Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Reader's Diary #24- William Shakespeare: Hamlet (end of Act 3, Scene 1)

Shakespeare must have loved toying with the audience, or in this case reader. Hamlet's sanity seems to be the biggest toy, followed by his interest in Ophelia. Was he sane? Up to this point (i.e., Act 3, Scene One) I would have to say yes, despite what Palonius and popular opinion might think. Even Hamlet doesn't seem sure. However, while I do think he is majorly distraught, I think his ability to plot and philosophize contradicts true insanity.

Did he love Ophelia? My feeling is no. He tells her at one point that he did and in a few breaths later says that he did not. Shakespeare was really having fun. I think that his contradiction didn't really derive from being insane, nor was it a result of being mean to Ophelia (though he certainly was insensitive). The death of Hamlet's father was the catalyst, in my opinion, that thrust Hamlet into adulthood. It is now that he wrestles with such questions as the value of life ("To be or not to be...") and comes to realize that his childish obsession with Ophelia was not the "true love" he once thought it was. A very compelling character indeed.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Reader's Diary #23- Percy Janes: Light and Dark (FINISHED)

One of the things I like about poetry is the importance of the reader. I think, due to the concentrated nature and sometimes diversionary nature of a poem, the reader has a lot more thinking to do and takes his/her own experiences and attitudes into the reading; much more than with a novel. Would you agree?

But given that, maybe I should see a shrink. I don't necessarily see myself as a gloomy person. I often joke that I'm a pessimist, but most days that's not as true as I let on. The reason I should see a shrink comes from my interpretation of Light and Dark. A few poems into the 2nd part, I realized that the book was probably divided into two halves to match the title- the first half being "light" and the second being "dark." The poems of the second half certainly fit the "dark" tag- we get titles such as "Soliloquy of a Cripple", "The Lost Companion", "Shadow", "Sour Grapes" and "Flower of Evil: The Burden and the Guilt" to name but a few. The content of the Part Two poems was equally bleak. Consider these images and dark metaphors: "a horde of devils littered in a shrieking birth", "wrench my heart from its roots", "time bomb ticking in the brain," and I could go on. So the 2nd half of the book was dark, if my theory was correct the 2nd half should be light. Looking back through the titles, this would appear to be the case (ex. "Crystal", "Utopia" and "Salvation"). But that's about as far as you can push it in terms of lightness. At best, Part One is dim. Sure some of the poems might show a more optimistic side, but there is still undercurrent of depression running through them- or is it me? This is where the shrink should come in. And since I'm already on the couch, why is Part Two, the darker of the halves, more appealing to me?

Seriously though, I did enjoy Part Two more. And not because of some subconscious taste for gloom. The language in Part Two was more concise and less contrived. Janes' biggest beef in life seemed to be getting older (I'd say half of the poems in the book revolve around- or at least touch upon- the curse of aging) and he wrote some pretty good poems about it. Likewise about loneliness.

Particular favourites in the second part, were "Poet:2" which seems to sum up latter half by describing a poet who "marries" his dark outlook with the "darkness in the world" and the dire offspring they produce. Also "Tightrope" and "Farthest North" were interesting in the way that Janes arranged the words on the page. Not exactly "concrete poems" but they did create a picture that complemented the words themselves.

Reader's Diary #22- William Shakespeare: Hamlet (End of Act 2, Scene 1)

A better blogger than I would have no trouble getting clearer pictures. Oh well, I've no time to go fooling around with code and besides none of these book covers are of the copy I'm reading anyway. I'm actually reading it from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Irrelevant.

So, Hamlet has met the ghost of his father, who is also named Hamlet. Growing up named after my own father, you'd think I'd find this less confusing. In a nutshell, Hamlet Sr. asks Hamlet Jr. to avenge his death by going after his murderer, Claudius. And though they can both agree that Mrs. Hamlet is a bit of a backstabbing tramp, Hamlet Jr. should not bother with her. At least this is what I think is going on. I might be off base, so I'd advise my readers (both of you) not to take what I'm saying as the Cliffs Notes Summary of Hamlet.

Meeting up with the ghost of his father who reveals that he had met with "a murder most foul" would be enough to consume anyone's thoughts I would think. Still, I find it bemusing that Hamlet still hasn't as much as mentioned Ophelia, who on the other hand, seems to be under the impression that she means so much more to him. I'll just have to keep on reading to see if her love was requited. At the end of Act 2, scene 1 Ophelia describes to her father a visit from Hamlet. This was shortly after Hamlet met with the ghost and of course, he is not quite himself. Ophelia doesn't know the circumstances (as we do) and thinks his odd behaviour is due to her rejection of him (on the advice of her father).

On the topic of Ophelia's father, Palonius, I had started to think I had been too harsh on my assessment of him as a bad parent. But then we see him telling his servant to follow his son Laertes to Paris and slander him. I can only assume that this is an effort to drive Laertes back to Denmark. We'll see. (Why is it that I can't shake the feeling that perhaps I've misread something horribly?)

So I know I've said little more this time than a plot outline, but I've very little thoughts on the story thus far. I'm a little unsure if I'm grasping things, but still I'm enjoying it. I liked the scenes with the ghost and found myself wondering what these must have been like to the audience way back in the day. They're not exactly spooky scenes by today's standards but back in the 1600s were they? Was this more of a supernatural thriller than a drama?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #21- William Shakespeare: Hamlet (End of Act 1, Scene 4)

William Shakespeare must have had some pretty lousy parents. I have no idea if this is true, but in the plays that I've read, they wouldn't have exactly written the The Happiest Baby on the Block. Remember Romeo and Juliet's parents? Lousy. So far, Hamlet's mom doesn't seem like she's getting a #1 Mom t-shirt anytime soon either. Along with her new hubby (her dead husband's brother no less) she brushes off Hamlet's sense of loss for his father with a paltry spiel about death being inevitable and some lame advice to basically move on. Cold, eh? Then there's Ophelia and Laertes' dad, Palonius. At first he gives one of those windbag speeches to Laertes (who is departing) that as children, we all loathe. Yackety-yak-yak. One adage after another. Of course, maybe this is just the way people talked back then. Or maybe this is typical playwright stuff for the time. There's bound to be lengthy soliloquys in there somewhere, why not lengthy lectures too? Incidentally, it is during these ramblings that the "to thine own self be true" comment comes in. I'm not saying it was all bad advice, but let's face it- the first time you went off on your own, how much did you groan inside when you got a version of this lecture?

Then Palonius goes on to basically mock Ophelia's love for Hamlet, insinuating that she is naive and immature and advises her to stay away from him. Not exactly Mr. Sensitivity. Maybe not all that atypical, but not nice either.

It's Ophelia that has me the most intrigued so far. Not because her character has done anything all that fascinating yet (up to this point she comes across as a typical lovesick teen, probably a little too easily led). But I know she goes crazy eventually, and there seems to be an obsession with her (or at least the name) in the arts community. When I think of music, there's songs by the Band, Moist, and Natalie Merchant- so there's either something compelling or people are jumping on the (ahem) Band wagon. Any others?

