Monday, April 30, 2012

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- April Roundup (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)

Also, in the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. This brings me up to 1/13)

Reader's Diary #824- Matt Rees: Damascus Trance


Matt Rees refers to himself as a British crime novelist who's lived in Jerusalem since '96. He is perhaps best known for his Palestine Quartet starring a sleuth named Omar Yussef. I'm normally not a big follower of crime fiction, but the setting certainly intrigued me, and how many Palestinian detectives have you ever read about?

"Damascus Trance" isn't exactly crime fiction, though it certainly does include crime, and features Omar Yussef. But it isn't a whodunnit, a legal thriller, or spy caper. Instead "Damascus Trance" best works as a piece about one's ability to tune out one's surroundings. It's the difference between finding serenity and merely ignoring tragedy and injustice around us. If you took the opening stanza of the serenity prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/ Courage to change the things I can/ And wisdom to know the difference.
but substitute cannot with should not, can with should,  you'll have more of an idea of the theme of "Damascus Trance":
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I should not change/ Courage to change the things I should/ And wisdom to know the difference.
In  "Damascus Trance" Yussef and a friend return to Damascus to attend a reunion at their old university. However there is a deadly battle breaking out between protestors and the military (yes, the same conflict that is still going on today). Instead of getting the hell out of there, as I would most certainly do, Yussef actually stays and plans on attending a reunion banquet to watch a Sufi dance. Keep in mind, I'm a Canadian who's not accustomed to such violence while Yussef is a Palestinian who went to university in the place where, in his words, "murder was invented." And as I find Yussef's (albeit temporary) complacency almost shocking, likewise Yussef is taken aback by the ability of the Sufi to find a deeper serenity amidst such distraction.

It's an interesting, provocative piece.

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

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reader's Diary #823- Mavis Gallant: Paris Stories

I wouldn't go as far as saying it's a general rule, but it's often the case that the longer I take on a book, of reasonable length, the more likely it means I'm not enjoying it. I'm not one to take the time to savour a good book, but instead I gulp it down almost in one bite. With boring and/or confusing books, I slog through them and only speed up when the end is finally in sight. I started Paris Stories in early March on my way to France.

I was nervous from the very beginning that I was in for a doozy. The introduction was written by none other than Michael Ondaatje. In case you've missed my earlier thoughts on Ondaatje, he and Alice Munro are two of my least favourite Canadian literary darlings. Boring, pretentious. So when Ondaatje started singing Gallant's praises, it wasn't looking good. But he certainly isn't the only one in Gallant's corner. First coming to my attention a few years back when Lisa Moore defended Gallant's From the Fifteenth District on CBC's Canada Reads, it seems that I've been hearing more and more critics pushing to get Gallant the recognition she "deserves." It's not, of course, that Gallant is an obscure writer (she has won a Governor General's Award and is a companion of the Order of Canada), but it seems that many would add a fifth jewel to the Canadian crown of greatness, alongside Atwood, Shield, Munro, and Laurence. Nuts to that. She's gotten more than her fair share.

If I'm not mincing my words, it's because I'm quite exhausted with Gallant's mincing her words. Ondaatje uses a quote from Gallant in which she remarks that she is "uncertain about every line [she] write[s]" to prove that some writers are able to attain greatness because of their tentativeness, as they test each word and line for "falseness" or "complacency." I would agree that some writers seem to do this. I've never known anyone to construct a sentence the way that Atwood does. Yet, like a skilled athlete, Atwood manages to make it look easy and natural. Gallant's trepidation instead instills even more "falsehood." In all of these go nowhere stories, characters over think things, every action is contemplated with a philosophical light, and bizarre comparisons only writers would make somehow comprise the thoughts of every character regardless of their individuality. I couldn't understand or connect with any of the characters in Gallant's stories. I suspect this means that I cannot connect with Gallant herself-- which should be irrelevant.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reader's Diary #822- David Barker: Harlan's Finger


"Harlan's Finger" by David Barker reminded somewhat of an old Twilight Zone episode, but one of the non-supernatural ones. The premise is disturbing but simple: a man is going through the contents of his vacuum cleaner bag and is shocked to find a finger among the contents.

