Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reader's Diary #607- Kris Needs: Joe Strummer and the legend of The Clash

I enjoy rock books, but I head into them with some trepidation. Besides the usual "what's the agenda behind this?" question I have with all biographies, I also fear knowing too much. Why do I want to learn more about those bands I love, when I risk learning something awful about the artists, something that'll taint their songs whenever I hear them? Is there something gained by knowing the man behind Sex Machine? The woman behind Celebrity Skin? For what it's worth, I still listen to the Beatles, even though I think Paul McCartney is an idiot.

Kris Needs' Joe Strummer and the legend of The Clash hasn't changed my opinion of the band much. But it has shed some light on the progression of their sound and it's neat to listen to their songs again with some insight as to what the Clash was about at that particular moment. Having gotten into the Clash (and punk music) long after the band ceased to exist, their back catalogue had been a bit of a swirl to me. Compare "London Burning," for instance, with "This is Radio Clash." One's pure punk angst, the other... has a disco beat? Needs makes a great case in illustrating the difference between punk music and punk attitude. While the Clash dabbled in and helped popularize the first, they were more about the latter. They liked reggae, so they threw it in. They liked hip hop. They threw it in. Country? Why not? If they could bitch about society in the process, that was just gravy. These are the reasons I like the Clash.

However. In many other ways, the Clash was just like so many other rock bands that came before and after. Torn apart by drugs, artistic differences, egos, and bad management? Didn't that happen to... EVERY OTHER BAND? The only thing keeping Joe Strummer and the legend of The Clash from slipping completely into rock and roll cliché, is the omission of gratuitous sex. But that hardly makes it more interesting. If you were not a fan of the Clash before, you'll likely find the book quite dull.

However, I am a fan and loved visiting a scene that I was too young to be aware of at the time. The constant name dropping of other bands and musicians might drive some readers up the wall, but as a music trivia nut, I loved it. Everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and X-Ray Spex to the Foo Fighters and Chemical Brothers gets a nod. Though, as the Jam or Bob Geldof might attest, they may not be flattering nods. (Ouch!)

Kris Needs was getting his start in rock journalism at the time of the Clash's meteoric rise and became quite close to the band. In terms of this book, that was both a blessing and a curse. There were a few too many insider jokes (a bit about wildebeests was hammered ad nauseum) and it often smacked of the "You don't know, man. You weren't there!" type nostalgia. But of course, there's a lot of behind the scenes stuff he was privy to, that other biographers weren't going to get after the fact.

It was also a wise decision for Needs to focus his attention on Joe Strummer, the lead singer. Creating a bit of a hierarchy, Mick Jones (co-founder of the Clash and Needs' closest friend from the band) seems to avoid blame for anything, almost saint-like. Bernie Rhodes, the on again/ off again manager, was not close to Needs at all and was subsequently shown to be a pariah, scapegoated for practically all the bad decisions, and worse, the band's downfall. Joe Strummer (and to a lesser extent, members Paul Simonon and Topper Headon) is fortunately kept at a healthy distance. Having been close to Needs, but not too close, Strummer is allowed to be human. He is shown to be creative and energetic, but still imperfect, making mistakes along the way. Jones and Rhodes deserved the same treatment, but they'll have to find someone else to write their books.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Shel Silverstein VERSUS George Eliot



The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Margaret Wise Brown Vs Shel Silverstein), with a final score of 3-2, was Shel Silverstein!

Once again a Great Wednesday Compare contender hits the wall with the finish line in sight. Margaret Wise Brown, with four wins to her name, couldn't get past Shel Silverstein for a fifth. I've blogged about Brown's most popular books (Good Night Moon and Runaway Bunny) before but those are all I've ever read of hers. I've enjoyed the two I'm familiar with, but they've never been really popular at my house. My kids never requested them night after night, like some others in the collection, and my wife quite dislikes Good Night Moon. I probably would have liked them more if they'd been illustrated by someone other than Clement Hurd. Good books, but I'm surprised they're still popular.

