Saturday, March 31, 2007

Reader's Diary #249- Maurice Maeterlinck: The Blue Bird (FINISHED!)

In my copy of this play, there's a short note at the beginning telling us that Act 4 was an add-on, written by Maeterlinck for a revival of the play, in 1910. He should have left well enough alone.

What Act 4 accomplishes is a convolution of plot and character list to the point of ridiculousness. Already in the play, we have been shown the souls of common everyday objects and elements; cat, dog, bread, sugar, milk, water, fire, and light. These eight characters accompany two children Tyltyl and Mytyl along their journey. Later the two children are introduced to the souls of other animals, trees, and even Night. In Act 4 however, there is a virtual orgy of souls. It's bad enough that we get such an abstract character as "The Luxury", but then we have The Luxury of Being Rich, The Luxury of Satisfied Vanity, The Luxury of Sleeping More Than Is Necessary, The Happiness of Being Well, the Happiness of Running In The Dew, The Joy of Seeing What Is Beautiful, The Joy of Maternal Love, The Joy of Understanding, and so on and so on. Very quickly it loses its charm. Yes, I'll admit some, like the "Luxury of Sleeping More Than Is Necessary" made me smile initially. But after a while the personification of every idea imaginable got tedious. Furthermore, the insanely obvious attempts at an allegory was grating.

At the end, I did find myself pondering what the Blue Bird itself was supposed to represent. Most have hypothesized that it is the key to happiness or something to that effect, but they fall short of saying just what that key is. To me, there are a lot of signs that point to it being "appreciation". The plot of the play has two children searching for a blue bird to give to a fairy's daughter. At the end, we see that their pet bird was the Blue Bird all along. If that seems like an obvious oversight on the part of the children, they did consider it at the beginning. However, the fairy, who appears just as the children enviously watch other children who are feasting and getting Christmas presents, says it isn't blue enough. After a long and tiresome journey, they realize that their pet bird seems "bluer" than before and they give it to the girl. But there are a couple of problems with my theory. First of all, I can see no reason why Maeterlinck would not just personify appreciation as well. Also, I'm not sure why the animals, trees and other souls would be so threatened by the Blue Bird falling into the hands of the children. Oh well, if it wasn't for the terrible fourth act, maybe I'd spend more time contemplating it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reader's Diary #248- Jose Saramago: Blindness (up to p. 131)

One does not have to read far into Blindness before realizing what sort of a book it is. I'm not sure if such books have a label, but it's the ones that are grandiose in focus, that are concerned with issues bigger than those of the characters themselves, and that feel more like a commentary on mankind than a simple story. I'm not sure if I'm getting the feel across. Maybe this will work: it's the type that first year psychology or sociology textbooks will be quoting from in their margins for years to come.

Of course, one of the first things people do when they read such books is look at historical or contemporary references. As people point out Animal Farm's commentary on Stalin, I'm sure people will draw political commentary out of Blindness as well. I could not help but think of concentration camps as I read about the blind being contained in the mental hospital. As the guards barked orders, the blind stumbled along without any clue as to where they were being directed. The confusion in this case is brought on by a lack of sight, but the language barriers in concentration camps must have been a source of inspiration.

And just as such books cause us to look at society, they also make us reflect back to books with similar themes. I've already mentioned Animal Farm. I also found myself thinking of William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. As the blind internees find themselves lawless within the confines of the mental hospital, they quickly realize the importance of organization. Gaining organization and rules is a whole other issue. This of course, was a major theme of Golding's book as the stranded children experimented with self-government.

By drawing out these comparisons, I'm not saying that Blindness is not unique. In fact the writing style and the plot alone, make it different than any other book I've ever read. Plus, as I work through, I might just happen upon more themes that Saramago expands upon or even develops anew. My point is that Blindness belongs up there in the same category as the aforementioned books. So far, I think it deserves the same classic status.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reader's Diary #247- Pablo Neruda: The Captain's Verses (FINISHED)

Three comments:

1. I loved how all the poems in the "Desire" section had animal titles. "Tiger" has several lines in particular that mark a sudden shift in the book's tone. "I break/ your limbs one by one" for instance. While it's obviously a more violent idea of love than acknowledged before, I don't get the impression it's as sinister as it first appears. I think for the one of the first times in the book, Neruda presents the more selfish side of love and this is his way of expressing his guilt. This theme is continued on with the beginning of "Condor" but it switches in the end as the two become partner predators and the new prey is life.

2. In the section entitled "Lives" the book's tone switched once again. Suddenly the poems seem to take a panoramic view of the lovers, showing them in context: a political context. I got nervous when I first noticed what was going on. I thought one of two things would happen; I'd balk at the intrusion of politics into what has otherwise been a beautiful love story OR I'd crumble under the spell of Neruda's genius. Fortunately neither of those happened. I still enjoyed the book and I'm not planning on overthrowing any capitalist regimes any time soon. These particular poems served a purpose outside the politics; they represented the coming together of a couple's ideals and presented the two as a single force. Plus, perhaps my favourite couple of lines in the whole collection are in this section; the poem "The Soldier's Love" ends as follows:
"Kiss me again, beloved.

Clean that gun, comrade."

What a juxtaposition of images!

3. I love how one particular poem addresses point blankly that preoccupation with his lover's body which I had mentioned in an earlier post. In "Ode and Burgeonings" Neruda writes
"Someone asks: 'Tell me, why, like waves
on a single coast, do your words
endlessly go and return to her body?'"

The response? The wave is the"purest wave of life". On it's own, it seems for the first time that he has sunken into the dreaded sentimentality of which I've been so wary. I've not done him justice. Within the context of the relationship that is explored throughout the entire collection, the line is convincing.

Monday, March 26, 2007

I'm Litminded!, based out of the U.S., is a site I recently discovered through fellow blogger, Sam Houston. They refer to themselves as "a community of people who are enthusiastic about reading, sharing their book endeavors with others, connecting with authors and independent booksellers." I've been mostly enjoying it because of the message boards. There have been a lot of interesting book related discussions happening, and it's a great way to meet people with similar reading tastes and habits. They also feature occasional interviews with authors, readers, and bloggers. Still, I didn't expect to be one of them!

