Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 6th Canadian Book Challenge- March 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)

Reader's Diary #973- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Zephaniah

Zephaniah trying to teach the locals how to "Vogue"
As the books of the minor prophets roll along, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to tell them apart. Basically, a prophet breaks the news to everyone that God isn't happy with their sinful ways and if they don't change, they'll be sorry.

If this was a novel, it would almost appear that the author was trying out variations on a character, tweaking him slightly each time, trying to create someone compelling enough to really hit the message home and finally get people to listen for once. Zephaniah's tweak would appear to be the ability to present really graphic details as to what God's vengeance will be.
And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against Jehovah; and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as dung. You will die. You will die slowly. Your stomach will swell; your intestines will writhe and boil. Your eyes will burst and some horrible stuff, possibly your brain, will start coming out through your nose.
Of course, it's not a novel and from what I could find, preachers and theologians suggest that what we should take away from this books is:
1. Life is fleeting—
2. respect it.
3. We are often responsible for our own misery—
4. as history has shown us.

Also, Zephaniah's a pretty cool name. How come that one didn't catch on?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reader's Diary #972- Eric Walters: We All Fall Down

In anticipation of going to New York, I set out to load up my Kobo with New York themed books. Since my blog has a "Canadian Bias" I thought I'd at least try to get one New York book that had a Canadian connection. My first choice was going to be Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Alas, it doesn't appear to have an eVersion yet. So I went on an internet search and discovered this one. At first I was reluctant. Not because it was about the 9/11 tragedy (I was actually quite keen on reading something on that event), but because it was by Eric Walters. I read An Inuk Mountie Adventure back in November and wasn't really impressed. That's when I realized I was mistaking Eric Walters with Eric Wilson. Two Canadian Eric W's writing books for the YA market that are set in various locales? You can see why I got them confused. In any case, I enjoyed We All Fall Down much more than An Inuk Mountie Adventure.

Why would a Canadian write about the 9/11 tragedy anyway? As Walters explains, the events had a profound effect on him that day and in the days, weeks, and months that followed. I can relate. I won't get into all the details about where I was when it happened (as I blogged about it before), but it did depress me a great deal. I started to obsess over news reports. I started to feel like an adolescent all over again, when I first started thinking about the world at large and growing ever more cynical. Thankfully Debbie helped me snap out of it and move forward. Walters, it seems, went into a similar funk and even stopped writing for a while. Fortunately he too was able to move on, eventually even revisiting the September 11th attacks with the young adult novel We All Fall Down and its follow-up United We Stand. I think that for many of us Canadians used to a pretty cushy way of life, it was a blow to our sense of security to have something so monumental, so horrific, happen right next door. That was something that happened over there, in parts of the world we barely knew about, to people we barely understood, in places we never visited. Not the U.S.. Whereas our elusive Canadian identity— especially, how we were different than the British and the Americans— was something we explored halfheartedly before, almost as a joke, it now became more urgent and significant.

But We All Fall Down is not really about the Canadian identity. The protagonist of the novel, Will, is an American teenager. However, I think many Canadian teens would find him to be a relatable character. He's athletic, he's smart with numbers. He thinks his father works too much, but otherwise he has it pretty good. Politics of our governments aside, Walters makes a pretty good case that our two countries are pretty similar when you get down to the individual level. Most of us are inherently good, decent people.

We All Fall Down begins on September 10, 2001. Walters uses this date wisely. It would be pointless to pretend that a reader would be startled by the events that are to unfold the next day, but the characters are, of course, unaware. Walters uses the first few chapters to build characters and what should be mundane only adds to the tension in the reader who knows what is going to happen to them. Will is going to spend the next day with his father who works in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Eric Walters' books are huge in schools. They are undeniably educational and it's no wonder that teachers and librarians love them. However, it's when he panders to this market that We All Fall Down... well, falls down. When Will and his father, for instance, are trying to escape down the stairwell, they stop to discuss why terrorists would target the U.S.. These discussions should come up in a classroom, but it feels forced into the plot. What is for the most part an intense book, suffers from these occasional "educational" moments that slow down the pace and destroy the realism. Will and his father would likely have such a conversation, just not now.

When Walters really hit his stride and let the action lead the way, I found the book to be quite and surprisingly emotional. I was brought back to that fateful day; I was remembering all that traumatic news footage, and even worse, I was now trapped inside one of the towers. I imagine that this would be almost unreadable for those whose loved ones perished in the collapse. There's one scene after the plane hits the North Tower, when people in the South Tower first get the news. They immediately downplay the reality, just as I did living all the way up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. We assumed it was a small aircraft, probably a two-seater of some sort. Tragic, but not world changing. That people even as close to the actual event could have had the same thoughts, that we all couldn't even fathom what had really happened, is now even more shocking in hindsight. Especially in the information age, we have all become hypochondriacs, thinking our headaches are tumors and Googling just to negate or confirm our fears. It shows the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks that many of us jumped, for once, to the better conclusions first. It was a small plane, it was an accident. I wonder if we'll ever have that innocence again.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reader's Diary #971- Gaston Leroux, translated by David Coward: The Phantom of the Opera

Perhaps it was the mention of Sherlock Holmes in the intro, but I found myself comparing Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera to Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Then again, I just read the latter back in February, so it was fresh in my head.

