Friday, August 31, 2012

The 6th Canadian Book Challenge- August Roundup (Stick Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea) Also, in the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. This brings me up to 1/13)

Reader's Diary #862- Max Allan Collins, art by Richard Piers Rayner: Road to Perdition

In case you haven't noticed I've been on a graphic novels kick lately. I'm usually more well-rounded than this, really I am. But I recently realized at the beginning of the month that I'd only read 3 so far this year— a far cry from the 12 I needed to read if I was going to meet the goal of the Graphic Novel Challenge I'd signed up for back in January. Fortunately, a trip to the local library revealed some great improvements in their GN section and I was able to find most titles on my wish list, including this one; Road to Perdition from writer Max Allan Collins and artist Richard Piers Raynor.

I, and I suspect like most people, first heard of Road to Perdition through the Tom Hanks movie version in 2002. I don't recall a lot about the film, which I guess says something. I'm not typically a fan of mafia movies or books, so I'm not surprised it didn't have much effect on me. That aside, I was still looking forward to reading the graphic novel.

It turns out I'm still not all that interested in the mafia or books about them. Road to Perdition tells a story about a hit man ("chief enforcer") named Michael O'Sullivan and his son who, after a dare from his younger brother, sneaks into his father's car, only to discover the truth about his father's job. Unfortunately, the boy is also discovered by O'Sullivan's partner and suddenly both father and son become the targets. Only when Michael discovers that his wife and youngest son have been murdered, it is not enough to run from his former employers but to exact revenge in the only way a hitman knows how. Told from the point of view of Michael's surviving son, Michael Jr., there's enough in the premise and voice to make it at least an entertaining premise.

Unfortunately, I had enough other issues with the writing. Presented as a mafia/father-and-son tale, I believe Collins' intention was to present a complex man, one with very defined light and dark sides. He loves his son, but he murders other people. Despite the attempt at a light side, I couldn't stand the guy, nor would I buy the loving father bit in real life. He's scum and if he wasn't in such a despicable job in the first place, Micheal Jr. wouldn't have lost his mother or younger brother. When he says crap like, "be whatever you want— as long as it's not like me" it reminds me of those parents who tell their kids not to take up smoking between long drags on a cigarette. There's also a religious angle thrown in, with Michael Sr. periodically visiting Catholic churches to confess his sins. I suppose we were suppose to look at it as a a troubled soul and feel sympathy. However, he leaves one confessional just to go murder yet a whole bunch of other people. It's like he's merely using the confessional booth as soap. Got rid of that guilt, good to go kill again. Easy as pie. And finally, the action is silly over-the-top Hollywood stuff. In one scene Michael Sr. slides down a bannister while shooting foes at the bottom. And he escapes so many bullets, I expected Rambo to show up to ask for pointers.

But on the very positive side, I really enjoyed Richard Piers Rayner's artwork. Using black and white, and very crisp, hatching techniques, there are many scenes and settings which seem very lifelike, especially the backdrops. They reminded me of newspaper clippings to the point where it seemed almost as if Rayner simply laid tracing paper over real photos, and just filled in the shaded areas. I'll probably look for other Rayner works again.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reader's Diary #861- Frank Miller: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

I really wanted to like Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns for a couple of reasons:
1. I've yet to like a superhero graphic novel, yet I love plenty of other graphic novels. This makes me feel pretentious. I'm really not. I like the idea of superheroes. But just as I also like the idea of vampires, I've never found a book about that them that I've enjoyed. If this critically acclaimed graphic novel wasn't the one to convince me, what is? (And please don't recommend Watchmen, I've also already tried that).
2. My son has gotten me into the Marvel characters. I also don't want to be one of those DC Comics vs Marvel nerds. Why can't I like Batman simply because he's rich and has no superpower? I like Iron Man and can't we say the same about him?

Alas, I'm not a fan of this either. I didn't hate it, but I've been on a roll with graphic novels as of late (Joe Sacco's Palestine, Brian K. Vaughan's the Pride of Baghdad, Will Eisner's Contract With God, and Charles Burns' Black Hole) and I didn't come close to enjoying it as I did those. What mostly did me in was the artwork. It's quite terrible. The pictures look really rushed and frankly, lazy— almost as if done in one take. They're especially bad during action scenes, where sometimes I could barely make out what in the heck was going on.

And the story's not great either. Basically it's a story about an older Batman (who even has a moustache at the beginning), who comes out of retirement to clean up an increasingly violent Gotham City. His vigilantism however, rubs many people the wrong way and it culminates with a showdown against his former friend and ally, Superman. This could have been a great premise. To me it's like the US at war with itself. Superman is often seen as the iconic American hero, but could the vigilante Batman be the better representation of American ideals? But if it's a two man civil that Miller was trying to get at, he certainly took a circuitous route to get there. The Joker and Two-Face, two of Batman's most classic villains show up, but their story lines fall flat, their potential entirely wasted. Don't get me started on what he does with Robin and Selina Kyle.

The middle age angle was probably interesting in its day. Published in 1986, the same year as Watchmen which had similar themes, I was wondering if one copied the other but couldn't find any suggestions of that being the case. Maybe it's just a coincidence in history that comic writers were just then acknowledging an aging fan base.

