Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Reader's Diary #270- Malcolm Ross (editor): Poets of the Confederation (FINISHED)

I'm beginning to think that I'm a much tougher sell on old poetry than on new poetry. I'm sure there are plenty traditionalist out there who scoff at a lot of new stuff, but I have to say that I for one, am glad a lot of the stuffiness has been removed. Maybe it's just a matter of poetry keeping pace with the language (though I've yet to see a poem with LOL in it).

Of the four poets in this particular collection, I liked two of them. Charles G. D. Roberts had his charm, but my favourite of the lot was Duncan Campbell Scott. He seemed the most adventuresome, trying out a variety of forms and themes rather than strictly adhering to the sonnet and finding one's soul in the stars (yawn). I really enjoyed his more narrative poems usually about first nations characters. I also found he experimented a little more. One poem entitled "Powassan's Drum" for instance, begins with the line "throb-throb-throb-throb-" and repeats these four words throughout. Risk taking should always be a part of poetry and I doubt any of the other poets in the collection would have tried it.

Archibald Lampman was one of those poets who seemed a little more hung up on conventions. On of these is the overuse of the Petrarchan or Italian Sonnet. I don't know why the rhyme scheme (ABBA ABBA CDC CDC) doesn't work for me. Take the first four lines of "Death",

I like to stretch full-length upon my bed,
Sometimes, when I am weary body and mind,
And think that I shall some day lie thus, blind
And cold, and motionless, my last word said.

For some reason, though I can clearly make out the rhyme scheme on the page, my brain doesn't connect the two A's, in this case, "bed" with "said". I don't know if I'm just not reading it right, I can't get the rhythm or what, but there seems to be too many words in between to allow for any flashback, any jumping the synapse.

I also noticed how often these poets personified nature; "the pensive woods", "the lilies asleep in the the forest", and so on. Is it just me or was this more common back then? One of the things I appreciated recently about Karl Sturmanis's poetry was that he more often applied nature's characteristics to us rather than the other way around. Something about the other way seems a little egocentric, like the world revolves around us. I'd rather think we were animals than vice versa.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Canada Reads 2008- Shouting Match

Thanks to Dale for his posting about my Canada Reads goal. Read it here.

Reader's Diary #269- Lucy Jago: The Northern Lights (FINISHED)

I don't have a lot more to add to my earlier posts about this book, but I guess some sort of wrap up is still necessary.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and learned more useless trivia to tuck away. Which reminds me, could you join my "Put John Mutford On Jeopardy" Facebook group? Kidding. Geez, tough crowd. Is this thing on? Etc.

I stick by my earlier comment that the title might lead people a little astray. The book is about Kristian Birkeland first and foremost. While it's true his obsession was understanding the northern lights and that a somewhat clear explanation of the phenomenon is provided in the epilogue, the book deals more with Birkeland himself. At various points, it is easy to forget the northern lights at all. Somewhat like the real thing, the aurora borealis is not be seen for many pages at a time.

It's in a similar vein that someone could make the case that the title, or the lights themselves, can also serve as a metaphor for Birkeland's life; misunderstood, flashes of brilliance, and so forth. Still, had one the desire to push that angle, I still think using a metaphor as your title could be seen as a little deceptive. There is however, a tagline underneath the title that reads, "The true story of the man who unlocked the secrets of the aurora borealis" so I can't complain too loudly. It's just that while I was intrigued by the man, I felt short changed on the lights themselves, despite the disclaimer.

I also have to comment on a page at the end entirely devoted to the font; "This book was set in Monotype Dante, a typeface designed by..." Maybe you've seen this in other books as well. Is there anyone out who is seriously concerned with such details? Okay, I appreciate that it wasn't printed in Comic Sans but really, do I need to know the name of the font? Yes, yes, I can skip the page and stop my whining. In the meantime, tell me why they do this. Do you care?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Canada Reads 2008- A Geek's Mission, Part 5 (The Facebook Chronicle)

While on holidays in Ottawa, my cousin tried to sell me on the wonders of Facebook (I think he holds stock or something). No thank you! I waste enough time blogging as it is, why would I need more time in front of the computer? Do I really need to catch up with my sister's ex-boyfriend's uncle's boss?

