Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reader's Diary #391- Eve Bunting (author) and David Diaz (illustrator): Smoky Night

To put things in perspective for this review, my children are 5 and 3, and my 3 year old was, by chance, asleep when I decided to read Eve Bunting's Smoky Night aloud. Luckily. My 5 year old? I'm relieved she was able to sleep afterwards.

My wife and I have talked a lot lately about censoring things from our kids. We agree that sheltering them too much is not preparing them for the real world, yet we're not ready to sit them down to watch South Park quite yet either. Somewhere there must be a middle ground.

Smoky Night pushed my boundaries, not in a good taste sort of way, but in a "does she really need to be exposed to this right now?" way. In my defense, sometimes you don't have the time to thoroughly inspect every library book you bring home beforehand, and I thought Eve Bunting + Caldecott Medal was a safe bet.

Skimming over the jacket flap, I found out it was based on the LA riots. Hard to sterilize that tale, I figured, but the "what we can all learn from such upheavals" bit sold me. So, I gave it a go. On the second page:
"Below us they are smashing everything. Windows, cars, streetlights.

'They look angry. But they look happy, too,' I whisper.

'After a while it's like a game,' Mama says."

At this point, I'll admit, I'm a bit scared myself. Then again, I rationalize, as an adult I understand what's going on more and the implied threat. I trudge on.

On page 16, right after the boy and his mother have evacuated their apartment building which has been set on fire:
"A street sign lies crumpled in the gutter. I grab hold of Mama because I think I see a dead man with no arms lying there, too. But it's one of those plastic people that show off clothes in department stores."
And this is the point when I wished I'd backed out earlier. I mean the dead man was a nice touch, but the no arms? Well, that was the pièce de résistance, wasn't it?

So, how did my daughter handle it? Fine, I suppose. We talked A LOT about it afterwards, especially as I feared that the whole cats bringing two neighbours closer together bit at the end didn't really erase the violent images of earlier or even offer much of a counter. Maybe to a child it would suffice, or maybe they're able to handle stressful images and stories more than I give them credit. I mean, I read fairy tales to my children and those stories can be down right cruel (Hansel and Gretel, anyone?) yet there haven't been any nightmares. But, I finished Smoky Night, put it up on a shelf and hoped the other library books would make her forget that one. Then today, I saw that she had gotten it down and was reading it to her younger brother. I stopped her, explained that it might be a little too scary, and suggested a different book: Stephen King's Misery (kidding).

At Smoky Night is age listed for 4-8 year olds, while Publisher's Weekly suggests it for 5+. These ages should, of course, be suggestions, as most parents or caregivers should know what their child is or isn't able to handle, maturity-wise. I guess my daughter was able to handle it emotionally, but I'm not sure why she should have to. I'm not saying such books aren't important. There was another book at the library that day with the title "My Daddy Drinks Too Much" that we didn't check out. Such books serve a purpose for those children who have experienced riots, alcoholic fathers, and other tragedies, but do all children need to read them?

I 'm not blaming anyone here, except maybe myself for not checking the books a little more carefully. Bunting wasn't in the wrong for writing such a book. The Caldecott people weren't necessarily in the wrong for awarding it the medal; David Diaz's illustrations and collages are quite rich. And certainly the library wasn't wrong for making the book available.

In the end, I think I was more affected by the experience than my daughter. Perhaps a little discomfort is a good thing. I'm not sure. Anyone care to weigh in? Would you read such a book to a five year old?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reader's Diary #390- The Good News Bible: Kings 1

When I started this plan to through the entire Bible, I did so with the King James Version. Then, just after Exodus, I switched to the Good News version, citing readability as my reason, and arguing that it was no more or less a translation than was the King James version.

Recently the Globe and Mail listed the KJV as one the 50 Greatest Books (thanks to Historia for posting about it). At first I didn't understand why they picked a specific translation, when they didn't specify any translation for the other books on their list that weren't originally written in English, but Donald Harman Akenson made a compelling case, "More even than William Shakespeare, the KJV sculpted the English language and thus the way anyone who uses English thinks. It is also the language's largest source ever assembled of metaphors, clichés and plots waiting to be cribbed."

The article made me go back to my original reason to read the Bible in the first place. As I said back then, my aim was to "simply read through the Bible and comment upon it (one book at a time) as if it were a novel, but with the understanding that it is much more; that is has a cultural and literary significance that few other books can compare." I'm not having a lot of success with that. I quickly realized that it can't be read as a novel. Quite frankly, it makes a terrible novel. If a novel went into the excruciating detail that the Old Testament goes into, it would probably never be published. Kings 1, while having no chore as tedious as working through genealogy records or ark of the covenant dimensions as in some of the earlier books, still feels monotonous. Basically it's a king who starts off good, wages war, disobeys God, and then dies only to be replaced by another king who repeats the actions, and so on, over and over again.

So, I want to switch gears, rethink what I want to get out of this task. Spiritual guidance? Nah, I'm cool with my current stance. A study of its effect on society? Goodness, no. Literary merit? Possibly. Still, this seems to be more of a scholarly pursuit than I'm up for, but I'll take the beginner course.