A final positive note: I did enjoy the news clips. Throughout the story we are shown news broadcasts sometimes reporting on Batman, sometimes on world events (significant and trivial), and sometimes showing people debate whether or not Batman is a hero or a villain. It's part social commentary, part satire and I thought these bits were probably the most intelligent part of the book.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reader's Diary #860- The New King James Version Bible: Lamentations

When I started reading on my very slow progress of reading the Bible book by book, I began with the King James version. It often shows up in most influential books, not just for its impact on society but for its literary merits as well. For beauty of language, it's supposedly the most superb version of the Bible.

While I was able to understand it, somewhat, the progress was quite slow. If I was ever going to make it through, I had to decide: did I want to read the Bible for the poetry or for the content? I decided I was was more interested in the stories themselves and so I switched to the Good News version. This one was much easier to understand, but lately I've been thinking about what I've been missing out on. That's when I discovered the New King James Version. Completed in 1982 (so there's no reason I shouldn't have heard of it before), it aimed to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James version, but keeping the style and beauty of it in tact. So, I'm hoping to have the best of both worlds.

Lamentations does have a lot going on from a literary point of view: it's told as five poems (apparently the first four are even acrostic poems, using each letter of the Hebrew alphabet to begin each verse— but as my knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet is lacking, I can't say this held up in the translation), and there's a lot of rich figurative language (in the first poem, Jerusalem is compared to a widow). Mourning, or lamenting, the fall of Jerusalem, Lamentations is full of humanity as the author (Jeremiah?) goes through the stages of grief (mostly bargaining, anger, and depression). Does this all mean that the new version I'm trying is better for maintaining the lyrical beauty? I'm not sure. From that angle, not all of the books of the Bible are created equal. Even in my Good News version, the psalms stand out more than the other;  perhaps Lamentations would have stood out as well. However, as I'm not about to spend time going back to compare versions, I'm just going to believe the NKJV is the better version and stick with it.

Not a new idea, but Lamentations once again got me depressed about that part of the world. There was a scene in Joe Sacco's Palestine in which characters are debating the solution to the Israel/Palestine problem. Two completely separate entities? Two halves of one whole? Borders and government, one person finally argues, will not work in any version as long as the two sides continue to hate each other. When fighting in this area goes back to Biblical days, it has to be engrained in the culture(s). That's a lot of history to overcome. My own lament.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reader's Diary #859- Joe Sacco: Palestine

A couple of years ago Debbie and I saw posters all over town advertising for a Palestinian Appreciation night. "In celebration of Palestinian food and culture!" the poster promised. We're always up for trying new cultural foods. Palestinian music sounded exciting. Naively, we went.

Actually the food was quite good. The music was delightfully interesting. But then the propaganda started. At this point I want to make it perfectly clear that I'm not saying where I stand on the Israel/Palestine issue. I know where I stand, but I'm not saying here. The last time I blogged about a Joe Sacco book, I upset one reader enough to send me a several pages long comment about how Karadzic was not a war criminal. The internet breeds a whole lot of crazy, especially where politics are concerned, and that's not a door I'm interested in opening if I can help it. Anyway, my issue wasn't that the Yellowknife Palestinian community wanted to generate support for their cause, it was that I felt manipulated. The posters made it sound like we were in for a party, not a protest.

With Sacco's Palestine, I at least knew what to expect. As I stated above, it's not my first exposure to Sacco, so I knew I'd appreciate the artwork. The work that he puts into drawings is fantastic. (I bought some new drawing pens and I've been on a crosshatching rampage the last few days.) Palestine also pops up in a lot of "best of" lists, and I was right in concluding that it would be a quality piece of art. Joe Sacco was a journalist first, and as with War's End, that shows through. Palestine is not so much a story as it is a documentary.

And what can we conclude from this documentary? Speaking in generalizations of course, the people of Palestine do not have it easy. They can be gracious hosts to people who are willing to listen. Everyone has an injustice story, and every other person has an injury to accompany such a story. Many are angry. Many are weary. They have very little acceptable outlet to vent their grief. Stones are as much a weapon as they were since our cavemen days. Stones also communicate a message. It's an emotionally tiring topic.

None of these may come as a shock if you really think about it, but if you're like me, you most often don't think about it. It's been a world issue to any possible generation that could possibly be reading this post and though it's not really getting better, it doesn't even make the news much any more. Or it does and as it hasn't gotten significantly better, I just don't attentively tune in very often. Except when I meet the rare person who goes to the middle east as a tourist or to work. That's when I get more riled up. I want to visit the middle east someday, but truth be told, it scares me. I know I can't paint the whole area with one brush, but there seems to be so much trouble in or around that part of the world. It's such a fascinating place, why can't they get their act together so I can visit and spend a few dollars on a souvenir mug?

Selfish, right? And that's what I love about Sacco's Palestine. He puts the selfish tourist to shame; he's the bloodthirsty journalist. He doesn't even want stability, he wants to see the victims. Now that would make for an interesting comic! Or at least that's the way he presents himself. And I love this honesty, or at least the over the top deprecation. When the sights and the people finally take their toll on him, his humanity is all the more endearing. And even more to his credit, while he definitely makes himself a character in this book, it's not so egocentric as to detract from the Palestinians themselves.

