Saturday, June 30, 2007

Reader's Diary #261- The Good News Bible: Joshua (FINISHED!)

On his blog, A Variety of Books , the other day, Matt mentioned reading the Bible in its entirety and someone else mentioned having read it twice. I'm only 6 books in, so I'm very impressed with them for having gotten through it. I forgot to ask if it was straight through, or if they took breaks in between the books as I do. I take on about one book (of the Bible) every other month. The breaks, I find, help me keep my sanity and also keeps the repetitive parts in check.

But there could also be drawbacks to dividing the reading up into books and taking rests in between. For starters, if you forget previous parts, it's akin to taking things out of context, and since that God character's personality is revealed slowly over the course of the Bible, any one book by itself doesn't complete the picture.

I'm thinking the lapse between readings might also account for my detachment from the Book of Joshua. In the earlier books, while I do remember the plight of the Hebrews as they followed Moses throughout the desert, I no longer found myself really rooting for them in Joshua. Had I read the books one after the other, maybe I'd look at their military victories in this latest installment as justice. Instead, it comes across as a bloodbath, and it's hard to get behind the heroes when they slaughter "anything that breathes".

In fact, the whole book has the feel of one of those sequels that people say, "it was okay, but you can tell it's just a bridge to the third one." Even the miracles in this book paled in comparison to the previous books. The River Jordan dried up so they could cross- gee, where did I see that before- oh right, Exodus! The walls of Jericho fall down with a trumpet blast. That's it? So, with a couple unimpressive miracles behind us, at least we could get down to character building, right? Nope. Title character Joshua died at the end, and to be honest, I felt cheated. Maybe I remember more of the earlier books than I gave myself credit, because I do remember loving the complexities of Moses.

Oh well, maybe I'll get my interest back when I take on Judges sometime in August.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Poetry Friday, Reader's Diary #280- Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero (Editors): An Ear To The Ground (FINISHED)

Before even starting, I should note that I'm a bad poetry reader. Oh I read a lot of it, and I enjoy it, but I'm lazy with it. I rush it. Sometimes I even just read a poem once (for shame!). But occasionally, even in my haste, I happen upon a poem or two that catches my eye. So yes, many good ones probably get away, but I've found a few keepers anyhow.

My reading habits weren't much different with this particular anthology of contemporary American poetry either. Yes, I appreciated them, almost all in fact, but it's doubtful many will stay with me.

Remember when Walt Whitman burst on the scene? Of course not. But we're told it shook the foundations of poetry to the ground (or something to that effect). I imagine it would have been refreshing to read a poet who broke away from those stuffy old rhyme schemes and forms. He liberated the language in a way.

The problem is, later poets failed to realize a lot of his appeal was breaking the rules, the use of language in novel ways. Why does it seem like the only major change to poetry since Whitman is shorter, choppier lines? And it's not that I don't enjoy new poetry, I like a lot of it. It's that, because of my lazy reading habits, such poetry can be repetitive. And if it's repetitive, it's not going to jump out at me, nor inspire me to read a few more times to see what's going on.

If Whitman were alive today, maybe he'd be writing form poetry. Honestly, I still prefer free verse, but I have to admit, the form poetry of An Ear To The Ground stood out and made the larger impression on me. It's odd that, of the few poems that I expect to remember, some were sestinas (by both Jan Clausen and Minnie Bruce Pratt) and sonnets (by Joan Larkin).

Fortunately, Kate Rushkin proved that free verse hasn't died just yet. She's represented here with two poems. The first was a great narrative poem called "Why I Like To Go Places: Flagstaff, Arizona- June 1978". But the poem that really stood out for me, was her "The Black Back-Ups". In this poem she borrows the chorus from Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" and uses it for herself, uses less formal yet more believable phrasings such as "Get offa that damn box", and generally just knows how to have fun with the language. My favourite verse from this poem goes:

Aunt Jemima
Aunt Jemima on the Pancake Box
Aunt Jemima on the Pancake Box?
Ain't chure Mama on the pancake box?

It's a deliciously fun poem which on the surface looks to be about the crucial but relatively unrecognized role of black women in pop culture. But when you take the time to go back and read it again, as I was finally inspired to do, you see it's not really restricted to pop culture at all.

Maybe Whitman wouldn't be writing sestinas after all.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Ghost of Canada Reads' Future?

I just got back from a White Stripes concert, I'm wiping blood away from my eardrums, but I'm still basking in the amazing show that was. Therefore I'll keep this short...

Thanks to Patricia Storms at BookLust for her recent post about my (now defunct) Canada Reads dream. Check it out here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #3: Edgar Allan Poe VERSUS Jane Austen

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (King Vs. Poe) with a final score of 17-5 is Edgar Allan Poe.