Then we got home and I noticed my computer time had begun to dwindle, to fall into the hands of a certain spouse. "Et tu, Brute?" I said (Not really. I just play a geek on TV). My cousin's little advertising spiel had gotten to her. She was already eating into my cyber hours working on her masters by distance, Facebook was the last thing I needed.

Then she walked away with the Facebook login page left up. D'oh.

Now I'm one of those junkies you hear tell about, running up to complete strangers shouting, "Join my 'The End is Nigh' group!" For those of you not yet clutched by the Facebook hordes, run! You think you're superior? Yes, you are! Do not succumb! But if you do...

consider joining my group, the oh-so-cleverly named, "Put John Mutford On The Air! (CBC Radio- Canada Reads 2008)" group. I had considered an online petition of some sort before, but I was a little too nervous to attempt it. If the Canada Reads people had actually been considering me and saw that I only had 20 people backing me up, that wouldn't exactly seal the deal would it? I'd venture to guess that it would probably do more harm. So the decision did not come lightly. If I was going to attempt it, I'd need to go all out. And seriously, there's a lot of competition for group members out there. A particularly notable group is trying to get enough signatures to convince a guy to get Karl Wells's face tattooed on his ass (most people from Newfoundland think this is pretty funny, mainlanders are amused but probably a little perplexed, and I'll go out on a limb and say Mr. Wells is not all that impressed at all). There's also a large number of people competing for names in order to win money from a Toronto radio station.

So who's going to support some guy wanting to talk about Canadian books on the CBC? Surprisingly, more than I expected. As of writing this post, I'm up to 305 names and I started it less than a week ago. I'm thinking 1000 names will be my goal. If I can reach that many, I'll email the link to the beautiful and intelligent people at Canada Reads and see if that tips the scales in my favour.

And in other news...

I brought my kids to Parents and Tots the other day and brought up the subject of blogging to another dad. That's a big step. Mention blogging to the wrong person and at best they glaze over, at worst they think you're doing something to farm animals. To my surprise and delight, he blogs too! Not only that, he was kind enough to write up a story on my Canada Reads ambition. This will earn him a Skor bar the next time we meet. Thanks Polar Daddy!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reader's Diary #268- Malcolm Ross (editor): Poets of the Confederation (up to Archibald Lampman)

Poets of the Confederation is a collection of selected Canadian poems written shortly after confederation up to the early part of the 1900s. Only four poets are represented: Charles G. D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott. Malcolm Ross serves as editor and writes the introduction.

In Ross's intro, written in 1960, he states "Canada does not have, did not have, will not have writers as specifically and identifiably Canadian as Whitman or Hemmingway are specifically and identifiably American." Asides being a rather odd comment coming from the founder of the New Canadian Library, I wonder if it held true. I'm not sure why Ross thought he could predict such a thing, and if he's correct. I'm sorry if anyone's annoyed that I'm potentially rehashing the whole "what makes us Canadian" thing that springs up every so many years like a rebroadcasting of Anne of Green Gables. However I have to ask, have we no authors recognized as Canadian? Americans, would you mind weighing in on this as well? Wouldn't Margaret Atwood fit that bill? Perhaps Mordecai Richler? Farley Mowat? Pierre Berton? Douglas Coupland? Some of these at least are known globally, and I'd bet that most readers would know where they are from. Perhaps Ross meant there is still no recognizably Canadian feel to the book, no Tim Hortons and maple syrup scent, no theme that magically hockey tapes us all together. I'm not sure, but even then I'd question if we didn't have some writers that did just that, at least in a stereotypical sense. I'd love some feedback on this!