Quite an achievement.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Reader's Diary #858- D.H. Lawrence: The Rocking Horse Winner

There are a few literary works I can never seem to remember whether or not I've read them. Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches and D.H. Lawrence's "Rocking Horse Winner" both come to mind. Thankfully I've been documenting everything I've read for the past 5 years and in that time at least, I can say without a doubt that I've not read them. Today, I finally— and let the record show— read "The Rocking Horse Winner."

For the rest of you who haven't read it (though I realize it's a classic and there's a good chance you have), a brief synopsis: The Rocking Horse Winner is about a family living beyond its means in order to keep up appearances. The mother attributes this to a lack of luck. Luck, she explains to her son Paul, is "what causes you to have money." The boy, who had received a rocking horse for Christmas decides he is lucky. Climbing onto the rocking horse he commands, "Take me to where there is luck!" And magically, when Paul stops riding he sometimes knows the winners in the next horse race. He gets the gardener, and eventually his uncle, to help him place bets and Paul is able to provide for his mother. Eventually, however, the rides get more and more intense, taking their toll on Paul's health.

What I found most interesting about this story is that it doesn't seem to be about luck at all, but ambition. While there is a supernatural element (as true luck would be), Paul works hard for his gambling earnings. So hard, in fact, that it consumes him. Here's my theory: Lawrence's story is actually a warning against ambition. However, when this was written (back in the 1920s) as is the case today, it was not a popular idea to condemn ambition. People equate it with laziness and freeloading. The idea of being happy with what you have doesn't exactly fuel the capitalist machine. So, I suspect Lawrence buries his message somewhat under the pretense of luck. Is it buried too much? I'm not sure. Thoughts?

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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Reader's Diary #857- William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2)

Earlier this summer I unintentionally reread William Shakespeare's As You Like It. I read the whole thing, and then, when I went to blog about it, discovered I'd already read it and wrote about, right here on this very blog, back in '07. I didn't remember it all and this was a little concerning to me. Do I invest so little in my reading that a mere five years later it's completely out of my head?

Well, it turns out that my grandmother had just suffered a heart attack while I'd been reading As You Like It (she's since died), and I can forgive myself for not having given Shakespeare my full, undivided attention. In any case, I moved on— after checking to make sure I'd not already read it— to reading Henry IV, parts one and two. However, tragedy struck our family again this summer, and I can't say I fully attended to this play either.

In any case, Henry IV wasn't the most fascinating of Shakespeare's plays. I think I chalk a lot of that up to the insignificant women characters. Some of my favourite Shakespearean characters have been women (Lady Macbeth, Queen Margaret) but you can almost ignore their existence in Henry IV, especially the first part.

However, the father-son story was interesting to a degree. King Henry IV, whose time upon the throne continues to be stressed by rebellious factions, also has to deal with his son and the heir to his throne, Hal, who isn't behaving in the most royal of ways (well, he is behaving like Prince Harry), drinking and partying with his friend and knight John Falstaff instead. Later, however, he proves his worth by helping suppress at least some of his father's enemies. In the 2nd part, Hal and John Falstaff do not spend a lot of time together and most of the emphasis seems to be upon Falstaff, who is aging and reflecting upon his wild ways (but not necessarily giving them up). There's a few distractions here and there (another rebellion, misunderstandings between the king and Hal), but eventually it draws nearer the conclusion as Henry dies and Hal becomes King Henry V. Falstaff shows up, hoping to reunite with Hal, but is rejected. The new king decides he no longer wants to be associated with the lowlifes of London.

I thought Hal's character was the most interesting of the play. On the one hand, people could argue that he was being noble for his country and respectful of his father by finally assuming the behaviour and expectations put upon him. On the other hand, he was, I thought, quite cold where Falstaff was concerned. If I'm being honest, I suppose many of us have people in our past that were fun in our youth but didn't, shall we say, mature at the same pace as we did. We drift apart, move on and such is life. But in Hal's case, there was always an undercurrent of cruelty and disrespect where Falstaff was concerned, and it wasn't so much drifting away as it was cutting ties.

Hmmm. Upon writing this I think I enjoyed the play more than I realized. But will I remember it?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reader's Diary #856- Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Niko Henrichon (Artist): Pride of Baghdad

I debated not publishing this review yet. I usually pride myself on being a well rounded reader, but this makes 3 graphic novels in a row. I'm more than a graphic novel reader, really I am!

And in any case, I couldn't wait to gush about this one. Pride of Baghdad really blew me away.

In 2003, after the Americans bombed Baghdad, four lions apparently escaped from the zoo. Brian K. Vaughan uses this as the starting point of his story, sometimes giving the lions human dialogue and personalities.

Just a few pages in I was thinking of a few younger graphic novel readers to whom I could recommend this book. Then I turned the page. Beginning with the loss of the lioness Safa's eye, Vaughan establishes the violent and mature tone that follows. It's relentless and un-put-down-able. It could definitely be seen as bleak, but this is war after all, and Vaughan pulls no punches.