Last week I was contacted by a member of the Litminds team who was interested in doing an interview with me (probably in large part due to my physical location). Whatever caught their attention, I jumped on the opportunity. My immediate reaction was, "I wonder if I can sneak my Canada Reads 2008 ambitions into the interview" but couldn't decide if that was tacky or not. Lo and behold, it was one of the first things they had asked about (they had been checking out my blog). Perfect! The more publicity that I can get linking me to next year's show, the better chance I should have. I know it's American publicity and the program itself is Canadian, but hey, if I can direct a few American fans in their direction it surely couldn't hurt.

You can check out the entire interview here.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reader's Diary #246- Maurice Maeterlinck: The Blue Bird (Up to Act 3, Scene 1)

Mostly because of my incessant drive to become well-rounded (whatever that means), I've been trying to read more plays lately. So far it's been enjoyable, but it's hard to read plays and not keep thinking, "these would just be so much better to see." After all, that is their raison d'etre. But I've heard others say that poetry is meant to be oral, and I object to that. I thoroughly enjoy reading poetry, I find reading it very personal and intimate. So if people enjoy reading plays, who cares that they were meant to be performed. How about you? Do you read plays?

A funny thing happened while reading The Blue Bird. I started to notice that it was definitely a product of its age. Written back in 1908, it isn't just the fairy tale element that dates it. In particular, children are overly glossed with juvenile naivete. As I do when I read most plays, I tried to envision it being acted and Shirley Temple came to mind. I'm not sure if it was dredged up from a long forgotten past of meaningless movie experiences or if I shared the same judgement as a casting director back in the first half of the 20th century. It turns out Shirley Temple did appear in a movie adaptation of The Blue Bird back in 1940.

In the play's favour, despite having elements that would have an obvious attraction for children (a cat, a dog, water, sugar and more all become human- sort of), I am enjoying some of the more metaphysical elements which I assume were aimed at the adult audience. Specifically, I liked the presentation of memory. Tyltyl and Mytyl, the two lead children, travel to the Land Of Memory where they meet their grandparents and deceased siblings. I was taken with the idea of memory as a realm where the deceased go on "living" in a manner of speaking. I've often considered that heaven and hell might be similar. If you do enough good deeds on Earth, you live your heaven in people's memories. If you're evil enough, you live your hell in much the same way. And the times you're just not thought of at all? Well, I guess that can be purgatory. I quite like the idea that there would be doors between the three realms (please forgive this post, it's rather late and this is the way I get). Of course, most people don't spend their whole lives as saints or sinners, and they'd be remembered by different people in both positive and negative lights, so they'd spend a little time in heaven and hell. Of course the problem with my zany theory (other than the fact that I factor God out of the equation and make the living people the judges of the dead) are those people who do a lifetime of good deeds that go unacknowledged, hence unremembered. My version depends on fame. Shucks. I thought I was onto something.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Writer's Diary #21- Twillingate (First Draft)

If this was a Milton Acorn piece, I'd probably declare it too blatant. But I wrote it for cathartic reasons, not to be the world's greatest poem, so it at least served its purpose. Ever write just to get something off your chest? Sometimes it really works. That said, I should add the disclaimer that yes, small towns, including Twillingate, also have their fine points.


The odour
from the fish plant
fogged through the air
and seeped its way into
the church pews,
the hospital waiting room,
the produce aisle at the grocery store,
the desks at the school.
I could never understand
when people called it the
“smell of success”
Did it need to stink?

It’s been 13 years or more
since the plant closed.
Not to worry,
the locals have found new employment
at the rumour mill.
(There is no moratorium on imagination.)
And if stench is any measure,
it’s as successful as it ever was.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Reader's Diary #245- Jose Saramago: Blindness (up to p. 50)

For some weird reason, I have accidentally made this Nobel month at the Book Mine Set. Without even intending it to happen this way, I'm currently reading books by three Nobel prize winners; Jose Saramago's Blindness, Pablo Neruda's The Captain's Verses, and Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird. Plus, I just finished Harold Pinter's The Room.

Check out the list of past winners. Asides from the one's mentioned above, I've also read Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, William Golding, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, and George Bernard Shaw. Which have you read? And does winning the Nobel prize increase your likelihood of reading works by a particular author? While I don't intentionally search them out, they are probably a little easier to come across in libraries, so I guess it does influence my reading a little.

It's hard to stay balanced after you hear of a book's accolades. Usually it causes people to either go on a fault-finding mission or claim brilliance in the periods and exclamation points. As much as I'd like to think I'm above such bias, Blindness is making me think otherwise. So far I'm absolutely flabbergasted by how great it is. Yes, I'm even impressed with the punctuation!

To tell you the plot details up to this point would not do the book justice: A city is suddenly plagued by a contagious form of blindness and the unfortunate victims are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital. Sounds like a cheap medical thriller, doesn't it?

But it feels like so much more. The way it's told is fantastic. From a plural, third person point of view it almost comes across as a case study, perhaps even as a cold scientific voice at times:

"As for us, we should like to think that if the blind man..."

Yet it has the converse effect of making me care more about the victims. It seems to force my emotions more in their favour.

I remember reading Angela's Ashes a while back and appreciating Frank McCourt's rejection of quotation marks. An odd thing really, but I think it got a couple of points across to me: 1. quotation marks are for chumps 2. for all the time we've spent setting down "the rules", they are more fun when knocked over. Saramago takes it further. Not only are conversations missing quotation marks, but the dialogue is merely separated by commas. While characters (who remain nameless except for consistent descriptors, such as "the doctor's wife") talk back and forth with one another, there isn't even a line break. For example:

"...I'm a doctor, an ophthalmologist, You must be the the doctor I consulted
yesterday, I recognise your voice, Yes, and who are you, I've been suffering
from conjunctivitis and I assume it hasn't cleared up..."
I had to use ellipses because an entire conversation often takes up to an entire page! And again, Saramago pulls it off. In a book about blindness, it makes the conversation more realistic, it is reduced to nothing but the voices. The imagination it takes to follow along (which is surprisingly easy) pulled me into the story even more.

