Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Reader's Diary #41- Margaret Atwood: Selected Poems II (Up to "Keep")


All jokes aside, Margaret Atwood is one gutsy lady. I don't know if it's confidence or not, but she takes on some pretty risky symbols for a modern-day poet, or so I would think.

I'm not talking about the guts it took to write "A Women's Issue" either. Though it's poems like that one which most likely led to her being branded (for right or for wrong) a feminist. I'm not too concerned with that. It was neither my favourite poem nor my least favourite. I think readers have to take into account Margaret Atwood's generation and the time at which that poem was written. Then it's not the terrible cliche of a feminist poem that it first appears to be when read today, nor does it offer a new "women's issue". It seems stuck in 1981.

No, gutsy as that might as been, I'm talking about creative guts. I don't know how many new poets would dare take on such historic, ubiquitous and potentially stale symbols such as the moon, sunsets, and snakes. I think a lot of people would shy away from such topics nowadays, fearing that there's nothing left to be said. But Atwood is able (for the most part) to still bring something fresh to the table (speaking of cliches). And when she isn't able to say something fresh, she'll at least make it seem like it's your fault. Consider this stanza from "Eating Snake":
"(Forget the phallic symbolism:/two differences:/snake tastes like chicken,/and
who ever credited the prick with wisdom?)"
And there are other times when she relies on our schemas of such symbols. In "Quattrocento" for example, it is almost taken for granted that we, the readers, are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve's encounter with the serpent.
But (to me anyway) these poems are NOT trite and redundant, though there was much risk of being just that. Fortunately, there is a balance of less common symbols and images. "Mushrooms" is a great example.
Also, "Out" is the perfect antithesis for Al Purdy's "Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets". I doubt that was intentional, but it works nonetheless.
(And for interest sake, getting back to my werewolf theory...
Exhibit G: "Now there's a moon,/ and irony." - from Sunset II
Exhibit H: "...with its watery sun & three moons..." - from Variation on the Word Sleep
Exhibit I: "...poisonous moons, pale yellow." - from Mushrooms
Exhibit J: "Everything/ leans into the pulpy moon." - from Last Day
Exhibit K: A whole section from a book called "Interlunar")

Winterset Shocker

For all you non-Newfoundlanders out there, the Winterset awards are Newfoundland's most prestigious awards for books (or so I've been told). I hadn't particularly followed them before, but I was looking forward to hearing the nominees this year and predicting who would be on that list. The only one I was sure of (so sure of that I added her book to my "Next Up" section) was Lisa Moore's Alligator. After all, it was shortlisted for the Giller and won the Carribean and Canadian region Commonwealth Award . But I guess that didn't matter. In the end, Alligator wasn't nominated for the Giller. Oh well. I still look forward to reading it. And now there's three new books added to my impossibly long "To Read" list.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Poem Inspired By Margaret Atwood's Fingernails (On The Cover Of Selected Poems II)

Ah the pseudo-anonymity of blogging. I didn't think I'd ever be confident enough to publish a poem here, but what the heck. Keep in mind it's a first draft and I'll probably regret this in the morning and remove it....

Long Nails

Ms. Atwood
How do you feel
about your long nails?

I have a bias
against them- just so you know
I was always told
long nails were a sign
of laziness and I
believed them- just so you know.

But then,
I'm a schoolteacher
because I can't
hammer a nail straight
nor can I
string a sentence together
like you can, with your nails
twice as long as mine.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #40- Terry Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum (up to p. 125)


It's high time I explained my opinion of Pratchett's humour. I complained about it in an earlier posting. I stick by my initial complaint that it's a little too relentless, but there's another side to his humour that I am appreciating.

An example of what I don't like; when Magrat is listing off the things she wants to take for her baby she says, "And the sponge in the shape of a teddy bear. And the teddy bear in the shape of a sponge." See, I get it. I even vaguely find it amusing. Being the father off two wee ones, I understand the need to take everything on trips, and the preposterous number of toys. But it's a one-liner, a punchline. And there's about 50 on every page. That's what I don't like.

What I do like is the more indirect, situational humour (not the slapstick stuff either, that's pretty annoying too). I'm talking about scenes with the vampires who are trying desperately to overcome their vampire weaknesses. It's pretty comical to hear them use systematic desensitization, flooding, and other techniques to build up an immunity to garlic, sunshine, religions icons and the like. There's also a scene in which the daughter is chided for hanging out with her friends who drink wine instead of blood, give each other names like "Amy", and dress in brightly coloured clothes. I thought this satire of the whole goth "vampire" craze was very amusing, even if it was slightly reminiscent of scenes in the Munsters involving Marilyn the "strange" teenage niece of Lily and Herman.