It was just intriguing enough to save the story from its other flaws. Also among the contents? A triple A battery. Not as questionable as the finger, but I did wish there was some acknowledgement that this must have been one kick-ass vacuum. Assuming the vacuumer had been just using the nozzle, that's still some pretty serious suckage to pick up a battery and a finger.

Another issue? The inconsistency of the wife's description. Harlan doesn't understand how his wife Lisa gets so worked up over an empty tube of toothpaste, yet easily brushes off a road accident involving a deer with simple philosophical reasoning. But a little later, he decides not to tell Lisa right away about the finger because "she a tendency to overact." I thought the point made earlier was that Lisa sweats the small stuff, not the big stuff. In which case, is he suggesting that a human finger in a vacuum is more akin to an empty tube of toothpaste than to deer roadkill? And then, hopefully not giving away the ending, it would seem that Harlan himself is the convenient philosopher. So, I'm left wondering if the discrepancies were intentional or not.

Finally, after showing the finger to his teenage sons, to see what, if anything they know about how it got there, they say no and return to their video games. Possibly, but I've never meant a teenage boy that would dismiss a human finger that easily. Just saying.

But again, "Harlan's Finger" is fast and interesting enough to have entertainment value if you don't over think it. Much like many old Twilight Zone episodes.

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

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reader's Diary #821- Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

Just as the movie came out about five weeks ago, I noticed Debbie reading the Hunger Games. Then co-workers. Then a cashier at a local liquor store. I'd known the Hunger Games was popular with the pre-teen/teen crowd, but suddenly it seemed to be this giant phenomenon, and somehow, once again, I was late to the party. Then, when it went into its fourth week at the local theatre, the Hunger Games started to look like it wasn't going to go away unless I broke down and saw it; and of course, like all self-respecting readers, I had to first read the book and so I spent a weekend devouring it, following it up with the movie the following Tuesday.

What's to be said of the Hunger Games that hasn't already been said? Nothing really, but I would like to acknowledge that I did quite enjoy it, despite my skepticism. On the surface there didn't appear to be much in the way of originality. Certainly its anti-capitalist, abuse of government power, post-apocalyptic survival themes have all been done before. Even the reality show angle has been done before-- by no less than Stephen King (The Running Man), long before the term "Reality TV" even existed. But when you consider that all of these ideas are now combined and aimed at teenage readers, with a female protagonist that even young male readers are interested in (which almost never seems to happen, though the opposite is often true), it's sufficient enough to make The Hunger Games stand on its own. It helps that the writing is great-- fast but still insightful, well-developed and likeable characters, imaginative but grounded.

As for the movie, yes, I also thought it was a faithful, excellent adaptation, though I enjoyed the book somewhat more. Some book parts were very cleverly incorporated into the movie. I thought the description of the "tracker jackers," for instance, was worked in masterfully. My one and tiny beef with the movie was the part of Katniss's younger sister. She was portrayed way too young for her 12 years. I teach that age group, and they certainly don't seem as immature as Primrose was being  portrayed here. This character acted more like my 8 year old daughter, and the other characters seemed to treat her as such. There's a particularly annoying scene near the end showing her on the shoulders of her sister's friend Gale. Other than that the casting selections and character portrayals were quite enjoyable.

As for the sequels? Despite my appreciation of this first book, I'm in no rush to read them. As long as it's before the movies, I'm fine.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reader's Diary #820- Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House in the Big Woods

My daughter is almost at the age I was when a teacher first introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books. I remember loving them, so I figured I'd walk down memory lane while introducing my own daughter to the series.

It turns out that I remembered very little. I was somewhat surprised to discover how much of a focus was on the father. Though she tells it in the 3rd person, Laura writes about him with such love and devotion. It made us reflect a little on our own relationship, though the dad is not someone I'd aspire to be. On the one hand, the father is tender, telling stories and playing the fiddle to his girls each night. On the other, he could be strict and used corporal punishment. (Though I explained to her that times were quite different, my daughter still thought it ridiculously hypocritical that he strapped Laura for hitting her sister.)

