Monday, August 30, 2010

Reader's Diary #645- Téa Obreht: The Sentry

Last week, Carol at Carolsnotebook chose Roddy Doyle's short story "The Plate" as her Short Story Monday pick. I wasn't too interested in reading another Doyle story, but I was interested in where it appeared: The Guardian's "Summer Short Story Special." Besides Doyle, it featured stories by Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Barbara Trapido, and Téa Obreht. I chose Obreht for a few reasons: she's a young author that I wasn't familiar with and she's from the former Yugoslavia.

Despite Obreht's age (she's only 25 years old), "The Sentry" seemed very old-school to me. I don't mean that as an insult at all, for it's an extremely well written story. But it would seem less out of place in an anthology of classic short stories than in a contemporary collection.

Oddly, it's the 2nd story I've read in as many weeks that's featured a mastiff. I don't know enough about dogs, let alone specific breeds, but something about the mastiff must have resonated with Stacey May Fowles (Fear of Fighting) and Téa Obreht. However, whereas Fowles seem to use it to illustrate a kind of confused loyalty, Obreht's dog is more intense, illustrating the relationship between fear and power. While I'd certainly choose to Fowles' dog over Obreht's if I was picking a family pet, I appreciate the amount of tension Obreht's brings to the table.

This is one of those stories you'd just die to talk about with someone else. It seems powerful but I haven't quite nailed it yet. What was the point behind the father's final act? There's a clue in the paragraph, "'Sit,' he said." I just know there is.

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

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reader's Diary #644- Stacey May Fowles: Fear of Fighting

Back in February I wrote a negative review of Stacey May Fowles' short story "Three-Legged Dog." It wasn't the harshest review I'd ever written by any means so I was quite taken aback by the flack I took for it. Not wanting to relive that experience, I was reluctant to pick this one up. If I didn't like it, there just might be a hit out on me.

But I have no fear of fighting (you like that?) and felt I owed it to the good people at Invisible Publishing to finally give them a review. Invisible Publishing sent me a review copy way back in March when I was a participant in the National Posts' Canada Also Reads competition (Fear of Fighting was one of seven books up against my pick, Steve Zipp's Yellowknife.)

So will the Fowles fans be sharpening their axes and lighting their torches? I hope not, because I loved Fear of Fighting.

Marnie, a... a... a psychologically troubled Torontonian woman in her late 20s, was a surprising delight, even if I flipped between wanting to shake her and wanting to hold her while she cried. The last time I'd read a book about a woman with a mental illness had not been a good experience. Oddly, AmberLee Kolson's Wings of Glass and Fowles' Fear of Fighting were similar in a lot of ways. Besides the obvious depression, both protagonists were obsessed with details. Kolson's unnamed woman tells us all the ingredients in her stew, Marnie lists the contents of her purse. But unlike Kolson, Fowles is able to make such diversions entertaining. Perhaps it was a better sense of pacing. Fowles kept the chapters short, the sentences short, and the diversions short. Just when you think she's veering too close to navel gazing territory, she switches gears. There's a point to this or if not, there's a point to this.

I think that's what impressed me most about the book; every time it reminded me of another book, I realized Fowles had done the better job. Marnie's quirkiness reminded me of Miriam Toews' Nomi from a complicated kindness, just less overdone. Marnie's sideways glances at society reminded me of Heather O'neill's Baby from Lullabies for Little Criminals, just less cynical. And perhaps most importantly, Marnie is more humble than Fowles' "Three-Legged Dog" narrator.

Fear of Fighting
is a modern Canadian novel done right...finally.

Now to revisit my National Post Canada Also Reads standings (I've now read 4 of the 8 books):

1st: Steve Zipp's Yellowknife- For the record, I can admit when I'm wrong, and I'd be willing to knock Zipp's book out of first place if I thought another book deserved it. Now, for the first time, I'm hesitant. It's a funny, fast and full of interesting characters but the reason I think it's superior to the others is because it's unlike any other Canadian novel I've ever read. Bearing only a possible resemblance to Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, it's one of the more experimental books I've ever read from any country. I think Canada needs more risk-takers. That said, I think more people would like my new #2 pick.

2nd: Stacey May Fowles' Fear of Fighting (see reasons above)

3rd: Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates- More experimental than Fowles' book, but not as well written

4th: Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise - And yet this one won Canada Also Reads. If all the voters actually read all 8 books, this one wouldn't stand a chance. I say that confidently with still four to go.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #7- Hermione Granger VERSUS Little Red Riding Hood

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Hermione Granger VERSUS Ron Weasley), with a final score of 4-3 was Hermione Granger.