So far, I am VERY impressed.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Happy 10000th! (I Don't Look A Day Over 7500)

Sometime during the wee hours of the morning, I had my 10000th visitor. No prizes are on their way, but if it was you, I appreciate it.

When Rj (Where are you?) help me begin this blog back in December 2005, I had no idea what to expect. I was in for a few surprises.

Initially, I had hoped to reach fellow readers, readers searching for others' thoughts about whatever book they were currently reading. If I get many of those, they're usually quiet in terms of posting comments. That's okay. What I certainly didn't expect was the blogging community.

Mine was a type of blog that I didn't think would attract faithful readers. At the time I thought that if you weren't reading the book I was currently blogging about, the site would hold no interest for a daily reader. Of course, since then I've come to realize that I'm not the only one who reads reviews of books, music, movies, etc that I haven't read, heard, or seen myself. And with that, I've entered into the blogosphere. It's quite remarkable to be communicating regularly with people I've never met in person in Newfoundland, Ontario, Alberta and even the U.S.. The whole thing has gobsmacked me.

I've also been surprised by the occasional visit from authors. It's pretty neat to be read by someone I've actually blogged about. Even cooler when they actually add comments! That's left me more reflective about my postings. I admit, I'm not proud of everything I've written. Typos aside (to er is human), I know some of my posts have been vitriolic to say the least. I've often considered going back and deleting such posts, but then I consider that I've called them "diary" entries. If I was feeling particularly nasty at the time, that shouldn't be edited or downplayed. It also shouldn't say too much about the book. Maybe I was having a bad day (packing up and moving to Iqaluit isn't a walk in the park!), or maybe I was just wasn't careful with my sarcastic tone. If any feelings have been hurt, I apologize. For what it's worth, read some of my "Writer's Diaries" and slam my abilities right back! It should also be said that I do not set out to do reviews, I aim to merely comment on my thoughts as I am reading through a particular book. If someone wants to treat them as reviews, that's their prerogative.

What can the next 10000 visitors expect? Conspiracy theories; Elvis sightings, Area 51, JFK's assassination, all these and more will become the new focus of the Book Mine Set. Screw books, from now on it's all tabloids all the time.

Kidding of course. In all probability, visitors can simply expect more of the same. Perhaps, if I'm lucky, "Actor's Diaries" will be added, and if I'm really lucky, my Canada Reads 2008 posts will be from a whole new angle! If all else fails, nude photos of Justin Timberlake. (And this my friends, is the first time I've ever pandered for hits- tune in tomorrow when my hits reach 500000).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reader's Diary #244- Pablo Neruda: The Captain's Verses (up to "The Earth")

With my frequent condemnations of overly sentimental poems, I may have given the impression that I'm not a romantic. Wrong. I'm just not a sentimental romantic.

Pablo Neruda's love poems walk that fine line. While the poems in The Captain's Verses were written for his wife-to-be, the poems say as much about love in a philosophical sense as they do in a intimate, specific sense. It is probably the case that the philosophical stuff was a by-product but that's what saves the poems from sliding into Hallmark territory.

On an intimate level, Neruda's love poems are very physical. He practically maps every inch of his lover's body as he continuously references her waist, her hips, her breasts, her eyes, and so forth. They are also very personal. Each poem is directly addressed to "you". It feels almost like I've dug out a shoebox of someone's mementos, almost like I'm invading their privacy.

Getting into the more philosophical side of things, I've noticed that a lot of these poems talk of journeys; "they travel the distance of your legs", "I crossed the roads", and others. Quite a step up from directly saying, "Love is like a journey..." As a true poet, Neruda is able to express the same sentiment without falling into cliche territory and also adding to the idea with more inventive and specific examples.

Like Margo Button's The Elders' Palace, The Captain's Verses is written in two languages. The original Spanish poems are placed side by side with Donald S. Walsh's translations. According to Walsh in his introduction, Neruda's poetic ideas were expressed "very simply and directly [so it was] possible to translate him quite literally with no loss of validity." I'd like to be able to read both versions to decide for myself, but it certainly doesn't seem like I'm reading a translation. I don't feel like I'm missing the better version (as I did when I read Gabrielle Roy's Children Of My Heart). Still, I do find myself glancing over to the Spanish side and trying it out in my head. I admit, Spanish normally sounds more romantic to me than English. It is either a compliment to Neruda, Walsh, or both that the English versions are still filled with the beautiful language of love.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Writer's Diary #20- A Decision To (First Draft)

While this is a very rudimentary draft, I've been playing with this idea in my head for a while now...

A Decision To

If he will tell,
neither heaven nor hell
will help.
A grain could become a heap
but he’ll sow more than he’ll ever reap,
write more than he’ll ever read,
live more then he’ll be dead.
He will outlive the minor deed.
(Truth had already died
when the snake looked to Eve and lied.)
He justifies and tells more lies.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Reader's Diary #243- Harold Pinter: The Room (FINISHED)

I'm hoping that soon I'll be able to add "Actor's Diary" to my usual Reader's and Writer's Diaries. The local theatre group is auditioning for a role in Harold Pinter's The Room.

It's a very intriguing play. I heard someone mention it recently and they referred to it as "surreal". I'm not sure if I'd call it that. To me surreal is all about melting clocks and men with apples stuck in front of their faces. The Room isn't that. But it is interesting and I think I know what that person was getting at.

What I liked most is the eerie feel. I started off feeling as I did when I watched Nicole Kidman in The Others. I knew something was up, and though I didn't know what it was, I was slightly disturbed by the possibilities I imagined. Unlike The Others however, Pinter never does reveal the secret. Some might be put off by that, but I love it.

