Friday, April 29, 2011

Reader's Diary #708- Katsuhiro Otomo: Akira Volume 2

Last January I was pleasantly surprised by my first, and until now only, foray into manga: Volume 1 of Katsuhiro Otomo's epic series Akira.

I won't say it was a short lived affair as I definitely plan to continue with the series, but I enjoyed the 2nd Volume slightly less than the first. I still didn't get the character development that I was hoping for, in fact there was almost no building from the first in that regard. However, the trade off to that was a very intense, fast paced story that was quite gripping.

I also commented that I enjoyed the details and artistry of the backdrops of the first volume. And once more, I still enjoyed them, but some of the initial appeal had worn off along with the novelty. Most panels, yes, are still detailed in a crisp style that reminded me almost of schematic drawings. However, I wasn't crazy on the action sequences. Sometimes Otomo abandoned the fine details in favour of lines surrounding the characters or a bunch of smoke and bits which made it confusing at times. Some of this may be Otomo's personal style, or maybe it's a manga thing and I just haven't learned to appreciate it. Compare the 4th panel on the top page to any of those below it:

Still, Otomo's fascinating post-apocalyptic Tokyo is fascinating. It is a bit hard and feels somehow insensitive to read about some science fiction catastrophe to hit Japan right now while they're going through a very real catastrophe. But I guess I should be thankful they don't have Akira to deal with on top of everything else. (If you've read it, you'd get that last sentence.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Great Wednesday Compare #8- Anne Shirley VERSUS Frodo Baggins

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Anne Shirley VERSUS Charlotte A Clavaticus), with a final score of 6-5 was Anne Shirley.

And who would have thought an arachnid would have given Anne Shirley her toughest competition yet? Charlotte, of course, was one of my favourite childhood literary characters. I was a bug nerd, and I must have read Charlotte's Web a thousand times as a kid. I thought E.B. White could do no wrong. Then, as an adult, I had to go and read Stuart Little. The less said about that crushing blow the better.

Moving on to the next contender, Anne's up against a non-human contender this week.

Vote in the comment section below before April 19th: Who is the better character?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reader's Diary #707- Ben Mikaelsen: Touching Spirit Bear

Browse Inside this book
Get this for your site
Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear, a YA novel about an angry 15 year old boy named Cole Matthews. Having smashed another boy's face into a sidewalk and causing permanent damage, Cole is given a choice between prison or Native American Circle Justice. To avoid prison, Cole chooses the latter and is sent to live in isolation on an island of the coast of Alaska.

It's an interesting premise, if not a believable one (Cole isn't even Native). It gets even more far-fetched, from a legal point of view as the book progresses. Ben Mikaelsen at least acknowledges this leap of faith in his author's note at the end, saying that he hopes in real life "any healing path would remain a possibility." With the revolving door that has defined life for so many young offenders in Canada and the U.S. perhaps Mikaelsen is right that other approaches may be necessary than our current legal systems provide.

At times the writing is too over-the-top. Cole is angry, yes, and with reason to be. But Mikaelsen hammers on that fact so often that Cole sometimes appears too cartoonish.
What luck, Cole thought. To end up on an island with a stupid bear that didn't have brains enough to run away. And the seagulls? He hoped they choked to death.
Really? The seagulls? Was that necessary? A little later he's irritated by some baby birds. Cole had the authenticity of a character in an after-school special. (Do those things still come on?)

Touching Spirit Bear is predictable in that you expect this experience to change Cole for the positive and he does. However, the path he takes it not at all what I would have guessed. In fact, it's the sudden left-turns that saved the book from its stereotypical characters. Did it save it enough for me to bother with the sequel? Probably not, but at least I don't feel as if I've wasted my time reading it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reader's Diary #706- Anton Chekhov: Easter Eve

Perhaps it's because of all those parables that Jesus told that I start looking for other messages and meanings in stories that claim a connection to religion. But, then, I've long complained that others have caught on to those old assumptions and pepper their stories and songs with vague references to God, heaven and so on just to give the impression of profundity.

