Monday, October 31, 2005

The Thirtyfirst.

Well, dear ghouls and goblins.
Here is a little ditty I wrote, many scary moons ago.....

The Thirtyfirst

Chilled, no doubt the night
air felt
October’s final sigh.
A cloud as though a pillow
threw feathers in the sky.

As summoned barking seized my heart
in rough
staccato time,
with dripping jaws the steamy breath
was puffed
though in my mind.

A bloated ghost with homely
stare, a
feeling not alone...
was floating there above me
where, a
lunar goblin shone.

Hastening then, the chase to end
and never
wond’ring why.
Chilled no doubt, the night
I felt
October’s final sigh.

© Ciprianowords Inc. 2005

Splash du Jour: Monday

"They all agreed that it was a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral. I have cross-examined these men, one of them a hard-headed countryman, one a farrier, and one a moorland farmer, who all tell the same story of this dreadful apparition, exactly corresponding to the hell-hound of the legend. I assure you that there is a reign of terror in the district, and that it is a hardy man who will cross the moor at night."
-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of The Baskervilles

Have a great and safe Hallowe’en Monday!

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Please Lord!
Have I not endured enough?
Is it too great a thing, to ask You to please have a look at this blogpage, and perhaps fix it, in Thine great mercy and whatever?
Seriously, it is really bothering me now.
If it is not fixed in some way, I may go out and take at least seven or eight of my nine lives.
I plan to do it by profound beer consumption, and I know this is something You frown upon, so please... let's get on this!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Splash du Jour: Thursday

I am currently reading Margaret Atwood's short stories.
A book called Bluebeard's Egg.
In one story, entitled Hurricane Hazel, Atwood is speaking of her fictional character (or perhaps herself) being dropped off by her boyfriend just after curfew....
...I got into the habit of coming in after the deadline, and my father would sit me down and explain very patiently that if I was on my way to catch a train and I was late for it, the train would go without me, and that was why I should always be on time. This cut no ice with me at all, as I would point out, our house was not a train. It must have been then that I began to lose faith in reasonable argument as the sole measure of truth.

Have a great Thursday!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ode To Starbucks.

I am just sitting here at Starbucks (big surprise) and thinking about how much I love it here.... and why!
When it comes to “marketing”, Starbucks has me pegged.
I am addicted to all things Starbuckian, apparently even Starbuckian atmosphere.
The walls of my apartment are lined with Starbucks artwork that I picked up years and years ago (they no longer even allow their used posters to leave the store with spazzes like me). I used to have a sort of running list of store locations, where I would pester the managers to save me their old posters. They were very cooperative (probably, they were scared of me).
I would take the posters, (and back then they had real nice artwork on each one), and I would get them laminated at one of these Frame places. Crazy huh? One day I want to do a photo retrospective of the Starbucks artwork in my place, and I’ll post it here. [Currently, my digital camera is on the blink.]

But seriously, ever since I had my second cup of Starbucks coffee, I have not been able to tolerate any other sort of java!
My first time was in the Calgary airport.
I was going through the terminal, to connect with another flight, and I saw the first green Starbucks sign I ever had seen in my life. An epiphany.

Little did I know, of the lifelong relationship that was beginning, budding, like a spring flower, in this hectic moment.

I ordered a “mild” coffee of the day. Looked awful dark to me, that coffee.
Oh well, I mixed it up (honey and cream) and took off to find my Gate.
Sweet Lordy!
When I took a sip of that preCambrian tar, I turned right around and went back there.
I said to the barista girl, “Ummm. Yeah! I ordered the mild coffee. This must be the stronger one.”
“No, sir” she assured me. “That is our mild one, but if you like, I can pour you another.”
“Yes, please,” I said... and this time I watched her.... yeah, uh-huh, she went to the mild spigot there..... well, I’ll be darned.
The resultant fluid still looked like something you drain out of the crankcase of a Dodge Ram.
Oh well. I mixed it up again. And I got on the plane with the thing.
Well, see... after surviving that first cup of Starbucks effluent.... I was thoroughly hooked.
I had to stop in at every green sign, and see if that airport experience was unique.
And every Starbucks I went in to had this same strong, robust, flavorful coffee. NEVER WEAK! I cannot tolerate weak coffee.
So really, it was a match made in heaven.
And since that time, well, I have graduated to the harder stuff.
Mild Shmild!
I want the toughest stuff you’ve got. The darkest. Deepest.
Then this was not good enough.... I want the americanos. Espresso and water.
As Jerry Seinfeld says, of headache pills... “Find out what will KILL me, and then just back it off a little.”
That’s what I tell the barista girls now!