Interesting voting process last week. Hermione fans burst out the gate, then either Ron fans were slow to follow or he picked up sympathy votes. I agree that Ron comes across as a very human character and that his family is pretty interesting. I was somewhat intrigued that a couple of Ron's fans said they were voting for Ron from the books, not the movie. I wonder why. How do you feel about Rupert Grint's portrayal?

Vote in the comment section below before August 31st: Who is the better character?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reader's Diary #643- Joe Welsh: Jackrabbit Street

According to the publishers at Thistledown Press, Joe Welsh's "ear for voice and his deprecating homespun portraits paradoxically intensify his loyalty to his people." Well, that seems just about apt.

With the strong accent and grammar, I was reminded once again of my grandfather. I know I tend to go on and on about the man, but since he died two years ago, his memory is with me just as strong. An awesomely funny storyteller, any time my pop spoke, without fail someone would say, "someone should be writing this stuff down." But after reading Welsh's Jackrabbit Street, I'm not so sure. While Welsh is Metis and my grandfather was a outport Newfoundlander, and while the dialects aren't really similar, the intensity is. And while I'm all for saving their stories, I'm not sure the written form captures the charm adequately. Nothing, obviously, is as good as the real thing, but an audio recording or better yet, a video would be better than a transcription. While not all that familiar with the Metis, I can only assume Welsh's "ear for voice" is as strong as they say.
So right away I go to my cupboard an' my half a bannock and lard is there, so I throw the bannock on table an' I slam the lard down an' I tell him, "That's all the bloody lard there is. How you like it if all you have to eat for Thanksgiving is gophers' head an bannock?"
Even if the voice sounds authentic, I don't think Welsh mixed it up enough. Mostly a series of anecdotes, with a few poems thrown in for good measure, Welsh does his best to recount life in the mid-1900s, mostly in and around Lebret, Saskatchewan. However, halfway through I came across a story called, "How Kokum Emily and Mussom Emily Brought Thanksgiving to Crooked Lake." It's no better or worse a tale than any other in the book, except that I was thrown off guard when suddenly the narrator starts talking about a husband. Her husband. It was only then did I realize that all these anecdotes weren't meant to be from the same individual. As a series of scenes in a play perhaps, I think strong actors would differentiate these characters better. As it was on paper, everyone seemed to talk the same-- and not just in a Metis dialect. Almost everyone seemed to have the same kind of blunt sense of humor. It was a humor I could sometimes appreciate (more on that later), but it didn't seem sufficiently varied to capture different personalities.

As for the "deprecating homespun portraits paradoxically intensify[ing] his loyalty to his people," no story captures that better than "St. Pierre and the Bandit" in which the bandit, Rocky Poisson, forces St. Pierre at gunpoint to eat his own excrement. Soon the tables are turned and St. Pierre, now in charge of the gun, forces Rocky Poisson to do the same. Finally they go get drunk and laugh the whole thing off. I'm sorry, I really found it hard to get past this tale. Forcing someone to partake in coprophagy is just not funny. It's disturbed and I don't care how many drinks you have after. Seriously sick.

The rest of the stories, thankfully, aren't twisted like that one, and some are genuinely funny. Though, as I say, it takes a long time to get past that one, and at only 64 pages, I'm not sure I did entirely. In a more serious story toward the end, a prisoner of war is also forced at gun point to do something pretty horrific to a Korean girl. At first he refuses but then his captures say they'll shoot her if he doesn't comply.

At first I thought the story was good balance to the earlier St. Pierre story. In the first, someone is forced to degrade themselves and it's not treated as a big deal. In the latter, someone is forced to degrade another and the tone is serious. However, I can't say I liked either. The latter is certainly more well-written but such an ugly story in a book that is predominately light-hearted and funny seemed out of place. In the end, it proved too difficult to get past either story enough to say I enjoyed this whole experience.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Reader's Diary #642- James Hurst: The Scarlet Ibis

Last week over at Shelf Love, Teresa lamented falling out of love with the Short Story. Hoping to reclaim her old feelings, she determined that her biggest issue was how to approach the form and came up with a bunch of solutions. If it's a problem you have or have had in the past, you should check out her post.

That post is also where I first heard of this week's short story, James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" (though I hear it's often anthologized).

