Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Margaret Wise Brown VERSUS Maurice Sendak

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Louisa May Alcott Vs Margaret Wise Brown), with a final score of 5-2, was Margaret Wise Brown!

About frickin' time we same good-bye to Alcott. No offense to all the Little Women fans out there, because I haven't read it. But the Winona Rider movie? BOR-ING! And the Alcott book I did read, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was absolutely awful. I'm not sorry to see her go this week.

Let's see how Brown does next week.

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. (April 6, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reader's Diary #596- Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki: Skim

Back in 2008 when Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's graphic novel Skim was first published, the National Post, presumably recognizing the book's brilliance and potential, interviewed the Mariko Tamaki, the author. She is quoted as saying, "I just wanted to do this Gothic Lolita story. That's all I had. I just wanted to do a Gothic lesbian Lolita story." Furthermore, she'd wanted it told from the perspective of the Lolita.

This is what she set out to do. Interestingly, since that interview I've found dozens of articles that state that Skim is in fact, a Gothic-lesbian-Lolita story. Did, at some later point, Mariko Tamaki refer to her book this way, as Descant and others suggests she did? It might seem like a rather insignificant question, but it's not. Setting out to write a Gothic lesbian Lolita story, told in the perspective of the Lolita, is not the same as having written a Gothic lesbian Lolita story, told in the perspective of the Lolita. And most importantly, it is not what Mariko Tamaki ended up writing, even if it did make for an exciting and provocative tag-line.

First of all, telling a Lolita story from the perspective of the Lolita is, pardon my bluntness, stupid. Nabokov's Lolita is so shocking and daring partly because the title character doesn't get a voice. It makes her character all the more tragic. As nice a gesture it would be to allow her the opportunity to tell her story, it wouldn't have been as effective. Furthermore, 12 year old Lolita is raped over and over by Humbert Humbert. Her capture and subsequent abuse is the entire plot. In Skim, a teenage girl develops a crush on one of her female teachers and they kiss. That's it. Of course, it should go without saying that a high school teacher should not kiss one of her students, but the situation doesn't even come close to Lolita's horrific tale nor are there many similarities.

I think Mariko Tamaki just let her story take its course, and it very quickly veered off course from her original intentions.

All that aside, I loved where it went. The whole crush on a teacher bit is but one complication amongst many in the very existential drama that consumes many teenagers, boys and girls alike. Hell, I even found myself thinking back to my high school experience and relating to Skim at some points. Surrounded by apparent pettiness just as you want to start thinking serious-- I'd forgotten how overwhelming being a teenager can be. The book deals with faith exploration (wicca), suicide, homosexuality, friendship, cliques, and identity to name just a few themes. If it all seems a bit Degrassi, I suppose it is, but it doesn't feel as heavy handed as that (and yes, I used to watch Degrassi way back in the days of the Zit Remedy).

It's partially saved from superficiality by Mariko's writing (the characters are believable, there are imperfect resolutions, and thoughtful but authentic introspection) and partially by Jillian Tamaki's artwork. I have to confess, when I first glanced at the artwork I wasn't overly crazy about it. I thought some of the faces in particular looked grotesque, overly simplified and inconsistent. But, I grew to appreciate the illustrations more and more. I never did really grow to love the faces, but I realized they were stylized and much more consistent than I gave her credit. There was a sort of fluidity that I have to admit, gave the characters life. But what I really came to appreciate was the backdrops. They look like sketches that have been added to and retouched rather than abandoned for a final copy. Somehow this fits beautifully with the story of a teenager working through who she is and what she wants from life while writing in her diary.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Reader's Diary #595- Joe Dunthorne: You are happy


You have no idea how excited I was to come across this week's short story.

On Saturday I was going through the CBC's arts page and read that Christian Karlson Stead of New Zealand was the winner of the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award. Who? Where? What?

Okay, so I know where New Zealand is. But I've not heard of the others.

Christian Karlson Stead, or C.K. Stead, is a novelist, a poet, literary critic and a short story writer. He is also a professor at the University of Auckland. It was his short story "Last Season's Man" that won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award.

The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Award, besides being the worst named literary award, is also the most valuable short story award in the world, valued at about $38,000 Canadian.

But this post isn't about Stead. I knew it was a long shot, but I went looking for "Last Season's Man" free online. No luck. Maybe something else by Stead? Nope. How about the runner up stories? Nothing. But, finally, I found another story by one of the runner up authors: Joe Dunthorne.

While it may not have been my 1st choice to read, or even my 7th, I am more than pleased with my discovery: Joe Dunthorne's "You are happy."

Last week I wrote about how Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates was written in the second person, and how it felt like old Choose Your Own Adventure novels, without the choice. It's a rare thing to find this perspective, and I found it refreshing. I didn't say so at the time, but I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a child. No, they weren't winning any Newbery Medals, but it was fun to interact with these stories and to believe I was in control. I've secretly hoped to find adult versions of these books, better yet if they're written by critically acclaimed authors. Finally I have my wish.

Joe Dunthorne's "You Are Happy" is a fun and smart story (actually it's a few stories) that use the Choose Your Own Adventure format. The form typically and inadvertently plays with the idea of fate versus choice, but I think Dunthorne sides more with fate. Just a warning, most endings (yes, I've gone back and picked different choices-- that's half the fun), end with various sex scenes, some of which are more graphic than others, so you might want to be careful where you read it.

There are two kinds of choices Dunthorne presents you with: character choice and author choice. Do you eat a green or a black olive? Are you a male or a female?

Depending on the choices you make, I think some stories work better than others, but the underlying theme is about, as the title suggests, happiness. The opening scene is idyllic except for a nagging concern about skin cancer. Is happiness fragile or does it depend on the choices you make? You decide.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reader's Diary #594- Jeff Smith: Bone 8, Treasure Hunters

Not only has Jeff Smith gotten a lot of praise from the public, he's gotten a lot of critical praise as well. The blurbs on the first few pages of each Bone are quite the roster of talent: Frank Miller, Matt Groening, and Neil Gaiman just to name a few. Gaiman writes, "Jeff Smith can pace a joke better than almost anyone in comics."