Not being at all familiar with the story beyond the title, I didn't know what to expect with The Phantom of the Opera. I had assumed a love story with a supernatural twist. That it was a bit of a mystery came as a pleasant surprise. Leroux toyed with the idea of the phantom being supernatural, somewhat teasing superstition with the promise of more logical causes and it reminded me of the monstrous hound in Doyle's work. The mystery wasn't so much about whether or not the legends were true, but how it was pulled off. But whereas Doyle's tale was told following Watson's discoveries, Leroux's story is told from a variety of perspectives, none really dominating the other, and I found myself like a greyhound chasing a rabbit around a track. Not that I was frustrated by the experience, I quite enjoy it when writers take such playful approaches with their readers. Leroux clearly had all the information I needed, but dished it out slowly and at his whim. That the story first came to life as a serial is not surprising. I would have subscribed to Le Galois, eagerly awaiting the next installment.

 I quite enjoyed the story, though for the first half of the book I felt a little offended that this would be another "damsel in distress" story. Christine Daaé, the damsel, comes across as so gullible that I could hardly see what Raoul saw in her. She's a superstitious twit, I thought, let the Phantom have her. But later on, Leroux gives her a bit more of a backbone, and a back story. We see that she's not so much stupid as she is emotionally distraught. I'm far more forgiving of that. The smartest person in the world— man or woman— is entitled to a mistake now and then, especially when it's the result of emotional trauma.

I was incredibly fortunate to finish the book on the plane on the way to New York*, where I took in the musical that very same night. It was wonderful to compare the two, with the book so fresh in my mind. I enjoyed the musical, quite a bit. Perhaps more than Debbie. We both agreed that the music was great, but she was put off a bit by the fact that all the dialogue was sung. In the other shows that we took in (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Bunnicula, and Wicked), this was not the case. I thought it was actually easier to suspend my belief with The Phantom. Everyone singing all the time seemed somehow less weird than people just suddenly breaking into song. As for differences from the book, the chronology was changed somewhat and some characters were amalgamated into one, but significant events were still there and the love triangle was in tact. One thing the stage production fell short on for me, however, was the magic. I loved reading about Erik's, the Phantom's disembodied voice, the elaborate tunnels and traps he'd devised, and so on. Reading the book, I felt like an 8 year old boy again, fascinated by secret passageways and booby-traps, and while some of that was hinted at in the stage production the phantom's trickery felt rushed through (despite the fact that the running time is 2 and a half hours). Still, I enjoyed it a great deal. I can see why it's the longest running show in Broadway history.

 (*For more of my New York trip and to see some of my photos, follow me on Twitter!)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reader's Diary #970- Patrick White: Mountie in Mukluks

Though Patrick White is credited as the writer of Mountie in Mukluks, it is essentially the memoirs of Bill White (no relation), told in Bill's perspective, about his adventures as a mountie in 1930s Cambridge Bay, a small town in Nunavut. Not to downplay Patrick's contributions, he compiled the interviews and stories of Bill into a seamless and coherent tale.

In many ways, Mounties in Mukluks reminded me of another arctic autobiography I read a couple of years ago, Ernie Lyall's An Arctic Man. Both were somewhat rough around the edges sort of men with a low tolerance for b.s. and a healthy respect for the Inuit.

It is somewhat ironic that the book is called Mountie in Mukluks. While Bill did serve his time in the north as an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, most of his stories tell more about his time hunting and spending time with the locals. Were it not for a couple of anecdotes to the contrary, you could almost forget that he was there as a mountie. Admittedly, he only wanted to go north for the trapping and once he moved back south he shortly resigned from the RCMP. Yet for all that, and for all the times Bill scoffed at the exaggerated tales of Sam Steele and other brave, heroic mounties that "always get their man," the publishers still seemed to go that route with the title, I guess figuring that's what sells. To the publishers credit, on the website synopsis, they do refer to him as "one of the most un-cop-like cops."

Whereas readers may not get a lot in the way of policing stories (they will get some), what they will mostly get is a story about a man learning to appreciate and respect another culture, to question his own culture, and learn something about himself in the process. Not that Bill would have put it in such touchy feely terms. He uses "damn" the way teenagers today use the word "like."

Another similarity to Ernie Lyall, however, dragged the book down somewhat. Lyall seemed a little too preoccupied with refuting "facts" and stories written by Farley Mowat, Bill White seems at times too hung up on Henry Larsen. Henry Larsen was an explorer and long time commander of the RCMP vessel St. Roch, the same ship that took Bill north and where the two men first met. Bill spends too much time contradicting Larsen's achievements and stories, even going as far as suggesting that Larsen stole some of Bill's own anecdotes and passed them off as his own. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen; I see no reason why I should trust one of these men over the other, and the overly focused bitterness dragged the book down occasionally. Another small quibble, possibly lies with Patrick White's transcription. He says in the foreword that sometimes Bill referred to the Inuit as Eskimos, but that Patrick chose to keep it consistent with the more acceptable in modern parlance, Inuit. However, Inuit refers to more than one person, whereas Inuk is the singular. Anyone without that knowledge would not have noticed, but when he consistently writes things like, " Inuit named..." it starts to grow irksome.

