Monday, July 30, 2007

Reader's Diary #273- Rob Hardy: Kumquat

Anyone following my Wednesday Compares over the past few weeks has been treated to the humorous rhymes of the mysterious Rob Hardy (as well as others, but he's the one who got the ball rolling). Who is this guy?

Using my handy-dandy internet skills, I found out a little. (Rob, if you're reading, don't worry. This will not be a "This Is Your Life" moment!)

As it happens, Book Mine Set visitors aren't the only fans of Rob's work. It turns out that he's a published author. Having poems, essays, and short stories published in loads of journals and anthologies, I had to check out some of his work.

As exciting as all this was for me, I had prepared myself not to bring it up if I didn't like his writing. He's been cordial enough here, why post a nasty review of his work?

Fortunately, I can honestly say I'm a fan and I needn't worry about treading carefully. Except that perhaps I should apologize for the unsolicited exposure!

As part of my weekly effort to write one short story post, I thought I'd call everyone's attention to Rob Hardy's terrific short story, "Kumquat", published by Plum Ruby Review in 2004 and available for your reading pleasure here.

On the surface, "Kumquat" is a simple enough story told as a letter to Carol Shields from one of her fans Meredith Frazier. Written "in memory of Carol Shields," it's a great homage to her. Not only is it stylistically similar to her writing, it can also be taken as commentary of what made her writing so appealing to so many people.

Meredith's favourite Carol Shields piece was the short story "Mrs. Turner Cutting The Grass." I haven't read that (I've only ever read her Stone Diaries and Unless), and most likely it would give me a greater appreciation for Rob's story, but I still don't feel it's necessary in order to enjoy it. Like a Carol Shield's novel, the plot isn't exactly overflowing with a lot of twists and turns. About herself, Meredith claims she is "just an ordinary person, like the people in [Carol Shields's] books."

While that particular sentence may not be exactly subtle, it makes a good point. Carol Shields's characters did come across as ordinary, but through her skill- and Rob's- it's clear that ordinary does not equate to boring.

Meredith who had aspirations of becoming a writer herself, now works as a cashier at a grocery store and takes care of her ailing mother on evenings and weekends. Sounds average enough, right? But Rob takes the time to show that just as ordinary does not equal boring, average does not equal simple. In just two short pages, he is able to give Meredith complexity and depth that some authors are not able to accomplish in an entire novel. In other words, he brings her to life.

Plus, there's a wonderfully clever little plot about a man and a tabloid, but I'll let you discover that on your own.

You might be wondering about the title as well. In Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, he writes that the Zen attitude is that "no words can capture truth."In Glennon's Dodecahedron, he recounts the old myths about words having the ability to capture genies. It doesn't bode well with me that people look at words this way. I'm trying hard not to sound trite, but I'd rather think of words (in the right hands) as letting the truth free rather than capturing anything. I felt like Rob's story was somehow more in sync with my impressions. While it may or may not have been his intention (Rob, you needn't clarify!) I think the kumquats in this story could be used as a metaphor for life. With that in mind, read Meredith's final paragraph.

(Just a reminder that if anyone else out there should write a post about a short story, please feel free to submit the link to me at jmutford [at] hotmail [dot] com to use in my short story themed Bookworms Carnival coming up in the fall.)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reader's Diary #272- Douglas R. Hofstadter: Godel, Eshel, Bach (up to Part II)

Knowing that I have a pretty stubborn refusal to give up on a book once I start it, I should have thought this one through before diving in. At only 272 of 742 pages, I'm wasting a lot of my life right about now.

But as Hofstadter has so kindly pointed out, thinking things through is not one of my strong points.

Supposedly, this is one of those books which takes those difficult topics such as math and philosophy and makes them accessible to the masses. Perhaps it's a bit selfish of me to expect such things. I mean these people go through all the trouble of getting their doctorate and I want them to hand it all over to me in a thousand pages or less. Preferably a lot less. But hey, Stephen Hawking has been kind enough to comply, why not Hofstadter? (Plenty of people say that he has. I even read a reviewer at Amazon who claimed to have read this at age 13. Apparently plenty of people not only "get" this book, they also claim it's a classic.)

To start, I don't even know what I'm supposed to understand! I'm expected to commit time and effort in solving these ridiculous math problems, and I don't know why, what it's all for. Early on Hofstadter finally hooked me for a brief moment with his talks about paradoxes and strange loops. "This sentence is false." But quickly it became clear that these were only some of Hoftstadter's fixations. Is it a philosophy book about logic? A logic book about philosophy? And what's with the whole braid idea? I had hoped he'd show some connection between the arts and sciences. But, while using branches of the arts to illustrate his points, I don't see how or why he's using them (i.e., I don't get his points).

