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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reader's Diary #100- Milton Acorn: More Poems For People (up to "When the Ship of Villainy Went Down")

Okay, so it's a low quality cover image. But trust me, if I was to take the time to find a clearer image, it won't make the guy any more attractive.

So I've started by calling the man ugly, where do I go from there? Oh yes. His poetry.

It sucks.

Not my most thought-provoking assessment I know, but thus far it's the worse collection of poems I've read in a very long time. And speaking of long (like that segue?), remember when Scott Thompson said on Canada Reads that a poem "has no business being longer than a page"? He said it rather flippantly, but there's merit to his words. Unlike a novel, which you can read multiple times but don't usually do (or do you?), poems demand at least a second reading, maybe even more. But when they're so long (and in this case filled with ramblings) they don't encourage second reads. I know some people might what to accuse me of being from the 30-seconds or less mindset, caught up in a world of 22-minute sitcom cures and microwaveable pizza, but there is validity to this. Compare it to a novel again for a second. Would you be more likely to sit down and reread War and Peace (1456 pages) or The Napping House (16 pages). I'm not saying shorter is better (and forget the obvious remarks!). But like a shorter book, shorter poems are more inviting to reread and this is even more essential when understanding a poem. Yes, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" may be superior to Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me" but let's be honest- which of these are most people going to go back and analyze most often? That's right, the less time consuming. But Acorn's problem isn't just LONG poems.

It's also bad poems. Apparently, many of his peers (Purdy, Atwood and others) felt that Acorn was gipped in 1970 when the Governor General's award went instead to Acorn's ex-wife Gwendolyn MacEwen (sounds like a soap opera doesn't it?). Not to worry, the GGs brokedown and gave him the award in 1975 (a la the Jethro Tull/ Metallica Grammy). So appalled were these peers that they came up with their own award, "The Canadian Poetry Award" and named Acorn "The People's Poet" (though I thought that title had already been thrown around again and again beginning with Robbie Burns). The people's poet? The people should be insulted.

Acorn, in what I can only guess was his impression of "the people", writes with intentional spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, etc as he takes up the cause of the working man. The working man should say thanks, but no thanks. It's a little condescending to say the least. Examples? "But the best man don't get ahead anyway", "...to read the paper thuroly", etc. At the beginning of the book, it says "These poems may be used free of charge by anyone serving the cause of Canadian Independence and the cause of working people in any country." Don't you just hate self-appointed heroes? (Am I right Halle Berry?- I know it's an outdated reference. But who cares?)

So these poems offend me on some level. And they're also poorly written. The politics are just too overt. "Hey You Guevera", really? I'm not saying I disagree with his politics, but his poetry won't be winning any subtlety awards. And they ramble, jump from one topic to the next, are frat-boy stupid/crude at times ("And what if you should pick up a strange bone?"), and so on. I haven't found a single redeeming poem yet.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Reader's Diary #99- Audrey Wood (author) and Don Wood (illustrator): The Napping House

Despite me being a pretty sentimental guy (I can be a downright sook on occasion), I still don't go in for sappy children's books. Mistakenly, I thought this this would be such a book.

A lot of children's books that revolve around bedtime tend to be overly saccharine. I get that it's a bonding time and maybe parents are looking for something soothing to help their children relax, but we don't need books that make us want to brush our teeth again afterwards.
The Napping House is everything I look for in a children's book (geez, I'm certainly dishing out the praise lately- where's the overly critical John we all love to hate?). Audrey Wood's simple, building story is perfect for early readers to join in (a la This is The House That Jack Built), and full of great language. I especially like her choices to describe sleeping (i.e., dozing, snoring, etc).
And equally great are Don Wood's illustrations. As more and more characters pile unto the bed, there's a lot of humourous positions and expressions to entertain all ages. On subsequent readings of the book, readers can also look for the characters in the pictures before they join the others on the bed (my daughter and I had a great time trying to find the mouse). But the highlight of the illustrations is in the colours. They start of with tones of soft blue and as the characters wake up one by one, more and more colours are brought into the pictures until the room is bright again and it is day.
There's so much to see in this extremely fun book.

Reader's Diary #98- Lois Lowry: The Giver (up to Ch. 17)

I haven't finished this book yet, but when I do maybe I'll understand why this book has been banned so often. So far, I'm not seeing any "evil messages". There was one line that I felt was a bit preachy (i.e., "...now he understood the joy of being an individual, special and unique and proud.") but even that is a good message, isn't it? Are we banning books that promote individuality now? How lame. I linked to a bizarre (and completely moronic) site the other day that called the book "an antichrist novel". Maybe I'm naive to think that these wingnuts aren't the ones responsible for getting this book so much bad press. But if they're not, who is? It's a fine book and would be a great addition to a classroom, I would think.