And with that, I think I'll stick with the Good News version. The metaphors, clichés, and plots are still there, they're just worded differently. In the Globe and Mail article, Akenson objects to complaints that everyday people and young people cannot understand the language of the KJV, declaring "of course they can." I agree, but he doesn't go onto make a strong case as to why they should, "If they are encouraged to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the most widescreen, soaring, magical, brutal, depressing, elevating and sublime document in our language, they will be forever grateful and we all will be the better for it."

In our language? How is this "our language" any more than a modern English version? I read Shakespeare and would prefer his plays in the original language, because I can understand it, for the most part, the way it was meant to be. If I could speak Aramaic and Hebrew, I'd read the Bible that way. Failing that, a modern translation is potentially just as good as the King James Version. I know not all translations are created equal, but Akenson doesn't make a convincing argument for the KJV. The article simply comes across as a bit of snobbery. It's outdated English, so you know it's smarter.

Compare the opening verses of Kings 1:

From the Good News Version:

"King David was now a very old man, and although his servants covered him with blankets, he could not keep warm."

From the King James Version:

"Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with his clothes, but he gat no heat."

Perhaps someone might argue that "stricken in years" is more poetic, but then I'd like to see them defend the "gat no heat" part at the end.

I'll stick to the Good News Version. Failing a decent argument for the translations of the Kings James Version, Akenson should have just picked the Bible.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Books? What books?

Due to the lack of blogs out there, I've decided to do my part and create another one. This one is not books related, it's music, and it has a really simple premise (not to mention design). It's my way of trying to discover new and/or great music. Head over to My Weekly Top 10 to see how to take part (Click on "About" in the sidebar, in case it's not clear).

Reader's Diary #389- Zachariah Wells (editor): Jailbreaks

Just in case I haven't name dropped Zachariah Wells enough, I'm in with another reason to be a fan: Jailbreaks, an anthology of Canadian sonnets.

If you're not a fan of Wells, not to worry. Oddly, he doesn't contribute any of his own poetry to the book. In his own words, "I don't think it's appropriate for an anthologist to include his own poetry in the books he assembles. One risks being a Louis Untermeyer... My fingerprints are all over that selection as it is, with the intro and the notes--not to mention the poems themselves and the order in which I've placed them--so it would be sheer egotism to include my own work as well. It makes far too broad a target for someone looking to discredit the book or individual editorial choices within it."

Fair enough. While I'm unfamiliar with Louis Untermeyer, I thought of my own examples where it seemed the anthologist wanted to showcase their own work and could only sell their product sandwiched between something better (Oscar Williams' Immortal Poems came to mind). Then, I've also had the opposite experience in which the editor's poems were my favourite (recently this was the case, with Jeannette Armstrong's poems in the Native Poetry in Canada anthology). I've read few anthologies in which the editors hadn't submitted their own work, and perhaps as I'm biased, I think Wells not only could have gotten away with it, but would have strengthened the book with a sonnet of his own. Then, that would have made 100 and 99's just so much cooler, isn't it? (Especially to us Canadians since it conjures up "The Great One.")

Not that the book needs strengthening. With sonnets from such revered poets as Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Mary Dalton, combined with entries from more recent/under- appreciated poets such as George Whipple and Evie Christie, it's a near perfect cross-section.

The Potato Harvest
by Charles G.D. Roberts

A high bare field, brown from the plough, and borne
Aslant from sunset, amber wastes of sky
Washing the ridge; a clamour of clothes that fly
In from the wide flats where the spent tides mourn
To yon their rocking roosts in pines wind-torn;
A line of grey snake-fence, that zigzags by
A pond and cattle; from the homestead nigh
The long deep summonings of the supper horn.

Black on the ridge, against that lonely flush,
A cart, and stoop-necked oxen; ranged beside
Some barrels; and the day-worn harvest-folk,
Here emptying their baskets, jar the hush
With hollow thunders. Down the dusk hillside
Lumbers the wain; and day fades out like smoke.

(Charles G.D. Roberts was one of Canada's first poets of recognition, though he's been criticized, even by some of the other poets featured in this collection, for being too genteel or aloof. While it's not my favourite in the book-- I featured it because it's old enough to be in the public domain-- I still love the depressing undertone of the imagery in this otherwise serene idyll.)

Wells further strengthens the book with his "fingerprints." The first of these is an introduction that discusses the relevance, appearance and sound of the form despite the liberties that have been taken over the past few centuries. Another is notes found at the back of the book that Wells has made on the selections. After reading each poem it was nice to look ahead to see Wells' thoughts, explanations, and opinions on poems that he chose. It provided more time to let each poem sink in before moving on to the next, especially when I often found myself flipping back to compare his impressions with my own or to check out something I'd missed. Occasionally, Wells' use of poetic terminology was intimidating. While I've come across words like enjambment, Petrarchan sonnets, and sibilants, I'm far from versed in them and found myself running to the dictionary Internet. This is not a complaint. I need a reminder every now and then of how much I've yet to learn. It prevents me from firing off a few quick limericks on a napkin and thinking it's the wittiest thing since e.e. cummings. But perhaps Wells' best fingerprint was the arrangement-- poetic in itself. I'm so used to anthologies having their poems presented alphabetically by author's name or chronologically, that I didn't realize it could be a work of art. Wells accomplishes this by finding common themes and images between poems and places them adjacent to one another creating chains and discourses that wouldn't have existed in an arbitrary arrangement. Steven Price's "XVI" with phrases such as "rope like a brambled path" is followed by Carmine Starnino's "Rope Husbandry" which is in turn followed by John Barton's "Saint Joseph's Hospital, 1937" which begins with the line, "My heart, a knot undone with pain, forgot/ a beat the message cut." Likewise, poems about skating, wrestling, and tennis find themselves in athletic company. I have but one small complaint: too many poems seemed preoccupied with the sonnet or poetry itself. I like metapoetry, just in smaller doses.