Say what you will, Starbucks is a very savvy company. They know where to put their stores. They know who they are trying to reach. But I fully believe that their real success can be attributed to the absolute perfection of their product.
I agree 100% with father-and-daughter author team, Al and Laura Ries, when they say in their book The Origin of Brands:
Starbucks might be perceived as a hip place for the corporate crowd, but the core concept of the brand is high-end coffee. Take away its high-end coffee leadership and Starbucks becomes just another me-too brand.

Think about it.
When have you ever seen a Starbucks ad on television?
I haven’t.
Yet.... who does not know about Starbucks?

The PRODUCT sells itself!
Yes, and the fact that there are two or three Starbucks on every urban corner, I know! But really, I have never purchased anything from Starbucks that was NOT GOOD!
Even their cakes, and muffins and cookies and (NOW) sandwiches.
They simply..... ROCK!
They do not need to hyper-advertise. They have already somehow saturated the caffeinated psyche of North America! Starbucks spent less than ten million dollars on advertising in its first ten years. That’s chicken feed in today’s world of multi-million dollar one shot commercials!
Yet Starbucks is the most recognized coffee brand in the world. Remember the glimpse of a Starbucks cup in the movie Shrek 2?
Everything about Starbucks is.... excellent.
Even the fact that they have wireless internet now. I am posting this blog FROM a Starbucks!
Even the fact that they have those little Starbucks credit-card jobbies, which I load up with advance dollars, so that Starbucks can earn interest on my as-yet-unused money.
It's fantastic!
Oh, gladly I surrender a rather horrendous proportion of money to this outfit, yes, gladly I do. With what I have rung (and wrung) through on my card I have surely bought some distant mogul a yacht or two, but do I care? NO!
It’s been a fair exchange!

And (here is the thing) they will let you sit here until your shoulder is attached to the wall via cobwebs!
See, recently, someone who knows that I live half my life in Chapters (the big bookstore chain) sort of admonished me, suggesting that I should quit my obsession, and (instead) frequent the independent bookstores. To which I would say..... “Gladly I will do so. As soon as those independents install a Starbucks in them.”
I know I know.... it is a HORRID thing to say. But it is true.
The independent bookstores are great, and they are quaint, and yes, more knowledgable in their stock than are the youngsters running around in the Chapters stores, yes.... but... BUT... will the independent bookstore let me sit in their store until I need a shave?
I think NOT!

As much as I love books (and admittedly, I do have problems here), the truth is that I would not sit in a Chapters for as long as I do, were it not for the sweet elixir that flows from yonder grommets and spigots!
Under the green sign.... oh the wonders that take place under yon Green Sign!
When I leave here everyday, a doctor would be hard pressed to find any blood in my coffee-stream!
I am STARBUCKS powered baby!
Empowered by the bean!
Vive le Starbucks!

Splash du Jour: Wednesday

Men are not to be told anything they might find to be too painful; the secret depths of human nature, the sordid physicalities, might overwhelm or damage them. For instance, men often faint at the sight of their own blood, to which they are not accustomed. For this reason you should never stand behind one in the line at the Red Cross donor clinic. Men, for some mysterious reason, find life more difficult than women do. ....Men must be allowed to play in the sandbox of their choice, as happily as they can, without disturbance; otherwise they get cranky and won’t eat their dinners. There are all kinds of things that men are simply not equipped to understand, so why expect it of them? Not everyone shares this belief about men; nevertheless, it has its uses.
-- from Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother, by Margaret Atwood –

Have a great Wednesday!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Great Mystery!

Can you identify the following heavily camouflaged wildly famous author?
[Hint: Those are not sunglasses, they are her real eyes.]
Please submit your educated guess in the comments section.
First one to say it right wins a serious prize.
[Note: The Bookpuddle jury is still out, deliberating the actual veracity and/or legal implications of the statement "wins a serious prize". After all, what does "serious" really mean, and even the word "prize" for that matter is sort of a real ambiguous word right? Like, some people do not even like money, for instance. So.... all said promise of "prize" and/or "serious prize" is subject to interpretation, availability, and even existence whatsoever until further notice].

Splash du Jour: Tuesday

Scrumptrelescent novelist Anne Tyler was born on this day, October 25th, 1941.
Happy Birthday, Anne!
In one of her more philosophical moments, she once said:
Ever consider what pets must think of us? I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul - chicken, pork, half a cow. They must think we're the greatest hunters on earth!
-- Anne Tyler –

Have a great Tuesday!