For those of you that haven't read it, it's a story about two brothers (the narrator, whose name is unknown, and William, who quickly gets nicknamed "Doodle" as he is known for the rest of the story.) Doodle is a sickly child, not expected to live long, and unable to walk. The older brother is ashamed at Doodle's problems and in retrospect, admits that he treated him cruelly. However, there turns out to be a pay off to the brothers taunts: Doodle learns to walk. Shortly after the brother puts Doodle on a regimen that will make him "normal" before they start school. At this point a rare scarlet ibis appears, having flown off course. Soon after the ibis dies. The story continues from there.

I imagine this would be a great teaching piece. There's so much to discuss. At any point does it seem that the ends has justified the means? Do you feel that way at the end? What is the significance of the colour red? Etc.

For the thought provocation, I enjoyed the story. However, I can't help but feel the very last line was too heavy handed. Cradling the blood-soaked Doodle in his arms, his brother remarks, "For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis." By that point, even the most ignorant of readers should have drawn the parallel between Doodle and the ibis and I didn't think Hurst's comment was necessary. Otherwise it's okay.

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Trivial Sunday- Barney's Version

With Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version set to be released as a major motion picture later this year, I figure it's time to start building the hype. (It's one of my all time favourite books after all!)

So here's John's version of Barney's Version trivia. Remember, feel free to answer all 10 at home, but only answer one in the comments below to give others a chance to play along...

1. Match the characters with the actor that will play them in the movie:

a. Paul Giamatti
b. Dustin Hoffman
c. Bruce Greenwood
d. Minnie Driver

i. Izzy
ii. Blair
iii. Mrs. P
iv. Barney

2. Who played Barney in the CBC radio drama? (Hint: he also has a part in the movie)

3. What diagnosis does Barney get at the end of the book?
a. Parkinson's
b. Alzheimer's
c. Lou Gehrig's
d. Hodgkin's

4. What Freudian object graced the cover of the first Canadian edition?

5. How many wives did Barney have?

6. True or False: Barney's Version was Mordecai Richler's last novel.

7. About how many copies of Barney's Version were sold in Italy?
a. 2
b. 5000
c. 200,000
d. 1,000,000

8. Which award did Barney's Version receive:
a. Giller
b. Governor General
c. Both of the above
d. None of the above

9. Which 1959 titular character makes another appearance in Barney's Version?

10. What was the name of Barney's trashy TV company?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reader's Diary #641- Jill Foran: Mary Schaffer, An Adventurous Woman's Exploits in the Canadian Rockies

Remember those wonderful viral videos Where In The Hell is Matt? Why were we so delighted with this doofus dancing his way around the world? Sir Richard Branson's probably been to all of these places and I'm sure if we looked for media footage online, we could find it. Well, Branson's a billionaire, isn't he? Rich people are supposed to jet around the world like it's their backyard, it's what they do. If I won the lottery, I'd do the same. But there's something more exciting about Matt's story. I'm reminded of Peter Travers' recent critique of Eat, Pray, Love:
The movie left me with the feeling of being trapped with a person of privilege who won't stop with the whine whine whine.

Not that Branson seems to be a whiner, nor did Mary Schaffer, but it makes their hardships a little harder to take seriously.

I doubt Jill Foran set out to minimize Schaffer's exploration into the Canadian Rockies in the early 1900s. More likely she set out to do the opposite. This was published by Amazing Stories, after all. But Foran couldn't deny certain facts. Schaffer was a privileged woman. She was born into a wealthy family and married wealthy. Unfortunately, despite attempts to make Schaffer appear to be an important figure in history, she comes across as mildly interesting at best.

On their website, the publishers credit Mary with "extend[ing] the boundaries for adventurous women in the early 20th century." Well, maybe rich adventurous women. Yes, there were other wealthy women at the time and most weren't off touring the Canadian wilderness, but Mary didn't feel that she fit in with "polite society" and had the means to do something about it. I'm sure there were plenty of other women at the time who felt the oppression of a male dominated society, but most of them probably couldn't just pay their way out. I'm not blaming Mary of course that she was born to rich parents, but hers doesn't exactly make an inspirational story. At least the way Foran tells it.

Despite titles such as "A Rebel Was Born" and "Getting Brave," Foran fails to prove that Schaffer is the feminist leader or iconic explorer that people claim. In the chapter titled "Starting Over" Schaffer's parents die and shortly after her husband follows suit. She's suddenly scared that her life of leisure would be cut short. Finally some drama. Did Schaffer find herself suddenly scrubbing floors for her rich friends, mocked and humiliated? Oh no. Instead she called up her old friend R.B. Bennett (remember him, he was our 11th Prime Minister?) who subsequently gave her investment advice and helped her hang on to her fortune. Seriously? That's starting over? Wow, a real riches to riches story.

