Like many graphic novels, Chester Brown's Louis Riel straddles—somewhat uneasily—the line between art and entertainment. I mean, if it weren't for theLike many graphic novels, Chester Brown's Louis Riel straddles—somewhat uneasily—the line between art and entertainment. I mean, if it weren't for the populist appeal of cartoons, this "comic-strip biography" would never have been able to crack any Canadian bestseller lists. Yet at the same time, Brown almost seems determined to keep his tale as unentertaining as possible: although gorgeously drawn, the novel has the emotional tenor of a history book, relying heavily on "talking-head"-type dialogue and displaying a proclivity for lengthy endnotes.
Not that any of this is—literarily speaking—a bad thing. For even if Louis Riel fails to be "fun" in the usual sense of the term, it nonetheless makes for a oddly compelling read. Part of the attraction surely lies in Brown's simple, black-and-white illustrations, which recall the modest elegance of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie comics. Another source of appeal is Louis Riel himself. Because of Brown's admirable efforts at non-partisanship, the many complexities and contradictions of the enigmatic Métis leader—such as the tension between his political and religious views—are given full play. The result is a trying (at times) but captivating (ultimately) look at one of Canadian history's most intriguing figures. Recommended.
(Oh, and besides the alternate cover, the 10th Anniversary Edition adds virtually nothing to make it worth seeking out.)...more
A few years back, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Brian Eno, in which the famed British musician/artist attempted to explain the purposeA few years back, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Brian Eno, in which the famed British musician/artist attempted to explain the purpose of art. "Art," he told us, "allows to you live out various possibilities without danger of any serious repercussions." He went on to elaborate that with painting and music—but especially with literature—we can move beyond ourselves, thereby increasing our ability to relate to others and to the world at large. In other words, art fosters empathy.
If this is true, then Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures is as successful a work of art as any. Equal parts critic and sympathizer, Lam chronicles the trials and tribulations of the medical profession, frequently touching upon its darker sides. Why does the doctor, whose principle concern is the well-being of the patient, so often strike us as cold and callous? And how does a mere mortal cope with godlike responsibility—that is, the power over life and death?
In one notable passage, Lam even goes so far as to explain (but not justify) the impetus behind the asshole-doctor-in-a-BMW stereotype. Empathy boosting at its finest!
That being said, Lam isn't the most gifted of writers. As per the current fad, his prose style is frustratingly pared down, which seems to be more the result of inadequacy than artistic strategy. Indeed, his few forays into more florid description come off as awkward and somewhat forced. And the principle trio of characters, although acceptably developed, never quite make the leap from the page to the reader's heart.
I haven't read much other "medical lit," so I can't say how Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures stacks up against the competition. But I'd suspect that its worth is likely generic in nature. That is to say, the book's value lies in the value of medical lit in general—namely, to expand the reader's capacity for empathy. Perhaps there are better examples out there (if so, please share them); but as it stands, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures did it for me....more
Johnny MacRae and shayne avec i grec—aka 2 Dope Boys in a Cadillac—are a pair of spoken word artists from British Columbia, with a penchant for ecologJohnny MacRae and shayne avec i grec—aka 2 Dope Boys in a Cadillac—are a pair of spoken word artists from British Columbia, with a penchant for ecology, marijuana and the music of Outkast. Admittedly, I don't know an awful lot about the world of spoken word—although the little I've come across (namely, the "motivational porn" of Shane Koyczan) has left me rather cold. But shit, son—these two boys write better page poems than most contemporary page poets, demonstrating an uncommon knack for metaphor and the poetics of typographical arrangement.
