three: Check up words you don't know well, or even words you think you do. In this case: compost, laurels, intimations, notorious, perilous, interloping, and grovel.

Step Four: See what comments others have about the poem. In this case: nothing.

Step Five: Go back and look at more of the poetic elements, i.e., rhyme scheme, rhythm, etc.

So where did all of this work leave me? Let's see. I think this is the plot and essence of the poem: The voice recounts a man watching a badger cross his garden and seems to take it as some sort of spirit. Did he try to kill it before? I don't know. The voice then talks about going to another house and hearing the owners philosophize that being visited by a spirit is an honour. Finally in the last two stanzas, the voice recounts stopping for a badger to cross the road and concluding that while there isn't anything mystical about badgers, they can still be respected for being determined little buggers. There seems to be a moral about of over complicating matters as a theme (irony anyone?)

At least that's as close as I think I can get. I could be way off. If I'm right though, I do appreciate some of those poetic elements I mentioned in step five. Certainly there's a lot of rich imagery. Words such as "glimmered", "whispered", and "cool" appeal to the senses in creating both a picture and a mood. Rhymes only appear in the last stanza, i.e., "shown" "bone" and "own" and it seems fitting for a stanza in which conclusions are made. They seem to be connectors. And the rhythm, while free form, captures certain images quite nicely. The best example is "his sturdy dirty body" when describing the movements of a badger. The near rhyme and up and down lilt of the phrase almost mimics the gait of the badger.

Conclusion: The hard work paid off and I enjoy the poem more. Do I appreciate having to do a research assignment to enjoy a poem? NO. It's too bad Heaney couldn't meet the reader half-way.

Despite everything, I'm still not confident that "I got the poem". But in the end, I learned a few things about badgers. And isn't that what truly matters?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Reader's Diary 110- William Shakespeare: King Lear (up to Act 3, Scene 7)

I know this is a classic. It's certainly one of Shakespeare's more recognizable titles. But of all the Shakespeare I've read so far, it's my least favourite.

My two biggest beefs with it are linked to one another somewhat: 1. There are two many characters
2. There isn't enough character development.

With all the dukes and earls, I find it very difficult to keep track of who's a villain and who isn't. It's not a ridiculously huge cast (20 not including servants and knights). In fact, it has a smaller cast than both Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. But because Shakespeare didn't (in my opinion) really take the time to expand on the character's and their motivations, one character seems to blend into the next.

Maybe this is one of those cases where I really need to see the play. That way I'd get through the story in one sitting without forgetting who was supposed to be who, and maybe the actors would bring some emotion (or simply a physical presence) that would help me tell one another apart.

Or maybe I'm in need of a fluffier book for summer. As I'm reading Shakespeare and Heaney right now, I'm realizing that my brain just isn't up to the task. Cue your favourite summer song here: Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime"? Gershwin's "Summertime"? Sinatra's "The Summer Wind"?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Reader's Diary #109- Father's Day Books

Father's Day at school is always a tricky business. On the one hand, it IS part of the curriculum that children should be aware of special holidays and observances. On the other hand there's always that risk that you're being insensitive to those without a father in their lives. Though done tactfully (and in moderation) I don't think it's necessary to shield students without fathers from Father's Day discussions. I'm sure there'll be plenty of cultural topics covered in school that every student will eventually learn about that don't relate to them personally. My concern isn't just those without fathers, its also those who have complete jackasses for fathers. It's hard to do a list of the "10 Best Things About My Dad" if your dad is an abusive drunk or whatever. As I say, it's all of those issues that make the topic a tricky one to teach in a classroom. I'm not saying it shouldn't be taught by any means, but it should be handled as sensitively as possible.

But all of the above is a side note. I wanted to discuss Father's Day books from a father's point of view- not a teacher's. Over the past week, I've read The 10 Best Things About My Dad (by Christine Loomis and illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic), What Daddies Do Best/ What Mommies Do Best (by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Lynn Nunsinger), and My Daddy and Me (by Amy E. Sklansky and illustrated by Ard Hoyt). I've enjoyed all of them to some extent and so has my daughter (though my son is still at the stage where all he wants to do is eat them).