Furthermore, it's intelligent. On the surface, it's a tale of survival: lions in an unfamiliar setting, trying to find food amidst bombs and tanks. That in itself is enough to hold a reader's attention. But beyond that there's so much more to discover and discuss. The most obvious of such diversions comes from the opposing viewpoints of the two lionesses. Safa, who's come to appreciate the life her captors had provided and would rather have stayed at the zoo, and Noor, the mother of the cub Ali and who has long plotted to escape the artificiality of the zoo. Could these characters represent different mindsets of the Iraqi people under Saddam's regime? Possibly, and that's just one of many potential talking points. In another scene, a bear says to the lion Zill, "if you people had simply stayed where you belonged, I might have protected you, but you just had to cut off your nose to spite your face." Who does the bear represent? Clearly Vaughan meant this to be an analogy. I'd love to read this book again and again and discuss such points with others. What, for instance, is the significance in the fact that the lions never get to eat during the entire book? Unlike other authors who sometimes seem to leave their writing vague, under the guise of higher meaning but having nothing to really offer, I'm convinced that everything in this book is intentional and purposeful.

As for the artwork, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was by a Canadian, Niko Henrichon. The lines are sketchy and reminded me of those special features sometimes found on animated movie DVDs that show early renditions of particular characters and scenes. This unrefined look may not be everyone's cup of tea but it does add a graininess that fits the setting wonderfully. It's also coloured stunningly and that alone should make any reader appreciate the work put in by Henrichon.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Reader's Diary #855- Will Eisner: The Contract With God Trilogy

I won't say a lot more about the Will Eisner awards (I also discussed them briefly yesterday), except to say that I used to mistakenly have them associated with Disney. Look at the W on the cover to the left, then compare it to the one in the Disney logo:
(Click on pic for copyright info)
Similar, right? Plus there's the "Eisner" which made me think of the former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. And knowing that there were Eisner Awards for graphic artists seemed to fit in line with Walt Disney the cartoonist, right? Wrong. As far as I can tell, they've nothing to do with another.

But in doing that research, I happened upon the controversy about Eisner's The Contract With God being the first graphic novel or at least the first book to identify itself as such. As I fell in love with the Bayeux Tapestry when I visited France earlier this year, the claim to be the first graphic novel was already suspect to me (the tapestry was created hundreds of years ago). It turns out that Eisner had used the term to appeal to a publisher, knowing that "comic" would most likely be frowned upon. He thought he came up with the term, but later found out otherwise. It would seem that with this admission Eisner is absolved off the mistake and indeed the Wikipedia article for "graphic novels" seems to pin the blame elsewhere, singling out a Time magazine article from 2003. However, on my edition, it appears that the publishers at W.W. Norton are not above perpetuating the myth for sales. The Contract With God "launched a new art form" declares a blurb on the back. It "marked the birth of the graphic novel" according to the inside jacket flap. I think most would agree that the success of The Contract With God helped popularize the term, but it certainly didn't create it.

I don't bring all of this up merely as interesting trivia (though I happen to think it is), but it's relevant to a discussion about the Contract With God Trilogy. As it was at the time, Eisner set out to do something he felt was different in comics. Besides creating a longer work, he was also interesting in appealing to an adult audience. For those who object to the term "graphic novel" for being too dismissive towards "comics," it would seem that's exactly what Eisner was after. Something literary versus, as he saw it, "two supermen, crashing against each other." And it's this preoccupation with distinguishing itself that occassionally works against the Contract With God Trilogy. Eisner tries so hard so hard to be literary he beats some themes to death— most notably a bit about how humans are similar to cockroaches— and it comes across as pretentious more than anything else.

But for all that I enjoyed the collection. Set on the fictional Dropsie Avenue of New York, The Contract With God Trilogy is a book primarily a book of characters. People hard done by who insist, with varying degrees of success, on overcoming their obstacles. My favourite of the lot is the third book, "Dropsie Avenue," which basically introduces the neighbourhood itself as a character. Racism, integration, and the cyclical nature of the city are major themes. It would appear to end on a bleak note, when just after Dropsie Avenue is rebuilt from the ruins, racial tension begins to appear once more. But there's also comfort in the idea of the cycle. Plus, we've already seen that despite the differences, those that find love, friendship, and success amidst such tension will also be a part of the cycle.

Admittedly, I was also enthralled with the book because we've decided on New York for our March break.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Reader's Diary #854- Charles Burns: Black Hole

Click on picture for copyright  and fair use information

A couple of weeks ago I updated the sidebar of my blog (I'm ridiculously slack at doing that). You may have noticed that I've added a few "glaring omissions" lists. These are lists of books that I feel I should have, as a well-rounded reader, already read yet somehow have not. A couple of these lists I published as blog posts over the past few years (i.e., the International edition and the Canadian edition), but I've also added a couple new ones: a northern edition and a graphic novels edition. The Northern one wasn't too difficult to come up with. I collect northern books so I could pretty much just look at my shelf. I would caution though that anyone unfamiliar with Northern writers should not necessarily use that list as an "essential reads list" or even a starting point. There are a lot more recognized and acclaimed northern books than many of these, but I've already read them. (If anyone's interested, send me an email and I'll send you a northern reading primer list). As for the graphic novels, it wasn't so easy. I Googled and read as many top 10 lists and award winning graphic novels as I could, to see which books most commonly showed up. The comics and graphic novels crowd are, let's just say, a very opinionated bunch. There's a lot of discrepancy in these lists. There were a few, however, that showed up more often than others: Watchmen, Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, Ghost World, and the Sandman in particular. Fortunately I've read most of those. But I still managed to squeeze out a few more books that I should probably make an attempt to read. Of course in all these glaring omission lists, there are probably others still out there that I've missed (Don Quixote, for example) but I made a promise to myself to not replace any spots in the list until all have been crossed off, at which point I may create a whole new list. I usually have 4-5 books on the go at any given moment, so I've resolved that at least one of those should be taken from these glaring omission lists.