Not everything's roses, however. Many of these poems overstay their welcome, which perhaps highlights a fundamental difference between speech and writing: to wit, page poetry and spoken word don't have the same dependence on repetition. And some of these poems, such as the tortured satire of "Dear Double Down," could have been dropped in their entirety. But on the whole, Anthropocalypse Now is a rollicking ride through satire, surrealism, and social-awareness. A short book, but definitely worth the read....more
With the exception of my beloved Robert Kroetsch, Don McKay is probably the greatest, most skillful Canadian poet I've read thus far. And because CambWith the exception of my beloved Robert Kroetsch, Don McKay is probably the greatest, most skillful Canadian poet I've read thus far. And because Camber is a "collected works," spanning the last twenty-plus years of the poet's career, it allows one to gain an appreciation for the depth and versatility of his work. McKay tends to be placed in the eco-poetry camp (and with good reason), but he exercises an equally deft hand in the anthropological realm. Thus, although this collection contains its fair share of bird and nature poems, it also tackles such sundry topoi as jazz percussion ("Setting up the Drums"), automobiles ("Ode to My Car") and kitchen utensils ("Setting the Table").
However, McKay's most impressive strength as a poet lies in his genius for metaphor and comparison. For him, the simple act of turning on the kitchen faucet is imbued with magic and mystery: "an underground river leaps sixty feet into your mouth, a perfectly composed dream" ("Nocturne MacDonald-Cartier Freeway"). Elsewhere, a wintry sunset finds "evening […] bleeding inward from the bowl's edge, blue- / black with the heavy hint of snow" ("Midwintering"). And in "Kestrels," the heart is pertinently described as "that paraplegic bird." I'm of the belief that a successful metaphor makes a stereogram out of reality, forces the reader to apprehend the world in a way that is fresh and defamiliarizing. At his best, then, McKay tenders us a key with which to unlock the doors of perception.
Yet because of the density of this poetry, Camber's length—just over 200 pages—can be overwhelming. These poems are best taken slowly, so that there's time to digest them; unfortunately, the format of the "collected works" (voluminous, claustrophobic) isn't always best suited to such a mode of reading. For that reason, I'd like to check out some of the individual collections, like Night Field or Apparatus....more
O Resplandor presents itself as a book of translations, wherein the Romanian verse of Nichita Stănescu finds articulation in the English tongue. But hO Resplandor presents itself as a book of translations, wherein the Romanian verse of Nichita Stănescu finds articulation in the English tongue. But here's the catch: author/translator Erín Moure (aka Elisa Sampedrín, aka Eirin Moure, aka Erin Mouré) speaks no Romanian. How does she make it work? Well, with an ear to sound, rather than an eye to semantics...
Take, for instance, her rendition of Stănescu's "Elegia intaia," which she titles "Initial Elegy." The first stanza of the original poem reads as follows:
El începe cu sine şi sfârşeşte cu sine. Nu-l vesteşte nici o aură, nul-l urmează nici o coadă de cometă.
Now, compare this to Moure's "translation":
With cinema so far off, i am yet incipient with film. This, though i never dressed a Nietzchean dawn, never pressed my arms to the tail of a comet.
(Hint: "sine" doesn't mean "cinema," nor does "nici" mean "Nietzchean.")
The result is distinctly Cagean in flavour, but also makes for a very frustrating read. Granted, Moure punctuates her poems with an existential detective story, in which several "versions" of herself (à la the heteronyms of Pessoa) pursue the mysteries of translation and selfhood. Yet these prose sections, insofar as they come off as self-indulgent and somewhat ham-fisted, only serve to hurt the book as a whole. The same goes for her frequent invocations of "high theory" (specifically, that of the venerable Jacques Derrida), which struck me as pedestrian in a "senior-level-English-major" sort of way.
Jeannete Lynes is a solid enough poet. And Dusty Springfield—who this book led me to study at greater depth—cuts quite the fascinating figure. So whatJeannete Lynes is a solid enough poet. And Dusty Springfield—who this book led me to study at greater depth—cuts quite the fascinating figure. So what's the problem with It's Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems? Some possible answers: (1) the looseness of Lynes' poetic forms, (2) the way in which most of these poems revolve elliptically around a biographical event, like so many inside-jokes...