I realize that I haven't spent much time talking about the humour in the series, but I haven't found it overly funny. I've been enjoying the series and I have found it amusing, but I don't consider it particularly heavy on the jokes. However, Book 8 has one of my favourite gags in the entire series.

Note Bone's pointy red hat on the cover. Look behind the O and you can see the tip sticking up behind. Bone and his cousin Phoney Bone are wearing these hats as disguises, which is silly enough in itself, but when Thorn finally asks Bone where he got the hat, he points to a dwarf character with a head that stretches up almost as long as his body. I know it's juvenile, I know it's a recycled Coneheads sketch. But, man did I laugh.

There are also more adventurously drawn peripheral characters and humorous bits with giant, big-lipped bees, and I think Smith got some of his groove back with book 8. Perhaps it was intentional comic relief after Book 7, which was quite bleak and violent, but in any case it hearkened back to the feel of the first few books in the series, and may have been the book Gaiman was thinking about when he wrote his blurb.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reader's Diary #593- Anne Szumigalski: When Earth Leaps Up

If you're like me, you often found yourself reading until you nod off. The next night you can't seem to figure just what the heck is going on, despite having used a bookmark. Those last few pages were such a blur that you don't remember them at all. In fact, you even slipped into dreamland once or twice and now you can't figure out why Sherman Hemsley had showed up in a Jane Austen book anyway.

I've found the solution: ditch the bookmark. No, I don't advocate dog-earring pages or breaking the book's spine to leave it open on the nightstand. Those wreck your books and don't help you in the sleepy situation I described above. But! Without the bookmarks, you have to find the last thing that you remember. Yes, you'll end up reading some parts over, often you'll read 5 or more pages until you realize a certain phrase is somewhat familiar. But it helps prevent those gaps that eventually destroy a more complete understanding of what's going on and lessen your enjoyment. So get rid of it. Throw it away. No more bookmarks, Walmart receipts or old envelopes. Trust me, it's crazy enough to work. Bedroom readers of the world, unite!

My bookmark free existence (oh, I don't know if I'd call it revolutionary...), recently helped saved Anne Szumigalski's When Earth Leaps Up for me. It's no secret that sometimes you need to read a poem over and over until you get it and finally appreciate it. I've known that for years, but I've continued to zip through poetry books way too fast, only enjoying about half of what I've read. When I began When Earth Leaps Up about a month ago, I really wasn't enjoying it. I'd put it down several times, bookmarkless, read a novel or two, and keep going back to find where I'd left off. The result was reading some of the poems over and over, finally and actually enjoying them!

One of my favourites in the whole collection is "Mother and Daughter Dancing in a Garden." It begins with two women dancing and laughing in a garden and ends the way so many of the poems in the book do, with a dramatic shift. Here are the last two stanzas:

Now whether it has something to do with the conversation, a
question unanswered, an idea not explained, or whether it's the
last line of a half-remembered lyric that will not come to mind,
suddenly that's all there is to it.

Someone has locked the door from the inside. No access. And the
women are stopped there in their flight, the one with her mouth
pressed forever to the other's ear.

Is this a MacGuffin? Possibly. There's a lot not explained in the poem. There's a hint of danger in the last image in the first stanza (Heel holes at the very edge of things.) and certainly the sudden frozen image at the end indicates that something of monumental importance has just happened. But maybe it's more a comment on the selectivity of memory. It's quite evocative. And to think I skimmed it over the first time around. Now I find Szumigalski whispering in my ear.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reader's Diary #592- Jocelyne Allen: You and the Pirates

Shortly after being picked as a panelist for Canada Also Reads, the good people at Workhorsery contacted me to see if I wanted to a free copy of You and the Pirates, since it was also nominated. I'd never heard of Jocelyne Allen, her book, or even the publishing company before, so I thought I'd look into it.

It turned out that You and the Pirates is set in Japan and as I was about to travel there, I was very excited. I was assured by the publishers that Allen's version of Japan was fictionalized, and I might not see many similarities, but I ended up seeing many. One of the characters is nicknamed Salaryman, and it turned out that salaryman is an actual term the Japanese use (basically a corporate business man in a suit). Allen's army of cats reminded me of all the maneki nekos I saw there (Japanese cat sculptures). Another character nicknamed Lolita shows off a very common fashion trend in Japan known as, what else, Lolita fashion.

But all the Japanese culture wasn't the best part of the book. I'll get into what was in a second. But before that I need to address a comment made by Lisa Pasold, who defended Allen's book in the Canada Also Reads contest. In You and the Pirates, Pasold argues, Allen challenges a notion that CanLit needs to be set in Canada. However, I'm not sure that such a notion really exists. The Cellist of Sarajevo? The Book of Secrets? The Song of Kahunsha? All popular Canadian titles, all set outside of the country. And, unless they were being facetious, some of the other Canada Also Reads panelists said that publishers actually prefer books set outside the country. Other than one unnecessary argument, I think Pasold did a great job defending Allen's book.

The best part of the book was the risks taken by Allen herself. The first part of the book is told in the second person (She smiles at you, gently, like you'd expect a lady in a kimono to.). I know Allen is not the first person to employ this perspective, but you have to admit, it's pretty rare, especially with Canadian novels. Allen pulled it off masterfully. My reservations that I could slip into the mind of a young female in Japan were gone by page 3. Like Pasold, I found myself thinking of the old Choose Your Adventure childrens' book series. But without the choices at the end of every other page, I then began to think of old Bugs Bunny cartoons when the artists' eraser threatens to wipe him out unless he cooperates. Then with the zany plot involving explosions, armies of cats, people obsessed with changing up to left, hypno-travel, and of course, pirates, I found myself thinking of The Master and Margrita, The Matrix, manga comics, and Alice in Wonderland. I don't imply that Allen ripped off the ideas of others, but it should give you some sense of the book's feel. If you said bizarre, you'd not be far off the mark.