Recently on my trip to Ottawa, I went to see the National Art Gallery. One of the more memorable exhibits that stood out for me was the Group of Seven paintings. It wasn't that they were my favourites (though I did enjoy them), it was that they were so recognizable and such a part of Canadian art history. Yet they are landscape paintings and if anyone tried to mimic those today they'd probably enjoy minimal success at best being sold at Ducks Unlimited charity events.

For many reasons, the poems in this book have somewhat reminded me of those Group of Seven paintings. For one, they seem born out of the same time. If most people aren't painting landscapes any more, nor are most poets writing form poems with defined rhyme schemes any more. Related to that, the more obvious similarity between the poems and the paintings, is the focus on the land and nature. It's made me think a lot about the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words". To me, and admittedly I'm more into poetry than visual arts, some of these poems, especially those of Charles G. D. Roberts's, capture more, I think, than would a painting of the same scene. He uses visual imagery that conjures up real emotion, but arguably a talented painter could do that just as well. A painted symbol, in theory, could do the same as a written one. However, in a poem one doesn't have to rely on just the visuals. When Roberts for instance writes of "the long deep summonings of the supper horn" or potatoes being emptied from a basket that "jar the hush/ with hollow thunders" he employs aural imagery that a painting just cannot. But then, with a show of hands, who's heard of the Group of Seven and who's heard of Charles G. D. Roberts? Shows what I know.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reader's Diary #267- Lucy Jago: The Northern Lights (up to Part 3)

Recently Allison blogged about novels that sagged in the middle a bit, you know, the halfway mark being much like Wednesday, that sort of a deal. While The Northern Lights is not a novel, I'm sure plenty would feel that it suffers from the same fate.

But oddly, the story writes its own excuse. As Birkeland, the central character, realizes that he needs a lot of funds to study and experiment with the northern lights, he gets increasingly more sidetracked. To earn the necessary dough, he proves his knack for innovation by turning to inventions. First he works on an electric cannon and then a way to pull nitrogen out of the air (which he uses in making saltpetre for use as fertilizer). The effect of these undertakings, in terms of the story itself, would probably bore many readers. After all, the title suggests that the book is about the northern lights, and those get nary a mention for the bulk of the second part.

The slow pace towards the middle seemed to have have been an issue for the publishers. That, at least, is the only reason I can think of for some of the details they chose to highlight on the dustjacket. "He was cheated out of the Nobel Prize by a rival" for instance. In actuality, the whole incident was but a blip in the actual book (only two pages or so), far less intriguing then they seemed to suggest. Birkeland apparently had never even known that he'd been considered!
It's unfortunate that the publishers tried to milk such insignificant points. I think many readers will feel cheated. But, as I've said, the story writes its own defence: If you, the reader, find yourself getting bored and frustrated with the lack of focus on the northern lights, it's the perfect analogy for how Birkeland himself must have felt. The lights were his obsession and he was stuck making fertilizer! To be fair to the publishers, while I do find Birkeland's resourcefulness quite interesting, perhaps using that angle to sell a book wouldn't have done the trick. It certainly would be a difficult book to approach from a retail point of view.

One thing is particular that has been standing out for me is the celebrities of Birkeland's time. Scientists such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur and Ernest Rutherford are still known today. It worries me that my great, great grandkids might think our only contribution was Paris Hilton. Ah , who cares? I'll be long gone.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Writer's Diary #27- Icicle

Two writer's diaries in a row? I'm on a roll! Since my last post, actually the comments on the last post, I've been itching to write a fib poem (for anyone familiar with the form, you'll notice an obvious liberty that I've taken). This is a first draft and yet it's not. I've been playing with the idea of an icicle as Damocles' sword for quite a long while, but I've just now been able to do something with it (I think). I realize of course, that this officially makes me a hypocrite. I've done way more than my share of whining about poets using references to Greek legends, and yet here I go...