A little off track, I watched an episode of Cheers the other night, where it was revealed that Carla had read the Runaway Bunny to her 8 kids over a thousand times, crying every time. And since we're onto Runaway Bunny trivia, David Letterman revealed to Oprah that it was a favourite of his to read to his son. Though, after Oprah mentions Love You Forever, Letterman seems to confuse this as another Margaret Wise Brown title. Oh well. We can bring this trivia full circle and give Munsch proper credit. Ripping off the whole adult crying over a children's book gag from Cheers, Joey brings the gang to tears by reading Love You Forever, this time acknowledging that it was indeed written by Robert Munsch.

The Book Mine Set proudly brings you another post full of useless information.

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 4, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Reader's Diary #606- Brayden Hirsch: The Yellow Eye


Earlier this week I discovered Wet Ink Magazine, which describes itself as "an arts magazine for and by Canadian youth." WIM, edited by Jen Sookfong Lee (she's the author behind The End of East and was a panelist for Canada Reads 2009, defending Brian Francis's Fruit), features poetry, short fiction, and visual art from teenagers across Canada. It's a great way for the young, creative and talented to get their work out there and to be part of a scene that's usually left to the adults.

I decided on Brayden Hirsch's short story, "The Yellow Eye," for no other reason than he also has his own blog.

"The Yellow Eye" is basically a take on the old Hook Man/ Boyfriend's Death urban legends. But that's okay. At 14, Hirsch and his peers are supposed to be into that kind of stuff. Plus, he adds an interesting bit about the power (or pitfalls) of imagination, and for the most part, is well-written to boot.

Two minor issues:

1. The line "For the first time in her life she was going to die." I don't think I need to say what's wrong with that.

2. The father leaving his eleven year old daughter alone in a car, while he goes for gas. For plot convenience he needs to go, of course, but it doesn't come across as very likely, especially as she protests against his decision. I remember going to a book club a few years back and getting annoyed with a couple of women in the group. I forget which book we were discussing that night or who the author was, but I recall it was a male. Whatever it was that the female protagonist had done sent the females in our group into a frenzy. "This is so clearly written by a man," they protested, "no woman would ever do such a thing." I resented the comment so much. Do all women think with the same brain? Of course not. And just because those women would not have made the same decision, didn't mean that another woman wouldn't. I had to question myself over Hirsch's story, using that same logic. Just because I wouldn't leave my eleven year old daughter alone in a car, stranded in the snow along a highway, doesn't mean that some fathers wouldn't. However, Hirsch needs a little more tweaking to make such a move a little more likely or believable. Establish that the father makes a lot of poor decisions where his daughter's well-being is concerned. Give him a better reason to suggest she stay in the car (her leg is broken and it would be too tough trudging through the snow drifts). Something. Or better yet (and this is where I thought the story was going), make her father the serial killer, unknown to the girl.

Anyway, it's not my story. It's Hirsch's and he's done a fine job. Check out the great imagery in the opening paragraph.

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

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trivial Sunday- The Tragically Hip

It's been a while since I've introduced a new feature here on the Book Mine Set, but this one's been stuck in my brain for a while now. As those of you know who follow my Saturday Word Play feature, I've got a thing for trivia. However, sometimes working trivia into a word game, doesn't always succeed. So, I figure that I might as well do a separate trivia feature. I won't be scrapping SWP all together, but some weeks I'll feature Trivial Sunday, some weeks I'll feature Saturday Word Play, and some weeks I won't feature anything. Despite rumours to the contrary, I still have a life outside this blog.

This week's Trivial Sunday features the Tragically Hip and highlights their literary connections.

I'll throw out 10 questions, ranging from easiest to hardest (in my opinion). Answer them all at home, but only answer one in the comment section below to allow multiple people a chance to play along. Check back later to see if you got it right!

1. Who is the song "Courage" dedicated to in its subtitle?

2. Which Hip song features the line, "...Treading the boards, screaming out Macbeth
Just to see how much bad luck you really get"?

3. Name Gordon Downie's book of poetry.

4. Which song, from the album In Violet Light, shares its name with a a graphic novel by Seth?

5. Which Biblical couple is mentioned in "When the Weight Comes Down"?

6. Which Washington Irving locale is referenced in "Don't Wake Daddy"?

7. Which Giller Prize winner was thanked in the liner notes for We Are The Same, and with his wife, penned a press release for the album?

