Friday, August 31, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Writer's Diary #34

It was my intent to simplify this poem as much as possible- cutting out unnecessary words and punctuation, using the barest and most basic language possible (avoiding overly flowery or descriptive words), and so on. I'm okay with the result but I'm a little afraid that I could never present it without at first adding this note. Maybe I have confidence issues.

car goes fast down road (early draft)

car goes fast down road
windows down
music loud

girl on sidewalk-
sunglasses quiet

------John Mutford

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #12- John Irving VERSUS Ian McEwan

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Margaret Atwood Vs. John Irving), with a final score of 9-8, was John Irving.

I'd only read one John Irving book before, The World According To Garp, so I probably would have went with Margaret Atwood had it come down to a tie.

Slightly getting off topic... does anyone else think The World According to Garp has a Robertson Davies feel to it?

Getting back on topic... this week, for the second time, I'm putting up an author which I haven't even read. The first was Jane Austen, now it's Ian McEwan. For those of you who do vote in his favour, which book should I start with?

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. (September 4th), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Reader's Diary #283- Susan Rendell: Ladies Wear

Short Story Monday

There's been a lot of criticism of Chick Lit lately. This is where I'd weigh in on the topic but alas, I don't think I've ever read any. And you can't judge what you don't know, right?

What is it? Like all genre definitions, what categorizes something as Chick Lit is a hazy proposition. Still, despite my ignorance of the term, I had an idea of what it might entail and I also admit I didn't look on it favourably.

Susan Rendell's short story, "Ladies Wear," fits my conception of what Chick Lit is- no surprise given the title. It didn't, however, fit my low expectations. Instead of a rather vacant, shallow tale, it was very intelligent and complex.

"Ladies Wear" is the story of two cousins who stick with one another despite appearing to be polar opposites. Told only from the perspective of one cousin, at first I was quick to agree with the implied condemnations of the other. She appeared shallow, hung up on looks, judgemental and elitist.

It's a fun read; sometimes cracking jokes outright, other times using a dry subtle wit. One of my favourite lines in the story occurred after revealing how Raina (the shallow cousin) reacted to the death of her Portuguese water dog:

Raina wore a black band around her arm for a month, even though people thought
she was protesting something and stopped inviting her to parties for a while.

Speaking of the dog, Rendell use of dogs and butterflies as symbols was fantastic. Was it an intentional throwback to the Heart song? I'm not sure, but Ann and Nancy Wilson seem appropriate for such a story in any case.

I think "Ladies Wear" works best as a character study. After a couple of readings, I began to be reminded of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall." Like that poem, I first agreed with the narrator's judgement of the second person. But in both cases, multiple readings made me think the original view is somewhat hypocritical. In the Frost poem, the narrator's smugness implied (to me) that while he might be opposed to physical fences, he seems to need the metaphorical one to separate himself from his inferior neighbour. Likewise, the narrator in Rendell's story is critical of Raina's judgemental attitudes (especially towards the poor), yet the bulk of the story is judgement of Raina (and the rich are arguably not given any fair chance in the narrator's eyes either). With Rendell's strength as a writer, small reminders that Raina is still a human being-capable of love- leak through, despite the narrator's slander.

If "Ladies Wear" is representative of the Chick Lit genre, I've underestimated it. But in my defense, the term itself doesn't exactly demand respect does it? Or did "chick" suddenly become acceptable? I'm so out of touch with what's p.c. and what isn't it.

In other business, if you click on the link to Susan Rendell's story above and find that you enjoy it, you might also want to consider ordering her audio book of short stories In the Chambers of the Sea available from Rattling .

Also, I'm again reminding my fellow bloggers that if you, too, write a short story post, please consider submitting the link to me at jmutford [at] hotmail [dot] com to use in my short story themed Bookworms Carnival coming up in November. September's carnival will be hosted by Book Nut. Her theme is classics. If you've written a post about classic literature, or would like to, consider submitting your post link to her: mmfraf [at] sbcglobal [dot] net before September 14th.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reader's Diary #282- Kevin Patterson: Consumption (FINISHED!!)

On a positive note (and there aren't many), the preachiness I complained about earlier diminished about half-way through. Finally, I was able to analyze the book on its story-telling merits.

Merits, schmerits. This book is a mess. It begins with the story of Victoria, a young Inuk girl, who is taken away from her family and brought to a sanatorium in the South to treat her tuberculosis. It's a fine opening actually, and I looked forward to the rest of the story of her life. Sadly, after 50 pages of following her, Patterson decides to introduce more characters. And more characters. And then a few more.

