Sunday, July 30, 2006

Reader's Diary #136- Tina Chaulk: This Much Is True (FINISHED!)


Where to begin? Remember when I said it was a page turner? I stick by that. But half way through the page turning was to get it finished and out of my life.

Believe it or not, I'm trying my hardest here to be nice. But in all honesty (and that is supposed to be the theme here, isn't it?) I feel harsh. I feel like warning people to avoid this book at any cost. But I'm going to try being constructive...

There's way too much going on. My wife and I have slightly different tastes in books. She requires more plot than I do. She's not looking forward to the next Dan Brown book or anything, but Carol Shields isn't her thing either. Still, she didn't like This Much Is True either. Between the abusive boyfriend, the guy with AIDS, the manic-depressive boyfriend and countless jobs, this book amounts to a soap opera. Though most soaps have better writing. The problem with so much, so fast is that the reader (this reader anyway), doesn't care. Two characters die and they're supposed to have some profound lasting impression on Simms. However, it's really hard to attach to such characters or understand their significance with they only appear on a dozen or so pages. The one good exception to this is Rain. Maura Hanrahan, in a review that was WAY too glowing, said Clay was "the heart and soul" of the book. I'd have to disagree. That would be Rain.

Secondly, the whole lying thing. The publishers seemed to push this aspect of the book as the focal point. Aside from asinine letters home, Chaulk hardly explores this issue at all. Never does there seem to be any growth in Simms' perspective on lying. At the end there's a brief comment about it but it's hardly believable. In fact, it seems almost thrown it at the suggestion of an editor (who really needed to say SO much more).

Thirdly, and in line with my last point, there seems to be no character growth at all. Again at the end Simms claims that she has matured and become all the more wiser, but you really don't see any evidence of that. Speaking of maturity and intelligence, that Simms is supposed to have a philosophy degree is almost laughable. It reads like it's being told by a girl straight out of highschool (and at times like she's still there). Really lame.

Fourthly, the ending. No I won't offer any spoilers (the book is hard enough to read as it is). Just like the over the top rants that Chaulk's characters spew forth, the ending is equally as unbelievable. Just way too implausibly perfect and almost laughably so.

I could go on and on. But I'll leave with one last comment on Chaulk's humour. Ever watch Last Comic Standing? It's strange to watch because on other reality shows those that suck are usually the funniest, while on Last Comic Standing the opposite is true. Chaulk's attempts at humour are like those of the poor schmucks on that show. I gave an example before, but this is probably my favourite example:

"...they both fell from the same stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down."

Yikes. How does something so bad get past an editor?

Friday, July 28, 2006

On a personal note...

I've avoided much of anything personal on my blog, but I need to get into a little detail now.

My blog will be temporaily neglected for the next week or two. For the moment we're without a home (let alone internet access). We've sold our house and are moving to Iqaluit! There's so much to do with moving at the best of times. Try moving to the Arctic! Try moving your car there! It's nuts. It's tiring. It's preventing me from blogging :(

But it shan't keep me from reading, so stay tuned!

And hopefully, the next time I blog, my profile at the top will not say Summerford, it will say Iqaluit.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #134- Tina Chaulk: This Much Is True (up to "Baptism By Fire")

For a Social Psychology final exam, my classmates and I had to watch When Harry Met Sally and discuss how authentic the relationship was between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). Sounds like a slightly fluffy exam, but I really enjoyed it and I think it made us think critically about the topics we had learned.

If I were to teach a Newfoundland Sociology course, I'd use This Much Is True as the final exam. The bulk of the course would revolve around Leslie Bella's Newfoundlanders At Home and Away and the final would have students discuss how Lisa Simms fits with Bella's research. They'd be excellent companion books.

That's one of the good things about the book. There are plenty more. But there's also a few problems I have with it. Which would you like first, the good news or the bad news? I thought so...

My major complaint is also one I feel the most sheepish about saying: I don't like the humour in it. The reason for my timidness to stand behind that insult is that I know humour is such a personal thing. My taste in comedy might be quite different than Chaulk's and the majority of her readers. (At least one commenter on her blog said her husband found it quite funny). To me, the humour felt forced, occasionally juvenile and well, not funny. Skimming through the book, I can find any number of examples, but this one is quite representative of the "laughs" you'll find in the book: When doing their hair for a night on the town, Simms describes her and her friends as looking like "Frankenstein's brides on a bad hair day." Who doesn't compare bad hair to the bride of Frankenstein? I'd like something a little more original in my punchline. I commend Chaulk for trying to infuse a sense of humour into her novel. No one can accuse her of being stuffy. But unlike authors like Mordecai Richler or Miriam Toews, Chaulk's humour isn't all that witty. I guess Scott Thompson should be careful what he asks for.

Occasionally, I also find some of the events a little too pretend. The best example of this is the speech/threat that Ron gives to Dreg to stay away from his daughter Rain. It's just too perfect. Ron doesn't miss a beat when he goes into vivid detail about a scar he got from a gutting knife. It's a little too bad-TV perfect. With so much emotion, I'd expect some stammering, some tripping over of one's words perhaps, and so forth. I'm not saying I think Ron shouldn't have come out on top, but some fall or imperfection would have added so much to the authenticity. To make it worse, the speech was so effective that Dreg left the province, never to be heard from again.

And now the good. I hate to rely on a cliche, but it is a page turner.

One of the most compelling parts so far involved an old friend, and new roommate of Lisa's, Karen- now known as Rain. Karen has changed from a popularity queen into a goth princess. What's great about her character is the mystery of her new found bitterness and her abusive relationship. I can think of two other books in which the most dramatic story line revolves around peripheral characters instead of the central character; John Bemrose's The Island Walkers and Carol Shield's Unless. It must be a somewhat difficult decision for a writer to make; who to focus on. Like Shields, Chaulk made the right choice. It would have been obvious to set the story around Rain, but there's something more interesting about seeing it from a friend's perspective.