One thing that struck me about the Canada Also Reads panelists' essays was that we almost all suggested our books were wildly creative and didn't fit the typical Canadian novel expectations. Yes, I also made the point about Steve Zipp's Yellowknife. Pasold, correctly, did as well. I wonder if this is a good sign that more creatively told novels are the future of CanLit. From what I hear about Nikolski, the winner of Canada Reads, it seems that the most unconventional of the lot was the winner. If you like straight forward narration and dull stories, you might want to horde up on Alice Munro books now.

I enjoyed You and the Pirates, but wasn't crazy about the last quarter of the book. The plot seemed to stall, even if the action didn't, and I began to confuse which character was which. However, it was a wildly interesting book and I look forward to more from Allen.

So, as I slowly read through the Canada Also Reads titles, my ranking, from favourite to least favourite, looks like this for now:

1. Steve Zipp- Yellowknife
2. Jocelyne Allen- You and the Pirates

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Louisa May Alcott VERSUS Margaret Wise Brown

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Louisa May Alcott Vs D.H. Lawrence), with a final score of 5-4, was Louisa May Alcott!

Saying goodbye to yet another author that I've not read (I keep thinking that I've read his short story, "The Rocking Horse Winner" but I can't remember any details nor could I find any record of having done so here on my blog. Strange.) The polarized reactions last week certainly have me intrigued: Chris hated his Sons & Lovers and referred to it as creepy, while Nicola said it was amazing. Teddy Rose said she loathed Lawrence while B.Kienapple says everything she's read has been gold. I guess I need to read him and weigh in.

Thanks also for voting in my short Japanese edition, Basho versus Issa. Not a lot of people seemed to give two hoots for the haiku masters, but Basho did manage to get 3 votes to Issa's zero. Funny thing is, I'd thought I was a bigger Basho fan, too, until I started looking for haiku to add to that post. Now I think I prefer Issa. He seems to have had more of a sense of humour.

Anyway, this is Alcott's big chance to claim the glory, the retirement number: 5 wins in a row. But can she get by the latest contender?

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. (March 30, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thoughts on Canada Also Reads

While I was away, the winner for the inaugural (will there be more?) Canada Also Reads contest was chosen: Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise. Congratulations to Jessica and to Neil Smith who defended it. I'd like to say it deserved to win, but at this point and time, the best I can say is, I don't know. You see, despite being a panelist for Canada Also Reads, I haven't read Grant's book. No, I wasn't a bad panelist, we weren't expected to read any of the others. Which brings me to my conclusion that, dare I say it, CBC's Canada Reads is still better.

This might come as a surprise to those who remember my beef with the CBC program in the past. It might also come across as sour grapes: my book choice (Steve Zipp's Yellowknife) didn't win, so therefore I must crap all over the National Post and their Canada Also Reads alternative. Believe whatever you want, but I had these concerns before the winner was even declared. I just didn't want to blow my chances to still bring some attention to Zipp's novel. Here's my two cents on where the producers of Canada Also Reads went wrong:

Back in December, shortly after the CBC program unveiled this year's panelists and books, Brad Frenette and the other editors of National Post blog, the Afterword, launched the Canada Also Reads program in response to what they referred to as uninspired book choices. Most notably they took issue with contenders Ann-Marie McDonald's Fall on Your Knees and Douglas Coupland's Generation X. While my biggest complaint with Canada Reads over the years has been the insistence on exclusively using celebrities for their panel, I had to agree that those two books in particular had already been read and discussed ad nauseum and it wasn't a terribly exciting year. But still, it was the request that the general public suggest books and panelists that got my attention. It didn't appear that you needed to be particularly famous to participate and so, I threw my not particularly famous hat into the ring.

But, if an uninspired CBC book choice was their raison d'etre, they should have kept things more similar to the original program, just with more interesting books (and okay, keep the better panel). Slowly but surely more and more differences crept in:

1st: Nominated books had to have been published in the past 2 years and not have won any major awards. I get the not having won awards bit. If it's already won major awards, there's a very good chance it's already been discussed and read by many people. So why did Terry Fallis' Best Laid Plans get through when it had already won the Stephen Leacock Award? Maybe they should have defined "major award" better since I'd personally consider the Stephen Leacock Award a big deal. As for the two years thing, I'm not sure why that was a criteria at all. Actually, I'd say that was one of the things I'd always appreciated about Canada Reads, that the panelist could pick books published at any time. Rockbound's win was particularly exciting.

2nd: On February 9th when the panelists and our book choices were announced to the public, it was also the day we found out. As well, it was revealed that, unlike Canada Reads' 5 books, Canada Also Reads would be showcasing 8 books. That in itself wasn't a problem; bigger's better, right? However, the debate was less than a month away. How could we panelists read all 8 books in time to make our defense? Turns out, we weren't expected to. I was sent free copies of Stacey May Fowles' and Jocelyne Allen's books as a courtesy by their publishers, but the National Post had nothing to do with that (Random House also sent me a free copy of Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise about a year ago, unrelated to Canada Also Reads). Four books I still didn't have, and no time to read the ones I did have. How could we debate the 8 books if we hadn't read them all? Well, that was yet another difference. We were to submit defenses of our chosen books and were not required to even mention the others. After we all had our say, there would be a vote, open to the public. For the record, I hated these changes. Why didn't we just invite readers to Google reviews for each book, and cast their vote based on those? The best part of Canada Reads is the debate and Canada Also Reads essentially killed the debate. To be fair, they did host a live online discussion, but when asked which book we'd like to see go, none of the panelists bit. No, it wasn't just politics (though that was why I didn't raise my objections to Best Laid Plans being on the list), but mostly because we hadn't read all the others! How could we say definitively that any of these books were inferior (or for that matter, why our own choices were superior?). Not the point? It's all subjective anyway? Of course. The game/debate has never been the real point of Canada Reads either, but it has been their entertaining facade. People have come down on Canada Reads in the past for being too Survivor-esque, but I've always found the format to be fun. I think few people would say that about the National Post version.