She paid male tour guides and trailblazers to take her into the woods, places where others had already been no less, and other women went with her. Why is Schaffer singled out as anything more than a curiousity?

Foran's writing is simple and direct and would be an easy read for a preteen. Unfortunately, it's also dull and lacking depth. If Schaffer was a remarkable woman, Foran has done a disservice to her memory. Then again, maybe she wasn't. In either case, it's not an Amazing Story.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reader's Diary #640- Daniel Clowes: Ghost World (Special Edition)

A while ago the good people over at Sporcle decided to publish one of my quizzes: the top ten best graphic novels according to Time Magazine. Since I only jumped into graphic novels last year, I'd been considering using the list as a good jumping off point. However, based on some of the comments, the Time list leaves much to be desired. Still, Daniel Clowes guest starred on the Simpsons alongside Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore, both of whom are also on the Time list. Like all top ten lists, the Time list is subjective and has its share of supporters and detractors. Still, I like such lists as conversation starters and I'll stick with this one for now, picking through it and making my own opinions.

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes is not exactly action paced. Basically it's just two girls at the edge of adulthood. On the plus side, I think Clowes perfectly captured a typical 90s teenage experience. The 90s, I think, had so much potential for teens. Couldn't fit in? You could simply redefine cool. The mainstream was bad, right? Alternative was where it was at. Great. Except eventually everything self-imploded under the weight of all that cynicism and self-righteousness.
Sad, yes, but it could make for interesting literature. Implosions are fascinating, after all.

Unfortunately, I thought Clowes' book was more of a tiny slip than an implosion. Yes the friendship between Enid and Rebecca hits a bump, but it's minor. There are some romantic issues, but to call it tension is pushing it. It's as if Clowes spent half his time writing dialogue for realistic teens, albeit the slightly confused, slightly unhappy teens, the other half working on the artwork, which is stellar, but left no time for a real plot.

Then there's the screenplay. I've not seen the movie, nor did I even know it was a movie until I bought the book. However, it starred Thora Birch, Scarlet Johansson, and Steve Buschemi and it was Oscar nominated for the best adapted screenplay. Apparently I lived under a rock in 2001. But one of the extras in this "special edition" was the screenplay and I thought it was a pretty cool extra, especially as I've never read a screenplay before.

One thing I noticed was how quickly the story veered from the story of the original. Adapted by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff, I preferred the screenplay to the comic. There's far more of a plot, even though much of it revolves around a character (Buscemi's Seymour) not even in the book. And for those who thought Rebecca was underused in the book must have been furious with the movie. From the screenplay it looks as if she really got ignored this time around. The movie poster shows Johansson and Birch though, so maybe it didn't feel that way. Did you see it? In any case, I was just happy to finally have a plot to sink my teeth into.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #7- Hermione Granger VERSUS Ron Weasley

The winner of the last Great Wednesday Compare (Libraries VERSUS William Shakespeare), with a final score of 3-0 (2 abstaining for existential reasons) is libraries.

With five wins in a row, nothing or nobody seems to be able to beat libraries and so we end another edition of Great Wednesday Compares. We prefer real bookmarks to knock-offs but hardcover books to bookmarks but would choose paperbacks over hardcovers but libraries over paperbacks, and also over book stores, book blogs, short stories, and the existence of William Shakespeare.

I was a little surprised that Shakespeare didn't fare any better than he did. I avoided using him in any of the author based Great Wednesday Compares as I figured no one stood a chance against him. But libraries on the other hand...

Anyway, this brings us to a brand new edition of Great Wednesday Compares, and if the logo wasn't an obvious clue as to what this edition could bring, it's a character based comparison. Each which I'll bring you two literary characters for you to choose between. They may be from the same book, same author, or as different as Clifford the Big Red Dog VERSUS Samson. I'm just asking that you choose the better character and give you the freedom to base it on whatever criteria you wish: cultural impact, wittier lines, sexier, whatever.

You're probably familiar with both of next week's characters.