Though if I was to rank the books But here's how I'd rank them: My least favourite was The 10 Best Things About My Dad. It had a pleasant rhyme scheme and yes, it did make dad out to be a pretty swell guy. But it had the overly saccharine ending (the best thing is that "he's mine") and because it was all about one particular father, there was no room for fathers who vary slightly from the ball-throwing norm. And if the reader (or the reader's child) doesn't relate, then there's a risk of zoning out or judging.

That's where What Daddies Do Best comes in. This book is great in that it shows a variety of dads, some doing those less stereotypical father things (sewing, for instance). It's fine until you realize that when you flip the book over, the book becomes What Mommies Do Best and it's the exact same text except with "mommy" plugged in over the "daddy" words and different illustrations. Laura Numeroff (of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie fame) should be given credit for doing something inventive here and for showing dads in a variety of roles, but as an adult I question how far she brought the political correctness- Are mommies and daddies supposed to be exactly the same? Interchangeable? Hmmm. Of course, few children are going to pick up on that, so maybe I'm just too difficult to please.

But not impossible to please. I really enjoyed Amy Sklansky's My Daddy and Me. Like What Daddies Do Best it shows several fathers, all with different personalities. But unlike that book, it doesn't venture too far into politics. It's simple, children and their dads are playing and having good times together. There's some risk of going too far into Hallmark card territory as The 10 Best Things About My Dad did, but Sklansky and illustrator Ard Hoyt balance the book quite nicely. I still got the warm fuzzy feeling at the end and my daughter enjoyed the book. 'Nuff said.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Reader's Diary #108- Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987 (Up to "Oysters")

I'll concede.

These poems are bigger than I. Probably better than I too.

I don't think they're poseurs either. Maybe only Mensa members can grasp them, I'm not sure, but most of them are lost on me. It didn't start off that way. I begun with the first several poems thinking, "I'm going to enjoy these." Then it progressed further and further until I was completely baffled by what they were trying to say.

So it's time I called in reinforcements. And hey, is research cheating? Oh well, I'm cheating. Of all the poems I wanted to delve deeper into, I chose "Act of Union." It's one of his few poems (beyond those written in '66) I had even a smattering of understanding. Granted my understanding was more at a face value. It's obvious there are references to sex and a pregnancy, and on its more poetic side, there's a lot of violent imagery. It's not exactly rape-like as the woman seems more ambivalent or at the very least complacent. While there are phrases like "gash breaking", "bog-burst" and and "conquest" for instance, there's little evidence of a resistance. Still pain is obvious, especially in the pregnancy and subsequent child birth ("parasitical", "...fist already/ beat at your borders...", etc). So it's compelling to say the least, but I still hadn't figured out why he went with a war/conquering scenario to describe the events. So the wise old internet tells me, what in hindsight seems somewhat obvious, it's actually about the the relationship between England (the man), Ireland (the woman), and Northern Ireland (the offspring). But knowing that, I can look back and appreciate a few more of the poem's finer points. I like the points made by Dr. J (whose blog I linked above) about the poem's satirical qualities and have little else to add except that, the satire is still biased in favour of Ireland (the woman) rather than England (the man). After my first reading, I was thinking it had an almost feminist air about it despite the fact it is told from the male perspective. The male is the antagonist, and while it seems set well after the initial act (nine metaphorical months?), despite the fact that he acknowledges that "conquest is a lie", he is cognizant of the lasting scars and the impact he has caused. I didn't have all my questions answered by the internet, and I'm glad of that. I'm still left to ponder why Heaney wrote it with the male viewpoint. Yes, he's male, but he's also Irish. Any ideas?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #107- William Shakespeare: King Lear (Act 2, Scene 3)

It's only since Rebecca and Barbara mentioned that they hadn't read King Lear or seen it performed, that I've been thinking more of Shakespeare works as plays. And I know there are traditionalists out there who would say I really haven't gotten to know his brilliance at all by merely reading. And I guess they'd be right to some extent. Plays aren't like novels in which you get your own images in your head only to be majorly dumbfounded by Hollywood's representation when the book gets brought to the big screen. Plays were written to be performed (not that some novelists are thinking of that as they write). I'd love to see Shakespeare performed, but for now I'll settle for the book.

Not that I have delusions of somehow getting famous for this schtick of mine, but if that ever did happen people would guaranteed bring up what I'm going to say next as proof that I am, in the words of Al Franken, "a big fat idiot."

King Lear is too Shakespeare.