So rest easy Scotty, I am enjoying the book. It's fun, and even if I'm not rushing out to buy the other Discword novels, I can understand the appeal.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Reader's Diary #39- Terry Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum (up to page 75)


Carpe Jugulum is the 23rd installment of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. To date there are 33 Discworld novels, the first having been published in 1983. This means that Pratchett has published almost 1 and a half Discworld novels a year. AND he doesn't exclusively write Discworld novels. There are also his three young adult novels, his five children's books , and manuals, etc about Discworld. So forgive me if I'm more than a little skeptical about the quality. Shouldn't there be a little more time in there to perfect the books?

But assembly-line authors aren't a rare thing. Stephen King, Danielle Steel, John Grisham and even our own Canlit goddess, Margaret Atwood could be guilty of mass producing. Incidentally, which of these do you think have published more? See comments for answer. Does this mean the books aren't good? "Good" is a matter of opinion I guess, and if numbers of copies sold are any indication- someone thinks these are good.

So is Carpe Jugulum good? Too soon to tell. But I am enjoying it more than last posting. Vampires are an intriguing bunch aren't they? All that classy evil with a touch of sensuality- they've certainly made their mark (pardon the pun) and Hollywood and book publishers continue to reap the benefits of our fascination. Of the three big vampire books (i.e., Dracula, Interview With the Vampire, and Salem's Lot), I've read them all and was slightly disappointed with them all- all style over substance- yes, even Bram Stoker's Dracula). But Carpe Jugulum isn't going for the horror market and maybe a humorous spin on vampires is just what the bloodsuckers need. That said, Pratchett still seems to keep the vampire's integrity in check; i.e., smooth talking, sensual and dressed classy. But I have enjoyed the upfrontedness of the Carpe Jugulum vampyres- it's a nice touch that they aren't hiding the fact that they are what they are- but hey, if that means using mindtricks to ensure everyone (well, almost everyone) is okay with the idea, then so be it.

And if anyone is interested in reading this book, but you haven't read a Discworld novel before- it doesn't seem to matter. I've jumped in at the 23rd(!) of the series and it doesn't seem to matter in my understanding of the book.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Reader's Diary #38- Terry Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum (up to p. 50)

I haven't read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy books. I could probably count them on one hand. But every now a little voice tells me that I should be more well-rounded and I'll go searching for such a book. I'm not opposed to the genre by any means, but personally I haven't come across many fantasy books that I've really enjoyed. At the risk of having some angry hobbits show up at my door tomorrow morning, I even found the Lord of the Rings books a little dull.

So when I've gone in search of a new fantasy book to read, I've taken to asking fans of the genre for advice. Though after reading Belgarath the Sorcerer by David and Leigh Eddings, I've questioned that approach as well. But this time around, I've taken to the streets again and asked to be pointed in the direction of a good fantasy book. Time and again, Terry Pratchett's name came up. Narrowing down the field a little more, I took a suggestion from a fellow blogger and chose Carpe Jugulum.

Judging the book by its cover, I was thinking I'd get something a little less stuffy than the stuff I was used to from fantasy books (sword-wielding, magic-fearing dwarves from Arthurian England- who's fantasy is that? - ahh, please don't answer that). And so far Carpe Jugulum is not stuffy. It goes out of its way not to be stuffy. Pleasant at first, but it's getting old. It teeters back and forth between whimsy and wit with more than a dash of silliness thrown in for good measure. It's not that I don't have a sense of humour, it's just that it's reminding me of gatherings I've been to at which someone is always "on." You know the guy, one-liner after one-liner after one-liner. I'm just hoping that once the story gets more underway, I'll be able to get past the barrage of jokes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #37- Margaret Atwood: Selected Poems II (up to "A Women's Issue")


I've discovered two shocking truths about Margaret Atwood:
1. She's a werewolf.
2. She likes to pop balloons at children's birthday parties.
Allow me to present my evidence.

Margaret Atwood is a werewolf. Only a werewolf could possibly be this preoccupied with the moon.

Exhibit A: "Outside, the moon is fossil..." - from "The Bus To Alliston, Ontario"

Exhibit B: "...the moon's last quarter..." - from "The Red Shirt"

Exhibit C: "...with its beige moon as damp as a mushroom..." - from "Night Poem"

Exhibit D: "...this is an O/ or a moon..." - from "You Begin"

Exhibit E: "a moon, crumpled papers, a coin..." - from "True Stories"

Exhibit F: "...in and out with the moon." - from "Landcrab II"

And while you can probably find as many poems in this collection with "sun" and "stars" references I believe these to be cover-ups for her werewolfishness (So Scott Thompson, I suggest you keep a silver bullet handy)- and plus, I thought calling her a "werewolf" would be funnier than calling her an "astronomer".