I'm not against a plethora of characters. I just want there to be some balance or at the very least, have them relate to the overall story. The result of this abundance of characters was a lack of attachment. Towards the end the book becomes just one tragedy after another, and instead of breaking my heart, it left me underwhelmed. The preposterous number of deaths came across as farcical, maybe a satire of a Shakespearean tragedy. Plus, there were some characters that I wondered why he even bothered introducing us to at all. In particular, a teacher named Johanna has her own story line that is just barely attached to the main plot(s), and to put it bluntly, is just boring. Perhaps she was meant to be a balance to the other focal teacher, Penny. Johanna is presented as one of the typical teachers who doesn't throw away her Southern identity in its entirety, unlike Penny who sacrifices it all to be a "true" Northerner. But Johanna is not an adequate balance- instead she amounts to a waste of time: a dull plot that goes nowhere.

Then there's the piece at the end. Presented as an unpublished manuscript by Keith Balthazar, a doctor that appeared in the book, I wondered why it didn't stay unpublished. It begins with a discussion of tuberculosis and goes on to talk about all sorts of medical terminology, diabetes, and so forth. 60 pages of this. Talk about anticlimactic, it adds nothing to the previous story whatsoever.

I think one of the things that bothers me most is the positive reviews I've seen for this book. Normally that wouldn't be an issue for me- if others liked the book, good for them- but the reasons given by most of them seem naive. At best, it seems to perpetuate their preformed opinions about how we're killing the planet, destroying cultures and so forth, and at worst, they feel they're learning something about the North. Kevin Patterson can hardly be blamed for that- who goes to a novel for facts? Still, I wish someone would acknowledge that like Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams, history has been altered for dramatic effect. While yes, people were taken South for tuberculosis treatment at sanatoriums, and yes, there was a nickel mine in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut (where Consumption is set) at one point, the parts about the diamond mine and a hospital in the town during the late 80s and early 90s are entirely fictional- plausible, but not actual. I lived in Rankin Inlet for four years and while I certainly realize that surely wasn't long enough to learn all the history of the town, it was enough to spot the inaccuracies with Patterson's book. Oddly, it's one of the few things for which I don't fault him.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Poetry Friday- Gulp! Hosting Duties!

Welcome to my humble blog, fellow poetry bloggers and regular visitors! I hope you take the time to check out all the wonderful links below. It's a grab-bag of emotions this week for sure. (Oh and while you're here, please take a moment to vote on the Atwood/Irving showdown in the sidebar.)


Hey now, don't dream it's over! Both Literacy Teacher and Becky use Marci Ridlon's "That Was Summer" to remind us of a summer that's unfortunately almost over. Keeping with the same theme, Karen Edmisten offers up Emily Dickinson's "As imperceptibly as Grief". Suzanne hopes to squeeze out a little more sun for August, using "Fairest of The Months" as a sort of incantation. Elaine Magliaro at Blue Rose Girls, on the other hand, seems to be welcoming autumn and the cooler weather that comes with it. She presents us with Sophie Jewett's "In Harvest."

Tea for the Tillerman? Over at Tricia's tea is being served. I suggest you take it with ample cream and sugar, even if that's not your usual way!

The future is unwritten. Stacey Shubitz brings us an inspiring poem by Brog Bagert entitled, "My Writer's Notebook".

Your dreams were your ticket out. Franki reminds us all that it's that time of year again, welcoming us back to school with a poem by Kenn Nesbitt. Wild Rose Reader also provides links to some wonderful back-to-school poems and gives us reviews of two poetry collections on the same topic. Mother Reader reviews a very fun sounding book: Jennifer Holm's Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf (No, it's not about the 70's singer.) With a very impressive list of poetry books that focus on school, Sylvia Vardell also shares one of her favourite back-to-school poems: Carol Diggory Shields's "Pledge."

Never was a cornflake girl. Sara Lewis Holmes presents us with a beautiful original poem that is anything but corny. see what he could see. Sam Riddleburger shows us that Kenneth Koch had the uncanny ability to teach poetry- not only to children, but to polar bears as well (perfect for a submission to my blog!)

Bottle full of bub. Jama Rattigan gives us the funny this week, "For I Had But Fifty Cents" by Billy Mortimer.

Stop, hey, what's that sound? With the second Emily Dickinson poem this week ("'Hope' Is the Thing with Feathers"), Kelly Fineman discusses the "tune" of Dickinson and the importance of the dash.

The fairy feller's master stroke. This week Little Willow gives us Edgar Allan Poe's "Fairy-Land."

Bad to the bone. What does Adrienne think about You Know Who? Don't worry, it's not bad.

It's a long way down. Not really- it's a very short journey actually. Laura Salas at Wordy Girls gives us seven poems of 15 words or less. Kim from Hiraeth highlights her own contribution to the Wordy Girl post, here.

Which way you goin' Billy? Kelly gives us parents a gift in the form of Billy Collins's "The Lanyard." Also check out the critique of the way schools handle poetry.