Don't get me wrong: I generally find the mode of (auto)biographical poetry to be quite interesting. But with this collection, I tended to get the impression that I was watching from the outside, that I was reading a verse-translation of a biography rather than a verse-translation of a first-person subjective experience. I was not overly impressed with the result. ...more
I tend to be suspicious of so-called "confessional poetry," for the simple reason that most poets have very little of interest to confess. But GregoryI tend to be suspicious of so-called "confessional poetry," for the simple reason that most poets have very little of interest to confess. But Gregory Scofield is a different story. A two-spirited Metis with a Jewish father, Scofield has suffered through abject poverty, sexual abuse, parental abandonment and both sexual and racial discrimination. The poetry that results from this tragic concoction is urgent, angry and ugly. But for every brutal truth he exposes, Scofield also takes a stride in the direction of redemption and forgiveness. And it is here that kipocihkân derives its real power.
Yet all things considered, I wasn't particularly impressed with Scofield qua poet. Granted, he plays with some interesting forms (see "Cycle (of the black lizard)"). And throughout this collection, he strategically employs Cree words and phrases to great effect (see, in particular, the title poem). Nevertheless, I can't help but suspect that there would be little lost if these poems were translated into prose, at least insofar as my own poetic tastes are concerned. I don't know if I will read anything else by Scofield; but if I do, it'll probably be something more prosey, like maybe his autobiography....more
I'm an aesthete, a philosophaster and a romantic, which probably explains why I didn't enjoy this collection all that much. See, I find bliss in melodI'm an aesthete, a philosophaster and a romantic, which probably explains why I didn't enjoy this collection all that much. See, I find bliss in melody and rhythm; in complexity and ambiguity; and in the relation—essential to so much poetry—between form and content. Atwood's verse, however, is straight-forward and unadorned, with an ostensible didactic quality. In short, her poetry reads a lot like her non-fiction (indeed, Atwood had previously explored many of the themes and subjects of this book in essay-format). Unfortunately, I don't particularly like her non-fiction.
These aren't objective criticisms. On the contrary, the very accessibility of The Door, with which I have taken such an issue, will likely recommend it to a good number of readers. And I should not neglect to mention the few poems that I was honestly impressed by. "The Line: Five Variations" and (esp.) "The Door" are both powerful pieces that nonetheless seem to elude complete comprehension on the part of the reader, which is exactly what I want from poetry. And "The Last Rational Man" brings to life—vividly—a notorious episode from the reign of Caligula.
Yet even a fan of Atwood will—or should—admit that most of this collection doesn't shine so bright. I've tried to explain (with extreme brevity) why this might be, but perhaps my qualms are best expressed in the following passage, which I borrow from James Schuyler's "The Morning of the Poem":
So many lousy poets So few good ones What's the problem? No innate love of Words, no sense of How the thing said Is in the words, how The words are themselves The thing said: love, Mistake, promise, auto Crack-up, color, petal, The color in the petal Is merely light And that's refraction: A word, that's the poem.
Like a good number of people, I take pleasure in an elaborately developed fictional world, rife with thick description and boasting internal consistenLike a good number of people, I take pleasure in an elaborately developed fictional world, rife with thick description and boasting internal consistency. Yet the author of such a world runs a certain risk. For there is a danger of getting lost within a universe of one's own imagining, of forgetting that such a universe is not interesting in and of itself, but only insofar as it is able to imbue its fictional inhabitants with the pretense of real existence.
The line between detailed imagination (on the one hand) and literary solipsism (on the other) is a treacherous one. But if I recall correctly, Oryx and Crake—the first book in the Maddaddam trilogy—treaded the desirable side of it. Indeed, the environ of that novel was vivid and enthralling: the regime of corporate oligarchy, the fantastic (but frighteningly believable) genetic splices, so on and so forth. But ultimately, these thick descriptors served as a backdrop for a story that was, first and foremost, all about people (Oryx, Crake and especially Snowman), about how they felt and acted in the face of a languishing Earth.
The Year of the Flood, by contrast, finds its characters taking a back seat to the delineation of Atwood's fictional universe, which means that the novel reads more like The Silmarillion than The Hobbit, more like Genesis than Paradise Lost. That is to say, it tells more than it shows. For instance, the reader will discover very little description within this book's 400+ pages, not to mention a near total absence of metaphor, simile and analogy. Considering Atwood's background in poetry, this last point is extremely puzzling. As a result, the story comes across as distant and abstract, with a scant amount of the tactility that made Oryx and Crake so engaging.