A few of my favourites that I could also find online:

David W. McFadden's "Country Hotel in the Niagara Peninsula" (which reminded me a little of Al Purdy):

The guy was shooting pool. I stopped to watch.
He missed an easy shot and the cue ball
hopped the cushion and crashed to the floor.

(Read the rest here.)

Karen Solie's "Trust Me":

A drowning dream. Look up. Sunlight snickers
on the swells as fingers trail a calm
and vicious scratch across the surface

(Read the rest here.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reader's Diary #388- David Damas: Arctic Migrants/ Arctic Villagers

Debbie bought me this book as a Christmas gift last year, figuring I'd be intrigued by the controversy promised on the back:
"In recent years the view has emerged that the Inuit were coerced by the Canadian government into abandoning life in scattered camps for centres of habitation. In Arctic Migrants/Arctic Villagers David Damas demonstrates that for many years government policies helped maintain dispersed settlement, but that eventually concerns over health, housing, and education and welfare brought about policy changes that inevitably led to centralization. Damas shows that while there were cases of government-directed relocation to centres, centralization was largely voluntary as the Inuit accepted the advantages of village living."
We both had the sense that his would not be another "white man is evil" argument that has plagued so many books about the north. Furthermore, there's an implicit sense that all is not well in the Arctic in that someone would want to point fingers in the first place. And while we certainly enjoyed our 6 years in Nunavut, all is not well. It needs to be addressed and addressed publicly.

Fortunately, Damas does not let white people off the hook. While I've spoken out against novels like Consumption and White Eskimo that oversimplify the intentions of white men as evil, racist and money-grubbing, I'm well aware that actions of many white people have been terribly unjust to Inuit and First Nations people in this country. I've only asked that authors present the issue with a little more complexity. This is where Damas exceeds.

The bulk of Damas's research comes from RCMP and government documents, and in the time frame that he focuses most of his attention, this means that it comes from white sources. While it might be instinctual for some to criticize him for that, it is important to note that those were the ones that made the decisions affecting the Inuit. If Damas's research seems problematic, it only highlights the larger, and more systemic issue at hand: white paternalism.

Often it was the case that the whites genuinely wanted to do what they felt was best for the Inuit. Not only should it not have been the white man's decisions to make, but without adequate input from the Inuit, the whites really didn't know what was best. In a few cases, Damas mentions some people that tried to discuss issues of well-being with them (still failing because of the language barrier) but in most cases all decisions seemed pretty one-sided. The Inuit, for instance, exhibited signs that they were interested in aggregating into communities, while the whites decided that they should preserve their culture, avoid large groups due to tuberculosis and other communicable diseases and basically, get back on the land. Of course, culture preservation and health are noble concerns and are good intentions. Occasionally, some of the documents provided by Damas revealed a more subtle racism underlying those aims, letters that talked about the Inuit "loitering" around the Hudson Bay posts, as if they were pests and didn't have as much right-- if not more-- to be there.

The policy of dispersal first promoted by the government gave way in the 60s to the institution of a welfare state. Southern bureaucrats and their Northern representatives then decided that it wasn't fair that southern families were given such monies as family allowance and started implementing more financial relief in the North. Of course, having had more experience with trading versus buying, some were concerned that the Inuit would give up traditional ways (valid concern) and placed certain restrictions on the money (but it doesn't promote equality when you consider that southern, white Canadians, didn't have these strings attached). These debates, while interesting and again well-intended, rarely had input from the Inuit. Damas illustrates this best in his discussion on the advent of schools in the North. Citing a letter from J. V. Jacobson, superintendent of Education for the Arctic in the 50s, where he states that the aim of education "is not to fall into the pattern of the white man's way of life but to make them better Eskimos," Damas goes on to add, "The difficulty of defining just what elements of the native culture were to be retained and which were to be altered was not addressed."

After years of residential schools, the relocation of Inuit in Northern Quebec to the high arctic, and general meddling that has caused hard feelings and emotional stress even to this day, ending the book by discussing the creation of Nunavut and showing that Inuit are finally in control of their own destiny, provides some hope. I fear, however, that it could be too late to hand over the reins once we've already wrecked the qamutik.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Great Wednesday Compare 3- Sidney Sheldon VERSUS Anne Rice

The winner of the last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Sidney Sheldon Vs. Mary Higgins Clark) with a final score of 8-4 was Sidney Sheldon.