8. Which title by Farley Mowat is mentioned in "The Depression Suite"?

9. Which Hip song features the line, "...Shakespeare, you're a drunken savage/
Well, you're a sober and green-eyed Voltaire"?

10. A lyric from the song "Use It Up" from In Violet Light is attributed to which American short story author and poet?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reader's Diary #606- Sarah Klassen: Simone Weil, Songs of Hunger and Love

In the past couple of years, I'd read two biographies told as a series of poems. First, there was Randall Maggs' brilliant Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. Then there was Yvonne Trainer's Tom Three Persons. After the latter, I found myself wondering if all biographies should be told in verse. After reading Sarah Klassen's poetic biography of Simone Weil, I'm inclined to say that depends on the poet.

If you're like me, you have not heard of Simone Weil. But a blurb on the back from Liba (Libby) Scheier caught my attention:
Sarah Klassen's intelligent lyrical poetry and prose give a strong voice to the brilliant, startling, enigmatic figure of Simone Weil, the renowned French thinker and activist-- philosopher, mystic, artist, writer, literary critic, leftist, Jew-turned-Christian, anti-Fascist, and pacifist-- who starved herself to death in 1943 at the age of 34.

Sounds like an interesting character, to be sure. Unfortunately, I learned more about Weil from that single blurb than the rest of the book. I'm not just talking biographical facts either-- I could find a nonfiction biography on Weil if that's all I wanted. However, where Maggs and Trainer were able to capture, or at least contemplate on, the many psychological and sociological events that shaped their character's personality and destiny, Klassen's exploration of Weil was one dimensional and dull.

If Klassen is to believed, Weil was one of the most depressing and humorless characters ever to walk the Earth. She makes Sylvia Plath sound like Minnie Mouse. Page after page of crash down in dissonant rage like a trapped swallow in the falling darkness gashes inflicted or received tears flood her eyes I was desolate branded me a slave growing reproachfully thin tear out barb-wire walls and burn them...

Read Weil's Wikipedia page. While Weil doesn't come across as someone who'd been into rainbows and unicorns, she's certainly more intriguing than Klassen made her seem. I prefer a Wikipedia page to a book? That's probably the worst insult I can muster and I'm not even trying to be mean.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Margaret Wise Brown VERSUS Shel Silverstein



The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Margaret Wise Brown Vs Philip Roth), with a final score of 3-2, was Margaret Wise Brown!

For some unknown reason Philip Roth, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen are linked together in my head. I haven't read any of them and perhaps their writing styles are nothing alike. However, when I think of one, I think of the others. Ever have this problem? You can be sure that had Roth won last week, he'd have been facing either Chabon or Franzen this week.

But Roth didn't win last week and once again Margaret Wise Brown faces a new challenger. For the record, she's currently at four wins. A fifth, as per the rules, will mark the end of the 5th Great Wednesday Compare. However, Louisa May Alcott also came that close a few weeks back but wasn't able to cross the finish line. Will a fifth prove as elusive for Brown?

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 27, 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, April 20, 2010

Reader's Diary #605- Jeff Lemire: The Country Nurse

With Jeff Lemire's The Country Nurse, I've completed my second graphic novel series (the Collected Essex County) this year (the first being Jeff Smith's Bone).

I wouldn't go as far as saying that The Country Nurse was a disappointment, as the larger overall story of Lester and Jimmy gets a little more closure and loose ends are tidied up. However, the book doesn't stand alone as well as the first two books. The story of the country nurse is weaker, less interesting. She's a meddler with good intentions, but Lemire gives away her psychology a little too easily, making her cliched. Granted, the background story of her grandmother, a much more intriguing character, saves the book. First timers to Lemire's work might still see this volume as remarkable (if somewhat confusing without the context of the first two volumes). Rare are the comics with this much emotion and symbolism and the artwork is, as always, stellar. But the first two books (Tales From the Farm and Ghost Stories) show Lemire's true potential.

Do yourself a favour and buy the complete volume. Not only does it make the third book work better, but you'll have one of the best novels to come out of Canada in a while. Plus, it has loads of special features at the end including additional Essex County stories, early character sketches and promotional material.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reader's Diary #604- Gao Xingjian: The Accident

Gao Xingjian is the only Chinese-born author to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, doing so in 2000. At the time, however, he was a citizen of France, having immigrated there in 1987 and becoming a citizen in 1997. "The Accident," by Gao Xingjian is my short story choice for this week and comes from the June 2003 edition of the New Yorker.