Early in I thought there might actually be some contest, but in the end, Matt was right; it was a pretty lopsided result. I would have cast my vote in Poe's favour as well. I read a lot of King and Poe in high school, but looking at them now I think Poe understood and illustrated human motivation much better. Plus, "The Raven" was one of the first poems I remember enjoying.

This week I'm going to make Mark Twain roll over in his grave. Apparently he had this to say about Jane Austen:

"Jane Austen? Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book."
Of Poe, he said,"To me his prose is unreadable—like Jane Austen's."

For Twain, and maybe you, this would be a matter of picking the lesser of two evils. Then again, maybe you absolutely love one of these authors, maybe even both. I am hoping that this week's outcome proves to be a little less predictable. That, however, remains to be seen...

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose, voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (July 3rd), and please spread the word!

Who is better?
Edgar Allan Poe or Jane Austen

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reader's Diary #279- Lynne Truss: Eats, Shoots & Leaves (FINISHED)

Thanks in no small part to Blindness and The Road, punctuation has come up on my blog a lot lately. Funny that I'd take notice only when it's missing. Truss would not be impressed.

Likely she'd not be impressed with my blog either. I've made quite a lot of mistakes here, I'm sure. Some of these have been mere typos (I do know when to use "it's" and "its" though I may slip up from time to time) and others have been admittedly due to ignorance. If I thought she'd actually read this, I'd probably be intimidated.

But she won't, so I'm not. It's a shame too because- intimidation aside- I really enjoyed this book. In essence, I used it as a diagnostic tool. Good news: I'm going to live! I have a fine grasp on the apostrophe (and yes, "Truss's book" is fine) and my comma use -though not without issues- is acceptable.

Where I run in to my biggest problem is with the infamous comma splice. While Truss says that John Updike can get away with it, she also says that I'm not famous enough to pull it off. I know that I've written many sentences of this sort:
I'm not against messages in books, what art doesn't have something to say?
Apparently this is a crime against grammar. If I'm understanding her correctly, the comma should be either a period or a semicolon, or else I could possibly insert a word like "for" before "what". Sometimes I play it safe with the period, but sometimes I just go ahead with the splice anyway. I'm not the semicolon fan Truss thinks we should be, and I think there are some reasons to do the splice. In the sentence above, I think adding "for" seems needlessly formal. I think a period would separate the ideas too much. No doubt Truss would argue that it's the perfect time for a semicolon. But to me, the semicolon is also too formal and because of its decrease in popularity, too startling. She uses a lot of them in her book and makes a good case for them. I won't throw them out entirely, but I will use them sparingly. Sorry Truss, I'm not a convert. But I will also promise to go easy on the splices. Until I get famous.

Anyway, I'm probably boring everyone right now. But trust in Truss, she manages to keep it interesting. How? Primarily through wit, but also the unapologetic way she discusses her obsession. She is quite aware that concern for such topics probably brands her as a nerd, but doesn't give a rat's ass. She has attitude, yet isn't condescending. She seems to understand that anyone reading the book in the first place has obviously proven their concern for the written word, and therefore should be spared cracks across the knuckles. A favourite passage of mine discusses how newspaper headlines sometimes try to avoid committing themselves by adding inverted commas around a word (as in "Prison Served 'Poisoned' Milk to Inmates"). She goes to say how those of us accustomed to such tactics react when we see inverted commas in other scenarios:
The interesting thing is how this practice relates to the advertising of 'PIZZAS' in quite large supermarket chains. To those of us accustomed to newspaper headlines, 'PIZZAS' in inverted commas suggests these might be pizzas, but nobody's promising anything, and if they turn out to be cardboard with a bit of cheese on top, you can't say you weren't warned.
I did have some concerns about the book. First, I couldn't understand why Frank McCourt did the introduction. As the author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, I thought he was an interesting choice to write an intro; after all, he didn't use quotation marks for any of the dialogue. However, this was not mentioned in either his introduction, nor Truss's entire book. In fact, the connection between the two authors seemed minimal. McCourt threw out a few vacant words of praise, Truss didn't mention him at all.

Second, I'm confused more than ever over where Canadians stand. Writing primarily about British punctuation, Truss warned us when the Americans had slightly different rules. As a general rule of thumb, I thought as Canadians we spoke like Americans and wrote like British. For instance, we don't say "lorry" yet we spell "colour". Does our British-style writing extend to our punctuation?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Poetry Friday- Margaret Atwood: You Fit Into Me

Are you familiar with Margaret Atwood's poem "You Fit Into Me"?

You Fit Into Me

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

This is one of my least favourite poems (or at the very least, of those that don't say Hallmark on the reverse). Allegedly, it is an epigram; a short poem with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement. I've never found it witty, nor have I found the twist all that clever.

It should be said that I like a lot of Atwood's work, including some of her poems. In fact, her "The Bus to Alliston, Ontario" is one of my favourites. "You Fit Into Me" is not. It is perhaps important to also note that I didn't get it at first. Apparently (as some of you already know), certain clasps on clothing, women's clothing in particular, are known as hooks and eyes. Without knowing that meaning, I was left to my own image of... well, a fish hook piercing an eyeball. So the final two lines weren't witty to me at all. In fact, it seemed redundant. So who's to blame here; me or Margaret?