Margaret Atwood likes to pop balloons at children's birthday parties. Okay, I lack as much evidence for this one. But I'll act as witness and prosecutor in my first ever bad script for a stupid courtroom drama:

Prosecutor: You say Madge (points to a picture of Ms. Atwood- not Madonna) likes to pop balloons, you've actually witnessed this?

Witness: Well, no but I believe she's capable.

Prosecutor: That's a pretty shocking claim, do you have something to base this assumption on?

Witness: Yes. A dream.

Defense Attorney: Objection your honour! This can hardly be permitted as proof!

Judge: For the sake of the bad script for a stupid courtroom drama, I'm going to allow it.

Prosecutor: A dream? Yours or hers?

Witness: A poem of hers about a dream- "Flying Inside Your Own Body".

Prosecutor: Ah yes, that poem. Would you be so kind as to read the first verse?

Witness proceeds to recite the first verse.

Prosecutor: Nothing bad about that. How do you feel about this verse?

Witness: I was pleasantly taken aback.

Prosecutor: How so?

Witness: Well, most of these poems weren't exactly cheerful- I wasn't expecting something so hopeful and well, uplifting.

Prosecutor: Okay, so now could you read the second verse for the jury?

Witness proceeds to recite the second verse and breaks down into tears at the end.

Prosecutor: Wow, that does sound like someone who'd pop a child's balloon.

Defense Attorney: Objection your honour!

....

Okay, so now that I've wasted your time with a bad script of a stupid courtroom drama, I'll conclude by adding that "Night Poem" is a great poem for Halloween- worthy of Poe. And "A Red Shirt" is pleasant- it seems to be mocking herself for dwelling on the gloom- and this is a great respite from the rest of the collection.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Canada Reads- Part Two (Who Will Win)

I'll cut to the chase. Three Day Road will win. And if it doesn't win I'll ...I don't know, read another Tom Clancy novel. That's just how sure I am!

Why will it win? Mostly because it's a damn good book, but also because of politics. Anyone listening to past Canada Reads can tell you- it's not always about the book, it's about the way the game is played. And it can be very Survivor-esque in the way alliances are made. These are my day to day predictions (Nostradamus would not be proud):

Day Two: - A Complicated Kindness
(For all you newbies, no book gets booted on day one) The first book to go will probably be A Complicated Kindness. Why? It's not the worse book- but the worse book doesn't typically go first. However it is very popular and has won a lot of recent awards. Books with too much popularity tend to get the boot- ex. Barney's Version and Oryx and Crake). Plus, unlike the worse book (i.e., Deafening) which people will be content to leave for a while, people might view this one as a threat and get rid of it right away.

Day Three: - Cocksure
Scott Thompson will be the guy to watch. Someone usually tends to dominant these debates and while I'm not sure if he'll be that person (it could be Nelofer Pazira), he'll most likely be seen as the guy holding the balance of power. Though I don't think Cocksure stands a chance in hell (If Barney's Version couldn't do it, the lesser quality Cocksure surely won't), the other panelists will be vying for Thompson's vote. That said, it won't be Maureen McTeer's pick, Deafening. That'll be way too boring and PC for him. I strongly suspect (and hope!)he'll side with Susan Musgrave's choice, Rooms For Rent in the Outer Planets. However, this is the day Cocksure goes limp, and Thompson is a free agent.

Day Four: - Deafening
It'll just be time to put it out of it's misery. It was never a real contender anyway. If Maureen McTeer couldn't save it on Combat Des Livres, why would things be any different here? Plus, one of the only reasons it'll stay this long is because Nelofer Pazira knows it makes Three Day Road look like the best novel ever written.

Day Five: - Rooms For Rent in the Outer Planets
Now the truth. Despite getting Thompson on her side, there will be no vacancy in the Outer Planets. Samson will most definitely go for Three Day Road, and the last person's ballot to be revealed will be Maureen McTeer. Bill Richardson will try and build up the tension about McTeer being vindictive against "that other war book" or will she vote for her favourite of the two irregardless? But I don't think she'll be spitey and in the end

The Winner Will Be (alas): + Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

And despite the fact that I'd personally like to see Rooms for Rent win, I'd be okay with this outcome. One last prediction: host Bill Richardson will wax philosophically for a good ten minutes about the fact that a poetry collection made it as far as it did.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Canada Reads - Part One (Who Should Win)

I admit it. I'm a book geek. And I've chosen Canada Reads as my Superbowl. It's pretty arbitrary, I know. Why not read all the Giller nominees? The Winterset nominees? I WILL read some of those but there's something about the game of Canada Reads that appeals to me. It's as if you were allowed in the debating room of the Giller judges, instead of just hearing the winner.