Still, Bill White's personality sells the story. It's strong and opinionated, perhaps not everyone's favourite voice, but it's a genuine voice. Memory being what it is, I'm sure there must be some facts that are off here or there, but there's still a sense on what his experiences must have been, and more importantly, what they meant to him.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reader's Diary #969- Margaret Atwood: Stone Mattress


(Pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm away in NYC.)

"Stone Mattress" by Margaret Atwood appeared in the New Yorker in 2011. It's mostly set on an Arctic cruise. Atwood herself has guest lectured aboard at least one arctic cruise, which I know because some old friends of mine guest lectured on the same voyage. I wasn't surprised to find that she had used some of that experience for a short story.

It's a bit on the schlocky side, a basic revenge story with a pretty implausible crime being committed. There are attempts to turn it into a more serious piece, with discussion of rape and female empowerment, but these are typical Atwood themes and so I'm not sure they warrant the same response as they would have if the reader wasn't expecting it. The "Stone Mattress" begins, "At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone" and I was eager to see this side of Atwood that cuts to the chase with such a pulpy hook. Atwood having some dark fun? This should be good. But when she gets to the rape part, the story suddenly slips into formulaic territory. Atwood- formula anyway. It's certainly still a relevant and serious topic that warrants discussion, but it felt like a fallback in this story. Like she was offering nothing new to the discussion than she hasn't offered countless times before.

I did, however, enjoy the title and Atwood's ingenious use of it in the story. So at least there was that and a cool setting.

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

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Reader's Diary #968- Lynn Johnston: Something Old, Something New

(Pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm away in NYC.)

 Recently I read Judge Dredd, The Complete Case File 01, despite warnings from a long time fan that I probably shouldn't start there if I was unfamiliar to Dredd. It made sense to me to start there as it was an anthology of Dredd stories, starting right at the beginning and working through chronologically. After reading it, I understood her advice. The quality just wasn't there. The writers and artists were still trying to get a grip on who they wanted the character to be, many of them were new to comics themselves, and Dredd didn't become fully realized until much later.

So, when it came to reading an anthology of Lynn Johnston's work, I wasn't exactly sure what to do. First, I should probably back up a little to explain why I was interested in Lynn Johnston's comics in the first place. Johnston is, of course, best known for her decade spanning For Better or For Worse comics. But I didn't read many daily comics as a kid. I would have, most definitely, but I grew up in a small outport Newfoundland community where we had one thin newspaper a week (the Lewisporte Pilot) without any funny pages. Occasionally, if we took a trip into St. John's, I'd look forward to getting my hands on the Telegram, which did carry the funny pages. Better yet, because those trips were inevitably on weekends, I'd get the coloured ones. Sweet. Even then though, I can't honestly say I was really into For Better or Worse. I was a kid. I wanted Garfield. Marmaduke. Maybe Peanuts.

I was older before I started noticing and appreciating what Johnston was doing. She took on serious topics, from time to time. For the funny pages, that was somewhat of a big deal, I suppose. But outside the cartooning world, comedy and drama were mixed all the time. Look at All in the Family and Maude, for example. What really began to interest me was the fact that her characters aged! Cartoons don't do that! Okay, there was the Pebbles and Bam Bam Show but even then you didn't get to see them age. The Simpsons will soon have its final season and yet Bart remains 10, just as he was when he first appeared on the Tracey Ullman show back in 87. As much of a fan as I'd been of the show, it would have been cool if Bart actually turned 36 this year, if we watched the Simpsons kids grow up, go to high school, have kids of their own. But Johnston did it. It's as revolutionary as drawing a 5 fingered cartoon hand!

Anyway, not being overly familiar with her work, I decided to start at the beginning. Fortunately however, Johnston was well aware of the pitfalls of revisiting her old work in a new compilation and addressed the very same concerns I had with the Judge Dredd collection. Should she even bother looking back? And if so, should she conceal the "warts and all" as she refers to the mistakes she made in the early days? When Johnston first "retired" the strip, she had plenty of time to think these things through. The newspapers had agreed to sort or start the strip all over, like a long rerun. However, Johnston wasn't out of the picture all together, she decided to improve upon the original. She added whole strips here or there to beef up or explain dropped story lines and tie up loose ends, she made tweaks with illustrations and so on. In Something Old, Something New she includes the strips that were added in after the fact, along side the originals, and my inner-historian thanks her for acknowledging the new strips with a subtle asterisk beside each one. There are a few missteps along the way. For instance, I knew the strips in this anthology were suppose to have started in 1979 and go to about 1983. However, in one scene, Elly's husband John mentions an attractive dental hygienist that looks like Shania Twain. Oddly, this strip wasn't marked with an asterisk. Shania Twain would have been 14 in 79 (creepy, John) and though she appeared on the Tommy Hunter Show at age 13 (thank-you, Wikipedia) she was still going by Eilleen at the time (she wouldn't adopt "Shania" until 93). So, the strip didn't add up. I did a little digging on the For Better or For Worse website (because apparently my family and my job don't need any attention), and it turns out that in the original John said that the hygienist looked like Cheryl Ladd. Should have kept it that way. Less confusing. Especially when there are so many other dated clues in the neighboring strips (a typewriter, a David Cassidy reference, a curly phone cord). There's also a chronology error here or there, such as a reference to Farley the dog before he first appears. Small errors aside, the collection is incredibly well put together and complemented with an occasional anecdote, explanation, or photo from Johnston herself.