Sometimes I criticize poets for having obscure references that I don't get. Secretly I chastise myself for being a lazy reader, knowing full well that I should take the time to just look them up. I don't feel that's the case this time around. In essence, this is not an epigram, it's a joke. And would it be funny if I had to google "hook and eye" and read about clothing fasteners first? No. In this case, knowing the reference after the fact does not help further readings. Instead it remains there on the page in a humourless heap. She tried to leave the impression that the two of them got along wonderfully, but then it turns out no. This is not so awe-inspiring, is it?

I've read one fan (of the many) say that the difference comes down to men and women readers. She at least acknowledges that without the clasp definition the poem wouldn't really work. But then she goes on to play the gender card: most women like the poem, men do not. If that is true, I still don't agree that they should. While my wife might have some articles that have hooks and eyes (I've probably fumbled with many of them), the majority of her garments do not. Mostly they have buttons or zippers. I still think that most women readers, if they're really being honest, still picture a fish hook and an eyeball before making it to the last two lines. Even if a few people insist that a clasp was indeed the first thing that came to mind, I still have a hard time believing that the other meaning didn't flash in there somewhere. It's a poem for crying out loud- you have to know that alternate meanings are a possibility! It's like those jokes that people tell with ridiculous scenarios that just work around to a punchline you saw coming from a mile away:

A piece of string walks into a bar.
The bartender says, "Hey you, get out of here!
Can't you read the sign?"
Sure enough, above the bar
a sign reads, "We don't serve strings here."
The piece of string
(not to be discouraged)
goes out into the parking lot,
ties himself into a knot,
frays himself out at the end,
walks back inside,
and takes a seat at the bar.
The bartender eyes him suspiciously,
"Hey, wait a second.
Aren't you that same piece of string
that was just here a moment ago?"
Quickly, the string remarks,
"No, I'm a frayed knot."

The problem is I enjoy that joke more than Atwood's poem. Had she written it, it would have been ingenious. As it stands, it simply gets a groan.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reader's Diary #278- Cormac McCarthy: The Road (FINISHED)

When I first discussed this book, I was at the halfway mark and sitting on the proverbial fence. I've since reluctantly climbed down and I'm sitting in the shade on the positive side.

Maybe I've been reading too many books that seem to try too hard to deliver a message, or not hard enough to hide behind a pretence. The Alchemist, Never Let Me Go, and Lighthousekeeping all fell into this trap. I'm sure some would argue that Sarmago's Blindness does as well. But unlike the first three, I didn't feel the same sort of smugness from Saramago; the same condescending feeling that some profound advice is being imparted by the world's greatest sages. I'm not against messages in books, what art doesn't have something to say? I usually take more to books that don't take on too much, that don't try to solve all humanity's ills. But even then I have exceptions. I love Orwell's Animal Farm and Golding's Lord of the Flies for instance. No one can argue that these two authors were not making rather large, rather loud social commentary. But these two, to me anyway, did it without the air of superiority. So where does McCarthy stand?

First off, I don't think there can be much debate that McCarthy was trying to do more than tell a story, more than just entertain us. Like Blindness, the characters are not named; they simply went as "the boy" and "the man". This time around I wasn't as crazy about it. It's one of the novelties that seem so refreshing at first. It's like stories that go in reverse. I forget the first time I saw that done, but I do know I was delighted. Hey, we don't have to be hung up on chronological order! Then it showed up books, movies, videos and even sitcoms. Enough! Not so creative when everyone does it. Again, had I read The Road before Blindness, this may have been a very different post. Keeping the characters a little vague of course, has the appeal of making them seem like it could be anybody, could be you the reader even, plus it smacks of allegory. McCormac pushes that angle even further with stock symbolism: apples, snakes, and so on.

However, if it was an allegory, I'm unsure of what for. If he was trying to convey a message, I'm not clear on what that message was. I wasn't completely sure in Blindness either, but in that book I still felt there was one (or many) messages up for grabs and I'm compelled to read it again some day. I can't say the same about The Road.

I might be able to argue that it is a metaphor for parental insecurities. Parents (self-included) often want to protect their offspring from the dangers of the world. As that protective instinct kicks in, rationality and mistrust of the world has the potential to spiral out of control. What can be beneficial to the child, might also be detrimental. This theory, albeit a pretty literal take on the book, is the only way I can come to terms with the ending. Without spoiling the details, it seemed abrupt, convenient, and somewhat confusing in light of the earlier story.

This seems to be a simple metaphor in itself and if I am right, McCormac certainly had a penchant for the grandiose. Does parenting need to be explored in a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with cannibals and Biblical overtones? And is this the condescension I was afraid of?