I'm completely engrossed by this novel. Both the storyline (I can't wait to find out what happens to Gabriel now that Jonas is passing on his memories to him) and philosophical points have me enthralled. It's one of the better books I've read in a long time. Young adult or not.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reader's Diary #97- Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (FINISHED)

Despite the fact that many of Hughes' poems deal with abstract topics (mainly dreams) and I prefer my poetry a little more grounded in reality, there's some real beautiful lines in his poetry that I hope I don't soon forget (thankfully, I own a copy of the book). I love the imagery for instance, in "Sailor" when he writes "An anchor on his breast,/ And tattooed on his back he had/ A blue bird in a nest." I love the images which say so much of the character's sensibilities and the contrast between the sea and land images.

Some entire poems are beautiful too. The poem simply entitled "Poem" seems at first glance too simple (and perhaps too sentimental) to warrant a second glance, but I was glad I went back to it. His comparison of a friendship (or love) to a poem, says quite enough.

And finally, while it may not be beautiful, I'd like to mention another set of lines that jumped out at me. There's a stanza in "The Negro" that goes, "I've been a worker:/ Under my hand the pyramids arose./ I made mortar for the Woolworth Building." If you can't find brilliance in those lines, you're not trying very hard.

There's also a poem that I had forgotten reading once before, "Mother to Son." Anyone who's read Mairuth Sarsfield's No Crystal Stair (it was a Canada Reads contender in 2005), is familiar with this poem. In this collection, "Mother to Son" was an important reminder to me about voice. I had up until that poem, been feeling a little harsh towards Hughes' use of old black dialect in some poems while not in others. In some poems, he wrote such colour-free lines as "To where the spring is wondrous rare", while in others such lines as "Goin' down de road, Lawd," pinpoints race and country in a single read. Up until "Mother to Son" I was feeling that either Hughes was not being true to himself as he wrote the colourless lines, or that he was forcing the accent in the other poems in order to appear authentic. In either case, something felt disingenuous. But the different voice in "Mother to Son" helped remind me that Hughes, like any poet, could vary the voices of his poems. If some voices had unclear ethnicities, so be it. If some poems had obviously southern American black voices, so be it. Just like the voice in "Mother to Son" isn't even male, it's important to note that the voice and the poet are necessarily the same.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reader's Diary #96- Lois Lowry: The Giver (up to ch. 12)

I've been referring to The Giver as a futuristic novel because it is set in the future. However, I think these sort of books end up saying almost as much about the present.

Some of Lowry's predictions (if you want to call them that) are thinly disguised warnings about the way we're headed, while other predictions are a little more subtle and up for debate. When for example, she mentions a pill that subdues our sexual urges, it's not hard to find lectures about the dangers of pharmacology interfering with basic instincts or government interference into our everyday lives. However, when she talks about the familial routine of discussing dreams in the morning or feelings after dinner, the warning (if any) is a little less clear. Is she making some point about a tendency to overly psychoanalyze ourselves, or maybe a small dig at the touchy feely crowd? It's the latter type of indirect messages that I'm enjoying most about the book, even if I don't always agree with the points she seems to be making. (With what I perceive to be attacks -albeit gentle ones- on psychology, I don't find it all surprising that the Christian Science Monitor gave it a good review.)

But futuristic novels are pretty much all treatises on the present. Lois Lowry's novel is no exception. But a third of the way through, the story at least becomes original. It's when Jonas meets the Giver that we finally see how the story will unfold. Between the two characters, there are some uncomfortable moments by today's standards and Lowry doesn't shy away from them- for better or worse. I'm thinking mostly about when Jonas (12) finds himself alone with the Giver who is an old man. They've just met and the Giver asks Jonas to remove his tunic and lie down on his bed. Now maybe it's just me, or maybe it's most of us in 2006, but I was thinking "Holy Michael Jackson! What's this creep going to do?" Lowry doesn't go down this road, either in storyline or Jonas' head. The fact that the thought didn't even cross Jonas' mind is the bothersome point. Is it because Lowry just chose to ignore what the situation might mean to a present day reader, or was she making a subtle point that in a future with sexual urges taken care of with drugs, perverts wouldn't exist? It would be a great discussion topic for a book club for sure.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reader's Diary #95- Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (up to "Negro Dancers")


Like The Giver, Langston Hughes' collection The Dream Keeper and Other Poems is apparently marketed for young adults. And like The Giver, it can be appreciated by any age.

I picked up this book from a bargain table at a booksale, being only vaguely aware of Hughes as a black poet from the States. I've hardly been able to put it down since.

Hughes' poems are like nothing I've read in a very long time. They're so unpretentious and simple- yet not stupid. No wonder they are often taught to children. He's got all the wondrous elements of good poems (rhythm, occasional rhymes, figurative language and rich imagery) yet they aren't convoluted with references to Greek demigods, overly grandiose words like "ethereal gossamer", and don't go on for fifteen pages a piece.

