Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The 6th Canadian Book Challenge- April 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)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Reader's Diary #995- Drew Hayden Taylor: The Night Wanderer

A couple months back I was talking to (new friend) Rik Leaf about the Twilight series. While I stopped after the first book, Rik read them all and didn't hold back on his disappointment about the anti-climactic ending. Having been let down time and time again by other vampire lit, for similar reasons, I wasn't particularly surprised by his assessment.

What did surprise me was that despite what could also be considered an anti-climactic ending in Drew Hayden Taylor's The Night Wanderer, I enjoyed this particular vampire novel.

The Night Wanderer is a vampire novel with a First Nations perspective. It centers around Tiffany, an Anishinabe teenager living on the fictional Ontario reserve of Otter Lake and Pierre L'Errant, a mysterious house guest from Europe. Tiffany's life, which takes a while to intersect with Pierre's, is filled with mostly typical teenage drama, coping with divorced parents, getting poor grades, and dealing with boyfriend problems. (Though her boyfriend issues are complicated by racial issues.) Pierre's drama on the other hand is anything but typical. Though it takes a while for Taylor to come right out and say it, by the time he does you've already concluded that Pierre is a vampire. Originally from the Anishinabe nation himself, why he is now visiting from Europe and the story of his origins are the questions that held my interest, as I suppose would hold the interest of most adults who read the book.

I would hope that Tiffany's story would be hook enough for the teens at whom the book is aimed. I'm somewhat skeptical, and maybe selling them a little short, that the lack of a lot of action might turn them off. I myself could have used more, but I'm going to hold out for another book, in hopes that Taylor is considering turning it into a series. I certainly thought L'Errant compelling enough to warrant a second book. Trying not to give too much away, I'm not sure how a sequel would work, but there's certainly enough fodder for several prequels. If he does though, just a tad more action would be nice.

Reader's Diary #994- Cathleen Kirkwood: Guthrip

Visiting New York back in March, I remarked to my wife that my psyche wouldn't be able to handle the city if I was there for any long period of time. In just a week we went from giving our kids loose change for the homeless to pushing past people with their hands out as if they didn't exist. It was a terrible feeling. For the most part we stayed around the Times Square area. If we were to give money to everyone who asked, we'd have been begging ourselves. Besides the homeless, there were people collecting for various causes and people just trying to earn a living. I don't judge any of them. But it wore me down. In Yellowknife, there are often groups collecting for causes and we also have homeless people. We give when we can and usually that's when we're asked. Because it's not often. How quickly that stopped in New York. How quickly we were forced to accept that we couldn't help everyone, not even a little bit. It was an icky, exhausting experience. Certainly not the highlight of our trip.

In Cathleen With's "Guthrip" a man visiting India is similarly heartbroken by an 8 year old street boy who asks to polish his shoes. As he buys the boy a chai tea, he contemplates, knowing how absurd it is, adopting the boy and taking him away from his misery. The more the boy chats, the more horrible his situation is revealed. What's sadder, and ultimately more depressing for the man, is that the boy doesn't even realize how bad it is. The sickening question that lingers when the story is all done is what good would it do for the boy to see how truly poor off he is? If the man can't help, if the situation is truly futile, is it better for the boy to be living in ignorance?

"Guthrip" is a short piece, but emotionally gut-wrenching.

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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reader's Diary #993- James Howe: The Celery Stalks at Midnight

My son and I are pushing right along with the Bunnicula series, just having completed book #3: The Celery Stalks at Midnight. In this installment, Bunnicula is thankfully at the center once again, sort of, since he was practically irrelevant in the last book, Howliday Inn. I say "sort of" since Bunnicula doesn't actually do much. He doesn't talk and doesn't drive any of the plot forward. Though Bunnicula has his name on the series (thanks to the success of the 1st book) and though they are narrated by a dog named Harold, the protagonist is arguably his friend Chester the cat. Chester, an avid reader and a suspicious type, drives the action forward with his overactive imagination.

In The Celery Stalks at Midnight, Chester revisits the folklore and learns about vampires that enlist their victims to do their evil bidding. While Bunnicula himself has yet to claim a victim of the non-vegetable variety, Chester begins to fear that those vegetables in turn might attack. He convinces Harold and Howie (a dachshund puppy added in the last book) to help him round up all the white veggies (whose juice Bunnicula has sucked dry) and spear them through their "hearts" with toothpicks (in place of proper stakes).

I love that Howe doesn't dumb down the books. While still very much aimed at a younger audience, he still makes references to people like Thoreau. He uses words like enterprise and palpitations. Would a child understand all of it? Probably not, but there's enough humour and action between to definitely keep them interested, and if they happen to learn something along the way, great. (But not necessary!)