So over the past years, I tune in to the CBC come November to hear the who the panelists will be and what their picks are. Then I scrabble to get all of them read by April- less of a challenge this year as I had already read two of them- and decide for myself which book I'm rooting for. And since I just finished reading the last of the books, here- without further ado- is how I would rank the books (number one being the book I want to win, number five being the book we should avoid like the war):

1. Al Purdy- Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems, 1962-1996
2. Joseph Boyden- Three-Day Road
3. Mordecai Richler- Cocksure
4. Miriam Toews- A Complicated Kindness
5. Frances Itani- Deafening

Why Rooms For Rent? Because its the better of the books, we don't read enough poetry, and it's very Canadian. It's better than the others (though I would say only marginally better than Three Day Road) because it's witty (so is Cocksure and A Complicated Kindness), it's filled with intelligent devices (so is Three Day Road) and filled with emotion we can all relate to. We don't read enough poetry. According to a Reader's Digest poll*, Canadian men and women read less poetry than any other genre. That's a shame, because learning to appreciate poetry helps one appreciate other genres more. But Rooms For Rent is an excellent place to start- even for poetry-phobes- because the poems are enjoyable even at surface level. If one wants to delve deeper, there's plenty to look for but it isn't necessary to enjoy Purdy. And it's very Canadian. I debated this with my wife and a coworker recently- my wife feels that a Canada Reads pick should have a Canadian setting or themes, my coworker feels that a Canada Reads pick should be well-written and the "Canadian" content is irrelevant. I'm somewhere in between, and fortunately I don't feel that I have to pick sides with Rooms For Rent. It has a lot of Canadian settings (though some poems take place in Cuba) and is extremely well written. Again, it's hard to use this argument against the other books here, since most are Canadian in scope, with the exception of Cocksure which was set primarily in England. But when you factor up all the above (maybe I should create a rubric), Rooms For Rent comes out on top for me. Will it come out on top in April? No. Stay tuned for my predictions of who will actually win...


(*I've searched the web high and low for something about this poll, which I'm sure I remember, but I can't find ANYTHING to link to it. If someone else has written about this article or knows the one to which I'm speaking about, please let me know!)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Reader's Diary #36- Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (FINISHED)


I think when psychologists first mapped out the brain, the whole right brain vs. left brain thingy sent us in the wrong direction. We had begun to see people and disciplines as separate. If you were mathematical you were left-brained, if you were artsy you were right-brained. However, this did the research an injustice and created more division than necessary between people, arts and sciences, etc. It is only recently that people are actually seeing useful applications of the science, that there are still connections between the two hemispheres, and that the connections are what's truly important.

Anyone involved in education in recent years, especially in the lower grades, will have noticed a small revolution in the teaching of mathematics. No longer are age-old practices such as drill, memorization of facts, and repetition the norms. Now the emphasis is on various learning styles, hand-on approaches (through manipulatives) and communication of learning. One of the latest trends I've noticed is math journals. Quite a change from the pages and pages of addition sheets that I was used to as a kid. So what does this have to do with Three-Day Road? Plenty.

After putting this book down today, I realized how many of the symbols employed in this book could be classified as mathematical. I'll start with the obvious, the title. At one point in the novel Xavier reflects with puzzlement about the significance of the number three, both in the Christian world and the non-Christian world from which he was from. What I make of this, and this is most apparent in the title, is the division of our lives into three sections; prelife, life, and afterlife.
Another of the more apparent connections to mathematics is in the references to circles. Niska recounts the story of Xavier's discovery of a grouse mating circle and basically describes the proverbial "circle of life" and our tendency to return to where we come from (a thought clearly illustrated again with Xavier's return to Northern Ontario). I could stretch the math point further but since I'm not even sure if any of this was intentional on Boyden's part, I'll digress except to say that I appreciate the connections in either case.

I also appreciate Boyden's courtesy towards the reader. He seemed very intent on making the reader an interactive part of this book without making him/her do all the work. Very often writer's do all the work for you, beating you over the head with the symbolism you're supposed to see (ex. Frances Itani) or leave it all up to you with frustratingly ambiguous endings (ex. Alice Munro). Boyden plays with symbolism and other devices very often. I especially enjoyed trying to decipher the significance of the Catholic icons, the importance of Elijah cooking the German's shoulder blade, the omen of killing the bear, and the meaning of Elijah's first plane ride. I didn't get a firm grip on any of these but still I appreciate having the opportunity to think them through on my own. (He did spell out one of his points, i.e., crossing the -figurative and literal- line of no return, but this didn't bother me). And while his ending isn't exactly wrapped up in a neat little bow, it is clear enough where the story is headed.

Yes, this was a fantastic story and I would recommend it to anyone.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Reader's Diary #35- Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (up to Masinahikewin/ Writing)


I guess all I needed was some patience.

In my last posting about this book (so many moons ago) I said that I wished the stories of Niska and Xavier were unified somehow, and that I was coming up with scientific theories to rationalize Niska's visions. Since then both of those issues were addressed.