Furthermore, they're optimistic. It's a little ironic (not to mention thought-provoking) that Hughes, with all of the obvious racial prejudice he must have faced in early 20th century America (apparently a closeted homosexual as well), could write such optimistic poems. Yet they're not naively so. Take the title poem, "The Dream Keeper". In it, Hughes acknowledges the "too rough fingers of the world" yet offers the reader comfort and solace. The irony is that Hughes could right poems like this, hopeful poems, yet there are still middleclass, white people today writing one bleak poem after another. I'm not negating that 21st century white people have depressing thoughts from time to time, nor am I implying that they aren't entitled to such feelings. But still, it's interesting that Hughes' poems could send off such an uplifting vibe. Even his blues poems, for the most part, take sadder topics and dress them in often whimsical rhymes or at least the feeling that there's a comfort being shared amongst those who can relate.

Occasionally there's a poem that has more somber themes. "Parisian Beggar Woman" definitely doesn't end on a happy note (i.e., "Nobody but death/ Will kiss you again."). But I guess even Hughes couldn't always be sunshine and lollipops. Then again, even with this particular poem Hughes doesn't ignore the brighter sides of life. For while it could be taken as a dirge or as a glum look at old age, there is the acknowledgement that the old woman had once been beautiful. It's as if Hughes wanted to at least give his character that much.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reader's Diary #94- Lois Lowry: The Giver (up to Ch. 8)


The Giver by Lois Lowry is apparently aimed at young adults. I'd like to think that at 29 I'm still young, but I'm pretty sure that's not what they mean.

Regardless, this book has won a gazillion awards (i.e., the Newbery, Boston-Globe Horn Honor Book, American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults- and Notable Book for Children, Regina Medal, Booklist Editor's Choice, and School Library Journal Best Book of the Year). People are always referring to Harry Potter as a modern classic- this book is probably headed in that direction as well. Needless to say, I just had to read it.

I'm only 59 pages in but I can definitely see what the appeal is. Maybe if I was constantly reading futuristic books, I'd feel differently. Even now I'm finding it hard not to draw comparisons to Ender's Game, 1984, or A Brave New World. But in a novel which has to use global references to explain what the future is, it would be next to impossible to be completely different. Look at 1984 and Brave New World, both were greats in their own right but both had a LOT in common. And besides this one is aimed at a younger audience- or is it?

According to the ALA, The Giver was one of the most challenged books between 1990-2000. Yet despite the fanatical ravings of why this book should be banned, I've yet to read anything I wouldn't personally let my own child read as a teenager. Granted I'm not even halfway through the book yet, but the worse I've read is about Jonas talking about yearnings he had for a girl in a dream. It's far from vulgar, and why shouldn't such topics be discussed? Are we going to ban Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl for her small bout of sexual identity confusion?

I also like the way it describes what I went through in adolescence: the realization that society is not always right and that we shouldn't necessarily swallow rules just because they're laid down by authority. I'm not advocating anarchy, but I do think books such as these could be a route to discussing such matters with young adults rather than waiting for a judge to lay the smack down on some teen for acting out unlawfully.

Back to the book itself. I'm absolutely loving it so far. I felt while reading Kevin Major's No Man's Land that it sometimes showed his background as a young adult writer because it lacked the psychological explorations of adult novels. The Giver has proven me wrong. A young adult novel CAN be psychological. Half the pleasure of this book is Jonas's thoughts and confusion, both with coming-of-age and his new role.

The other half of this book's pleasure is Lowry's futuristic vision. It's one of rules and roles. Happiness is a goal, but it seems to be a superficial happiness. For instance, after meals it is routine to discuss feelings the family members have had throughout the day. Assumedly this is meant as a cathartic sort of activity, but when it is forced becomes almost anti-cathartic. Lowry also has a knack for throwing in details of the world casually but still keeping the reader's interest in her version of the world to come. A favourite is the mention of Lily's stuffed toy of some fictional creature known as a "bear."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Reader's Diary #93- Enos Watts: Spaces Between The Trees (FINISHED)