I'm not sure what was up with all the changes. Perhaps it was a loss of focus somewhere along the way, throwing in more and more issues with the CBC program as they went along. Perhaps there was a legal issue. Did they need to make so many changes so that the CBC lawyers didn't accuse them of stealing their format? I guess the folks at the Afterword are the only ones who can answer that.

What's to be learned from all this?

For the most part, the producers at Canada Reads should keep doing what they're doing. I maintain that they should add at least one non-celebrity panelist to the mix (though if my stint at Canada Also Reads counts for Canadian celebrity, the CBC can contact my agent, should they be interested in my presence next year).

Canada Reads future panelists should take note: pick interesting books! Fall on Your Knees didn't win. Generation X didn't win. In the past, Handmaid's Tale and Life of Pi didn't win. Canada Also Reads, despite its flaws, got that part right. People aren't interested in rehashing the same old books over and over. Still, I applaud the Canada Reads producers for being more hands off. Book choice should be a panelist decision. Just note, pick an overly popular and awarded book and people won't care, nor will you win.

In the meantime, I'm slowly, since there are no time constraints, going to work my way through the 8 Canada Also Reads books. When I'm finally done, I'll let you know why Canada should read Steve Zipp's Yellowknife. If I still feel that way.

Stay tuned this week for a review of Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reader's Diary #591- Michael Redhill: Breaking Fast

Back in Canada again, I thought I'd better feature a Canadian short story this week. And once I again I find myself at the Walrus. From their January/February issue, it's Michael Redhill's "Breaking Fast."

What impressed me most about Redhill's story is the sweeping omniscient narration. Mostly in and out of the heads of two characters, a chronically skinny mother who's taken a road trip to clear her head and a man who doesn't appear to have much in the way of significant others but who's also taken a road trip, to be where other people are. Going back and forth into these two characters' lives takes on a ping pongy quality until suddenly and briefly you find yourself inside the head of a waitress. Finally, when it changes to a first person narrative instead of a third person narrative, you question how much of the biographical stuff has been real and how much has been assumed. For s story with so little action or even dialogue, it's quite a ride. I love to people watch and I suspect Redhill must as well.

I won't, however, say it's a fun ride. As one of the meanings of the title suggests (the I'm breaking. Fast. meaning) there's a depressing air over the story. Actually, it could be argued that depression is the conflict. It's the kind of first world ennui that I find too frustrating in an entire novel (or Wes Anderson movie), but can manage in small doses like this. And, at least there's a resolution at the end. It's a vague resolution, but then again, so is the problem.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Japan Memoirs in Haiku

Did you miss me? (Pretend you did.) Still a little tired and jet lagged, it's still good to be back home in Yellowknife. If you're interested, some highlights of my family's trip to Japan are below. Being the geek that I am, I jotted down a haiku each day while I was there. It's no secret that I love haiku, but I came to appreciate the form even more, especially as a travel journal. Trying to determine key moments of each day, made me more reflective. And, instead of taking time out of vacation to write long, tedious journal entries, I was able to work on haiku in my head while riding trains and so on, but the short lines I came up with, conjure up so many more memories for me. I know they're not up there with Basho, so no need to point that out. So now, sit back, relax, and travel Japan aboard the bad haiku express:

March 9

Through taxi windows
rainy snow slides down white cheeks
Shibuya billboards

Shortly after arriving in Japan, exhausted but excited, we found ourselves in a taxi driving through one of the busiest parts of Tokyo: Shibuya. The weather wasn't great (in fact, not much different than the Yellowknife we'd left two days earlier) but that wasn't getting me down. I was, however, disappointed in the billboards. Not that there were so many-- we'd seen enough pictures of Tokyo to expect those-- but that so many featured Caucasian faces. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Japanese people aren't attractive enough? I was a little nervous that I'd suffer culture shock in Tokyo, but would have preferred that to this familiarity. I was tired, remember. And fortunately, after a good night's sleep, the rest of the trip was amazing, despite the bad first impression.

March 10

At the shrine, drizzle.
Traditional bride and groom
walk past new green grass.

Shibuya Intersection
Skirts, scarves and raincoats.
A million are crossing
A million wait.

As we'd soon discover, there are Shinto shrines all over Japan. We took in several and were more than pleased to see that photos in front of their iconic torii gates were acceptable. And, as luck would have it, we were also privy to a traditional wedding procession during our first shrine visit.

We also visited (and survived) the famous Shibuya Crossing. Some sources call it the busiest intersection in the world, having up to a million people that cross it everyday. Certainly not for anyone with a fear of crowds, but we found it to be sheer fun madness. "Kids, when that light changes, hang on!" We also went to the world's busiest Starbucks. Not because we wanted to see the world's busiest Starbucks, but because it has a great view of the masses passing by.

March 11

In muddy rain boots
standing beside a hot spring
while snow monkeys bathe

A certain change of pace from Shibuya, on this day we took a train ride to Yudanaka to see the snow monkeys. What an amazing experience this was. It's up there with seeing the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, for sure. North of Tokyo, there was still snow on the ground and we hiked about 2 kilometers through a very Canadian feeling woods until we came to a spectacular valley of hot springs and monkeys, hundreds of monkeys. And monkey babies. Adorable monkey babies. Scampering by, literally over our feet, it was possible to reach down and touch one (though I value my fingers too much to have tried that). They make snowballs, chase one another through the snow, and then warm up in a hot spring. Pretty good life they have, I must say.

Then we stayed at the most charming hotel, the Shimaya Ryokan. The owner, who had driven us to the monkey park, and came back to pick us up, was amazingly sweet to us and our kids. When we asked for supper suggestions, he took us to a quiet little noodle house. Afterward, not wanting to bother him any more, we asked our waitress to call us a taxi but she insisted that the cook drive us back instead, and so he did! The whole town was friendly! One minor disappointment: next door to the Shimaya Ryokan was a museum of haiku, but it was closed.

March 12
To the left as I
tread past lights rides popcorn stands,
a boy, a mallard.