Reader's Diary #20- William Shakespeare: Hamlet (Reason for Choosing and My Approach)

My first introduction to Shakespeare was probably the same as everyone else's born in the 20th century: highschool. We did Romeo and Juliet in grade nine and I thought it was great. As most of us did. For an entire grade nine class to show acceptance of Shakespeare was no small accomplishment for Mr. Howard Butt, our teacher. Truly a gifted teacher, he got us through the dated language and into the actual story. After that we covered Julius Caesar and we were almost equally entranced- "almost" because Romeo and Juliet still had that teenage appeal going for it.
After that Mr. Butt retired and the next teacher (with all due respect) didn't quite enamour us with Macbeth. I didn't read another Shakespeare play until a summer drive to Ontario in my university years. That was A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was looking to read a comedy by him and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a little bit funny. That brings me to Hamlet. Hamlet and King Lear were two of those major ones that I felt I had missed out on.

I wasn't sure how to approach Hamlet at first. I considered using An Approach to Hamlet by L.C. Knights (it was sitting on our bookshelf anyway), to help guide me through it- a la Mr. Butt. But looking through it, it seems to make its points by comparing Hamlet to the other plays. I don't think I have enough exposure to the other Shakespeare plays to use such a text, so I'm on my own. I'm not too intimidated though as I have a rough idea of the plot (not through watching any of the myriad Hamlet movies but through the Simpsons' Tales From The Public Domain episode). And of course I knew the "To be or not to be" quote. Who hasn't? So knowing the basic, dummies version of the plot should help me focus on the intricacies a little better. And according to the opening of An Approach To Hamlet, "Hamlet is...that play of Shakespeare's about which there is most disagreement." So if I interpret something wrong, screw it- I'm not the only one. And besides I'm writing a blog, not working on an English degree.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #20- Percy Janes: Light and Dark (end of Part I)

My first exposure to Percy Janes was through a university course- sociology of families, I believe. In this course we had to read Percy Janes' House of Hate. I don't remember a great deal about the book except that I really enjoyed it and that there was some suggestion that Percy Janes was not happy with the title. I can't remember why exactly, maybe it was too trite, maybe it was a poor summary of the book, who knows? But when I chose to read one of his poetry collections, Light and Dark, I wondered of his opinions on this title. At first glance the title again seems a little cliched, and I thought maybe Harold Cuff Publications slapped the title on it without his say. But after getting this far in, I think the title is more than appropriate.
Conjure up all the connotations about the title as you can.
While you're doing that I'll go on to talk about choosing a book that's no longer in print. I haven't exactly been bombarded with feedback or hits to my site, and picking a book that's not in print isn't exactly going to increase my readers in a hurry. I considered that, but in the end decided that I don't care. It would be nice to have a large following but I'm going to read the books I want to read regardless (the "Mine" in the blog title isn't a typo), and maybe someday if someone finds the book at a secondhand bookstore, or if it's rereleased, someone might wander into to this posting and like (or dislike) what I've said.
Now, thought of all those connotations yet? Good. These poems encompass all of what you've come up with (probably). Think of opposites? Some of these poems are about opposites (ex. "A Walk on the Old Burma Road" explores differences between arts oriented people and labourers). Some of these poems are about the passage of time (ex. "A Bus Ride In St. John's" explores the seasons). Some of these poems are about differences within a single entity; a day (ex. "A Summer Day in St. Thomas"), a city (ex. "Utopia"), or a person (ex. "Poet: 1"). And some of these poems illustrate good and bad. Notice I didn't say "good" and "evil". That's because I haven't yet come across these. Nor did I say the poems were "about" good and bad. What I'm getting at (in a terribly awkward way) is that some of these poems were good and some were bad- in my not-so-humble opinion.
At first, I wasn't sure if any of these poems were good. The last poetry collection I had read was Al Purdy's Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets and I was a big fan. I loved the story-telling in his mostly narrative poems and Purdy's acerbic wit. Janes' collection by comparison, had hardly any narrative poems (with some exceptions such as "Salvage"), and most replaced bitter humour with overly pretentious word spewing, ex. "South Side Dance" begins with the line "Artesian birth in prediluvian mystery". Now I can almost hear Bob Dylan telling me to not criticize what I don't understand, but these lines hardly seem like hippy thought to me. They seem like someone trying to show off their intellect. And that attitude, which I have to believe was Percy's, is best illustrated in "A Walk on the Old Burma Road". That particular poem is such an egotistical, self-appraising piece that I didn't even want to like the other poems. But some were good. Undeniably.
"Crystal" was one of the good ones. In it Janes employs a form of poetry I haven't seen before. It consists of two stanzas. Each begins with a short line and is followed by increasingly longer lines. It doesn't seem based on syllables or a consistent word number pattern. Does anyone know if this form has a name, or was it Janes' own creation? Whatever it is called, it works in this particular poem. It has a double effect of increasing tension and creating the impression of a revelation, both of which seem to fit with the theme of the poem. Janes uses the form again (but adding a third stanza) in the "A Newfoundland Garden" poem. In this poem, the form doesn't seem to work and for the life of me, I can't figure out why he used it. If anyone's familiar with this poem and has a theory, I'd like to hear it. Still, I enjoyed that latter poem as well, despite the questionable form. However, one poem; "Sunset Over Bell Island" was ruined by the choice of form. In it, Janes seems to take on the role of the learn'd astronomer instead of Walt Whitman. Janes for some bizarre reason described the sunset in a bulky, run-on sentence which just looks too clunky on the page. Shouldn't it be crime for a poet to make a sunset boring? Especially when he is capable of so much more. "Reconciliation", the final poem in Part I, is anything but boring (basically, it's about make-up sex- Right on!)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Reader's Diary #19- Leslie Bella: Newfoundlanders Home and Away (end of Ch. 4, p. 148*)

* This may be the last posting regarding this book. All that I have left is the appendix on research methodology and unless there's something that sticks out, I probably won't bother commenting on it.

I've complained about Bella's samples before. And I'll do it again. Why, in a chapter called "Going Home", did she not interview anyone that actually moved back? We get repetitive interviews from people who have decided to move back later, decided not to go back, or were still in the process of deciding. It would have been an interesting and obvious comparison to hear from some people that actually returned. The title is Newfoundlanders: Home and Away, not Newfoundlanders: Away. Geez.

Also, I posed the question before about what Newfoundland would be like if everyone suddenly moved back. Well, I should have read further, because at the end of chapter four Bella feels equipped enough to answer this hypothetical question. According to her, Newfoundland would be most likely be a better place, declaring that "Newfoundlanders who have lived away will want to bring home with them the best of what they have seen 'away'". Am I the only one that finds this condescending? Are we so badly in need of outside expertise to be brought home like some educational souvenir from the mainland? On top of this, Bella says that those from away would boost our economy and -my personal favourite- be likely advocates for health care improvements. Really?! Based on what? Interviews and surveys? Should a professional such as Bella- should anyone- make such baseless predictions about what might happen? How about this for another prediction: all those that left come back and have brought with a thriving economy and an end to dependence on seasonal work. Great. But wait a sec! Our pace of life is suddenly faster. Isn't that what so many people liked about Newfoundland- our slower pace of life? Oh and there's no time to enjoy the ocean, kitchen parties, or scenic berry picking walks. And the picturesque seascapes are cluttered with people, litter, and building construction. Great! Come back everyone! Improve our impoverished lives!...Okay, I've gone off the deep end. Seriously, I'm not saying I want Newfoundland to remain as is, with people exodusing in vast numbers to find employment. What I'm saying is that Leslie Bella has no way of knowing what Newfoundland would be like if everyone came back, and no way of knowing how things would improve- just as I have no way of knowing if things would get any worse. I posed the question myself in an earlier post, but I was expecting intelligent discussions on the topic- not the tripe dished out by Bella in her conclusion.