Everything in this play could still have a logical explanation, it could all be possible. Yet, it was more fun for me to think up a supernatural explanation. Perhaps Riley who comes up from the basement is a death figure, come to take Rose to the otherside. He does say he has a message from her father, that he wants her to "come home". When he calls her "Sal", Rose pauses slightly before saying not to call her that. Maybe it was her father's childhood nickname for her. Yet, if this sounds all a bit far-fetched, that's fine. It says no where that Rose's father is even dead! Perhaps there isn't much of a supernatural element at all (though the atmosphere Pinter has set up would certainly suggest something out of the ordinary).

There is some debate as to whether or not the landlord once had a sister (he says that he did, but for some reason Rose doesn't believe it). Maybe "Sal" had been her name. Riley is blind after all, it could have been a case of mistaken identity.

And there are even more mysteries; Why does Rose's husband only talk at the end? Why does Rose herself go blind? It's the almost complete lack of background and clues that makes the play so compelling and fun for me- though I'm sure plenty will find it frustrating as hell!

Given a choice of who I'd play, I'd pick Mr. Sands. Mr. Sands comes in with his wife supposedly to rent a room. His character is slightly cynical and know-it-all-ish (me at my worst?), but is almost comically balanced with his polite and jovial wife. It's not a pivotal role (at least I don't think so!), but it might be good for someone with as little acting experience as I. I'll give it a shot anyhow.

Canada Reads 2008? A Geek's Mission (Part Two)

Canada Reads 2008

I realize that in my mission to find my self sitting across from Bill Richardson at next year's Canada Reads debates, I'm a little early out of the gate. Panelists aren't usually announced until late October or early November, and I'm already running short on ideas. I've tried having friends and well-wishers bombard the Canada Reads website with suggestions on my behalf. I'm not sure how that went. In their wisdom they decided only to post a few of those comments on their board, so I don't know how many people actually wrote in. If there were a lot, maybe I only succeeded in alienating them! A few people have also taken the extra step to blog about my quest; John Gushue, Allison and Barbara (Thanks everyone!). While all this help is great and it means that I'm not off to a bad start, I don't want it to fall flat. I fear come next November a few people might be saying, "wasn't there someone from up North somewhere trying to get on that show?" So here's my next request: help! I need ideas! Something that keeps my name out there in conjunction with Canada Reads (not an easy task since Canada Reads itself is rarely discussed throughout the entire year). I need something that won't cost a lot of money, something that doesn't result in a cease and desist order from the CBC, and something that doesn't see me naked underneath a sandwich board that says, "Nude For Books". So please, put your heads in promo gear and see what we can do!

(Read Part One here.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reader's Diary #242: William Shakespeare: Coriolanus (FINISHED)

According to Wikipedia, "the warrior Coriolanus is perhaps the most opaque of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, rarely pausing to soliloquize or reveal the motives behind his prideful isolation from Roman society." That Coriolanus's personality is mostly revealed, whether accurately or not, through the eyes of others is one of favourite aspects of this play.

Unlike a lot of Shakespearean heroes and villains, Coriolanus is not a black or white character. That this was intentional, I think Shakespeare hints at through Aufidius when he says, "So our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time." I'd go over further and say the assessment of Coriolanus is not only dependent on the time, but also on the individual audience member (or reader, in my case).

Before our kids were born, my wife and I read a lot of parenting books while we waited. One of the tidbits of advice came back to me while reading Coriolanus; look at a child's traits in a positive light. "Nosey" becomes "curious", "stubborn" becomes "determined", and so forth. In other words, always look on the bright side of life. But pride, the focal theme of Coriolanus, isn't as clear as those examples. Is pride a virtue or a vice? We constantly talk about how we should be proud of ourselves and who we are, yet still remind ourselves that "the pride cometh before the fall."

One of the better moments of Shakespeare's exploration of pride, comes when Coriolanus is running for consul. To succeed, Coriolanus needs to woo the commoners, the plebians, yet he has already expressed his dislike for them. His opponents, of course push this issue and Coriolanus's (almost) humorous defence is that while it is true that he dislikes them, he should at least get credit for being honest. But isn't there a good point here? Don't many of those who run for government think they are better than the average citizen? If they didn't think that they could do a better job, why run? Yet it would be career suicide to campaign on that angle.

Needless to say, Coriolanus does not make it to consul. Not one to take things lightly, Coriolanus goes on a tirade and gets himself banished from Rome. (Too bad we couldn't do that nowadays.) It is then that he befriends an old foe and plots to seek revenge. Fortunately for the Romans, his mother and wife are able to convince him to make peace instead. But since this is Shakespeare, Coriolanus dies in the end, a victim of Aufidius's pride.

I fear that in my synopsis I've given the impression that Shakespeare takes a stance against pride. But I think it is more complex than that, and what he really accomplishes is showing that virtues and vices are often two ends of the same spectrum. It's a thinking play for sure and I'm unsure of why it isn't more popular. My only guess is the cynical tone. Coriolanus often comes across as egotistical, the senate is full of lying schemers, and the plebians are shown as fickle. Not one of his more uplifting commentaries on humanity, he at least gives us more direction on what might be part of the problem; we oversimplify motivations and values.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Reader's Diary #241- Nancy Tafuri: You Are Special Little One

On a hot savannah
under a shady tree,
a lion cub asks,
"How am I special?"

And Mama and Papa Lion reply,
"Dear little one,
with your dense, golden coat
and your deep, resounding purr,
you are special,
and we will love you
forever and ever and always."

I know a lot of people who love this book. They are all adults.

Most commonly cited reasons? It's full of love. It has a rich vocabulary. Repetition. Variety of animals. Soft, friendly illustrations. Introduces the concept of "special" as unique.

Love. How about overly saccharine? It should still be entertaining. Even Robert Munsch's Love You Forever, of which I'm also not a fan, had the good sense to throw in a psychopathic mother to keep things interesting.

Rich vocabulary. First of all, I have a preschool aged child who uses words like "compromise" and "versatile". I am not afraid of teaching children big words. But this book is relentless, and it offers little in the way of context to figure out what they mean. Resounding? Really?