I know. That's like saying the light bulb is too Edison, or the Theory of Relativity is too Einstein. But I do know that if I had been around in Shakespeare's day and had gone to see King Lear, I'd be rolling my eyes and throwing rotten potatoes the very second that Edmund cut his own arm whilst trying to frame Edgar. Doesn't that sort of villainy pop up in every Shakespeare play? Granted I know King Lear came after a lot of other plays and it must have been hard to not copy himself to some extent at that point in his career, but still it's supposed to be, according to Wikipedia, one of his greatest tragedies. I don't see it. But then, what do I know? If I had read it first, maybe I'd be saying Hamlet wasn't as great. Like 1984 and A Brave New World, generally people seem to like whichever they read first the best.

But there are other Shakespearisms in the play that I do really like. His wit, which I didn't appreciate in high school (because I was oblivious to it), began to grow on me when I read A Midsummer's Night Dream, was even more apparent in Hamlet, and I'm outright loving it in King Lear. Most of it comes off the acid tongue of the Fool as he makes hilarious barbs at the King who, for some bizarre reason, takes it. King Lear is quickly becoming more Rodney Dangerfield than Donald Trump. Then there are those insults flung from the Earl of Kent at Oswald,

"A knave, a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action taking, whoreson, glass-grazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition."
So not shocking by today's standards, but in it's sheer absurd length for an insult, it's still pretty funny. Sort of reminds me of when Griswold (of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) finds out his Christmas bonus is a membership in the Jelly-of-the-Month Club.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Reader's Diary #106- Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987 (up to "Strange Fruit")

Halley's Comet last visited in 1986. I was not yet 10.

There was a lot of excitement about it, though only a few people actually remembered the last time it had visited. I wanted to be one of those people that told people in 2061 how I'd been there, done that.

I don't remember seeing it live at all. It was on t.v. a few times, I remember that much. I had my hopes up to see it for myself, in the night sky. But if I did see it in person, it must have been fleeting. I don't recall it at all.

And then that was it. Sure journalists and broadcasters spoke about it in fading degrees for a few weeks afterwards, but then it was- for the most part- forgotten about except by the occasional Phishhead.

The poems in this collection are arranged in chronological order. Maybe in 2061, I'll appreciate them a little more.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Reader's Diary 105- William Shakespeare: King Lear (up to Act 1, Scene 3)

Heaney, now Shakespeare. This blog is becoming a little too eurocentric. I should really work on that. Any suggestions?

In the meantime, this is the first time on this blog that I've read two books by the same author. The first was Hamlet and I enjoyed that a lot, so I'm hoping that I'll get into King Lear as well. Like Hamlet which had Ophelia, King Lear has compelling ladies as well. And like Ophelia whom I said was fodder for a lot of contemporary rock songs, King Lear's daughter Cordelia was at least the subject of a few as well, most notably the Tragically Hip's song of the same title. It'll be interesting to listen to that song again once I finish the book.

King Lear is often credited with being one of Shakespeare's most timeless works, people often noting how it is very relevant to today's world. Certainly I've already picked up on themes of greed, ambition and pride and not to be cynical but yes, we certainly haven't found a pill for those in the past 400 years. But more relevant than his other plays? I wonder. Certainly it depends on what values you focus on.

So far, I'm liking Shakespeare's handling of a couple of characters in particular; Cordelia and Edmund. Cordelia is appealing mostly because of her virtue and strength. While her sisters Goneril and Regan suck up to daddy for their share of the kingdom, Cordelia refuses to play the game as if above such insulting expectations. King Lear goes all Donald Trump on her a$$ and he's like "You're Fired!" and she goes "What-ever! Like you're such a spaz." Ooops. I momentarily took leave of my senses. Lear banished her from the kingdom and Cordelia was basically thrown away to wed the King of France.