With Damocles’ sword crystallized,
drips exclaiming spring
d e c i p h e r
l a s t

Friday, May 18, 2007

Writer's Diary #26- Border (A Mashup) first draft

I've been struggling with this one for quite some time. Right now, I'm going to throw it out to the masses (hmm-hmmm) and solicit advice. I've got it at a place where I need some outside intervention/perspective...

Border (A Mashup of Al Purdy's "At The Quinte Hotel", Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" and e.e. cummings's "next to of course god america i")

I am drinking
      (Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
      That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it)
            He spoke.

            By jingo by gee by gosh by gum
      (And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
      And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.)
I am drinking beer with yellow flowers.

I tell him about his beer
      (To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
      No one has seen them made or heard them made)
            Then the voice of liberty be mute.

            Oh say can you see by the dawn's early…
      (We keep the wall between us as we go.
      To each the boulders that have fallen to each.)
I tell him his beer is half fart and half yellow horse piss.

I have to walk around
      ('Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
      We wear our fingers rough with handling them.)
            like lions to the roaring slaughter.

            What of it?
      (Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
      One on a side. It comes to little more)
I am a sensitive man.

Would you believe I write poems?
      (He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
      My apple trees will never get across)
            Why talk of beauty?

            He rapidly drank a glass of water.
      (Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
      That wants it down.)
Poems will not really buy beers or flowers.

It was a mistake
      (He said it for himself. I see him there
      Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top)
            Tis of centuries come and go.

      (at spring mending-time we find them there)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reader's Diary #266- Karl Sturmanis: Treeline Wedding (FINISHED)

This is an obscure one. From what I can find, this book, originally published by Orca Sound, is long out of print. Furthermore, I can't find any other poetry attributed to him. I can find a book called The Greenpeace Book attributed to Karl and Dona Sturmanis, but that's it.

It's too bad. I quite enjoyed his poems. In a way, they reminded me of Christopher Dewdney's Demon Pond. There is a connection to nature that pervades through the entire collection. But unlike Dewdney's book, which seemed to contemplate our place in the natural world, Sturmanis seems to have answered that question and moved on. He seems remarkably sure that we are (or should be) just a part of nature, no more, no less than say a tree, or a river.

This equivalency is accomplished primarily through surrealist imagery (geez, that's a mouthful isn't it?). He blurs the lines between the human body and the natural world, leaving the impression of a connection, a believable (if sometimes confusing) scenario in which we are in tune with the Earth. I'm not implying that there is no conflict of course, for as great as some biological utopia might be, that could be pretty boring at worst, smugly preachy at best.

The conflicts in Treeline Wedding are mostly intrapersonal ones. As lovely as it might first appear to be to be one with nature, this also means that humanity is dangerous, unpredictable and fragile. So put away your guitar, we're not ready to sing Kumbaya just yet.

There's also a sense of loneliness that seems to appear most often when the narrator seems to realize he has momentarily lost touch with the ecology, or else has wallowed too deeply in it. Striking the balance seems to have been a constant source of inspiration.

Themes aside, the poems themselves are sometimes a little too choppy. Lines are typically very short and I found myself questioning many of his line breaks. Except for the occasional prose poem, lines most often lasted only two or three words. I found it a little distracting and it was hard to maintain a developing thought this way. It would have been okay had it been used with a bit more moderation, had he mixed it up a little. Longer lines didn't always need to lead to a prose poem.

However, there were flashes of brilliance as well. I loved for instance, this stanza from "hitch-hiking stance #1":
the city feels fuzzy
sand whirl-winds
people pressing buttons,
pushing pedals,
revving their engines
in tight circles...
Here the word choice, the alliteration, the labial sounds, the choppy lines (which work in this context), and even the punctuation, perfectly capture the energy and tension in the city as well as his disillusionment with the modern, unnatural world.