These criticisms come to the head in the following example, in which a character undergoes a shroom-induced vision quest (plot-wise, this is a very pivotal episode). Surely, you'd expect such a scene to invite some inventive—maybe even poetic—writing. But Atwood, for some inexplicable reason, resists the temptation. Hence, she dryly narrates:
[...] [Toby] sat down in meditation position, near a large tomato plant, which in the moonlight looked like a contorted leafy dancer or a grotesque insect.
Soon the plant began to glow and twirl its vines, and the tomatoes on it started to beat like hearts. There were crickets nearby, speaking in tongues: quarkit quarkit, ibbit ibbit, arkit arkit...
Neural gymnastics, thought Toby. She closed her eyes.
Why can't I believe? she asked the darkness.
Behind her eyelids she saw an animal. It was a golden colour, with gentle green eyes and canine teeth, and curly wool instead of fur. It opened its mouth, but did not speak. Instead, it yawned.
It gazed at her. She gazed at it. "You are the effect of a carefully calibrated blend of plant toxins," she told it. Then she fell asleep.
Either Toby has just suffered through a remarkably dull psychedelic trip, or Atwood probably should've better exercised her descriptive chops. And if this is how she depicts a hallucinogenic experience, imagine what the rest of the book must be like. (But to give credit where credit's due: with its total of two similes, the aforementioned passage is somewhat more evocative than the novel's usual tenor.)
Nevertheless, The Year of the Flood does pick up somewhat near the end, although it concludes just as I was really beginning to be drawn in (on a cliff-hanger, no less!). Hopefully, this stylistic change carries over into Maddaddam, the next and final work in the trilogy. I'll keep my fingers crossed....more
I'd never heard of Geneviève Castrée when I saw her give a talk at a small gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Generally, artist talks makeI'd never heard of Geneviève Castrée when I saw her give a talk at a small gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Generally, artist talks make me nervous, insofar as the writer or the musician in the flesh often constitutes a rather precarious entity. What if they turn out to be an asshole? Or a charlatan? Or worst of all: what if they turn out to be terribly dull?
But with Castrée, something of the opposite happened. Although I was unfamiliar with her work, I found there to be something irresistibly intriguing about this shy—albeit very funny—individual. Maybe it was her quasi-philosophical insights on the topics of art (especially biographical narrative), sadness, family and even the ferry out to the Island ("Ferries always smell like poo and French-fries. I think that's all people do on the ferries: eat and then poo"). Or maybe I was swayed by the black and white drawings—somewhat child-like, but not childish—that were projected against the wall as she spoke. Whatever is was, when I got home I immediately put her most recent publication—Susceptible—on hold from the local library.
It's hard to know how much her talk informed my reading of this book. I was surely influenced by her claim that its content—excepting the characters' names—is entirely factual, by her admission that she remains estranged from her parents to this day, by her general ambivalence towards the medium of biography and by her regret that the book ended up being so damn depressing ("I don't want to seem like I think my childhood was particularly hard; many kids have to go through what I did").
But context aside, Susceptible has lots to recommend it. Like any successful memoir, it achieves a sense of honesty without presuming completeness, a sense of satisfaction without necessarily providing closure. And the illustrations are quite charming. But be warned: Susceptible is also sad. Really fucking sad....more
The following review is littered throughout with spoilers; and so as to err on the side of caution, I've opted to hide the entire thing...
(view spoileThe following review is littered throughout with spoilers; and so as to err on the side of caution, I've opted to hide the entire thing...
(view spoiler)[Browsing through Mordecai Richler's Wikipedia page one evening, the following sentence caught my attention: "Some critics [have] thought Richler more adept at sketching striking scenes than crafting coherent narratives." Unfortunately, the entry failed to disclose the identities of those who had held such a view—that is, if anyone did at all (the conspicuous absence of a citation seems to support the latter possibility). But in any case, I'm inclined to believe, after having read Barney's Version, that the basic claim possesses its share of the truth.