Note of interest to Newfoundlanders Home and Away readers...

Tomorrow on Radio Noon (CBC Radio One, NL), Anne Budgell is discussing outmigration from Newfoundland outports. Might be a good listen for anyone reading (or having read) Newfoundlanders: Home and Away.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Reader's Diary #18- Leslie Bella: Newfoundlanders Home and Away (up to p.116)

If you've ever taken a sociology course there's a very good chance that you have read House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Familyby Margery Wolf or Nisa: Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak. Unless things have changed drastically in the decade (sigh!) since I last took a soc. course, these books were pretty much ubiquitous. I'm not under such delusions that Newfoundlanders: Home and Away will ever become as mainstream as these classics (nor should it), but I do wonder if any non-Newfoundlanders out there would find this interesting. Any non-Newfoundlanders out there want to field this one? (crickets chirp softly as a tumbleweed blows by...)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Reader's Diary #17- Leslie Bella: Newfoundlanders Home and Away (up to p.90)

The next 35 pages have been pretty much more of the same. My attention is starting to wander. If it wasn't for the great number of typos (I know, this is the pot calling the kettle black), I think I'd have been drowsing pages ago. Leave it to bad editing to keep you on your toes.

I've been thinking, what if suddenly all the Newfoundlanders across Canada (and even the world, why not?), came back suddenly. How would Newfoundland be different? Other than just more crowded, I think there'd be an initial change and then things would probably get back to normal. Listening to those interviewed by Bella, it often seems that Newfoundlanders who have gone to the mainland are more concerned about keeping the culture alive than those of us who are still in the province. What do you think?

I've mentioned before about my problems with Bella's research sample, and the sample she chose for her interviews is even more frustrating. All of them come from the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). While I know that Ontario probably has more Newfoundlanders than the other provinces, there's still a lot in Alberta, B.C., and the North (and most likely large pockets in the other provinces as well) and it would have been nice to get a different point of view.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Favourite Awards?

Lately, I've been thinking about the impact that awards have had on my reading. I've mentioned before of my affinity for Canada Reads. I'm not sure that constitutes an award, but it's probably the largest influence on my reading choices. Other than that, I watch the Gillers and make note of who won, adding the winner to my wishlist. If I happen to hear of a winner of another high profile award, that might make it to my wishlist as well. Ignoring the fact that many of these awards are probably based on politics and back-slapping as much as anything else, which awards do you look forward to the most and/or plan to read? I've listed many suggestions below but feel free to add another:
1. Pulitzer Prize for literature
2. Orange Prize
3. Governor General
4. Nobel Prize For Literature
5. Winterset Award
6. Stephen Leacock Award
7. Percy Janes First Novel Award
8. Man Booker Prize
9. IMPAC Dublin Award
10 Hugo Award
11. Caldecott Medal
12. SFWA Nebula Award
13. Newbery Medal
14. Commonwealth Writer's Prize
15. Pierre Berton Award
16. Mr. Christie's Book Award
17. Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award
16. Mr. Christie's Book Award

Reader's Diary #16- Leslie Bella: Newfoundlanders Home and Away (Ch.2, up to p.55)

Okay, this one will be short. I promise no more posts longer than the actual book.

I was perhaps a little unfair on a couple of things in my last post. First of all, I shouldn't make assumptions about others' reading interests. I'm enjoying both the anecdotes and the statistics, so I don't know why I thought others may not enjoy both as well (though I stick by my problems with the marketing/publishing).
And even if certain readers don't particularly enjoy statistics, they can just read the anecdotal records. I tend to read non-fiction books like I would a novel, i.e., front to back. Is this the way most people read non-fiction books? Or do they pick points of interest to read first/only?

Also, I complained about too many numbers and references offsetting the few anecdotes. That has turned around in the next 45 pages and now it is mostly anecdotal. I'm finding these not only entertaining but necessary as well. They are a nice counterbalance to the numbers, putting voices behind them and more importantly, putting personalities behind them. Numbers tend to generalize, but the words break people down into individuals again.

Numbers aren't the only ones that generalize, however. It was frustrating to read many of the interviewees be hypocritical about that. How sadly comical to complain about every mainlander and the way they generalize Newfoundlanders. And it isn't just the mainlanders that some of these people made generalizations about, it's about fellow Newfoundlanders as well. A note to those Newfoundlanders out there who insist that we're all "party-loving, easy-going, hard-working, decent people": I'm an immoral, lazy, uptight, recluse, so don't speak on my behalf!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Reader's Diary #15- Leslie Bella: Newfoundlanders Home and Away (Chapter 1, page 10)

I have to admit, I chose this book not because I was once a Newfoundlander living away (I lived for four years in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut) but because of an egotistical need to have a book that mentioned me in whatever small, pathetic way. You see, as I was browsing through The Book Worm in Gander, I saw this book on the shelf and remembered that for a very brief period in University I had worked a MUCEP job for Dr. Leslie Bella and wondered if it was the same one (I vaguely remembered working on the stats for some Newfoundlander topic). So I picked it up and immediately saw my name in the acknowledgements. I was proud at first, but then realized that maybe I should read the book first. So I bought it.
Since this is the first time I've blogged about a non-fiction book, I'm not quite sure how to go about it. Should I focus on the material within the book? The quality of writing? Or both? For now, I'm focusing on both (and a little more besides- I'll get into that later) but if these postings become too long, maybe I'll reconsider.
I should note that despite my egocentric reason for buying this book in the first place, I did have a slight interest in the topic because I had, as mentioned above, lived away for a few years. And the book has kept my interest thus far. It starts off with an eloquent introduction by Bella discussing our need as Newfoundlanders to "locate" people, not in the physical sense that we are looking for lost ones, but in the sense that we want to know "where you're from". A great opener.
The book then goes into the various theoretical approaches to studying migration. Basically, this is a comprehensive literature study of global research about the reasons people migrate, how they cope, and so on. Some of these references are silly and without taking the time to check out each and every source (should we be expected to? ), they are just distractions in an otherwise interesting book. One article in particular that she quotes from states that a particular percentage of Canadians in the 70s were "extremely racist". Without more detail on the article, it comes across as subjective and I think it destroys much of the credibility in the book. And speaking of credibility, Bella is careful to point out that her research was done through surveys distributed by The Downhomer Magazine and MUN's Luminus Magazine. This of course, means a biased, unrandom, small sample and if you ask me, that's an awfully big grain of salt. Still, these problems haven't (yet anyway) made me dislike the book.
It is very interesting to how very un-unique we are in our migration patterns, reasons we leave, ways we cope, etc. In those ways, we have things in common with many of the other immigrants to Canada: Italians, Jews, Carribeans, and others. However, comparing us to immigrants from other provinces, I'd guess we're still unique. Apparently, from the early 70s to late 90s over a third of a million of us left Newfoundland-a quarter of a million returned- and there's still a heck of a lot of us scattered across Canada. I once heard of a contest to name the largest center in Canada without a Tim Horton's franchise (Iqaluit?), well I'd like to issue a challenge: find any town of over a 100 people in Canada that doesn't have a Newfoundlander. I'm pretty sure there aren't any other provinces that can compete with our emigration numbers.
Speaking of uniqueness, I was a little taken back by how common I was in terms of the others that have left. In Newfoundland, I've never thought of myself as typical (but then again, I suppose, who does?), but I left for work the same as most others, I listened to Great Big Sea when I was away, and I never closed the door on returning. All very typical. Oddly enough, I found myself acting more the role of stereotypical Newfie when I was away (cringe at the term "Newfie" all you want). I fried toutons, brought an ugly stick to a staff party, and told anyone who'd listen about mummering. Like I do any of these things now that I'm back. Very strange. But, I'm not all typical. Bella points out that most Newfoundlanders come from a "high context" culture and find "low context" cultures such as Toronto, too fast and too anonymous. While I can't say for sure because I moved to a small town in the North, I think I'd like the anonymity of a larger center. Small town nosiness can be a drag.
So I've talked about the details, my perceptions of the quality of the book, but there's still more to discuss. Feel free to go and get yourself a coffee at this time.
I don't feel the publishers did a good job with book. Before I get into this I should note, Bella analyzes her Downhomer and MUN Alumni/Alumnae samples by age and level of education, so I'm basing a lot of what I'm going to say next on that- not just on personal beliefs.
Newfoundlanders: Home and Away seems to have been marketed toward Downhomer-esque readers but written for Luminus readers (MUN's Alumni magazine). Downhomer readers (at least those that took the time to fill out the survey) tend to be older and less educated than the Alumni crowd. The book is published with a painting by Shonda Brown called "Fadin' Memories" on the cover. To me, this is an attempt to appeal to an older reader, both by title and theme of the picture itself. I think dropping the "Dr." from Leslie Bella's name was also an attempt not to scare off the less educated reader- making it appear more of a friendly read than say a dissertation. However, the text itself doesn't follow the same rules. As I mentioned earlier it begins with a very lengthy section of literature references regarding migration. The length, number of references, and even the insanely tiny font are not what I think most older, high school graduates would care for (correct me if I'm wrong). It seemed to me, much like papers I had to read for university courses. And all of this was even before making it to chapter one. Chapter One does offer an occasional anecdote from interviews Bella carried out and I think these are more of a Downhomer style (yes, I read the Downhomer, so I can make that judgment). However, these are offset by more statistical data, references and again I think not in synch with the market the publishers were going for. This is all unfortunate because I think it could have been a bigger seller if it had been aimed at whom it would most likely appeal.
On a side note, when I had worked for Dr. Bella I had no idea of her legal troubles (not related to this book!). Since then there have been national news programs covering her story, but still I was oblivious to her role. It is only through doing a little background research for this blog, that I came across the details. Irregardless, I wish her all the best.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Reader's Diary #14- Edith Thacher Hurd (author), Robin Brickman (Illustrator): Starfish