Finally I get to see the history between Niska and her nephew. In reality she had been more of a mother to him, and so this trip she is taking with him is more meaningful than had she been just another relative.

In terms of Niska's visions, Boyden doesn't debunk them in the least. However, he does elaborate on her physical condition (going into greater detail about her seizures) and thus, provides an "out" for skeptics like me.

A friend of mine and I were discussing this book a few days ago and we agreed that the war scenes in this book are described amazingly well. While neither of us have had any experience with any war and actual veterans might balk at Boyden's war descriptions for all I know, it certainly seems realistic. And so either Boyden is either an amazing researcher, an amazing bluffer, or both.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Reader's Diary #34- Betsy James (Author), Paul Morin (Illustrator): The Mud Family


I've said this before, and it won't be the last time. A good children's book should have quality writing AND quality illustration. If one of these is compromised the whole book is compromised. And The Mud Family by Betsy James and illustrated by Paul Morin makes no compromises.

What a great book for a social studies class, history class, religion class or just plain enjoyment. It tells the story of Sosi, an Anasazi girl who feels more than a little rejected by her family as they stress over a drought. What I like most about the story is its universal appeal coming out of such a different culture than most of us are familiar with. What child doesn't feel ignored at some point? Especially when her family is going through a crisis. Furthermore, Sosi copes with her feelings through her imagination- again a universal idea. And the Anasazi people are such an interesting people to explore with child readers. On the one hand they can relate to Sosi's feelings and on the other hand be totally shocked by her way of life. Sosi's family relies almost entirely on nature and this is stressed on every page in some way- quite a contrast to the modern world of the Western hemisphere.

What I like about the artwork is its complement to the story itself. Morin uses mostly Earth tones for his oil paintings and these, coupled with the texture of the canvas itself, seem to mirror the drought imagery described in the story. Quite a book.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Reader's Diary #33- Margaret Atwood: Selected Poems II (up to "The Bus to Alliston, Ontario")


In my last posting about this book, I said I wasn't impressed. That's changed.

Since then I read "The Bus To Alliston, Ontario". Simply put, this is now added to my short list of favourite poems. The others being "l(a" by e. e. cummings, "Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost and "This is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams.

My wife went to highschool in Alliston and I remembered her mentioning this particular poem to me. Though I mistakenly remembered that she didn't like it. So after reading it through twice I thought, "Geez, this is great. What am I missing?" So I reread it a third time, trying to find a problem, some reason that she didn't like it. But upon rereading it, I found even more that I DID like. So I read it again and again. And wow! This is a great poem. I don't even care if the rest of the poems in this collection are crap, it was worth the read just to find this one. I couldn't even read the next poem afterward because I just wanted to mull over "The Bus To Alliston, Ontario" for a while.

So why is it so great? Primarily I think it's because of the imagery. Lines like "Outside, the moon is fossil/ white..." just hammered home the themes of mortality versus immortality while creating such a visual that for a moment I was traveling to Alliston. Secondly, those themes. I love poems that contemplate the higher meanings of life while still anchoring themselves in the mundane. Atwood creates the illusion of a simple winter bus ride while focusing the reader's attention on what it means to be mortal and immortal at the same time. We live short lives but our memories and presence live on. It comes close to my own view of the afterlife so the poem probably has more appeal to me than a lot of people. I also like the cyclical nature of the poem (again tying in with the themes). For instance, in the opening stanza Atwood describes snow along the roadside "...sends dunes/ onto the pavement..." and the concluding paragraph returns to the desert imagery "...the snow/ is an unbroken spacelit/ desert...". Just beautiful.

I was a little curious with the choice of Alliston. With no offense meant to the people of Alliston, I don't know of anything particularly special about the place. I thought maybe that was part of the point- again going back to anchoring high meaning in the mundane. However, every other word in this poem seemed to be misleadingly simple and so I had the suspicion that "Alliston" held some other importance as well. So I broke out the ol' internet and did some snooping. Actually, the searching wasn't that hard. Atwood, it seemed, owned a farm in Alliston when this poem was written (maybe she still does, I don't know). So the bus "to Alliston" was a busride home. Not that this couldn't be concluded from the poem itself, but somehow it makes the poem a little more personal and heartfelt in my opinion.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #32: Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (up to Mistatimwak/ Horses)

While I am enjoying the stories of Niska and Xavier very much so far, I do find myself growing impatient for some sort of connection- a connection other than the fact that aunt and nephew are sharing these stories as they travel up a river. Perhaps their stories will never connect to one another in detail- maybe they are just working through their demons while recounting their pasts. But personally, I'd like a connection in the main characters' lives soon.