I know, I know. Why go all the way to Japan, if you're just going to do something as American as Disneyland? Well, keep in mind, we were traveling with two young kids and we had ten days left for Japanese culture. Besides, I was interested in seeing the Japanese take on American culture. Apparently, the park is almost identical to the one in California. Tokyo being my first Disney experience, I can't say if that's true, but it's certainly believable. Even the actors playing Alice, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and the like were white. Would it kill them to have a Japanese Alice? Despite that, and despite my reservations about big corporations and globalization, I had a good time. My daughter no longer wants to be astronaut, thanks to a panic attack on Space Mountain. But the electric parade at the end was cool in a kitschy psychedelic way.

One small difference: Stitch. Remember the little blue alien from Lilo & Stitch? Certainly not one of Disney's cash cows on this side of the Pacific, but holy crow is he ever huge in Japan. At Disneyland itself, he's as big a draw as Mickey Mouse and off the park, you can't go anywhere without finding Stitch souvenirs. Second only to Hello Kitty. Apparently he has his own anime cartoon in Japan, set on a Japanese island rather than Hawaii and Lilo has been replaced by Yuna, but I don't know if the show is the cause of his Japanese fame, or rather a response to it.

The haiku is about a young boy feeding a mallard through a cast iron fence. I wasn't expecting a duck not wearing a sailor's suit to be at Disneyland. My dad raised ducks when I was a child and that scene brought back more childhood memories than all the cartoons and the thrill of amusement parks. Nice.

March 13
Shrill scream from upstairs,
the floor beneath my futon
shifts. My kids cuddle.

Back in the fall, just about everyone in Yellowknife thought they'd felt a small earthquake. The news even reported it as such, initially. It turned out to be a planned explosion at one of the old mine sites. It registered at about 1.0 on the Richter scale. I could no longer say that I'd experienced my first earthquake. Now I can. A 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of Japan that was felt in Tokyo city. Earlier that day, as we felt the wind shake the floor of the top observation deck at the Tokyo Tower, I'd commented that I'd not want to be up that high during an earthquake. There was no damage reported and the next day, while we were out of the city, they apparently felt an even bigger quake, but again and fortunately, no damage reported.

It was scary to wake up to an earthquake, but seeing my kids across the room sleeping through it, and simply rolling a little closer to one another, was comforting. Not as comforting as not finding us all buried beneath tonnes of steel and concrete, but comforting nonetheless.

March 14

Twisting and pinching--
the balloon artist's fingers
in Hiroshima

After a long train ride, we arrived in Hiroshima and decided to hold off the Peace Memorial Park until the next day. To appease the kids, we went to a McDonald's. Disney, Starbucks, and Walmart. I'm the worst anti-capitalist in the world. I even shop at Walmart. By the way, the Japanese McDonald's menu isn't (not surprisingly) vastly different than in North America, though they have an option of corn instead of fries, and while we were in Japan, they were promoting four "American burgers": the Californian, the Texan, the New Yorker, and the Hawaiian. I had the Hawaiian, which has an egg on it; about right as eggs seemed to top everything in Hawaii (though when I went to Hawaii, McDonald's had a McSpam burger, so the Japanese at least knew where to draw the line.) Halfway through my meal, it occurred to me that it might be insensitive to be eating American food in Hiroshima, but looking around at the number of locals there, it didn't seem to be an issue.

As for the balloon artist, he was another way to treat the kids after a long day traveling and before what would promise to be a very somber day tomorrow. Set up on the sidewalk in very popular covered shopping/entertainment district, it was good to experience life in Hiroshima. People having fun. Not something you usually think of when someone mentions the place, is it?

March 15

Black skeletal limbs
adorned with budding green leaves.
Behind, bombed remains.

What to say about the Peace Memorial Park. It's very well-done. It's, of course, an emotional experience. Our kids took in most of the sights but were most interested in the story of Sadako, including the monument and the cases upon cases of paper cranes and wishes for world peace sent in from kids all over the world. There was one exhibit in the museum that we didn't expose them to, which featured images of people with flesh melting off their arms and faces among other horrific scenes. Obviously important images, but at our kids ages, I think it would have been too much. We talked a lot that day about the bomb, wars, and why people hurt one another. Our daughter cried at a model of the city before and after being flattened. And that was enough for them, the rest would have been nightmare material. I think what I liked most about the park was the equal emphasis on the future. There was a huge push on nuclear disarmament and world peace, using the lessons from the past as a starting point.

March 16

Lone red sun above
Two sumos bent face to face
Grains of salt below

The sumo wrestling tournament in Osaka was a very surreal experience, something so Japanese it was like walking into a travel guide. Shown to our seats, we found ourselves sitting shoeless on four pillows in a small family sized-square. While the matches themselves were very short (I don't think any lasted for than a minute once the two giants ran at one another), the build up and ceremony was just as impressive. I'm sure there was much we didn't understand but it was wonderful to just take in.

And while we there our daughter became a celebrity of sorts. Wanting to dress up in her kimono that she'd bought back in Tokyo, hundreds of spectators waved to her or asked to take her picture, some even wanting her to pose with them. She lapped it up. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have gone to her head and she hasn't been signing autographs for her Barbies or anything.