As I write this, I'm quite aware that I began by saying I feel positive about the book. I still do, perhaps slightly less now that I have my thoughts in order, but despite all of its flaws (or as I perceive them to be), I was still entertained and enjoyed assessing it when it was all over, just as I enjoy a good debate even though it means someone doesn't agree with me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #2: Stephen King VERSUS Edgar Allan Poe

The winner of the very first Great Wednesday Compare (King Vs. Rowling) with a final score of 15-5 is Stephen King.

I must say, I had expected it to be a little closer. In fact, I even thought maybe I'd have to throw my two cents in to break a tie. For what it's worth, it probably would have been with King. Though the Rowling fans made some great points, I agree with those that said the verdict is still out on her. Maybe in 30 years or so she'll have even more converts. Then again, judging by Wikipedia's Best-Selling Books of All Time (if Wikipedia can be trusted), Rowling has 6 of her books in the top 20, King doesn't show up anywhere (the list stops at 44 for some reason). Needless to say, my results don't correlate to dollars (or pounds).

On to this week's debates. Same rules as last, vote based on whatever merit you wish...Who's better?

Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reader's Diary #277- Cormac McCarthy: The Road (up to p. 145)

I'm probably the last person in the book blogging world to talk about this book. So I dont think I have much in the way of original thought to add. Maybe that I'm sitting on the fence so far is a little out of the norm, but I'm sure if I dug deep enough I'd find plenty of those people as well.

Some people seem to dislike it because Oprah likes it. Notice that I intentionally picked a copy with her seal of approval. I havent been a big fan of her choices (I'm not big on William Faulkner and I hated House of Sand And Fog), but the aversion to her infamous sticker has made me giggle. More on that at Sam's and Imani's. Just for fun, the list of past Oprah choices is available here. Asides from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the Dubus book mentioned above and Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall On Your Knees, I havent read any of her other past choices. Which ones have you read?

Scanning through the non-Oprah related issues that people have with the book, I agree with some complaints and not so much with others. One of the most frequent beefs seems to be it's bleakness. As a huge fan of Saramago's Blindness, I obviously dont have an aversion to bleak. My issue with McCarthy's book is how bleak is handled. Before I get into that, the similarities to Blindness are a little too much for me. Perhaps this is a case of enjoying whichever one you read first, but what I appreciated with Saramago's book has made me weary of McCarthy's. In Blindness Saramago is able to crush the reader's spirits (and I say that as a good thing!) by making the tragedy descend; just when you think it cant get any worse, it does. In McCarthy's book the tragedy is stagnant for the most part. On almost every page it mentions that the land is covered with ash and the surroundings are almost entirely gray. The relentlessness I suppose could be taken as a style, perhaps not unlike a sestina, and it could be argued that it's meant to make the reader feel the same as the characters. To me however, it's simply boring and predictable. He looked out of the window and guess what? The land below was gray, covered in ash. Wow, didnt see that coming. At least with Saramago's, while you know another tragedy is coming, you dont know what it is.

But other stylistic issues that people have with the book, I actually enjoy. A frequent complaint seems to be the punctuation. Again like Saramago, McCarthy takes liberties with the normal usage. According to one review I read, he "butchers conventional rules". Nuts to that. Is it my inner teenager that thinks breaking rules is half the fun? It's not that McCarthy (or Saramago) does it unintentionally, dropping commas or quotation marks simply because they dont know the difference. Some people have accused McCarthy of being willy-nilly with his use of apostrophes in contractions. "I'm" has an apostrophe, "cant" doesnt. But it wasnt haphazard at all. Only the negative words have lost their apostrophe. To me, it's a much more effective illustration of the bleakness than simply repeating "gray" and "ash" over and over. Dropping the apostrophe in just the negative words seems to solidify them somehow, reminding us how devastating the world has become.

Reader's Diary #276- James Houston: Whiteout (FINISHED!)

When the CBC unveiled it's 7 Wonders of Canada recently (the real one, not the ones chosen by us mere peasants), I heard a lot of people complain that that Newfoundland and Labrador wasn't represented.

What about the Inuit? They used to Igloos those, didn't they? And the last I heard, there were still some Inuit in Northern Labrador.

It bothered me that the Inuit were being ignored by fellow Newfoundlanders with their griping. That sort of thing has gone on too long. It's also astounding how many southern Canadians I've met who have never heard of Nunavut.

But it also bothers me when people go too far the other way and put the Inuit, Newfoundlanders, or other cultures upon a pedestal. This is one of many problems I had with Whiteout. Of course, as is the fashion, not only are all the Inuit infallible bearers of profound wisdom, but white folk are also plagued with greed, insensitivity, ignorance, crankiness and you name it, as long as it's not good. I'm not saying I wanted Houston to spout racist comments, I'm saying that his presentation of "the perfect people" was annoying at best. I feel that for all the good intentions, positive stereotypes are only slightly better than negative ones. How many parties have I gone to and ruined because I couldn't play a damned note on the accordion?