But it's not just my fault for being too dense (read "stupid"), or not taking adequate time with the book, or even choosing a book I obviously had no business reading. Some of it is Hofstadter's fault as well. First of all, if one is going to explain a concept or ask you to work out a particular formula full of symbols, the traditional approach is to define necessary terms ahead of time. Not so with Hofstadter. Instead he writes page upon page about the wonders of Bach's fugues, then he wraps up the discussion by defining what a fugue is. That bit of information would have been handy to have at the beginning. Likewise, he asks you to derive strings from theorems and axioms (or some such challenge- I've lost the ability to even care what the heck I'm talking about) and doesn't tell you what half the symbols are until afterwards. I hope I'm excused for not going back to redo my work.

I'd also like to ban him for ever going near an exclamation point again. If I hadn't also lost my trust in counting, I'd go back and tell you how many he averages per page. Suffice to say, it's too many. It's hard to share in that level of unbridled enthusiasm without having an idea what he's talking about. Imagine a kid at preschool showing off a parabola he just drew on his graphics calculator. I'm the kid staring blankly back with a Lego jammed up my nose.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #271- Earle Birney: Fall By Fury (FINISHED)

As an amateur poet, I've taken to reading a lot of poetry. I think it's helped for the most part; I've learned a great deal about forms, rhythm, imagery and so forth. But, it's also given me a whole new set of anxieties. In particular, I've been feeling stressed about the lack of a personal style. Consider these lines from two separate poets:

1. Of mines I little know, myself,
But just the names of gems,—
The colors of the commonest;
And scarce of diadems

2. i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows.
Now, which one is Emily Dickinson and which one is e. e. cummings? Even those with just a passing acquaintance with either poet is likely to know the answer. I'm not saying, of course, that I want to be the next Dickinson or cummings; I'm saying that I've felt the need to choose and stick to a style that represents me. The problem is, I don't know what that is! Just like my taste in music, I like all kinds of poems. I like the free form of Walt Whitman, I like the heavy structures of Robert Frost. I like the experimentation of Christian Bok, I like the simplicity of Charles Bukowski. How then can I pick a style? It's not that I'm concerned with being recognized- as in, "Look! This crap sonnet is definitely a Mutford piece!" It's more that I'm worried about perfecting my work. How can I get comfortable writing haiku for instance, if I only write two or three and then move on to my next fancy?

Fortunately, Earle Birney has convinced me that I shouldn't stress about such matters. The poems in Fall By Fury are all over the place stylistically. They range from simple four line stanzas with established rhyme schemes (abcb):
Bart shot another squirrel,
broiled it on a rack.
They crawled under blankets
in their brushwood sack.

-from "Moon down Elphinstone"

to conventional free form:

moon slides
into our shadow
sun sucks
through our maw

- from one of my favourites, "moment of eclipse"

to highly experimental pieces:
Awwwwww bord! . . . Aw bord. . . . Bore. . . .Bord!

Uhmn hunhun Uhmn Ay du dun Day duh dun
day duh duh day duh duh


which jumbled up thoughts and dialogue with the sounds from a train; to the even more zanier visual/concrete poems. I can't represent those here, but some examples (not from this particular book) can be found here.

No, I didn't appreciate every poem. But more important than that, I did appreciate his sense of adventure, playfulness, and creativity. That's the sort of poet I want to be.

(For a taste of Birney's wit, read "the perfect Canadians" from Fall By Fury, 1978 here.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #7: Dr. Seuss VERSUS C.S. Lewis

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Jane Austen Vs. Dr. Seuss), with a final score of 23-21, was Dr. Seuss.

Thanks to all the fun rhymes, last week's compare was my favourite so far. It was great to see so many good sports. What a close race- and a shocker of an outcome, too! I don't know who I'll miss more: Jane or her legions of followers. For what it's worth Janeites, you're welcome back at any time. My hit counter appreciated the business (as did I).

Alas, it is time to move on to this week's compare.

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 31st), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reader's Diary #270- Kate Chopin: Desiree's Baby

As I mentioned earlier, The Book Mine Set will be hosting a Bookworms Carnival in November with short stories as its theme. Why short stories? Primarily because it's a genre that I feel I've neglected and figured the carnival would give me some incentive to remedy the problem. So from now until then (and possibly continuing afterwards), I'm going to try and set aside one day a week to blog about a short story I've read. As an added bonus, it gives me lots of chances to plug the carnival and remind people to please consider writing a post about short stories and submit it to me at jmutford [at] hotmail [dot] com.

This week's short story is Kate Chopin's "Desiree's Baby". It's probably familiar to many of you, but if you'd like to read it again (or for the first time) check it out here.

Some of the worst points in history have yielded the best art haven't they? Just think how many books, stories, movies and so forth have come out of the World Wars and slavery for instance. "Desiree's Baby" deals with the latter.

Desiree was as woman with a mysterious past. As a toddler left on the doorstep of a rich family in Louisiana, no one knows where she came from or why. Madame Lamonde, the lady of the house, looks upon her a gift from "a beneficent Providence," and loves her unconditionally. Later, Armand Aubigny -a plantation owner- also seems not to care about the details of Desiree's past, and the two of them get married. Before long a baby is born and things go well until it becomes more and more clear that the child is of mixed racial heritage. Obviously many questions arise, but I won't spoil those here in case you haven't read it.