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Door

Last night I received a phone call from a friend.
It was already quite late and I was just going to bed, my mouth still tingly and minty-fresh from toothpaste.
When the voice on the other end asked “How are you?” I answered with one of my normally extremely gay and sprightly witticisms (and by gay, let the record show that I mean “happy”)... at any rate, suffice it to say that the person on the other end, was NOT gay at all. Not happy.
She had called to tell me that her dad, who went into the hospital this week, had sort of taken a wee turn for the worse, and she had just found out about it.

Today, he was scheduled to go for one of these CAT scans? Is it CAT or KAT? I am not sure.
So.... I abandoned my witticisms for the time being, and expressed my regret that such an eventuality had.... eventualized.

[I am terrible in these situations, I really am... I never quite know what to say...]
The reason I am terrible is because I am way too realistic.
Now before I go on too far here, I want to throw in a bit of a disclaimer. This blog is going to sound as though I am very unsympathetic or unempathetic, or that I myself am very pathetic, when it comes to the plight of others.
That would be a misconception. I never ever belittle the seriousness of physical affliction.

I myself hate pain. I detest illness in myself, and I hate to see or even hear of any sort of pain, discomfort, or loss of dignity, that comes from any sort of sustained illness.... regardless of who it is that is suffering, much less people that I personally know and love.
I even do not like the discussion of the “redemptive” properties of illness.
I would rather discuss the redemptive properties of WELLNESS.... thank you!

My own father passed away in 1999 after a lengthy illness and to see how this once powerful, strong, robust man.... this person whom I suppose I loved most in the world, dwindled away and was in agony and discomfort, both physically and mentally, well, suffice it to say, never shall I belittle, or make light of the illness of any person.
So.... that is not what this blog is about.
What this blog is about is how much illness SURPRISES us.

When we hear of it afflicting a dear loved one, we can almost react at times as if, until this point, we had no idea any such thing as illness existed. We thought we were immune to it.
This is exactly what I was listening to, on the phone last night.

She was extremely traumatized. Knew she was not going to be able to sleep, and probably would not be able to go to work the next day. (Today). These things are completely understandable.
But she kept saying... repeatedly, and I mean, REPEATEDLY.... “He can’t be sick. He just can’t. He can’t be sick.”
And I would say.... “Uh huh. I hear you.... it’s terribly unfortunate...”
But no, she wanted to clarify... “No, you don’t get what I am saying. I mean, he CANNOT be sick. I am not going to be able to get through this.”

This is where I begin to be extremely useless on my end of the phone.

Because see.... I desperately want to say... “No, that is where you are wrong. He CAN be sick. In fact he IS sick....”
But I don’t say that.
I try to make her see it without me saying it.... so I ask... “Uh huh. Yeah. How old is your dad now?”
[Before you complain to me for too long about your car, I want to know something about the mileage on it, at least......]
“I don’t know,” she says. “Somewhere in his seventies.”
[My own father, a formerly healthy ox of a man passed away from rather severe mechanical breakdown at age 73.... so this is in my mind as I wonder what to say...again, I am TOLSTOY when it comes to this Ivan Ilyich-ian realism....]
And I choose to say..... “Well you know. When we are in our seventies, I mean, the body is getting up there in years.... and.... maybe you are over-reacting. Maybe they will find that there is not all that much wrong.....”
“You just don’t get it,” she fires back (literally angry).... “He can’t be sick.

See, I sat there (in silence) and realized that what she was really saying is that she does not want to allow her father to be sick.
He can’t do this to HER. Not NOW and stuff!
I am not saying that her honest love for her father is diminished by this perspective she has of the situation, not at all, but I am saying that his illness is not about her. And this is what she must remember. His illness is about him, and she needs to allow for this, in her heart and in her mind.
And I cannot help but think that the SURPRISE factor is to blame for a lot of the intensity of reaction on this issue.
“But he was so healthy last month... last WEEK even!”
And all I can think of saying is.... “Uh huh? Aaaaaaaaand?.......”

If I receive a phone call tonight that informs me that my mother, (also in her seventies), whom I dearly love with all my heart, has just been rushed to the hospital and is incoherent and no one quite knows what is exactly wrong with her yet.... if I receive that call tonight [my mother is a couple of thousand miles away]... I will have a myriad of reactions.
But not one of them will be utter shock and surprise.
Well, mostly because I am already expecting that phone call. It will not arrive on the wings of impossibility.
Not one of my reactions will be like those of my friend last night, who is literally incapacitated right now.... which is another way of saying “in a state of shock.”
It is like a boulder has landed on her, and she cannot get out from under it.
I feel bad for her, but all day long I have been wondering WHY THIS SITUATION DEVELOPS.
Is there something that can prevent it? Some attitude we can adopt?