Our house, is a very, very fine house. Head over to Chicken Spaghetti to read Grace Paley's "House: Some Instructions." I suggest you click on her link to read the entire thing- it's great.

'neath the green, green grass of home. Gina MarySol Ruiz is in with a haunting Garcia Lorca poem entitled "Romance Sonambula."

I hate the TV. Becky channels Roald Dahl to give us "Mike Teavee" from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies. Head over to Gregory K's (he's the inventor of the fib, don't you know), to find a Search Fib.

We are shakin' the tree. Alan Dugan's very interesting poem "On Looking For Models" can be found at Journey Woman's.

You'll wake one day, in your own world. Miss Erin gives us a Puck piece from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

A night lit in candles. Feeling in a contemplative mood? Allow Michelle to shed some light with a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "The Candle Indoors."

I hear a lotta buzzing. Cloudscome sees optimism through the eyes of bee.

Comfortably numb. Charlotte reviews a poetry collection with an intriguing theme: comfort. Check out her thoughts on This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort edited by Georgia Heard.

You've got to roll with the punches. If Yeats played Yahtzee? Allow Katie at Pixiepalace to elaborate.

Inside my present So, so much past. Jennie at Biblio File gives us a poem by Petr Ginz "Remembering Prague" and reviews his diary of life in Prague just before being taken to a concentration camp. David Elzey comes in with a couple war poems: Carl Sandburg's "Grass" (about WWI) and Denise Levertov's "What Were They Like?" (about the Vietnam War.) And while not war-related, TadMack is also in a remembering mood and focuses on Grace Paley and Siobhan Dowd.

I'm going to break my rusty cage. For the Maya Angelou classic, "I know why the caged bird sings," head on over to Dominant Reality.

Be one of the things that life just won't quit. A Fuse #8 Production gives us "Lip Service."

I am...I said. Linda Acorn joins us for the first time with a poem by one of my favourite poets Langston Hughes entitled, "I, Too."

You can check out anytime you like. Finally, Jeneflower offers up a spoof of the Eagles classic "Hotel California."

I greatly enjoyed all the submissions this week, and if I haven't commented on your blogs yet, I have checked them all out and will definitely drop by with a few words tomorrow. Thanks to everyone for participating, it was a blast.

I thought I'd leave you with another of my all-time favourite poems, "Erosion" by E. J. Pratt:

It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.

It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman's face.

For a great selection of E. J. Pratt poems, including audio recordings by the poet himself, introductory commentary, and more check out this excellent website put together by Trent University.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #11- Margaret Atwood VERSUS John Irving

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Margaret Atwood Vs. Toni Morrison), with a final score of 15-2, was Margaret Atwood.

Of Morrison, Atwood writes, "[Her] versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds."

Obviously she's a fan, but the same can't be said about most visitors to my blog. Cited as confusing and unreadable by some, I was starting to expect Morrison would be shut out entirely (which would have been a first). Fortunately for her, two fans came to her defense. Though in response to Zon who asked about Faulkner: I'm also one of those who finds Morrison confusing (not unreadable) and yes, I find Faulkner confusing, too.

But this is a new week, and I'll try my best to appease those that implied voting last week was boring, like picking the lesser of two evils. This week Margaret Atwood is up against John Irving.

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose (even if that means hair style), voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (August 28st), and please spread the word!

Who's Better?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Reader's Diary #281- Anton Chekhov: The Bet

Short Story Monday

Like most works by 19th century Russians, "The Bet" is another light-hearted sexcapade- think Porky's but with funny accents.

Kidding of course. Though I am starting to question if the Russians know what fun is. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov...they didn't exactly pick simple or trivial themes did they? But whereas I enjoyed reading the first two authors, I can't say I understand what the big deal is about Chekhov- or at least his short story "The Bet."

For those of you who haven't read it, "The Bet" is the story of a lawyer who willingly imprisons himself for fifteen years to win a two million dollar wager against a banker who doubts his ability to stick it out. The bet comes at the end of a heated discussion about whether or not capital punishment is more or less ethical than life imprisonment. The banker declared that capital punishment is actually more humane, while the lawyer feels that despite being equally immoral, "to live anyhow is better than not at all."

It might be an interesting premise but I don't see how the story lives up to it. Maybe in its day the topic was perhaps more novel, perhaps less discussed. But I don't see how Chekhov adds anything to the debates many of us modern folks have had over the topic. "The Bet" is rather dull and predictable and in the end Chekhov offers no more insight on the issue. I doubt anyone's opinion will be swayed on the issue in the slightest after reading it. When I finished it the first time, I honestly thought I was missing a page and went searching for the rest. It doesn't end abruptly per se, there's just not much of a build up to begin with. Apparently simply throwing out a topic makes him a genius.

Oh well.