And Edmund, while not a likeable character in the same sense as Cordelia, is a complex character. Some of Shakespeare's peripheral characters can appear pretty black and white in terms of motivation: they're evil or they're not. I have the feeling Edmund will not be peripheral however, as his dark side is built up as being a result of the stigma that the term "bastard" has put upon him. In other words, yes he's bad but he has reason to be. (Shakespeare as psychologist?)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #105- Douglas Coupland: Souvenir of Canada (FINISHED)

A couple of words about "Them". In Coupland's essay, he refers to "Them" as the Americans. That's fine. That's what we do as Canadians. We define ourselves partially by who we are not. I'm a little perplexed as to why others think this is a bad thing, or even an abnormal thing. We all need to compare, it's human nature. Canadians are just more likely to be upfront about to whom we are comparing ourselves; i.e., the Americans and to a lesser extent, the British. In Why I Hate Canadians Will Ferguson is very critical of Canadians for this. Coupland is not (or at least he doesn't come across that way in this book). And really why should he be? The Americans are the world's largest superpower, have the most pervasive culture ever, and they're right next door! How could we not compare ourselves? I'm not saying we need to get all smug about it, nor am I saying we're saints and they're sinners, but comparisons are fine. Likewise with the British. They owned us for a long time, their Queen is still on our money, of course we're going to compare ourselves. Our differences DO define us: we talk like Americans and write like the British. So what if we're a hybrid? (Some of us anyway.) Again Coupland does a fine job with his discussion on "Them."

However, Coupland also seemed to have another "them" in mind when he wrote the book, a lowercase "them", a more subtle "them". I know statistically most Canadian live in cities, near the American border, but still I wasn't fussy on his discussion of Newfoundlanders for instance, as if somehow outsiders. He did the same to the Inuit. For instance, when he writes phrases like "...even the Inuit must look at..." it somewhat excludes them, almost leaving the impression that it's not the Inuit reading this book, it's the Canadians. And when he talks about the Cree, he asks "...why should they?" [italics mine]. And if I'm really being nit-picky, I was bothered when he was ignorant or just plain wrong about certain places. Again the Scottish ancestry thing for Newfoundland, but also the comment about hamlets in Germany. He says that it was "the first time [he's] been able to use this word in a sentence." You know what small towns are called in Canada's north? Hamlets. A little research goes a long way.

But now I've sickened myself with the whole politically-correct police officer persona (that's really not me). I'd rather end on a happier note. Did you know that Roberta Bondar is one heck of a photographer? Coupland uses a lot of her work throughout his book, and her landscape photos are just amazing. Who knew?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #104- Seamus Heaney: Selected Poem 1966-1987 (up to "Thatcher")

Have you ever been intimidated by a book? It happens to me quite often. I've blogged before about Shakespeare and the Bible and they were probably the most difficult. I just find it so hard not to be influenced by outside opinion...but there's an awful lot of outside opinion. On the one hand, if it's a critical masterpiece, I think I'll look like the world's biggest idiot if I come down on it. On the other hand, it could be a little too easy to tear something apart because it's popular. It's very hard not to be biased in some direction. This collection also had me worried. Look closely at the cover. See why? That's right. Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That's a big deal, isn't it? Don't get me wrong. I know there's politics and all that involved in any award, but the Nobel? It's safe to say that if I don't like these poems, I'm in the minority of critics.

But alas, I've never intended to be a critic. I try (with varying degrees of success) to remember and steer clear of reviews as such. It was never my intention to tell people what to read or what not to read, or what to like or what not to like. When I title each post "Reader's Diary" I'm hoping they'll be just that; my thoughts about a particular piece I've read that day. And I'm entitled to an opinion, even if I'll never be on a Nobel panel. (How do they pick Nobel winners? Jury?)

Fortunately, I'm liking Heaney's poems so far. With such accolades, I was expecting to find all sorts of words like "ephemeral" and "ethereal" and other big poem words I've never quite gotten a handle on. That's not the case. Heaney's poems are quite down to Earth. Even literally. Hmmm. Well, what I mean is, they seem to revolve around earth (lowercase e). The very first poem (which I was surprised to find that I had read before) was called "Digging" and drew comparisons between the work of a poet and a farmer. But the dirt imagery didn't stop there. Other poems mention sods, fungus, ploughs, roots, and so forth. It's nature I haven't seen a lot of in poetry. I've read a lot about mountains, trees, flowers, skies and oceans, but there's something more fertile about Heaney's writing and the ground itself seems like an obvious source of poetic inspiration. It's that "obviousness" which shows Heaney's skill. Like a professional figure skater, he has the ability to make his craft seem easy- but then you try a triple axle and fall flat on your...face.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #103- Douglas Coupland: Souvenir of Canada (up to "1971")

A quick game of provincial/territorial free association (quick, do your own if you want to compare):

British Columbia- The Beachcombers, totem poles
Alberta- $ and oil
Saskatchewan- Corner Gas
Manitoba- The Guess Who but no Jets :(
Ontario- Toronto and Ottawa
Quebec- French
New Brunswick- Covered Bridges
Nova Scotia- Halifax, Kilts
PEI- Potatoes and Anne of Green Gables
Yukon- Robert W. Service, gold
NWT- Yellowknife, mining
Nunavut- Inuksuit, Inuit
and Newfoundland and Labrador-?