I loved the writing. Xingjian presents the opening scene slowly but methodically and I found myself thinking of Bob Ross, the mellow afroed painter from PBS television. However, it's also apparent that there's something amiss and the typical, mundane city day is about to crack.

The accident mentioned in the title involves a bus hitting a man on a bike and the story goes on to show the day consuming this slight deviation. How such events shake us and whether or not the tragedies of strangers touches us in a meaningful way is explored beautifully and creatively by Xingjian. I especially enjoyed how in the last paragraph Xingjian switched from the third person to the first. I've read stories before that switched point of view, but this one felt more like the breaking of the fourth wall. Suddenly I felt that Xingjian and I had been in this together. We'll now go our separate ways, just as the other witnesses had.

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

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Saturday Word Play- 7 Cryptograms

For this week's Saturday Word Play, we look at 7 topics, each with a word or phrase in common. Figure one out and use the cryptogram (simple letter for letter code, ex C=R, D=J and so on) to solve the others in that question. You'll most likely need a pencil and paper to work them out.

As always, feel free to do all 7 at home, but only answer 1 in the comment section below. That way, 6 more people will have a chance to play along.

1. Writing Margarets
IMEHQDRQ
LYSQ WHJLD
KQOQHSJD FMGGYA
MOLJJG
MXYSJD
ZYORFQII
FEORFYSJD

2. "Great" Books
TXD CZDIT CITROF
HU CZDIT ABRMXBDL
CZDIT DWEDMTITBUHR
UTXDZKBRD QHUKH IR RXDBVI TXD CZDIT
VDT TXD CZDIT KUZVP REBH
RUAD CZDIT TXBHC
CZDIT PIF LUZ NE

3. Nursery Rhyme Jacks
JNLRQ
XH BUFXDH
YELBHL
RBA MUDD
R ARBAC
QYUJ UJ QYH YEVJH QYRQ
R BELC

4. Well "Red" Books
RZC ZBYR QOT TCH OXROFCT
TCH HOM TCH HOM
XWLQQOTH RZC FLM TCH HOM
RZC TCH FIHMC OQ XOBTIMC
OYC QLNZ RDO QLNZ TCH QLNZ FWBC QLNZ
WLRRWC TCH TLHLYN ZOOH
DZCTC RZC TCH QCTY MTODN

5. Laura Numeroff, If You Give a ___ a ____
DKWBM-TKKIOM
DKKBM-DWFFOH
ZOC-ZEHTEIM
TEJ-TWZTEIM
ZOC-ZEGJL
EWJXKG-ZMHTOU
QKC-QKHWJ (Not yet released)

6. Literary Annes
WVIKZ
BFAVMJR
VALJ
XVGKOJ
NJVVR
XGMJRK
XVIEBOVJJO

7. Eric Carle: The Very ___
BHOD OSLUGY
XEHZOD XELXW BGGPEG
IHQTYD XMPGYSLEEMY
EAQT PMLE (Out of print)
KHLGP XYLXWGP
EAQT PYMLQ (Out of print)
EAQGED JLYGJED

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reader's Diary #603- Jeff Smith, illustrated by Charles Vess: Rose (Prequel to the Bone Series)

With my recent review of Crown of Horns, the 9th and last book in the Bone series, I should have felt pleased. Possibly marking the first complete series I've ever completed, I didn't feel closure knowing that there was a prequel lurking out there. A long time ago I finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but still don't consider it complete since I've yet to read the Hobbit. But now I've gone and read Rose, the Bone prequel, and the only satisfaction is that it's all done. It's by far my least favourite of the lot.

Don't be fooled by the cover, drawn by Jeff Smith. Note what it says underneath "Bone": Illustrated by Charles Vess. Jeff Smith's artwork was half the appeal of the original nine books, why mess with a good thing? According to many critics, he didn't mess with a good thing, he made it better. Among Vess's fans are Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, and about a gazillion others. He was even nominated for an Eisner Award for his work on the book. I'm in the minority when I say I hated Vess's illustrations in Rose. I found them boring, pale, and far too traditional and consistent. Smith's were exciting, bold, quirky and a great mish-mash of styles.