March 17

Down a grey alley
Past cherry-blossom lined streams
slip three young geisha

Driving into Kyoto, we first didn't see what the appeal was, despite just about everyone suggesting that it was a must see. But then we walked around and understood. Kyoto has managed to be traditional and trendy at the same time. A little too popular amongst tourists, such as ourselves, it was a bizarre experience to know that so many of us were there to see the geisha. What makes it even stranger is that there are so few of them left, and those that are there usually entertain at a price many of us simply can't afford. So, your only hope is to spot one walking to a private function. According to our hotel operator, they're usually spotted between the hours of 4-6pm. I felt like we were trying to see the elusive big foot or the Lochness monster or something. We walked around, admiring the cherry trees that were, lucky for us, in bloom about a month earlier than normal, and dropping into to stores here or there, but we couldn't spy any geisha. Then we found a karaoke restaurant, and how can you not go to karaoke while in Japan? What made it even cooler was that it was like the one in Lost in Translation where you rent private rooms to eat and sing. So even if we didn't find a geisha, we'd always have memories of butchering Queen and the Beatles. But then, on the way back to our hotel, Debbie looked down an alley and shouted "geisha!" We were off like the slimy stalker paparazzi that we are, and managed to get their picture with the kids. Fortunately we were the only ones and the other hordes were roaming hopelessly in some other part of the city. They were quiet, of course, and pretty in an ornamental sort of way, and young. Two teachers were with them, instructing them how to hold their kimonos and tilt their heads and so on. I justify our boorish intrusion by telling myself that we provided them with practice in posing gracefully. (And how many chances do you get in life to stick your snotty kids in front of real live geisha?)

March 18

Twinkling threatening eyes
of my son in ninja garb.
A brief sun peeks through.

If the sumo tournament was my daughter's day to shine, today was my son's. Visiting a Japanese movie studio/ theme park was a thrill, even if it was a cash grab (the entrance fee pays for NOTHING else inside). It was a much needed antidote to Tokyo Disneyland, offering up Japanese culture instead of heavy western influences. From samurai to the Super Sentai (adapted in the U.S. as the Power Rangers), it was highlighted by a make-up team decking up (paying) customers in costume to walk around the park. My son, all 3 feet 2 inches of him, was dressed in a ninja costume and found himself posing for just about everyone who had a camera (and this was in a Japanese theme park, if you recall). He also found himself combating anyone else with a sword who happened to be walking by. Since this was a school day, most of those happened to be twice his height (well, not quite-- still Japan), which of course, led to even more photos and video coverage. My kids, the hams.

I'm not normally comfortable posting pictures of my kids, but this one's pretty safe! Besides, he's a freaking ninja. You don't want to mess with a ninja.

March 19

Lugging luggage up
the stairs, sweating in my down
coat. Time to go home.

Everyone warned us to pack lightly for Japan. Packing lightly has never been our greatest skills as travelers, but threats of few elevators and over packed trains gave Debbie the super ability to cram enough for a family of four for eleven days into a single suitcase. We didn't account for souvenirs. What souvenirs does one bring back from Japan? Why loads and loads of wacky flavored KitKat bars, of course.

Some are wackier than others. In Canada, I've come across peanut butter, caramel, and even a banana flavoured KitKat, I believe. From the top left, here are the flavours above: soy sauce, sweet potato, cantaloupe (incidentally, the only real cantaloupe we could find in Japan cost $45 and up!), cherry blossom green tea, apple, citrus, intense roast soy bean, corn, kobe dessert, Japanese chili pepper, green tea, strawberry, purple sweet potato, cheesecake, and of course, wasabi. It became a game for us to hunt down the most outrageous flavours. I was reminded of my trip to London when I tasted potato chips flavoured like cajun squirrel and fish and chips. By the way, to my cat Pandora's disappointment, we couldn't find any fish flavoured KitKats. Surprising really.

As for the down coat, as you've gathered above the weather in Japan at springtime is much like the weather in Canada at springtime: unpredictable. The down was good while visiting the snow monkeys, but not on days when it hit 20°C. But when you leave your hotel in the morning and it's freezing, you have little choice but to carry it with you.

Anyway, while it was a tiring last day and long journey home, we had an amazing vacation. I can't recommend Japan highly enough. It's fun, it's clean, there's so much variety, the people are so nice, it's safe, not as difficult to navigate as you might think, and not as expensive as everyone makes it out to be (keep in mind, I've lived in northern Canada for the past 9 years so everything is relative). In some ways, it was as different as we imagined it would be. In some ways, much less. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Reader's Diary #590- Yasunari Kawabata: The Pomegranate

(A pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm in Japan)

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The first thing I noticed about Kawabata's "The Pomegranate" was the short sentences. It seemed very choppy. I wasn't sure if I liked the style at first and wondered if it had anything to do with Edward Seidensticker's translation. (It's so easy to blame the translator, isn't it?)

In any case, I came to appreciate the crisp writing. With a heavy emphasis on a singular symbol and rich imagery, the short sentences simply added to the tight focus of the plot and of the writing itself.

The story begins with a pomegranate tree the day after a storm. It's been stripped of all its leaves. Only one pomegranate remains, hanging by itself. I would think of such an image as hopeful, a pomegranate hanging on despite the odds. But Kimiko sees at as a lonely image. And thus begins this simple but beautiful story.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saturday Word Play- You Know More Japanese Than You Realize

Continuing my pre-scheduled posts while I'm away in Japan, hopefully not too lost or confused, here's a Japan inspired Saturday Word Play.

I'll tell you some titles written by Japanese authors or authors of Japanese descent. You need to tell me the author. To do so, you must first eliminate the Japanese words mixed up with the authors' names. I'll give you clues to help!

As always, feel free to do all ten at home but only answer one in the comment section. That way, nine more people can play along.

Rice wine/ popular martial art/ good-bye/ poem usually with 5-7-5 syllable count/ folded paper art/ cooked vinegar rice/ good afternoon/ thank-you very much/ Japanese style bedding/ suicidal pilot or divine wind/ singing to a recorded musical backing/ Japanese comics/ often masked warrior/ Japanese wrestling/ warrior often portrayed by John Belushi/ tidal wave/ type of horseradish/ robe/ sweet soya sauce marinade/ small cooking stove/ type of massage

1. Obasan- jokamikazey hibachikogorigamiawa
2. Kafka on the Shore- hasakeruki murateriyakikami
3. Akira- katsuhininjaro otokimonomo
4. Skim- karatemariko and mangajillian tamasumoki
5. Never Let Me Go- kazudomoarigatoo ishiwasabiguro
6. The Narrow Road to the Interior- shiatsubahaikusho
7. The Sacred Balance- samuraidavitsunamid susayonarazuki
8. Fullmetal Alchemist- hirokonnichiwamu arakafutonma
9. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion- karaokeyukio mishisushima
10. Snow Country- yasunari kawabata

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

すばらしい水曜日は比較する- Basho VERSUS Issa

(Another pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm in Japan)

The regular Great Wednesday Compare will return on March 24. You can still vote here for the Louisa May Alcott/ D.H. Lawrence showdown. In the meantime, here's a haiku smackdown between two masters, Basho and Issa. I'll give you four haiku by each poet, and you can vote for your favourite poet (POET, not poem) below. If you know better haiku (or better translations) by either author, feel free to add them to the comments to help sway the vote in your favour.