While the racial issues are core to the story, I feel it works as a mystery as much as a social commentary. I found that one of the most interesting aspects were the shifts in focus. At first it appears that the story will be about Madame Lamonde, then the focus shifts to Desiree and finally to Armand. I think the smooth flow from one to the next complements the mystery aspect. It has an effect much like how we process clues: mulling one piece over and then moving on. I also feel the race issue feeds into the adage that things aren't always black and white- an important reminder to any prospective sleuth.

And as much as the characters might be somewhat vague, the imagery in the story is powerful- especially a scene involving a fire. But again, I'll try to avoid the spoiler.

I'd heard several people mention this story to me before, and after finally reading it myself, I can understand why it's considered a classic.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Elusive Summer Read

Around many parts, June 21st marks the first day of summer. It also marks the day when your brain gets notice that its no longer welcome in the movie theatre. Not only do people not seem to care that the best these films can hope for at the Oscars are special effects nods, if ticket sales are indication it's what people actually want (or are told to want, but that's irrelevant).

So, I've accepted this and last night I joined the masses and indulged in the eye candy that was the Transformers. This is not a review, but I hope it suffices to say, it's exactly what you'd expect.

I haven't, however, accepted that my summer book choices should be any different than for other seasons. Yet, it seems that many people have. I've heard so many people talk about books that are good for the summer or are pleasant beach reads. I'm not being judgemental about fluffier, good-for-entertainment-only books. Sometimes our brains just need a break. But why in the summer? Is it residual from our school days? Has our time in the education system conditioned our minds to shut down in July and August? Or, does the humidity affect our thinking? I'm not sure. I understand that the amount of reading might decrease as people want to pursue more outdoor activities like gardening, riding the roller coasters, and windsurfing, but when they're ready to read, why pick up a book they wouldn't even consider in December? Do people just use it as an chance to read something they'd normally be made to feel ashamed of by their literati friends? I'm not sure.

What I do know is this: The seasons dictate the type of tires on my car, the layers of clothing that I wear, and even my movie choices. I'm not prepared to let it influence the books I read. If I want to read Hofstadter's Eternal Braid in August, I'll do so. And I just might save the Stephen King book for January.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Reader's Diary #269- David Mitchell: Black Swan Green (FINISHED)

While the constant pop culture reminders that it was 1982 didn't ease off, I ended up loving the book despite them.

Without giving much away, Black Swan Green details a year in the life of thirteen year old Jason Taylor. Inevitably, this means two things: 1. it is referred to as a coming-of-age story and 2. it is compared to Catcher In The Rye. I'll address each of these in turn:

1. As I understand the term, Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age story. Those stories usually entail someone at a stage in their life when thoughts are making the transition from child to adult, from self-centred to more socially aware. Typically there are suggestions of inner turmoil and the central character attempts to find conclusions to newly arisen questions about themselves and the world at large. In this regard, Black Swan Green is no exception. Set in the unremarkable English village of Black Swan Green during the Margaret Thatcher era, Jason tries his best to cope with his insecurities, the deteriorating marriage of his parents, and fear of the war with Argentina.

2. It is not, despite claims by Kirkus Reviews or The New Republic, much like Catcher In The Rye. Nor is it the "Great Britain" Catcher In The Rye or Catcher In The Rye "for the 80s". Both novels are well written coming-of-age stories, but that's it. In fact, Jason Taylor is probably more like Kevin Arnold from the Wonder Years than Holden Caulfield. Caulfield, as I remember him, was much more angst-ridden. Jason, although worried about bullies and fitting in, is much more typical, much less extreme.

While some might feel the novel is slow paced, the charisma of Jason was enough to hold my attention. While I wasn't bullied like him, I could easily relate to his teenage necessity to fit in, to hold back certain personality traits and interests out of fear of rejection or setting himself apart. He struggled to hold onto his principles, even when it meant almost certain ridicule. I also felt drawn to him because he was a poet. He chose to write under a pseudonym in order to fulfill his need to write but not be mocked for the peculiar drive. As such, David Mitchell was able to get away with things a lot of other authors couldn't. I remember hearing complaints over Heather O'Neill's Lullabies For Little Criminals (also compared to Catcher In The Rye) that protagonist Baby used prose that was too flowery and unbelievable for a girl her age. Arguably, a poet like Jason Taylor would use such language.