Allow me to explain myself. There's no denying that Richler is an accomplished prose stylist: in his expert hands (or at the very least his sole writing hand), the various locales in which the novel's action takes place—Paris, New York, Toronto and (especially) Montreal—are brought vibrantly alive, as do the horrendously flawed but ultimately lovable schmucks who inhabit them. And Wikipedia's enigmatic critics were right: my God, what striking action it is! Yet this doesn't, as they claimed, come at a cost. For despite the novel's 400+ pages, not a word feels wasted, even as it bursts at the seams with comedic interludes and divergent tangents. Rather, as Richler guides us through a myriad of entertaining albeit essential detours (think Tristran Shandy), we nonetheless inch persisently towards the final exposal of the work's central—although perhaps rather unexpected—message of love and redemption.
Both the internal consistency of Barney's Version and its realness (for lack of a better term) likely stem from particular parallels to Richler's own life. Like the titular Barney Panofsky, Richler was besotted with another woman—whom he would later marry—at his own wedding reception. And both character and author are plagued by the infirmities of old-age; indeed, Richler would die only four years after the novel's publication. (Plus, here's another point of commonality: both men are credited with authoring the work—Mr. Richler on the front cover, Mr. Panofsky on inside title page). But the other characters also contain echoes of their creator. For instance, Richler's real-life stint in Paris as a young man did not resemble Barney and co.'s bohemian bullcrapping so much as it did Can-lit shyster Terry McIver's self-conscious mimicry of the Lost Generation. The result: an extradordinarily intimate work which begins by tickling your funnybone but ends up hitting you right in the heart.
But a fly has dirtied the ointment. Perhaps it's nothing more than the first stirrings of undiagnosed OCD, but I was slighlty vexed by the ending. Slightly. But enough to perceptibly alter my attitude towards the entire novel. The problem is this: In order to finally resolve the mystery of Boogie's death, Richler invokes the urban legend of the scuba diver sucked up by the water bomber. But such an occurrence is not merely unlikely, it's actually downright impossible. And this leaves us readers with one of two possibilities: 1) just as it would be in the real world, it's impossible that a plane could have scooped up a snorkling Boogie and subsequently dropped him to his death, in which case Barney (heaven forbid!) probably murdered the poor drug-addled sap after all; or 2) Bombardier-brand water bombers, in Barney's Version, counterfactually possess water-intakes large enough to swallow a grown man: thus, Barney's innocent, but the sense of realness I mentioned earlier is somewhat diminished.
The first possibility has some interesting consequences. For instance, it means that Barney is even more of an unreliable narrator than we had thought. In light of this chilling revelation, can we trust anything he's told us? And, oh my god, what if Clara didn't truly commit suicide that fateful night in Paris? What if Barney murdered her as well? But sadly, we musn't forget that water bombers were explicitely mentioned earlier in the novel—and morevover, that Barney had a mysterious plane-crash dream on the day of Boogie's disappearance; hence, it becomes clear that this interpretation—as delightfully macabre as it might be—is pretty far-fetched. And so alas, all that remains for us is the second possibility. I fully realize, of course, that it's probably ridiculous of me to let something as silly as a confuted urban legend spoil—even marginally—a work of literature as accomplished as Barney's Version. But then again, I think that's exactly why it bothers me so much. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
How do you grow a poet? This is one of the questions that lie at the heart of Kroetsch's remarkable poem—a poem which (in my humble opinion) ranks amoHow do you grow a poet? This is one of the questions that lie at the heart of Kroetsch's remarkable poem—a poem which (in my humble opinion) ranks amongst the best of the English language. Kroetsch was born and raised in rural Alberta—an environment none too sympathetic towards poetic expression. But unlike other artists with comparable origins, who often either ignore their roots or else unduly fetishize them, he manages to balance the particular with the universal: that is to say, Seed Catalogue is both an investigation of the construction (Kroetsch himself prefers the more organic term "growth") of an individual poet, and the construction of poetry—as a historically and geographically situated art-form—in general.