Furthermore, the easy adjustment of protagonist Jon was laughable. Plagued with drug problems and from the city, Jon slides into his Northern life with relative ease. He makes one comment near the beginning that Frobisher Bay looks dirty and is shot down by a man who claims that years ago the Inuit needed to keep everything possible in order to survive and they still carry that tradition with them today. They keep broken Skidoos by their houses for instance, in case they need the spare parts. Because, as we all know, no Inuk ever has dared to litter. They respect the land, etc, etc.

Then Jon goes to Nanuvik, learns an amazing amount of Inuktitut, loves the taste of walrus and raw caribou, is able to spear fish in just two attempts and falls in love with a local girl. Plus, he never seems to long for home, think about T.V. (the town's only satellite has gone out), or miss his friends. Yes, it's a magical wondrous place and anyone who doesn't adjust must be close- minded, typical white folk. Shame on them if they miss their homes and don't like an unfamiliar food.

I'm not saying of course, that no white person has ever come here for the wrong reasons. Surely there are plenty of people who move North just for the money and complain about everything as long as they're here. But others come up with good intentions. Some adjust easily (though I doubt many transitions are as smooth as Jon's), and others realize they've gotten in over their heads. For this last group, is it fair to judge them for making a decision that turned out to be a mistake? Is it fair to judge them for realizing they miss their families? That they might be city people after all? That minus 50 is even colder than they imagined?

What's even worse about all of Houston's barely subtle preaching, is his reconstruction of the details at the end. Reflecting upon his year in Nunavik, Jon seemed to have learned openmindedness, growing to love the North over the course of the year. He began by fighting with his uncle and the principal for which he worked, but then he matured, learned Northern traditions and saw the error of his ways. Except...that's not the way it happened! Houston for some reason seemed to have forgotten, or hoped that we would have forgotten (because it was too much trouble to go back and edit), that the uncle and the principal were genuine jerks at the beginning. It wasn't at all through Jon's maturation that everyone was getting along at the end. It was because about half way through Houston decided to turn these characters' personalities almost 180 degrees, with hardly an explanation at all. Now they were kind, accepting, and sometimes even warm people. Jon was actually quite static in comparison!

The problems unfortunately don't end there. There were other storylines started but not elaborated upon, a cockamamie attempt at Inuit folklore with the introduction of a shaman character that just seemed tacked on, and I could go on.

Instead, I'll take a moment to talk about the markings in the margins of my copy. This book is taught in some highschools in Newfoundland (though after reading it, I question why), and I bought it at a secondhand bookstore there last year. Perhaps oddly, I look for books with markings and notes in the margins. Sometimes there's mere graffiti, which can be interesting in itself, but other times there are notes made by students (or by teachers). I usually enjoy seeing what others deemed important or noteworthy. However, the student that previously owned my copy seemed to have had no clue what he was doing! He merely underlined what I can only surmise as random sentences here and there, numbering each and every mark! 164 times he did this. No additional notes and no apparent connection between them. At first I thought he was underlining instances of Inuit customs, then I thought it was personality traits of Jon, then I gave up trying to decipher it. I have a theory that whenever the teacher walked by he underlined whatever passage was currently being read just to look attentive. Though this doesn't explain the numbers. Any ideas?

(Incidentally, Stefanie at So Many Books had a post last month called "How To Read A Book" that sparked a lot of interesting discussion about margin notes.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #275- Javaka Steptoe (Illustrator): In Daddy's Arm's I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers

For those visiting my site for the first time, I'm from Newfoundland originally. For those who haven't visited Newfoundland before (the island portion, not Labrador), it's one of the whitest places in North America, I'm sure. Since most of the population have their roots in England or Ireland, and people tend to migrate out, not in, it's remained a pretty pale skinned place.

Perhaps that's where my fascination with other cultures comes from. Though I have to be careful. I don't want to feel like I'm studying another person like a lab specimen either. I'm careful not to point and stare.

In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall is perfect for me. And perfect for Father's Day as well. While some of the poems, such as Carol Boston Weatherford's "The Farmer" definitely make race a part of the picture:

His backbone is forged

of African iron

and red Georgia clay.
the overall theme is the appreciation for good fathers; fathers who love, show their love, and care for their family. It's an important reminder that completely different paths can lead to the same place.