(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 November. September's carnival will be hosted by Book Nut. Her theme is classics. If you've written a post about classic literature, or would like to, consider submitting your post link to her: mmfraf [at] sbcglobal [dot] net before September 14th.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Reader's Diary #280- Kevin Patterson: Consumption (up to ch. 15)

"One of the most refreshing features of this story is the lack of social commentary buried in the plot, despite the plethora of opportunity to inspire guilt or expose historical wrongdoing." -Andy Johnson,

I have to question if Andy Johnson even read this book. While it's is true that Patterson doesn't come out and share his thoughts and opinions directly, if one is looking for buried commentary there are ample doses. And it should come as no shock that most of it follows the predictable line set down by James Houston: white man bad.

I have to offer some rebuttal to a few of the snide remarks, especially since a great deal seems lobbied at teachers, apparently the scourge of the North. I'm not going to lie and say that all teachers are saints. In fact, research a little about residential schools and you'll see where a lot of the ill will comes from. However, I take great exception to many of the comments thrown out in Patterson's book. First of all, I've heard the complaint that many Southern teachers come North for the money. It was a draw for myself, I won't lie. But I also came for the adventure, the experience of a new culture, to see a part of the country relatively few come to see. Never though have I been informed that that's also a sign of selfishness. In a paraphrase of Kennedy's old "ask not what your country can do for you" speech, I'm told that I'm "more interested in how the place can have an effect on [me]" than having an effect of my own. As if things need to be that black or white, as if they have to be exclusive from one another. Couldn't a person travel here for money and for adventure and want to have a lasting impression on the place and its people? Sure there are those that come solely for the money, but at least acknowledge there of those of us who don't. Can't I seek adventure while also trying to help out?

To be fair to Patterson, these comments are spoken through characters. He could argue (safely) that he was just trying to show accurate opinions of people here. I wouldn't doubt that there are those that share the sentiment expressed above. But there are just SO many remarks in the book, all along the same theme, that's it's hard not to become suspicious of Patterson himself of using the novel as a cowardly mouthpiece. If that is the case, I also have a problem with the hypocrisy. In a couple instances in particular Inuktitut becomes the contentious issue. Teachers are again criticized for not bothering to learn the language (by the way, I've just finished my third Inuktitut course and let me just say, it's not an easy language to just pick up!) A better example, however, might be when Emo begins working at the mine; Mr. Johnson (the white foreman) takes down his name, "making up his own English spelling and shortening it." Of course, the not-so-subtle message is that evil white man Mr. Johnson doesn't care about the lowly Inuk. Fine, fine. I agree that such an action would be more than insensitive and probably racist. But uninformed readers should also note that Patterson himself does a HORRIBLE job with the language. "Koyenamee" is the way, for example, that he spells the Inuktitut word for "thank-you." Now consider this syllabics chart for the speech sounds used the Inuktitut language (by the way, the syllabics charts are given away as bookmarks up here and I found this one in two seconds on the Internet):

Look for the letters o, y, and e. Patterson, it seems, chose to spell the few Inuktitut words in the book phonetically- for English speakers. Would he expect most readers to pick up on this? Probably not, aimed no doubt at a Southern audience who innocently sits back shaking their heads at mean old Mr. Johnson who dares to Anglicize the Inuktitut language.

The overall effect is that I'm too frustrated to even care about the story itself. I hope it gets better -and less preachy- soon.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Writer's Diary #33

Levels of Naiveté:(early draft)

The realization hit him
hard: tossing a green salad
meant she was thinking
about dad.

      (His dad had hit a lettuce
      farmer’s truck- head on.
      It was the happiest day
      of her life.)

The realization hit him
hard: tossing a green salad
meant she was thinking
about dad.

-----by John Mutford

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reader's Diary #279- Lawrence David (Author) and Delphine Durand (Illustrator): Beetle Boy

It's been ages since I've discussed a children's book, and even longer since I discussed one as fun as this.

Beetle Boy, by Lawrence David and illustrated by Delphine Durand is the kind of story I would have loved as a child and still love to this day. It is the story of Gregory Sampson who wakes up one morning and discovers that he has inexplicably turned into a giant bug overnight. Adding to the mystery; his parents, sister, classmates and teacher don't even notice! Only his best friend Michael can see what has happened and only he helps Michael look for answers.

It's a silly premise and Delphine Durand's zany illustrations complement it quite well.

And perhaps I should leave it at that...

But the jacket flap also tells us that it is "a poignant story...about the need for love and recognition." I get that. In fact, the thought crossed my mind even before I went back and read the flap.

The whole "poignant" thing makes me nervous though. It's not that Lawrence David doesn't handle the message well. In fact, the need for love and recognition angle is worked in seamlessly. It's not at all preachy. But I'm nervous that educators and parents will use it to suck the fun out of the book entirely (as I'm doing now).

