Monday, December 31, 2012

The 6th Canadian Book Challenge- December Round Up (Sticky 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)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. This brings me up to 1/13)

The 2012 Book Mine Set Short Story Online Anthology

Here it is, the 2012 Book Mine Set Short Story Online Anthology, ranked from my least to my most favourite. All my reviews, as well as links to the stories themselves (all found for free online), can be accessed by clicking on the story titles. I hope you check at least some of them out. Maybe in the New Year you'll consider joining me every Monday for Short Story Monday.

I was surprised when I compiled this list to find 53 stories. I reviewed one a week, and there are

53. Newfoundland Novelist- "Winnie and Christopher Robin"
52. Jason Lawson- "The Date"
51. T. S. Arthur- "The April Fool"
50. Thorton Wilder- "Chefoo, China"
49. E. Craig McKay- "Abel Clarke; At Sea in a River Boat"
48. Samantha Ball- "...!"
47. Karen L. Abrahamson- "Coyotes, Cats and Other Creatures"
46. Cyrus Macmillan- "Rabbit and the Moon Man"
45. Stephen Leacock- "The New Food"
44. Dawn Curtis- "Low Hanging Fruit"
43. Charles Morris- "Vineland and the Vikings"
42. Togueyadji Mindengar and Maurice Fournier- "The Sheep, The Dog and The Goat"
41. Alison Weir- "Anniversary"
40. John Frederick Bangs- "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall"
39. Louis Becke- "The Fisher Folk of Nukufetau"
38. Fernando Iwasaki, translated by Jeremy Osner- "To Troy, Helen"
37. David Parker- "Harlan's Finger"
36. Graham Masterton- "Eric the Pie"
35. Khushwant Singh- "Karma"
34. Kayden Kross- "Plank"
33. John Polidori- "The Vampyre"
32. Alexander MacLeod- "The Number Three"
31. Richard Harding Davis- "Somewhere in Paris"
30. Frederick Forsyth- "The Shepherd"
29. Katarína Hybenová- "When My Grandpa Worked in Kazakhstan"
28. Daniel Woodrell- "Night Stand"
27. Marguerite Duras- "The Bible"
26. Alina- "Transatlantic New Year's Eve"
25. Josef Essberger- "The Winepress"
24. Hugh Garner- "The Father"
23. Isaac Asimov- "The Machine that Won the War"
22. Gertrude Atherton- "The Striding Place"
21. Charles Stross- "Overtime"
20. Leïla Marouane, translated by Alison Anderson- "Is This How Women Grow Up?"
19. Matt Rees- "Damascus Trance"
18. Clea Young- "Dock Day"
17. Zoe Wicomb- "In Search of Tommie"
16. Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson- "Chez Janette"
15. William S. Burroughs- "The 'Priest' They Called Him"
14. William Trevor- "Men of Ireland"
13. Tayeb Salih- "A Handful of Dates"
12. Johan Harstad, illustrated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik: "To"
11. Martha Wilson- "A Short Story About Nova Scotia"

The Top 10!!!
10. Kurt Vonnegut- "Harrison Bergeron"
9. Maggie Taojakin- "The Long March"
8. Weird Al Yankovic- "Trapped in the Drive-Thru"
7. Trudy Morgan-Cole- "Prevely in a Secrete Place"
6. D.H. Lawrence- "The Rocking Horse Winner"
5. Laura Boudreau- "The Meteorite Hunter"
4. Mojca Kumerdej, translated by Gregor Timothy Čeh- "Hepatica"
3. Mary Edward- "Beyond Repair"
2. Teolinda Gersão, translated by Margaret Jull Costa- "The Woman Who Stole the Rain"
1. Kerry Clare- "Georgia Coffee Star"

Reader's Diary #926- Alina: Transatlantic New Year's Eve

Spending the last day of the year in Florida and... Moldova?

This week's Short Story Monday post (the last of 2012) was pre-written and postdated. As you may be aware, I'm vacationing in Florida at the moment and didn't expect to have a lot of time for blogging (though I guess I'll have plenty of time in queue at Hogwarts). So, in anticipation of this trip, I went looking for short stories written by Floridians and/or set in Florida.

That's when I stumbled upon an unexpected bonus. This week's author is originally from Moldova, but now lives in Florida. I say this is a bonus because I've also been trying to read my way around the world and this allows me to check Moldova off of my list as well. She goes by the name of Alina, no last name, probably as she was only 16 and wrote this as an entry into a contest hosted by author Mitali Perkins. Because of her age I was only going to review it if I liked it. And, well, here I am.

"Transatlantic New Year's Eve" is not set in Florida. It's somewhere unspecified in the U.S. but there's a casual mention of shoveling the driveway, so clearly not Florida. The narrator, Valerica or Valerie as she is known in school, is talking to her aunt back in Romania on New Year's Eve. Valerica is clearly missing Moldovian culture at this time and it causes her to reflect on her increasing Americanization. It's quite well-written.

I can relate but to a lesser degree. During the holidays, there are certain customs and traditions we had in Newfoundland that I'd miss in Yellowknife, except that it's easier to keep some of them alive. Most Canadian grocery stores carry some Newfoundland food (salted beef, salted cod, Purity products) and so I've always been able to cover that angle easily enough. Plus, Newfoundland, while different that the rest of Canada, isn't as vastly different as Moldova must be from the U.S. Furthermore, most Canadian cities have large Newfoundland communities if one felt the need to reach out, and besides all that, holiday traditions are being lost in Newfoundland as well. If I miss "mummers," for instance, there's no need for me to blame living in Yellowknife— I'd be missing them if I lived in Newfoundland. The culture is changing.

Anyway, I appreciated Alina's story of family, culture, and immigrant struggles, as well as the personal reflection she provoked.

To you and yours, I hope you have a wonderful New Year's. Wherever you are.

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

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Year in Review 2012- Fiction

Here, from least to most favourite are my favourite fiction books that I read this year. I've included novels, children's novels, short story collections, and novellas. I've not included plays, poetry, or picture books, though I did read some of those this year. Graphic novels and individual short stories will be ranked in separate posts.

All in all, I'm happy with the reading I did this year. My grand total is way up. Granted I also read a lot more children's novels this year, and those tend to go faster. However, I read more classics as well, and those tend to slow me down (especially clunksters like Les Miserables).