"Easter Eve," by Anton Chekhov, is about a man waiting for a ferry to cross a river in order to attend an Easter service on the other side. On the way, the ferryman reveals that he is saddened this night as he is mourning the loss of his friend Nikolay, an under appreciated hymn-writing monk. To add insult to injury, he is not given any time off to attend to the funeral.

It's easy to find potential allusions and symbols in this story. The way the ferry appears seemingly out of nowhere suggests a supernatural element. Could Ieronim, the ferryman, be transporting souls across Hades? The under appreciated hymn writer? Could that be Jesus? The return trip across the river? Is that resurrection?

But none of it held up closely under scrutiny, not a supernatural interpretation and not a parable. It's fine, I suppose, from a purely literal short story reading but Chekhov seems to go out of his way to imply there is something more. But what?

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

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reader's Diary #705- Mordecai Richler: The Incomparable Atuk

I'd be hard pressed to name a Canadian author I look forward to reading more than Mordecai Richler. I guess it wouldn't be difficult to just read them all through one after the other, but I want to pace myself with him, just so I know there's more left to read.

The Incomparable Atuk is, like most Richler loves, a satirical comedy, mostly humorous but with ample doses of cynicism thrown in for good measure.

Summarizing The Incomparable Atuk is not as easy task. To say it's about an Inuk who finds himself the toast of the town in Toronto as the poet du jour is to skim over all the intricate plot details, ignore all those other eccentric characters, and miss those poisonous satirical barbs.

And yet it took me almost up to the halfway point to appreciate all the other stuff. Too many characters to keep track of, confused at what was going on, and what was Richler's beef anyway? Canadian celebrity? Canadian identity?

No, I don't think The Incomparable Atuk is as streamlined as Barney's Version, but certainly the seeds for that magnum opus were there. Here's one of my favourite moments when Atuk is speaking to his father who insists on being called "Old One" since being featured in a National Film Board short,
'Speak no more. Atuk, my son, I remember when your eyes were deep and true as the blue spring sea. I recall when your soul was pure and white as the noon iceberg. This is no more. Today--'

'For Christ's sake, will you cut out that crazy talk. You sound like you were auditioning for Disney again or something.'
And the proof that it's a brilliant piece of satire? Despite some of the dated language, most of the themes are still applicable to Canadian society today. At the end of my version, notes from Peter Gzowski reveal who many of the characters were supposedly based on. I knew none of the them (as the book was first published in '63), and yet I could still find similarities with modern day Canadians. Here's a scene involving a female newspaper columnist named Jean-Paul McEwen. She's stumped for an idea:
She could do a column on how glad she is to be a Canadian and out of the U.S. style rat-race. Naw. Old hat. McEwen felt wretched because she was not a woman to waste time. A quarrel with her mother ended up as a thought-piece on parenthood and the letters she got about the column made for a humorous minutorial on Letters I Get. Everywhere Jean-Paul McEwen went she took her tape recorder. You never knew who might say something useful or where you might come up with a honey of an idea. Even McEwen's vacations were not a costly waste. The funny things that happened to her were worth at least three columns.
If only she whined about the decreasing quality of shopping in Toronto or men who wear sandals instead of flip flops, she'd be Leah McLaren.

We really need another Richler. (Megan, write a book already.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reader's Diary #704- Alice Blondin-Perrin: My Heart Shook Like a Drum

Back in February I reviewed another memoir about residential school life set in the Northwest Territories, Albert Canadien's From Lishamie. Both were published last year and both writers spent time at the same residential school. However, to read one is definitely not to read the other and I suspect most accounts of residential school life would vary greatly both in details (though I'm sure with some similarities) and perspectives.

Whereas I considered From Lishamie very controlled and factual, My Heart Shook Like a Drum was more erratic and emotional.