Sociological, political, and moral issues aside, the poems are still fantastic poems. There's such a wide variety of styles and moods. Dakari Hru's "Tickle Tickle" for instance employs such a rich, captivating voice of a child:

me scream and run (but OH, WHAT FUN!)

when papa tickle me feet
Then there's E. Ethelbert Miller's "The Things In Black Men's Closets" who sets a more sombre tone with such phrases as "something missing" and "slowly walked" while seeming to suggest that the father uses his wardrobe to communicate. Earlier in the poem, we have the line "his head is always bare" then a little bit later we have:

then he stopped

and walked slowly to the closet

took the hat from the shelf

I sat on the bed

studying his back

waiting for him to turn

and tell me who died
My only problem with this poem is the title, which seems to be a generalization that this is the way of all Black men. Fortunately Michael Burgess's "Lightning Jumpshot" sets the record straight, that not all fathers are so subtle in their communication:
Daddy's voice thunders
Also, it is not possible to talk about this book without mentioning the incredible artwork of Javaka Steptoe. Not only are they technically amazing (collages using everything from pennies, to burlap, to basketball leather) but they are artistically brilliant as well. He manages not only to convey the literal components of the poems, but healso compliments the tone and impressions. "Promises" for instance, by David A. Anderson, is a short conversation between a boy and his father. The son apologizes for disobeying his father for an unnamed act, and the father gently reassures him that his love is unconditional and won't ever end. It's a simple, but beautiful poem, and what Javaka does best is recognize this. Amazingly, he doesn't resort this time to finding a unique material or highly constructed style. Instead, he creates a very basic torn paper collage, just a few colours, showing a boy being held in his dad's arms. Not even the details of the faces are added. It works.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #1: Stephen King VERSUS J. K. Rowling

Since summer is just around the corner and all we want are popsicles, I'm going to try something fun. Though, unless I get more readers it won't really work (read: invite your friends). All you have to do is add a comment telling me who you think is the better author. Base it on whatever suits your fancy; better books, better looks, more copies sold, more awards won, haven't a sweet clue who one of them is, etc. Some weeks I will feature very different style authors, some weeks I will have very similar authors. The voting will end on midnight of the following Tuesday and on Wednesday I'll have a second opponent ready to go up against the winner from the preceding week. Got it?

This week's contenders:

Stephen King Vs. J. K. Rowling

Monday, June 11, 2007

Writer's Diary #30: Infix (2nd Draft)

When you have writer's block, perhaps it's a good time to go back and edit.

This poem was originally written back in 2005, but I've decided to dust it off and make a few tweaks:


Absolfuckinlutely we're turminoil
But maybe our tumors
are just
voices with amoralgendas.

- John Mutford

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Reader's Diary #274- Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero (Editors): An Ear To The Ground (up to Cheryl Clarke)

I've long praised anthologies as the way to go for anyone looking to get into reading poetry. Some good ones I've found have had a good mix of classics alongside contemporary, Western alongside Eastern, and mainstream alongside underground or minority poems. Other good ones have narrowed their focus to highlight a particular group of poets, forms, themes, or other specific interest. This book would fall into the narrowed focus category.

Focusing on contemporary American poetry, Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero go into much detail in the preface describing what American poetry should entail according to them. I have to admit, they got my defenses up a little at first. Criticizing the usual canon of poems taught by university profs as being too restricted to white, bourgeois male poets, they go on to say how this no longer, nor ever did, adequately reflect society. Fine and dandy. Except that's not the way I remember my university English classes or the anthologies that were used. An Ear to The Ground was published in 1989. Maybe times had changed dramatically in the 6 years it would take me to first enter university, maybe MUN was exceptionally openminded, maybe Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero were using outdated research, who knows. We certainly studied female poets, black poets, aboriginal poets, Eastern poets, and so forth. But we also studied Frost and Thomas. As I think we should have. The impression I had after reading the preface to An Ear To The Ground was that it would intentionally exclude any straight, white male poetry regardless of quality. As a straight, white male, I obviously take exception to this- especially in a book that is a supposed anthology of contemporary poetry, not an anthology of contemporary anthology of poetry by everyone except straight, white males.

The good news is, the poems collected here are fantastic. Yes, I can tell by some names which poets are Hispanic or Native American. Yes, I can read in the short bios at the back who published in Gay Poet Monthly. Yes, I can read poems about women being beaten by their husbands. But politics, affirmative action, causes, fairness or whatever you want to call it, come second to the poetry. Harris and Aguero did a fine job of selecting the poems. There are great examples of almost every poetic device imaginable; alliteration, rich imagery, voice, etc. Some are more experimental, such as Russell Atkins's "Trainyard At Night" which mimics the sound of a thunderstorm to create mood. Others, like Robin Becker's "Medical Science", use more traditional means like narrative. While I haven't come across any formally structured poems yet (that I've recognized as such anyway), I am thoroughly appreciating the diverse collection. And maybe there have been some straight, white male poets thrown into the mix. At this point, I'm enjoying it too much to care one way or the other.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Poetry Friday- Writer's Diary #29 (Capelin Of Mutford's Cove)

This poem had two parents, a technical father and an emotional mother. Or the other way around, it doesn't matter. The technical father wanted me to try prose poetry. I haven't had a lot of experience with that genre, but ever since a fellow poet brought a prose poem to writer's club a few weeks ago I've been itching to try it. Daddy Technical also wanted me to try writing more detailed description. This has long been a weakness of mine, and since beginning the poetry anthology An Ear To The Ground earlier this week and admiring some of the rich imagery, I've decided there was no time like the present to try honing my skills.