34. Kathy Reichs- Bones are Forever
33. Beth Goobie- Jason's Why
32. Eric Wilson- The Inuk Mountie Adventure 
31. Suzy Kline- Horrible Harry's Christmas Surprise 
30. Carolyn Keene (ghostwritten by Margaret Wirt Benson)- The Ghost of Blackwood Hall
29. Jeff Brown- Stanley's Christmas Adventure
28. Victoria Dunn- Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies
27. Mavis Gallant- Paris Stories  
26. Mary Pope Osborne- Night of the Ninjas
25. Anita Daher- Racing For Diamonds
24. Mary Pope Osborne- Christmas in Camelot 
23. Douglas Coupland- Shampoo Planet
22. David Helwig- Close to the Fire
21. Esi Edugyan- Half-Blood Blues
20. Paul Glennon- Bookweird
19. Michelle Wan- Deadly Slipper
18. Derek Hayes- The Maladjusted 
17. Frances Hodgson Burnett- The Secret Garden
16. Vicky Delany- Gold Mountain
15. Corey Redekop- Husk
14. Joseph Boyden- Through Black Spruce 
13. J.R.R. Tolkien- The Hobbit
12. Michael Kusugak- The Curse of the Shaman
11. Laura Ingalls Wilder- Little House in the Big Woods 

10. Sharon E. McKay- Charlie Wilcox
9. Betsy Byars- The Two Thousand Pound Goldfish
8. Margaret Macpherson- Body Trade
7. Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness
6 .Cory Doctorow- Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
5. Victor Hugo- Les Misérables
4. Charles Dickens- A Tale of Two Cities
3. Suzanne Collins- The Hunger Games
2. Andrew Davidson- Gargoyle
1. Voltaire- Candide

 Which of these have you read? Were you surprised by any of my rankings? What were your favourite reads you read this year?

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Year in Review 2012- Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels

Ranked from my least to most favourite:

18. Natsuki Takaya-  Fruits Basket
17. Various writers and cartoonists- Marvel Treasury Edition #26, The Rampaging Hulk
16. Alex Segura, art by Dan Parent- Archie Meets Kiss
15. Michael Brennan- Electric Girl, Volume 1
14. J. R.R. Tolkien, adapted by Charles Dixon and illustrated by David Wenzel- The Hobbit
13. Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin- Tank Girl
12. Frank Miller- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
11. Max Allan Collins, art by Richard Piers Rayner- Road to Perdition
10. Eoin Colfer, adapted with Andrew Donkin, art by Giovanni Rigano- Artemis Fowl
9. Chris Ware- Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
8. Scott Chantler-  Two Generals
7. Various writers and cartoonists- Mad Magazine presents Harry Potter
6. Jeff Lemire- Sweet Tooth, Out of the Deep Woods
5. Alan Moore- V for Vendetta
4. Will Eisner- The Contract with God Trilogy
3. Charles Burns- Black Hole
2. Joe Sacco- Palestine
1. Brian K. Vaughan, art by Niko Henrichon- Pride of Baghdad

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Year in Review 2012- Nonfiction

13. Edith Iglauer- Denison's Ice Road
12. Mike Vlessides- The Ice Pilots
11. Ken Dryden- The Game
10. Keith Morgan with Ruth Kron Sigal- Ruta's Closet
9. Randy Freeman- Stories From Yellowknife
8. Tyler Heal- The Times Behind the Signs
7. Greg Malone- You Better Watch Out
6. Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman- No One Here Gets Out Alive
5. Susanna Moodie- Roughing it in the Bush
4. Jessa Gamble- The Siesta and the Midnight Sun
3. Hartmut Lutz (Editor)- The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab
2. Malcolm Gladwell- The Outliers
1. Pierre Berton- Vimy

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

 The ghosts of Christmases Past:
(Actually, I've got a few Hannukah and New Year's things thrown in there as well, so maybe it should be called "the ghosts of holidays past")
  • Mar 11, 2006 a review of Bud Davidge's The Mummer's Song, a picture book illustrated by Ian Wallace
  • Dec 22, 2006 review of Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas, picture book illustrated by Jan Brett
  • Apr  18, 2007 a mashup poem I wrote called "This is Just Christmas Day, Jack"
  • Dec 21, 2007 review of Douglas Smith's short story, "New Year's Eve" 
  • Dec. 28, 2007 poem for New Year's: John Dryden's "All, All of a Piece Throughout"
  • Dec 25, 2007 The best Christmas tree ever!
  • Dec 24, 2007 review and link to O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi"
  • Dec. 21, 2007 review of Tom Waits' "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis"
  • Dec. 10, 2007 review of Stuart McLean's "Polly Anderson's Christmas Party"
  • Dec. 27, 2008 game inspired by Robbie Burns' "Auld Lang Syne"
  • Dec. 25, 2008 review of Kevin Major's The House of Wooden Santas
  • Dec. 22, 2008 review and link to John Cheever's short story "Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor"
  • Dec. 20, 2008 Madgabbed Christmas titles (one of most popular post of all time)
  • Dec. 15, 2008 review of Stuart McLean's "Dave Cooks the Turkey"
  • Dec. 13, 2008 Grinch Scattergories
  • Dec. 12, 2008 review of Herménégilde Chiasson's Beatitudes. His collection of poetry isn't Christmas related, but at the end of this post I wrote a Christmas poem, based on his style.
  • Dec. 8, 2008 review and link to L. Frank Baum's short story "A Kidnapped Santa Claus"
  • Dec. 6, 2008 A game inspired by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
  • Dec. 27, 2009 A review of L.M. Falcone's YA novel The Mysterious Mummer
  • Dec. 25, 2009 Scenes from A Charlie Brown Christmas and Dave Foley's Christmas special
  • Dec. 21, 2009 A review and link to Stuart McLean's "Christmas at the Turlington's"
  • Dec 19, 2009 A Robert Service reindeer game
  • Dec. 14, 2009 A review and link to Lucy Maud Montgomery's short story "Aunt Cyrilla's Christmas Basket"
  • Dec. 12, 2009 Hannukah one line word searches
  • Dec. 9, 2009 A review and link to Deborah Rochford-Kellerman's short story "Hannukah Candles"
  • Dec. 1, 2009 Most of this post isn't Christmas related, but if you scroll to the end there's a list of Canadian Christmas titles
  • Dec. 27, 2010 a review and link to Selma Lagerlof's short story "The Animal's New Year's Eve"
  • Dec. 25, 2010 a review of Jean Little's Pippin, The Christmas Pig, a picture book illustrated by Werner Zimmerman
  • Dec. 20, 2010 a review of Wayne Curtis' short story "My Mother's Christmas Art"
  • Dec. 13, 2010 a review and link to Fielding Dawson's short story "The Vertical Fields"
  • Dec. 6, 2010 a review and link to Charles de Lint and MaryAnn Harris' short story "A Crow Girls Christmas"
  • Dec. 29, 2011 a review of Alan Bradley's novel I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  • Dec. 26, 2011 a review and link to Guy de Maupassant's "A New Year's Gift"
  • Dec. 25, 2011 a Christmas Story gif I created
  • Dec 19, 2011 a review and link to Arthur Conan Doyle's short story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
  • Dec. 17, 2011 a review of 3 Canadian Christmas picture books by Troy Townsin
  • Dec. 12, 2011 a review of Joan Sennette's short story "Amanda's Special Gift"
  • Dec. 5, 2011 a review and link to Helene Christaller's short story "Brother Robber"
  • Jan. 23, 2012 a review and link to William S. Burroughs' short story "The 'Priest' They Called Him" (with music by Kurt Cobain) 
  • Aug. 27, 2012 a review and link to DH Lawrence'sshort story "The Rocking Horse Winner"
  • Dec. 3, 2012 a review and link to Stephen Leacock's short story "The New Food," and a call for Canadian Christmas short story suggestions
  • Dec. 10, 2012 a review and link to Frederick Forsyth's short story "The Shepherd" 
  • Dec 16, 2012 The Trouble with Rudolph
  • Dec 17, 2012 a review and link to Charles Stross's sci-fi Christmas short story "Overtime"
  • Dec 18, 2012 a review of Suzy Kline's children's novella Horrible Harry's Christmas Surprise
  • Dec 19, 2012 a review of Jeff Brown's children's novella Stanley's Christmas Adventure 
  • Dec 20, 2012 a review of Michael Kusugak's picture book Baseball Bats for Christmas 
  • Dec 20, 2012 Hosting Virtual Advent: Injecting Christmas into famous songs and books
  • Dec 21, 2012 a review of Robert Mary Pope Osborne's children's novel Christmas in Camelot (of the Magic Tree House series)
  • Dec 22, 2012 a review of Robert Munsch's picture book Finding Christmas
  • Dec 23, 2012 a review of Mike Reiss's picture book Merry Un-Christmas
  • Dec 24, 2012 a review and link to John Kendrick Bangs' short story "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall"
  • Dec 25, 2012 literary Christmas quotes 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Quoting Christmas