Simms is Chaulk's greatest achievement in this story. I like how it feels like a "coming of age" story but it is set in her 20s instead of adolescence. To me, and I'm sure many others, this is far more accurate of when we "found ourselves".

Finally, I like how it is set in the 80s. Sometimes the references seem a little forced, but at least it's something that adds just a little more appeal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reader's Diary #133- Michael Crummey: Salvage (up to "Seven Things About Stephanie")

(Curse Amazon for changing their book cover pictures! Who needs that friggin' white frame?!)

"Salvage" according to means property or goods saved from damage or destruction. "Salvage" in the context of Newfoundland, also refers to a small community of the same name. Despite the fact that Crummey is a Newfoundlander, I think it's the first definition that defines this book. Though you know how poets can be- maybe it was both.

The first poem in this collection, "Kissing The Dead: A Disclaimer", gives the warning, "Sad Book Ahead./ Poems about Loss/ Next 100 pgs." It's a little tongue in cheek. The poems yes, have a theme of loss, but there's a hope present as well. Or if not a hope, then the sense that something is at least being salvaged.

"Undone" is quite a risque poem. From what I can tell, it's about a case of S & M. The woman requests to be bound and wants the man to take control. He does and towards the end, he's the one needing comfort. It ends with the line "A slow heat rising from/ her skin where she touched him,/like the sun/about to come up." I love the new understanding in the poem and the optimism in the final image. Again, something has been salvaged.

I'm loving these poems so far. Especially great are images that I can only describe as surreal:

- "It traveled in his blood like blooms/ of silt stirred from a river bottom."

- "...flames fingering/ each naked spine..."

and a personal favourite...

- "The dark church leans over the street/ like a face watching a spider at work"

Sometimes poetry is just so dang good.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reader's Diary #132- Tina Chaulk: This Much Is True (up to "The Cubby Hole")

Tina Chaulk has cleverly or inadvertently bought time until her second book is published before anyone can decide whether or not she is any good. You see, the writing comes across at first as a little amateurish. However, this might be a stroke of genius.

The protagonist, Lisa Simms, has just moved to Toronto from Newfoundland in order to find work. She's relatively young and inexperienced with the world off the island. That's where Chaulk's style comes into play. Even if her own inexperience as an author shines through, it fits. Written in the first person, the "haven't-done-this-before" feel is befitting of her central character. So maybe it was intentional, maybe not. In either case, we'll just have to wait until her second novel to see if Chaulk can muster up a new trick.

Small bone of contention; the lack of a defined audience. I'm a little unclear as to who (or is that whom?) was expected to read this book: Newfoundlanders? Mainlanders? or Both? I'd be okay had any of these groups been chosen, but there's a few inconsistencies. In one paragraph she mentions drinking Newfoundland Screech and goes on to define it as "a fine rum named for our home and made in Jamaica." Clearly, in this case, non-Newfoundlanders are targeted. (Anyone from here wouldn't need the clarification.) Yet in the same paragraph she mentions capelin and doesn't define them at all. From the context, you can gather that it's a food, but she never comes out and says it's a fish. Plus there's a few more references to Newfoundlandia as well that are not elaborated on. The Screech definition seems out of place. But this is all minor.

I am enjoying the book a lot. Most of the Newfoundland books I've read involve characters that live and work in the province. I like that she's chosen to have her central character leave for employment. It's such a common experience for so many of us (self-included) that it's about time someone has picked it up for a novel (sorry if there are other such books that I am unaware of). There's a particularly sad line in the book that unfortunately nails how many feel when they first leave the province and find themselves in big cities such as Toronto; "Welcome to the real world, Lisa." It's particularly tragic because of the word "real". It's as if the slower paced life in Newfoundland is somehow less authentic. It's a great line though. It says so much about Lisa's mindset and indeed, the mindset of many Newfoundlanders away from home for the first time.

I'm also enjoying the "little white lie" theme. A tagline on the back cover asks "Is it okay to tell a lie?" and the book sets out to explore this issue. I love how chapters are set up; with introductions being letters Lisa has sent home to her mom and dad about her life away. They're perky and positive and (when you read on you discover) untrue. Her real experiences make up the bulk of the chapter, and they're full of the hardships and worries that were originally glossed over or omitted in the letters home. Why doesn't she tell the truth in these letters? In the prologue she claims it is to protect the ones she loves. However, like the letters themselves, I like to think that's only part of the story. There seems to be more revealed about Lisa in the contrasting stories than mere concern for her parents. I think the letters also represent her own hopes and insecurities. They seem to be the way she wishes things had gone. They also seem to be slight lies to herself- trying to convince herself as well, that she's doing okay, that she's not scared, and that things will work out fine, almost as if there's the belief that "the lie will set you free" rather than the original adage. There's an inner conflict going on between her optimistic side and her pessimistic side of which most of us can relate.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Reader's Dairy #131- Holy Bible: Leviticus (FINISHED)

First Amphigorey, a graphic novel, then a book about the Simpsons, now the Bible. Ah, summer reading. (For those of you new to my site, I've explained why I read the Bible in an earlier post.)

Actually, I did enjoy reading Leviticus, probably more so than either Genesis or Exodus. And there's a couple of reasons for that.