Yes, I'm reviewing another children's book. I want to tell someone about this one though, because I was very impressed. Primarily I was impressed by the illustrations. These watercolour collages were just beautiful. I'm not a fan of pastel type pictures for children's books, I think they should be a little more vibrant and eye-catching than that. And though the picture I have to the left doesn't do it justice, these were great. When there are so many vibrant colours beneath the sea, it deserves to have some of that reflected in the pages. Robin Brickman did a superb job.
The text itself was well done too. A lot of repetition and simple vocabulary makes this a good choice for an early reader, someone struggling with print and needing the predictability and reinforcement to increase their abilities and confidence. While it's not filled with enough facts to do a book report, I still learned a thing or two as an adult!
The format was well put together as well. I find a lot of informational books aimed at young readers are too busy, way too many sidebars and complicated diagrams for early readers. This book didn't have those. Not a book for an older child with stronger reading abilities obviously but great for the others.
The publishers of the edition I had, had slapped it with a Level One sticker. This is my only problem with the book, one that seems to have been remedied (at least with the ones currently being sold through Amazon) but I'll explain why I was opposed to it anyway. I understand the publishers position of wanting to get it across that the book was aimed not at the more experienced readers while also, giving educators a level to match the book with a reader. However, as an educator I've come to realize that publisher suggested levels are not all created equal. One's Level A book may be another's Level C, Level One may be Level Two, and even more descriptive terms such as "Emergent Readers" may not coincide. The only safe bet is to try to match books to readers yourself, or else follow a more extensive, and especially less biased leveling system such as The Fountas And Pinnell Leveled Book List K-8: 2006-2008 Edition. Of course, it is impossible for any outside leveling system to include every childrens book out there, but at least the ones they do are all leveled using consistent criteria.
Getting back to the adult side of things, the illustrations which are so important in children's literature are next to nonexistent in adult literature. I'm wondering if anyone could suggest a well illustrated novel. The only one that comes to mind that I've read is Stephen King's novella Cycle Of The Werewolf with illustrations by Berni Wrightston. Of course, I'm aware of graphic novels such as Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography and the Persepolis Boxed Set by Marjane Satrapi, and while I do plan on checking those out, I'm talking now about illustrated novels, not graphic (comic) novels. Suggestions?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Reader's Diary #13- Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (FINISHED)

I'm done. And it was okay. It's not the glowing review that I'm sure many English profs would give it, but it's going to have to suffice.

I won't dwell any further on stream-of-consciousness. In fact, if I ever mention it again in a posting, would Mr. Blogspot please be so kind as to show me the door?

At the end of this book, I have a theory. But going along with that theory, I have to question why Woolf chose Mrs. Dalloway as the title character and not Peter. I saw Clarissa Dalloway as being on one end of an unhappiness spectrum, with Septimus on the other, and Peter finding his place in between. Clarissa's unhappiness seemed to stem from dwelling on trivial things (such as parties with her elite friends) while Septimus' unhappiness seemed to stem from dwelling on global, intangible things (such as human nature). Peter walked back and forth between the two, trying to find happiness, leaving him a fragment of a man (represented quite nicely with his constant fiddling with his pocketknife- Freud anyone?). It is only at the end that he thinks he has found the answer through a conversation with Sally. Basically, he seems to resolve the question of how to find happiness- not through thinking at all (whether trivial or global) but by following his heart.

I've never heard anyone debate whether or not Mrs. Dalloway has a happy ending or not, but I'd have to say not. While it looks like Peter has found his answer, I'd have to say it was rubbish. Following his heart would have led him to Clarissa and almost certain heartbreak. Furthermore, if the adage were applied to Clarissa, she would have been led into the arms of Sally (and most likely heartbreak too, unless you feel a lesbian couple could have found happiness in 1920s England. Do you?) And applying the adage to Septimus wouldn't even make sense.

So all in all, I somewhat enjoyed a pessimistic book with nary a plot to be found.

(Incidentally, what do you think was represented by Peter constant fooling with his pocketknife?)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Chamazon Vs. Summerford Public Library Vs. The Book Worm

Anyone reading my last post (or checking out links within some of my others) may mistakenly believe that I'm all about supporting and advertising big business. I'm not. I have links, yes to Chapters or Amazon (i.e., the oh-so-clever Chamazon reference in my banner), because I'm not opposed to them per say. Living where I live, I can't afford to be a bookstore snob. You see, I have access to a library three nights a week. And that library isn't well stocked. To get a book brought in through the inter-library loans program takes forever and that program is in danger of being squashed anyway. That leaves the locally run bookstores. Yeah right. We have an Irving, a Foodland and a Home Hardware in town. That's it. So, I rely on occasional trips into the megalopolis known as Gander. There they have a wide variety of bookstores; they have the used bookstore The Book Worm (check out their innovative website). I'd love to buy all my books used, but again the selection isn't always that large. And then there's...hmm...does Dominion sell paperbacks? I think I saw a couple of Mary Higgins Clark books there. Did I say wide variety of bookstores in Gander? Scratch that. So I'm left to buy online. And Chapters and/or Amazon usually has what I'm looking for. So, I know it's the whole "I'm anti-Walmart but I have to shop there because..." argument, but until a better solution is to be found, I'm shopping big-business baby. For shame.