The erratic part was a problem for me. At first I thought I'd slip into the free flow sort of feel, like Blondin-Perrin must have sat down over the course of a few days and just spewed all of her memories and thoughts on paper. Something about that approach feels more honest and personal. However, before long I thought some editing was in order. Especially towards the end, it felt as if she'd lost track of who would be reading the book. In one chapter she begins to write about hurdles in the way of healing; "Where's the government mandate to heal the wounds of communities," she asks, "especially the most addicted ones? Wake up!" Wake up? Who? The government? Me? Addicted communities? In a later chapter, she advises, "You have to identify your problems. If you are abusing alcohol then you must seek an alcohol treatment centre to help you get out of that addiction." Who's that message for? In the context of a book which up to this point has been about her experiences at residential school, I assume it's directed at people who have tried coping with their pasts by abusing alcohol. Not me, in other words. Was I not meant to read the book? In another instance, which I'm hesitant to bring up, she writes about being raped at 12 years old. "You left me a broken child, lying there on on the floor of a shack."

At this point I felt like a monster-- picking on the writing of a rape victim as she courageously recounts her story? So what if she slips into addressing her rapists instead of the casual reader who'd been reading her story up to that point. I went into the book to learn about life in a residential school, and the after shocks, and I got it. A few missteps with her audience here or there did not take away from the details, or the passion-- passion that I had missed in From Lishamie, if you'll remember. Structurally My Heart Shook Like a Drum may not be a perfect book, but that's not the purpose. Not my purpose for reading it, nor, I suspect, the author's purpose for writing it. My apologies to Alice Blondin-Perrin.

I'd suggest reading both From Lishamie and My Heart Shook Like a Drum for two perspectives of life in residential schools in the Northwest Territories.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reader's Diary #703- Justin D. Anderson: Colloid

If you don't show some value in your experiment, isn't it a tad self-indulgent?

I couldn't shake that thought while reading Justin D. Anderson's "Colloid." I can see how the title makes sense, it's not so much a story as it is the floating particles of a story. Unfortunately, it makes for a pretty unsatisfying glass of milk.

The snippets are, in and of themselves, described well. There are some interesting turns of phrases and each piece has a clear tone. But after about the halfway mark-- the same point I realized these pieces were probably not going to connect-- I found myself actually getting angry reading it. I can't say for sure what Anderson was hoping to achieve, but contempt from a reader was surely not it. Simply being vague is not clever.

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

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reader's Diary #702- Louis Maistros: Anti-requiem, New Orleans Stories

Anyone following my Short Story Mondays could tell you, I like reading free stories. In my weekly Internet scours, I've come across many, many wonderful yarns without ever having paid a cent.

So when I was planning my trip to New Orleans and trying to load up the old Sony eReader for the long flight south I was thrilled to find a free version of Louis Maistros's Anti-requiem, New Orleans Stories. Unfortunately, this was a case of getting my money's worth.

Some of the earlier stories weren't without appeal. "New Orleans, December 24, 1994" is a charming story about a musician, recently moved to NO, who ends up playing on the streets in front of St. Peter's Cathedral alongside some homeless characters and finding a sense of belonging and peace. That story contrasts remarkably well with the following story, "Gleeby Rhythm is Born," which could be a a Stephen King short, about body art taken to a shocking degree.

But soon the few good stories and my tourist attraction to the them (St. Peter's Cathedral? Hey, I know where that is!) were overwhelmed by the preachy essays and poorly written stories that came next. Looking back at all my stylus-scrawled notes across the pages, I see "trite," "clumsy," "out of place," and other negative comments vastly overshadowing the positive.

But what I think really did the book in for me were the excerpts. Way too many of the so-called stories weren't stories at all, but excerpts from Maistros' novel The Sound of Building Coffins. Excerpts are not short stories and I wish publishers would get that through their heads. Short stories should work on their own. These didn't. While I like the idea of reading a short story to get a sense of an author's writing before buying a novel, I hate excerpts. I still want a sense of completion after all. I'll read a blurb or a back cover synopsis before an excerpt. If the aim of offering this assortment was to sell The Sound of Building Coffins, I'm afraid I'm even less likely to buy it now than I was before.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Great Wednesday Compare #8- Anne Shirley VERSUS Charlotte A Clavaticus

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Anne Shirley VERSUS Elizabeth Bennet), with a final score of 7-1 (with one abstaining) was Anne Shirley.