All in all, Something Old, Something New was funnier than I expected. It wasn't hilarious and the humour is pretty realistic, observational stuff, but pleasantly amusing nonetheless. While the more serious topics apparently come in later collections (coming out, deaths, abuse), there were hints that the comic could possibly begin tackling weightier issues. Elly, for instance, clearly wrestles with being a stay-at-home mom and finding personal fulfillment. Perhaps it was that, perhaps it had something to do with being set in Manitoba, and perhaps it's because I just read it recently, but to some extent Elly reminded me of Hope in David Bergen's The Age of Hope. More modern and more funny, mine you, but similar nonetheless.

As for the art work, I really appreciated her characters and their expressions. In the earlier artwork there didn't seem to be much in the way of backgrounds, but in the newer, injected strips you can see how much more Johnston paid attention to detail. Then, with these newer additions, the time pressure of pumping these comics out daily wasn't as great and so she could presumably have afforded more time to drawing a few more bricks in a background wall.

Lynn Johnston is a Canadian treasure and a gift to the cartooning world.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reader's Diary #967- Deborah and James Howe: Bunnicula

(Pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm away in NYC.) 

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe was a childhood favourite. I've since read it to my daughter, countless students, and now my son. And either it's my enthusiasm rubbing off and/or it's a great book, because they all love it almost as much as I. My son laughed so loudly that my wife heard him from the next room.

Yes, despite the promise of a bunny who may or may not be a vampire, Bunnicula is a humorous book, but quite light on the horror. Still, as I read it this time around I thought of how it's not a stretch to suppose that this book was the beginning of my love affair with horror novels. While I don't read as much horror anymore, I lived and breathed it in high school. While there may not have been references to Stephen King in Bunnicula, there were enough references to Dracula and to Edgar Allan Poe that even at a young age I made sure I was also reading the classics. The best children's novels don't shy away from references such as those. Every adult has heard of Bram Stoker's creation and Edgar Allan Poe, but their first exposure to those masters had to start somewhere and for me, I believe it was with Deborah and James Howe.

Humorous or not, I'd normally have waited until closer to Halloween to read it but it got bumped up to March. Why? I just finished Watership Down, was I on a rabbit kick? Nope. It's close to Easter. Some sort of tribute to the Easter bunny? Again, another good theory, but not correct. It's because my wife was able to score us some tickets to see the off-Broadway show in New York City. (Plus, James Howe is from New York, so there's that tie-in as well.) We're also going to see the biggies, Phantom of the Opera and Wicked, and I know she booked the much smaller in scope, Bunnicula, for the kids, but I'm (not so) secretly eager to see this one almost as much.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reader's Diary #966- Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City

(Pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm away in NYC.)

Years back, I was watching CSI: NY, which is odd because I never watch that show, when a victim was found with a copy of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. As a true bibliophile, that's what I took away from the episode. I hadn't heard of the book until then, but I hadn't forgotten it since. Then, over the past couple or so years I've become a little obsessed with 2nd person narratives. I asked around for recommendations of books or stories told in this perspective when Bright Lights, Big City came up again. It bumped up nearer to the top of the of the TBR pile. Finally, for spring break this year, we decided to go to New York City. It was time to finally read the book.

With the stars aligning this much, I suspected that Bright Lights, Big City would alter the course of my life or something. For the most part I enjoyed it, but life goes on as normal. Whew?

Bright Lights, Big City ends super abruptly. To the point where I thought my Kobo glitched out on me. I reread the final scene a few times, but it still didn't offer much of anything in the way of conclusion. So I went online to see what others have said. It turns out that the ending is one of two major sticking points other readers have with the book. Some people see the ending as simplistically profound, others think it's too on the nose, while still others don't think it's on the nose enough. I fit in with that last group. There are moments earlier when McInerney is too on the nose; for instance, there's a scene when the narrator is talking to an unscrupulous journalist on the phone, when he notices a cockroach crawling up the wall. It reminded me of the infamous rat scene in the Departed. However, whereas some see the final scene in Bright Lights as too cheesily symbolic, they seem to extend it to also imply a major change in the narrator's attitude. I see where they're coming from with the "bread" thing, but I didn't buy that it was anything more than an insignificant moment in the narrator's life, perhaps a small glimmer of hope, but most likely nothing that would have have a lasting effect whatsoever.

As for the other major sticking point, the 2nd person perspective, I wasn't surprised that this had readers similarly divided. Some, predictably, called it gimmicky. I get that it isn't for everyone. But I'm a fan, and once again I thought the unusual perspective worked. First off, I should disclose that I've been having a somewhat difficult year. I've been re-prioritizing my life, trying to refocus, and all the typical middle aged crap (is 36 middle aged?). So, putting myself in the role of someone who's life plan seems to be going off the rails, did not feel like a huge stretch. When I discovered that I was supposed to be 25, however, that was a bit hard to digest. But if 30 is the new 20, then I guess it makes sense. Just 29 years after the book was first published, I don't think we even expect 25 years old to know what they want from life. What is supposed to be a crisis in McInerney's character is almost normal transition in 2013. Except for the cocaine. But it's the cocaine that makes the 2nd perspective work. At first when this nasty addiction raises its head, I was a little annoyed. I thought this would be a book about someone coming to grips with a life he's made, a fusion of psychological and sociological commentary. Now it's just a junkie story. But the more the narrator reveals about "you," and the more you resent it, the more the 2nd person works. Great, now I'm a junkie is exactly the disgusted realization such a character would make.