It's because of lines such as these that I hope Sturmanis picks up the feather pen once more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reader's Diary #265- Lucy Jago: The Northern Lights (up to "Riddle Solved")

Have you heard of the CBC's search for the Seven Wonders of Canada? Robert has followed suit and is searching for the Seven Wonders of Newfoundland. An interesting similarity between the two lists is the appearance of the northern lights. Our fascination does not seem diminished despite a rational explanation for the phenomenon.

Much of this understanding comes from the research of Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist who set out to unlock their mysteries and debunk much of the myth.

When I first moved to Rankin Inlet, the local children told me about the Northern Lights. I was told they were the spirits of their ancestors playing soccer. But as charming as that might sound, I was also warned that if I whistled they might come down and steal my head for their ball. (Not to worry, they were easily scared away by rubbing one's fingernails together or zipping and unzipping one's parka very fast). Fascinating, The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago is primarily set in Europe yet the myths were surprisingly similar. She writes that the Lapps believed that whistling (and also tinkling bells) provoked the lights into attacking as well. And the Icelandic people also believed in the ball-playing, head-stealing, spirit explanation. Fascinating that such beliefs continue, even if just among the children.

Watching the lights myself, it's not hard to see that they'd inspire awe and theories of a supernatural nature. Their movements do seem somehow alive and upon whistling (yes, I had to try), they did seem to come closer (and yes, I am now without a head). The thing is, I knew the science was out there for me to read if I was so inclined, but I guess the romantic part of me just wanted them to retain their mystery. I feared resentment I guess, a little like Walt Whitman upon hearing the "Learn'd Astronomer". Yet reading about Birkeland I get the sense that science was as enchanting for him as spirituality was for others.

This is Birkeland's story. Jago writes much like Pierre Berton, making historical characters larger than life while working facts in like the backdrop of a novel. And reading the back of the book, Birkeland's life promises to be almost as fascinating as the lights themselves. Not only does he take on the lights like an obsession, but the reader is also treated to slow, creeping revelations about his manic-depressive slide into madness. This, we are told up front, leads to Nobel Prize controversies, an exile in Egypt, and it culminates with a suspicious death in Japan.

Science should always come wrapped in a story, don't you think?

(This is a picture of the northern lights as seen in October 2004, Rankin Inlet. It wasn't a particularly colourful display, but those seemed rare while we were there. I've seen a lot of more reds, purples, and so on since I moved to Iqaluit. Photographing the northern lights is very difficult for an amateur like myself. You need a lot of time and patience, a tripod, and knowledge about shutter speeds- I'm 0 for 3. This was the best I could do. I didn't do them justice I'm afraid. It looks like the clouds are illuminated instead of swirling ghostlike figures. Oh well. That's what memories are for.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day!!!

This'll be a short post, seeing as I should devote much of today honouring the mother of my two kids and perhaps spending a little time on the teley with me own mum. I thought I'd throw out a little question about great fictional moms. It's probably pretty easy to think of a lot of terrible moms in literature, but how about the good ones? Any particularly good mom's that stick out?

I've racked my brains but all I could come up with are:

1. Reta from Unless by Carol Shields- Her daughter takes up panhandling on the streets of Toronto. Reta struggles to come to terms with it and tries help her daughter out in any way she can, even if it means backing off.

2. Donna from Cujo by Stephen King- Trapped in a car with her son Tad, she risks her life to save her son (though unsuccessfully) from a rabid dog and a sweltering heat.

I'm hoping someone else can come up with more and better examples, though I suspect I'll hear back about a lot of books I've never heard of, or worse, classics that I've missed.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reader's Diary #264- Dylan Thomas: Everyman's Poetry (Selected Works) (FINISHED!)

"Blah, Blah, Blah."- Fearless (upon reading my last Dylan Thomas post)

While certainly not my most popular topic, I've never finished a book without blogging about it and this won't be any exception. However, I will keep it short.