Next up: Nighty Nightmare.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Reader's Diary #992- Andrew Pyper: The Wildfire Season

Just a few pages in I was admiring Andrew Pyper's gritty characters. He captured blue collar well and the writing reminded me somewhat of Stephen King.

But at about page 150, it suddenly occurred to me that I was no longer enjoying the book, not even remotely, and I spent the rest of time trying to determine what went wrong.

The best I can come up with is that Pyper took on too much. Though the book centers primarily around Miles McEwan, an self-exiled fire chief living in Ross River, Yukon, Pyper uses the third person omniscient to occasionally share glimpses into the minds of a handful of other characters (even a freakin' bear), and they all seem to have the same penchant for figurative language. Worse still is the excessive peril: at one point Miles is in danger of being burned alive, attacked by a bear, shot, and somewhere out there also lurks a mysterious arsonist. I half expected Venom or the Sandman to show up. It was hard to take the whole theme of guilt and redemption seriously when the rest of the plot was so over the top.

I appreciated a Yukon setting that wasn't Whitehorse or Dawson City, but had really hoped for a better story.

Reader's Diary #991- Masashi Kishimoto (translated by Katy Bridges): Naruto, Volume 1

When I added Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto to my latest TBR graphic novel list back in March, it was one of the few titles that I chose purely due to its commercial success. Most of the others were picked for critical acclaim, some fortunate enough to have achieved both critical and commercial success. I wasn't holding my breath that Naruto, the story of an adolescent, orphaned, ninja-in-training, was going to be a great piece of literature.

And it wasn't. But then, I still enjoyed it more than I'd expected. Looking at the cover I expected I some sort of Pokemon or Dragon Ball-Z knockoff, neither of which could I ever understand the appeal. Looking at the sheer numbers of books in the series (over 60 since 97), I couldn't honestly expect that an author who pumped out books this fast could be concerned with taking the time to do an admirable job.

Still, I was entertained. There were funny moments. The art work wasn't stellar, but then not the worst I've seen either. Stylistically, it was typical manga with its sharp, thin lines and exaggerated features. But backdrops were often more detailed than expected. There were surprisingly interesting choices with the angles of certain scenes. Not being big on manga, I still don't get some things: why everyone seems so quick to temper, why there are so many "white" looking people, but I guess that's all just a part of the style.

I don't know if I could commit to 60+ books— I still haven't finished either the Scott Pilgrim or Akira series despite enjoying them more than Naruto and despite having far less books— but I can at least understand why Naruto has his fans. The first volume had enough action to work on its own and the characters are built up just to the point of compelling so as to keep a reader curious enough to maybe, perhaps, go for book 2.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Reader's Diary #990- David Small: Stitches

By far the most emotional wallops I've taken from books this year have come from graphic novels. I'm questioning why that is. It would seem that the non-graphic novelists I've been reading have been almost afraid of emotion, burying it beneath layers of ambiguity and symbolism, as if anything else would be overwrought or maudlin. Yet the graphic novels have tackled emotion head-on. Perhaps a large reason for this has been that a lot of the graphic novels I've been reading have been autobiographical and the writers have simply been honest.

David Small's Stitches is an almost shocking true story about a miserable childhood that left him literally speechless. I haven't remembered wanting to just hug a character this much since A Child Called It. Young David Small is just so likeable, so normal, and yet his parents are so not. Perhaps surprising, the adult Small doesn't even come across as bitter towards them. He clearly shows that he most certainly was angry with them, but it seems from a distance. Not that Small suggests that he has forgiven his parents, but it reads as if from a man who has come to terms with his less than perfect upbringing.  He hints at theories towards his parents' own unhappiness, but doesn't dwell on them except for their impact on Small's life;  how they indirectly steered him towards imagination and illustration, how it shaped his outlook on life.

The illustrations in Stitches are beautiful, revealing so much tone in the pen and gray scale ink and water, with beautiful choices of lighting and angles. He also dives occasionally into the more surrealistic perspective of the child's mind, creating a far deeper insight into the character.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reader's Diary #989- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Zechariah

Pete Best was an original chariot driver, but he was cut...

Almost through the Old Testament, I'm finally able to see some patterns emerging; I'm able to group certain books and verses. There's the tedious manual/catalogue writing (how to prepare a sacrifice, build an ark or temple, who begat who). There are the Sunday school classics (Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark, Daniel in the den of lions). There's the YOU'RE ALL SINNERS WHO NEVER LEARN AND YOU'LL PAY FOR IT message (which is repeated over and over and over). And then, not nearly as common but wildly fascinating, there's psychedelic stuff (giant eyeball wheels, flying fire snakes).