Oh, you got me a present. Um, you shouldn't have. Wait, I got you something, too. (Runs to the bedroom, looks in a bag of crap he'd planned on donating to the Salvation Army. Throws something into a used gift bag. Returns with a warm smile.) Okay, here you go, I hope you like it!

Some random Christmas quotes from some random authors:

“Christmas doesn't come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more....”
― Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas 

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
― Charles Dickens

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.”
― Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.”
― Charles M. Schulz

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”
— Graham Greene

“Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”
― Washington Irving

“What kind of Christmas present would Jesus ask Santa for?”
― Salman Rushdie

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!”
― Charles Dickens

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
G.K. Chesterton 

“I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.”
― Sylvia Plath

“Hey, great idea: if you have kids, give your partner reading vouchers next Christmas. Each voucher entitles the bearer to two hours' reading time *while the kids are awake*. It might look like a cheapskate present, but parents will appreciate that it costs more in real terms than a Lamborghini.”
Nick Hornby

“Ever since the Christmas of '53, I have felt that the yuletide is a special hell for those families who have suffered any loss or who must admit to any imperfection; the so-called spirit of giving can be as greedy as receiving--Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who's not home.”
― John Irving

“To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. "
E.B. White

"It's as far away now as it'll ever be."
— Gordon Downie

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Were there any books under your tree?

Here's my book haul:

I had no idea my sister knew me this well. Awesome present.
And from my wonderful wife, Debbie:

But the absolute biggest surprise was a trip to Florida for the kids. We leave tomorrow and we plan to take in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney, Lego Land, Discovery Cove, and NASA. And seeing as it's -33 degrees here today, that suits us just fine. We've been planning the trip for some time but keeping it super hush-hush so that no one would slip up and reveal it to the kids. The biggest hint I offered here on the blog was a review of Corey Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a couple weeks back. Needless to say the kids were hysterical this morning. I'm a little nervous about the storms brewing in the US and flight delays, but otherwise very excited. I've a lot of pre-scheduled posts to appear in my absence!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Reader's Diary #925- John Kendrick Bangs: The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall

Well, I hope your Christmas Eve shapes up to be drier than this guy's. "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" visits at midnight, usually scaring guests, always getting them wet.

When we were very young, one of the ghost stories/ jokes we used to tell was "The Ghost with the One Black Eye." It's not remotely funny so I'll give you the gist and forgo a proper telling. Basically the members of a family take turns going up into the attic where they are subsequently frightened away by a ghost who moans, "I'm the ghost with the One. Black. Eye." Finally the youngest kid (that's what supposedly made it so funny) has his turn, but instead of running off screaming, he turns to the ghost and says, "if you don't shut-up, I'll give you 2 black eyes!" See? Not funny. Unless you're 7. Or John Kendrick Bangs.

After years of terrorizing Harrowby Hall, the Water Ghost eventually meets her match. Unfazed by this ghost (who in all honesty has done nothing except give people a shower, one hour of one night in a whole year), the latest master of the hall comes up with a plan. It rests on the fact that water freezes. I wouldn't have thought that ghost water would freeze, but that shows what I know.

I'd also like to note that it's finally revealed why she's haunting the place. It's not by choice, but as punishment for a suicide, and the punishment has been placed upon her not by God but by a sea nymph. Why the sea nymph doles out suicide punishments, sticks some pretty weird clauses in the contract, and clearly has a thing against Christmas, we're never told. Nor, do I think, are we supposed to have much sympathy for the water ghost.

Yay! Happy Christmas!

Seems like the theme of my short story posts this past month, has been whether or not Christmas makes a big difference to the tale, despite the Christmas setting. Again, I'm not sure it does with this one. Maybe it's a little more inconvenient to get soaked on Christmas eve, while the rest of the world is in nightcaps dreaming about sugar plums? Or how about this: maybe it's about people who bring us down on Christmas. Gloomy Gusses. Debbie Downers. Or, wait... I've got it... wet blankets! Maybe it's Bangs' subtle way of saying, it's Christmas. Shut the hell up and let me celebrate.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reader's Diary #924- Mike Reiss and illustrated by David Catrow: Merry Un-Christmas

I was going through our Christmas book collection they other day when I discovered that Mike Reiss, the author of Merry Un-Christmas, was former head writer for The Simpsons. I'd read the book in the past but forgotten the story, but now knowing the Simpsons connection, I figured I'd give it another shot.

To start, Merry Un-Christmas is a funny book. It's not Simpsons funny, meaning it's neither inappropriate nor as funny, but most kids and adults would find it amusing nonetheless. I know there's a whole thing with Fox's War on Christmas© and Jon Stewart's War on War on Christmas©, but this is aimed more at the Christmas lovers among us who still believe in moderation, call it a War on November Christmas© if you like. When you're a kid or some dude from Wizzard, you probably wish that it could be Christmas everyday. Mike Reiss and David Catrow would like you to know that you are wrong.

It begins with a bit of a mystery. Noelle gets a doll, a dollhouse, a new computer, ice skates, a bike, and a pony, and all she can do is yawn and say "gee, thanks"? What kind of spoiled brat is this? The thing is, she's gotten that every day for 364 days of the year. Cue the illustration of teary-eyed ponies behind a chain-linked fence. And that's right, I said 364 days. In Christmas City, Texmas it's nearly always Christmas, but for one unmagical day of the year, it's Un-Christmas. Never have you seen a kid so excited to go to school, to see the living room bare, to not have turkey and five kinds of pie.

Sure, there's a subtle message about moderation and gratitude, but it's entertaining enough to make it palatable.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Reader's Diary #923- Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko: Finding Christmas

For Christmas, my wife and I tend to be book givers. I'm sure it's much to the chagrin of many recipients, but if so, I'm bullheaded enough to think that if I missed the mark, it was on the title, not the gift itself. There's a book for everyone, even those who claim to not to enjoy reading (gasp!), I'm sure of it. Finding it is the hard part. When I struggle to find a good match, I sometimes doubt the pursuit. "Whatever," I think, "I should just give them a Walmart gift card." (Shame.)