I was also in awe over their skills and resourcefulness and felt somewhat ashamed over my lack of practical skills. They built their own house, butchered and smoked meat, collected wild honey, collected maple syrup, made cheese, ground their own flour and so on. As a child, I could have related to more of this, I'm sure, as my own parents were hunters, fisherfolk, carpenters, farmers, cooks and so on. Unfortunately, I learned precious little of it. If there was an apocalypse and I had to rely on my own personal skills to survive, I'm afraid I'd be zombie food. I need to find me some lessons. How did I become so useless?

After reading the book, I looked to see if there were any Little House on the Prairie episodes on YouTube (Little House in the Big Woods is the first in the series, LHotP comes after). There were, but friends were amused to see that I checked them out at CommonSenseMedia.org. My wife and I often check that website to help us decide whether or not a movie is appropriate for our kids. They do have recommended ages, that sometimes match with the ratings, sometimes don't, but more useful to us is the way they breakdown the movies, giving a point by point list of positive messages, questionable language, violence, sex, scary stuff, drug and alcohol references, and even consumerism. We decide what we're comfortable with our kids, given their level of maturity and our own values, watching. Yet why would I need advice on Little House on the Prairie? Isn't that a little overprotective? In my defense, I never watched the show as a child. I'm quite sure I would have been allowed, but I just never did. And as enjoyable and educational as Little House in the Big Woods was, there were more than a few moments that we had to stop and discuss: the aforementioned corporal punishment, for one, but there were also a few racist things. Rest assured, I took them as teachable moments and we had lots of great discussion around these topics. And yes, I'll let her watch the TV show.



Monday, April 16, 2012

Reader's Diary #819- Daniel Woodrell: Night Stand


Taking a break from the Hunger Games (it's in our local theater for a 4th week and I'm rushing through the book so I can watch the movie before I miss my chance), I just randomly went looking for an online short story. Well, not completely random. I do what I often do, pick a word (in this case "night") and Google that word + "short story" to see what I come up with. In this case I was led to Daniel Woodrell's "Night Stand" available at Esquire.com. Daniel Woodrell was the author behind Winter's Bone, which was turned into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who now plays Katniss in the Hunger Games. Neat, eh?

"Night Stand" begins "Pelham came away one night to find a naked man standing over his bed, growling." It's really the perfect opener for this story. Not only is the image mysterious, made even more threatening by the growl, but the word choice is indicative of the story to follow. It took me a little while to decide that "came away" probably was intentional, not a typo for "came awake." But in the story to follow, there are a lots of these just slightly off phrasings-- ones in which I can get the gist, but with word choices that are somewhat unfamiliar to me. But considering the slightly off circumstances of the story, plus the setting, they work. Plus, I adjusted quickly and by the 3rd and final page, I was so completely taken into the story, that I didn't notice any strange stylings.

"Night Stand" is an intriguing story about coming to terms with one's past, connecting with others, and coping with tragedy. It's a great psychological thriller.

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

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Reader's Diary #818- Margaret Macpherson: Body Trade

I haven't read a lot of road trip books (only Volkswagen Blues and On The Road come immediately to mind), but I love the idea of them. Body Trade has additional appeal to me as the road trip sets out from Yellowknife. It eventually winds up in Belize, but through flashbacks and a side story based on a real news event of the early 70s, the north maintains a strong presence.

Body Trade is about a couple of young women-- one white and marginally older, the other Dene-- who set off to... well, why do a lot of young people take off on road trips? Bored and looking for adventure? Check. Trying to escape some of life's crap? Check.