I'm also a little disappointed in the supernatural element. This is more of a problem with me than with the novel, I admit. I've just never been all that receptive to the idea of spirit-human interactions, no matter what the faith. I'm not saying I'm shut off to the ideas of a spiritual realm all together, but when Boyden started introducing the "powers" of aunt Niska I have to say, I felt a little sigh coming on. And I still find myself trying to rationalize her visions. Maybe she's slightly schizophrenic, maybe it's stress- related hallucinations, that sort of thing. It's especially distracting to the novel when one if its strengths seems to be the gritty realism when describing the war.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #31- Margaret Atwood: Selected Poems II (Up to "Two Headed Poems" vii)


With the exception of her "You Fit Into Me" poem, I had only read Atwood as a novelist. I've enjoyed (some more than others) the four books of hers that I read, so I decided to give her poetry a try. This was the only poetry collection of hers that I could find at the local library and I figured it was as good a book to start with as any.

So far, I'm not all that into it. I'm not quite able to put my finger on why but there are two things not sitting well with me. First, her habit of breaking each line at such a place wherein the last word could be a follow-up to the previous line or a set-up for the next. It's not an uncommon practice in free-form poetry and perhaps the technique has some term that I'm unaware of. My problem isn't with the technique itself but with her overuse of it. Often it seems like this is the only gimmick in her bag of tricks. For example:

"the nets rot, the boats rot, the farms/ revert to thistle, foreigners/
and summer people admire the weeds"
-From "Four Small Elegies iv- Dufferin, Simcoe, Grey"
Do you see how "foreigners" can be interpreted as following the previous words? As in "everything's been taken over by weeds and foreigners" Or as leading the next words? As in "foreigners and tourists are the only ones coming to enjoy it as a sort of dead cultural site." These aren't opposing views and so the split isn't a bad one per se, but...shouldn't the poems have something else to offer?
The second reason I'm not yet enjoying the collection, and I'm reluctant to bring it up because I can't figure out why, is the feeling of smugness I get. I know this isn't being fair to Atwood, because I can't back up my argument all that well. The closest I can get is through the title "Two-Headed Poems". I feel this is some sort of boast that her poems are somehow superior because they have two meanings, two ways of interpretation. Well, don't a lot of poems? That's one of the most appealing things I find about poetry. Hers aren't unique. But again, I apologize- perhaps I've read too much (and too poorly) into the title. Afterall, there must be some intentional irony or self-satire (again excuse my poor terminology) in the poem describing a politician when she asks the question:
"How can you use two languages/ and mean what you say in both?"
- from "Two-Headed Poems vii"
because afterall, what is a poet but a politician with not as much at stake?

Reader's Diary #30- Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (Up to Kimociwinikewin/ Raid)



To avoid tagwords which might attract a certain reader, I'll intentionally censor a few words in today's post. I'd like a few more hits to my site, but I don't want to disappoint anyone!
Today I'm talking about the sex in Three-Day Road. Specifically between aunt Niska and a white hunter. Boyden handles the description of their episode quite adeptly. In my Oxford Canadian Dictionary the words sex and f_ _ _ are synonymous. Surprisingly "make love" is omitted. However, all these terms don't really hold the same connotations to me. I find it a little frustrating when people say "make love" when they're talking about one night stands. Anyway, it's nice that as a language, we English have so many different words to describe the same events- even if their varying connotations aren't percepted by a dictionary. The English language is funny though in our words for genitalia. In a tender scene, it's near impossible for an author to use vocabulary that describes what's going on adequately. If s/he uses words like "penis" or "vagina" it seems too medical and stuffy, yet words like c_ _ _ and c_ _ _, while maybe okay for descriptions of a quick romp in the hay, seem a little too crass for the moment. Fortunately, Boyden doesn't have to worry in Three Day Road. The encounter between the Niska and the hunter can hardly be described as "making love" and so his vocab choice was an easy one and suited the situation.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Reader's Diary #29- Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (up to Onahaashiwew/ Sniper)


I'm particularly enjoying the exploration of the friendship between Xavier and Elijah. It portrays their relationship through a one-sided argument to be sure (i.e., through Xavier) but honestly nonetheless. Both definitely look out for one another, care for one another and love one another- but that's not all. If we're being totally open here, they also resent one another, are envious toward one another and sometimes even deliberately hurt one another. I appreciate when an author has guts enough to show this truth about human nature and has skill (or tact) enough not to make us hate him for it.

On a side note, I'm not usually one to dwell on gender differences. However, I can understand that someone would read a book by Alice Munro and say "feminine" or would read a book by Mordecai Richler and say "masculine". Assuming that you agree with this statement, where would you place Three-Day Road on this spectrum? Personally, I think it would be somewhat neutral. It doesn't seem to me that Boyden has need (in this story) to dwell in either role unlike Richler who often seemed to use an overt masculine voice to satirize the male ideal, or Munro who often seemed to be making a point for feminist-political purposes.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Reader's Diary #28- Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (up to Kiskinohanaasowin/ Learning)

Earlier I had said that I liked Three Day Road more than Deafening because it doesn't seem as in your face with literary devices (such as symbolism, imagery, etc). That's not to say the book is void of them. If that were the case, it would surely be too bland. It's a matter of working such devices in without making them seem too distracting, too obvious, or too tried. One of my favourite examples in Three Day Road so far, is the incident with the bear.