Call this my Coles Notes of Enos Watts. There are so many poems here that are worthy of commentary, but I don't want to ramble on forever (nor do I think anyone out there wants me to). So a few brief thoughts on a few poems:
"Doing Time": A poem that begins, "On one of those self-pitying days" and goes on to capture that feeling with brilliant word choices; sunk, slumber, brick, mortar, clapboard, etc.
"Bare Trees and Freezing Rain": A rare glimpse into Watts' clever use of rhyme. Basically describing a relationship of sorts between trees and the weather, the rhymes (ex. play, sway, spray, day) and masculine rhymes (ex. splendour, vascular, and grandeur) echo the presence of a relationship and add a little whimsy to nature.
"Margaret Laurence's Manawaka": Not so much a comment about the poem itself, except to say that I love how Laurence's fictional town has taken on such a life of it's own. It might sound a little like stoner talk but hasn't it become real in some bizarre sense?
"A Different Shore": A beautifully written poem, with a fantastic storyline and ending. Some of the more narrative poems in this collection I wasn't fussy on, but this one I really liked- especially the lesson learned by the daughter at the end. Epiphanies aren't just for haikus.
"Stormy Night on Terra Nova Road": Occasionally I was slightly turned off by the more philosophical poems in this collection, but fortunately those were in the minority. Watts' real strength, as I've said before is imagery, especially with nature imagery (as the book's title would suggest). "Stormy Night on Terra Nova Road" is one of the best examples of his uncanny ability to somehow paint an event and a scene at the same time (and no, they're not synonymous). Watts relies heavily on a multisensory appeal, ex. "tires hissing", lights glow ghostly", "bone soaked" and it pays off for the reader, who in this particular poem finds themselves alongside a woman in nasty October weather, trying to make it home.
These are great poems.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Reader's Diary #92- Kevin Major: No Man's Land (FINISHED)


Kevin Major plays the role of fate in No Man's Land, leading soldiers to their inevitable destiny.

I've finally been able to put my finger on why No Man's Land held my attention. I couldn't quite understand how it was able to this, seeing as I knew the outcome of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel before I had even begun the book. But finally I was able to put my finger on it. What made people enjoy James Cameron's Titanic? Loss of senses, sure. But more than that, people have a morbid fascination with tragedy and we'll watch even knowing the end result. Still, Cameron and Major weren't content to leave it there. Instead, they fictionalized particular characters so that we couldn't have all the facts beforehand, giving a slight glimmer of hope for these characters. While in Titanic we were asking, will Jack be one of the 706 survivors? in No Man's Land we ask will Hayward, Clarke and Martin be among the few survivors? Cheap ploy to keep our interest? Not necessarily- in both cases real people do play a role, and the real participants never venture far from our thoughts.

Am I being unfair to No Man's Land by drawing comparisons to the somewhat cheesy Titanic? I don't think so- there are more similarities. The same complaints about Titanic can be made here. Cameron tacked on a love story, so did Major. Cameron relied on cliches, so did Major. Cameron had Celine Dion, and well, Major does have some respectability.

Actually, No Man's Land did get better towards the end. I liked how Major explored the psychology of the men in the minutes counting down to zero hour. All were obviously tensed to their limits, but each dealt with it in their own way. Some reminisced about home, some made plans for afterwards, some put on brave faces, some (though they were condemned for it) prophesized their doom, some clung to friendships, and others felt completely alone. I love that despite an army's attempts to create a single unit, individuality stubbornly refuses to die.

I also enjoyed Major's pacing of the chapters. Counting down the minutes, chapters often became shorter and shorter and it really built up the tension. Then the men finally went "over the top" and the chapter was longer- dragging on events that for the soldiers must have felt like an eternity. Occasionally, the effect was ruined by cheesy moments (such as Hayward, Clarke and Martin all somehow finding one another on the battlefield), but the overall effect of the ending was not lost. I won't spoil it here by saying whether not either or all of these three characters survived.

On June 16th, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador will be discussing this book on air during their Radio Noon program. Earlier this year I had been contact with host, Anne Budgell about recording an mp3 of my thoughts about this book to be played on air at that time. I haven't heard anything from the good people at CBC since, so I'm not sure if it's a go or not. In either case, I hope that they actually talk about the merits or faults of the book, and that the discussion doesn't turn into patriotic praise for the Newfoundland Regiment. There's a time and place for that, but not during a book discussion. There's a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Will Ferrell shows up at a board meeting wearing nothing but an American flag thong. It's obviously inappropriate (not to mention disgusting) but people are afraid to say anything because they don't want to appear unAmerican. Likewise, I hope people don't shy away from critiquing Kevin Major's work because they're afraid of being disrespectful to the Veterans.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Reader's Diary #91- Enos Watts: Space Between The Trees (Up to "Doing Time")

I've whined a lot about poems which reference Greek mythology. And while I'm still not in favour of them, I've altered my reasons thanks to this book.

I had said before that my biggest beef with the Greek references, was that a reader shouldn't be required to have a degree in Greek mythology to understand a poem. I stick to that, but my biggest problem with the Greek stuff is how it's overdone. I've read a lot of poetry collections over the past two years, and I swear that I can't think of a single one that didn't have at least one poem that drew a connection to Hades, Persephone, Homer, Adonis or some such figure or place. Are poets truly enraptured by these old stories or are they just doing what's expected of them? If they are fascinated by these stories, that's okay- but at some point for a reader it becomes very boring. I suspect that many are writing about them because it's what poets do (which I'm sure no one would admit to). Since when were poets were ever supposed to be predictable?