Thus, the names of Al Purdy and Pete Knight—"You know what I mean? King of All Cowboys"—occur alongside those of Heidegger and Hiroshige. And whenever Kroetsch invokes the luminaries and conventional topoi of 'high' art and culture, he always does so with a deep self-consciousness of his own inherent subjectivity. He notes, for instance, that the prairie poet must suffer the "absence of the Seine, the Rhine, the Denube, the Tiber and the Thames"—the great rivers that, throughout the ages, have captivated the minds of innumerable European artists. But the list is concluded with a river of his own:
Shit, the Battle River ran dry one fall. The Strauss boy could piss across it. He could piss higher on a barn wall than any of us. He could piss right clean over the principal's new car.
With its profound awareness of time and place, of its own construction, of the simultaneous importance and unimportance of art—and moreover, with the remarkable earnestness with which this awareness is expressed—Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue might be one of the most effective and absorbing works of 'post-modernism' I have ever encountered.
After examining a manuscript copy of The Double Hook, Frederick M. Saltzer—a literature professor at the University of Alberta—cautioned Sheila WatsonAfter examining a manuscript copy of The Double Hook, Frederick M. Saltzer—a literature professor at the University of Alberta—cautioned Sheila Watson that readers tend to "gallop" through works of fiction, and that her novella thereby courted both "bewilderment" and "frustration."
It's an apt warning. For to the ire of hurried readers everywhere, The Double Hook doesn't tell a story so much as it suggests one. Writing in sparse and muscular prose, Watson doles out narrative facts and descriptions with a measured hand: the name of a principle character might remain unsaid for most of the book, while a critical plot point could appear only as an uncompleted inference. Which makes the act of reading akin to stumbling upon—and subsequently trying to make sense of—a private conversation between two close friends.
But for those who put in the time and effort, The Double Hook emerges as a sophisticated and challenging piece of Modernist fiction. Saltzer even called it a "perfect work." And here, too, he's not terribly far off the mark....more
A History of Emily Montague would have been a far better read had it been about 350 pages shorter.
The book can be (roughly) summed up as follows: a hA History of Emily Montague would have been a far better read had it been about 350 pages shorter.
The book can be (roughly) summed up as follows: a handful of sentimental 20-somethings are living in 18th-century Quebec, and, for fun, they send each other epistles in which they hyperbolically expound upon their personal love lives.
That being said, I enjoyed the first 100 pages or so: there are some serious romantic intrigues, and Brooke’s descriptions of the New World are fascinating. By the time the characters are each married to their respective partners, however, the novel is seriously flagging. The letters, at this point, are pretty much just one character writing that “my wife is the most divine, bashful woman on the planet,” to which another responds, “no, my dear friend, my wife is surely the most virtuous and beautiful creature alive…” Etc., etc.
A few things in favour of the book: 1) it is Canada’s “first ever novel”; 2) despite a degree of racism and sexism, A History of Emily Montague still comes across as slightly more modern than many 18th-century texts – see, for instance, Brooke’s passionate belief that marriages should be chosen for love. (Although it is perhaps a slight exaggeration when the back blurb describes the novel as “[e]ntertaining, innovative, and infused with feminist ideas.”)
Also, the afterword by Lorraine McMullen reads like a bad high-school English paper.
I could fill a (hyperbolic) volume with gushing praise for this book, so rather than risk saying too much, I'm going to try and say just as much as II could fill a (hyperbolic) volume with gushing praise for this book, so rather than risk saying too much, I'm going to try and say just as much as I have to. What you need to know: this book, despite inevitably falling under the label of 'post-modern,' isn't stuffy, or even academic. On the contrary, it is—how should I say this?—fun. Even laugh-out-loud funny at times. I would go as far as to say that it's supremely entertaining. Yet The Studhorse Man is so much more. It's also sexy, intellectual, visceral. Maybe even tragic. (Kroestch, of course, would point to my apparent inability to adequately describe his novel as evidence for the intrinsic limitations of language. But I digress.)
Apart from writing poetry and fiction, Kroetsch was also quite the theorist—see, for instance, his excellent essay "For Play and Entrance" (note the sexual punniness of the title)—and it's impressive to observe how he can take (what could perhaps be deemed) dry and abstract concepts and instill them into a literary form that is both organic and engaging.
In conclusion, The Studhorse Man, despite being criminally under-read, is literature of the highest calibre....more