Vote in the comments. Voting ends on March 23rd.

Who's better? Basho or Issa?

Moonlight slants through
The vast bamboo grove:
A cuckoo cries

A night boat
sails away
illuminated by a wildfire

Summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers dreams.

My grumbling wife -
if only she were here!
This moon tonight...

Clouds appear
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

The old pond:
a frog jumps in,-
the sound of water.

Snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

On a withered branch
A crow has alighted:
Nightfall in autumn.

A day of haze;
the great room
is deserted and still.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Reader's Diary #589- Haruki Murakami: The Second Bakery Attack

(Another pre-scheduled post while I'm in Japan.)

Haruki Murakami's "The Second Bakery Attack" is a story about a newlywed couple who wake up in the middle of the night finding themselves incredibly hungry and without food (barring butter, onions, French dressing and beer). For some reason, the husband finds this to be the appropriate time to let his wife in a secret: he and an old friend attacked a bakery 10 years ago. His wife's reaction is not what you'd expect.

I loved this story. It was wildly amusing: great plot, fascinating characters, and an understated but absurd sense of humor.
We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn't explain and I didn't ask. Married life is weird, I felt.

I also liked seeing how similar Tokyo felt to Canadian cities. Truth be known, I'm nervous about visiting Tokyo. I've been in large cities before, but nothing with the population of Tokyo. Add to that, it being a different culture and language, and it's a bit intimidating (in a good way, of course, else I wouldn't be going.) It was nice to see that Murakami's version of Tokyo wasn't overly different. I'll let you know how that pans out in real life. Have you visited Japan or any city that was out of your comfort zone?

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Reader's Diary #588- Jeff Smith: Bone 7, Ghost Circles

Seven books into this series and it's getting increasingly difficult to think of anything else to say. I'm as impressed as ever with Jeff Smith's writing and artwork and my kids can't get enough.

I appreciate that though the story is drawing near its conclusion Smith continues to add creative new touches to the fictional world he's created, including the titular ghost circles, which are admittedly a little difficult to grasp; invisible (except to Thorn) pockets of supernatural evil that would snuff out your existence should you inadvertently wander into one.

It's also becoming bleaker and increasingly more violent. If the series started this way, I'd probably not have started it with my kids given their young ages. As it is, I'm pushing through to the end. They'd disown me if I quit on them at this point.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reader's Diary #587- Bren Kolson: Myth of the Barrens

Bren Kolson's Myth of the Barrens recalls her experiences as she spent nine months on the barrens of the Northwest Territories in the mid to late 1970s (4 months in '75, 5 months in '79). Bren, a Metis woman who was just beginning to explore her aboriginal heritage, shared her time with Louison Drybones (a Dene elder) and Richard Black (a white American from Wisconsin). At one point Kolson acknowledges what an odd assortment the trio make. To their credit, they get along surprisingly well considering their different cultures and experiences. There were moments, of course, when the three didn't always see eye to eye, but then they were human after all. I'd have doubted Kolson's sincerity if she had suggested otherwise.

In the introduction, Kolson describes a moment aboard a carriole, being pulled along by a dogteam. Up ahead, Richard guides the dogs, but Bren is in a fetal position at the back, left alone except for her own thoughts. It's almost a mystical experience as she talks about the rhythms rocking her body, mind and soul. Aloud she asks where her words go and she contemplates on her existence as the sound of her voice drifts into the night air.

It's a perfect way to introduce us to Bren, the woman who lets us into her daily routines and thoughts as she experience, for the first time, life on the barrens. Most of the rest of the book was gleaned from her journals, written as it happened in the 70s. It's not as philosophically or poetically heavy handed as the introduction, which is a good thing. As beautiful as the opening passage was, it would have gotten tedious after a while. Instead, Bren simply accounts for each day detailing the minute but often significant details of life on the land. The effects of wild cranberries on a rookie's stomach, lard freezing in the cabin, playing Scrabble while listening to a hockey game over the radio. Not only does she present it so vividly that I felt as if I was there, but I also felt her growth as a person.

Myth of the Barrens is an easy read, honest and unpretentious. Remembering that this was the 70s and there were different cultures and values involved, some readers, especially from a 2010 vantage point, might balk at the scenes of trapping and skinning foxes, some might object to scenes of Drybones disciplining his dogs with a chain, and some might object to the assumed gender roles (there were a few instances when Bren asks to accompany Richard on a hunting trip, he simply says no and she seems content to stay at the cabin and bake.) But Kolson, for the most part, doesn't do much in the way of defending any particular value. It was her life and this is what happened. What would you do in the same situation? Asking that question over and over, a reader could learn just as much about him/herself as Bren Koslon must have at the time.

On a side note, I'm not sure why the publishers put a picture of an inushuk on the cover. It's an Inuit symbol, none in Kolson's party were Inuit, nor do any Inuit or inuksuit play any role in the story.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Canadian Book Challenge - Olympians Prize Pack Winner

Congratulations to Pooker for reading and reviewing the most books(28!!!) for the 3rd Canadian Book Challenge by February 28th! To see a list of the books she has won, click here.

Special thanks to Random House for supplying this wonderful prize!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Canada Also Reads- Place Your Votes!

Have you been following Canada Also Reads over at the National Post's Afterword Blog? Starting on Monday, 8 panelists defended their choice of book, a book we'd recommend for Canadians to (also) read.