The emotional mother had been making me reminisce more and more about where I grew up. My grandmother took ill a couple of weeks ago and most of the family has been able to fly back to be with her. I live in the Arctic and so I can't possibly afford to fly back right now. But knowing that at least everyone else is there with her is comforting to me. This poem is not about her, but it is about home and she's always been a very important, special part of that.

Capelin Of Mutford's Cove (first draft)

Behind the cove where I grew up, was a hill. I’ve often gone there to look down, finding the smatterings of family. Part way between the ocean and the crest was our house. To the left, my grandparent’s; mom’s mom and dad. To the right, my grandmother’s; dad’s mom. Within feet, uncle George’s, uncle Lloyd’s and aunt Linda’s. We were seashells, collected and forgotten by a child on the beach.

I was once a teenager who rightfully couldn’t see the beauty of things. Except the thrill of a cheap drunk amongst friends and scraggly firs up behind the arcade. I dried capelin for money, beer money.

Once a summer, for a few short days, these fish beached themselves down over the bank from our house.

They came to these romantic shores to spawn. Jacks pressed up against the occasional female. A silver, dark green and pink mass flickering as it was scooped up piecemeal with castnets: thrown nets with lead bearings which encircled fragments and segments of the orgy, dumping them with hungry ceremony into empty salt beef buckets.

By the time I’d lug them up the slippery, grassy path their flickering had always stopped. Only a couple would’ve managed to catapult themselves over the plastic rim, pass the galvanized handle that dug into my fingers. These were left to rot amongst the buttercups, or be eaten by ants, or both.

At my back, the edge of the granite stone beach is buried under a spongy carpet of milt and tiny, seedy eggs.

Thanks to Christina Bulgin for this beautiful shot of Mutford's Cove.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Canada Reads 2008- A Geek's Mission, Part Six (The End?)

Last week I contacted the CBC with the following message:

Since starting a Facebook group last week called "Put John Mutford
On The Air! (CBC Radio- Canada Reads 2008)" I have already gathered over 500
supporters and the number keeps growing. I think this is quite a lot of people
talking about your program in the off season, and the statement they all seem to
be saying is that it is time to put me, a noncelebrity, on the air. Will I be

This week I'm over 650 names, by the way. Anyway, this was their response:

Thanks for your email and continued interest in Canada Reads.

The plans for Canada Reads '08 are underway and we're aren't making any changes
to the show design. We want to continue to draw as many listeners as possible
and believe this is achieved with a panel of celebrities and high-profile
Canadians, people from various walks of life who have risen to the top in their
endeavours. The bigger the names, the more listeners, website visitors, fans
and, finally, readers for all the shortlisted books and the chosen title.

We'll be announcing next year's campaign in the fall and hope you continue to
find it of interest.

So I don't know how to proceed, or if I'm even going to bother.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reader's Diary #273- Jack Houston: Whiteout (up to Ch. 11)

I was just wrapping up a four year teaching stint in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut when James Houston died. It was all over the local media and to my surprise, the national media as well. My surprise should have been my embarrassment I guess. Bad, bad Canadian that I was, I had no idea who he even was, let alone his significance.

Anyway, two years later I'm trying to remedy that by reading his young adult novel, Whiteout. So far it's a pleasant enough read but I have my doubts that it will be great.

I am mildly concerned about southerners reading it and taking it as an accurate portrayal of today's north. Just today I commented over at Litminds that Annie Proulx's Shipping News may have been an okay tale, but I certainly didn't feel it was an accurate portrayal of Newfoundland or its people. However, Houston had actually lived in the Arctic unlike Proulx who claimed to know the island after making "nine trips" with her notebook in tow. Not only that, but Houston lived in the North from 48 to 82, far longer than I have or most likely ever will. The question is not that Houston's book, in terms of the people and setting anyway (I'll get to the plot later), wasn't plausible at one time, it's that I think it's a rather dated version of the North. While I'm sure plenty people would be shocked at life in the North, I think a lot of that would come from how rapidly things are changing here. Still, if anyone south of 60 does read this book today and think they fully understand life here, the problem lies with them, not with Houston.

My major concern is with the plot. While it's one that I'm sure would appeal to the audience at which it is aimed, the classic troubled youth finds himself story, there are some far-fetched and cliched elements that turned me off initially. Jon, the protagonist, seemed to be squandering his talents as a gifted pianist by hanging out with a bunch of no-goodigans (my word, not Houston's), even getting himself a drug charge. Tut-tut-tut. Jon's father, who has passed away, has left him a whack of money. But there's a catch, of course. The money is to be given to him at the discretion of his mother and uncle upon his 21st birthday if he's proven himself mature and worthy. If not, the money will remain in a trust until he turns 40. Bummer. The uncle, as it happens, lives in the fictional Northern town of Nanuvik, the perfect place according to Jon's mother, to work off his community service.