Which takes me to Charles Burns' Black Hole. Black Hole has won a gazillion awards, many of which were  for inking. I've often made fun of other publishers for those pages at the back of books dedicated to the typeset. You know the ones, "This book was set in Monotype Dante, a typeface designed by..." Who cares, right? Well look at all the categories of the Eisner Awards; they've had more categories than the Grammys, including "best letterer," "best colorist," and "best inker." They take this stuff VERY seriously. And while I'd be tempted to make fun, Charles Burns' Black Hole makes a convincing case for the inking award. Holy cow, there's a lot of black ink used in this book, and not just used but artistically used. While the characters are similar to the Daniel Clowes' Ghost World stylistically, the panels themselves almost look like woodblock prints they are so heavily and carefully inked. It's no wonder the book took 10 years to finish.

And that's not to mention the detail. The plot of the book is essentially about teenagers dealing with an STD that carries far-fetched mutations. To compliment this plot, Burns draws a lot— a lot— of genitals, both real and figurative. Plus collages of nightmarish imagery. This added to the heavy black ink, you can get a feel for the tone of the book without reading a word of text.

And what about the text? The story is intriguing, for sure. I couldn't put the book down and finished it in a couple of days. Critics have talked ad nauseum about the very obvious themes: AIDS parable, discourse on life in the 70s, a metaphor for teenage pressure. It's heavy handed and no doubt that's the point. However, and fortunately, it doesn't come across as preachy. I've heard folklorists justifying urban legends as morality or cautionary tales. If those teenagers were making out, for example, they wouldn't have encountered the man with the hook. And if Burns did present Black Hole as a cautionary tale, it is this urban legend tone he tells it in rather than a preacher from a pulpit vibe. That is to say, the audience will actually want to hear it. (Of course in both cases neither are likely to curb any inappropriate behaviour).

The story is, however, not perfect. I read one review that complimented the consistency of the art. That it was done over such a span of time, the reviewer said, it was amazing that the look didn't fluctuate. I'd probably agree with that assessment, but I do think the story suffered for it. In particular there seemed to be a few plot twists that were hinted at but didn't pan out in the end. I first suspected that what made the STD unique (other than the fact it causes some people to grow mouths on their necks or tails on their backside), was that it caused the diseased to be somehow more sexually attractive. In two cases the sexual appeal of affected characters seemed implausible, even in this book which thrived on its over-the-top vices. Could another symptom of the disease be that it made the victim secrete an abundance of pheromones? Now that would complicate matters! But it's never explored.

There's another scene in which one character walks in on another in the kitchen who isn't wearing pants or underwear though she shares a house with a bunch of teenage boys. Again, even in a liberally moral book as this one, it rang false. Especially when her character is more developed later on and it seems even more out of whack with who she is.

Finally there's the ending. I won't worry you with a spoiler alert except to say there isn't much to spoil. I know in real life stories are arbitrary in their beginnings and endings, but if you're retelling an event you can't go on forever in either direction, so for god's sake finish talking. Sometimes books use an implied ellipsis for some pretentious literary point, but Burns' seemed to eschew such pretensions in the rest of the book, so it was beyond disappointing that he went that route at the "end."

Still, despite its flaws, Black Hole deserves the accolades its gotten and it'll stick with me for some time.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reader's Diary #853- Martha Wilson: A Short Story About Nova Scotia

For some reason, a few months ago I started to receive a lot of review requests. No, let me use caps for emphasis: a LOT of review requests. I hadn't submitted my email or blog anywhere new, I hadn't been interviewed or given any new publicity, but somehow agents and publishers seemed to suddenly take an interest. At first I thought it was great. I've had a few Canadian publishers send me review copies before and I never thought I'd turn down a free book. My only rules were that I'd be under no time pressure to review and that a review copy didn't guarantee a good review.

But as these new requests kept flooding in, I figured it was time to tighten up my restrictions as they were. I added the stipulation that they'd be Canadian books. I like some non-Canadian books, I read some non-Canadian books, but with my Canadian Book Challenge, Canadian books have always been my larger focus, so I didn't want to accept more books that I'd probably not get to in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, I added my review request restrictions right to the top bar of my blog for everyone to see. It had no affect. I suspect that my blog name and email were simply thrown into a database and the new requests are coming from folks who have never actually read my blog. So then I tried the whole "unsubscribe" thing. You know, the whole "if you no longer wish to subscribe to these emails, please reply with the message..." I hadn't subscribed in the first place, but what the heck. The heck was that didn't work either. Nor does submitting them to my spam filter. Oh well.