A couple of explanations are in order. First of all, before anyone gets their long john's in a knot- it's free association. I've been to all of the provinces (except Saskatchewan) and also lived in Nunavut- so obviously Ontario means more to me than Toronto (Northern Ontario is breathtaking), Alberta also conjures up images of cowboys and the Rockies and bison steak in that revolving restaurant in Calgary, PEI also has the Confederation Bridge, etc, etc. You get the idea. I kept to the idea of free association on purpose- to illustrate a point. You'll notice I (honestly) couldn't come up with a solitary image of Newfoundland and Labrador. I had a collage forming in my head of cliffs, fish, dancing, Signal Hill, Gros Morne, the Innu, MUN, Codco, Purity Syrup, icebergs, and so on as the various images fought for precedence in my thoughts. I guess when you know one place so much better than the others, it's hard to free associate.

I'm also noticing my Newfoundland and Labrador bias when I read Souvenir of Canada. Everything keeps being compared to Newfoundland in my head and the first things I notice in the photos are of Newfoundland origin (Screech, for instance). I can't help but wonder if people in other provinces do the same when reading through. Sometimes it's not a problem(?) of mine, it's a forced reaction. Newfoundland is one of the few provinces singled out for an essay. Apparently Coupland has bought our "we're so unique" act. I'm being facetious, to some extent. I really don't know if Newfoundlanders and Labradorians deserve the self-proclaimed "unique" title. Certainly our culture is different than that of Alberta, but isn't Nunavut's? Quebec's? Saskatchewan's? Because I always have Newfoundland and Labrador in the back of my head as I read Coupland's book, I sometimes feel a little unpatriotic. Am I supposed to feel like a Canadian first? Or a Newfoundlander? Logic tells me that I feel Canadian first- I don't think I fit into the Newfoundland stereotype all that well and (for all that I enjoy it here) I don't think it's any better that any other province (traitor!). But then my back goes up when Coupland says something like "...the region's fiercely held Scots/Irish history..." (Nova Scotia's the province with the Scottish history - not us- hence the "Scotia") and I start to think that emotionally, I'm still a Newfoundlander first.

It's making for an interesting read though. I guess the whole province/country debate is as much a part of who we are as anything else. Coupland makes the comment that the U.S. isn't as divided among state lines as Canada is among provincial lines. Though as an interesting side note, when I went to Hawaii a few years back, I found it very intriguing that there's a separatist movement there as well. Apparently, it's not the only state either. There's also the predictable Alaska, and more surprisingly, Texas. Once again Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia and Alberta, heck pretty much the entire west, and Ontario- we're not as unique as we think we are. So I guess, I'll end with a call to the Maritimes and territories- It's not too late! Separate! (Geez, kidding already.)

* Btw, this is probably the most links I've ever jammed into one post. I hope you appreciate all I do for you people!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #102- Milton Acorn: More Poems For People (FINISHED!)

An Homage To The Nut

To write like Milton Acorn
You must write the first thoughts that come to mind
and don't go back to editt
even when you know
words are spelt wrong
and you must repeat yourself
and repeat it again
and again
because chances are, your readers aren't educated
and they'll need the reinforcement
subtlety is a no no
your readers and targets alike
are idiots
yes, throw in a couple of entirely capitalized words too
(and parentheses that don't close
mention the proletariat a million times
so no one forgets your shtick
and be as arrogant as humanly possible
in fact, do it better than anyone else
and remind them that you've done it better than anyone else
in fact, name names if necessary
you're better than bp Nichol

And finally write essays if you so desire. Stick them in your collections of poetry. Maybe someone will mistake them for prose poems. Maybe someone will forget it was supposed to be a collection of poems. Maybe someone will think your opinions are intelligent and decide to fight capitalism. Or then again, maybe you'll just be forgotten until 30 years later when a subpar critic buys your book for 30 cents at a local library and makes you out to be complete s_ _ _.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #101- Douglas Coupland: Souvenir of Canada

Douglas Coupland and Will Ferguson seem to be battling it out to be the next generation's Pierre Berton (of course, Ferguson has the lead, having won the award and all). Both men are adding much to the whole Canadian identity discussion, having surprising success since the topic seems to have grown passe in some circles. But it shouldn't be surprising- both men write Canada in a non-threatening light. History as pop-culture, or pop-culture as history. Depending on who's book you're reading, the distinction gets blurred. Souvenir of Canada is your typical coffee-table book. Full of glossy photos and short pieces that are loosely related but you won't miss anything if you flick through and read it in random order or with long intervals in between.