Not that Smith is off the hook entirely; the story is also less exciting (granted much of it was alluded to in the other books, so that took away from the suspense) and surprisingly void of humour. And what about the cows? How come people ride horses in this book? Aren't they supposed to use cows to get around?

I've complained before about Tom Clancy's Net Force books. On these you see Clancy's name in gigantic letters on the front, with the real author's name in tiny letters somewhere far below the book's title. On the one hand, Rose isn't that bad. At least Smith did write the story. On the other hand, I like Smith, so I wish he'd done it all by himself. With the Net Force books, the readers should be thankful Clancy didn't write them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Margaret Wise Brown VERSUS Philip Roth



The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Margaret Wise Brown Vs Cervantes), with a final score of 6-1, was Margaret Wise Brown!

Cervantes, another one of those classic authors I haven't read. I know at some point I'll read Don Quixote but until then, he remains on my shameful omissions list.

By the way, last week I asked if anyone could connect Margaret Wise Brown and Cervantes within 6 degrees of separation. This is what I came up with:

1. Cervantes writes Don Quixote - early 1600s
2. Peter O'Toole stars in Man of La Mancha, which combines the story of Don Quixote with Cervantes' life - 1972
3. Drew Barrymore guest stars on Saturday Night Live in which she performs a sketch with Bill Hader who portrays a rather drunken Peter O'Toole - 2006
4. Drew Barrymore is the granddaughter of silver screen legend of John Barrymore - died 1942
5. John Barrymore divorces Blanche Oelrichs - 1925
6. Blanche Oelrichs and Margaret Wise Brown become involved romantically, eventually moving in together - 1943

And there you have it.

Don't worry, there won't be a test.

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 20, 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, April 13, 2010

Reader's Diary #602- Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha

With my recent trip to Japan, I've been reading a lot more Japanese or Japan-themed books lately, but Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha might be it for a while. Nothing against any of these books or the country, but I need a change of scenery.

Still, it was fun to read all the places in Memoirs of a Geisha and think, "hey, was there!" even if Golden's early 1900s fictional version of Kyoto was nothing like the 2010 real version that I saw.

Memoirs of a Geisha is supposed to be a historical novel disguised as the memoirs of Sayuri Natti, a retired geisha now living in New York. I say supposed to be, because it actually holds up better when viewed as a faux memoir than a historical novel.

As a historical novel, the blending of historical fact with the fictional story is often not cohesive. If you're interested in the lives of geisha, the historical facts are just that: interesting. (Though some have doubted the authenticity of those, I'm certainly not the person to know what Golden got right or wrong.) But frequently the book reminded me of Moby Dick, when every second chapter seemed not to be about Ahab but rather an instructional piece on how to deblubber a whale. The difference is that I find geisha intriguing, so I didn't find Golden's factual interruptions to be dull. In fact, they were often welcomed...

As a novel, Golden seemed unable to find a story arch to focus on. For the first half of the book, the major plot seems to be whether or not Hatsumomo, an older geisha living in Sayuri's okiya (geisha house), will sabotage Sayuri's career. Hatsumomo is a great villain, if not a little over the top, who certainly keeps things tense and, for a reader, fun. But it's almost as if Golden grew weary of her and she exits, I feel, prematurely and without the climax that was promised. Instead, the second half of the book seems to be focused on whether or not Sayuri will have to take the wealthy Nobu as her danna (patron) or if she'll be able to take his close friend and business partner, the Chairman, who she's been longing for ever since he treated her to a rare moment of kindness in her youth. While I wasn't as crazy about or interested in this latter plot, I would have a preferred it to a disjointed book.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reader's Diary #601- Terence Chua: Golem

Once again I've used the Amazing Race as inspiration for my short story choice. Last night the contestants raced across Singapore and so, I've gone looking for a Singaporean author. Enter sci-fi author and filker, Terence Chua.