The story alternates focus between the two girls and the contrast between the two keeps things interesting. Tanya, the older one, is a tough as nails kind of character, who-- for right or for wrong-- trusts her own instincts more than anyone else's. Rosie on the other hand, is more trusting by nature, but is silently contemplative. Just when you think Macpherson may be dangling these characters perilously close to cliches, they begin to grow. They don't grow as much as to give the novel a 22 minute sitcom style resolution, but enough to add some flesh to the characters.

As a parallel story, the infamous Martin Hartwell/ David Kootook tragedy is recounted. I can't believe I'd missed learning about it until now, though apparently it made national headlines way back in the day. Stompin' Tom even immortalized it in song.

While there are light moments-- some tender, some even funny-- the books is overall not a happy-go-lightly read and the themes of Body Trade are rich for discussion (it would make a great book club choice): feminism, racism, exploitation, sexuality, survival, you name it.

A great novel.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Reader's Diary #817- Cyrus Macmillan: Rabbit and the Moon Man

Looking for a story about rabbits or bunnies yesterday, I ended up discovering a Canadian writer I'd not heard of before: Cyrus Macmillan. From Prince Edward Island, Macmillan was not only an author but also a politician, once serving as Minister of Fisheries under Mackenzie King.

Today's story comes from a book of MacMillan's titled "Canadian Fairy Tales," originally published in 1922, and available for free and in its entirety through Project Gutenberg.

Actually, this is not so much a collection of fairy tales as it is a collection of folk tales. According to the introduction, the stories were collected from oral tales passed down by Canadian Indians, the early peoples of Canada. According to Macmillan, "the effort to save [Canadian lore] from oblivion needs no apology." Of course, just as we know that the term "Indian" in reference to the Canadian aboriginal population is rarely used anymore, it's not difficult at this point in the future, to make some possible objections-- apology or not. First the question as to who these "Indians" were exactly remains to be seen. The Dene of the Northwest Territories? The Haida Gwaii of British Columbia? Mi'kmaq of New Brunswick? It's one thing to acknowledge that indigenous oral stories belong in our collective folklore, it's quite another to lump them all together as if the stories passed down by all "Indians" are the same. The 2nd comes from the identity of the anthologist himself. I don't know enough about Macmillan to say whether or not I trust his faithfulness to the original stories, though I did find myself remembering some criticisms of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories and was on guard.

That all in mind, I can simply judge the writing of Rabbit and the Moon Man as if it was written solely by Macmillan itself, and in that regard, I did enjoy it. It was entertaining and light, about a young trapper who develops a plan to catch his snare thief in action. Unfortunately it could have been a bit of a mystery, but the title reveals the culprit. The lack of mystery doesn't distract too much and it's otherwise a nice origin story (why the moon has the face it does, why white rabbits have pink eyes).

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

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Trivial Sunday- A Authors


This week's edition of Trivia Sunday looks at authors whose last names start with A. They come first alphabetically and therefore are the best. Just like aardvarks are the best animals. Ever.

Here's the list I came up with:
1. Margaret Atwood
2. Martin Amis
3. Jane Austen
4. Jean M. Auel
5. Hans Christian Andersen
6. Maya Angelou
7. Mitch Albom
8. Sherman Alexie
9. Louisa May Alcott
10. Isaac Asimov
11. Douglas Adams
12. V.C. Andrews

As always, feel free to answer all at home, but please answer only one in the comment section below so that 9 others will have a chance to play along:

1. Name three more authors not listed above whose last names start with A.

2. Match the list above with their photos below (click on the image for an enlarged view):


3. In March of '09, 3 authors above, from Chile, Canada, and the U.S. (Seattle), were part of a four person panel (along with Alice Walker), on Wisconsin Public Radio to discuss the meaning of democracy. Who were they?

4. Of the 12 authors above, which 3 had books among the 100 Most Challenged Books (U.S.) for the decade spanning 2000-2009? Bonus points if you can name the books.

5. Put these 3 authors in order of birthdate (earliest first): Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen

6. Movies based on books or stories of 3 of the authors above have won Oscars. Which authors? Bonus points for naming the movies.

7. Which 2 authors above have at one time been members of the rock and roll band Rock Bottom Remainders alongside Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and other famous authors?