Repetition. I have to admit, I see value in this. When children recognize patterns, they are quicker to join in and perhaps even begin reading themselves. Still, when it's buried in such a book as this, the value is minimized.

Variety of animals. Not a bad point. Don't expect too much of a biology lesson though. Tafuri presents quite the Church of Latter Day Saints version of the animal kingdom (I'll elaborate later).

Soft, friendly illustrations. The artwork isn't bad, but it's not stellar either. I'm not sure why, but I'm more reluctant to harp on the illustrations than the text, even though they're all done by the same person. For some reason I feel crueler when I do so. Anyway, I will say that in the final drawing of the human family, it looks as if someone drew the child's face on a balloon and then blew too much air into it.

Special/Unique. I'll give you 5 seconds to think of 5 animated Disney movies. Now, which of those started and ended with two parents? I'm guessing not many. I'm not sure why this is. Compared to Disney, each of the critters in Tafuri's book is unique; they each have a mama and a papa. No, I don't think a hunter needs to come out of the woods (a la Bambi)and blow mama beaver's head off, but I do think a little variety would have been nice.

The rewrite:

...a lion cub asks
"How am I special?"

And mama Lion replies,
"Dear little one,
with your adopted brother
and my girlfriend
and your father in a Thai prison,
you aren't all that special.
Still, you're alright kiddo,
big ears and all."

Reader's Diary #240- Ken Babstock: Airstream Land Yacht (FINISHED)

Recently Drew Barrymore hosted Saturday Night Live for the 5th time. I'm slightly ambivalent about her acting abilities for the most part but there was one particular sketch that almost convinced me that she was actually great; the job interview. For those of you that haven't seen it, sorry I can't help. I looked for a video clip but SNL is notoriously keen on keeping them out of YouTube. Suffice it to say, the best part of the sketch (in my opinion) was how much fun she seemed to be having. It's great when artists seem to be in their glory, isn't it? I get the feeling Ken Babstock was in his during the writing of these poems. And if he wasn't, you'd never know it.

I haven't read a poet taking so many chances with the language since Christian Bok's Eunoia. In "Tarantella" for instance, Babstock riffs on a "ella" rhyme and delights in the silliness; rubella, Nutella, mortadella, tell a, the blah, and so forth. In "Expiry Date" I think Babstock employs the letter "o" in creating a rather risque poem (and if that wasn't his intention it doesn't matter because as Babstock writes in the last line, "It's what we think we saw that sticks, never what we see.") I loved the intense negativity in "The Brave" which is line after line of rejection, beginning with "That's not what we liked. It wasn't for us." and ending with "It wasn't for us and won't be. Ever. Trust me." Another favourite was "Epochal", in which the two sections of poem, the "video loop" and the "etched plate", have marked similarities. For instance, the line "long exploits in" becomes "something explodes" the second time around. These are just a few examples of Babstock's creativity.

But (you just knew there had to be a "but"), occasionally Babstock's creativity created too large of a distance between us. Whereas some poems were fun, other times I simply resented not knowing what the frig he was talking about. As exciting as extremists can be, sometimes I want to relax. (The 20 year old in me is shaking his head at my 30 year old call for moderation.) Fortunately the fun parts outnumbered the confusing ones, and so I'd reread this book in the future and maybe come to a better understanding.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cover Books?

I tried to find an example of musicians who have mutually covered each other's songs. If you know one, think if it now and substitute it here for a better introduction.

I've always wondered a cover book would be like. That is, having one author "cover" or rewrite another's book. In particular, I've wanted to see Margaret Atwood cover Stephen King and vice versa. How would Christine read if rewritten by Atwood? How different would Blind Assassin be in the hands of Stephen King?

How about you? Any books you'd like to see covered?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Writer's Diary #19: Memory/Memories (First Draft)

Reading Babstock's poems has made me want to try writing stanzas that connect more (ideas that continue over the gaps), and to pay more attention to the sounds of my words. I've also tried to write more of a narrative poem, which is not a predominate characteristic of Babstock's work. It is a first draft though and I'd like to eventually go back and work on the rhythm in particular.


If you thought down here,
under the ice was warm,
you were wrong.
Although it is serene

and though we seem to wait,
we don’t. The mud-spattered reeds
do, I suppose, resemble arms.
And the sound

of skates above is hollow,
ominous, you might say.
And further still, the voices
talk like spirits,

or voices in a dream,
or voices of thought.
They sound happy,
despite being faceless.

We question if the boy,
The one who cried
getting his skates on,

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Reader's Diary #239- William Shakespeare: Coriolanus (up to Act 1, Scene 2)

Ever heard of this play? I hadn't, and that's primarily my reason for picking it. In my ongoing attempt to read all of Shakespeare's plays and the Bible, I needed something to liven it up a little.

I loved the opening scene. If an angry mob doesn't pull you in, what does? For as much as we go on about higher ideals, psychology and philosophy in Shakespeare's plays, he was just as much about cheap thrills. His knack was being able to do both; entertain and enlighten. The opening scene does just that.

The rioters are angry, hungry citizens of Rome. They want to go after Caius Marcius (the title character- his named is changed later on) because, as a general in the Roman army, they blame him for hording grain from the people. A debate ensuing between two citizens reveals one of the predominate themes in the play: pride. The second citizen, who seems less sure of the mob's actions, asks "Consider you what services he has done for his country?" and the first citizen replies, "Very well; and could be content to give him good report for't; but that he pays himself with being proud."
It immediately got me to thinking. Is this a case of an ends justifying a means? Or rather an ends justifying a purpose? In other words, would pride matter if the end result was (usually) something good for the people? And anyways, is there such thing as a truly selfless act? I called Oprah to get her two cents worth, but she told me that I need to respect the restraining order and to F--- Off.

But more important than the answers to those questions, is the fact that they are raised it all. It could have been a simple mob sequence, but Shakespeare brilliantly intertwined such thought-provoking dialogue with the action.