Vote in the comment section below before August 24th.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writer's Diary #52- Spense

Spense’s chore, the odd chore that for some reason we masochistically enjoy, was mowing the lawn. Maybe there was something to that whole pressure point theory because something about the soft vibration charging through his palms and up his forearms got him to contemplating. It was during one of these mowing sessions, a balmy July day, cutting a diagonal across the front lawn, that Spense made a life changing decision: he was going to quit teaching and become a mechanic. He’d always loved working with his hands and... that’s when he ran over his daughter’s skipping rope which almost instantly wrapped itself around the blades, which in turn came to a grinding halt. It’s at this point of the story that everyone assumes what’s coming next. But Spense would have made an excellent mechanic as he knew safety comes first. He unplugged the lawnmower and then flipped it over to untangle the mess beneath. Unfortunately, at that very moment a drunk driver came whizzing around the corner, lost control, jumped the curb and crushed Spense’s head between the car’s chassis and the blades of the mower.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Reader's Diary #639- Malka Drucker: The Widest Heart

I had discovered Malka Drucker just one day before this story appeared on the CBC website. I took it as a sign that I should read something by her this week. Fortunately she offered "The Widest Heart" at her website. And even more fortunately, I enjoyed it immensely.

"The Widest Heart" is the story of a woman reflecting back on a high school friendship that, like so many high school friendships do, fizzled. What makes it interesting is that the narrator seems wracked with guilt over the way it ended, but misdiagnosis what the ending actually was. As I said, the friendship fizzled. The narrator insists it came at one defining moment. In any case, the story is her attempt at making amends and it's beautiful.

And if the title seems a little too trite, it comes from a Edna St. Vincent Millay poem.

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

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reader's Diary #638- Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights

I've finally read my first Brontë book. I'm not sure what it is about the classics that makes me feel more of a sense of accomplishment after finishing such a novel. It may be that many of the classics are old British books and I feel like I have to put in more work to understand them. It's not that the language itself is difficult but sometimes it seemed to take them forever to make a point. Was conciseness considered too uncouth?

"I shall deny you hereafter admission into this house, and give notice now that I require your instant departure."

How about, "Get out and never come back!"

So it took me longer to adapt to Brontë's style, at times I found the book very soap opera-ish and there wasn't a single character I liked, but I still enjoyed the book. I may not have liked the characters but they were interesting and at times even sympathetic. The frame story was different and I thought having the bulk of the story told through the ultimately untrustworthy servant Nelly Dean was genius. Plus, the themes of history repeating itself, snobbery, and unfulfilled love, were all enough to hold my attention.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reader's Diary #637- Omar Khayyam and translated by Edward FitzGerald: Omar Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

After reading the Wikipedia article about The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam I'm not sure whose work I read, Omar Khayyam's or Edward FitzGerald. The translation factor, it seems, is not a new concern.

As the story goes, Omar Khayyam of Persia wrote over a thousand poems back in the early 1000s. In the 1800s British writer Edward FitzGerald got his hands on them, translated a selection, and referred to this work as Rubayait of Omar Khayyam, which remains to be the most well known translation. However, critics suggest that FitzGerald took more than his share of liberties, even accusing him of adding entirely new quatrains with no coinciding original ideas amongst Khayyam's work. Since then many others have offered their own interpretations and, proving collectively that Khayyam's themes and philosophy were hard to pin down, translators' final results ranged from atheist spins to Islamic faithful.

I can only judge what FitzGerald has laid before me and what I read was filled with beautiful imagery and, rather than any definite answers, contemplations on life. I don't think modern poets would ever get away with such direct and obvious philosophical questions as those raised by Khayyam. That's not preferring one style over the other, it's merely an observation that today's poets seem to use more of an arch or indirect route.

You can easily find the whole thing online, but here are some of my favourite quatrains:

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

With me along the strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot --
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne!

And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #6- Libraries VERSUS William Shakespeare

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Libraries VERSUS Short Stories), with a final score of 5-1 is libraries.

First off, I'm back from Newfoundland, so hopefully things will start getting back to normal around here. Normal being relative.

This week we say goodbye to the under-appreciated short story. I'm always surprised by the number of avid readers I hear say that they don't really like short stories. The logical side of me understands that not everyone likes the same things, but I always find myself defensive. "You just haven't found the right one!" is my usual rebuttal, but eventually I'll just have to live with the fact that some people just don't like, and will never like, short stories. But until then I invite you all to participate in Short Story Mondays, right here at the Book Mine Set. Maybe, just maybe, we'll convince you that short stories are awesome.

In the meantime we move on to the next challenger: William Shakespeare. Now, just to clarify, a vote for libraries doesn't just mean that all the Shakespeare plays suddenly disappear, it means that Shakespeare will not have existed at all! Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet? They don't exist and never have. Can you live with that? You'll get to keep your libraries, but there'll be nothing by Shakespeare in it, and anything influenced by his work even remotely will either be gone entirely or radically different.