Hold up. Filker? What the heck is that? According to Chua, it's someone who sings a genre of folk music that has a science fiction focus. Filk songs may be parodies, using existing tunes (Chua himself is known for his blending of ABBA with Lovecraft's Cthulhu-- I kid you not) or entirely original. In what quite possibly might be the nerdiest debate on the entire Internet, you'll find tempers soaring over whether or not Weird Al Yankovic's "The Saga Begins" (A Star Wars summary to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie") is authentic filk.

None of this is really relevant to the Terrence Chua story I picked for this week, but if I had to learn something new in the process, than doggone it, you're going to suffer for it. After reading through three of the seven short stories available on Chua's website, I wouldn't consider myself a fan. However, I was able to pick my favourite of those three: Golem.

"Golem" came across as one of Stephen King's less memorable short stories. As King in particular likes to do, Chua has picked an author as the central character, but I don't fault Chua picking familiar territory. If the story is appealing, I don't really care if the author had to do little or lots of research. Not that Chua's "Golem" is wildly appealing, but it is mildly fun. It's the story of Michael, a successful sci-fi author from Singapore who's suffering a bad case of writer's block. He's haunted, literally, by a stack of false starts and story ideas that didn't pan out. It's fun because you can easily imagine that Chua himself had fun while writing it and it's not too difficult to believe that the examples were taken directly from Chua's own stack of abandoned ideas. However, "Golem" runs out of steam (which, in a story this short, simply shouldn't happen) and begins to have the feel of a writing exercise, hastily put together. It's clearly not meant to be a serious piece, but the fun didn't need to be that frivolous.

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

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reader's Diary #600- Jeff Lemire: Ghost Stories

I first read Jeff Lemire's Tales From The Farm last August and was wholeheartedly taken with his story telling and artistry. In Tales From the Farm, an imaginative boy named Lester rejects his uncle, his new guardian after his mother's death, in favour of a friendship with Jimmy Lebeuf, an ex-NHL player and head injury victim. It was the first book in Lemire's Essex County trilogy.

Ghost Stories, the second book in the trilogy, doesn't continue on where the first book left off. Instead, it delves a little deeper into the past, exploring the story of Jimmy's grandfather and great uncle, Vince and Lou Lebeuf respectively. Told through the memories of an aged and increasingly senile Lou, the book takes on much more adult themes. There were adult themes in Tales From The Farm, as well, but also plenty that a young teenager might connect with. I'd venture to say that not as many younger readers would be as interested in Ghost Stories. Loneliness, adultery, and decaying health and memory are major focal points this time around.

But for this adult reader, it was as good as the first in the series, if not better in some ways. I'm reading my copy of Ghost Stories in the collected Essex County trilogy and it features a wonderful introduction by Canadian cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. Essex County, he writes, "supercedes the labels 'graphic fiction' and even 'graphic literature'. This is a high watermark in Canadian Literature that can proudly rest beside the Lawrences, Richlers, and Atwoods on the big shelf."

Too much? Actually, if the third installment is anywhere near as good as the first two, I think I'll agree. It's interesting that the Canada Also Reads live discussion kept playing over in my head as I read Ghost Stories. Some of the panelists had accused CanLit of growing stale, offering dreary slow paced dramas, set in bleak landscapes and with humour capped at subtle irony.

I wonder what they'd think of Ghost Stories. Yes it's a dreary, slow paced drama, yes it's set in a bleak landscape, and what little humour it has mostly falls into the subtly ironic category. Sounds like CanLit to me. It's even a hockey story, for Gretzky's sakes! But it's not stale. This isn't another author trying to be the next Margaret Lawrence (who wasn't boring either, back when she blazed the trail). Ghost Stories is an author telling a story, a Canadian story, in a unique way. And I don't just mean it's Margaret Lawrence in comic book form, the artistry here is not run of the mill. It's beautiful and poetic and gives the story a whole new dimension so many others have failed to add. There are scenes, wordless scenes, that can break your heart. A man's life lies in the balance of an ink stroke.

I don't think those people who complained about CanLit necessarily meant they wanted all their books to run at supersonic speed with a joke in every other paragraph (though that could be fun). Tragic stories should still be permitted in Canada, just told in a more interesting way.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Margaret Wise Brown VERSUS Cervantes



The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Margaret Wise Brown Vs Maurice Sendak), with a final score of 6-3, was Margaret Wise Brown!