Two of Enos Watts' poems in particular illustrate my point about the effect of Greek overkill in poetry. The first is "Imitatio Rosae: To a Poet, Dying" and the second is "Speer at Spandau, Remembering". The first poem is about some long dead Italian poet named Giambattista Marini and contains references to Homer, Dante, and Ulysses. The second poem is about an imprisoned Nazi leader, named Albert Speer. Now which poem is more compelling? Who was I more interested in researching, or reading more about, Marini or Speer? I'm sure Marini was an interesting fellow in his time, but the poem about Speer is certainly the more fascinating one, wouldn't you think? I'm not saying that I read poetry to learn, but when there are biographical poems about people I hadn't heard of, I could be drawn into learning. That's not going to happen if I'm bored to tears by yet another poem about the Greeks. In fact, the reason I read poems is primarily to be entertained. And that's not likely to happen either as long as poets keep recycling the same old stories and topics again and again.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Which Novelist Have You Read The Most?

A small (?) confession here. In highschool I was big time into Metallica and Stephen King. While that should be embarrassing, both led me to greater music and literature. But the odd result of that is that I'll forever have to say I've read more Stephen King than any other author. That'll probably never change. I've read about 30 novels by him (not to mention short story collections and a non-fiction book). Mordecai Richler didn't write even half that number, Margaret Atwood, while picking up the pace is unlikely ever to reach him, and probably any author that I now respect won't come near him in numbers of published novels. He's a schlock writer and is able to pump them out faster because, let's face it, there's not much concern for quality. So I've tried to think of which author I've read the 2nd-most and so forth and here's my results:

30- Stephen King
4- Margaret Atwood (+ a collection of poetry)
4- Jean M. Auel
3 or less- Too many to count

Looking at my list, it doesn't really reflect my interests all. I really need to read more Richler. Maybe Wayne Johnston as well.

Anyway, how about you? Don't include children's authors, short-story or poetry collections, plays or non-fiction. Basically, whose novels have taken up the most of your time?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Reader's Diary 90- Kevin Major (No Man's Land, up to ch. 13)

It's a good thing I'm not planning on publishing a book in Newfoundland anytime soon, because I suspect giving a harsh review of a Kevin Major book would be akin to career suicide. He's pretty respected around these parts.

But not to worry. Have I ever been that harsh? Oh wait. Deafening and The Plains Of Passage. But nevermind. I'm not hating this book. The problem is, I'm not loving it either. So far it seems like it's just another war book. The story seems like little more than the stereotypical WWI Novel. I felt that way after the very first chapter and then the second chapter introduced the Newfoundland character a little more, giving the story a more compelling edge. But either that was short lived or it's not enough to keep it going. Yet I still maintain that it's not boring. I can't quite put my finger on why though. Maybe it's just an easy read so I'm getting through it quickly.

Or maybe it's the characters of Hayward and Clark that are keeping it remotely interesting. They're certainly not as compelling as say Xavier and Elijah from Three Day Road but compared to Major's peripheral characters, Hayward and Clark are at least not as flat. I especially like their relationship. Both are from Newfoundland but have quite different backgrounds (as much as we like to generalize about ourselves, no two Newfoundlanders are alike). Clarke came from a privileged background, was schooled in England and is more outgoing and jovial. Hayward on the other hand, worked at a clothing store back in St. John's and seems more reserved. However, they complement each other very well and this is most apparent in a skinny dipping scene in chapter ten. I know what you're thinking: homoeroticism right? Well, maybe. It's hard not to consider that possibility when two young men have snuck off to get naked and wrestle in the water. But even more than that it shows a camaraderie beyond the two men that goes beyond their similarities in rank. Maybe it's due to the war, maybe it's due to their age and level of responsibility thrust in their laps, but these men just needed a break, to be themselves for once, without the necessary facades (nudity as a symbol for honesty, perhaps?). Whatever the case, the dynamic between these two individuals just might be the saving grace for this book.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Reader's Diary #89- Enos Watts: Spaces Between The Trees (up to "Beirut Roulette")


With Purdy losing Canada Reads 2006, and Watts losing the Winterset, I'm starting to think poetry has bridesmaid's syndrome.

Regardless, they're both great poetry collections and I'm thankful these competitions have exposed me to them.

Of course, I'm lathering on the praise a little early for Spaces Between The Trees but if the first 18 pages are any indication, I'm going to enjoy this book immensely. I have a folder in which I put some of my own poems, as well as others' poems I discover of which I enjoy. I have already found several of Watts' poems that I deem folder worthy.

The opening poem, "High Wind In November", has imagery that I can only dream of someday writing. Watt's incorporation of auditory images (is there a better term for this?) such as humming of a clothesline, hissing of grass, and crackling of a garbage bag alongside visual images, results in an overall image that is clearer and more effective than a photograph could ever hope to achieve. Keep in mind that I'm a fan of good photography and that Watts does this with mere words. That's an amazing accomplishment when you really think about it.