The first few chapters of The Book of Zechariah are in that latter, "I Am The Walrus" territory, and it's here we meet the legendary four horsemen of the apocalypse. It also wanders into apocalyptic territory, so it should be of particular interest in our end-of-days obsessed culture. Throw in some prophecies and The Book of Zechariah makes for some interesting reading.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reader's Diary #988- Giovanna Rivero: Lava

Run for your lives, it's gonna blow!
In most evacuation stories that I've read, the women and children are the ones expected to go first. So I was surprised to read in Giovanna Rivero's "Lava" (click on the writing sample), that the women of this particular village stay behind, while the men leave with the children after a volcano threatens to destroy them all.

Rivero offers a justification for the women's behaviour, but I don't buy it. I'm not sure if it's intentionally unsatisfactory or not. Was there a historical precedent where such a thing happened in real life? Was Rivero making a symbolic point, does the lava represent something else? How am I supposed to feel about these women that stayed? Are they brave or stupid? So much to decide! Fortunately it's flash fiction so I can read it over and over to work out some theories.

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

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reader's Diary #987- Alan Moore, illustrated by Kevin O'Neill: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

It just occurred to me that I've read enough graphic novels at this point to no longer feel like an outsider looking in. A few years back I decided to jump into the world of long comics headfirst. I made one list after another, knocking off almost all the most critically acclaimed books, the absurdly popular books, and a few random suggestions for good measure. I still wouldn't call myself an expert in the field, but definitely upgraded from merely curious to informed fan.

Still, there are two graphic novelists that I've been trying to get a better handle on: Alan Moore and his nemesis Frank Miller. Both considered legends, I've struggled to find an appreciation for either. With Miller I'm still not completely there, and after being let down by the Watchmen and lukewarm to V for Vendetta, I was starting to suspect that perhaps Moore also wasn't my cup of tea. I decided to give him one more shot with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Loved it! The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a reader's comic. The writing in itself isn't particularly literary, but it's written for literature lovers. The League, for the uninformed, is comprised of Captain Nemo (Jules Verne), Wilhelmina Murray (Bram Stoker— and I'm not sure how a woman is a gentleman), Alan Quartermain (H. Rider Haggard), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson), and Hawley Griffin (H. G. Wells) make up a team of crime fighting superheroes. Moore initially conceived of them as a Justice League of Victorian England (I'm more of a Marvel Comics guy, so I had drawn parallels to the Avengers), but started having fun working in as many literary references and characters as he could. Even the minor characters are borrowed from other literary creations.

I had a ball. I got a lot of the references, but still had to look up others (including Quartermain) to see what books they originally appeared in.

Hawley Griffin, however, soured the experience somewhat. He first appears in the book as a rapist. He's invisible, he's at an all girl's boarding school, you can figure this out. So I had a hard time accepting him into the league. Granted the others have their flaws as well (one of Hyde's is his tendency to the rip off people's arms with his teeth) but I guess I have my limits and the character of Griffin went past them. It felt grossly misogynistic. Fortunately, I read that Moore gives Griffin his comeuppance in Volume 2, so I'm encouraged to think that he was equally disgusted with this character. Plus, now I have even more of a reason to read the second volume.

Kevin O'Neill's artistry in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen suits it well. A mix of classic superhero and steam-punk overtones lends the book a cool, pulp quality.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is less serious or political as the Watchmen or V for Vendetta, and while I normally go for such things, I might prefer Moore's fun side.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A message from Christopher DiRaddo of CBC Radio, Canada Writes

Hyperlocal is an interactive story map where Canadians can upload personal stories about the changes they see in their own neighbourhoods. Stories may touch the big issues we face in a fragile economy, or reflect small changes in a neighbourhood (such as when a colourful character passes away, or a coffee chain moves in).

We want to know what's new and changing in your neighbourhood and what that change means to you.

There are different ways to submit: 
  • Text entry between 400-500 words (photo optional)
  • Photo essay and caption (3 photos + 50-100 word caption)
  • Video or audio (maximum length: 2 minutes) with a 50-100 word accompanying text
All stories will be available to be read online, and at the end of the month a jury will select the most compelling submission from the public. The winning story will be turned into a web-based interactive by the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio, and the winner will receive a laptop computer.

There is no cost to enter. Deadline is May 3, 2013.

To find out more, and to put your story on the map, visit

Thank you,

Christopher DiRaddo
CBC Radio, Canada Writes

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reader's Diary #986- George Ryga: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

For the past few years, I've been— with a few exceptions— limiting my reading of plays to Shakespeare. Now that I've finally finished with his works and have been reading more contemporary plays. I haven't been really comparing the old to the new, understanding of course that any literature written such a long time ago would read quite differently than modern writing. However, with George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe I was still taken aback by how different it was than Shakespeare.