After a remarkably poor hunting season, the tribe is slowly starving and one day a group of hunters return with a bear they have killed. It upsets many who were "bear clan" that they would "disturb a brother's winter sleep." This, accompanied with the imagery of the manlike, skinned bear hanging from a pole, is an almost palpable omen and it isn't long before misery comes for the tribe.

I don't know how many authors intentionally place morals in their books. Nor do I know if Boyden has placed one (or several) in this book. I don't always look for one. However, it's my business as a reader if I want to extract a moral and I might be on my way to doing that with this novel. There seems to me to be a lesson here on the value of story-telling to remind us who were are, to help us recover the pieces of ourselves when tragedy has ripped us apart. (I know, I know, very cliched, so maybe I should work for Hallmark.) I'm not quite sure I'm there with this book yet, and maybe in the end I won't remember that point at all, but even if I do I appreciate that it's not shoved down my throat.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Reader's Dairy #27- Joseph Boyden: Three Day Road (up to Trenches)



Anyone checking this site lately will have noticed that this is NOT the original posting I had on this book. For some very frustrating reason that makes me want to swear, Blogspot has erased my last two postings. Guess I need to back these up.

That said, I barely have the desire to remember or rewrite my initial comments. So if anyone remembers the original, sorry if this seems like the Reader's Digest version.

Parts of me wanted to read this novel and parts of me didn't. I'm intrigued by native populations in Canada, maybe due to my time teaching in Nunavut. It seems like many Canadians go all over the world hoping to learn more about other cultures, when really there's a lot of diversity right in our own backyard.

When I first went to Rankin Inlet to teach, I remember the school having a big Remembrance day celebration. Being an ignorant qaplunaat, I hadn't even known that the Inuit participated in the great wars. I had a lot to learn, and still do.

But that was the Inuit and this book is about the Cree, of whom I know next to nothing. That's one of the reasons I looked forward to reading this novel. The biggest reason, of course, being it's inclusion on this years CBC program, Canada Reads.

My reluctance about this book comes from its war theme. I've already discussed my reluctance with war books but suffice to say, Deafening didn't change my mind. So far however, I'm enjoying Three-Day Road much more. Whereas Deafening was slow paced and ripe with overly indulged literary devices, Three Day Road has begun with action, and seems to flow much more easily without being unintelligent.

One thing I'm appreciating so far is its depiction of the Cree. I'm always a little skeptical when an author takes on an aboriginal culture. Are we getting an accurate picture or some overly sentimental generalized depiction? From what I've gathered this far in, I don't think that will be the case. Maybe because Joseph Boyden has Cree ancestry he avoided it. There's also a danger of presenting a caricature of a first nations person, rather than a character. At first glance, it might look like Boyden fell into that trap. Almost all of Xavier's comparisons come from moose similes or other wild game. However, while it would seem like a stereotype if the book were set in the 1990s, this was set back in a time before television and the bombardment of American cultural influence and so I think these comparisons fit. I look forward to seeing if they change as Xavier becomes more exposed to white European culture through the war.

Arthur's Nose Job Nightmare

This has been bothering me for a while now, and finally I get around to blogging about it. Arthur books. Those childrens' books about the spectacled aardvark named Arthur. Does anyone remember the very first one entitled Arthur's Nose ?

It was a delightful little introduction to Arthur who was self-conscious about his long nose and wished to have surgery to shorten it. The moral of the story was one of self-acceptance. Arthur saw that his nose made him special, unique and came to appreciate its value. That's a message anyone could have gotten behind, right? Well, not author Marc Brown. In the later Arthur books it looks like Arthur's self-acceptance was short lived. Did he opt for the surgery after all? What happened to the snout? How's he supposed to lick up termites with those tiny little nostrils stuck right on the front of his face?
Now, I know many of you are thinking "what child is going to pick up on that?" The baby Cyranos, the Pinnochio juniors, and Barbara Streisand that's who. How would you feel if you had an overly long schnoz, made your peace with it because hey, if Arthur's okay with it, so are you, and then bam, Arthur gets rhinoplasty? And what about poor Arthur? What if his body dysmorphic disorder gets out of hand. Is this the future of our beloved little earth pig?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Reader's Diary #26- William Shakespeare: Hamlet (FINISHED)


So, I'm finished what's been hailed as the greatest play ever written. I'm not sure who hailed it as such, but I'm sure someone has. And I'm okay with that. I enjoyed it. I haven't personally read every play, but who cares.