I'm all for discussing books with children, but as a child I would have yawned and thrown to the back of my desk had my teacher started going on about Gregory's sense of rejection, yadee, yadee, yada. Beetle Boy should remain first and foremost a fun book. Let the reader just enjoy it. Perhaps those higher order poignant messages will be internalized better if they're allowed to sink in subconsciously. And if not who cares?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #10- Margaret Atwood VERSUS Toni Morrison

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Robert Frost Vs. Margaret Atwood), with a final score of 18-6, was Margaret Atwood.

Another Compare, another nail-biter, eh? Not really. I honestly expected it to be closer. While I would have figured such an outcome if the voters were all Canadian, I underestimated her draw outside our border. Shows what I know.

Thanks for the all the great suggestions, look for some of them in future editions for sure.

This week I'm sticking to the high profile. Perhaps it will be a little more divisive. Don't make me bring back Jane Austen!

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. (August 21st), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reader's Diary #278- William Shakespeare: The First Part of King Henry The Sixth (FINISHED)

I've been intermittently working on The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for some time now and each time I go back to the table of contents I'm unsure of what to read next. Perhaps the most daunting are all the King plays. King Henry The Sixth has a three parter that comprises the first three selections in the entire collection, King Henry The Fourth has a two parter, and plenty more have at least one play to their name: King John, King Richard III, King Richard II, King Henry V, King Henry VIII, and of course, King Lear.

Up until now I've only read King Lear and since I don't want to save all that royalty for the end, I thought it was time to work through some of them. I picked the First Part of King Henry the Sixth because it was his very first play as far as experts can ascertain (though interestingly many people say Shakespeare was only one of a handful of playwrights that worked on it).

As Shakespeare's first, it obviously gets more than its fair share of scrutiny but it's hard not to compare it to his later greats. Personally, it wasn't my favourite (i.e., Othello) but it wasn't my least favourite either (i.e., King Lear). What's your favourite? Least favourite?

My biggest disappointment was the lack of a central character. The title suggests that it would be King Henry VI, but he really doesn't play a major role in this part at all. I found the most interesting character of all to be Joan La Pucelle (i.e., Joan of Arc). She's presented of course with English eyes (this is a very patriotic piece with no apologies to the French at all) and it's interesting to see her as a conniving witch whore. Especially wickedly funny is the scene of her at the stake. After forsaking her shepherd father and claiming to have come from nobler lineage than that, she schemes for her life by suggesting she's bearing a child, altering her story to suggest various fathers- none of which help her case. Unfortunately she's just not in enough scenes. (And lest it sound like I'm cruel for laughing at the death of a very real historical person, I'm laughing more at the written treatment of her. Plus, with all the animosity between the English and the French, I doubt the truth about her character will ever be known.)

The play feels like one-third of a play actually. If it wasn't for the book's layout clearly dividing the three parts (and the fact that each part can be purchased separately), I'd probably have read all three parts together. Actually, I'm making excuses: I'm just not in the mood to read the rest right now and I'm just using the separation of parts as an excuse. Perhaps King Henry will play a more crucial, interesting role in the parts to come. Perhaps the War of the Roses will play out more. I'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reader's Diary #277- Claire Chippindale: A Matter of Letting Go

Short Story Monday!

Yes I've broke down and made it official. Monday will be devoted to yet another weekly feature here at the Book Mine Set: Short Story Monday. I've quickly come to realize that I really enjoy searching for and reading one short story a week. Primarily, I'm going to focus on short stories I can find over the Internet, a mix a both older classics and some new gems I find along the way. I'll be posting links to whatever story I'm discussing, so feel free to read them at your leisure- and if you do, be sure to let me know your thoughts!

This week's highlighted story falls under the "new gem" category. Featured in the January-February 2007 edition of This Magazine, "A Matter of Letting Go" is Claire Chippindale's first published short story.

"A Matter of Letting Go" is depressing. And while I know right away that will turn some people off, it doesn't me. It sort of reminded me of Alice Munro's stories but with a male protagonist. Perhaps it is a little unfair that all new authors get immediately compared to established people, but thems the breaks. Depending on who one gets compared to, it could be complementary. Oddly, I'm not a big Alice Munro fan and though I did compare Chippindale's writing to hers, I enjoyed "A Matter of Letting Go."

The strength of the piece for me was the way I connected with the main character. Initially. As the story progressed however, it became increasingly harder to relate, harder to like him, and at the end he just frustrated and angered me. As the title suggests, I let go.

It begins with a man at the edge of a lake, obviously feeling down and contemplating a decision. Who hasn't taken some time for himself to work through something? But then, as he starts to recollect about recent events in his life, it starts to appear that "feeling down" is probably depression, and the decision is probably suicide. My empathy slowly changed to sympathy.