I also enjoyed the unique time reference in which the story is being told. Unlike some of these tales which are told presumably (or clearly) from an adult looking back and remembering, Jason seems to have written most of this story shortly after it happened. It's still in the past tense, but you know it's a recent past. In fact, at about halfway through the book, he talks about having written the first few chapters during a detention. That difference sets the book apart from a lot of others that I have read and makes it all the more enjoyable. The language still comes across as a teenager, using popular slang of the time ("that ace song") and dialect ("S'pose Dad'd been mangled by a juggernaut). It seems like a year that's still being processed, perhaps at 14 years of age, rather than at 40, when he's had 27 years to consider what it all meant.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #268- Irving Layton: The Tightrope Dancer (FINISHED)

A couple Fridays ago I posted about Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me" poem. Just recently I came across Irving Layton's response to that poem, "Tell it to Peggy";

We're in this
together, love,
like a head
in a bear trap

My head
your bear trap.

While I'm still not particularly taken with Atwood's poem, despite some well made arguments in its defense, I actually enjoy Layton's response. Yes, it is probably offensive to some- I'd assume Atwood herself- but it is mild by Layton's supposed misogynistic standards. When I first read it, I thought it was just a simple enough satire of Atwood's poem. But, after some consideration, I think it goes beyond that. Given the context from which it appeared- Layton's The Tightrope Dancer, a collection of poems dealing primarily with death and sex- I think the last two lines could be sexual. If this is the case, it is almost a reversal of Atwood's poem which put the suggestion of intimacy at the beginning. Whereas, in Layton's poem, the suggestion of a more personal relationship, albeit not exactly a romantic one, is revealed at the end. And, as a strength over Atwood's poem, Layton's can survive without a dependence on the reader to see two different meanings. Even without my 2nd interpretation, it could be that Layton was simply making a point that someone is attracted to another's intellect, or maybe that he feels trapped by the relationship and wants out. The fact that the "head in a bear trap" image is repeated could be to simply mock Atwood's need for an alternate meaning, to play head games. Then again, it might be that Layton repeats it simply to reemphasize what was already said and but for making a point to Atwood, could have sufficed singularly.

This wit, mixed with political incorrectness, is not only representative of most poems in The Tightrope Dancer, but it is also one of the better features. I'm not particularly drawn to offensive art, in fact sometimes I can be a downright prude. But other times I find it refreshing. Yes, I think he comes across as a dirty old man the way he describes his sexual fantasies of unsuspecting female beach patrons, but at least Layton is being himself. Even if you despise the man, you might still respect the honesty. As Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck says in David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, "If you are not truthful to the world about who and what you are, your art will stink of falseness."

Besides, offensiveness is subjective. In one poem, "The Expanding Universe" for example, Layton uses allusions to ejaculation to explain the Biblical story of creation. I know a lot of people would probably go into hysterics over such a suggestion, but it's one of those that doesn't bother me (in fact, I think it was very well written and arguably not just for shock value). It probably comes as no surprise that Leonard Cohen was a protege of Layton. Cohen's recent book of poems Book of Longing was dedicated to Layton.

Irving Layton passed away last year.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #6: Jane Austen VERSUS Dr. Seuss

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Jane Austen Vs. Kurt Vonnegut), with a final score of 22-10, was Jane Austen.

While the numbers of voters were down from previous weeks, there were still enough Austen fans to keep her well in the lead. Will Jane hold the lead for a 4th week? Will she make it all the way to the end? (Remember, I'm capping the number of wins at 5). You'll just have to keep coming back to see...

Keeping with the odd comparisons, this week Jane Austen is up against Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theo Lesieg.

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 24th), and please spread the word!

Who's Better?

Monday, July 16, 2007


I had everything intention of participating in this, the first edition of the Bookworms Carnival. Alas, my usual motto "why do today what I can put off until tomorrow" has let me down. The best I can do now is promote those that did put in the effort. Head over to Dewey's to check out all the wonderful links to posts about this edition's theme; novels.

Next month's carnival is being hosted by Superfast Reader at Reading Is My Superpower. Her theme is "Surviving the Dog Days of Summer: Books That Take Your Mind off the Heat" and the deadline to submit posts is August 10th. I know more than a few people that have blogged about this topic recently and it might be nice to submit those (or new posts) to the carnival- book bloggers and non-book bloggers are all welcome! Find out how to submit to that edition by clicking on her link above.

I'm taking a turn at it in November with a short stories theme. Any short story related post are welcome (at my humble discretion of course!). You might want to write about a favourite short story, a collection or anthology, an author, short stories in general, or if you're really brave you could even submit an original story. These are just some ideas of course. While it's months away, it's not too early to submit. Email me with the links at jmutford [at] hotmail [dot] com. The deadline is November 9th. Not to worry, there'll be ample reminders!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Reader's Diary #267- David Mitchell: Black Swan Green (up to "Bridle Path")

This is from the opening paragraph to David Mitchell's Black Swan Green;

Dad's got an answering machine like James Garner's in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he's stopped leaving it switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn't hear it up in her converted attic 'cause "Don't You Want Me?" by Human League was thumping out dead loud.