Not having read either of these, I probably would have gone with Mary Higgins Clark. I think my sister has read just about everything she's published, and that's about all I could base my vote on. By the way, I loved some of the responses last week; so many of you hardly give two hoots about either author and yet voted anyway. Ah sweet democracy.

Maybe this week's match-up will strike a few more chords.

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. (Sept. 2nd, 2008), and if you want your author to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who's better?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reader's Diary #387- Jackie Kay: Wish I Was Here

Short Story Monday

This month's short story pick over at A Curious Singularity is Jackie Kay's "Wish I Was Here."

I'll start things off by saying I didn't like it. But, I'll try to be a bit more diplomatic than that (after all Kate, the host of ACS, says "Kay is a brilliant short story writer as well," and calls her "one of [her] all time favourites").

So, here's the part where, when I'm in one of my more gentle moods, I try to begin with with something positive. I hope, in this case, my positive doesn't seem insincere or backhanded: the narrator and quasi-protagonist, Paula, is one of the most annoying and consistent characters I've read in quite some time. She made me think of Ned Flanders and poodles. That such an irritating character did not make me transfer that negative energy towards Kay herself was quite a feat. Perhaps Paula was most grating because she was believable: self-absorbed, self-pitying, judgemental and a lousy comedian to boot. We all know people like this, but I find it hard to have sympathy for such individuals.

If that's my positive, how bad can my negative be? It depends on your taste. Personally, I found the plot spread way too thin. Paula is trying to endure a vacation where she has to meet Claudette and her new lover, Jan. It is painfully obvious that Paula is jealous. There is no resolution. This might be your thing.

To end on a positive note, I liked the title. In fact, I think "Wish I Was Here" would have been better had nothing followed the title.

(Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

And the nominees are...

Over at My Friend Amy's, she's taking nominations for a whole whack of categories in the first Book Blogging Oscars Book Blogger Appreciation Week Awards. Know someone who deserves a BBAW? Head here to see how to nominate.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Great Wednesday Compare 3: Sidney Sheldon VERSUS Mary Higgins Clark

The winner of the last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Sidney Sheldon Vs. Danielle Steel) with a final score of 7-0 was Sidney Sheldon.

I have to admit a snobbish aversion towards these writers, as I haven't read either and have judged them as such that I wouldn't enjoy them if I had. In my defense, I will read them someday, just to make sure. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

I was surprised to see a shut-out against Steel. According to her own website "There are more than 570 million copies of her books in print, and every one of her books is a bestseller. In short, Danielle Steel is the most popular author writing today. She is read by women, men, young people, old people in 47 countries and 28 languages." Well, popular is certainly subjective, isn't it? Still, she's doing something right and if it isn't writing, it must be business. But, according to Nicola, Sheldon's books were more on the steamy side, whereas Steel's were sappier and, around these parts, steam triumphs over sap.

But what about suspense?

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. (Aug. 26th, 2008), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reader's Diary #386- Ivan Turgenev: A Sportsman's Notebook

Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Notebook (sometimes titled A Sportsman's Sketches or A Hunter's Sketches) was my third read for the Russian Reading Challenge.

"Sketches" is an apt description of the book. While Wikipedia has it listed as a selection of short stories, only a couple sections or so towards the end would really qualify as short stories-- and I don't mean Turgenev was throwing out vague pseudo-intellectual plots either. The impression that I had was that he didn't intend them to more than portraits and landscapes of the people and places he'd come across in his hunting exploits around a small section of Russia.

Mostly peasants and landowners, the composite population was interesting reading... for a bit. It quite reminded me of a National Geographic article; Turgenev began almost every sketch with a description of the land and weather, then would delve into the confessions, anecdotes, and philosophies offered to him by one soul or another. It was interesting to note that in many ways the peasants had no more in common to one another than they did with the landowners. Some were content with their lot in life and grateful for what they had, while others saw their lowercase treatment as unjust. I love such topics and without fail they get my brain working overtime. This time I found myself wrestling with the difference between ambition and greed.

But for all the political undertones and tourism through literature, A Sportsman's Notebook was too long. National Geographic's aren't 398 pages, nor should this book.

Turgenev himself comes across as a bit too sterile and too removed from his subjects. While charming in the way he addresses the reader directly in that old Russian style, he's nonetheless boring. In the introduction, Max Egremont praises him for being "too subtle a writer to produce a mere political tract" but taking a stance on something would have been nice. Turgenev may have illustrated the life of the downtrodden peasant, but he also illustrated the life of the happy peasant, the unlucky landowner and others. It was a great cross-section in the interest of a sociological study, but a little controversy would have livened things up in the interest of a book. Egremont goes on to say that "the critical tone of the book annoyed the authorities." Was something loss in translation? Over time? I didn't see it as much of a critical book at all. I think he played it too safe.

The Soundtrack
1. 2 Dots On A Map- The Russian Futurists
2. Winds of Change- Scorpions
3. Eli, The Barrel Boy- The Decemberists
4. Stand- R.E.M.
5. Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier- Corb Lund

For my fourth and final book for the challenge, I'm hoping to read something by a modern Russian writer, someone still alive. Any suggestions?

Cross posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Reader's Diary #385- Dave White: Closure

Short Story Monday

Where was I?