A final message to all the reviewers of Bright Lights, Big City that came before me: thanks for showing me that writing the review in the 2nd person would not have been as much clever as it would have been predictable. Sometimes, I guess, the 2nd person perspective doesn't work.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reader's Diary #965- Park Benjamin, Jr: The End of New York

If Americans were to make a list of 20 countries that pose the biggest threat to their national security, I doubt Spain would even crack their top 20. I don't know if it was a late 19th century Cold War that I hadn't read about in history books, but in Park Benjamin Jr's "The End of New York" it's Spain vs. the U.S..

The story starts off promisingly enough: an international incident is triggered all because of a case of mistaken identity. After that the story goes downhill. It should be exciting, after all New York City is getting its butt kicked by the Spanish navy. It has all the makings of a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, it's bogged down with tedious naval terms and it comes across more of a paranoid ploy to get the U.S. government to invest more in their navy. A case could be made that it worked.

Anyway, I'm off to New York City tomorrow. Thankfully, it wasn't conquered by the Spanish. Though in all honesty, I've nothing against the Spanish and in all likelihood, I'd be going anyway.

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

Sunday, March 17, 2013

More glaring omissions- Graphic Novels and Plays

It started back in 2007 when I first compiled a list of 20 books of books that most other bibliophiles have read, but I still hadn't. It was my list of glaring omissions and I used it as its own sort of tbr pile, not planning to knock them off in a set time frame but to at least have those books in mind when choosing my next book. Good thing I wasn't on a time frame either. Almost six years later, I've still got seven books left to go.

Since then, I've added a few other "must read" lists. The first was a list of Canadian books that, as the founder of the Canadian Book Challenge, I probably should have been embarrassed to admit to having neglected. I called it my Canadian Confession. That was just a couple of years back and I've whittled it down to 14.

But you know how these things go. It's part of the blogging culture to compile lists and I'm nothing if not a cliche. One list led to another and now I have a list of lists. Check out the sidebar of this blog and you'll find not only the generic glaring omissions and Canadian lists, but graphic novels, northern books, and best-seller books that have also slipped through my grasp. I don't read exclusively from these lists, but I've usually got 4 or 5 books on the go at any given moment and I try to make sure at least one of them will fill in my reading gaps.

One of those lists, I need to update. The graphic novels. By far it was the easiest ones to eliminate, though I had to buy a couple that the library didn't have and couldn't get in. I almost didn't do another lists. I've read most of the heavy hitters; best sellers and critically acclaimed graphic novels. I thought another "must read" list of graphic novels would be scraping the bottom, so to speak, but when I looked there were a few more that I felt I should still get around to. Here's the new list:

GLARING OMISSIONS! Books I should have read but haven't-- yet (Graphic novels edition): 
1. Stitches- David Small
2. Fun Home- Allison Bechdel
3. 300- Frank Miller
4. Binky the Space Cat- Ashley Spires
5. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen- Alan Moore
6. Ghost in the Shell- Shirow Masamune
7. Something Old, Something New- Lynn Johnston
8. Blankets- Craig Thompson
9. Naruto, Vol 1. – Masashi Kishimoto
10. Tangles- Sarah Leavitt
11. My New York Diary- Julie Doucet
12. Paul Has A Summer Job - Michel Rabagliati

This will be my last graphic novel must-read list. Not that I won't still read graphic novels, but by that time I think I should more than well-versed with the essentials.

The next list I'm adding is plays. I've always enjoyed reading plays, but over the past few years I've been focusing mostly on Shakespeare. Last month, however, I finally finished all of Shakespeare's so now I figure it's time to get around to reading other classic or well-known plays.

GLARING OMISSIONS! Books I should have read but haven't-- yet (Plays edition): 
1. Ann-Marie MacDonald- Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
2. Joseph Kesselring- Arsenic and Old Lace
3. Thorton Wilder- Our Town
4. Oscar Wilde- The Importance of Being Earnest
5. Tennessee Williams- A Streetcar Named Desire
6. Eugene O'Neill- The Iceman Cometh
7. Edward Albee- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
8. David Mamet- Glengarry Glen Ross
9. Tom Stoppard- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
10. Neil Simon- Lost in Yonkers
11. Agatha Christie- The Mousetrap
12. Moliere- Tartuffe
13. George Ryga- The Ecstacy of Rita Joe
14. Daniel David Moses- Coyote City
15. Sally Clark- Moo
16. Anton Chekov- The Cherry Orchard
17. Euripides- Medea
18. Tony Kushner- Angels in America
19. Lorraine Hansberry- A Raisin in the Sun
20. Bertolt Brecht- Galileo

At some point, I'll know I'll add more lists. YA, non-fiction, philosophy... Good lord, it's getting ridiculous. How about you? How organized are your To Be Read lists?