Still, once I got past the premise (a pretty major hurdle), the story hasn't been bad. I'm intrigued at the uncle's abrasive exterior and curious as to what makes him tick. Following that, I'm curious to know how Jon will eventually win him over (though I have little doubt that he will).

This seems like fun...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Reader's Diary #272- Elizabeth M. Trotter: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (FINISHED!!)

I might as well review a fart at the bus stop.

From what I can tell, this book is out of print, the publishing company Northern Focus has gone defunct, it's missing from rare book sites, and there wasn't even an ISBN in the first place. Minor stink when it happened, easily forgotten.

What's really amusing is the page that reads, "A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to C.U.S.O. for third world projects." I'm sure they appreciated the 3 bucks.

And holy crow is it bad. I've already recanted my statement that I like new poetry better than the old poetry. What's more annoying is new stuff that tries to sound old. This book was published in 1992. Why then should Trotter use words as archaic as "o'er"? Because she needs a one syllable word for sake of the rhythm, that's why. It's forced. Just like she bends grammar to fit a rhyme scheme.
When Grandma, her place from the rocking chair would vacate,
It would then be occupied by Grandpa, a tall, bent form, who would
Argghh! I hate when poets do that. The rhyme isn't so bloody vital, is it?

Then there's the verbal diarrhea.
Her malevolence agitates the tranquil lake,
As it undulates into a turbulent swell,
Her unabated fury leaves destruction in its wake
Loving words is one thing, mating with them is quite another.
Then there's the overly sentimental drivel which makes me want to slam my face into a harp.
Memories, pearls of reminiscence, stored in the labyrinth of the mind,
Like priceless treasures, the fleeting gems of yesteryear, long since left behind,
Released from captivity by the mystic fragrance of a rose
But in hindsight, it was good for a few laughs.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Reader's Diary #271- William Shakespeare: As You Like It (FINISHED)

I'll admit that with everything going on in my life right now Shakespeare had his hands full trying to make me laugh. I won't be all vague; my grandmother had a heart attack last week and it's been quite an ordeal. I don't usually post personal things, I've been trying lately in fact to use the blog as a distraction, but to no avail. I might as well accept that I'm upset and move forward from there. On a positive side, she's finally shown signs of improving. I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much yet though.

Needless to say, Shakespeare failed miserably to cheer me up. In fact, until about halfway through I was questioning if it was even supposed to be a comedy. But then there was cross dressing and that's always good for a few cheap laughs right? Not this time.

You know how critics are all over Spiderman 3 and Shrek 3 for being too busy, having too much going on? The same could be said for As You Like It. It ends with four freakin' weddings! Four weddings and not a funeral anywhere in sight. I'm used to Shakespeare's plays ending in orgies of death, not just plain old orgies.

It starts off like it'll be a tragedy primarily about brothers. A duke has been banished to the forest by a usurping brother, another brother is envious of his older brother's inheritance, and one could only expect this to be another Shakespearean edition of Dysfunctional Family Feud. Alas, Shakespeare throws it all away for a love story, or four. I was expecting Ben Affleck to show up at any second.

The characters are also so unbelievably fickle. First Orlando and Oliver make up after some ridiculous run in with a lioness. Then with absolutely no build up whatsoever, it ends with a Moonie wedding interrupted by Jacques de Boys who tells the Duke that his brother has been converted by a religious man and wants to return all his property. Everyone cheers and ties the knot. A bow on a tidy little package.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Writer's Diary #28- Border (2nd draft)

Lately I've been enjoying Poetry Fridays. Basically, a group of poetry afficianados reserve Friday for poetry related postings (original poems, other people's poems, and reviews all seem to be game). I do this more often than Friday of course, but I think that compiling the work of the Poetry Friday participants is an excellent idea and needless to say, I wanted in on the fun. Click on the above button to see all the contributions.

My first posting for this group is an edit of a poem I posted not all that long ago. It's still a work in progress, so just as before suggestions are welcomed.


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

            By jingo by gee by gosh by gum
      (It 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
      (The gaps. 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…
      (They keep the wall between,
      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
      Fingers rough with handling them.)
            like a lion to the 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?
      (Pine or apple orchard,
      Trees never get a cross)
            Why talk of beauty?

            He rapidly drank a glass of water.
      (Good fences make good neighbours,
      Good neighbors.)
Poems will not really buy beers or flowers.

It was a mistake
      (In each hand, a stone
      grasped firmly by the top)
            Tis of centuries, come and go.

(at spring mending-time we find them there)

---John Mutford

This was a mashup poem 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". To read the originals of these, as well as the first draft, click here. To read my other mashup poems click here and here.