8. From worst to best, order these books by their Amazon.ca sales rank (paperback editions): V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic), Jean M. Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear), Douglas Adams (A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morrie)

9. Which author above is the son of another famous author?

10. Which author above died in 1986, though books continue to be published under his or her name today? Bonus points for identifying the ghost writer behind them.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Reader's Diary #816- William Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra


Remember wedding receptions in the 80s when everyone clinked their glasses to get the bride and groom to kiss? Somewhere along the line people had decided it was getting a bit out of hand or it was becoming stale and then they started to try new approaches. I've been to weddings where, in order to get the newlyweds to kiss, people had to sing a verse from a love song or recount some fond memory of the happy couple and a whole bunch of other stuff that hasn't caught on or been any less intrusive than the glass clinking. At our wedding, a little over 10 years ago, Debbie and I also tried our hand at starting a new tradition. As a trivia buff, I thought it could be fun to have those in desperate need to see us kissing, first successfully answer a trivia question about famous couples. Needless to say, you have no worries about trivia replacing the relative ease of the spoon-on-wineglass classic. I bring it up now because I remember Antony and Cleopatra being on that list of famous couples, though I have no idea what question we could have asked. As I'd not read Shakespeare's play at the time, nor knew much of anything about their historical counterparts, I doubt I would have recognized whether the answers were correct or not!

Now that I've finally read it, how about this one? Next to Antony and Cleopatra, which character has the most lines? If you said "Octavian Caesar," I'd be kissing my wife right now! (Can you see why this game isn't more popular?) Believe it or not, this long-winded and irrelevant personal anecdote is my excuse to talk about Caesar's role in Antony and Cleopatra, as I was quite taken aback by his large presence in this story. I think I was expecting more of a Romeo and Juliet sort of focus. However, upon reading of Caesar's large role in this story, I'd be more inclined to name the play "Antony and Cleopatra and Caesar." (Perfect fodder for the next bigamist wedding reception trivia game.) Caesar was certainly as compelling as Marc Antony.

Not quite as compelling as Cleopatra, however. Vain, calculating and quick-to-temper, she is what makes the play worth reading. Of course, this is Shakespeare, so it wouldn't be complete without a faked death and a couple of suicides thrown in for good measure. There's also a neat bit of meta-drama going on as well, as Cleopatra laments that history will see her as a villain and Marc Antony as a bit of a drunken fool, as Shakespeare has done to some extent. One wonders if this was a simply wink to the audience or if it was Shakespeare's way of apologizing to memory of the real Cleopatra and Marc Antony; as in, "I know you were really so much more than this, but I had to take artistic license to please the crowd."

Monday, April 02, 2012

Reader's Diary #815- T. S. Arthur: The April Fool

Before Debbie and I got married and moved away, she and my dad were constantly playing pranks on one another. The best came after a long weekend visit to my parents while we were still university students. On the bus ride back, Debbie went to put on her jacket when she realized that the ends of her sleeves had been sewn together. It didn't stop there. Back in her dorm, opening her overnight bag, she noticed that her clothes were slightly fishy smelling. It turns out that he also had snuck a few dried capelin into her things. That week, she managed to find a few fresh capelin and sent those off by mail to my father, along with a note saying that while she appreciated the gift of fish, the ones he had given her hadn't been the freshest and so she was offering him better quality fish, so he would know better in the future. Oddly, this letter yielded no results. No calls. No return pranks, nothing. It was then that Debbie began to worry. To backtrack a little, I was rooming with a biology student who had been studying bees in Utah and who had gotten himself into a wee bit of trouble by trying to send samples through the mail. Some of the vials, it seems, had broken open spilling dead bees and some sort of preservative liquid over other people's mail, much to the angry dismay of Canada Post. While fines were discussed, he was fortunately let off with a warning. But what if, Debbie worried, something similar had happened to her fish gift? Supposing it had started to rot and ruined someone else's mail? Unfortunately I thought I'd get to the bottom of it and asked my parents if they'd ever received the "present" and I mentioned what Debbie's concerns were. While they claimed ignorant of any gift, it gave them exactly the ammunition they needed. A month later an official looking letter showed up, complete with Canada Post letterhead and quotes about the violation of subsection blah blah blah, threatening a minimum fine of $5000 or up to 1 year imprisonment. It took a few tears on Debbie's part for anyone to come clean but after that a truce was called and the pranks have all but stopped. Yesterday, for April Fool's, Debbie had a hand in my daughter's prank (replacing my drinking water with vinegar), but I kind of miss the practical joke feud.