Vote in the comment section below before August 17th.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Reader's Diary #636- John Scalzi: Missives from Possible Futures #1, Alternate History Search Results

I love when writers have the good sense to have an online presence, but find that few do. A simple blog will suffice, but samples of their work makes it even better. No surprise that the science fiction crowd is on top of things. While looking for author blogs, I came across this top 10 list of Science Fiction and Fantasy Author Blogs compiled by Stephanie Klein. I was familiar with Neil Gaiman's and Cory Doctorow's blogs, but not the rest. The first one I clicked on, thankfully, bore fruit: John Scalzi.

Here's his story "Missives from Possible Futures #1: Alternate History Search Results" as it appears at Subterranean Press.

Long, awkward title aside, I quite enjoyed this quirky and imaginative story. Written as a response from a fictional company known as Multiversity, it lists alternate futures based on the customer's inputted variable: in this case, the death of Adolf Hitler on August 13, 1908 in Vienna, Austria. Scouring multiple universes with "speed and accuracy" the results are wildly interesting and funny. My favourite phrase from the whole piece is "time travelers from a very sexy future."

See? Now I want to read more by Scalzi. Take note all you non-blogging authors.

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

Thursday, August 05, 2010

With Cathleen With

A while ago I heard how Noah Richler had been invited to a few writer's festivals across the country to "live blog" the event. Now that's a gig!

So, when the Northwords Festival rolled into Yellowknife back in June, I had every intention of live blogging the hell out of it. Now I don't know Noah's work. He might be super talented. But I'm not Mordecai's son. So, if I wanted an invite to Banff's Wordfest, I'd have to prove my worth and then some.

Alas, I proved nothing. I wrote 0 posts. 0. In was early June, one of the busiest times of the year for a teacher, and even worse of an excuse, I forgot my camera for every single event. The picture above was sent to me by Cathleen.

In any case, I'm not going to even try recounting the whole thing right now. I hope it suffices to say that it was a lot of fun. But I do want to finally get around to say how much I enjoyed meeting Cathleen With, whom I now consider a friend.

I was nervous about meeting Cathleen. I'd reviewed her book Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison back in July of last year. It wasn't a bad review, but it wasn't glowing either. (In hindsight, it also wasn't a well-written review. One commenter remarked, "I'm not sure where you stand on this book.") But I've also heard some authors compare their books to their children, so my moderate reviews, might appear as all out attacks to these "parents."

Then I thought I had nothing to worry about. I met her. She was funny, warm, and best of all, seemed completely oblivious to my review. I decided not to bring it up and while I felt dishonest, it was easier that way. No harm done.

Then at the gala event I had to present an award (I'm the Northwords vice president) and when my full name was announced, Cathleen clued in. She had, it turned out, read my review but didn't realize my last name was Mutford. She had been wondering if she'd meet this Mutford guy from Yellowknife, but as I write like an old man apparently, it didn't occur to her that it might be me.

I didn't see her afterward, as I had to duck out early, but the next day I ran into her again and the first thing she said was, "You're the John Mutford that wrote that review?" My heart sank. And not just because I'd now have to come clean, but I would probably lose a potential friend. Oh the lonely life of a reviewer.

It got worse. "Are you going to the Luncheon with the Literary Ladies?" she asked. I hadn't planned on it as I moderated a panel discussion earlier that morning and as I said above, I was very tired at this point. "You have to!" she insisted, "I'm reading a response to your review there. A 'Dear John' letter."

Cripes. What a sadistic way to get back at a reviewer. Of course, in the end I decided to go. If I can't take it, I have no right dishing it, I reasoned.

In the end it was nice. I not only got off easy, I also got some food for thought. It seems that Cathleen's biggest reservation with my review was the opening line, "The worst thing about Cathleen With's Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison is..." When you Google "Cathleen With" and "Having Faith" it's right there on the front page. But, as she went on to explain in her "Dear John" letter, the harsh headlines get people to read the article. The harsh stories are important to read. As my review went on to say, Having Faith in the Polar Girls Prison is harsh as well, but it, too, is important. As long as we remember the good stuff as well. Enough of my attempts to summarize Cathleen's message, here it is. Please note, these notes came directly from her computer where it was typed to be read aloud and wasn't initially intended to be published. I did get permission to reprint them here, but I didn't bother editing. It's the message that counts:

Dear John,
On this lovely long sun June day--Sunday, a day that is not religious for me but still I think it's good to take a rest and reflect to breathe, Reviews keep us on our toes, like I said--and i totally took your whole review as a good one. There was one tagline about my book, from Monique Polak (I get google alerts, so yes i see them:) "Is it Too Sad to Read?"

