Sunday, December 31, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 29, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

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

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

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

Great book. Two things stand out:

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2006

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

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

Thursday, December 21, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2006

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2006

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

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

Thursday, December 07, 2006

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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

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

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

Sunday, December 03, 2006

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 01, 2006

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

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

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

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