On that note, I went looking for an April Fool's Day story and came across a tale by T. S. Arthur, an American author of the 1800s, apparently known for writing moralistic tales. "The April Fool" is pleasant enough, but knowing Arthur's penchant for teaching lessons, isn't overly surprising (basically an April Fool's joke doesn't exactly go as planned and the jokester gets his just desserts). Some of the language is a bit stiff and unnecessary ("the timepiece on the mantle, the hands of which pointed to the figure ten"), but in the span of a few pages is certainly tolerable. Overall, it's a fine, clean story, mildly amusing, albeit quite forgettable. And I don't think it'd inspire my father to pick up the sewing needle again.

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

Sunday, April 01, 2012

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- 8th Update

March has come and gone and collectively we added 70+ books to the Canadian Book Challenge total. Not our best, but certainly an impressive number. 19 people have already reached the 13 goal, and while most are continuing on, the rate usually starts to decrease after that. But we've also had a few participants join in recent months and they seem to be renewing the energy. Plus, those participants who are content to chug along at a healthy pace are also nearing the end-- 3 months to go. In March, some of the highlights, imho, were:
1. Medea's review of Down by Jim Long's Stage (This was a book she won for the Canadian Book Challenge, and a book from my childhood in Newfoundland)
2. Gavin's review of Through Black Spruce and Sarah's review of The Other Side of the Bridge-- both are reviews of sequels that I've put off reading for way too long, even though I really enjoyed the first one.
3. Jennifer's review of Kenneth Oppel's This Dark Endeavour. Like Jennifer, I've not read Oppel's wildly popular Silverwing series, and I always felt like I should start my Oppel reading there. But I've been eyeing This Dark Endeavour for a while, especially as I --unlike Jennifer-- was a fan of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and This Dark Endeavour revolves around that tale. Given Jennifer's positive review, This Dark Endeavour may just jump the queue.

Of course, I enjoyed reading all your reviews last month, as I hope you all did as well. What reviews stood out for you?

Moving onto the prizes, last month I asked readers to recommend some Canadian poetry and/or to review Canadian poetry. I was very happy with all the responses, and the winner, chosen randomly from all those who entered, was Eric. For his efforts, Eric will receive the following books generously donated by Brick Books:

1. Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O'Meara

2. Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair

3. Alien, Correspondent by Antony Di Nardo

4. Spirit Engine by John Donlan

A huge thank-you to Brick Books for this fabulous prize.

For next month's mini-challenge, it's a book reviewer scavenger hunt. Click on the links of the Canadian Book Challenge participants found in the sidebar and tell me who these descriptions fit:
1. "A small-town, country girl. A teacher and an artist."
2. "...a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries."
3. "a software developer and mother of two who enjoys reading, knitting and playing word games."
4. "live[s] in Toronto, Canada, with [her] husband, Gord, and [their] two kitties, Morgan and Crumpet."

If you can find out who these participants are, email me at jmutford (at) hotmail [dot] com, with the subject "Book Reviewer Scavenger Hunt." A winner will be chosen randomly from all those who qualify. Deadline is April 30th, 2012. The winner will receive the following fantastic prize pack kindly donated by Harbour Publishing:
1. The Odious Child and Other Stories (by Carloyn Black)
2. The Year of Broken Glass by Joe Denham
3. A Walk with the Rainy Sisters by Stephen Hume
Good luck!!!

Don't forget to add your April review links at the roundup post!