Fuse, worm, sky, sea, breast, heart, death, sun, eye, and bread. I challenge anyone to find a Dylan Thomas poem that doesn't contain at least one of these ten words. To be fair, with the exception of maybe the first two, they're pretty generic words in a lot of poetry. However, for someone who likes to use stock words, you'd think his poetry would be a little more comprehensible. Elder Olson explained it by saying that Thomas's symbols only sometimes relied on the usual connotations. At other times the connotation might have to be drawn from the context of the poem and even then might change halfway through. All of this of course is fair and took a lot skill, even if it does make life more difficult for a reader. But to add a further obstacle, Olson suggests that Thomas sometimes used such words because of personal connections to them. In other words, they are used as symbols in a sense that might only make sense to himself, a prior association outside the poem. Unless I've vastly misunderstood Olson's theory, I think that is mighty unfair of Thomas. Fine if he was writing solely for his own gratification, but when it gets published and thrown to the masses, it just furthers the stigma of poetry as inaccessible. Ironic then that this collection would be printed as part of a series known as "Everyman's Poetry."

Canada Reads 2008- Interesting...

When I checked on the Canada Reads site today, I noticed that in the "Your Say" segment, they no longer show the posting that asked which panelist we'd like to see next year. However, the direct link to that specific question still works (for now). What prompted the removal of that question? Hmmm. Theories anyone?

Also, when I checked my cqcounter stats (bottom left corner of this page) I noticed an interesting search query at 13:33 today that did a Google search for "mind set John Mutford". Checking it out further, it originated from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation out of Ottawa.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Reader's Diary #263- Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (FINISHED)

Earlier I had complained about the opener of this book, and went on to say that it could be a difficult hurdle to overcome. However, while it may have knocked the book down a few pegs, I still ended up enjoying it... a little.

Other than the opening, the book has a lot of other flaws as well. Primarily, it's boring at times. I don't usually need a heavy, complex plot with twists and turns to hold my attention. A simple character driven story turns my crank as much as a suspense filled drama. But I think Ishiguro alluded to far too many secrets, horrific injustices and the like, but never quite delivered. So the story of a crumbling friendship between three friends, without the "clones raised for their organs" context, could have been interesting. Likewise, the story of clones raised for their organs, without the "crumbling friendship between three friends" blanket, could have been interesting. Alas, I found it dull. Actually, not all of it.

About halfway through I started to contemplate individuality. More specifically, I started thinking about how we, at least in this part of the world, embrace and encourage it yet contradictorily spend the greater part of our lives trying to find others with similar interests. Furthermore, we sometimes seem to fear or shun those that stick out too much.

But before I was ready to credit Ishiguro, I started thinking that any book with cloning at its core would make one think about individuality. Especially if it was boring and the mind began to wander. However, in hindsight, perhaps Ishiguro did lead me down that path intentionally.

A major part of the story concerned the artwork of the cloned children. Most creations were saved to be sold at a schoolwide arts and crafts exhibition, except for the really good stuff. Any particularly exceptional piece would be taken by an instructor and no one really knew why. The kids believed that it was held in a special gallery somewhere, but no one really explained it to them. However, one child in particular, brought a lot of animosity upon himself when he gave up contributing to the sales after being humiliated over his work by his classmates and teachers.

I took all this to mean that even the arts, which are supposed to be the creative outlet, need to sit comfortably atop a bell curve. Tommy, the child with the poor drawings (or perhaps misunderstood ones) was not accepted and the best work of the others was removed, leaving just the mediocre. I suspected that the good stuff was taken away because the idea of one clone being better than another was particularly threatening to their beliefs and perhaps to the children themselves. Since the instructors would have been aware of the children's idea that the good stuff went to a gallery, they knew that taking Thomas's work wouldn't fly.

In the end, in an unfortunately cheesy scene with a couple of the adult clones meeting with their former instructors, it is revealed that the better artwork had been removed with hopes of convincing the outside world that the cloned children had souls. It was interesting that they seemed to equate individuality with souls and it was hard not to take that as Ishiguro's opinion.