I do not pretend to know that I have the answer to that question. In fact, I know that I do not, because all people are different, and they react differently to bad news and/or tragedy.
A plethora of specific factors go into this reaction.
But the surprise factor.
It is intrigueing me. I think it is important.

Those who know me, know that I think about death a real lot.
In some people’s cosmology, this would be utterly depressing. What I mean is that for them, it would be utterly depressing to adopt such a sort of vigilance about illness and death.
I read about it, I think about it, I conjecture what it may be like.... ALL THE TIME!
It is the way I am set up.
There are some people who are the complete opposite. I talked with one of them on the phone last night! Ummmm... it is an enlightening experience!
It would be very difficult for someone to convince me that the attitude opposite of mine (where you go just about NUTS when there is even the possible HINT of a threat of illness and/or death)... is somehow more healthy.
In other words, this opposite attitude (from mine) is to NEVER.... and I mean NEVER think of illness and/or the death that will result from illness.
[And let’s face it, few of us are going to die in that way we all want to... while making love!]

Here is the theory some people have about death:
If we never think of it, we will at least not be in angst about it when the day arrives.
I do not believe in this theory whatsoever.
The reason I say that is twofold. Firstly, everyone I know who has this attitude (including my friend last night on the phone) nearly has a nervous breakdown when they are confronted with death and/or impending death and/or words that rhyme with death, and stuff like that.
Secondly, myself.... a person who constantly thinks about death, I have gone through experiences in the midst of death, and I have been remarkably stable throughout the ordeal.
For example, I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral.
But, according to what my friend was telling me last night, she will not even be AT the funeral if her dad has one, because she is going to kill herself if he dies!
But I feel.... (don’t get me wrong here... I did not DO it, but I feel like saying)... “How long do you expect him to live? Till he is a hundred and fourteen? Or till YOU die of old age yourself?”
It is simply unrealistic!
It is unfair to not let the old man be ill.

In a related sort of scenario, I remember seeing the newspapers in the first week of April, this year.
Every front page, for days.... was strewn with images of people weeping their heads off because The Pope had finally passed away.
And [if this sounds disrespectful, please, I intend no disrespect] we all love[d] The Pope, but let's face it, he had come to a point in his life where he was desperately ill.
If there is anything to Christianity whatsoever, then it should have been seen as a merciful and even beautiful thing, that he died. His suffering ended. The end of a wonderful, accomplished life.
Would we be more pleased if the man were animated with strings and pulleys when he could no longer walk on his own? Are we that selfish? Could we not let him go?
Would we have even chosen one of our pets to have stayed alive another day, were they in a similar state?
Is it any different (this whole agony over the Pope’s death) from my friend saying, of her father.... “He can’t die!” [??]
The reality of it is this. Yes he CAN! And furthermore, he WILL!
If not as a result of the present situation he is facing, then surely it will be the result of another one a few years down the road, or sooner.
Just as I may not even make it home from this coffee shop tonight without being.... deadened somehow..

Here is MY image of the actual scenario. Purely figurative, and speculative. Yet I think it is also the scenario of every single person reading this blog.
[WARNING: If this whole sort of “reality-discussion” bothers you, you should quit reading this right now and I’m not even kidding, really...]

I picture an enormous elongated Hallway, at the far end of which is a chair.
At this near end of the Hallway, is a Door.
I am there (here) on this side of the door, and I cannot see into the Hallway.
Death is in that hallway, and has been there, in MY hallway, ever since I drew my first breath, way back in the winter of 1963.
[I’m going to call Death a “he” now, but chances are about equal that she’s a “she”...]
He [Mr. Death] has long ago already gotten up out of his chair, and started his determined walk towards the Door, the Door behind which I stand, living my life.
Even though (as I have described) for most of my adulthood I have had a real propensity to be profoundly aware of that Door, I have also strayed far and wide and blissfully forgotten all about it. Several events though (serious accidents, mostly) have reminded me of the Door, from time to time.
And all the while, he, Mr. Death is walking.
Only he knows how long the Hallway is. I don’t. I can’t see through the Door.
But one way of the other [he has never missed a single person who has ever lived on the earth, even Jesus stood at this Door] he will make it come to pass, even if it is in the blink of of an eye, that I will be made aware of nothing else, except that Door.