I don't have strong feelings one way or the other about last week's result. I've never been a big fan of Sendak's writing. It took last year's movie adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are to make me appreciate that story. Now if it had been a contest between Sendak and Clement Hurd, the illustrator behind Brown's Good Night Moon and The Runaway Bunny, I would have picked Sendak in a heartbeat.

I hope next week's match-up throws you all for a loop. 6 extra points if you can connect them within 6 degrees of separation.

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 13, 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, April 06, 2010

Reader's Diary #599- Jeff Smith: Bone 9, The Crown of Horns

That's it, the last of Jeff Smith's Bone series... sort of. I'm half way through the prequel, so I won't feel totally done until then, but I've more than enjoyed the original 9.

For the most part, I thought the finale was well done. The action is intense, most loose ends are tied up, and I appreciated that at 212 pages, the longest of the 9 books, the publishers didn't split in half and try to drag it out into a tenth book.

I also think most characters had a chance to prove their worth in the final book, with the exception of two: Rock Jaw (the mountain lion) and Kingdok, the giant evil leader of the rat creatures. Rock Jaw seems to be brought back merely for the sake of bringing back a past player and basically does nothing. While Kingdok is-- and excuse the excessive nerdiness I'm about to unleash-- the Darth Maul of the whole series. He looks menacing enough and everyone seems to fear him, but he seems pretty easy to defeat. Earlier in the series he'd lost an arm. Later, a tongue. Speaking of tongues, how is it that Kingdok is able to talk again in the 9th book without a tongue? Did it magically grow back?

Then there's also the ending that I'm sure let down many fans. Trying not to spoil the plot entirely, I think Jeff Smith played it safe by not introducing an interspecies relationship between two characters in particular, even though we were all rooting for it.

But I don't always need to have things my way. This ain't Burger King. And I'm still quite satisfied. As were my kids, who, I maintain, were the reason I read this series in the first place and as a mature adult... ah, who am I kidding? I think I enjoyed it even more then they.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Reader's Diary #598- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichei: Quality Street

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from Nigeria, is one of those authors whose name keeps crossing my path over and over again. Each time that it does I tell myself that I should really read something by her. Then just as quickly, I forget all about it.

Thankfully I was reminded of Adichie once again when Kinna Reads blogged about Adichie's short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. This time I went looking for something for something to read right away so that I'd not forget. Fortunately I was able to find one of her short stories online called "Quality Street" (yes, named after the chocolates) at the Guernica website.

When I first began this story, I did as I often do when I read a story set in Africa (no need to jump all over that-- I realize it's a big continent), and that was reflect on the role of politics in Canada. Of course politics are important here, but there doesn't seem to be the urgency about it as in Africa. When politics do come up in conversation (and there are some days when they don't), there are many times it seems like we gripe just for the sake of griping (the recent National anthem debate comes to mind). In some places, who's in power is a matter of life and death. I'm not saying Canadians need to sit back and simply let the government do its own thing, but it puts our privileged life* in perspective.

It was in that frame of mind that I began reading Adichie's story. It's the story of Mrs. Njoku, whose daughter Sochienne is back in Nigeria from studying in the US. The two aren't seeing eye to eye, and haven't been since Sochienne has returned from her time at university. Sochienne no longer eats meat and worse, is super critical of the class system in Nigeria, especially their family's wealth.

Focusing on all the overt political discussions in the story, I almost missed the obvious: that this was more about the relationship between the mother and daughter. Mrs. Njoku and Sochienne have grown apart. The daughter has gained experienced unique to her, and has developed a view of the world vastly different from her mother's. This isn't an "African" story, it's hardly even a "Nigerian" story. It's any of us that have left home as young adults and later returned, seeing things in a very different light. And especially true for those of us who've gone away to university, we often return, much to everyone's annoyance, thinking we have it all figured out.

I appreciate hearing stories set in places and cultures so vastly different than mine but finding unexpected similarities.