I bring all this up because this email flood almost missed an email from editor Rick Rofihe. Three weeks back I reviewed a short story by Katarina Hybenova that appeared at Since then I received a wonderfully warm email from the author herself and shortly after the email from Rofihe. I won't call Rofihe's email a review request as it was simply a link to another story called "A Short Story About Nova Scotia." Maybe it was simply that he thought I'd be interested in it. But seeing as he chose a Canadian story— out of all the stories published at his website— it tells me that he at the very least took the time to check out my blog and see what I'm all about. Finally.

I was at first tempted to call Martha Wilson's story metafiction. You know, "fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion." Now, as you may or may not know, I happen to love metafiction. I can't read a lot of it at one time as it begins to lose its point, but I find it wonderfully creative and thought-provoking if done well. Wilson's story is creative and thought-provoking, but is it metafiction?

"A Short Story About Nova Scotia" begins "This is the first sentence of my short story about Nova Scotia." It would appear then, that right from the get-go, Wilson aims to write metafiction. It certainly meets the self-conscious criterion! Later she adds that her aim is "to write a short story without actually writing it." And that's where it veers away from the latter half of the metafiction definition: there's no fictional illusion to expose.

I was content for the moment to accept that Wilson's story wasn't metafiction at all, but merely writing that talked about writing. Meta-something-else. Unfortunately that led me to a whole other line of questioning: was it even a short story? What is a short story anyway? First, I had to find a workable definition. From Wikipedia:

"A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format."

and narrative:

"a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events"

Well, it could be considered sequential in that Wilson is working methodically through a process of writing a short story without actually writing one. Fine. But then Wilson adds that hers will be a short story because it had a "problem to solve (besides getting itself written)." The problem, as she sees it, is "Why should anyone attempt to write a short story without actually writing one?" The problem, as I see it, is that she had previously declared a different aim in the same paragraph (her aim was to write the story, not to decide on whether or not someone should.) It's a subtle but important difference as it renders the "besides getting itself written" (written casually and in parentheses) to be a lie. A lie= fiction. Therefore we're back to this being a short story that is indeed metafiction.

I think.

The problem and beautiful thing about metafiction is that it makes your head hurt. It's like over-thinking time travel. You can spend the day contemplating and fixing loop holes but at the end you're still stuck in the present day and, if you're like me, miles away from Nova Scotia.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reader's Diary #852- Douglas Coupland: Shampoo Planet

Grunge: the angst-ridden rock music named after dirt. This from the decade that brought us Jennifer Aniston's hair.

Written in 1993, it at first appeared that this schizophrenic time would be the focus of Douglas Coupland's Shampoo Planet. Tyler, the protagonist, is obsessed with brand names and shampoo. His mother is an aging political hippie. Plastic versus weed.

And then Coupland introduces another dichotomy. It was an increasingly global village, yet with Tyler leaving California and heading off to France the differences between the historical-minded Europeans and the ambitious, future-oriented Americans takes the forefront.

But what was Coupland's point in all this? Was it to state that people should overcome their differences? To show them how? No, it would seem the point would simply be that such differences existed. Well, duh.

Even the oozing cynicism that opened the first half of the book, which ran the risk of polarizing Coupland's readers but at least would have risked something, stalled. With almost nothing to add beyond questioning whether or not "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" or the other way around, Coupland seemed to fall back of self-indulgent gimmicks (ex. always adding a ® after brand names) and weak, under-developed plots (ex. a love triangle and an abusive relationship).

I'm not surprised this is one of his lesser known works.

(Cross-referenced at the Obscure Challenge.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writer's Diary #53- Doubt

He loves me he loves me not
Plucked one by one from a daisy
Leaves a sun with no rays

He loves me
He loves me not
Plucked one by one
From a daisy
Leaves a sun with no rays

He loves me he loves
Me not plucked one by
One from a
Daisy leaves a sun
With no rays

He loves
Me he loves me
Not plucked one
By one from a daisy
Leaves a sun with
No rays

He loves me he
Loves me not plucked
One by one from
A daisy leaves
A sun with no

Loves me
Loves me not
Plucked one
By one
A daisy
A sun

One by one
--John Mutford

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rock and Roll Biographies and Autobiographies...

Did your favourite make it into my game? If not, let me know in the comments below. My apologies in advance for the exclusion of Miles To Go or First Step 2 Forever.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reader's Diary #851- Mike Vlessides: The Ice Pilots

When Debbie and I first started teaching in Yellowknife in 2008, the subject of snow days came up with our colleagues. "We never have snow days," someone bragged. We'd previously taught in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit where there were snow days aplenty. Geez, we thought, these Yellowknifers are a tough breed.

Little did we know, they'd never had a reason to have a snow day. Unlike Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, there isn't a lot of wind here. Sure it gets cold, sure there's snow, but without wind there are no blizzards, and without blizzards there are no snow days. I know, it goes against the perception of Yellowknife being a hardy Arctic frontier town (and if you want to get technical, it's sub-arctic). I'm sure there are a lot of tough people here, but the way we're portrayed in reality shows Ice Road Truckers and Ice Pilots isn't a whole lot more accurate than the fictional Arctic Air. In fact, dandies like me live quite comfortably in Yellowknife. (Ice Dandies?)