So far I'm also intrigued by a common thread that seems to be underlying a lot of these poems: mental illness. There are references that imply delusions (ex, "They say, old man, you see/ faces everywhere-"), paranoia (ex, They were prisoners,/ he afraid to go out"), anthropophobia ("Home was his Alcatraz"), and several mentions of pure "madness". Don't worry, I'm not going to catalogue all the psychology stuff as I did with the Margaret Atwood- Werewolf references, but it is going to be something I'm going to watch for as I continue on with these poems.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Reader's Diary #88- Kevin Major: No Man's Land (up to Ch. 7)

Every time I read a book about Canadians in the trenches of France during WWI, I wish I'd get the perspective of the French for once. While necessary, it still must have been a hardship having all those foreigners running around speaking in English and ogling their daughters. Asides from trench terminology, I think the term"No Man's Land" could just as succinctly define France at that time.

But for now, I'll settle for the Newfoundland perspective and Kevin Major does an admiral job presenting it. It's not hard to see Major's experience as an author of young adult fiction coming through. That's not a bad thing. It's just that unlike a lot of adult books which are either story-driven or character-driven, No Man's Land blends the two together, but still maintains an easy flowing story. The reader gets some sense of character building (especially of Hayward), but it's primarily through his actions and dialogues instead of inner monologues and the like. There's not a lot of risk taking so far in terms of perspective or chronology, but it's still not a boring read. And considering the fact that the book seems to be a waiting game, it's no small coup that Major holds our attention. Which brings me to my next point...

I find myself wondering how I'd feel about this book if I didn't know the outcome. Growing up in Newfoundland, I know of the tragedy that befalls these men. But even had I not, the publishers seem to assume that readers would know. There's a comment on the back by author David Macfarlane that he found himself "hoping, against all reason, that the terrible hour would never come." That would have given it away to any reader unaware of the story. But is that what compels us as reader's to read on? And in line with that, would it hold someone's attention otherwise? I'd like to find someone who doesn't know the story of Beaumont Hamel, throw away the dust jacket with the spoiler, and get their reactions.

Finally, despite reading a number of war books I still find myself getting lost with ranks. Who does a corporal outrank? Who does a 2nd Lieutenant answer to? And so forth. I've tried enlisting the internet for an explanation, but to no avail. If anyone can set me straight on this, please do so.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Reader's Diary #87- Fred Sedgwick: How To Write Poetry (FINISHED)


Since I first began blogging about the books I'm reading, I've come to enjoy the experience on many levels. Not only have I heard some interesting discussions from others, it's also made me a sharper reader. It's hard not to have it in the back of my mind whenever I'm reading, "what am I going to say about this?" and it's forced me to slow down, to look with a more critical eye. But this was the first time I've tried that approach with a "How-To" book, and I can't say blogging necessarily complements such a book. I don't think a How-To book works as a cover-to-cover read like I've done here. I'm glad I did it with How To Write Poetry but I see the book as being more useful as a reference tool than anything else. Now I know where to go to when I'm looking for an exercise to help keep my writing fresh. I didn't do all of the exercises suggested by Sedgwick this time around, not because they weren't good ideas, but because I didn't want to be blogging about this particular book for the next six months. From time to time, when I pick up the book again, maybe I'll share more of my thoughts or poems, but for now I'll move on having gained a little more appreciation of what it means (and what it takes) to be a poet.

As a discussion point, asides from cook books, what "How To" books have you read?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reader's Diary #86- Kevin Major: No Man's Land (Up to Ch.3)

After suffering through The Plains Of Passage over the past few weeks, Barbara suggested reading something fun next. Well, I'd hardly say a novel about WWI is anyone's idea of fun (especially after just suffering through two for Canada Reads), but I do have my reasons for reading it next.

First and foremost, I wanted to read No Man's Land because it's by Kevin Major. Major is one of Newfoundland's most prolific author's having dabbled in children's lit, young adult fiction, adult fiction, and nonfiction. Yet despite the great number of books and awards, I've only read two of his works; Eh? to Zed and Blood Red Ochre. But since I'm a little worn out from war novels, why this particular book?

That's where the CBC comes in again. More specifically, that's where CBC Newfoundland and Labrador's Radio Noon comes in. On June 16th, they're having an on-air discussion of this novel and if things go right, I might get some input. More on that as it develops...

Also, the stage version of the novel is set to be part of this year's Winterset Festival. And since I'm hoping to attend, I'd like to read the book first.

But enough of the why, let's get to the what.

The first chapter unfortunately did nothing to alleviate my qualms about reading another war novel. It's full of the typical WWI cliches; the young French love interest, the pocket-watch memento, and so forth. I know such things were legitimate parts of the war, but when you've heard them time and time again, they do not make a great opener for a novel.