Reader's Diary #964- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Habakkuk

Nearing the end of the Old Testament (only 4 books to go!), I feel like a bit of a broken record talking about how short the books have gotten. Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai... they're all becoming a blur.

Not that character building was a primary goal when the Bible was being written, but there seemed to be so much more of it in the earlier books. You really got a sense of who Eve, Noah, and Moses were, for example. By the time you get to the minor prophets near the end of the Old Testament, they're all a little difficult to tell apart.

I thought, while reading Habakkuk, how there's a whole realm of back stories ready to be explored here. I don't know, is there a market for Christian or Jewish historical fiction? According to the Wikipedia page, less is known about Habakkuk than any other writer of the Bible. Who's not intrigued by mystery men? In this book, Habakkuk questions God about his treatment of the people of Judah and near the end of the book, Habakkuk decides to stay faithful to God, even if he doesn't fully understand. Not as much agreeing to disagree as it was submitting to blind trust.

But who is this guy who not only talks to God but challenges His decisions? That's a pretty big deal, right? So, it would be neat to read about how Habakkuk got to this point in his life; even a fictional account could be interesting. Personally, I think he was a time traveling alien from the outer reaches of Bode's Galaxy. You?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reader's Diary #963- Richard Adams: Watership Down

When I began Watership Down with my daughter I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was a classic and I knew it was about rabbits but I couldn't have told you anything else.

I'm still not sure it was a children's book. My daughter seemed to like it well enough, but I did have to explain a lot and I certainly enjoyed it more than she. Richard Adams said that he began the tale for his own little girls but went on to say that the book isn't for children, it's for anyone who wants to read it. Fair enough, but if it had been written for children, no one could accuse Adams of dumbing it down. Especially with the quotes at the beginning of each chapter: some Shakespeare, a few French quotes, even some Plato. Personally, I think people hear about talking animals and assume it's for kids. To them I say read Animal Farm or Maus. Watership Down is in league with those.

Actually, I found myself thinking of George Orwell's Animal Farm quite a lot while reading Watership Down. That book was an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Josef Stalin, but I couldn't put my finger on whatever it was Adams was alluding to. It seemed to be a refugee or displaced peoples story, but which ones? And what or who did Kehaar, the seagull represent? There were clearly holes in my knowledge of world history. Or was there? Again, according to Adams himself he didn't intend it to be an allegory or parody, just simply a tale about rabbits. It's perhaps a testament to Adams' writing, and the rich culture he has given these rabbits (complete with their own language, superstitions, and folklore) that it's hard not to suspect he had specific peoples and historical events in mind. The mythological rabbit El-ahrairah reminded me of the raven or coyote in many Canadian First Nations stories.

As much as I loved Watership Down, it was a bit long and repetitive. Three times, for instance, the rabbits of Watership Down defeat their enemies by using another animal species as a weapon. Granted, the last time is the most exciting, but it would have been even more so had they not pulled similar stunts before.

Still, Adams has changed the way I'll look at rabbits from now on. It'll be impossible not to imagine them with varied personalities and with wild schemes going on behind those twitchy noses.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reader's Diary #962- Stephen Leacock: Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Many years back I remember lying in bed reading a collection of Canadian short stories. One of those happened to be Stephen Leacock's "My Financial Career." I got into such a fit of giggles with that one that I ended up waking up my wife. Granted, when you're not supposed to laugh things always seem funnier. Like the Barenaked Ladies laughing at a funeral.

The reason I'm second guessing the humour of "My Financial Career"? I've not found Leacock as funny since.  

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town begins promisingly enough. In his preface, Leacock writes
I was born at Swanmoor, Hants, England, on December 30, 1869. I am not aware that there was any particular conjunction of the planets at the time, but should think it extremely likely. My parents migrated to Canada in 1876, and I decided to go with them.
This was certainly enough to make me smile and I was optimistic for the rest of the book to come. Unfortunately, I found the rest somewhat boring. The passage above hints at a theme of Leacock's humour that pervades the rest of the book: the idea that people taking themselves too seriously is funny. And he's right. The Spinal Tap/ Mighty Wind guys have made a career off of that sort of thing. However, I did it wearing a little thin in Sunshine Sketches.

I also thought there was a hint of meanness in some of these stories. Whereas the target in Leacock's preface is himself, the target in the rest of the book is the townspeople of Mariposa. True, Mariposa is a fictional place, but as Leacock himself explains, it's supposed to represent rural Canada, or at the very least, rural Ontario. The message consistently falls somewhere between "country people are idiots" and the kinder, but more patronizing, "aww, isn't it cute when country people think they're doing something important." I'm from a small town, so it would be easy to accuse me of being over sensitive, but really I just prefer equal opportunity offenders.  Make fun of the small towns all you want, but save some jokes for the cities.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reader's Diary #961- Jude Ortega: The Short Sweet Life of Nameless

Jude Ortega's story "The Short Sweet Life of Nameless" comes across as a parable. In the traditional sense, with religious messages and all. I found myself at first trying to twist it into some sort of capitalist/ globalization metaphor but it really wasn't working. It was only after I gave up on that and just went with what the author was actually saying, that I enjoyed the story.