On the surface that probably looks like an insult. Shakespeare is supposed to be the ultimate playwright, after all. It's not my intention to pick one over the other. But in Shakespeare there's virtually no stage direction and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is almost 50% stage direction. The latter also has a very specific, unique stage set up.

I found it somewhat more difficult then to read The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. I'm not great at visualizing settings in books. With Shakespeare I most often imagined the scenes happening where they were supposed to be set, not on a stage at all. Venice was Venice, not a stage with Venice scenery in the background. Reading the Ecstasy of Rita Joe it's hard to get away from the stage at all.

Would an audience have more success being transported into the settings of Rita Joe? I would imagine, but then it's also not crucial that they do. The settings only change mostly as flashbacks. Rita, a Shuswap girl from a reservation and now living in the city, is on trial for prostitution. The flashbacks serve mostly to show how she has ended up in this predicament and the lead up to the tragic conclusion. However, characters simply walk into a flashback, sometimes just miming the props, returning to the frame scene, jumping into different ages and so on. I gather that the various scenes are not to represent specific times and events as much as the surreal memories of said times and events.

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is almost alarmingly as relevant today as it was when it written in 1967. Try to read without thinking of the Idle No More movement. I bet you can't. Interestingly, Ryga wasn't an aboriginal man. He was, however, a minority and it appears that many First Nations people felt that he at least captured some of the harsh truths about their existence in Canada. Academy nominee Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation starred in the first production of the play, as well as in its successful Washington, D.C. run.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reader's Diary #985- James Howe (illustrated by Lynn Munsinger): Howliday Inn

Howliday Inn, the 2nd book in the Bunnicula series, doesn't actually feature the vampire bunny at all. When Chester the cat and Harold first get the news that they are to be boarded at a kennel named Chateau Bow-Wow (not actually called Howliday Inn)  when the family goes on vacation, it is mentioned only briefly that Bunnicula will be staying at a neighbour's house. I remember this being an issue for me as a child, as it was an issue for my son this time around. Though Bunnicula didn't talk like Chester and Harold, he was a loveable little guy. We missed him. At least we know that he returns in the 3rd book...

Despite the absence of Bunnicula, I actually think Howe went a little overboard with the number of characters in this book. Besides Chester and Harold, the other guests at the kennel include dogs Howard, Heather, Max, Taxi, Georgette, and Louise, another cat named Lyle, and a pair of new humans Harrison and Jill. I love doing voices for book characters but it took me a while to keep them all straight. I had intended to give Georgette a southern accent for instance and Louise a French accent. However, for the longest while they were both French. Howard and Heather became British but only after a while, for Max I gave up trying a New Yorker accent and settled on gruff, Taxi was high pitched, and so on.

Still, I know why there was a plethora of new characters and I can hardly blame Howe for my lack of Hank Azaria vocal skills. Howliday Inn is essentially a murder mystery for kids. (There's also a touch of werewolf lore thrown in, hence the Howl part of the title.) Like all good murder mysteries you need a great and varied cast of characters to serve as suspects.

This series is a really fun, lighthearted way to introduce kids to horror and mystery genres. My son, like me, didn't enjoy it quite as much as Bunnicula, but he still laughed out loud a few times (mostly at Lyle and Taxi), and we're both looking forward to The Celery Stalks at Midnight.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Reader's Diary #984- Euripides: Medea

Gold medalist Intense Leap Frog Championships

Remember the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl"? Sure, the controversy about that song paled in comparison to the controversy that would surround the Chicks a few years later, but I still remember it. A woman knocking off her abusive husband bothered many, despite of and for some, because of, the darkly humorous telling. For the record (not exactly sure what record), I did enjoy the song. I don't condone murder, but yeah, I like the feminist overtones to the song. The guy was scum, she decided not to put it up with any more. Shy of the killing-thing, I can get behind a summary like that.

In the foreword to my copy of Euripides' Medea, the Greek tragedy, and there again in Wikipedia, the play is referred to as proto-feminist. For the unfamiliar, Medea is about a woman who married Jason (of the Argonauts), but decides to exact revenge on him for his infidelity, by killing his new bride. Actually, that's not entirely accurate, she has her and Jason's children do it. They also wind up killing the bride's father. And what does their mom do to reward them for their services? Raise their allowance? Take them to Disney World? Not quite. To further her revenge on Jason, she also kills the kids. Take that Jason.
Glenn Close stopped at the rabbits.
Jason is an ass. Make no mistake about it. After dragging Medea away from her people to live in Corinth, after having two children with her, he drops her like bad tzatziki in order to marry the king's daughter. He's also an idiot. Medea murdered her own brother in order to join Jason. Clearly this is not a woman you'd want to cross.