His plans for suicide, however, are postponed when a woman enters the scene in a canoe, unaware of the man's presence. I'm trying hard not to give too much away (read it yourself!), but the story then presents a very clever contrast between the two characters.

"A Matter of Letting Go" is wonderfully crafted. Chippindale captures mood very well- allowing the character to interpret his surrounding instead of the other way around. The plot and essential details are spaced perfectly to allow the reader a chance to form opinions about the character and what is going on (even if first impressions change!)

About the only small, teensy-weensy problem I have with the story is the title. Personally, I think "A Matter Of" is a tad pretentious (like saying "a tad.")

(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. To get an idea what these carnivals are all about, Reading Is My Superpower is now hosting this month's carnival with the theme "Surviving the Dog Days of Summer: Books That Take Your Mind off the Heat." Make sure you check out some of the excellent contributions! Just a heads up though, I had trouble viewing her site with IE, but it worked fine with Firefox.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Reader's Diary #276- Douglas R. Hofstadter: Godel, Escher, Bach (FINISHED!!!)

"Of course, this project is not the kind of thing that one does in just one sitting- it might take a couple of dozen sessions."

- Douglas R. Hofstadter (on the very last page of Godel, Escher, Bach)

Sorry Mr. Hofstadter, if I quickly lose interest in Escher paintings, I surely won't be attempting this monster of a book again.

But, undoubtedly it would help. Reading the Amazon reviews, it looks like most fans have given it multiple reads. The more complex parts must begin to make more sense the 3rd or 4th time around. The final dialogue in the book also seems to suggest that the book was written with an Escher sort of loop in mind, meaning multiple readings might be necessary to appreciate the artistry.

Godel, Escher, Bach could simply be entitled Godel as far as balance is concerned. Essentially Bach and Escher are just used as examples, whereas math philosopher Godel seems to be the major preoccupation. And just as I commented earlier that Hoftstadter touches upon just about every academic field there is, again the reader should know that they aren't given equal attention: artificial intelligence is the real focus.

That is not to say that readers can't enjoy the occasional diversion. After struggling through the heavy math of the first third of the book, it did become a lot more understandable- even interesting at times. I particularly enjoyed the discussions on psychology and on the arts. Unfortunately, these weren't enough to make me enjoy the book as a whole. Quite frankly, I think the book was a mess. I get the sense that Hofstadter overextended himself trying to make artificial intelligence interesting to everyone. "Look, AI can be applied to music!" "Look, I can link AI to biochemistry!" But instead of reaching me, he just muddled my brain. I forgot how topics related, I was confused, and I just didn't care. I think with better writing, AI could have been made comprehensible and interesting to those who perhaps hadn't given it a second thought before. But I'm not sure I'd recommend this to anyone who isn't already interested in the topic.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Poetry Friday- Wordless Poetry?

Thinking about instrumental music the other day, I was pondering how it can evoke so many emotions with just sounds. (Actually, I'll give some credit to Hofstadter's book for making me reflect on this issue.) Perhaps even more astounding is that different people often have the same (or as near as two people can) emotions to a particular piece. Why is that? And to get to the point of this post, could a poem accomplish a similar feat without words?

I like that there is no single agreed upon definition of poetry. Though, I venture to guess that few people would allow a definition that doesn't include words. But assuming the goal of poetry (and this might be a large assumption) is to evoke emotions and provoke thought through written language, couldn't it be done without the luxury of words? Lewis Carroll, with the fictional words of "Jabberwocky", proves that we don't necessarily need concrete meaning to communicate a message. But I propose taking it even further.

After talking this through with my wife, one of her suggested names for my idea is reductionist poetry. Essentially I'm asking if it's possible to strip the poem down below the word level to that of phonetics, or speech sounds. Think about it, "sssss" might make you think of a lot of things: a snake hiss, static, rain, air being released from a balloon, and so forth. Subsequently, or independently (at least on the conscious level), you might be left with a sense of foreboding, relaxation, or another emotion. Put in the context of a poem, it might even be possible to create some sort of consistency across readers. But how would a poet put them in the context of a poem without resorting to words?

(I'll acknowledge of course that even the definition of "word" is hazy. "Grrrr" for instance, might be considered a mere consonant blend, but the meaning in English is pretty consistently agreed upon and is considered a word by some dictionaries.)

You could, I suppose, write as you would any poem. If you want meter, throw it in:

fff t fff t fff t

Rhyme might be a problem. But some blends work:

k-k k-k k-pl
m-m m-m m-bl
k-k k-k k-pl
m-m m-m m-bl

Plus using like-articulated sounds might create some sort of near-rhyme effect, which could conjure up feelings similar to the cohesiveness a rhyme or near rhyme brings:

b b b D!
b b b T!

And as you can see, a poet might also experiment with punctuation, spacing, repetition and so on to convey messages.