I was on recess duty. It was after about a month of teaching (school starts mid-August in Rankin Inlet) and about two months after I first moved North. My perspective on the world was quickly undergoing a pretty radical shift as it was.

Just after herding the last student through the door to head back to class, another teacher approached me and asked if I'd heard about the airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. I figured it was a single seater, and while unfortunate, didn't think it was all that newsworthy. Then my students headed off to their Inuktitut lessons and I had time to check the news on the Internet...

When I was a child my parents talked about where they were when Kennedy was shot. My sister and I wondered what defining moments we'd have in our lifetimes. I remember where I was when I heard about the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Lady Di, but a part of me wondered if I'd forced the memories, just so when people asked, I'd have an answer.

Remembering the details of September 11th of course didn't need to be forced. It was such a major moment that today, almost 7 years later, people can almost ask "Where were you?" and you know what they mean. Thus begins, Dave White's "Closure."

I didn't set out to read a September 11th story. I set out to read a detective story. I all but neglect mysteries and crime stories and in the interest of keeping well-rounded, searched the Internet for something quick to fill the void. I happened upon White's story, winner of the 2003 Derringer Award for best short story.

While I know there's been a lot already written using September 11th as either a backdrop or a focal point, and while I suspect there's plenty more to come, I've not yet tired off the topic even if the quality of such pieces ranges from sentimental crap to brilliant art. "Closure" is neither.

It is also not much of a mystery-- except for why it won a Derringer.

I appreciated the plot: an Arab-American named Omar hires a private investigator (or is he a bodyguard? I'm not sure) named Jackson Donne to tag along as he is to meet a stranger at Liberty State Park who has offered to sell him information about Omar's wife who'd been in the World Trade Centre when it was attacked. Had she been cheating on him? Did she survive? Was the strangler a hustler? It certainly has the earmarks of a mystery.

But then the story takes a left turn. Instead, a case of racism mixed with mistaken identity leads to a violent tragedy and there is no closure.

Much like the events of September 11th? Could this be White's point? Fine, but the judges for the Derringer Award should note: tis no mystery.

As a story, not a mystery, I appreciated the turn of events. It begins almost cliched, complete with Omar stumbling into Donne's office. I haven't read many mysteries, but even I wondered why everyone "stumbles" into a PI's office. Can they not afford a decent doorstep? Then quickly the promise of a mystery is taken away; another victim of September 11th.

Unfortunately the characters weren't all that engaging. While Omar's race is necessary for the tragedy to unfold at the end, it seems a little forced; a little too Little Mosque on the Prairie (for the Canadians in the audience). Likewise the racist at the end is too one-dimensional, and not given any real depth. As for Donne (after all, "Closure" is billed as a "Jackson Donne mystery") he seems to merely relate events making it hard to get a sense for him as a person. He seemed way too detached and almost insignificant to the plot. When he laments at the end that he is now affected by September 11th, I resented his self-centredness more than feeling any sympathy.

One of my favourite works of art to rise from Ground Zero is David Riebetanz's "Norberto Hernadez: Photographed Falling September Eleventh." Read it here. Do you have any favourites? Books? Songs? Paintings?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

God bless us, everyone.

My Friend Amy is hosting Book Blogger Appreciation Week, Sept 15-19, because, according to her, "book bloggers are the kindest, most open minded, and supportive group of bloggers on the internet."

What an idiot. I got into this racket because I wanted to write snarky reviews and potentially hurt an author's feelings.

I kid! I kid!

Truly, I think Amy is onto something. It does seem very much like a warm and welcoming community, like Mayberry with modems. When I first started I found it amazing that others would visit my blog even if they hadn't read the book I was currently reviewing. But now I understand. It's just talking about something we love: books, and it doesn't matter too much which books those might be. People are always talking about music, t.v., and movies, yet I've found in general society books have by and large been a personal thing. Not only do I think it's wonderful to have found others equally (or more) passionate about the written word, but I think the movement has worked it's way outward, becoming as Amy puts it, an "essential contribution to book buzz."

So it's time for some hot hand on back action. Sept. 15-19.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Library Take Over

A week after posting about the Yellowknife Public Library's 2nd Canadian Book Challenge Display, Jo-Ann of the Toronto Public Library (Jane Dundas Branch), wrote to share a display-- complete with bookmarks-- that she created. The leaves are a nice touch, aren't they? Here's her post.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Great Wednesday Compare 3: Sidney Sheldon VERSUS Danielle Steel

The winner of the 2nd Great Wednesday Compare was Robertson Davies. Here's how it all went down...