I know you killed your brother for

 me but I met this chick at a palace rave...
But killing her own children? Not only is it reprehensible, but it sucks as revenge. Or should I say, not only does it suck as revenge, but it's also reprehensible.

Medea's an interesting play all right, but I don't think we want to invite crazies to the feminist party.

In summary, Dixie Chicks = good, Medea = bad.

Reader's Diary #983- Benoit Lelievre: Full Moon

What I assume an American child's floor looks like when he dumps his Halloween bag.
Always looking for new sources of online short stories, I came across Shotgun Honey, a online Canadian magazine specializing in crime/ noir flash fiction. Looking through their archives I settled on "Full Moon" by Benoit Lelievre, a writer from Montreal.

 Benoit's story takes place in a bar in Vegas. There are four guys with guns pointed at/ jammed into one another. How did they get into this situation?

Perhaps it's the Vegas setting, but its unfolding reminded me somewhat of the Hangover but with more guns. It's the pattern of unfolding that Lelievre employs that makes the story zip along and gives it its charm-- assuming you're into pulp fiction noir. (Not surprisingly, Tarantino is named checked.)

Reading the comments that follow the story, I was disappointed that some people requested a sequel and that Benoit considered it. I liked the ending just fine as it was. Given all the gun-control talk in the U.S. at the moment, one could take the concluding paragraph as a political statement. However, it would seem to me that the primary goal of the piece was simply to entertain. And it did.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reader's Diary #982- Sarah Leavitt: Tangles

Tangles, the graphic memoir of Sarah Leavitt and her mother's Alzheimer's, is one of the most touching books I've read in a while. I choked up a few times. I also laughed a few times. A book that can move me to such bursts of emotion is a rare book indeed.

A disclaimer: My mother in law, and our family, has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some time. Would a reader without a personal connection to Alzheimer's have the same reaction as I? It's hard to say, but it has won a ton of awards and critical acclaim, so I don't think I'm alone in my praise of the book.

The artistry is no where near as strong as the writing. Very few panels have any background whatsoever and character poses are often awkward. However, it is more than just functional. Like the writing, the drawings are honest. I like to rib a lot of the Drawn and Quarterly guys for "flashing" their readers, as it seems that every memoir they publish has to feature at least one panel exposing the artist's penis. I'm really not a prude. In fact, in Sarah Leavitt's Tangles, nudity is used brilliantly and for a number of reasons. Compare the scenes, for instance, when Sarah and her sister find themselves having to take care of their mother's hygiene, to a scene between Sarah and her partner in the shower. That something like nudity can cause such wildly different emotions depending on the context is captured so much more powerfully with the visuals. Leavitt's drawings, which admittedly look somewhat technically amateurish, are further redeemed by the subtle artistic choices. It's amazing, for instance, to watch in her's mother's face, the decline in her comprehension throughout the course of the book, captured largely with just a change in pupil size.

Leavitt shies away from nothing in the book. Every doubt, all the frustration, guilt, the rare releases of laughter, these are things that we've gone through (my wife more than I, obviously) and it means a lot to know that our reactions are normal. Had she chose to hide such details, it wouldn't have rang true, nor would it have been as powerful. On a somewhat less emotional level, I also found the book fascinating from a medical point of view. At the beginning of the book, Leavitt's mother's personality is almost nothing like it was of my mother in law's. However, as the disease took a hold of her mother Midge, I began to recognize more and more of my mother in law in Midge's actions and demeanour. Not identical manifestations of the disease, mind you, but quite similar.

I also appreciated the balance in the book. It's not just about her mom. It's not just about her mom's disease. It's also largely about herself. How can it not be? To some extent, when one person gets Alzheimer's, their entire family gets it. The adjustments and effects it has on the lives of everyone that loves that person are profound. Leavitt talks about her partner, she talks about her father, her sisters, her aunts. And yet, the story doesn't lose focus. I was very critical a couple years back when I wrote about Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons and how self-centered it became, essentially ignoring the people of Burma (Myanmar). Thankfully Leavitt managed to write a very personal story without losing sight of others, and more importantly without losing the focus of the book: her mother.

There are many times when Tangles is not pretty. It's Alzheimer's. But for all that, Sarah Leavitt has created a beautiful story.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Reader's Diary #981- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Haggai

It's not a pyramid scheme!
The Book of Haggai is another one of those short books near the end of the Old Testament. Just two chapters. There was barely time to form a thought before the book ended.