This is the transcript to a sketch that aired on Saturday Night Live this past season, starring Andy Samberg, and entitled, "A Moment With The Out of Breath Jogger From 1982;"

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh, man! This recession is the worst, huh? Ohhhh! Whooooooo! Gorbachev really has Reagan against the ropes! Oh, man! Uhhhhhhh... uhhhhhhh... I'm so tired! I feel like the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals must have felt... right after they won the World Series this year! Uhhhhhh... oh, man! Pet rock! Ohhhhhhhhhh... Can't get wait... can't wait to get... one of those new Ataris... and play... 1982! WHOOOOOO!!!

Ignoring the grunts and moans, do you notice a similarity?

Perhaps it's because I've heard so many positive reviews of David Mitchell's books that I'm trying to give him the benefit of a doubt. Then again, maybe that's also the reason I'm being so critical in the first place.

Perhaps the constant attempts to convince us that yes, by golly, this is 1982, are more than that. Maybe it's a commentary on that decade itself: that we were all preoccupied with pop-culture back then (have we changed?). I've read a lot of books lately without clearly defined time settings, maybe the time stamping isn't really as bad as it seems, maybe it's a matter of me readjusting. I understand and feel that some of it is necessary. It's a coming-of-age story and to deny that popular culture doesn't have an impact on our lives- for good or for bad- simply rings untrue, especially when we're at those crucial personality defining ages. When I think back to the 80s, certainly a lot of my memories revolve around popular t.v. shows and music.

Still, it's hard not to feel that it's more than a little forced when 1982 makes an appearance in every other paragraph. Any thoughts?

Incidentally, 1982 was the year I first started this blog...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Poetry Friday: Tanka Challenge

I took part in one of these a while ago, and it was fun, so I thought I'd steal the idea. I've written a haiku below, and the challenge is for you to turn it into a tanka. All you have to do is simply add another 2 lines, 7 syllables each. Oh, and feel free to come up with a title as well!

The ladybug moved
along the crease – the lifeline-
of my open palm

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #5: Jane Austen VERSUS Kurt Vonnegut

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Jane Austen Vs. Lucy Maud Montgomery), with a final score of 38-13, was Jane Austen.

While hardly more than acquainted with Lucy Maud Montgomery (I've only read Anne of Green Gables, and seen a couple movies), I was pleased to see some people in her corner and to hear that more than a few people have fond childhood memories of the Canadian icon.

I'm quite enjoying the comments; bitter and diplomatic alike! I had contemplated simply having a poll in the sidebar, but I know now that I've chosen the better route: I would have missed out on such great discussions. (And to all the Austen fans, you'll be happy to note that I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice from the library today- but no promises as to when I'll get to it!)

On that note, it's time to get to this week's debate. I'll be honest, I was getting a little tired of the black and white photos. Plus, I get a kick out of comparing these two authors. For those of you who accused me of comparing apples to oranges when I pitted Poe against Austen, this week's compare must seem like apples to...I don't know...turnips.

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 17th), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Reader's Diary #266- Charles Bukowski: Slouching Toward Nirvana (FINISHED)

Anyone can write a poem. Write down the ingredients to a chicken casserole, send an email warning about the dangers of using your microwave to reheat coffee, write "Emo Sucks" on the side of a dumpster, etc. Now simply declare that what you have written is a poem, get just one person to trust you, and voila!

Believe it or not, I'm not being facetious or cynical. I truly think (feel free to disagree) that is all it takes. I am not talking about quality. Sure "1 cup of chopped cooked chicken" can be the opening line of a poem, that doesn't mean it's a good poem. But in my opinion, the poem is born not when it is written, but when someone thinks of it as a poem. I guess you could say that the reader is the parent, the poet is the midwife. Still, without the midwife holding it up and declaring "Congratulations, it's a poem!" the words would just be taken at face value.

It's the awesome life- the power- that the word "poem" has. Suddenly the reader is looking deeper into the words. Now s/he looks for alternate meanings, the poet's intent, devices and so forth. Cup, chopped, cooked, chicken all start with "c", what does that mean? Chopped and cooked- a little violent don't you think?

And this is not to say that poetry readers are gullible. Sometimes- perhaps more often than not- poets actually do have a reason for the alliteration, the imagery, and so on. Regardless, if the words cause the reader to think critically and personally about language, there's a value. If the reader actually connects, there's an even greater value- but that's where quality comes in.

Sorry about the essay. However, these thoughts have been plaguing me a lot lately and the Bukowski book has brought it to the forefront.

Apparently, Bukowski's headstone reads "Don't try." And while I was reading his poems, those words transformed from a bit of flippant, pessimistic advice to Bukowski's own motto, perhaps the secret to his success. I admit, one collection of poems is not enough to know the man or his motivations, but it certainly seems to fit.