In case you missed it, on Monday I made my case for Steve Zipp's Yellowknife and Steven Beattie went to bat for Mark Antony Jarman's My White Planet.

On Tuesday, Zoe Whittall defended Stacey May Fowles' Fear of Fighting (illustrated by Marlena Zuber) and Andy Maize defended Terry Fallis's Best Laid Plans.

On Wednesday, Tish Cohen pushed for Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Day The Falls Stood Still and Neil Smith stood up for Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise.

And today, Jacob McArthur Mooney (for Leon Rooke's The Last Shot) and Lisa Pasold (for Jocelynne Allen's You and the Pirates) rounded out the competition.

Have you read any of these books? Feel free to plead your case either for or against below. But even if you haven't, which of these books are you most curious about or excited to read? Make your way to the virtual voting booth now!

I believe you can vote once a day and the voting stops at 1pm (EST), March 12. The winner will be announced March 15.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Louisa May Alcott VERSUS D.H. Lawrence

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Louisa May Alcott Vs Thomas Hardy ), with a final score of 7-6, was Louisa May Alcott!

Louisa May Alcott remains unstoppable, doesn't she? Last week's challenger may not have beaten Alcott, but he has beaten me. Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles is the one book that I did not finish. I'm not sure what happened. Yes, I was bored with it, but I've been bored with many books before and since and have stubbornly finished them anyway. (That's not bragging, by the way, I'm actually ashamed of my inability to quit. Like cigarettes.) Maybe life got in the way. Maybe it had to be returned to the library. It was a while ago. I don't remember. In any case, I know I'll face it again. Eventually.

But this week, we get a new contender. And, since I'll be in Japan for the next couple of weeks, you get an extended voting time.

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. (March 22, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

I take back everything I said...

stacey may folwes is tHE first Lady of canadian fiction and lwot is the world's greatest fiction magazine, so Please...


Monday, March 01, 2010

Reader's Diary #586- Roberto Bolaño: Gómez Palacio

Sundays are Amazing Race nights. Each week, we get together with friends to watch the show and we take turns preparing something from the country that the show visits that night. Last week we had cazuela, empanadas, and Chilean wine. Quite a yummy way to celebrate Chilean culture.

Unfortunately, my attention was turned once again to Chile this past Saturday because of the devastating earthquake. While more intense than the Haitian Earthquake, the death toll has been much lower, thankfully, but that's probably of little comfort to the families of the 700+ people who have died so far.

With my thoughts on the Chileans this week, I've gone in search of a Chilean author. Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile but moved to Spain in the 1970s where he lived until his death in 2003. He wrote fiction and poetry.

Roberto Bolaño's "Gómez Palacio" is not set in Chile, or Spain, but Mexico. For the second Short Story Monday in a row, I didn't enjoy a story because of an annoying lead character. While Stacey May Fowles' lead character was too self-absorbed, Bolaño's is too condescending. For the record, I don't need a likable character to enjoy a story. They don't get more reprehensible than Vladamir Nabakov's Humbert Humbert, but Lolita is a work of art. If we're not going to get a relatable or at least sympathetic character, we'd better get one heck of a story. This was not the case with "Gómez Palacio."

What makes the lead character in Bolaño's story so detestable? His sense of superiority. The story begins with the narrator whining, "I went to Gómez Palacio during one of the worst periods of my life." If this is a plea for sympathy, it quickly gets rejected when he goes on to add, "I knew that I wouldn’t stick to running a writing workshop in some godforsaken town in northern Mexico." Perhaps, living in northern Canada for the past 8 years, I've grown over sensitive about this mentality. While thankfully they've been the minority, I've met way too many southerners showing up and whining about the godforsaken towns.

In "Gómez Palacio," the narrator and the director of the local Arts Council office seem to take an interest in one another and their relationship becomes the focal point of the story. However, the whole thing is rather slow and depressing, and quite frankly, seems only to confirm the bleak superiority complex set up at the very beginning.

Roberto Bolaño has been a harsh critic of Isabel Allende. Maybe I should have read something by her.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

The Canadian Book Challenge 3- 8th Roundup

The 8th Roundup. February, the shortest month of the year, and with a 1000 distractions, I wonder how anyone found the time to read this month. I only knocked down two more Canadian books this month. Hopefully you fared a little better.

Before you start giving me your links. First let's talk about the month that was.

The Olympics: Athletically, Canada's best Olympics so far. We won more medals than any of the past Olympic games and more gold than anyone else ever in a Winter Games. And how about that hockey game yesterday? When the Americans scored with 24 seconds left, I thought I was having a stroke. I had just been saying to my wife how I thought Crosby was good, but overrated. Then he goes and scores the winning goal. Eating crow has never tasted as good. Hats off to Mr. Crosby. And to think, all this happened on home ice. I'm impressed. How about the cultural events? Did you happen to see Shane Koyczan's (formerly of Yellowknife) spoken poetry performance at the opening ceremonies? Like the rest of the Olympics, it wasn't without controversy. And speaking of the Olympics, remember the Olympians Prize Pack donated generously by Random House? You have two days to get your February links in. The one with the most books read and reviewed so far will win 4 books written by British Columbian authors (in the event of a tie, I'll draw a name). I'll notify the winner on Thursday.

Canada Also Reads: In case I haven't rammed it down your throats enough and you haven't read the National Post lately, I was picked to defend Steve Zipp's Yellowknife in the Canada Also Reads competition. Unlike Canada Reads, you will be able to vote for the winner. My written defense will appear in the paper sometime this week and hopefully I'll be able to participate in the live discussion on the 7th (I have some scheduling to work out as I'm flying out of the country that day). I'm assuming the discussion will be posted on their website but I haven't gotten those details yet. Anyway, when all is said and done, I hope you'll consider voting for Steve Zipp's book. Steve is a participant in the Canadian Book Challenge and I know many of you have read, and more importantly, enjoyed his book.

And that's it. Short roundup for a short month.

Remember, as you leave links to your February reviews, make sure to tell me your overall standing so far.

See you in April!