I found myself comparing Haggai to my admittedly foggy memories of Thomas Hutchings from Bernice Morgan's Random Passage and the sequel Waiting for Time. Whereas Haggai, a minor prophet, tries to convince people to rebuild a temple and blames their recent drought on their not having done so already, Thomas Hutchings was helping build the Basilica, a large Catholic church in St. John's, Newfoundland but (if memory serves) was appalled by the dangerous building conditions and that the church could justify such an expensive and ornate building when there was so much poverty in the area. Quite the opposite characters.

Of course, that's taking the temple literally, when I suppose it could easily be turned into a metaphor for say, the faith itself. A few verses seem to be a warning to stop simply go through the motions with one's faith and to put the effort into "building" it up. Of course, that's just an interpretation. In two short chapters, the idea was fleeting.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Reader's Diary #980- Roger Ebert: The Thinking Molecules of Titan

Roger Ebert was my go-to guy for movie reviews. I didn't always agree with his judgement, but more so for his than the many others out there. With Ebert's reviews, however, it didn't always matter if I wound up agreeing, the review itself was worth my time. They were sometimes entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, and usually both. Listening to all the tributes pour in after his death last week, even from actors whose work he'd sometimes slammed, I was reminded once again of the value of a review. As a reviewer, that's a good reminder to have, especially as most days we're made to feel like parasites. (The only thing worst than a reviewer, is a self-published reviewer but that's for a whole other discussion.)

I was surprised to come across a short story on the New Yorker website written by Roger Ebert. I had no idea that he'd ever tried his hand at fiction. Turns out he'd even written a novel; Behind the Phantom's Mask. Of course celebrities can get book deals at the drop of a hat, so that doesn't necessary mean he was good at writing fiction. Nor does his skill at reviewing. Out of respect to Ebert, I was prepared to give "The Thinking Molecules of Titan" an honest review.

Before getting to the story itself, however, I should note that the prelude written by Richard Brody helps put the story, and the author, into perspective.

"The Thinking Molecules of Titan" reminded me of Isaac Asimov's writing. It's sci-fi, it deals with questions of art and science, possibly religion, but it's all told in an accessible way. The questions it raises aren't new.  I've heard similar thoughts about the Fibonacci sequence, as people attempt to also include mathematics into the mix. Not that any of the thoughts are possible to really narrow down into a single, defined theory, but they're about life and the universe somehow all making sense, and if art can't necessarily explain it, it can— at the very least— help us believe it.

Ebert has done a great job balancing the mundane against such philosophy (or search for philosophy), with characters that seemed just at the brink of believing that life could be mundane. Just in time.

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

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Reader's Diary #979- Molière: Tartuffe

As I was reading Molière's play, Tartuffe, I was casting the characters in my head. Maybe it's because he's been in the headlines in recent years for repugnant behaviour, but I decided that Gerard Depardieu should play Tartuffe, repugnant in his own right for his hypocrisy, his insincerity, and his abuse of power. Lo and behold, when I started researching for this post, I discovered that Depardieu had in fact acted as Tartuffe in a 1984 movie version. Fortunately I wasn't able to find any history of the Bluth family actors (from TV's Arrested Development) having portrayed Orgon's family, so there's still hope of a killer ensemble cast. Bateman, Cross, Arnett, Walter, and the rest. Then get Depardieu to take a break from urinating on planes and evading taxes to reprise his role. I'd pay big bucks to see that! (His acting that is, not the peeing.)

I quite enjoyed Tartuffe, finding it quite amusing, and more than a little applicable to certain people and organizations today. Without summarizing the entire plot, Tartuffe is a pious fraud who has somehow managed to convince (Master) Orgon and his mother otherwise. Orgon is so taken in he decides, much to the objections of the rest of his family, to marry off his daughter Marianne to Tartuffe. The remainder of the play involves the family trying to prevent that from happening.

In my Kobo version from MobileReference, there were two translations of the play. The first, by Jeffrey D. Hoeper, rhymes. This both surprised me and made me skeptical. On the one hand, the original was also written entirely in rhyming couplets, so Hoeper's translation kept that jaunty spirit in tact. However, how closely can a translator match the original meaning when he is concentrating on English rhymes? Hoeper's translation made sense and I enjoyed the story, but how close was it to Molière's intent?

I had just recently chastised myself for my poor reading of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. I didn't pay close attention, I didn't read the 2nd part, and was generally a pretty lazy reader. I wasn't going to let that happen with Tartuffe. I decided to read the 2nd translation as well. It could be fun to compare two translations of the same book.

The second translation was by Curtis Hidden Page (his real name, I swear to god). His doesn't rhyme, but it does make a bit more sense. (Then again, it was my second time with the plot, maybe a second reading of Hoeper's also would have brought the story into more focus. However, without the rhythm and the rhyme, Page's has more of an edge and is less humourous. Still, despite clearing up some details, Page's translation made me appreciate Hoeper's even more. It's quite amazing how well the details stood up, how little was lost under all the English rhyming.