I would think Robert Munsch's Finding Christmas is a good compromise gift for a Canadian child. It may not win awards but it's got the typical Munsch humour for which he's known. Finding Christmas is about a girl who searches high and low for presents from her parents. Every year she's been successful in her snooping but this year her parents think they've outsmarted her. They thought wrong.

I like that it's a relatable experience that's not often mentioned in Christmas stories. As a kid, I snooped. I came by it honestly. My mom was the worst for ruining Christmas surprises for herself. By Dec. 25th, all of her presents would have not-so-subtle tears in the corners, where she'd taken a peek. The funny thing is, it's not something I've continued. I know, for instance, that my wife has presents hidden for me around the house— I even know exactly where— but I've got no desire to find out until Christmas morning. And maybe I'm completely naive, but I think she and the kids feel the same way. Still, I know from experience that snooping for presents is as much a holiday tradition for some as is stringing lights, drinking eggnog, or dog-earring the Sears Wish Book.

I also like the message at the end about family being the best present. Not to worry; I've summed it up in a much heavier handed way than Munsch did. In fact, my son guffawed at the end, so clearly the humour wasn't traded in for sentimentality.

Michael Martchenko's illustrations are their usual fun self. I normally like how referential his work is— it's quite common to find characters or objects from earlier Munsch-Martchenko collaborations hidden in the details— and this time he goes all out. The tree on the cover features ornaments of the Paperbag Princess, Smelly Socks, Mmm, Cookies, The Sandcastle Contest, Zoom! Andrew's Loose Tooth, and more. It could be argued that it's a marketing ploy to sell Munsch's back catalogue, maybe even actual ornaments if enough people show an interest, but the kids and I still had a blast trying to identify what stories they were all from.

Again, however, Finding Christmas is formulaic Munsch. The kids seem to enjoy to enjoy the formula, but it's grown tiresome for me. Lots of repetition, lots of building on said repetition, sound effects, and liberal use of explanation points and caps. No wonder he can churn a couple of these babies out every year.

Here's my take on Munsch re-writing a Christmas classic:

Twas the night before Christmas
When all through the house,
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse.
Not even a louse.
Not even a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, 
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter
The children still nestled snug in their beds
And visions of sugar plums still danced in their heads

Away to the window I flew like a flash
Tore open the shutters —RRRRRRRIP!
And threw up the sash.

While the children still nestled, still snug in their beds
And visions of sugar plums still danced in their heads
And candy canes waltzed, and peanut brittle krumped

(You get the idea)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reader's Diary #922- Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca: Christmas in Camelot

Christmas in Camelot, by Mary Pope Osborne, seems like a bit of a cash grab.

First off, the Christmas thing. Being the 29th book in the Magic Tree House series, there's a good chance the audience is starting to lose interest at this point. However, Christmas titles always make for good presents. Maybe if kids get this book as a present it will renew their interest. But the book doesn't instill a lot of warm Christmas feeling. There's a knight near the beginning who's dressed in red and green, then at the end there's a Christmas celebration. In the middle of the book, I'd forgotten that it was even supposed to be Christmas. It could have been any Magic Tree House book, except for one thing— which brings me to my 2nd point.

The fantasy thing. The series even has "magic" in the title. I shouldn't be bothered that Jack and Annie visit a fictional place and time. Yet I am. In earlier books Osborne wrote more along the lines of historical fiction, with an educational bent, as Jack and Annie encountered dinosaurs, George Washington, Inuit, and so on. While the treehouse may have been fantastical, and another crucial character (Morgan le Fay) was borrowed from Arthurian legend, it all seemed like an excuse; a cool frame to hook the kids in, but the idea was to teach stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with books for entertainment sake, or that kids can't learn from legends, but visiting a mythical realm 29 books into a series seems out of place. Clearly Osborne herself recognizes this might be an issue for some readers, even having Morgan address the concern directly:
"On all your other journeys, you visited real places and times in history," said Morgan, "Camelot is different."
Her subsequent defense is vague and nonsensical. But then when she dresses the kids up in an invisibility cloak, the whole premise becomes even more suspect. Granted, as Osborne writes in a note at the end, such cloaks popped up in Arthurian legends quite often, but the subtext here is "J.K. Rowling didn't invent the invisibility cloak, so back off." Still, it's hard not to think that Osborne, her publishes, or both weren't merely trying to capitalize on Rowling's success in revitalizing the fantasy market for kids.

All would be forgiven if the book was at least well written. I could ignore previous Magic Tree House books, I could ignore the Potter series, if the story was engaging. I did like the longer format better. Prior to this one, the books were shorter, and as I remarked earlier this year when I reviewed Night of the Ninjas, the adventure came first. I won't go as far as saying Christmas in Camelot is character driven, but I did get a better sense of protagonists Jack and Annie than I had before. (In a nutshell, Jack is the cautious one, Annie is impulsive.) But, the kids seem to ease through the adventure despite the fact that supposedly great knights had failed before them. I'm still not quite sold on the book at this point.

But my son enjoyed it. He pushed me to read more than just one chapter each night, so clearly he was caught up in the story. So is Osborne forgiven? Well, even my 7-year old son thought the invisibility cloak was a bit much. I'd say forgiven, but not entirely.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Welcome 2012 Virtual Advent Tour Visitors!

Hi everyone, 
I was a last minute shopper this year. Actually, that's not true. That was done a month ago (na, nah, na, na, nah). I was, however, late to sign up for the Virtual Advent Tour. And subsequently late to find out if the wonderful organizers, Kailana and Marg, could squeeze me in. When I finally did hear, I'd already had a lot of Christmas posts up, and more scheduled to go. On that note, feel free to look over the rest of the ol' blog. I've already posted some Christmas book and short story reviews this month and I contemplated the problem with Rudolph. Plus, I've got more Christmas stuff coming up over the next few days so be sure to check back.

In the meantime, I thought we could talk about this trend:

I'm talking about musicians who just take one of their older songs and stick Christmas in it, presumably to cash in. I say it harsher than I actually feel. I love cheesy stuff at Christmas, and it's the one time of year they can get away with it. How do you feel about it? Know any other examples that I've missed?

It got me thinking. What other songs would I like to hear Noëlified? Here's a wish list. Shudder away:

1. Sweet Child O' Christmas - Guns N' Roses
2. You Oughta Snow - Alanis Morissette
3. Enter Santa- Metallica
4. Pour Some Eggnog On Me- Def Leppard
5. How Soon is Christmas? - The Smiths
6. Smells Like Christmas Spirit - Nirvana
7. Santaclaus- Beastie Boys
8. The Dope Snow- Marilyn Manson
9. Wake Me Up Before You Ho Ho- Wham!
10. Runaway Sleigh- Soul Asylum

And then, I thought, why stop with songs. What if authors rewrote their some of their best known works to inject a little holiday spirit:

1. Santa's Verses- Salman Rushdie
2. The Giftslinger- Stephen King
3. The Life of Mince Pi- Yann Martel
4. The Old Man and the Tree- Ernest Hemingway
5. On the Roof- Jack Kerouac
6. Anne of Red and Green Gables- Lucy Maud Montgomery
7. Jingle Bell Jar- Sylvia Plath
8. Portrait of an Elf as a Young Man- James Joyce
9. Silas' Manger- George Eliot
10. The (Free) Shipping (on Orders Over $25) News - E. Annie Proulx

I'd love to hear you ideas in the comments! (Unless your idea is, "you suck, never do these again.")