Lots of authors do reviews, god love them where do they find the time (and like you John, with the blog--wow, what a great lot of reading, would love to join your challenge one day soon)--but i can't do reviews, I'm too much of a pussy. And by that I mean that I am a bit of a coward and you can't be, when you're being fair--it's all about authentic voice, really. So I am honoured to be reviewed at all, good and bad and hard taglines--especially the hard taglines b/c guess what: people will click on hard taglines, Bearing Witness: people will read the article then and maybe think, "I want to read that book and decide if i agree or not." Liz Taylor said, "Bad press, good press--at least it's press!" And i agree with her--whatever beings you to the table, reading.
And whatever gets them clicking on the good---and the bad, in our Arctic: "Inuvik Youth Centre" (go see the movies the kids made, google it) or "Why are children sleeping on the streets of Iqaluit?" or "Inuvialuit goalie Leah Sulyma scores on both sides of the border" (Like James Pokiak says, the singular of Inuvialuit is Inuvialuk--and even i screwed that up last night: I was a bit nervous= Gala vs Lunch right?) --Leah was in grade 8 when i was teaching in Inuvik, didn't know she was into hockey at the time, but what i did know was that every morning when i came up the stairs--and i taught the high school kids so she wasn't even in any of my classes--who is grinning a good morning to beat the band: Leah Sulyma.) The Firth Twins from Aklavik were also front runners = both in the Olympics--I think even four times--Google it--great role models for all Arctic kids.

So John, dear John Mutford, who has been there and here, with his wife and having their kids, raising them in this great Arctic sun (and dark) like many of you, there is the good and the bad. I believe it's about Bearing Witness, I believe it's about asking a former student of mine, who is now 22 and the mother of a gorgeous headstrong little Inuvialuk girl, but when i met her--when i first came to the Arctic and the next day walked into a craft fair and met her two month old boy Kaneda, was drawn to them instantly and said, "Oh, i love his beaded slippers. They're so small and still so delicately beaded and is his name from Japanese anime?" and Jolene laughed and said Oh wow not many people your age get that!" That moment. When not a month later Jolene came into my Calm classroom and I said, Wait, haven't I seen you before--you're Kaneda's mom and she froze--cliche but hey we're up here, it was fucking 40 below and the dark was still on 11am, northenr lights out my classroom window but i wasn't looking at them i wasn't looking out the window but at her frozen . Face. And she said: Kaneda's dead. Sids death. Happened to my Nanuk's kid too. When she was young."

Now i want to make sure you know that Jolene wasn't and isn't an addict like Trista, that Janine and Will, though Will wanted to do tattoos like Tyler, Trista's boyfriend from down south, and Faith's father--Janine and Will have beautiful kids and last i heard still live in Inuvik--they are not That part of the fiction. But on a June day not unlike yesterday here but in 2004 and hot hot hot in Inuvik, no A/C in the classroom, sun's out like gold powered laser beams coming through the classroom window but I'm still not looking out there am I? I am looking at Will's hand, and on it, a little tiny piece of metal, embossed with a word. And Will says to me: I found it yesterday, at the campsite, in the dirt. And i am going to name me and Janine's baby after it, it's a sign. I'm going to call her Hope." And she wasn't born with fetal alcohol syndrome, not Danika Hope she wasn't born into a jail-like environment like Trista's baby, coming out preemie on a cold Arctic night. But she was Faith. That's how it works, the good and the bad in fiction, in story. Bearing witness.

And so I call on you all to continue bearing witness, writing the hard reviews, the news that makes your stomach turn while you're clicking on it, while you're reading it the good tears you had in your eyes maybe--you people in YK, damn you saw those posters of Leah Sulyma is her hockey gear, eh? Sent out to all schools in Canada and beyond. I call on you to Continue to praise and laugh and dance and Sing the words of this sometimes tragic Arctic story, so that we all, can bear witness, to the lovely, and heart-breaking, songs.

Cathleen's words struck a chord with me again recently as the town where I grew up, and the town where I'm now visiting, hit national headlines. It was, unfortunately, one of the harsh ones.

But I want to end on a positive note.

Dear Cathleen,
Now that I know you read my blog, I want to thank you publicly-- for your wisdom, your heart, your humour and your friendship. You are one classy woman.