I imagine someone wishing to produce this play could safely go either way, depending on the mood he/she is hoping to achieve. Personally, I like the rhymes as I think it's closer to what Molière would have wanted, but I'd settle for just seeing any version or interpretation at this point.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Reader's Diary #978- Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" has been recommended to me so often on this blog, that I eventually ended up thinking I'd read it anyway. Turns out I hadn't and so I rectified that last week.

Like many others before, when Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he's a giant vermin, one that eventually can climb the walls and ceiling, I took him to be a cockroach. Somewhat like the egg that everyone presumes Humpty Dumpty to be. Turns out that the particular type of insect is never specified, but the cockroach idea led me astray momentarily.

I have to confess that I read this while I was in New York so maybe I had cockroaches on the brain. I've never actually seen one in person, other than in insectariums, and since New York supposedly has a lot, a teeny perverse part of me wanted to see one. When you read about cockroaches, it's hard not to respect the little buggers, even if you are repulsed by them. Think of how long they've been around, how capable they are. I was kind of thinking that "The Metamorphosis" would be Samsa's survival story. Alas, as many would surely point out to me, that wouldn't exactly be Kafka's style.

Apparently Kafka suffered insomnia and a few other ailments that hindered his work, his sister became a caretaker, and he did in fact turn into a giant bug. Okay, maybe not, maybe that's where the autobiography becomes more fictional.  I think this the story is a good metaphor for depression as well. Not wanting to go to work, worried over the burden on your family, feelings of deprecation, you'd probably feel like a pest. Taking it further we see how the parents mistreat, fear, and resent him; how the sister tries to help at first until it takes its toll on her and she eventually loses her patience with him, and it's not a far stretch to say such unfortunate misunderstandings and fear of most mental illnesses are still common today.

Yes, it's dark. It should also be more depressing than it is. There's a quirky, goth sort of charm to the story, despite the bleak outlook.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Reader's Diary #977- Neil Pasricha: The Book of Awesome

Neil Pasricha's The Book of Awesome began its life as the blog 1000 Awesome Things. But despite its Webby Award, I hadn't heard of it until after the book had gotten so much attention. (It was Globe and Mail's best selling nonfiction book for two years in a row, 2010 and 2011). Before reading it myself, I even sent a few copies out to nephews after discovering that it's crossed over quite successfully into the teen market. Finally I decided that I should see what the fuss was about.

The Book of Awesome is a collection of short essays on the small moments that make us appreciate life, the ones that Pasricha deems as "awesome." It's a celebration of life's moments that we sometimes take for granted. With such a positive outlook, those that know me are probably expecting me, with my cynicism, to rip it to shreds. But come on, I'm not a monster. I happen to like happy people, just not annoying people. Ridiculing Neil Parischa's collection would be akin to booing at a child's piano recital, even if he is terrible. I'm not that mean.

I didn't love the book though (come on, I still need to be true to myself). The observations were great, ones that I found myself nodding along with (example, the courtesy smile or acknowledgement when you let someone in in traffic), and ones that I agreed with without having realized that my happy moments were such universal experiences. His observations stood out to me (and apparently many others) as very Seinfeldian— which depending on your appreciation of Jerry Seinfeld's comedy, could be a good or bad thing. I was always lukewarm to his standup (though I did love the show) so when he was channeling Seinfeld, I could appreciate the writing, even if I didn't love it. Often however Pasricha drives a bit into the ground. Take for instance when he describes "high tens":
Now that’s a beautiful picture. That’s the happy dial turned to 10. That’s a good day giving birth to a great one. That’s a photo from Appendix A of The Study of The Best Things Ever.
You could choke to death on the hyperbole in this book.

And ending each observation with AWESOME! complete with caps and exclamation points, grew tiresome fast, even if the preceding observation itself was fine. It was a gimmick, akin to "You might be a redneck" only less (yes, less) funny. I think I would have enjoyed them more on the blog. Reading each observation one day at a time, I think the schtick, the trademark or whatever you want to call it, would work better. Reading the book in a few close sittings can become tiresome.

Still, despite the comedic stylings, I appreciate the observations themselves and the intent behind the project.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Reader's Diary #976- Michel Rabagliati: Paul Has a Summer Job

I know some writers get upset when a reader, or worse, a reviewer complains that there are no likeable characters. I see their point. Sometimes you don't need to like the characters. They haven't asked us to befriend their fictional creations. Why is that even an expectation?