Also, be sure to check out Lu's and Alexandra's Advent Tour Posts today at Regular Ruminations and the Sleepless Reader respectively.


Reader's Diary #921- Michael Kusugak, illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka: Baseball Bats for Christmas

I was checking back over all my Christmas posts from past years, when I realized that I'd never reviewed Michael Kusugak's Baseball Bats for Christmas, illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka.  Definitely time to right that wrong.

At The Eye of Loni's Storm early this month Loni reviewed Robert Munsch's new Christmas book Finding Christmas. She commented that she judge's children's books based on her son's and daughter's reactions to them. That's why I have mixed feelings about Munsch. While I usually find his books formulaic, my kids have always gotten a kick out of them, so I read them anyway. For the most part, I see where Loni is coming from. I've seen some of those "critically acclaimed" picture books with the rich oil paintings and dreary stories— I would have picked Robert Munsch over those any day.

With Baseball Bats for Christmas by one-time Munsch collaborator, Michael Kusugak, I initially dismissed it is one of those children's books that only adult critics would like. It certainly didn't hold the attention of my own kids the way A Promise is a Promise or Hide and Sneak, two of his other works, did. But we have a basketful of Christmas picture books that we take out ever year and now I find myself looking forward to reading it. It's about a young Inuk book named Arvaarluk living in Repulse Bay, Nunavut in 1955. That Christmas a well-intentioned pilot dropped off a load of trees, but flew off without an explanation. Arvaarluk and his friends had heard of, but had not seen, trees ("standing-ups") before. They knew about Christmas, but not Christmas trees. They also knew about baseball. They soon conclude that the trees must have been meant to supply them with baseball bats, and so, they set to work making some. Those and the rubber ball they'd been donated by the manager of the Hudson's Bay Company meant they had all they needed for a great time playing baseball well into the spring and summer, excited to get a new load of standing-ups for the upcoming Christmas.

It's a fine story, and the premise itself is amusing, but I think it's the nostalgic tone that turns my kids off. Not that they hate the story, it just doesn't thrill them. It makes them smile, but not laugh. In some ways, especially when Kusugak gets sidetracked (and he tends to in this book) with descriptions of the church ("On the wall were pictures of the Pope, the Bishop, and "Queen Elizabeth") it reminded me of Roch Carrier's classic The Hockey Sweater.

But I do like reading about Christmases years ago, especially before the media had created a globalized idea of Christmas customs. There was a comfort, a coziness in the community, made only possible with naivete about the world at large. I'm not a "good old days" sort of guy. Usually. But maybe just a little bit, at Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reader's Diary #920- Jeff Brown, illustrated by Scott Nash: Stanley's Christmas Adventure

One of my very first blog posts was about the change in Marc Brown's beloved aardvark Arthur. While I've gotten few comments on the post, it's my most popular post of all time, still drawing in visitors. Basically I called Brown out for changing Arthur's appearance after the first Arthur book being all about Arthur coming to appreciate his appearance and ultimately deciding against rhinoplasty. It's made worse by the fact that this is never addressed in subsequent books. (Brown himself justifies it by stating that it simply makes Arthur easier to draw.) I mention this because Jeff Brown also created a popular children's character with a unique physical appearance: Flat Stanley.

First created in 1964, Stanley is a regular boy until the day that a bulletin board falls on him. His face is horrifically deformed, his left leg suffers from severe nerve damage, and he must carry a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. Nah, I'm kidding. He's just left flat. A 2D version of his former self. Like Michael Keaton. At the end he's blown back into shape with a simple bicycle pump.

Flat Stanley was a hit. Children's authors, of course, aren't averse to sucking at the teat of capitalism, and instead of chalking it up as a success and trying to top it with a brand new creation, Brown instead goes all Numeroff on Stanley and turns him into a series. Only why did he have to fix Stanley? Drat. Kids wouldn't be interested in a three dimensional Stanley. Before being flattened Stanley was Harriet Winslow. Flat Stanley was Urkel. Slapping "Flat Stanley" on the cover of subsequent books didn't really make sense, but it's not as evil as getting ghost writers to pretend they're VC Andrews long after she's dead. And in Brown's defense he at least had the decency to crush Stanley once more in the last book he wrote for the series.

In Stanley's Christmas Adventure, the third book in the series featuring a full, plump Stanley, Brown goes one step further to remind us of the character's history. Though even Santa seems disappointed that the Stanley before him is no longer flat. Who hits a homerun for the kid after his cancer has been cured? It doesn't help that Stanley and the rest of the Lambchop family are nauseatingly good.

The cranky Santa Claus saved me from getting a toothache while reading this book. When Santa has grown bitter that children have grown selfish and don't really appreciate Christmas anymore, his daughter enlists Stanley's help to convince him that there are still some good kids out there. Reluctantly Santa concedes, throws a couple light sabres in his sleigh for the remaining good people in the world and heads out, hopefully back in time to watch Cousin Eddie emptying his sh*tter into the gutter.

Wait. Back the sleigh up. Did I say Santa's daughter? That's right. Looks like Brown wasn't completely out of creativity after all. There's also a whole town at the North Pole. And so as the secret doesn't get out when the Lambchops get back home, Santa erases their memory. 4 years before Men in Black. Now, my inner folklorist (who I like to introduce as Grimm Chandler Dunkleman, esq.) loves when writers play with Santa mythology. My outer, lying-SOB parent-self, cringes when I read such liberties to the kids. Daddy, why have I never heard of this daughter before? Oh dear God, the jig is up! It's all been a colossal sham! There's no daughter, and there is no Santa Claus! And the wise-men were of only average intelligence!  Fortunately, my kids are at that perfect age. They already have their schemas (schemata?) of Santa. Instead of questioning it, they just shrug it off as Brown being a bit of an idiot. He can't even decide whether or not Stanley should be flat, what does he know about Santa? Whew.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reader's Diary #919- Suzy Kline, illustrations by Frank Remkiewicz: Horrible Harry and the Christmas Surprise

Horrible Harry and the Christmas Surprise is part of the Horrible Harry series by Suzy Kline. It's a popular series used in schools to teach reading, as they are aimed at younger readers and the vocabulary and sentence structure are usually simple. With over 30 titles churned out since the series began in 1988, one would assume that the series is at least somewhat popular and that the quality might lie somewhere in the mediocre range. One would be correct. Horrible Harry and the Christmas Surprise is no exception.

One thing I did like about the book was that it was told from another student, Doug's, perspective. You'd expect perhaps to have it told from Harry himself or by an omniscient, non-existent narrator. Doug shares a voice with the readers that the book is aimed at, trying to pick sense in Harry, who's perhaps not always the best behaved, who's slightly odd, but who's ultimately a good kid. Of course, this lends itself well to a Christmas story, as finding the good in everyone is such a hopeful, optimistic premise.