However, I'm not convinced it can be done well. I also think it's probably a little too experimental to be taken seriously. What do you think?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

My Confession

Bybee recently posted a list of highly acclaimed and popular books that she hasn't read yet. So, I've decided to use this post to ridicule her.

Just kidding. I actually liked the honesty. So, like a good blogger, I'm stealing her idea. Here's my confession, the twenty books that are keeping me from the coveted "Well Read Award" that only exists in my head:

1. Harper Lee- To Kill A Mockingbird
2. Jane Austen- Pride and Prejudice
3. Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness
4. Bill Bryson- A Short History of Nearly Everything
5. Joseph Heller- Catch 22
6. Vladimir Nabokov- Lolita
7. Gabriel Garcia Marquez- One Hundred Years of Solitude
8. J. R. R. Tolkien- The Hobbit
9. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- The Hound of The Baskervilles
10. Charles Dickens- A Tale of Two Cities
11. Louisa May Alcott- Little Women
12. Ian McEwan- Atonement
13. Douglas Adams- The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
14. Don Delilo- White Noise
15. Carson McCullers- The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
16. Richard Adams- Watership Down
17. Scott O'Dell- Island Of The Blue Dolphins
18. Salman Rushdie- The Satanic Verses
19. Madeleine L'Engle- A Wrinkle In Time
20. Katherine Patterson- Bridge To Terebithia

And probably more. I should note that with the exceptions of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens, I haven't read anything else by these particular authors either.

That's my confession. How many Hail Mary's is it worth?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #9- Robert Frost VERSUS Margaret Atwood

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Dr. Seuss Vs. Robert Frost), with a final score of 21-4, was Robert Frost.

Wow. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of picking reasonably matched authors, I go and put Seuss up against Frost. Poor Seuss was totally kerthunkled, wasn't he?

I don't mean to say that I personally think these authors have all been on par with one another in terms of quality, put I have tried to find ones I've felt relatively equal in terms of popularity. There's no point, for instance, in putting Miriam Toews up against John Grisham. Toews might be the better writer, but if most people haven't read her books, how could they know? I hope to get authors that most people will have at least some familiarity with.

Except for this week. I've gone really underground with this one, hoping to expose one of Canada's lesser known authors: Margaret Atwood. Right. Anyway, to ease my guilt about only focusing on the famous, after you vote this week, how about also recommending a favourite author that we may not have heard of? If you can't think of anyone, that's okay- still cast your vote!

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. (August 14th), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reader's Diary #275- Franz Kafka: In The Penal Colony

Franz Kafka is one of those authors I've heard mentioned time and time again but of whom I was totally in the dark. Not only had I not read anything by him, I wasn't even able to come up with a single title. Fortunately, the omniscient web has once more come to my rescue.

For a list of some available Kafka stories to read online, click here. They're English translations done by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC. While I have no knowledge of German whatsoever and therefore unable to comment on how true to the originals they are, I can say that my first foray into Kafka's writing was enjoyable. Disturbing, but enjoyable.

I chose to start with his "In The Penal Colony", written in 1919. A word of warning for those who haven't read it but would like to- it's a little disturbing and if you're looking for a lighter fun read I suggest you skip this one.

"In The Penal Colony" is a story about a man who travels, at the request of the current Commandant of a tropical island, to observe what will possibly be the last execution performed by a very...barbaric torture device. To pique the interest of those of you that still haven't read it, I'll leave out the details as to what the device does to its victims. Only four characters are present: the traveller, the officer (in charge of operating the machine), the condemned man, and the soldier (in charge of guarding the latter).

The plot falls, not as you might expect with the condemned man's fate, but with the fate of the machine itself. It seems the new Commandant (who doesn't actually appear in the story), does not feel comfortable with the cruel injustice. The officer believes the traveller has been sent to pass an outsider's judgement on the events, and to report back to the Commandant. The officer, with a bizarre adoration of the machine and the old Commandant, pleads with the traveller to help keep the device in operation. When the traveller does not agree, the officer decides to...well, that's another detail I'd rather not reveal.

At first I didn't think I enjoyed the story. A bit of gratuitous violence, nothing more.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated. I was disturbed by it, and I had to give credit to Kafka for still being able to affect a 21st century reader in that way. A lot of horror writers and movie directors don't seem to realize that instant flashes of gore doesn't equal scary. But what a lot of others don't realize is that it doesn't hurt either. Kafka knew how to dish it out effectively.

First off, the cool matter-of-fact way that the officer explains the punishment combined with the reserved demeanor of the traveller, left me filled with unease. And that the condemned man had no idea what his punishment would be made it all the worst. Details may have been liberal, but emotions were suppressed and that tension worked brilliantly.

Still, it was just a well written horror story.