However, he seemed also to push a message about the folly of sheltering children from the truth, especially through the instructors who honestly believed they had the children's best interests at heart. They argued that had they revealed the truth to the children, that they were being raised solely to give their organs away to others, they wouldn't have enjoyed life. And while it's far from proof that they were wrong, there seems to be a bit of a suggestion as such in some of the final scenes. The adult clones, who have now become donors, know the awful truth and are slowly dying, stick together, managing to find some solace in the fact that they have a shared understanding and reality. This could lead to a number of conclusions about Ishiguro's viewpoint. 1. Individuality is fine but sharing bonds is also important. 2. Perhaps individuality is not proof of a soul at all. Perhaps the ability to find connections with other people despite individuality is the ultimate evidence.

Who knows? Maybe he was not making a point at all. Before appreciating Leonard Cohen I used to believe that all he did was intentionally talk vaguely or obscurely about God and everyone assumed it was insightful. I think I was wrong as far as Cohen is concerned. My verdict on Ishiguro is still out.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Reader's Diary #262: Simms Taback: This Is The House That Jack Built, Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, and There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly

While none of these books were originally written by Taback, his illustrative touch makes them the quintessential copies for me. A blend of collage and drawings, the genius goes beyond the blend of mediums. Besides the stories themselves, there are tonnes of interesting and funny asides to keep you busy for multiple reads (especially good for us adults who may not be so keen on rereading a book a gazillion times). In This Is The The House That Jack Built one could pause to check out the real estate ads for instance, or the ranking of various cheeses based on smelliness. (Though while researching Taback's version, I have to admit that I felt a little like Scully or Mulder, or perhaps Eric Schlosser. I stumbled upon a very interesting bit of trivia; Simms Taback designed the very first Happy Meal Box. Now being the conspiracy nut that I am, I remembered a certain page in This Is The House That Jack Built which labels the parts of a cow with such whimsical variety as "hoof", "udder", "meatballs"-not pointed where you're thinking- and um, "Big Mac". The first time I had seen that last one I thought little of it, just a cute way of showing kids which part of the cow their beef products come from- assuming they're not vegetarians, of course. Now, with the Happy Meal revelation, I'm thinking, "damn you Capitalist pigs, stay out of my kid's storytime!" Okay, so I'm not that upset, but still, it put my guard up.)

Joseph Had A Little Overcoat won a Caldecott Medal in 2000. Like most book awards, I don't take the Caldecott to mean it's necessarily a great book. The early Caldecott winners certainly show their age and what most people don't realize is that it's an award based primarily on illustration, so the story could still be lacking. In this case, the story is just fine. Based on a Yiddish folk song (parents might also be familiar with it from the also excellent Phoebe Gilman version, Something From Nothing), it tells of a character who doesn't want to give up on his coat despite it getting tattered and torn. He ends up constantly tailoring the salvageable pieces into a jacket, a vest, a necktie and so on until it vanishes. Then he makes a story about it, creating, you guessed it, something from nothing. What makes Taback's version so special is again the interesting asides (lots of funny and educational Jewish references), and the die-cut pages that reveal the shape of the garment to come.

Finally, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. Again Taback does his die-cut magic, allowing the old lady to swell as each animal drops into her gluttonous belly. Once again there's a load of funny asides and colourful, whimsical illustrations. Plus, like The House That Jack Built, there's a lot of great repetition and rhyme (and hey, you can even sing if the mood strikes you). It is worth noting that Taback doesn't censor the original version as I've seen done by some authors. "Perhaps she'll die" thankfully remains in tact. I sometimes think my wife and I might shelter our children a little too much. Then I read these reviews on and I'm encouraged that maybe I'm not that uptight afterall. You know what? Perhaps telling your kids that eating every creature that crosses their path could kill them is a good idea. While you're at it, tell them Big Macs will make them fat, too!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Reader's Diary #261- Elder Olson: The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (FINISHED)

I don't think I got much more of a perspective on Dylan Thomas than I did on poetry in general. I'm always looking to improve my own writing, and I think this book helped me get a little closer to defining the sort of poet I want to be. While I acknowledge his skill, I don't think I want to write much like Thomas.