In this particular book, Miss Mackle, Harry's teacher winds up in the hospital just before Christmas (you can guess why from the cover picture). What will this mean for their Christmas play? And just what kind of horrible gift is Harry planning for Miss Mackle? Again, it's safe and not the most exciting premise in the world, but it leaves room for a few laughs and some positive messages.

The book feels somewhat old fashioned, however. Perhaps it was the male principal and female primary teacher. (Not that that isn't still the norm.) Perhaps it was the inexplicable record player in the classroom, even though the book was published in '91. But if you imagine it's set in the 70s, it works, plus you might get some of those nostalgic Christmas vibes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reader's Diary #918- Charles Stross: Overtime

It was back in April that Perogyo introduced me to Charles Stross' "Overtime," referring to the story as "a little bit Torchwood and a little bit Shopoholic." Neither of these references meant much to me (I've never read any Shopoholic books, hadn't even heard of Torchwood), but after reading "Overtime" for myself, I'd say it's a little bit The Office and a little bit Cthulhu.

Sci-fi writers often do this well; lampooning the more mundane aspects of real life (suburbia, office cubicles) while casually slipping in absurd, fantastical details, as if dullness is just as much of an illusion. It speaks volumes about why people love sci-fi so much.

In "Overtime" a nightwatchman at a bureaucracy known as "The Laundry" finds himself working alone on Christmas Eve. Or is he? We soon find out that that there's more to the Laundry than cliched Christmas parties and outdated decor. Before long, the nightwatchman will be responsible for stopping an invasion from a routine-obsessed and tentacled (yes, you read that right) Santa Claus.

"Overtime" is a fun, satirical read with a wonderfully dry delivery.

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Trouble With Rudolph

"They only use him when it's foggy."
"He's just taking a break this year."
"He's busy working the talkshow circuit."
"He started to gloat and now needs to learn his place."

Parents, what excuses do you use when your kids ask why Rudolph isn't in this Christmas movie? Dancer, Prancer, Donner, Blitzen, etc. Santa's eight reindeer. (Bullying twats.) They're laughing it up in every movie. Why not Rudolph?

Kids love Rudolph. Who wouldn't? They laughed and called him names, then he showed them all what a gin blossomed nose can do. Kids all over the world now dream of a day when their freckles, stutters, and embarrassing parents will reveal their practical applications. Until that day they're left to wonder why Tim Allen, Ernest, et al, have once again left Rudolph back at the stable. Is this some form of sobering, accountant-style advice about bullying? Bullying is not solved in just one night kids. It requires real institutional reform, Dr. Phil, yada yada yada.

Actually it takes changes to copyright laws. Or actual nice people.

Rudolph was created by Robert L. May in 1939 and published by Montgomery Ward. Today he's owned by The Rudolph Company, LP.

"Santa would harness up Rudolph, but there's too much paperwork to fill out."

 I had mistakenly thought Gene Autry created him with his song version, but apparently not. Autry didn't write the song (that was Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law) and wasn't even the first to sing it commercially (that was Harry Brannon). Autry's is, however, the most successful and recognizable version. Much, I'm sure, to the delight of the Rudolph Company.

But here's the problem and it's similar with the "Happy Birthday" song which is owned by the Warner Music group until 2030— Rudolph has become a cultural icon. A part of Christmas folklore. Just as the other reindeer came to accept him, so have children all over the world. They will tell you that Santa doesn't have eight reindeer, he has nine!

Still, we can't deny his capitalist roots. He was commissioned by a retail chain to shill products. Red lightbulbs. Bells. Rudolph-brand body spray. Why should the Rudolph Company release him to the world anymore than Disney should unchain Mickey? Maybe they shouldn't. I can't find a lot of info on the Rudolph Company. Unlike Disney, it doesn't appear that the Rudolph company is particularly large. It's not a corporation. If they gave up Rudolph, it's not like they have theme parks and movie studios to fall back on.
Santa's Village in Muskoka, Ontario. If the lawyer asks, the front car is pulled by Rudolph Guliani.

In 1946, the president of Montgomery Ward "touched by the beauty and simplicity of the Rudolph story," handed the rights to the creator, Robert "Bob" May. It was he who founded the Robert L. May Company, which later became the Rudolph Company, which is, apparently still owned by May's children. Maybe it's the underdog story of Rudolph that makes me kind of happy that Rudolph is owned by the family of Rudolph's creator; that he hasn't been bought up by Disney or Time-Warner.
This abomination courtesy of Etsy. (Not, you know, that weekend ski trip Mickey and Vixen took in the Catskills)

But that still doesn't solve the problem with Rudolph's copyright preventing him from inclusion in popular Christmas movies and TV shows. So what should happen? It would be nice if the movie studios just acknowledge that Rudolph is necessary and pay up. But I doubt that will happen. He's not like the Grinch or Frosty. You can tell Santa stories without them. With Santa, you need Rudolph, that's it. So, I think someone like Warren Buffett or Oprah needs to buy Rudolph from the May family. For a staggering amount. But instead of then profiting off of everyone's favourite deer (yeah, Bambi, I said it), they need to give him to the world. Release him into the public domain. For Christmas this year, I'd like an emancipated Rudolph.
You're getting RUUUUUDOLPH!!!!!!!!

Reader's Diary #917- Kathy Reichs: Bones are Forever

In the acknowledgements of Kathy Reichs' Bones are Forever she thanks, among others, several Yellowknifers. Among them is a friend of mine. Reich's spells her name wrong. Not a huge deal, though it did cause me some trepidation. Set partially in Yellowknife, I wondered what other inaccuracies I'd find.

There were more. She refers to a neighbouring town of Behchoko, saying how it used to be called Rae-Enzo. No, it was called Rae-Edzo. A local character refers to the Northwest Territories as a province— which we'd never do. This last character also blames farming and forestry for endangering the wildlife. Seriously? In the NWT? When she finally does get facts right, it's intrusive to the narrative. Temperance, the main character, decides to read a book and Reichs seems to cut and paste whole paragraphs, resulting in long boring history lessons that ruined any flow of suspense she had going.

And clearly she was going for suspense. So many chapters ended with cliff hangers, I expected Robert Langdon to show up, to stamp on Temperance's fingers and yell, "enough, already!"

But my absolute biggest beef of the book is the convoluted plot.I admit being hooked at the beginning. Temperance has made a gruesome discovery in Montreal. Suffice it to say it involves a lot of dead babies. Not for the faint of heart, it at least grabs a reader's attention. The main suspect has made a run for it, which leads Temperance and her fellow investigators to Yellowknife. And that, unfortunately, is where the whole book goes completely off the rails.

In a "Forensic Files" section at the end of the book, Reichs describes how this book came to being. It seems that the dead babies bit was inspired by three child murder cases that she'd worked on. (Kathy Reichs is a forensic anthropologist in real life.) Recognizing how disturbing such cases are, she knew she wanted to work it into a plot. Then she says she had the good fortune of being invited to Yellowknife to attend the Northwords Literacy Festival. She comes and like many before her is fascinated by the place— the drugs, environmentalists, mining. Now she wants to write a book about that. But instead of simply writing two books, she tries to combine the two. She fails. Miserably. The baby story is far more interesting and better written but as soon as Temperance lands in Yellowknife, it's practically forgotten about and replaced with a mess of competing ideas, none of which were as compelling. 