One of my first impressions of his poems were how easily they flowed, how loose in construction they were, and how much they seemed like first drafts. But oddly, that almost conversational tone was appealing, refreshing. Perhaps Bukowski knew that if had had tried too hard, he'd risk losing his appeal. Reading Bukowski is like listening to my grandfather tell stories. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the show; sip your rum and smile at the amusement he draws from his own life. And if you are so inclined, you can look for -and usually find- pearls of wisdom and wit within his words. In my grandfather's case, these are just by-products; his sole intent was to entertain. In Bukowski's case, I get the feeling that wisdom and wit are also by-products, but, for the sake of his career, they were essential. Bukowski seemed quite aware that's how people assigned value to his work, how his money was made. But would we have bothered looking had someone not declared his work "poetry?" I'm not sure. I do know that anything that reminds me of my grandfather is a good thing. We need more down-to-earth humanity.

well, you fat fool, I asked, have you
tricked them all, including yourself?
aren't you ashamed?

no, I replied, I did nothing

- from "top gun," Charles Bukowski

Monday, July 09, 2007

Reader's Diary #265- Paul Glennon: The Dodecahedron (Finished)

I'm an mp3 junkie, I admit it. It's one of the few areas of organization that I'm anal about. Soon as I get a new one, it's immediately filed away and categorized by release year, decade, and genre. It's that last one that causes the most stress.

I appreciate as much as anyone when artists don't restrict themselves to one genre, medium, etc. I love that art often defies categorization...except when I have to enter it into my Musicmatch Jukebox. Rather than having 100 genres, I've managed so far by broadening my groups. Therefore, I have a "Country/Bluegrass" group, a "RnB/Soul/Motown" group and a few other such combos. Lately I've run into a snag. You see, originally I had a simple "Reggae" group. Before long of course, it became "Reggae/Ska". Eventually, that became "Dub/Reggae/Ska" and then I had to decide whether or not "Reggaeton" should join them or perhaps it belonged in my "Mexican/Latin" music. It's a bit much, but I went with the former, and I made my peace with the rather lengthy title, "Dub/Reggae/Ska/Reggaeton". Now I've just discovered "Dubstep." Cripes.

What's all this to do with The Dodecahedron? Well, one of the features that it promised, and which drew me in, was having twelve genres. And while it did have more than one, twelve might be a stretch. It did have twelve chapters, but some just seemed like chapters from different novels. Perhaps this is a matter of me simply not knowing the finer details that differentiate between two genres (like reggae versus ska, or social science fiction versus dystopian fiction). Or perhaps the publishers simply got carried away with the whole "12" fixation. I do think it's rather telling that even on the publisher's page, it tells us only what 4 of these are supposed to be;
The Dodecahedron is a bravura performance, in which a range of well-known genres-- investigative journalism, academic articles, children's stories, adventurer's diaries, and more -- are folded together in a feat of literary origami.
But fortunately, like my music dilemma, it's all irrelevant when you get into it. As long as the book is a great read, as long as the music rocks, the classifications don't really matter.

It might seem like hyperbole to say so, but The Dodecahedron is probably the first book that I've felt I had a relationship with. Usually, I either get swept away and lost in the pages, or else I don't connect at all. This time, I felt like the book and I were playing a game. Glennon has created one heck of a reading experience.

It's odd that I'm full of complements at this point. At times throughout, I was convinced Glennon was a con-artist. I've often suspected that some artists throw in vague references to God, to give the illusion of profundity, when really they have no point or question at all. Glennon wields the mystique of geometry in much the same way. But did he have anything to say?

Certainly he did make some great points about stories: they repeat one another, fiction intertwines with reality, and so forth. Bibliophiles will love picking up on all the references to literature: Robert Louis Stevenson and Homer even find themselves in the company of Dan Brown. (Not surprisingly, taste as a measure of quality is also questioned.) But are commonalities within different books the result of some cosmic mathematical formula? Is fiction false? Is reality true? These are the carrots that Glennon tease us with.

The twelve stories intertwine with one another that is usually mesmerizing. Plots of earlier stories are discounted or slightly revised, peripheral characters take the lead, and so on. Ever heard of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi's play 52 Pick Up? Like that work, Glennon's chapters could be read in random order, and I doubt any of the effect would be lost. And if that alone wasn't enough to make you suspect that something more is going on, Glennon taunts us with occasional remarks that the truth is right in front of us.

It's remarkable that this book works. With wild conspiracy theories, it could have been as cheesy as Angels & Demons. With allusions to alternate realities, it could have been the new-agey sludge of The Alchemist. But where (I think) those books failed, Glennon somehow pulls it off. Could it be that he is just holding an empty box, telling me he has something magical inside? Maybe. But when I really think about it, what author isn't?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Reader's Diary #264- Mary Ann Hoberman (selected by): My Song Is Beautiful

It seems like I've been on a multicultural kick lately, but I've just come across so many books that have covered it so well. My Song Is Beautiful, aims that theme at children, and is no exception.