Shakespeare was a fantastic writer. He seemed to know that a good plot doesn't have to sacrifice good characters. In terms of fiction, that seems to be the border crossing between Canada and the U.S.. In Canada we get fiction with characters but no plot(I'll single out...hmmm....let's say Alice Munro) and in the U.S. we get fiction with plot but no character (I'll single out...hmmm...let's say Tom Clancy). Read Shakespeare people, it doesn't have to be one or the other!

In terms of character, the four I found the most compelling were Hamlet, Palonius, the king, and Ophelia. Hamlet I liked on so many levels. I'll start with his sarcastic wit. For instance, there were several times he complained about how fast his mother and uncle were married after his father's death. In almost every case he uses hyperbole to push the point, in one memorable instance saying that the food prepared for his father's funeral was used to cater his mother's wedding. Then there's his contemplations. Hamlet is definitely a man beginning to see the world in a different way. Being allowed access to his transition is worth the read. There's a slew of other reasons, but in the sake of brevity I'll digress.

I liked the three other characters that I mentioned as characters, but I can't say I'd like them as human beings. I'll begin with Palonius. While I can't say I found his murder humourous, I did find him quite comical. Here's a man who insists on sharing his wisdom with everyone who'll listen, feels superior enough to meddle in his childrens' lives, and his whole idea of a scheme is to hide behind a curtain. I felt at one point that he was going to say, "Oh wait, I have an idea!" and someone was going to turn to him and say, "I know, I know. Hide behind a curtain." What a fantastic idiot.

The king was just a great villain. Pure and simple. In the scenes where he convinces Laertes to go after Hamlet, you hate him, but at the same time you think, "damn, he's good."

Ophelia. Ophelia was interesting to read. But does she earn the artistic credibility thrust upon her in modern music? Hell no. I appreciated her character in terms of honesty, but in any other sense? No. Sure she lost her mind, but let's face it- there wasn't much to lose. Basically, she was a typical flaky teenage girl too easily led and influenced by others. Did she deserve to go crazy? No (though it was funny when she did).

And then there's the plot. I won't summarize further than I already have but I will add to a couple of comments I made in earlier posts. I still don't think Hamlet loved Ophelia. Though he jumps into her grave and professes his love for her, this could still be taken as shock. I'm not saying he definitely didn't and I get the impression that Shakespeare didn't want a definite answer. Likewise to the issue of Hamlet's sanity. I'm still not convinced that Hamlet went crazy. That's a part of Ophelia's role, I think, to show true insanity and juxtapose it with Hamlet.


Finally, I'd like to touch upon the labeling of this play as a "tragedy". Sure practically everyone dies at the end and that's tragic- yadee, yadee, yada. But by today's labeling, I think Hamlet
would be categorized as a "dark comedy". There's undeniably enough death in hear to warrant the "dark" tag. But even the death scenes at the end are a little over the top. After everyone murders each other, someone rushes into add that Rozencratz and Guilderstern were killed in England as well. Sorry to laugh at death, but come on. Shakespeare must have had a ball killing off almost all of his characters. But even if you don't see the humour in that, I still don't think you have to look too hard to find "comedy". Though to make sure we don't miss out on the pessimistic, gloomy side altogether, perhaps Shakespeare reminds us that we should pay more attention to Yorick. Alas, as illustrated by this poor jester's skull, even laughter dies eventually.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Reader's Diary #25- William Shakespeare: Hamlet (end of Act 4, Scene 4)


For a tragedy, this is an awfully fun read. I know it's been analyzed to death and there's supposed to be some pretty serious stuff in here, but come on- let's not ignore the humour of it.

I've already mentioned the fun Shakespeare seemed to have toying with the audience about Hamlet's sanity, and that continues further into the play. While at this point it might be easier to believe that Hamlet has been mad all along, or even finally arrived there- it is still possible that he isn't. The "proof" of his madness seems to come when he sees the ghost while talking with his mother. She doesn't see the apparition and is pretty positive that her son has lost touch with reality. He did just kill a man, so it is quite conceivable that if he hadn't already been insane, this might have done the trick. However, it is also possible that the ghost had only made itself known to Hamlet. Earlier in the play others had seen the spirit, so the fact that he sees a ghost at all proves nothing.

But more fun than toying with the audience about what is actually going on, Shakespeare's presence in the play is most amusing. As Hamlet directs the players on how to act the scene he has written, he instructs them on the dangers of overacting. It's hard not to believe this wasn't Shakespeare himself voicing his own beef with overzealous actors. What do you think? Likewise, when Hamlet asks Palonius what he had acted in before, Palonius replies "Julius Caesar." Even if there were a thousand stage versions of Julius Caesar back in those days, Shakespeare had to have known this would be taken as a throwback to his own earlier work. Very cheeky.