It is important to note that The Ice Pilots book by Mike Vlessides is based upon the History Channel TV show of the same name and is about as accurate as you'd expect a reality show to be. So when he begins by playing up how cold it is here, you can be assured that the book is aimed at southerners who believe -40 must mean the apocalypse is nigh. You can also be assured that when he writes about a cold snap in 2008 that saw schools closing to ensure the safety of the staff and students, this is outright baloney. I guess the truth didn't fit with the narrative established by the TV show, a narrative that Mike Vlessides clearly struggled to maintain.

I enjoyed some of the book. There's a lot of Northwest Territories aviation history and while I've heard many of the stories before, Vlessides does have a knack for explaining things in a way any layperson would understand. However, it seemed to lack a focus: was this a book about the author? the TV show? or about the history of NWT bush-pilots? Maybe it didn't need to be one or the other, but a listing of TV star Mikey McBryan's favourite foods seemed even more trivial (if that's even possible) in a book that also touched upon northern pilots who'd lost their lives while on duty.

And then there's a problem with Joe. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, "Buffalo" Joe McBryan is the owner of Buffalo Air. He's presented as being cantankerous, an airplane buff, but otherwise enigmatic. He's not enigmatic. From what I can gather, he simply isn't interested in the TV show, which he considers "Mikey's movie." I feel a little bad for the man as this aloofness seems to have turned him into even more of a character and in turn more of a celebrity. And that's the narrative Vlessides eventually and embarrassingly also latches onto: will he ever get Joe to like him?

The reality show element is no clearer than in the final chapter when Vlessides casually slips in that Rod McBryan has been distant towards him during the writing of the book. (Rod is Mikey's brother, another of Joe's sons.) "Rod McBryan never really seemed to trust me," Vlessides writes. And yet, as Rod is not the founder of Buffalo Air and more importantly, the role of elusive man has already been taken, he is never made a focal point of the book. It wouldn't fit with the show's narrative.

Finally, to add to the woes, The Ice Pilots is in sore need of proofreading. Mistakes such as these are barely excusable in a self-published book, but when it's published by a well known and respected publishing company such as Douglas & McIntyre, it's downright unforgivable. Just a few examples (I've underlined the mistakes for emphasis):
Armed with a new work visa and a master's degree in elementary education (that I'd pick up in New York)[...]

'Yeah, back when you were a little boy they'd take you and put you in than airplane[...]

Quick quiz: What's easier for Mikey to find: new pilots or new mechanics? If you answered new pilots, you're wrong. "It's ten times more difficult to find mechanics than pilots," Mikey says.
When an airplane is grounded due to safety issues that maintenance needs to take care of, we say it has gone mechanical. What's the equivalent term in the publishing world?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reader's Diary #850- Weird Al Yankovic: Trapped in the Drive-Thru

Photo by Kristine Slipson

"He who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life." - Homer Simpson  

I am not tired of life. Why, just the other day I was listening to Weird Al in my Dodge Caravan. Weird Al songs that I intentionally uploaded into said mini-van, I might add. I've also managed to convert my family. Which is probably a form of abuse in the eyes of non-Weird Al fans, but nonetheless. This week's short story is also my wife's favourite Weird tune, "Trapped in the Drive-Thru."

 Wait... lyrics as a short story? Why not? I've already counted lyrics as poetry. And while "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" is written in stanzas, and even has a rhyme scheme, there's no repeating verse or chorus so the narrative goes unbroken. And what a narrative...

Unbeknownst to either my wife or me at the time we first heard it, "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" is actually a parody of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" which in itself is more of a book than a short story, with each song in the series being referred to as a chapter. Kelly's "Trapped" songs (which have not yet ended at 22 chapters), tell a tale of affairs, guns, homosexuality, midgets, drugs, prostitution, and more. It's creative, outlandish, offensive, and long. Weird Al's take? It's long.

But therein lies its humor and charm. It takes some righteous skill to make the mundane this humorous. It satirizes our modern speech ("I'm like, 'No...'), our routines, and our relationships. It doesn't have someone hiding in the closet with a gun, and that's the whole point. It goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and the most dramatic thing that happens is a misunderstanding involving onions. And I'm telling you, even without knowledge of the song it spoofs, it's hilarious.

You can read the lyrics as a short story by clicking on the title in the first paragraph above or you can watch the 11 minute+ video here.

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

Monday, August 06, 2012

Reader's Diary #849- Katarína Hybenová: When My Grandpa Worked in Kazakhstan

In my search for short stories from around the globe, I happened to come across this short story which enables me to check off two more countries I've not yet read: Kazakhstan and Slovakia. Sweet.

By Katarína Hybenová, who was born and raised in Slovakia but who now calls Brooklyn, New York home, comes "When My Grandfather Worked in Kazakhstan," a story built around 10 black and white photos, which I suppose were taken in the real Kazakhstan, but as this is fiction, may not actually have been.