I read a synopses of this play in Wikipedia, primarily to see why it was one of the bard's lesser known plays. Of the more critical comments, it is suggested that "The play maintains a serious tone throughout, without any of the familiar comic scenes, fools, or other stock devices commonly used by Shakespeare to lighten his tragedies." And while I'm only two scenes in, I think there is humour present. Not as obvious as in his other works, I think the comedy in this play is subject to the reader (or audience). I'm sure not everyone would see the humour in Caius Marcius's entrance, but I thought the way he single handedly destroyed Menenius Agrippa's defence of his (Marcius's) character to the mob, was tragically funny. Menenius almost has the rioters convinced that Marcius's actions were necessary, and then Marcius shows up. Immediately he starts lambasting the crowd with sheer contempt. The irony of his actions, when he was about to be saved, is pretty funny in itself, but the contempt for the commoners is even more precious; "What's the matter, you dissentious rogues, That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?" Mr. Burns himself would be proud.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Reader's Diary #238: Ken Babstock: Airstream Land Yacht (up to "Palindromic")

I'm finally reading a book of poetry that's still relevant. Thanks to the Iqaluit Public Library for getting this in especially for moi!

How is it relevant? First off, it was only published last year. Most poetry I read is in the "no longer in print" category. The genre typically has a short shelf life. Also, this book was a finalist for the 2006 Governor General's Award for Poetry. And it's currently up for Newfoundland's Winterset Award.

So far I'm enjoying and I'll get into why in a future post. For now though, I'd like to express one small bone of contention I have. In the poem "Windspeed" there is a line that goes, "the afternoon nose down in the crowberries and fir." Do you see why I'm so upset?

Okay, I'm not really all that bothered, but you're probably still wondering what the problem is. It's "crowberries". A quick lesson on Newfoundland fauna:

These are not crowberries. These are black berries:

And these don't exist (except on supermarket shelves):

In Newfoundland, most people don't say "crowberries". We call them "blackberries". Blackberries, as most of the country knows them, do not grow in Newfoundland. So why does Babstock choose "crowberries"? He was born in Newfoundland, but grew up in the Ottawa Valley. Would his mainland upbringing forgive him the word? It shouldn't. "Windspeed" is set in Newfoundland, with references to Topsail and Belle Isle. Furthermore the characters, children or teenagers, seem quite comfortable with the place as they fly their kites, so I get the impression that they are locals. This makes the "crowberries" term a little unbelievable. Was Babstock trying to give a more accurate picture for mainland readers? There are no maps of Belle Isle provided. And besides, why pick the audience? It would seem more authentic simply to stick to the vernacular of the province. Mary Dalton's poetry has been praised across the country for using Newfoundland terms and expressions.

I've tried to rationalize the use. Perhaps "crow" has more symbolism of trickery and captures the mischievousness of the children better. But then, the contrast of the sinister "black" with the sweetness of "berry" captures that almost as well. The rhythm is not affected. I can't see how it sounds any better (there's no alliteration for instance). The only reason I can see is an attempt to appeal to readers outside Newfoundland.

Lest it seem I'm being too critical, I am enjoying the book. I will elaborate later. It's but one word. I just thought it was an interesting choice that could generate a lot of discussion about readers, and how much thought is put into their locality.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Reader's Diary #237- Mary Lawson: Crow Lake (FINISHED)

The Lullabies For Little Criminals win on this year's Canada Reads, sparked many discussions about trendy novels. Is Lullabies trendy? Or was it a breath of fresh air in the dull halls of Canadian libraries? The answer to those questions depends on your definition of trendy. I'd be surprised though if anyone accused Crow Lake of being trendy.

But it's not boring either. Yes, it stays true to the CanLit stereotypes- set in rural Canada, nature plays a vital part, slow exploration of a tragedy and it's told in a pretty traditional writing style. Yet, even if none of that is your thing, it has a saving grace; Lawson's relationship with the reader.

More specifically Lawson's use of foreshadowing, essentially taunting the reader. From the very first chapter onward she alludes to a tragedy, some sort of catastrophe involving another family, and she keeps revisiting that topic, without revealing it until near the end. Lots of books use foreshadowing it's true, but Lawson seems to wield it like a sadistic weapon. And despite the tragedy, it makes for a fun reading experience. As I formed theories about what had exactly happened to the Morrison family, I found Lawson teasing me with details that may or may not impact on the outcome. It's not a murder mystery but she still unraveled the story in much the same way. Maybe less overt than that, but it was still the book's best quality in my opinion. Sometimes, I want a book to sideswipe me with the drama. Life is often that way, we aren't always provided with ample doses of foreshadowing. But in defense of Crow Lake, it's told as a series of flashbacks. Since it's told in hindsight, it would seem a little silly (and fake) not to allude to anything. Sideswiping is best left for the present tense.

There were times when the story wasn't perfect. As someone complained about Stanley Park during Canada Reads (how many times can I work that show into each post?), it sometimes felt too researched. In particular, the university descriptions. The rest of the story was pretty simply told, then suddenly I was getting a lesson on surfactants. Granted, a major theme of the story revolves around education and the potential it has to alienate people, so it could be argued that it's fitting and symbolic of the relationship Kate has with her brother Matt.

All in all, it was a great read. Not overly ambitious like the aforementioned Park book, but pleasant and smart nonetheless. I'm glad our book club picked it and I'm looking forward to reading Lawson's second novel, The Other Side Of The Bridge.

(Don't forget to plead my case on the Canada Reads site!)

Canada Reads 2008- If You Loved Me You Would

Canada Reads has posted a question asking who we'd like to hear discussing the books next year. I've pleaded my case and I'm hoping that, with enough support behind me, they'll consider a relative nobody like myself. So if you want to show your support and get me on the air, suggest "John Mutford" here. With all 4 of my faithful readers behind me, I'm a shoo in!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Writer's Diary #18- Advice and a Revisit

Last week on the Words At Large website I read an interview with Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton who offered up advice for poets just starting out. Since I'm a fan, and a poet just starting out, I thought I'd reflect on her words of wisdom.