"The Short Life of Nameless" isn't a complicated story. It's about a couple in rural Philippines who befriend a dog. They first assume the dog to be a stray, but soon discover it's not stray but owned by an abusive man. The couple who come to care for the dog are the only nice people in the entire story. Which may be a part of Ortega's point. At the heart of the story, "The Short Sweet Life of Nameless" is about doing what is right, being just, treating creatures with dignity. Like the title, it's short and sweet.

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

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Reader's Diary #960- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Nahum

Welcome to Sunday school, kids. Today we're going to learn about Nahum.

A cricket chirps.

The kids wait patiently. Now that the teacher has cleared her throat, she'll tell them who they'll learn about today.
That bit never gets old. Also, why are there crickets? (Photo credit Angela George)

Yes, it's the 253rd most favourite Bible character of all time: Nahum. Unless survey respondents were clearing their throats at the time. (See, never gets old.)

Come back here young feller! I was gonna say Jedediah!

Nahum, again one of those very short books near the end of the Old Testament, is about the minor prophet Nahum's warnings and the fall of Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire.

It's short but there seems to be a few messages we're to take away. The most obvious to me was that God is the most powerful and people who get too caught up in their own success, should realize that. In other words, I wouldn't get too comfortable if I were you.

Still, it's not a new message. It wasn't even new to the Bible. Jonah has already given the very same message about the very same city. So why include it? Well, I guess sometimes repetition works.
Put my ring on? No, I don't think I... Oh, wait, yes. That's a great idea, Newton!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Reader's Diary #959- William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and Other Poems

Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?

Why, yes it is. Back in January I finished all of Shakespeare's plays, which only left the poetry to go. I have to admit, besides the sonnets, I had no idea how much poetry Shakespeare had written. There's also "A Lover's Complaint," "The Passionate Pilgrim," "The Phoenix and the Turtle," "The Rape of Lucrece," and "Venus and Adonis."

Actually, even the sonnets I had pegged wrong. I'd come across some of them before, in anthologies mostly, but I think his most popular sonnet, "Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer Day?" is not representative of the collection as a whole. For all the emphasis people seem to make on the romance of the sonnets, I was more drawn to all the midlife crisis stuff. For every two poems about love there seemed to be another about the withering of the body and his ever-nearing and inevitable death. Besides enjoying the gloom of Shakespeare, I found these poems to be more personable than most of his plays. With his plays, I sometimes felt that Shakespeare was pandering or relying too heavily on certain formulas (like the character in drag). The sonnets, however, felt more honest. More like reading a diary of a sometimes insecure man.

As for the other, longer poems. The only one that stuck out for me was the "The Rape of Lucrece." It reminded me somewhat of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in that Shakespeare gets inside the rapist's head for a large part of the retelling. And to be sure, it's a nasty place. As Tarquin (Lucrece's rapist) gets up the nerve to do his evil deed, he manages to justify his actions, essentially reducing Lucrece to a mere piece of property. His derived logic tells him helps him over the guilt of stealing. Guilt over degrading the life of someone else? Seems to be a non-issue. Unlike Nabokov, who cruelly (but effectively) doesn't give Lolita a voice, Shakespeare does give Lucrece a voice. To be sure, the rape is not treated as flippantly by the victim. She is destroyed in the process.

On that sombre note, I'm now completely done with Shakespeare. Will I ever read them again? I'm not sure. Certainly not right away as I feel like I need a break. However, I'll probably revisit some of his sonnets again as I feel that I rushed them somewhat. I may look for some graphic novel interpretations. Four of his plays I read before starting the Book Mine Set and therefore not discussed on this blog. Perhaps I'll reread those again someday, but I'm going to enjoy a break in the meantime. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Reader's Diary #958- Ryan Silke (collected by): High-Grade Tales

If you read a lot of history books about the Northwest Territories, you quickly realize that mining dominates the discussion. That's not a complaint as such. That would be like complaining that a history of Newfoundland is too fixated on the fishery. However, it's quite possible to dig through the available histories of the Northwest Territories and grow weary of mining stories long before you run out of ore.

Not to say that Silke's collection of NWT mining stories doesn't offer anything new. It does by way of lending real voices to the miners and mine staff of various mines from our past. It's certainly one of the more personable books I've read and it was nice to hear authentic stories by the men and women who lived the life. Plus, I have a thing for ghost towns and the closure of many of the mines featured here meant the death of the towns that had sprung up around them, so I quite enjoyed hearing about the stores, schools, Christmas concerts and so forth, in places that you can no longer find on a map.

A few quibbles. One, it's in a coffee table format, which as I've recently vented when I reviewed another Yellowknife book, Fran Hurcomb's Old Town, is not my favourite format. But whereas a case could be made for Hurcomb choosing to go that route— beautiful glossy photos look better bigger— I can't see the justification for a Silke going this route. It does have some photos, but they're all small and black and white. They'd fit as easily in a standard sized book. Maybe it's cheaper to print in 8.5 by 11?