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

*I realize that not everyone in Canada has life easy, but I'm generalizing.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Reader's Diary #597- Katherine Paterson: The Master Puppeteer

This is one of those rare cases where I take full responsibility for not having enjoyed a novel. While the writing was, I suppose, fine, there were a couple reasons I didn't appreciate it as well as I should have:

1. Poorly chosen as a read aloud to my daughter. Earlier this year I'd mistakenly followed the advice of my wife Debbie who suggested not to read Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia to our 6 year old. She didn't remember much about it except that she believed it may have been "dark" and that it's usually read in grade 5 or 6 classrooms. I went ahead and read it by myself but afterward I wished I had shared it with my daughter. It was somewhat on the slow side, but she's not usually put off by that, the story was pretty straightforward, and while there was a tragedy, it was nothing she couldn't have handled emotionally. Trying to make up for this past decision, I thought that reading her another Katherine Paterson book was in order. The fact that this one was set in Japan was just perfect. Since we were going there in a week or so, more exposure to the culture would be a perfect way to learn about where we were headed and would only help build our excitement. (That Paterson is not Japanese never bothered me or made me question its authenticity, as she did live there for some time and has written other books about the country.) But, it turned out that the Master Puppeteer was probably too advanced for a 6 year old. Not only was it darker than Bridge to Terabithia (while very loosely described as a Japanese version of Robin Hood, there's a lot of violence including maiming and murder) but it also has a more intricate plot and vocabulary that went way over her head. While she didn't want me to quit reading altogether, I could tell she'd lost interest or missed half of what was going on.

2. Poor timing. As I said before, we began this book about a week before heading off to Japan. At only a chapter per night, we'd hardly made a dent in the book by the time the big trip came. While the 10.5 hour flight from Vancouver to Tokyo sounds like a long time and a perfect chance to catch up with reading, we did little on the way there. For one, the novelty of "inflight entertainment" was too much for the kids and the AstroBoy movie was tough competition. Then there were the meals, and of course, sleep. While we were in Japan itself, most days were spent sight-seeing so by the time we got back to the hotels we were either too tired to read or our minds were still racing from all the excitement we'd had that day. The attention paid to the Master Puppeteer was minimal. While we did get to Osaka, where the Master Puppeteer was set, we didn't get to see any banraku (Japanese puppet theater) which probably would have directed our interest back into Paterson's book.

I won't say that the Master Puppeteer was boring, but it wasn't able to hold the attention of a 6 year old girl and her father while vacationing half way across the globe. But I doubt Katherine Paterson had that in mind.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Canadian Book Challenge 3- 9th Roundup

Welcome to the 9th Roundup of the Canadian Book Challenge 3! Before we get into your March reads and reviews, let's look at the news from the Canadian Lit scene this past month:

1. Margaret Atwood and Avril Lavigne were co-winners of the Dan David prize, valued at $1,000,000 US. According to judges, Atwood's work "enabled, for the first time, the emergence of a defined Canadian identity, while exploring both national and transnational issues, such as colonization, feminism, structures of political power and oppression, and the violation and exploitation of nature" and Lavigne's "use of a number in her song title 'Sk8ter Boi' was nothing short of brilliant."

2. The winner of the 2010 Canada Reads competition was none other than Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, defended by Michel Vezina. The winner of the Canada Also Reads was Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise, defended by Neil Smith. The winner of Canada Reads Independently was Ray Smith's Century, defended by Dan Wells. And finally, the winner of Canada, For The Love of God, Read Already was Tommy Hunter's My Story, defended by Tommy Hunter.

3. The latest in the whole reality show meets magazine trend? Vote for your favourite magazine cover! From Newfoundland, subscribers were asked to vote for their favourite cover of Downhome Magazine. Over at The Walrus, readers are being asked to vote between two Seth created covers. And at Chatelaine Magazine, they're asking readers to choose between photos of Margaret Wente doing her legendary Marilyn Monroe impersonation or of Tom Green's naked buttocks.

4. Did you catch the latest releases in Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series? Douglas Coupland presents the biography of Marshall McLuhan, Joseph Boyden profiles the connection between Louis Riel and Gabrielle Dumont, and Alice Munro exposes the awful truth about Mr. Dressup's Finnegan (it involves Michael Vick).

And that's a wrap folks. Remember to leave links to the Canadian books that you read and reviewed for the challenge in March. Also, don't forget to tell me your totals so far.

Congrats to everyone that reached 13 books last month!!!