Reader's Diary #12- Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (Up to 160)

I'm confused.
When Woolf sticks to one character at a time, I'm fine. I'm not sure I grasp everything at those moments but my attention doesn't waver off leaving me trying to figure out what the frig so-and-so is talking about. I've just finished reading about a luncheon party that Richard Dalloway (Clarissa's husband) was invited. If Woolf had let go the stream-of-consciousness thing here, or still had it contained within a single person (say Richard) perhaps I could have followed. But it jumps from one person to the next and I simply couldn't attend to anyone. I found myself thinking about a time I went to an arena full of people with my hearing impaired grandfather. His hearing aid was rendered useless and he simply had to shut it off, explaining later that it couldn't focus on or isolate one conversation and just magnified all the noise in the room. See the connection? Any ideas as to why Woolf felt the need to get inside the heads of so many characters from time to time?
Judging from the customer comments at Amazon.ca I'm not the first person to be confused by this book. Usually I wait until I finish a book before I check online customer reviews through Chapters.ca or Amazon.ca, just to see if others felt the same way as me (I've never read the customer reviews to decide whether or not to purchase). But with Mrs. Dalloway I cheated and read the reviews before finishing, to see if others had similar thoughts to my own or if I'm just a complete nimrod. Well, if I'm a nimrod, there's a lot of us out there (and I can take comfort in- or be terrified of- that). Do you read online customer reviews through Chapters or Amazon? Before, after or during reading?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #11- Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (up to p.110)

I'm not having an easy time with this book. I'm just past the halfway mark and I don't know yet if I like it or not. To be perfectly honest, I'm not even sure if I understand it or not.

There still isn't a plot. I've had this problem with books before (mainly anything by Alice Munro) but I'm not as disappointed by this fact as I thought I'd be. There's still a lot in this book that I've found to think about- even if I am on the wrong track according to the scholars. Am I?

Since my last posting, Peter has taken the stage more and we get to see Clarissa from his vantage point. His image of Clarissa doesn't quite meld with the image of her that I had after reading through her thoughts and point of view. He paints a more callous, judgmental side that I didn't pick up on through her own eyes. But maybe he can present us with a side of Mrs. Dalloway that she either didn't know herself or at least wouldn't acknowledge. It made me question the "truth" about our own identities. No doubt those around us have a version of us stored within them that isn't a mirror image of whom we think we are. But to them, their version isn't any less real. So is it possible that we don't own our identities? Maybe our true self is some collective average? I'd think harder about this existential crap if it wasn't such a complete waste of time.

I found Peter's view of England interesting too. He's just having returned from India after a five year absence and is enthralled and impressed (with some exceptions) with the grandeur of London and the seemingly new openness to a more liberal atmosphere. I wonder if he's seeing his country through rose-coloured glasses because he had missed it so much, or if there actually was such a great change (after all the first World War ended), or if it's a little from column A and a little from column B (to quote Abe Simpson). What do you think?

Peter's view is interesting especially when compared to Septimus' view. Septimus is also newly returned home, but unlike Peter has become disillusioned by his time away. Septimus had gone to fight in the War to get experience in life, and like many others before and after him, was all but destroyed mentally by the horrors. Now he has become almost completely ambivalent and detached from mankind and has gone nuts (despite the diagnosis from a see-no-crazy doctor named Dr. Holmes).

Ah well. If it gives me food for thought, I guess the book has some value for me.

And I apologize for today's cliche-ridden, politically incorrect termed, posting. It'll probably happen again.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Reader's Diary #10- Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (up to page 55)

This is the copy of Mrs. Dalloway that I have, so the page numbers I have listed in the banner match this book.

So far, there still isn't much happening with the plot. We're waiting for a party to begin and the most exciting thing that's happened is a visit from Clarissa's (Mrs. Dalloway's) ex, Peter Walsh.

While I can't say that such a scant plot has me enthralled, it isn't as boring as one might think. I think I have a better handle on this stream-of-consciousness style. Imagine that someone was able to record every single thought you had in a given day. Like Mrs. Dalloway (who was the only focus in these pages, unlike in the first 30) you would come across as flaky, serious, boring, exciting, manic, depressive, shallow, deep, lucid, incomprehensible and so on all in the run of a day. And it's this incredibly detailed insight into a person's psyche that could really impress upon a reader or bore him/her to tears. I'm somewhere in the middle. Quite like reading a daily-journal-entry-type blog, it has the appeal of being let into someone else's world and the realization that most thoughts are actually quite mundane. But what keeps Mrs. Dalloway from slipping into the back of your brain too much, is the occasional glimpse into her troubles and especially her desires.

While we note some turmoil between and within Clarissa and Peter, the most intriguing thing I found was the lesbian affection Clarissa feels for Sally Seton. I find this most interesting because the book was written in and set in the mid-1920s. I think more women had such feelings as these back then, but because of the times would never have talked about them, written about them, and maybe even acknowledged them within themselves. On this topic, the most thought- provoking piece I've read in Mrs. Dalloway so far is when she analyzes her feeling for Clarissa:
"It was not like one's feeling for a man. It was completely
and besides it had a quality which could only exist between

Taken out of context, one might assume Woolf is playing it safe by negating anyone's assumption that the attraction between Clarissa and Sally is anything more than platonic. But that would be ignoring the kiss between the two and Clarissa's obvious pleasure over that memory. So what did she mean by these lines? Especially, by the word choice, "disinterested"?


Small Frey

(That's my attempt at headline punnery- I promise it won't be a habit. And of course, if the guy's name is pronounced "Fray" and not "Fry" even my lame attempt at wit has failed).

Of course, I'm talking about bad boy James Frey and his book A Million Little Pieces. I wasn't going to write about these goings-on at first because I had no intention of ever reading (or reviewing) the book and it's been blogged about sufficiently elsewhere. But maybe an online book discussion forum should at the very least weigh in.

I have but two points on the matter. First off, no one should be shocked anymore. About anything. Jane's Addiction wasn't shocked by anything in 1988, why the heck should I be shocked by anything in 2006? Someone (may have) lied? That's hardly astounding. And in case you think this is some sort of precedent, the CBC has set us straight on that one. Does that make this sort of thing okay? Of course not, but let's not make it a bigger deal than it is.

Secondly, I don't care. As I said above, I was never planning on reading this book. I hardly ever read the type of book I perceive this to be (self-help thinly disguised as a memoir) and in the rare ones that I have read, I haven't been emotionally invested. Would I be crushed to find out that Morrie was really a money-grubbing sleazebag? Or that Dave Pelzer really had a wonderful childhood? No. I don't mean to downplay the effect this Smoking Gun story may have had on those who had felt saved by this memoir. I'll leave the downplaying to Oprah. But really, will I lose sleep over this scandal? No. I'll rest easy knowing that except for wasting ten minutes blogging about it, I am not impacted in the least.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #9: Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (up to page 30)

This is one of those books that has just been sitting on my bookshelf forever (what fellow blogger Nancy refers to as a "ballycumber" I believe). I got it after first reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham and if you're at all familiar with this book or movie then you know what the connection is. That said, I don't remember a whole lot about The Hours so don't expect a comparison of the two. That said, lots about The Hours is coming back to me as I read Mrs. Dalloway.