1. Read voraciously, in all genres, in all centuries. Read authors from many cultures.

I've been working on this. I have to admit, my selections are a little too biased towards contemporary, Eurocentric picks. I've known this was a problem for a while but I've never made the effort to remedy it. I've also been considering cutting back on the reading to get more writing done, but this is all I need to hear to keep me flipping those pages.

2. Get a good grounding in the craft of poetry by whatever methods work for you.

Occasionally I've picked up university texts which have explained the ins-and-outs of poetry; rhyme schemes, meter, and so forth. In the past year I've also picked up a How To Write Poetry book, as well as Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve's In Fine Form which discussed what defines specific poems and provided examples from established poets. Again, I feel like I could be doing more.

3. Recognize that it will take years of living and reading and writing to make the best poems you have in you.

I have a problem with this one. It's impatience I know. But at least I'm aware that I'm not writing as best as I could potentially write, so I've at least given up submitting embarrassing poems to magazines. A few years ago I sent out a bunch that I still cringe over. Secretly I know there's a room full of publishers still laughing at me. Come to think of it, maybe I also have confidence issues.

4. Carry a notebook. Write every day.

I don't write everyday. I had a job recently which gave me 2 fifteen minute coffee breaks every
day, during which time I'd walk (with the notebook) to the nearby coffee shop, grab a quick cup and write. Since then, my job has switched and I'm finding it exceedingly difficult to find the time to write. Just 15 minutes. I have to be more disciplined. Or give up blogging (it's not real writing, you know!).

5. Try to find like-minded friends who will read and respond to your poems.

Why I can't give up blogging. Actually, I don't post everything I write. But I am appreciative of the feedback when I do. I should post more. I also have the writing club, which is fine, but most others aren't all that into poetry and so "like-minded" doesn't exactly fit. I also had a colleague in Newfoundland whom I enjoyed sharing poems with, but approaching new people with, "Wanna read my poems?" usually gets me strange looks.

Also, when asked to describe her writing process Dalton said (among other things), "I like to let drafts sit for long periods of time—years, ideally. Then I work on them with the cold eye of an editor." I like this. It forces me to be patient, plus it forces me to reread my older stuff. To be honest, reading something I've written two years ago appeals to me about as much as eating meatloaf from two years ago. My usual reaction is, "UGH! What was I thinking?" but maybe I can learn from that, even if I can't salvage any of the words.

Today however, I did salvage something. I've been saving my writing for a while now, and today I went back and found one that I didn't despise. It was inspired by the biography of Emily Carr. I've included both the original draft and changes I've made today. Sorry about using pictures. I've had to include them as bitmaps since the second version has a lot of indentations that blogger simply won't let me do.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Reader's Diary #236- Margaret Atwood (Foreward), Aislin (Illustrations): Barbed Lyres, Canadian Venomous Verse (FINISHED!)

Ever watch reruns of Air Farce on the Comedy network? Of course not, nobody does. Why not? Satirical shows, the ones that rely so heavily on current news for fodder, get dated too quickly. I'm not sure whose brainy idea it was to syndicate it in the first place, but they're probably the same ones who felt a hardcover was necessary for Barbed Lyres.

Hardcovers are great. They give your bookshelf that nice pretentious look and provide you with the joys of carpal tunnel syndrome when you read in bed. But poetry books don't often come in hardcover. Publishers, I'm assuming, don't anticipate a great profit from poetry and most likely don't want to reduce it even further by investing in hardcovers. Did the geniuses at Key Porter books think this was going to make a buck? If so, it's probably worth noting that it's no longer in print and I got my copy from a discard pile at the local library.

But is it good? Not really. Maybe it was in its day. It's not exactly terrible, it's always interesting to see what (other) amateur poets are capable of, and it's not often I get exposure to satirical poetry. Published in 1990, Barbed Lyres is a collection of entries in a contest sponsored by This Magazine who asked for satirical poems on any subject. In addition, Barbed Lyres contains poems from "professional" poets who were invited to submit (though were not eligible for the contest).

So why isn't it good? Primarily it's the Air Farce rerun syndrome. It's too dated. Entrants of course shouldn't be criticized for writing about what was relevant back in the day, but it's hard to appreciate all the Meech Lake and Free Trade jokes this far after the fact. Other targets I've either completely forgotten about or wasn't even aware of at the time. Though I did learn that Peter Mansbridge used to be married to Wendy Mesley. Am I the last Canadian to learn that? It's probably on citizenship exams.

But it's also the poems themselves. I called the poets amateur earlier. Some are. Some no doubt could have crossed over to professional (reciting poems at a local coffee house while a friend strums quietly on a mandolin). The majority however, seem as if they hadn't so much as read a Hallmark greeting card. Of the bad ones, these can be broken down into two categories: those that try too hard and those that don't try hard enough. Those that try too hard throw in latin, french or Old English as a joke and often begin with "with apologies to Keats" or some other dead poet we're all supposed to be well acquainted with. Those that didn't try hard enough made fun of Mulroney's chin. Neither camp had any sense of rhythm. I'm not trying to be cruel, but I am suggesting that the publication of these poems smacks of those "National Poetry" gimmicks which publishes your poem and sells you a book. They prey on people's egos.

To be fair, some were great. And not just professionals either (though Susan Musgrave's "Canadian Roulette" was my favourite. ) Martha Hillhouse of Vancouver brilliantly satirizes an everyday experience, infusing a healthy dose of sexuality in a shopping trip to the local Safeway (14 years before Desperate Housewives). Plus, it's a poem, a real poem, complete with imagery, experimental use of language (no periods, capitals, and so forth). Bill Curry of Wynyard, Saskatchewan writes a superb epigram call "Canada Hold Your Water" about the selling of one of our most precious resources and ending in an extremely clever (and funny) pun. These didn't win. Judged by Margaret Atwood, Allan Fotheringham and Nancy White, the winners seemed to have been picked at random. They're not the best in the book, nor the worst. Satire to be fair, would be a hard thing to judge. Everyone's sense of humour is unique.