But it certainly helps when you do like a character. Case in point, Paul, from Michel Rabagliati's graphic novel Paul Has a Summer Job. In his late teens, a high school drop out, and unhappy with his current situation, Paul is clearly not a perfect character (if he was I wouldn't have called him likeable). However, he is still a nice guy who means well and when he gets a call from a buddy to work at a summer camp for troubled kids, I found myself rooting for him. I kind of guessed early on that it would be a coming-of-age story (actually, it's right there in a jacket flap blurb), but looked forward to going on the journey with him.

Paul Has a Summer Job is sweet but not sickeningly so. He's nice, but he's human. Yes, there's a few dark moments here or there,  even one where he has a violent revenge fantasy, but even those just make you like him more. Maybe it's the retro, whimsical cartooning that takes the edge off. Maybe it's the humour. Or maybe it's just all those other moments where you see his tender side and his potential.

One word of warning: apparently, it's semi-biographical. So, when Paul is drawn in the nude, it's essentially Michel Rabagliati flashing you. I like you Paul/ Michel, but do you need to sleep in the buff?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Reader's Diary #975- Tony Kushner: Angels in America (Part One, Millennium Approaches)

When I sat down to write this today, I was ready to rant. I had some major issues with Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Part One- Millennium Approaches, issues I needed to get off my chest. But, as I read it about a week ago I figured I should do a little research on it first. To refresh my mind on some of the details. I'm glad I did. It turns out I was wrong.

One of my issues was that it was only the first part. This wasn't entirely a beef with the writing, I was just annoyed that I could only find an e-copy of the first part. Why not also publish the second part Perestroika in the electronic format? However, I decided to read Millennium Approaches anyway, since from what I could tell the first part should be able to stand on its own. In fact, Millennium Approaches was first performed in 1990 and the 2nd part didn't come until 2 years later. However, when I first read it it did feel dropped at the end, like I was missing the 2nd half. I had so many questions and concerns. It couldn't hold up on its own at all!

Or could it? I admit it: when it came to Angels in America I was a lazy, unfocused reader. In my defense, I was reading it while in New York. At the end of very long, very filled days exploring Manhattan, when everyone else was asleep, I'd read Kushner's play. I was falling asleep myself much of the time, thinking ahead to what tomorrow would hold, bitter that I'd not been able to get Perestroika, and not overly enthusiastic for Millennium Approaches (I'd noted on the plane that Kushner had written the screenplay for Lincoln, which I'd found boring). In other words, I wasn't in a good head space to be reading the play.

Apparently I got some things mixed up. In fact, I even confused two characters, thinking one had AIDS when it was really another and this mix-up changed the plot quite a bit, not to mention destroying some of my earlier impressions on certain characters. Thankfully, after reading over online summaries again and again, the play now makes sense to me. I even like characters again. Granted some of my confusion would have been avoided had I seen the play performed in public, but that wasn't the case.

I'm still not sure the play was perfect. Sure there are some great themes explored (the role of God and society in shaping our fate, the resistance of the individual, etc) I still think the play is a bit busy. I applaud anyone who experiments, but there seemed to be a bit too much happening to fully reflect on the meaning. In my distracted state, I was doomed. Still, now that I've wrapped my head around it, and thinking back to the parts that did manage to pull me in, I'd definitely read Perestroika. Even if I no longer feel that I need to. (Now if I could just find an e-version.)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Reader's Diary #974- Becky Blake: The Three Times Rule

This is what a 3 looks like.
When I went to read this year's Canada Writes winner— the annual CBC short story writing contest— I was told by the jury panel that Becky Blake's "The Three Times Rule"
portrays a woman who finds emptiness and sadness when she reaches for love. She strives to be tough-minded but is besieged by distressing thoughts about her past as she finds herself in the arms of a man who means nothing to her. The story unfolds with subtlety, understatement and lyricism, and leads us to hope for better days for the protagonist even as we admire the clarity of her vision.
and I have to say, I wasn't particularly excited to read it. It's sounds depressing and dull, doesn't it? Emptiness? Subtlety? Aren't those the top two ingredients in all CanLit?

But I read it anyway and they're right. And yet, I enjoyed it! It is all those things they say it is, but somehow the description doesn't do it justice. It has "adult" themes, if the quotation marks help sell it more. It's not a drawn out affair; it may be subtle but it still has a point and gets to it mercifully fast. The characters feel real. The setting feels real. The jurors' description implies a certain level of pretension that thankfully just isn't there.

Speaking of pretension, as winner of this year's Canada Writes contest, Blake's story will appear in the awful, awful enRoute Magazine. She will also win $6000 and a two week writing residency at the Banff Center. I congratulate her on the money and the residency, but you should read her story online instead.

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