Since I'm only 30 pages in (and I'm aware that different printings and editions may be numbered differently) I can't say much more than my initial thoughts. I've heard a lot of people say that this particular book has an interesting stream-of-consciousness style. I wasn't sure what they meant until I started reading it. It's like if you looked at a painting of a group of people and after focusing on one character, returned to an earlier one and found it had moved. Or vaguely like the "Imitation of Life" video by R.E.M. She jumps from one character to the next and back again without any warnings. Still, you sense that Mrs. Dalloway (duh) and Septimus will be the pivotal characters. I'll admit that I'm finding it a little difficult to follow so far. Maybe I'm tired, or maybe I'll never get into it. We'll have to wait and see.
I am gathering that it'll be more of a psychological read than a thriller. There seems to be a lot of "people watching" going on as well as intrapersonal reflection. There has been teases of action about to occur (the mysterious limo, the sky-writing), but they seemed to have faded away. Again, this goes back to the question I had raised about knowing the life of an author and its effect on your reading; perhaps because I know Virginia Woolf killed herself I'm looking for something psychological in this book. But I'll just have to find out.
Until then.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Reader's Diary #8: Al Purdy: Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets (FINISHED)

So I'm through Al Purdy's Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets and I have to say, I'm a fan of Purdy's writing. (I won't say of Purdy himself because I can't say that I know the man through one book- but he does come across as a bit of a cantankerous old man). I appreciate these poems as stories first and foremost. I really thought the afterword in this book was a good idea. It consists of clippings of Purdy thoughts as published in various prefaces, afterwords, journals and letters and they give an insight into the man that help you appreciate his work a little more. Sometimes I feel knowing too much about an author (or musician or any artist for that matter) can destroy an appreciation for the work itself (Would you agree?). But these bits seem to have been chosen carefully- while obviously some of the man's personality is going to come through, the chosen musings are mostly about his work. In one such piece, Purdy asks what it is that a reader wants from a poem. He answers, "primarily...to be entertained..." And if that's what he thinks the reader wants, Purdy aims to please. These poems are entertaining. (Is that what a reader of poetry wants?)

As for my theory of the title , I don't think I'm that far off the mark. After completing the book, I still think there has been some point(s?) made about visiting and returning. Whether this be a visit to the Arctic, Cuba, the early cretaceous, the outer planets, or the mind of a French philosopher, Purdy seems to to reflect on what it would be like "renting" a room in another place, time, or thought. But there is always that notion of returning. After all, those rooms are for rent, not for sale. In the afterword, Purdy discusses why his poems are circular. Returning seems to be a preoccupation and one he explores quite well.

I've already mentioned a couple of poems that I've enjoyed. I'd also like to add "The Smell Of Rotten Eggs" to that list. I'm not sure how it fits into my theory that there is a common thread of visiting and returning running through this book (does it?), but its look at cancer and mortality was very heartfelt to me. While he doesn't shy away from foul language in most of these poems (my wife has actually started a "damn" count) there isn't anything vulgar as such until "The Smell of Rotten Eggs". And why shouldn't it be given the topic? A great word choice that really expresses the ugliness of the situation.

My only beefs with this collection are minor ones. The first is the occassional Greek mythology reference (for instance "Procne Into Robin"). While I can tolerate such references in older poems, I find them hard to tolerate in contemporary poems. Back in the 1700s (or sometime way back- contact your local historian!) education was pretty uniform (for those few that had it) and those reading a poet's work would probably understand the reference. Nowadays, few people have background knowledge of Greek heros, deities, epics and the like and we shouldn't have to in order to understand a poem. I'm not saying that a poet should just write about common themes that everyone can relate to (T.V. perhaps?) but the Greek references are overdone, annoying and prententious (much like my blogs). How do you feel about Greek (or Roman) references in contemporary poems? The second beef, well actually more of a taste thing, is the length of these poems. I find a poem easier to digest if it fits on a single page. ("Beef"? "Taste"? "Digest"? Is my subconcious telling me to eat?) It's not that I think some thoughts shouldn't be expanded upon if that's what it calls for, it's just that personally, I can focus better on a poem that's more compact (ex. e. e. cummings' "l(a" poem).

Insert a concluding paragraph here.


I once heard Oprah complain that she can never find a bookmark when she needs one and will often resort to a tissue or something to that effect. If Oprah can't keep a bookmark on hand, what chance does the mere mortal have? Over the years, I've used car keys, receipts, lottery tickets, a sock, other books and paper clips to keep my place. Currently I'm using the plastic stub from a Walmart shopping card. What are you currently using for a bookmark? And what is the wierdest thing you've used?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #7: Al Purdy- Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets (up to "In The Early Cretaceous")

Up until just the past year, maybe year and a half I hadn't read much poetry. I enjoyed dissecting poems in a first year English class at University but just didn't think I could handle it on my own, without an instructor helping me see things. But trying to broaden my horizons, I decided to give it a shot again. My first foray back into poetry was with Allen Ginsberg's Howl: And Other Poems. I was curious about the whole beatnik thing and heard it was a bit risque, so it would probably be entertaining if nothing else. It was, mildly. But I still wasn't sure if I was "getting it". So I decided to pick up some old, out of print first year English books- literature and/or poetry anthologies. I'd recommend that approach to anyone looking to get into poetry. After the poems, the editors asked questions that I most likely didn't consider. Plus, because they were designed to be text books for first year University students, they helped me understand techniques and approaches that a poet might have used to express him/herself or that I might use to understand it better. It, by no means, has made me an expert but I have gained a much greater appreciation for poetry. While I still like to read such anthologies, I have occasionally gone solo and read books of poetry without editorial comments to point out intricacies. While often confused, I do understand more than I used to and can critique things a little better, a little more informed. That said, I hope no one is looking for a thesis on the feminist perspective on Al Purdy's Rooms For Rent in the Outer Planets, or for any other such lofty analysis that is beyond my abilities (though if someone wants to do that, go right ahead).
When the books for this year's Canada Reads debates were announced on CBC, many people were surprised to see a collection of poetry amongst the contenders. This hasn't been done before on Canada Reads and I get the impression that skepticism is high. While I've become a convert to poetry, I myself am doubtful. In 2004 when there was a tie in "voted-out" books, host Bill Richardson made the decision to cast out The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro claiming that it would probably prove too difficult to defend a collection of short stories against four novels. So if short stories can't compete against novels, surely poetry collections are doomed before they even begin. But should that be the case?
The hardest thing I find about reading poetry is slowing my pace down to appreciate or analyze each poem individually. I've been so accustomed to reading novels that it's hard for me not to simply continue to the next page. I have disciplined myself to read each poem twice. If there's anything at all that I like, find interesting or even confusing I'll even reread a third time. (Another benefit to reading anthologies is the repetition of poems- I think every anthology has a copy of "Stopping By The Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost- and so you're guaranteed to get multiple readings in). One particular editor said that for a poem do be truly experienced or appreciated one must read it aloud. I disagree. For me, reading is a personal thing and if I had to do it aloud everytime I'd a) be very embarrassed and b) quit. How do you feel about this?
So, while I might be reading Room For Rent a little too fast, I am still enjoying it a lot. First of all, some of these are just plain funny. In particular, "At The Quinte Hotel" and "The Drunk Tank". Secondly, many are narrative poems so even if I don't see anything deeper, I can still appreciate the stories. These type of poems were the first poems that I ever liked for that very reason (in particular, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service) and they are also reason why I think Canada Reads fans should give Rooms For Rent a chance, even if they don't normally like poetry. Thirdly, Purdy is a master at imagery. It's quite inspiring how he can paint a picture for the reader with his word choices. Check out "Red Fox on Highway 500" if you want proof.
As for symbolism and philosophical musings in these poems, I haven't quite grasped those yet. They seem to be alluded to but whether or not they're expressed well, I can't say that I know. He seems to be driving at something with the title (picked from a poem entitled "Married Man's Song" and again alluded to in "Gondwanaland"). Maybe there's some point being made about wanting to see/experience other worlds but only for a brief period? "A nice place to visit, but..." sort of mentality. Do you feel the title captures the essence of these poems?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Reader's Diary #6: Frances Itani's Deafening (FINISHED!)