First of all, instead of reading the King James Version as I had done for the first two books, I switched to the Good News version which is written in modern English. This made it a lot easier to understand. I have absolutely no qualms about this version either. It's not as if it's Shakespeare that was updated, it's the Bible. I mean, when you think about it, any English version is a translation anyway. I don't know why any church would still use the antiquated King James Version with its "thees" and "thous" and "thys". My theory is that many priests and ministers prefer to have the congregation a little in the dark so that they can interpret it for them. But that's the cynical side of me. Incidentally, it's often quoted that the Bible is the best selling book of all time. But does anyone know what version?

The second reason I enjoyed Leviticus? It actually made me laugh. Often the wording was very humourous in a modern context. And at one point it seemed to be that for any sin, the sacrifice needed to redeem oneself was two doves or pigeons and a lot of blood. Imagine how messy Churches used to be? And the smell? (Though it couldn't be worse than old lady perfume.) My favourite funny line though was, "do not...put something in front of a blind man so as to make him stumble over it." (Ch. 9, verse 14). What's so funny is that such a rule even needed to be spoken!

Other moments were funny in a tragic, unpolitically correct way:

For someone with "the dreaded skin disease" they were to "wear torn clothes, leave his hair uncombed, cover the lower part of his face, and call out, 'Unclean, unclean!'" (Ch. 13, v. 45)

"Do not disgrace your father by having intercourse with your mother." (Ch. 17, v.7) As if that's the only reason to consider!

"No man is to have sexual relations with another man; God hates that." (Ch. 18, v. 22)

and by the way, we're pretty much all doomed with this one:

"Do not wear clothes made of two kinds of material." (Ch. 19, v. 19)

So for all of you wearing polyester-cotton blends, I say "sinner! sinner!"

It's Leviticus I think that probably gets used the most by the zealots.

Reading Leviticus is not like a novel at all. Basically, it's just a set of rules and practices that were dictated to Moses and Aaron. There isn't a story line at all in this particular book. However, if you've ever read Moby Dick, just treat Leviticus the same way as you did all those chapters about the proper way to skin a whale and so forth.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reader's Diary #130- Nancy Cartwright: My Life As A 10-Year-Old Boy (FINISHED!)

I said earlier that a major problem with autobiographies is the bias. In Cartwright's case the bias isn't just for herself, but pretty much for all celebrities.
I wasn't looking for her to "dish the dirt" or anything, but I wasn't expecting the butt-kissing of Hollywood alumni either. Two cases in particular which were particularly sickening- Elizabeth Taylor and Kirk Douglas.
Taylor, of course, was the voice of Maggie Simpson as she uttered her first word, "daddy." That's it, Taylor's historic Simpson's moment. For this hard day's work punched by her highness, she walks in wearing a feather boa, accompanied by a full entourage, token yippy dog, and ignoring everyone. She rudely ad-libs her line as "F- You, Daddy," which is accepted graciously and later edited of course, to drop the foul language. Cartwright relates this story as if this is charming! As if this is why we should all love the wonder that is Liz Taylor! PUKE!
Then Kirk Douglas. He was the voice of the man that claimed to have originated Itchy and Scratchy, Chester Lampwick. He's a complete ass from the get go, throwing his headset down crankily and quipping, "I'm not wearing these things, they hurt my ears." After Nancy "saves the day" by finding a way to accommodate this d--khead, he says, "I'm only giving you two takes then I'm out of here!" After which he screws up twice, by misreading "changed" as "charged". Charming and brilliant.
But since I don't want to end on a sour note, I would like to say that I've enjoyed many celebrity cameos on the Simpsons over the years. My favourite 10 (in no particular order) are:
1. Kelsey Grammer (as Sideshow Bob, of course)
2. Phil Hartman (those he's played other characters, I liked him best for Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz)
3. Michelle Pfieffer (as Mindy)
4. Beverly D'Angelo (as Lurleen Lumpkin)
5. Ian McKellen (as himself)
6. Stan Lee (as himself)
7. NSync (as themselves- don't hold them against me, yes I think they suck as a band, but their stint on the Simpsons was pretty funny)
8. Mel Gibson (as himself)
9. Pierce Brosnan (as a take on HAL)
10. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (as themselves)
And who might your favourite cameos be?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reader's Diary #129- Adrian Fowler and Al Pittman (editors): 31 Newfoundland Poets (FINISHED)

A note to Jesperson Press , Breakwater Books, or any other publisher in Newfoundland: I want to compile a collection of poems (not mine, so don't worry!) about the Beothuks and call it "Guilt".

I know that sounds like a controversial title, but hear me out. So many Newfoundland poets that I've read, have at least one or two poems about the (definitely not forgotten) Beothuks. Why is that? I'm sure that some would argue that it's because of some mystical feeling that they're still among us somehow (re: Tom Dawe's "In There Somewhere"), some would argue it's to give voice to a people that have no longer have a voice (re: Michael Cook's "On The Rim Of The Curve") and I'm sure others would argue any number of other reasons. But truth be known, when you tease out all the psychological mumbo-jumbo, it all comes down to guilt. Guilt over the abscence of an entire race of people. Were any of us actually responsible? Well, no. But many of our ancestors were. If not directly, then by their mere germ-filled presence. Or worse, by turning away from the injustices. The Beothuks, or more correctly, the loss of the Beothuks, is as much a part of the Newfoundland psyche as the loss of the cod. Both themes have been explored in innumeral ways by innumeral people. But it's the Beothuks that interest me. Something about the art that has arisen from the burial grounds of these people, tells me it's more than a curiousity about a particular group that is no longer with us. It's guilt. It's shame. There's a subtle notion that while Brigitte Bardot and the McCartney's might be off base with the anti-sealing campaign, the extinction of the Beothuks confirms that at least for one dark time in our history, we were barbarians. The Beothuk poems serve as an apology first. They serve as proof second; proof that we are not monsters. Guilt plagues us like small pox and starvation plagued them. The difference is, we survive guilt.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Reader's Diary #128- Nancy Cartwright: My Life As a 10-Year-Old Boy (up to "I'm Talkin' To You Cowboy...Draw!")