Back in February, we started with two Canadians, Robert Munsch and Farley Mowat. Munsch love didn't last forever. In fact, it didn't last one week. He lost to Mowat 9-8. Mowat's cry wasn't as loud as London's call, and he lost to Jack London the following week 11-6. It appears, however, that most people would rather vacation in Discworld than the Yukon, as London lost to Terry Pratchett 8-3. Was there an omen for the next outcome? Neil Gaiman went on to beat Pratchett 7-5, followed by Cormac McCarthy the next week 9-4. Then Douglas Coupland burst into the picture, stealing Gaiman's gum and the win 9-6. Alas, F. Scott Fitzgerald proved greater and took out Coupland 10-9, then Harriet Beecher Stowe 10-9. Ooompa Loompa Lerald, good-bye to Fitzgerald; Dahl takes the lead 21.5-5.5 and Rudyard Kipling 7-2. But free as he was, Walt Whitman still showed fine form, winning the match against Dahl 8-7. Alas, he then heard the fly buzz and couldn't survive Emily Dickinson 12-2. Was there something in the eyre? Dickinson fell to Charlotte Bronte 12-3, who went on to win a dysfunctional family feud against her sisters taking 9 votes against Anne's 6 and Emily's 0. Charlotte then lost to the divine Margaret Laurence 9-6, who in turn lost to Alice Munro 8-2. Then O brother, out goes O Henry 6-3. But she was late for the tea party and was defeated by Lewis Carroll 10-3. Alice proved no match for the hobbits; Carroll lost the following week to J.R.R. Tolkien 12-7. And after that the Tolkien appreciation was much less than I expected, he was trounced by Doris Lessing 10-5. She went on to execute Norman Mailer 7-6 but lost to Robertson Davies 14-3. It was serious business for Davies from that point on as he eliminated Nick Hornby 10-5, Aldous Huxley 10-1, Tom Wolfe 11-2, Mordecai Richler 6-3, and finally, the winner of the 1st Wednesday Compare, John Steinbeck, 7-6.

So on that note, it's time for a brand new round of fun. Welcome to the Great Wednesday Compare 3!

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. (Aug. 19th, 2008), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let's get bizayyyyy!

My blogging activity has been sporadic lately, both in posting and visiting your fine blogs. Between power outages, Internet problems, a trip to Edmonton, work, surprises with our new house (our roof sprung a leak during a thunderstorm a couple nights ago and the front step fell off today), and writing resumes, it's been one hectic summer.

While I thought I was keeping my head above water, I just last night remembered that I was supposed to have picked a winner for Mary Novik's Conceit. With my apologies for taking so long, the winner was... Teddy Rose. (Please email me with your mailing address.)

Thanks to everyone who participated, and especially to Mary Novik for donating the book. Did I mention it's hardcover and autographed?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Reader's Diary #384- Jim Ruland: Kessler Has No Lucky Pants

Short Story Monday

Did I like Jim Ruland's "Kessler Has No Lucky Pants"?

Written with a Q and A format, I certainly thought it was uniquely told.

But was it style over substance?

No, it had substance coming out the wazoo. Ew. Gross. Maybe that conjures up an image no one needs right now.

Can I try that again?

It has oodles of substance. The question of fate versus controlling ones destiny definitely seems to be a major theme. The message that even our smallest, seemingly insignificant, choices (like which pants we wear on any particular day) can determine our fate would almost appear to be the story's thesis. But then again, Kessler seems to remind us, luck can't be counted out altogether.

So is Kessler suggesting that free will/determinism should be viewed not as or but as and?

Yes. At least I think so. But I'm not sure whether or not the story was strong enough to support such a heavy philosophy.

Why not?

Well. The characters were fine. They weren't overly engaging and I probably transferred too much of the narrator's quirkiness unto Kessler at first. He seemed OCD and a bit of a superstitious nut, certainly not someone who could have the sort of relationship he ended up having: normal. Secondly the plot was a bit too simple: a run of the mill boy-meets-girl story.

So did I like it or not?


Friday, August 08, 2008

Reader's Diary #384- Sylvia Plath: Ariel

This being my first exposure to a collection of Plath poems, I was struck by some aspects: her repetition, her rhymes and other word play, her darkness and her contradictions.

At times the poems were either funnily executed or executed funnily. It takes a particularly sinister and cynical sense of humour to name a poem "Death & Co," or to write "I could never talk to you./ The tongue stuck in my jaw./ It stuck in a barb wire snare./ Ich, ich, ich, ich."

There was something about the peppy yet careful rhythm that seemed to scratch--but not cut-- across the grain of the gloom, like someone not using poetry as medicine but as a drug.

And how was it she could avoid be controlled by a metaphor, jumping from images as diverse as a Nazi lampshade to a peanut-crunching crowd to a seashell within a single poem, yet be controlled by a subject (dying) for an entire collection?

I normally don't like thinking so much of the poet, feeling that the poems should speak for themselves. However, Plath's poems, being confessional, make it difficult not to try and psycho-analyze her. So, does it mean she's failed if I understand her less? Maybe. But I liked her more. Crazy.

by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

(Read the rest here.)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Local Press

Thanks to the Yellowknife Public Library (especially William) for putting up a 2nd Canadian Book Challenge display:
As you can tell, it's already found a couple fans: (Actually, they're my kids.)