(Forewarning: Though I'll do my best not to offer any spoilers, it's hard to talk about the end of the book without alluding to any specifics. That said, if you've already read this book or if you don't care about risking me blowing the ending for you, read on...)

Grania was really a man?! Holy crap! Just kidding, that doesn't happen. Might have made the story more interesting though. To sum up my feelings about this book, I'm disappointed. I sort of had a parabolic experience with this one. I started off skeptical and disappointed, begun to get my hopes up and actually liked some parts, then came back to the realization that I was still disappointed and my hopes for a clever read had amounted to squat. I know, I know, this has won awards and I haven't, but honestly I don't think this book was intelligent. Call me arrogant, call me ignorant, just hear me out.

I've already expressed some reservations about overused, obvious symbolism but I'll add to that saying it didn't get much better. I know there's a catch-22 when you use symbolism. On the one hand they can enhance writing by relating objects or even events to more abstract, higher ideas but on the other hand, to be recognized as symbols often they are inherently cliched. Many of the major symbols (hair, rope, clocks) are used and used and used again in Deafening. And not well. I even found myself rolling my eyes at Chapter Four being named "IIII" (and if you've read the book, you'll know why). These felt pushed on me so much, they became more distracting and annoying than anything else. One symbol I did like was what was in the sack Mamo and Grania carried. Without giving it away, what was in there and more importantly what they did with it was not revealed until the end. While maybe not an uncommon symbol (is there such a thing?) it was used effectively and by not revealing it until the end, it didn't have the chance to become monotonous.

Also, remember when I said that I liked the parallel between Tress and Grania's mother? Well, apparently Itani did too, because for the rest of the book she seemed to insist on comparing everything and everyone. Many of these became a stretch. Influenza sufferers and war sufferers- I could live with that one I suppose. But when Grania thinks, "Language is our battleground," I rolled my eyes again.

Another disappointment- geez, there's just so many- recall how I said that I was looking forward to see how Grania and Jim interact when he returned from the war? I hope none of you other readers were expecting much. Really, that would have been interesting. What do we get? Something overly sentimental, rushed through and ambiguous.

So without griping forever, this book is probably best suited for a highschool English lit course and has merit in that I suppose. But it won't be a book I'd recommend or remember.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #5: Frances Itani's Deafening (up to page 325)*

* Quick change; from now on I'll try to add the page number that I'm up to so as to avoid spoiling the story for readers not up that far.
I'm enjoying the parallel between Grania's mother and Tress. Both were not emotionally ready to help someone close to them, and both seemed to harbour some (unspoken) resentment toward those that could provide it (Mamo and Grania respectively). Again, Itani handled this gracefully. It would have been easy to villify the mother and Tress here, but instead they seem more tragic. It's this sort of exploration of complex human emotion that I look for in a book. Too bad there weren't more of these in Deafening.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Readers Diary #4: White feathers in Francis Itani's Deafening

Quick posting. I forgot to talk about the pinning of the white feathers on those who didn't enlist. I had never heard of this before and I enjoy learning something from my fiction every now and then. I was curious if this was a Canadian phenomenon or not but according to FirstWorldWar.com it's not. One thing I couldn't find out was whether or not the term chicken for a coward stemmed from this, led to this, or is completely unrelated. Does anyone out there know the answer to this?

Reader's Diary #3: Frances Itani's Deafening

I'm still not through Deafening yet, but I'd like to add a few comments and questions. First, the book has gotten far more into the war scenes and therefore, there's been a focus switch in characters. Grania is no longer the focus, Jim is. Reading the book description, I expected this to happen and I was a little nervous that the segue would be too abrupt. I've read novels before where the character focus switches and they seem almost like several novels in one (ex. Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark). Fortunately, I think Itani did this gracefully. The change of viewpoint is a welcome one and does keep it a little interesting. Grania isn't dropped altogether and I do look forward to Jim's homecoming to see them interact again.
The war scenes themselves are not all having all that of an impact on me. Gruesome yes, but I've become desensitized to violent war scenes through movies mostly. That's unfortunate because I'm not sure what an author would have to do to keep a reader interested in a topic I've been told we shouldn't forget. I'm being facetious of course, I don't really think we should forget what our ancestors went through in the World Wars. I remember coming home in highschool and being chastised by my father for remarking that we shouldn't have Remembrance Day assemblies in school anymore because they were so boring. I agree with my father now, but I'm not sure what the solution is. Fact of the matter is, we've been shown so much violence, and even movies specifically dealing with the World Wars that nothing is new or interesting anymore in our generation of the near-zero attention span. Surely the surving vets don't deserve that. Looking at the picks for Canada Reads I groaned when I learned that I would be reading not one, but two books dealing with war. Up until now the only book I read about Canadians at war was Timothy Findley's The Wars. I thought that was boring too. Again, maybe I was just an immature brat. I may be alone though in my feelings about war-themed novels. Critics seem to be all over them. Maybe it's time I suck it up. I'm choosing to read two war novels for Canada Reads. Pretty shameful for me to think this is some sort of sacrifice in comparison. Are we becoming too desensitized to violence, including atrocities of wars past and present, to appreciate war-themed movies and books? Is there anything left to be told? Does reading a war-themed book help you appreciate what the people involved went through? Can you recommend a good war read?
One detail I really enjoyed in Deafening was Grania's clipping of a newspaper article that mentions how 331 578 men left Canada to go overseas. She reflects on that, thinking if Jim didn't go there'd only be 331 577. This was one of the most poignant scenes for me in the book thus far. What a way to personify those numbers. What a commentary on fate. Of all the people in Canada, of all the men sent overseas she fell for for just one of those numbers. Plus the act of clipping the article was so honest somehow. Very nice.
I'd also like to throw out a question about the lead-ins to each chapter. What purpose do those clippings from the Canadian and other sources serve? For me, they're just quick bites and I'm not sure they're adding anything to the story.
On that note, I know this blog jumps from topic to topic rather haphazrdly, but to edit it would take away from reading time. (Cop out)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Reader's Diary #2- Estelle Condra, illustrated by Linda Crockett-Blassingame: See The Ocean