I'm going to take some solace here in the fact that I don't know the name of the episode I'm about to try and reference...

In this episode that I can't recall, the Comic Store Guy and some other nerds are at some sort of convention (comic books, Star Wars, I don't remember) and someone demands to know how some particular plot hole is possible. It's funny because it's an obvious way of saying to all the Simpsons geeks out there to get a life. (I've redeemed myself by forgetting rather significant details of that episode- a geek sin.)

But as many Simpsons fans know, there have been a few plot holes over the years. There are multiple versions of Bart's conception for instance. Still, who cares?

However, I do care when Nancy Cartwright gets something wrong. When she talks about Luke Perry's appearance she says that he stars as himself "playing the never-introduced-before brother of Sideshow Mel." WRONG! He was the half-brother of Krusty. Geez.

Small erroneous details aside, the books fails in another way. She obviously couldn't decide if this was to be a "The Making of The Simpsons" book or her autobiography. It would be fine if it was both of course, but she doesn't handle the transition well. Clumsily she jumps from one to the other, one second talking about her kids, the next second talking about how table reads are done.

Still, despite its (many flaws) I was interested in hearing how and why some transitions were made from the first few seasons to the latter ones. We can thank a budget, for instance, for the smoother images of the family that we've come to appreciate so much more than the early, rougher images. Apparently, they're just easier and cheaper to mass produce. Homer's voice change came out of practicality too. If you watch the first season, his voice is rather deep and he almost seems to bark at times- not at all lovable like now. The reason? Castellaneta found that as the writer's were giving Homer's personality a more varied emotional range, the gruff voice wasn't working. He tweaked it and the there you have it. That stuff was interesting- too bad you have to sift through a lot of crap to get it!

Writer's Diary #3- Waves (Third draft)

* Sorry if this is getting tedious, but there might be a 100 or so of the same poem reworked slightly each time. Feel free to ignore, or better yet feel free to give advice and/or critiques.


At six in the morning
you are awake
and the day comes from you
in sparkling dust-
your hope spread over the beach like
a salt blanket on the smooth stones.
You turn it back gently
rousing the child
for the trip.
A last glance reveals
sea weed left like teddy bears
Or were they relics of
(bubbles baked sepia
in yesterday’s sun

At six in the evening
you are more awake
and you slam the day on the table,
sending glasses off
to shatter as you seeth.
Noon was your gamble,
your stakes were high-
and you lost.
Leaving the stones
granite cold, granite damp
granite uncovered
(except for another batch
of sea weed
yet to harden
and polluted with seizures
of insignificant shrimp

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Reader's Diary #127- Adrian Fowler and Al Pittman (editors): 31 Newfoundland Poets (up to Neil Murray's "Biblical Incident")

Since I've been blogging about poetry, I've often commented on such common features as imagery, rhythm, rhyme, and so forth. I haven't, however, put a whole lot of emphasis on voice. It's been an oversight. Voice is potentially as important as any other aspect. It's taken 31 Newfoundland Poets to remind me. In this collection are some wicked examples of great voice. David Glower has a brilliantly crafted poem entitled "Goin Hout." It's told from a very thick accented Newfoundland man and the words are spelled almost phonetically, or more accurately as they would be pronounced (or written perhaps) by such a character. To give you an example, the second stanza goes
"good ferda feesh dough
awls um een I do fases time
puntload no truble
win da widders good"

It sort of reminds me of the way Trainspotting was written in Scottish dialect. I had to read it out loud and a little fast to get what was actually being said. What makes this poem so thought provoking, is the question it raises about education versus traditional life. It doesn't take a stance, but it would be an excellent discussion starter.

Bill Gough seems to be a master of interesting voices. His "Soft Shoe" is told from the perspective of an old man who seems to resent the condescension from younger people. A good voice should have an interesting perspective, a mood, and consistency to the character's personality. This poem has it.

So does an untitled poem of his that begins "O Lady of/ the rat tail comb". It's a creepy poem, to be sure (in the same vein as American Beauty- if you get my drift), but it's still a fantastically written piece. As he ends the poem with "I smile and suggest/ an hour's extra drive" you want to scream at the girl to get out of the car- not many poems can evoke such a strong emotion as this.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Writer's Diary #2- Waves (Second Draft)

At six in the morning
you are awake
and the day comes from you
in sparkling dust-
your hope spread over the beach like
a salt blanket on the smooth stones.
You turn it gently back
rousing the child
for the trip.
A last glance reveals
sea weed left like teddy bears
Or were they relics of
bubbles baked sepia
in yesterday’s sun.

At six in the evening
you are more awake
and you slam the day on the table,
sending glasses off
to shatter as you seeth.
Noon was your gamble,
your stakes were high-
and you lost.
Leaving the stones
cold, damp
(except for another
batch of sea weed
yet to harden
and polluted with the seizures
of insignificant shrimp).

Reader's Diary #126- Nancy Cartwright: My Life As a 10-Year-Old Boy (up to "Good Grammer")

Good: Cartwright is undeniably successful. One of those fortunate few have have fame without the recognition. Sure lots of Simpson fans know the name, some would even recognize her- but still, she's not the face of Jennifer Aniston or Paris Hilton or any other tabloid mug. Cartwright gets her fair share of privacy, which is quite an accomplishment in Hollywood- especially for someone associated with a show as successful as The Simpsons. How did she get to that point? Read the book. As a "How-To" book, My Life As a 10-Year-Old Boy shines, and the most important lesson seems to be: Network. For the more cynical, it's akin to saying "It's not what you know, it's who you know." But Cartwright has made her career getting to know people, the right people, and there's no denying that it's worked for her.