While it only features 14 poems, it's quite amazing the variety that Hoberman has represented with her selections. It has poets such as Jack Prelutsky and A. A. Milne that almost everyone has heard of, as well as those a little less recognized (by me, anyway), such as Karla Kuskin and Toni de Gerez. Plus, the art accompanying each poem is by a different person as well. Bernie Fuch's adds an oil painting, Dale DeArmond has a wood engraving, and Carol Palmer gives us a hand-tinted black and white photo, to name but three of the fourteen beautiful pictures. The varying styles and mediums are the perfect complement to the multicultural theme. Some poems clearly identify cultures that are being represented, such as "My Song", a poem from Ancient Mexico; "A Song of Greatness", a Chippewa Indian song; and "Ayii, Ayii, Ayii", a central Eskimo (though I wish she had used the term "Inuit") chant; while others such as Felice Holman's"Who Am I?" keep race out of the equation.

I can understand that people might be concerned that the variety is too much, that it's too random, and that children could be left with the message that we are all so very different from one another that quite frankly, it's pretty confusing. Not to worry, Hoberman was on top of that as well: she's made sure that the selected poems are told in the first person, center around childhood, and seem to show freedom and hope as the common link.

Furthermore, children are represented as creators as well. One poem, "No Shadow In The Water" was written by 7th grader, Nicole Hernadez and is so well done that I had to read the information at the back to find out which one was in fact written by a child. Likewise, Mary Ann Hoberman's own contribution, "You and I", was illustrated by elementary students from a Brooklyn public school.

But best of all, it passes the ultimate test: my children seem to like it as much as I. While I'm drawn to the Langston Hughes poem, "Birth", my kids have their own favourites. My daughter is drawn to the silliness of Michael Rosen's "I Know Someone", and my son, not surprisingly, has taken to Nikki Giovanni's "The Drum".

Friday, July 06, 2007

I'm a what now?

Thanks (I think) to Patricia at BookLust, for this unexpected nod.

Poetry Friday, Writer's Diary #31

Slouching Toward Nirvana in Iqaluit (an early draft)
by John Mutford

I was sitting out
on the front step,
on a chair from
the dinette set,
out in the 6 degree
Arctic sun, to read
and sip a coffee.

These are not poems,
I decided.
These are short stories,
flash fictions.

Still, I enjoyed
them. Until a mosquito
started taunting my

I grabbed the little
bastard, ripped off
a wing, and chucked it
at my feet
to suffer.

*Slouching Toward Nirvana is a collection of Charles Bukowski poems, published in 2005.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #4: Jane Austen VERSUS Lucy Maud Montgomery

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Edgar Allan Poe Vs. Jane Austen), with a final score of 48-8, was Jane Austen.

Early in the competition the two authors seemed to be working out pretty even. I thought maybe I'd finally be able to cast my own vote to break a tie. Then came the Austen fans...

Major confession time: I've never read a Jane Austen novel. Pick yourselves up off the floor Austenites or Janites or whatever you prefer to be called, there is some good news coming. If I had placed my vote last week, it would have been for Poe. Basing it purely on genre, I've been compelled to read Poe, not Austen. But you'll be happy to note, your support has not been in vain: Not only have you won this pretty meaningless competition, you've also convinced another reader that it's high time to read at least one of her books. Was it the wet shirt comments? Afraid not. Actually, it was probably a combination of Tony's argument that she was so much more than a romance writer and of seeing the devotion the woman seems to have inspired in so many people, so long after the fact. As Ms. Place put it, Jane Austen fans are legion. I'd also say obsessed.

That brings us to this week. Who the heck can possibly compete with Jane's loyal fans? While I've had a few excellent suggestions, I've decided to go with my own. Maybe it's because it was Canada Day a few days ago and I'm still feeling a little patriotic, but I thought it was about time I've thrown a Canadian into the mix (or perhaps to the wolves). I've also decided to cap the number of wins at five, and if there are a number of authors that win that many, I'll have a championship at some point.

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 10th), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Reader's Diary #263- Charles Bukowski: Slouching Toward Nirvana (up to "2:07 a.m.")

A while ago there was a discussion over at Sam's blog of a recent trend to find and categorize books that might appeal to boys. I understand that if boys are falling behind the girls in terms of grades and reading abilities then something needs to be done. However, I'm opposed to the labeling of books as "Boy Books". To me it just runs too much risk of perpetuating stereotypes. In another of Sam's posts, he mentioned the School Library Association's 167 "Top Books For Boys" which included such classics as Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein. What happens now? Will girls shun these "boy books"? Will boys avoid books not on the list?

I bring this up because I've been reading through Bukowski's Slouching Toward Nirvana and I can't seem to fight against my social conditioning that these are poems for men; masculine poems. The problem is that the book came from a female friend of mine after I asked her to lend me some of her poetry; more specifically, to lend me one of her favourite books of poetry.