However, the second chapter helped the book recover a little. Instead of being just "another war book," it started to become a Newfoundland war book. Newfoundland dialogue and personalities began to colour the book, making it much more interesting. I especially liked the guys who kept pretending they were still fishing back home. There's a certain ironic sadness underneath- you know their jokes mask homesickness- and even though you know there's even more sadness to come, for the time being the two characters are comic and add a certain joviality to the scene.

I'm looking forward to the rest and I'm hoping that those dull history lessons will become more meaningful- even if it is through fictional characters.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Reader's Diary #85- Jean M. Auel: The Plains of Passage (FINISHED!)


Why do I suddenly have the Ode To Joy stuck in my head? Because it's over, it's over, it's over.

757 pages. Whew.

Do not read this book.

If you were a fan of Clan of the Cave Bear and have been yearning to explore the series further, I suggest you turn away now. This taints the preceding books retroactively.

But if you are a fan of insanely long, boring, predictable books with unbelievable characters and plots, this is the book for you.

I've wasted enough time on this book and have said all I've needed to say. Ciao.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Reader's Diary #84- Fred Sedgwick: How To Write Poetry (up to p. 60)


As I'm reading through How To Write Poetry I've come to two conclusions about Sedgwick. 1. He's a very religious man and 2. He's very old school.

The first point is really neither here nor there to me. It's not an encumbrance to the book. It's not like's he's guiding people on writing specifically religious poetry, but it's just a view you don't see expressed in books much unless the book is marketed that way.

The second point is where I tend to skew a little from Sedgwick's opinions. I've mentioned before that he seems to dwell too much on the etymology of words, and in one particular instance that became more of an issue for me. In tracing back the roots of the word "poet", he discusses Greek, Sanskrit, and Slavic origins to define a poet as "one who makes, or arranges". He then uses the ancient definitions to refute the more modern connotations of "expressing feelings", while subtly taking a swipe at hippies. It's fine and dandy to be against poems which are fluffy and which blatantly overemphasize feelings, but my issue is with his debate tactic: delving back nearly a thousand years to make his case. Word meanings change and we can't rush back to some archaic meaning to make a point. Is Sedgwick aware of a little word called "gay"?

So I disagree with some of Sedgwick's arguments. I'm still enjoying the book. Of particular interest to me was his discussion on a particular poem he wrote (and got published) entitled "Ascension Day". An editor pointed out to him that a particular line about mallards was not public. That is, the mallards represented something specific to Sedgwick, an event in his life, that is unknown to the reader and thus problematic. He cautions against having an image or event in your head so vivid that you think you've expressed it well enough to the reader, when really it's a vague reference that an outsider would (unfairly) never get. It's okay of course to not make things obvious in a poem (that's half the fun), but poems should at least be possible to understand. I had this discussion with Rj recently over a poem I posted on his site. It was a quickly put together piece entitled "Curiousity Shoppe Ghost" that afterwards I was concerned maybe people would not actually understand what was going on. Likewise, when I posted a fib on Sure B'y's post it was only after hearing my wife read it out loud that I realized it was perhaps not clear that I was supposed to be sleepy in the first part of the poem. It was based on a memory that, although my wife was obviously part of, was so vivid in my head that I thought the poem expressed it well (but maybe not). Definitely something to be more cautious of from now on.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Reader's Diary #83- Jean M. Auel: The Plains of Passage (ch 40, p. 668)


The final stretch. Less than 100 pages to go. You know it's a bad book when you start doing that.

But at least I've found some parts to enjoy. The part with the S'Armunai (i.e., camp of angry women) was a little exciting, even if it was predictable at times. In books such as these, it's hard not to be predictable. On the one hand, if the author doesn't acquiesce a to the fans, s/he can avoid being formulaic and obvious. But on the other hand, s/he runs the risk of alienating those poor, unfortunate souls that keep the money coming. So Auel chose to have Wolf save the day. Of course. Remember Jar Jar Binks? Unfortunately, so do I. I sat through Phantom Menace thinking, "he's going to have to save the day eventually- to make up for his annoyingness." But Jar Jar didn't save squat and the world collectively hated him for it. Wolf, on the other hand, comes around and redeems himself. Obvious? Yes. But at least the fans were appeased.

I've also enjoyed how Auel toys with the way legends and myths are made; basically through a lack of understanding and the need to believe. I love how, despite Ayla's and Jondalar's best efforts, the various camps of people see them as some sort of supernatural presence, or at least as having ties with the supernatural world.

But that's as far as the complements go. The book is still way too long. I believe, someone during Canada Reads accused Deafening as being over researched. I've had that problem with other books as well, most notably Clancy's Red Storm Rising. Likewise for The Plains of Passage. It's like the authors must lack the ability to let go of every useless fact they find while researching for their novel. I'm not a huge fan of the Da Vinci Code, but I do have to give credit to Brown. He made research work for his novel instead of against it.