In terms of the glossy photos, they're an interesting mish-mash of Canadian (or Canadian linked) products and souvenirs. The still life collages are somewhere between Andy Warhol paintings and covers of old Paul Kropp books. Certainly interesting- especially for the nostalgic type.

One particular photo and bit caught my attention more than the others so far. There's a discussion on cheese's importance in Canada, with special emphasis on Kraft Dinner. Coupland acknowledges that Kraft Dinner isn't just found in Canada, but for some reason has taken up a special role here, nearly iconic status. He compares it with Heinz canned spaghetti in England. In an accompanying picture of food stuffs, there's bacon, Campbell's French Canadian Soup and tucked off to the side, a bag of Purity Hard Bread. Now I don't know how many non-Newfoundlanders out there know what Purity Hard Bread is, but I hope it suffices to say that soaked it becomes "brewis" and has played a pretty big role in the Newfoundland diet throughout the years. But like Kraft Dinner to Canada, Newfoundland has a few non-Newfoundland products that it has also claimed for some reason: Maple Leaf Vienna Sausages, Farmer's Meatballs, Carnation Evaporated Milk and pineapple Crush to name but a few. I know, I know. Some people out there are saying, "But you can get that in Alberta, too!" and that might (or might not)be true, but for some reason they're MORE common here- trust me. I have no idea why. And by the way- you can't get Old Dutch potato chips here, just so you know.

I know this food of Newfoundland conversation is a bit of a sidetrack from Coupland's book, but I imagine it's just the sort of breezy "Who are we?" sort of discussion that he was aiming for.

Reader's Diary #101- Lois Lowry: The Giver (FINISHED)

Lately I've been very strongly opinionated about the books I've been reading. Rest assured, I do have other emotions somewhere between love and hate.

This book however, comes close to love. It is a fantastic book, especially for teens. I keep dwelling on the fact that this book has been banned so often in public schools- and I'm still confused by it. The only thing I can came up with is that those wishing for it banned are just not reading it. Are they mistakenly thinking Lowry is advocating for the bleak future she describes? Because, as anyone who reads it knows, quite the opposite is true.

I haven't said anything negative about the book as of yet. But I do have a few small beefs. I'm not fussy on Lowry's description of memories. Too often Lowry tries to make memories tangible things, and isolated things. For instance, when the previous receiver died, apparently all of her memories went out to the people who had to absorb them. Memories aren't energy (neither created nor destroyed) and obviously some memories do die with people. That's a problem I found hard to reconcile with the book. Also, as the Giver passed along memories of colour to Jonas, he began to lose those colours from his sight, as if colour could be tied only to specific memories. Were memories supposed to be somehow connected to our biological beings? Maybe some evolutionary thing? I'm not sure how Lowry took this leap (or expected readers to) but perhaps it should have been explained a little more.

Also, the ending was a bit too ambiguous for my liking. I'm not against endings that are open to interpretation per se, but the interpretations here seem to delve a bit too far into metaphysical territory that I'm never a big fan of (like plots involving Q from Star Trek TNG), and would be a bit too much for a younger reader anyway (I think).

Ending aside, even my so called issues with the book would be great conversation starters and perfect for young adults. I've often wondered why psychology isn't taught in high schools (seriously, a lot more people take psychology courses in university than say geology -just as an example- yet that's taught in highschools). But Lowry's book (despite my earlier comment that she sometimes seems critical of psychiatry), is a perfect way to introduce to psychology to a younger audience. And it would be way more meaningful to them to learn about memories, for example, through a book like this, which holds their attention, makes it interesting and demands discussion rather than with a psychology text book. It doesn't get into all the psychology jargon that might be necessary to learn later on, but it's a darn fine introduction.

(Is it any surprise I took psychology and education in University?)