Bad: Autobiographies are never easy. It's hard not to be biased and self-serving. (If you can think of any exceptions, let me know. Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox comes to mind). Cartwright unfortunately is no exception. She toots her own horn a little too loudly for my taste. It's not over-the-top bragging, she does acknowledge luck at times and does praise the other castmates. But it's one other castmate in particular that should be mentioned here; Dan Castellaneta. Cartwright mentions a Time magazine article that places Bart among the "Top Artists and Entertainers of the Twentieth Century". As a Simpsons fan, it's bugged me that magazines like Time still refer to Bart as the icon. In the first couple of seasons, Bart was the star. He made the cover of Rolling Stone, 20/20 did a show on him, etc. It was well deserved. But it was also short lived (or should have been). As any true fan knows, Homer (voiced by Castellaneta) has long since eclipsed the popularity of Bart. People watch for Homer. People quote from Homer. Cartwright seems a little in the dark on that fact. No doubt that would be a tough thing to acknowledge, but it's true. But to give credit to Bart, I've tried to come up with my three favourite Bart moments, (and I'd like you to do the same):
1. In "Lisa The Beauty Queen" when he's giving Lisa tips on how to become Little Miss Springfield
2. In "Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy" When Lisa, Homer and Marge are talking with Stacy Lavelle, the original creator of Malibu Stacy to come up with a name for the Lisa-inspired new doll. Bart is in the background shouting out insulting names (ex. "Stupid Lisa Garbage Face") and just about goes nuts when no one acknowledges him whatsoever.
3. In "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie" when Bart is entertaining Lisa with Grandpa's dentures. (Though Homer trumps Bart's act with the quote, "Young man, since you broke Grandpa's teeth, then he gets to break yours.")

Undecided: Cartwright has a very unpretentious style of writing. That's one way of putting it. Cartwright has a very fluffy, overly simplistic style akin to emails. That's the other. In the words of Becky, a Bart fan, she "writes the way people talk!"

Friday, July 14, 2006

Writer's Diary #1- Waves (First Draft)

At six in the morning
you are awake
and the day comes from you
in sparkling dust-
your hope spread over the beach like
a salt blanket on the smooth stones.
You turn it back gently
as if rousing a child for a trip.

At six in the evening
you are more awake
and you slam the day on the table,
sending glasses off
to shatter as you seeth.
Noon was your gamble,
your stakes were high-
and you lost.
Leaving the stones

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #125- Edward Gorey: Amphigorey (FINISHED)

After reading the second half of this collection, I can understand a little better the cult following of Gorey.

It is in this section you find the (in)famous "Gashlycrumb Tinies". For those unfamiliar with it, it's an alphabet book (you know, "'A' is for..." etc) with a twisted take. Basically each letter stands for a different child's name and their untimely demise, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs" and so on. Dark, yes. But comical in a deranged way. It's not overly evil, the cartoonishness and silly rhymes never allows the reader (well, this reader anyway) to lose sight of the fact that it is all in jest. Something about his slightly pretentious, dated word choice, makes it all seem even sillier. My favourite is "N is Neville who died of ennui".

Another quality of Gorey's style that I enjoy, is his tendency to leave a lot up to the imagination. Some might say it's a lazy or even easy approach, but Gorey makes it part of the fun. In "The Curious Sofa" for instance, the final panel shows just a corner of the sofa with the caption, "When Alice saw what was about to happen, she began to scream uncontrollably..." The story that led up to it, and the ambiguous ending, provoke the reader into any number of vile possibilities of what the sofa actually does, but Gorey cleverly leaves it there. He really pushes the mysterious angle to its extreme in "The West Wing," a wordless story with pictures of rooms presumably in the west wing of some mansion. In almost every panel, the reader is left with a question, "Why are there three shoes on the floor?" "Why is one room filled with water?" "Who is that looking in the window?" and so on. The imagination goes into overload. Finally, I delighted in "The Sinking Spell" in which a mysterious something falls slowly from the sky and gradually makes its way through a roof, several floors, into the basement and out of sight. It is never shown and the reader is never told what it is. There's a Twilight Zonish air about the story that I absolutely loved.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #124- Stuart Godfrey: Night, Light and Half-Light (FINISHED)

Yes, another book no one will read. It's a shame too. Everyone knows the commercial success of poetry books is usually minimal (unless you're Christian Bok), and thus, the shelf-life on those that actually do get published is shorter than that of bologna under fluorescent lights (you might want to trust me on that one). That means that a lot of great poems get overlooked. Thank goodness for libraries and rare book stores.

Stuart Godfrey's Night, Light and Half-Light is one of those books that I'm glad I've had the chance to discover, and that I hope others will dig for as well.

Godfrey has spent large chunks of his life in both India and then Newfoundland. It's the contrasting of these two places that give the book so much appeal. The first section of this book is entitled "Recollections from Early Childhood". It opens with a beautiful poem called "Life Beyond The Irrigation Ditch" in which Godfrey describes a scenes of dung fires burning, old men with hookahs, and dirty children playing. He ends by saying how envious he is because he is not allowed in the servants' compound. With gorgeous word choice, he manages at once to make the servants' world seedy yet somehow desirable. It is implied that by being both off limits and not overly sanitized, it is more authentic to life, probably partly accomplished by mentioning three generations (i.e., women, old men, and grandchildren.)