His writing reminds me a lot of Al Purdy's and Mordecai Richler's. There's a certain roughness in the vocabulary, especially in the casual (but not gratuitous) cursing. Plus, there's a lot of references to stereotypical male pursuits; brawling and drinking to be more precise. But where Bukowski might seem like the average male, he isn't an average poet. This is not a comment about the quality of his poetry, it's about his outlook on poetry. Again like the other aforementioned authors, he rebels against bullshit. Poetic pretensions seem to be his biggest beefs, which I can't imagine gained him many friends in the poetry world (though he more than made up for it with fans). A favourite of these is called "cicada" in which he criticizes writers who use the word "cicada" as some sort of poetic stock word that fools people into believing the art (I feel much the same way as "ethereal"). Incidentally, many of his poems have an ironic ending and this one is no exception:

and look at me:
here I'm using it:

well, that means that
this poem surely will get


it works.

So far, I'm thoroughly impressed. On the surface, each poem is an entertaining narrative that could stand by itself. However, they are so well done that they invite us back for a reread and that's when you pick up on the cleverness and deeper meanings. However, I don't quite get his line breaks. At first, since they don't seem to hang and divide thoughts as I've seen some poets use them, I thought they were just for the sake of rhythm; breaking where you'd pause if reading it aloud. However, there are enough instances that don't flow well upon pausing, that I question if they weren't just random breaks; Bukowski's own brand of poetic posing perhaps? I'm hoping before I get to the end, I'll have more of answer. In any case, I've been enjoying them enough already to not even care.

(Oh, and to any women out there, you might enjoy it too!)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Reader's Diary #262- Paul Glennon: The Dodecahedron (up to "The Plot to Hide America")

Canada Day. I thought at first I'd post a poem about Canada. Then I thought maybe I'd do a little poll about favourite Canadian books. Or maybe a piece on Canada's role in the world's literary scene. In the end I decided on none of the above. The latter two topics have been done a lot (here and on other blogs) lately and to be honest, I spent the day enjoying the country, not looking for a poem.

And what a day: 15 degrees and sunny in Iqaluit! Hey, this might be the best we get all year. We watched a parade go by the house,

went to Sylvia Grinnell (a territorial park) for a Filipino potluck (there's a large population of Filipino people here and fortunately for us, we're friends with some of them), spent the day exploring some beautiful water falls and scenery,
and then went to the parking lot of the elementary school where they were having a concert with local Inuit acts and a Spanish ensemble from Toronto. Doesn't get more Canadian than this, does it?

Anyway, as I've said, the theme almost got away from the post entirely. Fortunately, the book I just started is Canadian, so at least I can do that much. The Dodecahedron (or A Frame For Frames) by Paul Glennon, was a finalist for the Governor General's award last year, yet surprisingly I've heard very little about it. Maybe I'm just out of the loop. My theory is that the title is a little too intimidating. I happened to be looking over the GG webpage when I read the description of it- had I not done that, I probably would have avoided it as well.

However, the concept of the book was too much to pass up. It's comprised of twelve narratives, twelve narrators, and most intriguing, twelve genres. I'm constantly trying to keep myself well-rounded with my reading habits, but asides from novels and poetry, I know I fall short. Such a book should be perfect for me.

Apparently this book is constructed on Oulipian principles; a term I first came across while reading Christian Bok's Eunoia. The OuLiPo is a group of authors who write under self-imposed constraints, a concept that appeals to me immensely. The only other book I've read that followed such principles was Bok's (though not an official OuLiPo member, his Eunioa was a collection of poems each comprised of words only of a single vowel). I've also added George Perec's A Void to my TBR pile now that I see it's been translated into English- that book was written without the letter "e" so how a translation was possible is beyond me. I'm often torn between form poetry and free verse. On the one hand, I think art should be free expression. On the other hand, I like that people can still create within rules, sometimes even because of rules. The OuLiPo solve this dilemma. Artists are still forced to comply, but to rules of their own design. It's a brilliant idea. That's not to say everyone is able to pull it off, but the concept itself is fantastic.

Asides from using twelve different genres, there are other constraints placed on Dodecahedron. The title wasn't chosen simply because there are twelve stories. Apparently, each story can be perceived as a face of a dodecahedron, and just as each face has five points in common with other faces, each story refers to (or is referred by) five adjacent stories. It gets a little tricky to hear how Glennon decides how "adjacent" is decided, but in any case, the ambition of the book alone has sold me on it. So far.

I remember hearing fans of Stanley Park saying they enjoyed it for its ambition. I agreed that Timothy Taylor certainly took a lot of risks. However, I didn't agree that they paid off. I thought he threw in far too many themes and too many plots and in the end it felt like an unfinished mess. Will Glennon's book live up to the vision? For me, that remains to be seen. I've only read the first story so far, and if the rest are as good, I'm in for a real treat. The first story was intriguing and slightly bizarre (there's a boy who literally eats books), and the references to other works of fiction keep the idea of "links" fresh in the mind, while diffusing any accusations that he was trying to sneak plagiarism by the reader (the last story, interestingly, is called "Plagiarism").

I really hope this turns out as fun as I want it (and expect it) to be!