Another problem with the book was the layout. Asides from putting the winners at the front, and a poem entitled "Ode to Barbed Lyres et al" at the end, there's no apparent rhyme or reason in the placement of the poems. Topics jumped from hockey, to Ronald Reagan, to the CBC and back again. Likewise celebrity and professional poets had their work scattered throughout willy-nilly. Poems were not alphabetized. Nothing. It was rather jarring. Asides from asking political cartoonist Aislin to illustrate, little thought seems to have gone into the production.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Canada Reads 2007- Day Five (And the winner is...)

It's not often I'm glad to be wrong. But today is one of those rare days. While I still wished it had come down to Song of Kahunsha and Lullabies for Little Criminals, Lullabies won anyway and it was my favourite book from the lot. Yay!

It wasn't the most surprising of the Canada Reads episodes today. The first to go was The Song of Kahunsha. In perhaps the only eye brow raising moment of the show, John K Samson voted off Kahunsha. Earlier it had seemed that he had an alliance with Donna Morrissey and that he was not a huge fan of Stanley Park. Perhaps the voting was strategic, perhaps Jim Cuddy had influenced his vote. I suspect there was a little a both going on. He claimed to be "bewildered" by his own actions.

Yet Samson's vote wasn't the deciding vote. There was a 2-2 tie between Kahunsha and Stanley Park, and the breaker fell to Denise Bombardier. Again, no surprises. She casually casted aside Kahunsha as not being Canadian enough, which earned her a lecture on what being Canadian is from Donna Morrissey. The tension was delicious. While I agree with Bombardier that Morrissey was a little out of place, I'd like to see Irani years from now win the Governor General's award or even the Order of Canada and hear him reflect on the competition he lost way back when he wasn't Canadian enough (he's lived in Canada from almost a decade now). But then again, this book wasn't set in Canada either. Maybe there is a line here somewhere. Denise Bombardier unfortunately was the one to decide what it was, and she felt it had been crossed.

Anyway, with Kahunsha gone the show was anti-climactic. Bombardier again was one of the most vocally against Lullabies. Oddly her loudest complaint was probably one of the best aspects of the book. Writing about pimps and drugs, she claimed, is "what's happening in our times (sic), it puts ahead values that are the values of our time, and it is also about this trash vision we have of our time and I thought it was too depressing...This is also reality, we know that..the television is full of all those depressing lifes (sic) of people who are victims [of their] social class...I'm looking for hope and expectation." This is exactly why the book is necessary. So sad that the reality is too harsh for Bombardier, but looking away or pretending it's not the way it is surely won't breed the hope she's longing for. But I'm lecturing. Oh well, she won't read this anyway.

I also liked the audio clip from O'Neill but felt the panelists shortchanged her message. She said that she grew up in a similar life as Baby and wanted to show how interactive pimps and drugdealers are with children who live in inner cities. She said, as children living amongst such characters, they are often idolized and treated almost as superheroes. After the clip, Bill Richardson said he didn't feel that such characters came across as superheroes at all after reading the book and said it in a way that led me to believe he thought it was a flaw with O'Neill's writing. But in her defence, O'Neill didn't say they were superheroes, she said children often view them as such (there's an interesting new genre of music called "Hip Hop" that presents similar views). The difference is crucial to John K. Samson's argument that the book is important. It's also crucial to the coming of age element discussed by Steven Page. Towards the end of the book, Baby has grown out of her illusions about the sleazy characters around her.

Anyway, when all was said and done, Lullabies won. Stanley Park lost. And all is right with the world. Except for the sad fact that the show is gone, not to return for another year.

The winner of Canada Reads 2007-

Lullabies for Little Criminals - Heather O'Neill

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Canada Reads 2007- Day Four

So much for predictions. While I correctly guessed that it wouldn't win, I thought that Lullabies would go first. However, in this case, I'm glad to have been mistaken.

What a great Canada Reads again today. I have to say, it's no wonder these are the master debaters. Everyone did a superb job today. Even Jim Cuddy, whose book I could hardly stand, is doing a bang-up job. He's almost convinced me that I should give it another shot. Thankfully, the other panelists are reminding me why I disliked it so much originally. It is a mess. Yes, Taylor should get recognized for his ambition. Yes, there are lots of themes. But it doesn't, as Morrissey pointed out, come together. Themes, and even storylines, are simply dropped at the end. Jim Cuddy seems to think the father-son relationship is the at the core of the novel, but just as he seems critical that O'Neill left too much up to the reader's imagination (the timeframe from which it is being told, the ramifications of Baby's ordeals, and so on), the same could (more easily) be said about Stanley Park. To say that the father-son story is at the core, is simply assumption. The publishers printed comments on the back suggesting that it was a satire. They went on to imply it's a murder mystery. In Taylor's interview on Words At Large, he seemed to think it was a love story. Now Cuddy claims it's a father and son story. The problem is, no one knows. It's a jumbled mess.

Throw into the equation the soundbite from Taylor that said a major theme throughout the book is the local-international dichotomy. I noticed that, and thought it had potential to be the saving grace of the book. As John K. Samson pointed out today (I thought Cuddy would have pushed this argument long ago), it doesn't just relate to food. It applies to other works of art as well, whether it be literature, music, or something else. Unfortunately, Taylor's delivery falls short. It is a novel about ideas (which novel isn't?), but who can't write a list of ideas?

For Kahunsha and Lullabies, I don't know what to expect. I'd love it to come down to those two- they were my favourites from the lot. But, I'd hate to see the Samson/Morrissey alliance crumble. They could have been king and queen of the prom. But it may come down to strategic voting tomorrow. Stanley Park is getting hit pretty hard now, but maybe that'll be what keeps in: easy competition. I'm glad Morrissey didn't try to argue that Kahunsha was hopeful. I suspected its bleakness would rub people the wrong way, but trying to argue it otherwise would have been disingenuous.

What happens tomorrow? I have no idea. But I think it's a safe bet that a pretty good book will win, and in case I haven't made myself clear, Stanley Park is not a pretty good book.