It's truly a dreadful, dreadful book.

Reader's Diary #916- The New King James Version Bible: Amos

Oddest, unfunniest and arguably most blasphemous Batman comic ever

"[...] reminds us once again of all that we have taken for granted in our world and should not, the madness we try not to bother to notice, the deceptions and falsehoods we lack the will to try to distinguish from truth."

That's a quote from John W. Aldridge, describing Joseph Heller's Catch 22.  I just started reading that novel and saw the blurb, but it seemed oddly appropriate to also describe the Book of Amos, which I had just finished reading. But that wanders into theological interpretation, which I'm avoiding.

The Book of Amos isn't  markedly different from many of the previous books of the Old Testament in which God speaks through a prophet to warn the people about the consequences of their actions. This time I found myself thinking of the God-prophet relationships that we've seen. I began to wonder if any superhero-sidekick partnerships were ever modeled on God-prophet dynamic. Robin was replaced a few times. Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Todd...  Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos? I'm sure there's a geek's thesis in there somewhere.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reader's Diary #915- Cory Doctorow: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Debbie and I watched a show not long ago on which a woman was complaining about a make-it-yourself frozen yogurt bar. "If I wanted to make it myself," she whined, "I'd do it at home." As if we all have stocks of various berries and fruit, granola, honey, chocolate and other syrups on hand all the time. Couldn't this woman see how awesome it is to get exactly what you want? On the other hand...

I've been noticing lately that the ads in the sidebar of websites I'm visiting are based on recent purchases I've made. I bought some glasses online, now I get ads from Clearly Contacts. I bought some kids clothes, now I get ads from Zulilly. I know it's time to purge my cookies, but I can't bring myself to do it. I find these ads fascinating, but I know most people find them creepy. So what's the difference between the make-it-yourself yogurt bar and the personalized ads? There's a fine distinction between choosing what we want and getting what we want. The former lets us feel like we're in control. Though life has certainly been made easier, we still want to feel like we're doing something, that we're accomplishing something, no matter how minor.

If I was to pinpoint exactly what this discussion has to do with Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I'd draw a blank. But I know the book inspired it. Set in a futuristic Disney World, it revolves around a man named Jules who has, like others before him, come to work in, and live in, the amusement park. It's true that everyone's brains are permanently online and that scarcity and even death have been eliminated, but Disney World has not progressed to the same extent. Sure animatronics and other special effects have advanced, but there's a nostalgia that has kept the park grounded to some extent. Jules seems to want a moderate approach; keep imagination alive, but with a healthy acknowledgement of legacy. Unfortunately for him, not everyone agrees. Some are spearheading revamps of park attractions with cutting edge direct-to-brain interfaces. Why have a robot ghost simply jump out at you at the Haunted Mansion  or have someone narrate a ghastly tale, when you could get the whole creepy ghost backstory dumped directly into your thoughts? Why stop there? Trigger your brain so that you get a fun dose of fear. Jules is not impressed. Eventually, no one would even need to go to the park, he fears. But complicating Jules' plans to prevent this from happening is the fact that he's been murdered. Funniest line in the whole book:

It was the first time I'd been murdered, but I didn't need to be a drama queen about it.

Remember, death has been eliminated. So, when someone like Jules is murdered they simply use a backed up copy of his mind and implant it into a cloned body.

Needless to say, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is full of jumping off points for many a fine ethics and philosophy of technology discussions, which is precisely what the best sci-fi should do. However, I found my thoughts firing so rapidly and in so many different directions that sometimes forgot about the plot of book. I assume this means that the story itself isn't that strong.

Implanted thoughts and experiences? That reminds me of Total Recall. Hey, if they're ever able to do that, couldn't they plant the memory of 10,000 piano practices? Would that person then know how to play? Would it just eliminate the need for school? If we all got the same, huge amount of knowledge implanted, would we all be equal? Then who would do the crappy jobs?

Oh wait, who does Jules think killed him? Is he in charge of the Haunted Mansion upgrade? I've forgotten. Kind of got sidetracked there for a minute. At least it was an interesting diversion.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Reader's Diary #914- Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is an oddly fascinating, and brave, look at success. Who are these NHL stars, tycoons, and geniuses and why can't we all achieve the same level of greatness?

To read Gladwell's layman approach to statistics and to arrive at the same conclusions, we could make the point that we can, in fact, achieve the same level of greatness. That's not to say Gladwell offers inane new-age approaches— as in "you just have to believe you'll find success"— and this is not a self-help book.

For starters, Gladwell acknowledges that luck has been a factor in many success stories. Born in the right month, born in the right country, born during the right historical shift. He also acknowledges that culture plays a role. He also acknowledges that there needs to be a lot of hard work. So far this information (and it's really a near complete summary of the book), probably seems like a lot of common sense. So why is it fascinating? Gladwell has a knack of picking the right examples—individuals, events, numbers— to back up his point. Are there counter examples out there that suggest Gladwell's conclusions are sometimes too simplistic? Sure, but he certainly makes a strong case for sociology.

Personally, I'd have liked a bit more from the psychology side of things. Where does motivation fit in? For instance, in a piece about a particular school in New York aimed at impoverished youth, Gladwell makes the case that the longer hours, longer school year, and extensive homework has led to the success of the students, proving that with the right opportunities, differences between economic classes and school success need not exist. Well, sure, but what he doesn't elaborate on is the fact that the students and/or their families still needed to want those opportunities and to take advantage of them. Jumping to the conclusion that longer school years, longer hours, and more homework would mean everyone would be more successful isn't necessarily accurate. He mentions in passing that the school accepts students on a lottery type system. This suggests that the parents who applied to the school valued the education being offered. Changing all the schools to this format, and having the same laws in place that everyone of a certain age must go to school, I'd expect the success rate to be much lower than the New York school in question. Higher than it is under the current system? Possibly, but Gladwell's evidence is circumstantial at best. The kids whose parents allow them to skip school, the kids who have to go home to take care of their siblings and have no time left for homework; these kids wouldn't just disappear.

That's to say Gladwell's approach isn't always balanced. But it's still an interesting read, with plenty of food for thought. Perhaps its biggest asset is that he's not afraid to take on sensitive topics. Ethnicity and stereotypes are brought into the forefront with an unusual lack of constrain. He makes a very strong case that we've not been doing anyone any favours by pretending that we're all the same.

Outliers, though it uses personal examples, is for better or worse, big picture stuff. There's an optimism just below the surface, but it's not peddled as a bunch of easy answers. It's not a difficult read but it does make you think.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reader's Diary #913- William Shakespeare: Richard II

I'm not sure why I haven't read this one before. Apparently it's the first of Shakespeare's Henriad tetralogy. The next three include the first and second parts of Henry IV and Henry V. I read those, as well as Richard III. Yet I skipped Richard II. Oh well, I'll just treat it like a prequel.