It's been a common discussion in writing club lately about the value of poems being straightforward versus those that are a little more cryptic. There are two of us there in particular that, while being the two who push poetry the most, write very differently. She's the straightforward one, I'm the cryptic one. I know of course that mine aren't unsolvable riddles by any means, but I'm still challenged from time to time as to why I don't just come right out and say something. My usual response, that it's more fun to read poems that present a little challenge, seems to fall on deaf ears. And rightfully so. It seems a rather weak argument. Why is it more fun? Sometimes I feel like a poser (or is that poseur?), writing in enigmas simply because of a childish notion that that's just what poets do.

Fortunately, Olson was able to put into words what I could not:
...properly handled, the cryptic excites curiousity rather than disgust, returns
the reader again and again to contemplation of the work until the problems it
sets have been resolved....Obscurity, like clarity, is not a criterion but a
device of art.
Matt recently said that one of the reasons that he avoids poetry is that it feels "too abstract" for his tastes. And that I guess is the crux of the issue. Olson might be able to justify the mystery, but our personal tastes define the boundaries: when does beating around the bush become a bore?

Getting back to Dylan Thomas for the time being, Olson defends Thomas's ambiguities by arguing that it was seldom done pointlessly, and that the effort of interpretation is usually rewarded "most handsomely." I haven't read through all of the selected works yet, but so far I haven't decided that the amount of work needed to decipher some of Thomas's poetry is worth the payoff. It's a personal thing I guess, but when Olson suggests that a reader might "provide himself with a seasonal star-map or one of the clever and inexpensive star-wheels" to better understand his (Thomas's) "Altarwise By Owl-Light" sonnets, I don't think I'm just being a lazy ass by deciding not to bother.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reader's Diary #260- Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (up to Chapter 7)

Maybe it was Blindness with its missing quotation marks, or maybe it was Generation X with its margin definitions, but I'm starting to think that maybe I'm a bells and whistles sort of guy. And I don't like that. Books shouldn't need a gimmick, should they? What happened to good old fashioned story telling?

If Never Let Me Go is any indication, it's boring! Hopefully I'll get out of this funk and simply adjust to a different author, but so far it seems like cookie cutter dystopian fiction. You begin with the vague hint that something isn't quite the same as our current world and throw in some new terminology while you're at it, being ever so careful to keep the mystery from revealing itself too quickly. Opening couple of sentences; "My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years."

You know what Ishiguro wants, right? He wants the reader to go, "A carer? What's a carer? Oooh, I'm going to have a late night tonight!" If I hadn't already read a dozen or so such books, maybe I'd care. Or maybe I'm just put off by the transparency of the technique.

Likewise with the not-so-subtle social commentary. We keep too much from kids, we force them to conform, blah, blah, blah. I get it. If adults are bad, the teacher ones must come directly from hell. (And from the pulpit, Ishiguro takes a moment to adjust his papers.)

Yes, I'm probably just in a bad mood. But I should end on a good note (karma and crap). He does put forth an accurate description of children. I loved the story about Ruth claiming to be a chess expert. Kathy ends up buying a chess board and asks Ruth to teach her. Before long it becomes pretty obvious that Ruth has been bluffing as she explains that each piece moves in an L-shape (apparently she'd only ever watched a knight move). The game of course doesn't work and when Kathy goes to remove one of her pieces, Ruth claims she did it in too straight a line. Kathy has enough and packs up the game.

Who didn't know a kid like that? Heck, I've even met a few adults like that. Hopefully, such stories will end up saving the book for me.