If you're curious, the books on display are as follows (from left to right, top to bottom):
1. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
2. Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay
3. Soucouyant by David Chariandy (William's Pick)
4. The Curse of The Shaman by Michael Kusugak
5. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
6. How To Be A Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson
7. Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark
8. No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
9. Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
10. Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
11. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
12. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
13. Dan McGrew, Sam McGee and Other Great Service by Robert Service
14. The Vanishing Point by W.O. Mitchell (William's Pick)
15. At The Altar by Lucy Maud Montgomery (William's Pick)
16. The Doctor's Wife by Brian Moore (William's Pick)
17. Black Robe by Brian Moore (William's Pick)
18. Ten Thousand Lovers by Edeet Ravel (William's Pick)

As well, as I mentioned in my last post, I was interviewed by Peter Hope of the local CBC Radio. Unfortunately it's not online, but they're checking if they can provide me with a digital copy to share. My fingers are crossed!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Great Wednesday Compare 2- Robertson Davies VERSUS John Steinbeck

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Robertson Davies Vs. Mordecai Richler), with a final score of 6-3, was Robertson Davies.

I had so hoped it would be Richler. I had an interview with the local CBC Radio today regarding the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge and I was asked what are my favourite Canadian books. I responded that I had three: Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, and Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version. The thing is, the third used to be Richler's Cocksure. Then I read Barney's Version and it surpassed even that, so I knew, with just two books of his read (I've since read a couple Jacob Two-Two books), that I was a huge fan. Seeing so many people referring to Duddy Kravitz last week, makes it look like I'm even for another treat with that one. But for now, Richler couldn't take down the man with the beard. I'll get over it, but only with the promise that if you haven't read a Richler book yet- do so. Consider it a recommendation.

I know I said last week that a fifth win by Davies would spell the retirement of the Great Wednesday Compare 2...but not quite. Before moving on to the third installment, I've decided to pit champion against champion. If you'll remember, the five-time winner of the Great Wednesday Compare (1) was John Steinbeck. So let's see which of these two kings takes the crown...

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. (Aug 12th, 2008), and please spread the word!

Who's better?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Reader's Diary #383- Emily Schultz: I Love You, Pretty Puppy

Short Story Monday

"I'm in love with you and the dog is licking herself.

That's my life."

Can the rest of Schultz's story live up to such a great opening? Yes, yes, yes.

I'm particularly fond of stories that look at love realistically, without all the sheen. Of course, many romances begin with so much sheen they practically sparkle. Without fail, the stains eventually show through and real love begins with a decision not to throw it out, to appreciate it for what it is. It's not a new theme amongst us not-quite-sentimentalists. Just recently I watched John Cusack explore the same idea in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.

Schultz brings pre-stained dinnerware to the table. Here we are treated to the exploration of a relationship that didn't have much of a sheen to begin with. "I Love You, Pretty Puppy" is the story of an unattractive girl and her unattractive boyfriend and their unattractive dog (and they all lived together in their crooked little house). Much of the story revolves around the girl, and how she's come to accept life and love the way it is-- though there are more than a few hints to suggest that her resolve isn't as strong as her sarcasm and practicality would otherwise indicate.

What role does the "pretty puppy" play in all this? It's obvious that it's become symbolic to the girl. Though focusing on the dog at moments that cross-cut her relationship, I'm still a little unsure of whether it's seen as an extension of herself, or of the couple. I'll wrestle with that throughout the day. It's such a great story, I can't let it go.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

How To Write A Canadian Novel

Tanabata, who just finished reading Will and Ian Ferguson's How To Be A Canadian, excerpted a passage called "Tips on how to write a Canadian novel." It's very funny...and on the mark. Just head to her site and see how well the Canadian books you've read fit their bill.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The 2nd Canadian Book Challenge- 1st Update

Well done! Only one month in and already 99 books have been read collectively (compared to about 20 for the 1st month the last time around).

Those of you familiar with the first edition of this challenge will notice that the headings are a little different this time. I scrapped the currency birds in favour of province/territory headings. No, I'm not ranking them in order of preference, so no angry letters from Ontarians, please! I've placed them in the order that they joined confederation or were finally recognized, therefore if you've read all 13 books, you're a Nunavummiut since they were the 13th to join Canada. In cases of a tie, I simply chose the order as presented in this Wikipedia article. I hope it's not too confusing to find a Joan Clark book listed under Northwest Territorians and so forth-- it's based entirely on the number of books you've read, not the author's birthplace.

Anyway, here's a list of the books and reviews read so far. Please visit the links. If anyone spots an inaccuracy in their number of books, missing titles and so forth, let me know. There's a lot more participants this time around and so, it's a bit more difficult to manage. That said, I'll fix any discrepancies as soon as they're brought to my attention. And please remember to give me the heads up when and if you finish a review-- it'll make my job a LOT easier.