And to everyone else, since my review isn't the most convincing, Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison recently won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. You should read it.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Reader's Diary #635- Bonnie Jarvis-Lowe: Simon Learns His Vowels

I'm still in Newfoundland and so, I bring you another Newfoundland short story...

My mother owns and operates a dinner theater in Twillingate, Newfoundland known as the All Around The Circle Dinner Theatre (yes, the name is taken from the folk song I'se The B'y). They put off skits, sing folk songs, and serve a traditional meal. Many of those that remember such events say it reminds them of old fashioned Newfoundland variety shows, usually put off by community volunteers during the winter when the fishing season had ended. It was, and for my mom it still is, just a way to have fun and entertain people-- well, okay, it's also a business, but if it wasn't fun, she wouldn't be doing it.

Then I read about other theater companies around the country and what many offer is quite different. My friend Barb often raves about a cutting edge group in Calgary known as Sage Theater Productions. They've put off plays called Filth and Scorched, they've put off plays about serial killers, plays with nudity, and are not afraid to push boundaries. In fact, they seem to like pushing boundaries. I'm sure they want to entertain as well, but their raison d'etre is certainly different than my mom's group. I used to worry what tourists more used to Sage Theatre and other artistically oriented groups would think of my mom's show. But the reviews have consistently been good and I've come to realize that there's room in the world for all sorts of theatres.

Which brings me to Bonn Jarvis-Lowe. Like my mom who isn't setting out to do anything groundbreaking, Bonnie Jarvis-Lowe doesn't appear to set on winning any Gillers or Governor General's Awards with her stories. But like my mom's show, her stories are charmingly entertaining nonetheless. In fact, "Simon Learns His Vowels" could be one of my mom's skits. Can a joke be a story? Why not.

"Simon Learns His Vowels" takes a light-hearted look at Newfoundland grammar and the school system. Such an issue could be a contentious one and many writers could approach it as such, but Jarvis-Lowe just finds the humour in it all.

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

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Canadian Book Challenge 4- 1st Roundup!

One month down! I'm so excited to see what progress was made in the Canadian Book Challenge so far. I know some people are always quick out of the gate, while others prefer to take it leisurely. Typically people seem to read more in the summer month, but don't get around to those reviews until the fall. That's okay.

Welcome to everyone, and especially to the first time participants. What we do at these roundups is offer links to the book reviews we did for the challenge in the previous month. There are 2 ways to do this:

Hi! In July I read and reviewed 2 books for the Canadian Book Challenge, which brings my total to 2. Here are the links to my reviews: 1. Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison by Cathleen With: 2. Arctic Circle Songs by Robbie Newton Drummond:

Or, if you're comfortable embedding the link, it would look something like this:

Hi! In July I read and reviewed 2 books for the Canadian Book Challenge, which brings my total to 2. Here are the links to my reviews:

Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison by Cathleen With
2. Arctic Circle Songs by Robbie Newton Drummond

* If you don't know how to embed, it's easy. Simply use this html code: (a href="link address")Book Title(/a) but replace the round brackets with those wedge shaped ones. But don't worry about it if you prefer the first way.

- Make sure you tell me how many you've completed so far so that I can add your name in the progress report in the sidebar
- It doesn't count as complete until the review is done!
- When people leave links, try to visit one another's blogs and read what they had to say. Comment. Encourage. The discussion of Canadian books is what this challenge is all about.

Now, let's get to some prizes. Congrats to Wanda and Janet who will each win a signed copy of Roderick Benn's Mystery of the Moonlight Murder. Wanda and Janet both managed to read and review books not read for the 3rd Canadian Book Challenge. Thanks to everyone who played along.

Also keep the Random House Awards Prize Pack in mind as you pick your reading selections this month. By September 30th, if you've read any author that won a Canadian literary award in 2010, let me know (include the name of the author and/or book and the award won). A winner will be chosen randomly from those that qualify-- but you have to let me know that you qualify! The prize includes:

by Alissa York

The Beauty of the Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Ape House by Sara Gruen

Finally, I've got a few more awesome prizes to announce in the months to come including books from both Harper Collins and Goose Lane Editions. You won't want to miss them!

One final request: For the 2nd roundup, it's going to be Close Encounters with Canadian Authors. Have you had your photo taken with a Canadian author? Do you mind sharing? Send pics of you with a Canadian author to jmutford AT hotmail DOT com. Anyone who participates will have they're name put in for a special prize...