The story begins with a description of Popradská coffee-- something clearly foreign to me. As a traveler, I have to say, she knew how to grab me.Yet oddly when she begins to describe how each family member takes his/her coffee, I found myself drawing comparisons to my own family. Just a couple of days ago I found myself talking about how my grandfather used to mix rum for people. (It was always too strong, but it was varying degrees of too strong.) And being able to connect the humanity in two very different cultures as outport Newfoundland and Slovakia? Well, Hybenová got me once again.

At this point I barely cared about the plot. Which turned out to be for the best. The story itself is almost the 11th snapshot: a picture of a family in the midst of a mundane day. The one thing that sets the day apart from all the others is that the narrator has finally broken with tradition. Instead of ignoring poor old grandpa who wants to reminisce about his time in Kazakhstan, she asks, "how was it when you worked in Kazakhstan?" That's when the pictures come out.

It's a simple device, barely a plot, but despite that, still ended way too abruptly. So abruptly in fact that I searched for a "next page" button to click on. It's unfortunate because I was really digging the story up to that point. It really needs just a sentence or two more for closure.

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

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Reader's Diary #848- Steve Henglehart, Chris Claremont, Mary Jo Duffy and illustrated by Herb Trimpe, Jack Abel, Ken Landgraf, and George Perez: Marvel Treasury Edition #26, The Rampaging Hulk

This summer I was recounting with my cousin my minimal experience with superhero comics as a young boy. I had a Justice League Viewmaster Projector and I used to watch the cheesy Spider-man cartoon reruns and the equally(?) cheesy serials Incredible Hulk starring Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk and Batman reruns with Adam West. That's it-- no experience with the actual comics themselves.

Yet, with my son being interested in superhero comics which in turn has gotten me into them, and the new batch of movies being... well, great, I've been thinking that I really missed out as a kid. So this summer when my father in law gave us 3 Marvel Treasury Editions from the early 80s, I was very excited to see exactly what I missed out on.

Maybe I'm better off. As I say, I relatively new to the whole comic book thing, but from what I gather, things started to change with Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the 1980s, when they started giving the comics more of an edge and more mature story lines. Of course, not everyone was thrilled with this. Even Mordecai Richler weighed in on the Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, suggesting that the story was too convoluted and that kids wouldn't get it. Without having read that one, it seems like a valid complaint nonetheless. But where were the writers to go? Could they appeal to an audience that was growing up? And if so, would that run the risk of losing their child audience?

In 2012, I can say that it doesn't necessarily need to be one or the other. I took my son to see the Avengers and Spider-man, but I wouldn't take him to Batman. Which is okay, by the way, I don't think it all needs to be family fare. The adults can have Bat-man, the kids can have Superhero Squad (okay, so I like those too). What I'm saying is, I like where comics have come. There's room for all demographics. But when I look back at an old collection, such as this treasury of Marvel comics, all I can say is, we've come along way.

In the Rampaging Hulk, we see the seeds of the more mature adult story lines, that Miller, Moore, Christopher Nolan, Josh Whedon and others must have been attracted to but were almost lost beneath so much camp and blather. The camp wasn't surprising. The old Batman show thrived on it. (Zam! Thwack! Holy timebomb Batman!) But the blathering was the more intrusive. So rarely did the writers let the panels speak for themselves. The very first panel in "To Destroy The Monster," for instance, shows a bog beneath a blanket of fog. Above it the writers have written, "Night... and fog... and the dull swampy bog..." Either they had no faith in their artists, or no faith in their readers to understand the picture. For an adult, this is rather annoying. But that's not the least of the problems.

So we all loved the Avengers. For some reason, we like to mash things up and see what happens. It's why whenever a bunch of drunk guys get together they argue about who would win in a fight between a tiger and a polar bear. (A tiger, by the way.) Yet, it's not always a slam dunk. Remember how badly the third Spider-man movie was panned, mostly due to the inclusion of too many villains? "To Destroy the Monster" and its follow up story, "The Hate of the Harpy" suffer the same fate. What begins as an intriguing development of turning a former love interest (Betty Ross) into a foe, suddenly gets lost beneath a mess of other villains (the Bi-Beast, MODOK, and then an entire island of giant, grotesque monsters.)

Returning for a moment to Bi-Beast. I doubt this monster will make an appearance in any future Hulk movies, at least not without a name change, for obvious reasons. And that illustrates another issue with revisiting these old comics. They're terribly out of date with current political correctness. Of course, many may argue that we've become too sensitive to such issues, but I still have issues with the stereotypical portrayal of the Hulk's black friend Jim. He has an afro and talks a little more street that anyone else. Not that a black person couldn't have had an afro and talked more street, but it seemed to hint at racism. (Researching for this post, it seems that Jim eventually becomes a superhero in his own right called the Falcon, but dies of AIDS— I guess comics had REALLY grown up at that point!). Even more offensive was the short comic at the end of the treasury starring the Wolverine and Hercules. Wolverine is doing his manly-man bit and the women, who he refers to as "chicks," are man-crazy airheads. He also refers to Hercules as a "fairy" and "tinkerbell." Geez, if these comics were aimed at impressionable children, maybe I'm fortunate to have missed them! (Then, I was still allowed to watch Three's Company and I turned out okay, so maybe there would have been no harm done.)

Anyway, I don't mean to slam it all too hard. Clearly, beneath it all were some very creative ideas and characters. Still, I think I'll look ahead more than backwards!