I'm quite surprised by these results. When I was doing the book against book edition, the Austen Mafia discovered my blog and when Pride and Prejudice had its turn, there was almost no stopping them. Record numbers voting. Looks like this time they've moved on to bigger and better things. Zombies, I suspect. Anyway, now that it's safe to go back in the water, I can openly admit, I didn't care for Miss Bennet. Good riddance.

Moving on to the next contender, Anne's up against a non-human contender this week.

Vote in the comment section below before April 19th: Who is the better character?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Reader's Diary #701- Barbara Bruederlin: Buona Sera, Kiss Me Goodnight

A couple Saturdays ago, on the way back from New Orleans, my family and I had the good fortune of spending time with Barbara Bruederlin, blogger and friend extraordinaire. We first met online about 5 years ago, finally met up in person in '09 (when the picture to the left was taken), and this summer Barbara and her husband are planning to visit us here in Yellowknife. They haven't admitted to that last part yet, but they will.

Asides from her blog, I didn't know Barbara was a writer until recently. Writing mostly nonfiction articles for music magazines, last week Barbara turned her sights on fiction. I'm always nervous when reading stuff by people I'm acquainted with. What if I don't like it? What if I can't keep my mouth shut?

And yet once again, I needn't have worried. (Why can't my friends' talents rub off on me? I need to befriend some losers so I can feel less inadequate.)

"Buona Sera, Kiss Me Goodnight" is a delightfully sinister piece of writing. But then, what would you expect from a woman who has chosen "Bad Tempered Zombie" has her blogger name? The title, if you can't place it, is from the song "Buono Sera," a song covered by more than a few artists, but most likely chosen by Barb because of the Louis Prima version. One of the lyrics goes, "by the little jewelry shop we'll stop and linger/ while I buy a wedding ring for your finger." And that gives a little clue as to what the story is about.

"Buona Sera, Kiss Me Goodnight" is a flash fiction piece, paced superbly with revelations being doled out in every paragraph, and told in a wicked voice. More, more!

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

Friday, April 08, 2011

Reader's Diary #700- Amanda Boyden: Babylon Rolling

Whenever I plan to travel to a place, I try to read some of the local authors beforehand. I knew Canada's own Joseph Boyden lived in New Orleans, so when I planned my March break there, I thought I'd finally break down and read Through Black Spruce (it's been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long). However, when I found that his wife Amanda had written a book actually about New Orleans it was too much of an opportunity to pass up. That I could download a copy to my Sony eReader and take it on the long flight south sealed the deal. (More of my thought on eReading in the weeks to come.)

What a fantastic book-- easily my favourite read so far this year. Like Josh Neufeld's A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, Babylon Rolling doesn't settle for just one or two main characters. Though after visiting the city, I can begin to understand why. Personalities there are strong and varied to say the least. From
Ariel May and her husband, Ed, have just moved to New Orleans with their two small children. Their neighbor, Fearius, is a fifteen-year-old just out of juvenile detention. Across the street, an elderly couple, the Browns, are only trying to pass their days in peace, while Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges, a longtime resident and “Uptown lady,” peers through her curtains at the East Indian family next door.With one random accident, a scene of horror across front lawns, the whole neighborhood converges on the sidewalk and the residents of Orchid Street are thrown together, for better and for worse.
Interestingly, after reading many other reviews there doesn't seem to be a consensus on who exactly the main character was. One reviewer argues that Fearius was the main character. While I think Fearius had one of the strongest, riskiest, and most unique voices, I found Ed to be the most compelling. But cases could also be made, and have been, for Ariel, Philomenia, or Mrs. Brown. The only ones I thought should have gotten a little more focus was the Indian couple, but you can't have it all I suppose.