Skipping forward to the second section, entitled "Newfoundland Revisited" it's almost as if Godfrey was finally allowed to enter the compound. Certainly, he manages to capture that ever common theme of Newfoundland life (the one that mirrors the Indian servants having fun despite it all); and that is having a zest for life amidst poverty and break-breaking labour. The best example of this is in "Cycle of Life" which again mentions the different generations. Here he shows us men building a boat, others gutting fish, an elderly lady kneading bread, and a pregnant woman rocking and knitting. There's a lot of action here that captures the joie de vivre of Newfoundland culture. And of course, the image of the pregnant woman brings hope.

Fortunately, in Godfrey's "crossing over" as it were, he does seem to learn that the hardships are very real and life isn't always hookahs and rocking chairs. "Little White Houses" with its contrast of the title (which suggests the "white picket fence" ideal) against the theme of the poem, i.e., death at sea, its almost a warning to himself to realize the entire truth about peasant living.

But not to sit back on his haunches, the third section is entitled "Protest" and here Godfrey takes up the cause of the downtrodden. Almost as a man maturing. He's idolized the servants, he's realized their hardships, and now he's trying to help them out and alleviate some of the injustices done towards them. Again, these poems are well done. I was skeptical at first. I usually find such poems (such as Milton Acorn's) too direct, overly sentimental and even at times condescending. For the most part, Godfrey steers clear of such pitfalls.

A great collection. If you should happen upon it anywhere, I strongly suggest reading it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Reader's Diary #123- Edward Gorey: Amphigorey (up to "The Willowdale Handcar")

I've never been much of a comic book aficionado. In fact, could I tell you the difference between a comic and a graphic novel? No. I assume a graphic novel is merely a comic in long form. From what I can surmise, Amphigorey is a graphic novel as it is a compilation of shorter comics. I hardly know where to start with such a book, except for being honest: I don't particularly care for it, but I can understand the appeal. I do enjoy Gorey's style. There's a feel about his drawings with their hatching and cross-hatching and characters dressed in Victorian or Edwardian garb that is unmistakably eye-catching and fitting to the macabre humour. It's easy to see that Tim Burton was heavily influenced by Gorey. There's a sense of old wood prints from the Brothers Grimm stories, yet something even more sinister. Grimm fairy tales often had violent outcomes to peasant characters who were often pretty desolate to begin with (ex. Hansel and Gretal). Gorey's tales, on the other hand, seem to revolve around more of the upper crust of society. There's something a little more perverse about these characters whose violent and twisted tendencies cannot be as easily explained using sociology.

My lack of interest in the books is perhaps due to desensitization. Maybe when most of these stories were written (i.e., mid to late 1900s), it was easier to shock people. And maybe people are still as easily shocked and the fault lies with me. Personally, I find shock art a little boring. When someone, be it Howard Stern or Marilyn Manson (okay, not great examples of art), have made it pretty clear earlier on that their sole intention is to ruffle feathers, their schtick quickly becomes predictable. It becomes clear early in this Gorey collection, that he too intends to shock- mostly through violent words/ images (often revolving around children) put to a kitschy verse. There's an undeniable appeal to such verse, else we wouldn't have made up a cutesy little rhyme about axe-murderer Lizzie Borden. I can respect that Gorey has made a rather artsy homage to this violent side of human nature. But in a large collection, I quickly lose interest. And maybe after watching the Aristocrats, its rather hard to be shocked by anything as mild as Gorey.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #122- John Stevens (editor): Best Canadian Short Stories (FINISHED)

Stevens opens the book with a passage from Margaret Atwood's "A Travel Piece" and closes the book with the entire story. In my (not-so-humble) opinion it's not the strongest story in the collection, but it's still not a bad choice. The snippet he chooses to open the book is about a travel writer who feels that people now go on vacation to feel safe, to relax from the stress and turbulence at home. She feels that this wasn't always the case, it used to be that people went on vacation for adventure and danger. It raises an interesting few questions to keep in mind as one reads through the rest of the book: Could the same be said about readers? Do they read books for excitement? Or for relaxation? And does it have to be one or the other? And how about writers? Are they writing an "all-inclusive" sort of book? Or a "go hiking and find your own unique hideaway" sort of book? I'm sure the answer to these questions is different for everyone, so I'll throw them out there and hope for some responses. For myself, I think I read for relaxation primarily. To me adventure books brings to mind sci-fi, westerns and John Grisham books and I don't often go that route. That said, just like I wouldn't be content to lie on a beach ALL day, I do want some hint of a plot. There is an escapism in my reading choices. I know because I'd be less inclined to read about a teacher protagonist than say a DJ at a rave club. When I vacationed in Hawaii I remember lying in the sun and reading Claire Mowat's Outport People about Newfoundlanders. It was one of the few times I didn't want an escape- I was in Hawaii for frig sakes, who needed Newfoundland?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #121- Marian Frances White: Skinny Dipping (Finished)

Often when I see "An excellent first novel" in a book review, I think it could be a backhanded comment. It's like the critic is saying, "I liked it but it had lots of forgivable flaws." And then as a reader, it's hard not to look for said flaws. Occasionally, like in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, I'm even left resenting that being a first novel had even been brought up. (It was great no matter how few books Boyden had published before.) However, I'm going to eat my words and add the same disclaimer to Marian Frances White's Skinny Dipping; it's a fine collection of poetry, for her first.