Not so. Again, the story plagued me. There seemed to be something else going on. The illegible writing on the officer's script, the ambiguous character titles, the language barrier, the contrasted "relationships" between the traveller and officer versus the soldier and condemned man, all lead me to believe something more was going on.

That "In The Penal Colony" might be an allegory is not a unique assumption. I'm not the first to look for the two Commandants to be somehow related to the Old and New Testament God(s). But that was just one theory. I also suspected it might be an attack on colonialism. Maybe if I looked hard enough, I'd find evidence of Marxist theory.

Yet no matter what angle I looked at it, I couldn't figure out the message, or even solid proof that there even was one! It was like I was being tortured...

That's when I developed my own interpretation- admittedly still in its rough stages. Perhaps "In The Penal Colony" is a story about itself, a meta-story if you will (or maybe Hofstadter's book is taking its toll on me!) Could it be that the story is a torture/execution device? That Kafka is the officer? If that is the case, it follows that I, the reader must be the condemned man, destined to suffer the effects of the story but unaware of what that might be. Who, then, is the traveller? What about the soldier? I'm not as confident about these interpretations but it could be argued that the traveller represents the scholar, the soldier is the publisher, and the Commandants are society. The punishment? I, the reader am sentenced with allegory, punished by having morals thrown in to my story!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this interpretation- or any interpretations of your own.

(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. Also, if you have written any posts about summer reads, feel free to submit them to Reading Is My Superpower. She is hosting this month's carnival with the theme "Surviving the Dog Days of Summer: Books That Take Your Mind off the Heat" and the deadline to submit posts is August 10th. Even if you don't submit, make sure to check it out!)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Reader's Diary #274- Douglas R. Hofstadter: Godel, Escher, Bach (up to p. 500)

One of Leonard Cohen's more obvious tactics is best illustrated with "Bird On A Wire": death by simile. Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir...Like a worm on a hook, Like a knight from some old fashioned book...Like a baby, stillborn, Like a beast with his horn.

I see the logic behind it. With enough comparisons, at least one of them should resonate with the listener, right? Of course, I'm being a little unfair. Cohen seems to do more than grasp at straws. He tries to change things up enough so that each drop of figurative language has the potential to bring his point into sharper focus. You end up comparing the comparisons, looking for ways they are alike and how they represent the overall point he's trying to make.

However, the risk one takes in using such a tactic is confusing matters even more. What if the bombardment of metaphors, similes, and analogies muddies the waters instead of clearing them up? At a little over 3 minutes, Cohen can be forgiven. You can enjoy the melody and move on, not giving two hoots about how he can simultaneously feel like both a stillborn baby and a bird on a wire. At 742 pages, Hofstadter may not get off so easily.

As the title suggests, Hofstadter likes to touch upon a variety of topics. That's an understatement really. He presents a dizzying number of topics: philosophy, math, music, art, literature, psychology, biology, language, artificial intelligence, computer programming, and more. The problem I find is that you're never really sure how he's using them. Which are genuine topics and which are merely meant to illustrate his other points? Did he, for example, intend to focus equally on Godel, Escher and Bach, or did he intend to use Bach and Escher merely as examples to represent Godel's theories? His connections are hazy at best.

It's unfortunate really because during my brief moments of understanding, I can see that Hofstadter has some pretty profound points to ponder. I really enjoyed, for instance, his discussion on how our thoughts and sense of self arise from the physical structure of the brain.

I actually found the second third of the book more more easy to understand than the first. I'll concede that many issues I have with the book aren't to be blamed on Hofstadter at all. I'm quickly coming to the realization that my numeracy isn't nearly as strong as my literacy. The second he begins talking about typographical number theory, my brain fogs over leaving me confused and disinterested. However (and this is where Hoftstadter's responsibility comes in), discussions of Escher paintings and cute dialogues between Achilles and Tortoise shed hardly any light at all.

Hofstadter may be a brilliant man, but I'm not yet convinced he's much of an author.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Great Wednesday Compare #8- Dr. Seuss VERSUS Robert Frost

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Dr. Seuss Vs. C.S. Lewis), with a final score of 15-14, was Dr. Seuss.

As you may or may not have noticed, I've normally withheld my vote. However, I've reserved the right to cast my vote in the unlikely event of a tie. So, with apologies to the C.S. Lewis fans, at 14 votes apiece, I had to go with Seuss. While I absolutely loved The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a child, the rest of the Narnia Chronicles still sit on my shelf, unread to this day. And while I do hope to get to them (and some of his other books) eventually, I can't in fairness, vote for an author I've barely read. I have however, read a lot of Seuss and remember loving his books as a child as well. I should add the disclaimer that Seuss is NOT my favourite children's author.

But Seuss won't have to worry about who that is this week. Instead, I'm going to break out of the kid's lit for the time being and pit him against Robert Frost.

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. (August 7th), and please spread the word!

Who's better?