Babylon Rolling takes place pre-Katrina. Hurricane Ivan threatens to materialize and while even the mere threat shapes the course of the novel, the natural disasters are nothing compared to the personal dramas unfolding. Everyone's story seems to come together to form their own hurricane of sorts. Katrina, Schmatrina.

What I liked most about Boyden's writing was her unbelievable knack of capturing human motivation. At first I found myself trying to decide which characters she was showing sympathetically and which she was picking on. But before long I realized that the only real biases were my own. Boyden's characters were so rich, complex, and believable that she didn't need to judge them. That dirty work was left up to me, the reader.

Babylon Rolling is an intense drama, witty, insightful, beautiful and ugly. I can't wait to read more of her work.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Reader's Diary #699- Josh Neufeld: A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge

I'd first heard of this book through reviews by Nicola and Gavin over at the Graphic Novels Challenge blog but didn't get around to reading it until almost two years later when I decided to take a trip to New Orleans myself.

Strictly speaking, Josh Neufeld's A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge isn't a novel, in that it's nonfiction, but it is a long form comic and pretty much most of us call all of those graphic novels anyway. Semantics aside, A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge is the stories of seven individuals (it looks like 5 on the cover, but if you look closely at the 2nd and 3rd pictures, the 2nd shows a couple and the third shows two friends) and their days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, during, and after.

I read this just before going to New Orleans and really appreciated all the perspectives, mostly because I could keep track. I've read novels with less characters than this and had trouble keeping track. I think Neufeld accomplishes this mostly by choosing to interview people with such different backgrounds and lives; black, white, wealthy, poor, etc. Granted, not all characters seemed to get as much page time as others, and I personally found some stories more compelling than others, but such would be the case in real life.

And in real life, I appreciated all the perspectives even more. From an outsider it's easy to think of New Orleaners(?) as all having the same thoughts and opinions on hurricane Katrina. After all, the media usually picked a slant and told it that way. For whatever reason, it was easier to just show one side. We met people who talked about how the media made it worst than it was, we met others who felt it was devastating and damaged the city for ever. One tour guide refused to call it a natural disaster, but insisted it was a man-made disaster. Some thought the disaster was due to short-sightedness, others that it was more intentional than that. The only consistency was that everyone had an opinion. And it's now a part of their tourism as much as Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, and jazz music. Here are some houses we saw, still not repaired or lived in since Katrina, almost 6 years ago. Granted, as our tour guide pointed out, some of the hardest hit areas were poorer and more run down to begin with. But the ones with the numbers painted on the side were ones checked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with numerical codes to indicate what they found inside. You didn't want to see one with any number except 0 at the bottom, for that number indicated how many bodies were inside. On one house, not shown here, I did see a number 1.

Back to Neufeld's book, I also appreciated the artwork. While the characters are similar in style to Daniel Clowes, Neufeld's real strength is in the pacing, using the artwork to build up tension and dramatic effect by choosing wide, varied angles and shadows, and slow zoom-ins on some scenes. It's amazing how many graphic novelists I've read that would make amazing movie directors.

A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge is a wonderful comic documentary and I'd love to more such books if anyone can recommend some!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Great Wednesday Compare #8- Anne Shirley VERSUS Elizabeth Bennet

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Lady Macbeth VERSUS Atticus Finch), with a final score of 8-5 was Anne Shirley.

Atticus Finch. Gone. Certainly a classic character if there ever was one. Though I was intrigued by Niranjana and Nicola's comments that they were perhaps letting their Gregory Peck appreciation skew their view of Atticus. I was intrigued because I've not seen the movie and still think he's a great character. But when I think back to To Kill a Mockingbird, which I absolutely loved, I think Scout sticks out in my memory more. Yes Atticus was the one with all the ethics, and we're supposed to think of him a "good guy," but is that necessarily a great character? Certainly he was a strong character, but it's hard to separate that from his morals. On the opposite side of things, Lolita's Humbert Humbert is a great character, but he's absolutely loathsome. Despite how much we might like Atticus, I wonder if he's as well developed. He's described through Scout's point of view after all.