No, I didn't fall entirely for her poems. The first section in particular (i.e.,"Open Iris") was the most problematic for me. I have already mentioned the overreliance on gimmicks. Also, the section felt overly sentimental and terribly cliched. It will come as no surprise that I haven't been to a lot of lesbian poetry readings, but if I was to try a satirize one I'd have it at a University graduate bar, tables topped with hummus dip and draught beer, and readings of poems such as Marian Frances White's "dictionaries do not define" or "destiny on the boston freeway". I hope all of this doesn't make me sound bigoted, because really I'm not. I just have a problem with things being too cliched and predictable. Take this line (out of context yes) from "dictionaries do not define": "I would not find comfort in this manmade world" or this stanza from "destiny on the boston freeway": "for fear destiny will return your call/ our bodies do not meet/ under the sheets, desire/ was always put on hold". Pretty lame, yes? Fortunately, the later sections weren't that bad. In fact, they were quite good.

Especially good are her poems about growing up in the section entitled "Pressure Cooking". In "Routines" White manages to define her mother by almost cataloguing her chores. There's a subtle sad judgment present, yet there's a reverence too.

Other standout poems include "A Shoulder Lifts A Foggy Haze" which steers away from the predictable glum of such weather, "Middle Cove Still Birth", and a tribute to Tommy Sexton.

In the majority of poems following those in the "Open Iris" section, White doesn't fall as often in cliches, sentimentality or gimmicks. It's as if while writing the latter sections she had matured some as a poet. Since Skinny Dipping, Marian Frances White has published a second book of poetry, Mind Your Eyes. With as much growth in a single book, I'd love to read those in her sophomore attempt.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #120- John Stevens (Editor): Best Canadian Short Stories (up to "The Grecian Urn" by W.P. Kinsella)

Though perhaps a little dated, Stevens has picked a near perfect sample of short stories that capture Canadian experience. Notice I didn't say, "the" Canadian experience- like the collection's title which is missing that definitive, I too feel that "the" in this case is too exclusionary. Here are stories that reflect on Canadians from coast to coast to coast, from various time periods, and even immigrants and emigrants. A case could even made for Phyllis Gotlieb's "Gingerbread Boy", a sci-fi story. Afterall, good sci-fi should say as much about the time and concerns of the present as they do of the future- and thus, "Gingerbread Boy" could represent the Canadian experience of 1961 when Gotlieb first wrote it. In fact, if you change "android" to "clone", it could speak of present day Canadian apprehensions and concerns.

I do think that first nations people, the Metis and the Inuit are a little underrepresented though. Sure there are mention of Cree, Inuit and so on in some of these stories but they are all from a white perspective (ex. Farley Mowat's "The Iron Me"). It's too bad that there wasn't a little more cultural diversity within the authors themselves. To be fair though, maybe when Stevens first published this collection in 1981 there weren't as many from the aforementioned groups that had been publishing short stories. In all honesty, I'm not sure if I can name that many today. Thomas King. Robert Alexie. Joseph Boyden. If there's any truth to the old stereotypes about such cultures having such a strong oral tradition, there should be a lot of great stories to come out in print any day now. In the meantime, if anyone out there can direct me to another good author from Canada's aboriginal populations, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Reader's Diary #119- Marian Frances White: Skinny Dipping (up to "Pressure Cooking")

When I first listened to Pearl Jam's "Daughter" I couldn't make out if Eddie Vedder was singing "...young girl...violins" or "...young girl...violence" so I checked up the lyrics in the cd booklet. I must say, I was pretty impressed when I saw that they had written "young girl...violins(ence)". But would it be impressive if they employed such a tactic in every other song? Not likely.

Such is the case with Marian Frances White's poetry. Eight poems in and I notice the first of many Marian-Frances-Whitisms (or MFWs). In the poem "Book Binders" lies the line "press our lips to hold our wor(l)d." Clever on many levels. There's of course the obvious; Could be read as "word" or "world" and still make sense. But the isolated "l" could be a reference to the "l" word. In case the cover didn't give it away, many of these poems are of a lesbian theme. I liked this word play. Word play is part of what makes me want to read poetry. But then in the next poem, i.e., "Body F(r)iction" I thought, "hmm, she's doing it again." And it subsequent poems there was "my/self", "which/witch", "to/get/her", "lov/h/er", "anot/her", "al/one", "li(n)es", "h(eat)", "m(out)h", "(h)ear", "me/m(or)y", and "in/stead".

Before I get accused of disguising yet another catalogue of words as a critique, I'll defend my argument by saying it becomes a little gimm/icky. But to be fair, even masters like e.e. cummings with his lack of capitalization, and Emily Dickinson with her dashes (-) at the end of lines could be said to have relied on gimmicks. I guess it's a matter of getting used to a poet's style- and having a style is important. Yet, it shouldn't be style over substance. And sometimes it feels like just that with White's poems. The best example of a MFW not working, in my opinion, is in the poem "Forget-Me-Nots" when she writes the phrase "...i will excavate the me/m(or)y of bare feet sliding..." I get what she's trying to do with the word "memory" and even appreciate the question surrounding the word- do memories belong to us? or do they define us? Unfortunately the gimmick destroys any rhythm and with its slashes and parentheses it becomes a problematic disruption to the flow of the poem. Again, maybe when one comes accustomed to her poetry and gets used to seeing brackets or breaks midword, it won't be as distracting. I'm not at that point yet.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Reader's Diary #118- John Stevens (Editor): Best Canadian Short Stories (up to "The Iron Men")

It's too bad that Best Canadian Short Stories gets off to a slow start. Sure starting off with the "comic" stories may seem like a good idea- but comedy is so unpredictable. What tickles one's person's fancy might only be slightly amusing to another. I think that's the case with Stevens' selections. Tragedy and violence on the other hand, is something that affects us more universally. I'm not saying that there aren't differences the world over in terms of how we view such events, but there are some safe generalizations. Murder and suicide have pretty negative connotations everywhere (well, almost). And thus, Stevens' sections "Men and Women: Tragic and Ironic Views" and "Violent Encounters" would have been better choices for opening the book.