Two, it seems to lack a focus. Sure it's about retired Northwest Territories mine employees, but their individual stories are not presented in any discernible way. They're interesting stories and all, but I wish Silke had chosen some sort of thesis to tie it all together. He does introduce the various characters, so I know Silke's writing was up to the challenge. It would have been nice to have some sort of unifying point to explore. Facts and quotes could have been gleaned from the stories and worked into some sort of essay, with the intact interviews left for an appendix.

All in all, High-Grade Tales is an intimate look at the rich mining heritage of the Northwest Territories, but it lacks refinement and quality publishing.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Reader's Diary #957- Mohammad Aljarmoshi: Adolescence

"Adolescence" by Mohammad Aljarmoshi is about the narrator's attraction to a man named Fairouz. Just a chance to get as much as a glance from Fairouz...

Reading through the comments that follow the story, some seemed to suggest that the ending was supposed to be a surprise. I'm assuming that some readers didn't suspect that the narrator was a male until at the end when his name is revealed to be Adam. I'm not sure if it's that I knew the author was a male, combined with the fact that I'm Canadian, that I figured he was gay all along. (Sorry for the spoiler.) I was surprised, I suppose, to come across a story from the middle East that featured homosexuality, but certainly not shocked.

It's a shame, however, that "Adolescence" is sorely in need of editing. About four paragraphs in, it's like Aljarmoshi discovers that his keyboard has an exclamation point. From there on in, it seems like every sentence is an epiphany! Sometimes worthy of two explanation points!! This singer’s music and songs have always been associated with the morning!! Seriously? That's only worth a period. I figure that Aljarmoshi is probably trying to use the punctuation to stress the longing that Adam feels, but the editor should have recommended some restraint.

"Adolescence" also features some incredibly awkward English. I thought perhaps that the story was translated but when I couldn't find a translator credit, I grew suspicious. That's when I noticed the author's bio at the end of the story. It turns out that he has a Bachelor's degree in English Translation. Oh dear. I'm finding myself embarrassed for the writer.

"Adolescence" is about innocent infatuation, but there's a sad undertone in the longing that in all likelihood will go unrequited. If only the writing was better. The seeds of a decent story are there.

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

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Reader's Diary #956- Totally Mad: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity

Last year I reviewed a Mad Magazine collection of Harry Potter spoofs and it rekindled an old interest from my childhood days. So, almost needless to say, when I unwrapped Mad Magazine: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity this Christmas— a present from my sister— I was ecstatic. This hardcover collection of Mad Magazine articles and comics from the past 60 years is huge. Walking down memory lane with this baby under your arm requires a few rest stops along the way.

Totally Mad aims to please the nostalgic, the pop culture buffs, and the trivia minded folks in one sitting. At the bottom of the pages, they printed all the covers from the past six decades,and there was something surreal about seeing all of my old collection laid out in order. My span lasted from 88 to 91, and popular at the time— at least popular enough to be parodied by Mad— was rap (not hip hop, you will note), Three Men and a Baby, the California Raisins, Crocodile Dundee, the WWF (which wasn't the World Wildlife Fund), Roseanne, Batman (the Michael Keaton version), and the Wonder Years. But looking at the other parodies from the 60 year span, it was fascinating to note the popular targets. Sometimes I would have been way off with my time estimates. I think of Friends as a 90s sitcom, so I was surprised to see it being parodied in 2003, a few issues later than their parody of the Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. A world in which tLotR overlapped with Friends seems like some sort of time travel movie inaccuracy b.s. to me, but who am I to question the historical wisdom of Mad Magazine editors? It turns out that Friends went off the air in 2004, the Two Towers came out in 2002 (the Fellowship was in 2001).

Also of interest are the occasional essays thrown in. There's an introduction by Stephen Colbert and Eric Drysdale, a short bio of founder long time publisher Bill Gaines, a history of their iconic cover mascot (who it turns out was created long before Mad Magazine existed), and more.

But of course, the real attraction here is the collection of the classic humorous and satirical comics that never seemed to know or care what audience demographic it was going for; too stupid for mature adults, too clever for immature kids, but loved by both. Pop-culture and political take-downs were measured out in equal doses. Looking back at the earlier articles, Mad seemed riskier and braver in some ways but and horribly dated and offensive in others. In an article from February of 1955, the joke seems to be that a private investigator is annoyed by the typing of his secretary and so he gives her a black eye (she responds by sticking out her tongue). But when I reviewed the aforementioned Harry Potter issue last year, I also remarked that Mad seems raunchier today that it did when I was a kid and I whined about the quality of illustrations. So this tells me that perhaps Mad's edge hasn't really changed as much as I thought. It also tells me that I'm probably like the typical Saturday Night Live fan: whatever year I got into it was the best.

One beef with the collection: clipped articles. For most TV show and movie satires, this collection only gives you the first two pages (the ones where the characters typically introduce themselves and the premise of the show/movie). Sure you get a sense of what angle the writers are setting up for their satire, but most Mad readers will remember that these spoofs typically lasted 5 or 6 pages and this felt like a bunch of excerpts. Some would argue that this means that the collection could fit in more glimpses of the past 60 years, and this is true, but sometimes I wanted to read the rest. And I'm not about to blow the family budget on eBay searching for past editions. Though if we switch to no-name toilet paper, cut out the kids' allowances...