I could have also done without the amateur psychology lessons from Auel. I'm not going to go all Tom Cruise on you and say that psychiatry is a pseudo-science (I have a psych degree after all), but Auel's black and white theory on human motivation is laughable and way too oversimplified. Angry at men? You must have been abused by men. Can't have intercourse because of a painful memory in your past? Just watch a couple do it lovingly and you'll be cured. I surely hope people aren't lining up to lay on Auel's couch.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Reader's Dairy #82- Fred Sedgwick: How To Write Poetry (up to p. 39)

I mentioned a little while back that Sedgwick seems to imply that this book was intended to be used in a classroom setting. For instance, some of the suggested exercises are group activities. But if Sedgwick didn't have the foresight to see individuals like myself picking up the book on a casual basis, he also didn't seem to have the foresight to see anyone on this side of the Atlantic reading it. Quite often he uses British references that I am only vaguely aware of, if at all.

That of course, is a side note. I chose the book to become a better poet. And with Sedgwick's advice and exercises I'm hoping I'll be at least a little closer to my goal. One of his exercises recommends making a list poem from a favourite picture. Of course, writing a poem inspired by a painting isn't a new idea. Immediately coming to mind is William Carlos Williams' "Landscape With The Fall of Icarus" based on the Bruegel painting of the same name. But until Sedgwick's suggestion I haven't tried it myself. It is not a list poem as he recommended, but I at least did look to a work of art for inspiration. While I won't show the picture here (hoping to avoid the copyright people), I will suggest you follow the link before reading my poem. The painting is "Horse and Train" by Canadian artist Alex Colville. My poem is entitled "Horse and Train" as well:

They do not
Respect me.
They distill
My essence
Into vile grease.

Train against
Horse against
Me and they
Will regret this.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Reader's Diary #81- Jean M. Auel: The Plains of Passage (up to Ch. 27, p. 447)

Over half way there and Jondalar has been kidnapped. Hot-diggity dog, we finally have some excitement. But speaking of hot-diggity dogs, I'd first like to comment on Wolf (if you're going to keep coming back to my blog, you're going to have to put up with lame segues such as this).

Wolf is Ayla's canine companion, and we're to accept that he's probably the world's first domesticated dog. I'm not too crazy about it when an author's own views seep into their books too much, but it's obvious here that Auel is a dog-lover. And one of those annoying ones at that. I'm talking not about those annoying lhaso apso owners who put varsity jackets on their pooches, but that other group who brag that their rottweilers are so well behaved that the dogs often babysit their three month olds when they're out. Wolf is portrayed as a a child-loving, often comical beast that Ayla raised from a puppy. The problem is, he's still a wolf (as his name suggests). I find his friendly dog ways way too over-the-top and unbelievable- but then I guess he's the perfect companion to those ultra-humans Ayla and Jondalar. The only saving grace for Wolf's character, is the subtle jealousy/ animosity that Jondalar feels towards the animal, and towards Ayla's relationship with Wolf. It's one of Auel's more interesting sub-plots that I'm hoping will be brought to fruition in some way later on.

Now back to the drama. Yes, Jondalar has been kidnapped. And not just by some regular old camp either, not even by the flatheads. No, Jondalar has been kidnapped by a tribe of nearly militant females. It's not kinky. But it is interesting, even if the theme has been explored before. For the first time since beginning this novel, I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Dust Covers

Basically I'm going to do a Linda Richman here and throw out a topic for you to "talk amongst yourselves." No, I'm not feeling veklempt, but I am feeling like this blog is getting bogged down with the Auel book and it needs a little airing out...

So the topic du jour is dust covers. I threw away my dust cover to Plains of Passage as I usually do with all of my dust covers (not to worry, if you lend me a book I'll stick the dust cover in a drawer, not the trash). I don't know if I'm hung up on some cheesy preconception of what a library should be or what, but I like the look of the book binding on my shelf. It's not often that I can afford a hard cover as it is, but when I do spend the bucks, I don't like having that glossy wrapping tacking up the place.

And it's not just aesthetics. If you don't remove them, they're constantly slipping off (horrible in the bathtub), getting lost, and if you've been trying to use their flaps as bookmarks, they don't work for thick books. Plus, they're usually covered with the usual inane crap from publishers; hyperbolic reviews, grandiose sentiments about the book's cultural significance, and summaries that don't effectively sum up the plot at all.

But a word of caution is perhaps needed here. If anyone caught the Antiques Roadshow when they went to St. John's, dust covers could make your book valuable. One guy had a Winnie The Pooh from way back when and it was worth in the thousands merely because he had kept the dust cover. So maybe you should hold onto them. Though if it's the latest from Dean Koontz, I wouldn't be holding my breath for a profit.

Comments?