It occurred to me while reading this play that no matter what the classification, to read Shakespeare it is necessary to suspend one's beliefs. The comedies are farcical, the tragedies usually end in a outrageous blood bath, and the historical plays tend to have characters prattling on with ludicrously long and profound speeches. But why not suspend one's belief. With the costumes, all-male actors, and simple stage props of Shakespeare's day, the audience had no choice but to accept what was put before them. Once you make that leap, finding substance goes a lot easier.

Richard II is about the titular king's fall from power, but also about Bolingbroke's rise. While both men are flawed, I personally found Richard the more interesting of the two. I didn't warm to Bolingbroke, who seem conniving and dishonest, and so I wanted to sympathize with Richard. But lord knows, he makes it difficult. Believing in the divine right of kings, Richard II not only talks as if infallible, at one point he even compares himself to Jesus Christ. Perhaps he finds some solace in playing the martyr. He keeps it interesting, that's for sure.

As for it being a prequel, I've forgotten too much of the others in the tertalogy to comment on that front.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Photos from the Coming Home anthology book launch

Here's a photo from the official book launch for the Coming Home anthology (selections by Judy McLinton and yours truly) which was held on November 16th. I'm the guy lying down in the middle. I'm sorry I can't identify everyone in the picture, but most of them are authors whose stories were included or they were involved in the project in some other equally valuable way.

For more photos from the evening, click here.

Get your copy of Coming Home today!

Reader's Diary #912- Andrew Davidson: The Gargoyle

I'll get this out of the way right now. I love Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle. I'm in the midst of ranking all the fiction I've read this year here's a sneak peak: the Gargoyle took the #2 spot. (You'll just have to keep checking in the next few weeks back to see who took the coveted top spot.)

I was first introduced to the Gargoyle through my Canadian Book Challenge. Back in the 2nd edition of the Challenge, it was the number one book that participants chose to read. Why? It didn't win any major awards. It was Andrew Davidson's first novel. Where did all the hype come from? I still don't know. Good reviews? Was it a Heather's Pick?

Anyway, as I said above, I love the book. So much so, I didn't really know where to begin with a review. So, I looked through some of the reviews all those Challenge participants wrote before me. And I was surprised by what I found. While most enjoyed the book, they had quite different takes than I. Many commented that they didn't really enjoy the beginning, saying that it only got good towards the middle.
For the uninitiated, The Gargoyle is about a man who finds himself in a hospital burn unit after a horrific car accident. He is scarred permanently and beyond all recognition. His only goal is to get out so that he can commit suicide. Before he accomplishes this goal however, he is visited by a woman named Marianne Engel who has wandered into his room from the psych ward. She claims that they are lovers from way back. Centuries back, in fact.

It is towards the middle of this tale that Marianne begins telling the burn victim stories. Not only stories from their supposed past, but stories of love and loss from medieval Japan, Spain, Italy, and Iceland. It seems that many readers love these stories. I didn't hate them, but they're the only reason The Gargoyle didn't claim my number one spot. At times, I felt too impatient to get back to Marianne's personal stories. At others I didn't think them all that necessary to the overall book. It felt like Davidson put in every topic that personally interested him, even if they didn't always help the story along. The beginning, however, was bold and exciting. But as I say, I seem to be alone in this assessment. I'm reminded of Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air; most readers' favourite part is the canoe trip, whereas I find that part to be the dullest.

Marianne's characters is one of the most engaging characters I've come across in some time. Have you ever watched a movie when people seem too quick to believe in the supernatural? Within minutes they believe that it really is Santa Claus and are willing to hop into his sleigh. In The Gargoyle, the narrator (i.e., the burn victim) is more believable than that. He never quite lets go of the fact that Marianne was a psych patient and the logical explanation that she is schizophrenic. Yet, such is Davidson's writing that, in this case, I believed Marianne's story. I wanted to. I would have climbed into her sleigh in a second.*

Andrew Davidson's writing is exactly the way I would hope to write if I ever decided to write a novel. It's brave and risky as hell. CanLit can sometimes be slow, subtle, and ironic. Davidson rushes into topics as grand as true love, hell, and sex, like a bull in a china shop. True, anyone can do that. But then he does the near impossible: he glues the pieces back together.

(*Note: the Gargoyle is not a Christmas book. There are no references to Santa. Or a sleigh. But 'tis the season for comparative Christmas examples.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reader's Diary #911- Frederick Forsyth: The Shepherd

Last week while looking for the quintessential Canadian Christmas Story I stumbled upon an article written by Dave O'Malley that referred to Frederick Forsyth's short story "The Shepherd" as a "Canadian Christmas Classic." Mistakenly, I assumed the story to have been written by a Canadian author. Forsyth, however, is British and as far as I could find, has never lived in Canada.

So, why does O'Malley refer to this story— written by a British author, about a British pilot, and set in Europe— as a Canadian Christmas classic? Long time listeners of CBC radio (clearly I'm not one), will probably get the connection right away. Every Christmas eve since 1979 As It Happens plays a recording of Al Maitland reading "The Shepherd". For O'Malley and many others it has become tradition. To me, it's new.

If you're too impatient for Christmas Eve, here's a permanent link to the recording and here's a link to the printed version. I tried to listen while following along, but there were some changes in Maitland's version so I gave up and just listened.

"The Shepherd" is about a pilot on a solo flight home to his family on Christmas Eve. However, he runs into some major trouble above the North Sea. When all hope seems lost, another aircraft breaks through the fog to guide (shepherd) him down safely. This out of the way, the story focuses on the identity of the shepherd. I won't say a lot more, but I'll give enough away by saying that as Charles Dickens taught us many years ago, ghosts are not reserved solely for Halloween.

I enjoyed the story, though I'm far less impressed than O'Malley. Perhaps I need the nostalgic warmth of tradition to make me appreciate it more. Or maybe if I was a plane enthusiast. It's pleasant enough, but I'd not go as far as calling it "the finest-told ghost story of all time" or suggest that it's on par, if not better than, A Christmas Carol or "The Gift of the Magi." I'm happy though that O'Malley and so many other Canadians clearly love this story and have made it part of their Christmas comforts. It won't become one of mine, but that's okay, I have my own.

As with Stephen Leacock's "The New Food" last week, I questioned if it needed to be a Christmas story. Sure it's set on Christmas eve, but is it dependent on that? After much consideration, I've decided that yes, it does. At first, when the pilot talks about the warmth and glow of the cockpit, on his way back to spend Christmas with his folks, Forsyth effectively captures that comfortable Christmas feeling. Shepherds conjure up stories of the Bible, and therefore Christmas. (It's not just a metaphor thrown in to make such a connection either. It's actual aviation terminology.) And of course, there's the whole miracle and hope thing.

As for Maitland's reading, I was equally undecided about that. On the one hand, it's overly dramatic and old fashioned (he's one of those that puts the h in front of the w in words like "white" and "where", as in hwite and hwere— you know, the way we're "supposed" to). On the other hand, considering the time and setting, some could make the case that it's fitting. Seeing as it's almost Christmas and I don't want to pooh-pooh all over someone else's traditions, I'll say that yes, in the end I decided that Maitland's rendition suits the story just fine.

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