When I started this blogsite I didn't intend on reviewing children's books. But here I am a few days in and I am about to do just that. The book is See The Ocean by Estelle Condra and Linda Crockett-Blassingame. I'm not reviewing this because it was flawless but because I just read it yesterday, it relates (vaguely) to the novel I'm currently reading, and it wasn't as bad as I expected. I was teaching a grade two class about sensory poems (I see, I hear, etc) and thought a good intro would be a book about a character with some sort of sensory deprivation (deafness, blindness, etc). I figured in today's agenda for pushing acceptance in the schools (somewhat) such a book would be easy to find. But no, apparently I was mistaken. One colleague remembered something about a friend of Arthur (by Marc Brown) who was visually impaired, but I couldn't find a copy. I remembered Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young, but couldn't find that either. I couldn't even find copies of those old ValueTales that were popular when I was a kid (remember the one about Helen Keller?) I was giving up on the intro idea until talking to a grade one teacher who had a book called See The Ocean that fit my requirements. Looking at the soft oil painting cover (yes, I judged a book by its cover), I was reluctant. It looked like an annoying sappy read that adults find tear-jerking but kids just find boring (ex. Robert Munsch's I'll Love You Forever). Reading it through though it wasn't without merit. I liked that the protagonist wasn't revealed as blind until the final pages. The children to whom I read took guesses as to why Nellie wasn't playing the "see the ocean" game with her brothers but no one suspected blindness. That led to an awareness that'll stick, I think. Now, that said, I love poetic language but Nellie's speech at the end was best described by Publisher's Weekly; "overwrought". Still as she rambled on and on about how the sea is like an old man, the students were interested in the accompanying illustration of the "hidden" face in the sea and the book did lead to a lesson on sensory poems quite nicely. Now, question time:

1. Is See the Ocean overwrought at the end?

2. Would See the Ocean be effective if the book (or teacher) revealed to the students at the beginning that it was about a blind girl?

3. This book is part of a new religion curriculum and recommended for grade one. Do you feel this fits in with a religion education? Do you feel grade one is an appropriate suggestion for this book?

4. Are there other popular childrens' literature with a special need that you'd recommend?

5. Should I be discussing children's literature?

6. Should I have a rating system?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Reading Diary #1: Frances Itani's Deafening

I wasn't sure if I was going to blog about Frances Itani's Deafening or not. I'm already half way through it and I'd like to write more frequently than that. However, I'd like to start with a Canadian book, so this will have to do. I picked this book because it's a contender in Canada Reads 2006 not because I had heard of it before. I'm a huge fan of this program and look forward to reading the books so much that I'm glued to the radio each December waiting to hear the picks and begin reading to get them completed by April. That won't be difficult this year seeing as I've already read Cocksure by Mordecai Richler and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. I'm concurrently reading Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets by Al Purdy and that only leaves Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Whew. Anyway, more on Canada Reads later and my opinions on what will win and what should win.

I was skeptical of Deafening. The story of a deaf girl in WWI era Ontario just seemed a little too politically correct and boring. But I fell for the praise printed on the back cover and online, and let's face it, I was going to read it anyway because the CBC told me I should. That said, politically correct it might be, but it isn't preachingly so. I'm not getting the look-at-how-bad-the-majority-of-Canadians-treated-deaf-people lecture I thought I was going to get. Does this mean I'm enjoying it so far? No.

I'm not sure if this is a problem with me or with Itani's writing, but I find the bombardment of symbolism distracting. Now, I've been reading a lot of poetry lately in which I try hard to search for such things so maybe it's not as blatant as it's appearing to me. But rope for instance is used over and over and over as a symbol for connectedness. There's a scene that I just read where Grania and Jim (the main characters) are looking out from behind a clock. And it doesn't stop at symbolism. Grania is shown early on in the book to be somewhat afraid of the dark as she feels in those moments stripped of the one sense she could rely on for security. Now Jim is lying in the darkness in war-stricken France and he says, "Sound is always worse in the dark." This contrast of characters, the ubiquitous symbolism, the deaf girl in Central Canada with a husband fighting in WWI, all seems a little too perfect for a highschool English lit course. But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe I'm just becoming a better reader, now more aware of things not everyone finds blatant. If that's so, I still have a way to go so that it's not distracting to the plot because in all honesty, I don't really care about what happens to Grania or Jim. As callous as that sounds, the characters will leave me, I will forget Grazia, and I'm not particularly moved thus far despite what Charles Frazier, Richard B. Wright, or Allistair MacLeod might say on the back.

Also, I'm finding the whole book a little too fictional. The love story is filled with overly sentimental cliches and unbelievable dialogue which veers so little from the rest of the story telling that basically it seems that Francis Itani is simply speaking through the characters. And is it just me or are the names in this book a bit much? Mamo? Grania? Fry?Kenan? Tress? Cora? I've heard of some of these names once or twice before, but really? Don't these sound a bit too "out there" to all appear in the same book? I know times have changed but even tracing my family tree, the most bizarre name I find is Isaac. These implausible details just add to the tacked-on feel of WWI facts. Often the war descriptions feel like Itani just cut and pasted transcripts of interviews with vets.

On those harsh words, I haven't yet finished the book and time is running out. I borrowed this book from the local library through the interlibrary loans program and it's due back on the 6th. It'll either be late or I need a snow day to get through this thing! I'll reserve further comments (good or bad) on it until I'm done. For now:

1. How do the comments on the back of a book affect your feelings about it?
2. Can an acute knowledge of symbolism and other literary techniques actually distract from one's connectnedness to a story?
3. Do you find the character names phoney or realistic?

Choosing a Book

Okay, so I haven't added a "Next Up" box yet, nor have I commented on what book I'm currently reading but those things will come. In the meantime, I thought I'd throw out a question: How do you decided what to read next? I'm sure most people just read whatever suits their fancy at the time. I, on the other hand, am a little too anal about these things (much to the amusement- or is it bemusement?- of my wife). When I first got into reading heavily, my system was to keep track of books mentioned in other books and then add them to my "To Read List." This was a horrible system that just didn't work. Most often, I'd get a reference to an old book like say, War and Peace and the system would die there. Or I'd read something like Volkswagen Blues or Bachelor Brother's Bed and Breakfast and I'd pretty much be reading someone else's reading list for the rest of my life (they have an absurd number of references to other works- you think I name drop?!). Not only that, but I felt I was neglecting many genres. That's when I came up with the cycle that has yet to be named:

1. Canadian Fiction- Contemporary, older works, plays, short stories, etc.
2. Non-Canadian Fiction
3. Non-fiction
I've used this system for about three years now and for the most part it's kept me well rounded in my literary pursuits. That said, I've adapted it lately. Now I read poetry throughout this cycle- keeping poetry for the bath...er, reading room, and adding a forth component to the cycle:
4. A book of the Bible or a Shakepeare play- I'm not ambitious enough to read the entire Bible or the complete works of Shakespeare straight through, and if you want to know if I'm brave enough to actually critique either, you'll just have to keep checking this site!
You might also be horrified to learn that I hardly ever read a book twice. I'm not against the idea, I just have so many others that I want to read that I haven't even read once! I did read the Old Man and The Sea twice. I didn't enjoy it high school but tried it again as an adult thinking my maturity level might have been the culprit. Suffice to say, it wasn't. Interestingly, the only other books I want to reread, are more that I didn't enjoy the first time around, i.e., Hubert Acquin's Next Episode and Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. Sucker for punishment? No, just want to make sure sure I've given these classics a chance.
Any comments on the aforementioned books? Your own system for choosing your next book? Or any recommendations? I'd love to hear them.