Nunavummiut (13 Books)

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (12 Books)

Albertans (11 Books)

Saskatchewanies (10 Books)

Yukoners (9 Books)

Prince Edward Islanders (8 Books)

- Going Inside by Alan Kesselheim*
- Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy by Martin Knelman*
- Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery*
- Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery*
- Anne's House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery*
- Anne of The Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery*
- The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill*
- Unknown Shore by Robert Ruby*

British Columbians (7 Books)

Paul P
- Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley*
- As For Me And My House by Sinclair Ross*
- Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen*
- Pilgrim by Timothy Findley*
- The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence*
- Effigy by Alissa York*
- Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood*

Northwest Territorians (6 Books)

- Innercity Girl Like Me by Sabrina Bernardo*
- The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews*
- Beautiful Girl Thumb by Melissa Steele*
- An Audience of Chairs by Joan Clark*
- Where The Pavement Ends by Marie Wadden*
- Naomi's Road by Joy Kogowa and illustrated by Matt Gould*

- Kiss The Sunset Pig by Laurie Gough*
- Psyche's Children by Catherine Joyce*
- The Lidek Revolution by James Stark*
- Pure Springs by Brian Doyle*
- Speak Ill of the Dead by Mary Jane Maffini*
- Without Vodka by Aleksander Topolski*

Manitobans (5 Books)

New Brunswickers (4 Books)

- Conceit by Mary Novik*
- Forage by Rita Wong*
- Porcupine by Meg Tilly*
- The Alchemist's Dream by John Wilson*

Traveler One
- Random Passage by Bernice Morgan*
- Kiss The Joy As It Flies by Sheree Fitch*
- Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay*
- The Mountain and The Valley by Ernest Buckler*

- Kit's Law by Donna Morrissey*
- Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark*
- A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay*
- The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe*

Nova Scotians (3 Books)

- Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis*
- Thumb In The Box by Ken Roberts*
- Dippers by Barbara Nichol and illustrated by Barry Moser*

- The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper*
- The Line Painter by Claire Cameron*
- Indigenous Beasts by Nathan Sellyn*

- The Only Snow in Havanna by Elizabeth Hay*
- The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou*
- Wolf Tree by Alison Calder*

- Get Out of Bed! by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Allan and Lea Daniel*
- We Share Everything by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko*
- Look At Me! by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko*

- Consumption by Kevin Patterson*
- The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway*
- No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod*

- King Leary by Paul Quarrington*
- The Game by Ken Dryden*
- Midnight Hockey by Bill Gaston*

Quebecers (2 Books)

- The Birth House by Ami McKay*
- Crow Lake by Mary Lawson*

- Mercy Among The Children by David Adams Richards*
- The Skating Pond by Deborah Joy Corey*

- Blood Lies by Daniel Kalla*
- Bone To Ashes by Kathy Reichs*

- Life of Pi by Yann Martel*
- The Cure For Death by Lightning*

- Memories Are Murder by Lou Allin*
- Pandemic by Daniel Kalla*

- Ontological Necessities by Priscilla Uppal*
- Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer*

- Shelf Monkey by Corey Redekop*
- The Time In Between by David Bergen*

- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood*
- The Game by Teresa Toten*

- Look for Me by Edeet Ravel*
- Horseman's Grave by Jacqueline Baker*

Nathan Smith
- A Secret Between Us by Daniel Poliquin*
-The Wars by Timothy Findley*

- Away by Jane Urquhart*
- Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen*

- The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper*
- The Order of Good Cheer by Bill Gaston*

- Unless by Carol Shields*
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies*

- Charley's Web by Joy Fielding*
- Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery*

Ontarians (1 Book)

- Prospero's Daughter by Constance Beresford-Howe*

- Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery*

- The Birth House by Ami McKay*

- An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinsky*

- Selected Poems (1972) by Al Purdy*

Literary Mom
- Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay*

- Loyalists and Layabouts by Stephen Kimber*

- Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler*

Mary Ellen
- Margarita Nights by Phyliss Smallman*

- Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery*

- The Pioneers of Inverness Township by Gwen Rawlings*

- The Seance by Iain Lawrence*

- Crow Lake by Mary Lawson*

Mrs. Peachtree
- Stella Fairy of the Forest by Marie-Louise Gay*

Now...let's give some stuff away, shall we? Back on Canada Day, I wrote that there'd be a secret prize for one lucky winner, picked randomly from all those who chose a book of poetry for the Canadian Book Challenge and read it during the month of July. That winner is Joanna who reviewed Alison Calder's Wolf Tree. She's won a prize pack from poet Susan McMaster including Until The Light Bends book and cd, Learning To Ride, The Hummingbird Murders, and uncommon prayer:

Until The Light Bends

Until The Light Bends CD

(Joanna, email me with your mailing address below. I've read "Uncommon Prayer," and if the rest of the books--and cd-- is just as good, you're in for a treat! Special thanks to Susan for donating such a generous prize.)

This month's prize is Conceit, kindly donated by the author (and a 2nd Canadian Book Challenge participant) Mary Novik.

Mary Novik: Conceit
"Pegge Donne is still a rebellious girl, barely in her teens and already too clever for a world that values learning only in men, when her father, the famous poet John Donne, begins arranging marriages for his five daughters—including Pegge."

"Mary Novik's Conceit [published by Doubleday Canada] was called 'a magnificent novel of 17th-century London' by The Globe and Mail and 'the book that critics have been drooling over' by The Ottawa Citizen. Conceit has been warmly welcomed by book clubs. It won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, was long-listed for the Giller, and was chosen as a Book of the Year by both Quill & Quire and The Globe and Mail."

Also reviewed this month by Monica (see above).

To win Conceit, email me jmutford(at)hotmail(dot)com and tell me 5 books that have been read for the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, that were not read for the 1st. From those that enter correct responses, I'll be choosing a random winner on the 7th of August, 2008.