Moving on to the next contender, Anne's got some serious competition this week.

Vote in the comment section below before April 5th: Who is the better character?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Reader's Diary #698- John Geddes: Only 5 Minutes

As I'm once again back in Canada, I figured I'd best pick a Canadian author this week. (I've still got a few New Orleans books to review, so I'll save my vacation highlights to work into those posts-- in case you're interested.)

Not going with a familiar name this time around, I can't provide any details about this week's author. He's from Vancouver and that's all I know. There's a John Geddes that also writes for Macleans magazine, but I don't believe they're the same.

Anyway, this John Geddes short story "Only Five Minutes" plays with one of those fears that nags most modern day parents on at least a few occasions: abduction. And I say "plays with" because that's essentially what Geddes does. Not meaning to imply that Geddes doesn't treat the topic with the respect it deserves, but he seems to understand that he has to do more with a premise that makes parents uncomfortable enough as it is. He tells the story mostly through a limited third person perspective, following a young boy's (the victim's) thoughts. It's a clever way to trigger those parental voices of the readers, who presumably know better that the boy and would love to scream at him to get out of harm's way. Plus, Geddes teases with a few opportunities for the boy to get out of trouble that never quite pan out. The few unanswered questions that Geddes leaves about the identity of the kidnapper, and how he knows what he knows, triggers our inner detectives at the same time.

Though one unanswered question I wasn't crazy about was my own. What's up with the last sentence? Repeating the title of the story, it's clear this is supposed to be a profound statement of some sort, but I can't get what it's supposed to mean, or why Geddes stresses it. Otherwise, I enjoyed this piece.

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

Friday, April 01, 2011

the Canadian Book Challenge 4- 9th Roundup!

3/4 of the way there!

Upfront disclaimer: This is a pre-written post. If things have worked out as planned, I'll have just wrapped up a two week vacation in New Orleans (with a brief 3 day cruise to Mexico) and am now staying at my friend Barbara Bruederlin's (aka The Bad Tempered Zombie) house in Calgary, over-nighting before going back home tomorrow. We first met Barbara a couple years back, through blogging by the way, and she's even nicer in person than she is online. How about you, ever met anyone you'd only known through blogging?

Anyway, again, with being gone and all and this post will be relatively short. Though I would like to once again remind you that the 5th edition of the Canadian Book Challenge is around the corner. I want to make this one, as it's a milestone of sorts, the biggest and best yet. So please let me know if you're interested in signing up again (email me with the subject "Canadian Book Challenge 5- Sign Me Up!) and if you have any ideas on how to improve, special tweaks or challenges, let me know. Once again, I'm looking for prizes to giveaway so if you're an author, publisher, or bookstore owner, please consider making a donation or two. (Though non-book prizes are also welcome!) Email me at jmutford (at) hotmail [dot] com.

A hearty congratulations goes out to Nicola over at Back to Books. Not only did she read a YA book and won Roderick Benns' The Legend of Lake on the Mountain, but she also got married recently! I wonder if this will slow her reading down any-- holy cow, did you see her total in the sidebar?! Make sure to drop by her website and wish the happy couple all the best. I believe it was at the end of January, but somehow I missed the post which mentioned it.

Thanks to Roderick Benns for once again donating a prize!

And of course, the prizes continue...

How about poetry? So far, there's been few poetry selections. Let's see if we can up that number a bit. Read and review just one Canadian collection of poetry this month, email me with a link to your review and you'll have your name entered in a draw for 5 (that's right, 5) poetry books courtesy once again of Goose Lane Editions:

Gary Geddes falsework

Sharon McCartney for AND against

Soraya Peerbaye Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names

Brian Bartlett- The Watchmaker's Table

Katia Grubisic- What if red ran out

And finally, while we're all gathered here today: the roundup. What Canadian books did you read and review in March? Let everyone know in the comments below.

- Make sure you tell me how many you've completed so far so that I can record it in the sidebar progress report
- 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.