But that's a small critique, because he did make some fantastic choices. In fact, my top 10 short story list might look quite different by the time I'm finished. What amazes me most is the amount of character development that most of these authors manage to pack into a relatively few pages. People often criticize sitcoms for solving major problems in 22 minutes. Maybe they should hire some of these authors- I think they'd be up to the challenge. Alice Munro, despite how I've ragged on her time and time again, has a real masterpiece here with "The Beggar Maid". I absolutely love the portrait she paints of a particular couple. It starts off with a sense of foreboding about the narrator's new boyfriend. He seems so neurotic and insecure that you almost taste danger. Yet, the narrator slowly takes on similar traits and in fact, it is she that first lashes out. Yet despite their faults, Munro has an uncanny ability to make them seem relatable! It's as if she holds up a mirror that only shows our ugly side (a la Dorian Gray?). It's ingenious. Another story, "Every Day of His Life" by Jack Hodgins has characters every bit as eccentric as those in a Robertson Davies or John Irving book.

I also love the diversity of authors. While I complained initially that the first section is entirely by male authors, he makes up for it in later sections. Not only are females represented, but different areas of the country as well. There's a superb story by French author, Yvette Naubert entitled "The Murderer" which is just about everything a short story should be. There's an interesting story by Newfoundland author Harold Horwood entitled "Some of His Best Friends" which surprisingly deals with racism and is set primarily on a Caribbean island. "The Charivari" by Susanna Moodie, while not a particularly great story in terms of plot, is very enlightening about this bizarre custom which makes Newfoundland's mummers look innocent. So many wonderful and compelling reads...I think I'm loving the short story. I definitely plan on reading more.

Finally, Stevens should also be commended for the short biographies on each author at the back. After finishing each story I go to the back and discover more about each author. Neat little reference tool that really adds to the enjoyment of the collection.

And I just can't end this post without also mentioning Hugh Garner's "The Moose and the Sparrow". It has an ending much like Dahl's "Lamb To The Slaughter", but what makes it great again is the characters. Or is it the tension? Or is it the...oh it's everything I guess. I'm gushing I know, but it's a wonderful piece of writing.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Reader's Diary #117- F.W. Peacock: Nuna Nunamiullo, The Land and The People (FINISHED)

Okay, this is a rarity. I came across this one in the school library and haven't been able to find another copy anywhere, not even in online rare and used book stores. But if you're one of the few people out there that comes across it, it's worth a read- well, depending on your interests...

This book is a good segue for me. As I announced in an earlier post I'm moving to Iqaluit in August- and since this book still revolves around my province yet is primarily about the Inuit, maybe it's the perfect literary bridge for me.

When I lived in Rankin Inlet, I happened to go to the local Catholic church one Sunday and I was amazed at how well the priest, a white Francophone, was speaking Inuktitut. I only spent four years there, but I had met other southerners who had lived there for more than a decade and had not even come close to picking up the language. I took lessons in my first year there and continued to pick up bits of vocab here and there from my students, but it is NOT an easy language to learn (is there such a thing?). In a lot of ways, it should be easy: there are not as many rules as in English concerning subject-verb agreement, there's not an abundance of unnecessary pronouns, conjunctions and so forth, and often verbs are just nouns used in a different context (English speakers do it to some extent- ex. "I like to fish."). However, unlike French or other European languages, there's a lot more sounds completely foreign to the English ear and the alphabet system isn't the same. However, maybe priests have some natural inclination to the learning of languages, because apparently F.W. Peacock, like the priest in Rankin, mastered Inuktitut.

With the recent controversy over residential schools in Canada's North, not to mention every other Catholic priest scandal, it would have been very easy to look for fault in Peacock's poetry and point of view. A few years ago I read Arctic Wings written by another Catholic missionary to the North, William A. Leising, and while it made for an interesting read I was taken aback at how right the man felt in his convictions. In the name of God, children were taken away from their families, communities and culture and "educated". This wasn't 100 years ago. Leising didn't come across as an evil man, but it's pretty revealing how values have changed.

Again in Rankin, there are mixed feelings amongst the Inuit regarding Catholics and the education system in general, but the majority still send their kids to school and there's a pretty active Catholic community. While there, I wanted to hear about older beliefs, legends and customs but I found it hard to get information about anything that veered remotely from Christianity. The kids still talked about the Northern lights being ball-playing ancestors who'd come down and take your head if you whistled at them, and local author Michael Kusugak had written several children's books some of which delved into mythology (in particular Hide and Sneak and A Promise Is A Promise with Robert Munsch) but just ask about shamans and see how quickly some people clam up.

Interestingly, Peacock didn't shy away from these legends and this is what makes the collection so valuable. The poetry itself, isn't wonderful in a literary sense. Except for a great sense of rhythm (from his experience giving sermons, I wonder?) the poems are pretty literal and single layered. Peacock can't be criticized too harshly though- the manuscript was published post-humously and without editing from his notes. Where Peacock shines is his recounting of Inuit legends. We get poems entitled "The Legend of PerKallujaK", "Boulder Spirits", the very risque "Legend of the Origin of the Sun and Moon" and more. It's quite an educational book, but much more entertaining and compelling to read than a history book or folklore textbook, like Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). Best of all, Peacock didn't seem to be passing judgments on their beliefs and stories- in fact, it sometimes seemed like he even believed in shamans himself!

As an interesting sidenote, I've had Harold Horwood's White Eskimo on my bookshelf for quite some time and just haven't gotten around to it. However, Peacock makes reference to it and criticizes it for being misleading and inaccurate- now I want to read it more. Nothing sells like a controversy!