And then he will knock. He’s going to ask for me.
If I hesitate, stay real quiet, will he go away?
If I get angry, and yell, will he get scared and leave?
No. Not in most cases anyway.
Well..... I don’t get it. What does he wait for? For me to open the Door? What an Idiot... I’m not opening that damn Door. I refuse. If he wants me to go with him he’ll have to open the Door himself.
Well, actually, sometimes he does. That is, if he feels like being merciful.
What do you mean, merciful?
Well, by merciful, I mean that the only other option is usually much, much worse.
What is it? What is the other option?

He outwaits you.

My God!
This is the most disgusting blog I have ever read in my life!
Is it?
Yes... anyone who lives with this sort of morbid image before them night and day would be horribly depressed... and some sort of... basket case.... frightened.... afraid.... a freakin' lunatic.

Hmm... that is an interesting perspective.
Because see... I DO live with this very real image before me at all times, and I have not lived even one single day in “depression” in my life, nor am I in angst about life OR death.
There is not one single person that knows me that would describe me as being sad, or depressed, or morbid, or gloomy, or morose, or in any way moribund.
If anything, I am the living epitome of the opposite of all of these adjectives.
So.... for me, this is how I come to terms with the inevitable.
For those of you who did not want to read my figurative scenario, (but did).... let me say something even worster now.....

You WILL open that door.
You..... WILL!
And I will too!
And everyone you and I love, will open it too, either before or after we do!
If you are breathing air and reading this, The Hypothetical Dude has long since left the chair in that Hallway, and he is walking towards you. And walking towards me.
The way I cope with this reality, is to not be in denial of the possibilities.
Knowing that I could receive some sort of prognosis TOMORROW about some sort of terminal problem with my innards, only makes me appreciate TODAY all the more, not less!

And now.... a word about The Hallway.
See, I will not belabor this point. The “death” thing sounds pretty horrid huh?
Yeah.... sure does. Boo-hoo.... me can’t live none more!
But let me ask you something.... let’s move on back to Pope John Paul II again.
Seriously, given that you believe in some sort of afterlife in the first place.... do you really think that the Pope would want to be back in his body today?
The body that was wracked with pain and decrepitude and is [now] decayed?
I think not.
How about his youthful, good body, before the serious mileage, like?
Nope. I thinketh not.
Again, all of this hinges upon there being an afterlife, which happens to be something I firmly believe in, by faith, I guess.
OK, if Pope John Paul II doesn’t want to be back in his body again, why should I want him to be there?
For me? My benefit?
If so, than let us at least be honest about the fact that our tears for him are entirely motivated by selfishness.
I once wrote a poem along these lines, about the Bible’s story of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11.
I called it Her Selfish Grief, and it is so brief that I will place it here for your consideration:

Her Selfish Grief

Four days his shell lay Bethany-bound
When rang the Martha prompted sound
“Come forth”… She truly sorrowed when
Unwrapped, he wished to die again.

But I digress, sort of. [Always looking for an excuse to put a poem out there....]
The thing is, I believe that bliss awaits us on the other side, I really do.
And the Door opens onto the Hallway wherein we are ushered into The Rest of the Place!

You know.... by an incredible serendiptous coincidence, as I thought of these things today, around lunchtime I picked a book out of my backpack, and looked at it. A friend had sent me this book. It is William Stafford’s poems, in the collection called The Darkness Around Us Is Deep.
In one section, Stafford focuses on his native American Indian roots. And as I read his poem entitled People of the South Wind, I was captivated by the simplicity of the wonderful things he was saying in the second stanza. [May the poet forgive me for extracting only this portion of his poem.]

Your breath has a little shape –
you can see it cold days, Well,
every day it is like that, even in summer.
Well, your breath goes, a whole
army of little shapes. They are living
in the woods now and are your friends.
When you die – well, you go with
your last breath and find the others.
And in open places in the woods
all of you are together and happy.

Look at how many times the word “well” appears. It gives these lines an innocent sort of mixture of surety and wonder.... an attempt at describing the ineffable.
It is no more meant to be literally perceived as is my Hallway analogy, or my own little poem.... and yet, I cannot think of a more wonderful way of describing what probably happens when we, one day, open the Door.


Splash du Jour: Monday

“Every little trifle, for some reason, does seem incalculably important today, and when you say of a thing that ‘nothing hangs on it’ it sounds like blasphemy. There’s never any knowing – how am I to put it? – which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it for ever.”
-- from Where Angels Fear To Tread, by E.M. Forster –
Have a great Monday!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Discovering Zadie Smith.

It is a gloriously damp, slightly drizzly Sunday.
I am a lover of the threat of precipitation, and actually prefer grey skies to blue. I have been sitting at Chapters for quite a few hours, drinking inordinate amounts of coffee and browsing books and whatnot else. Now that there is internet access here, I don’t even need to go home to post my Puddles.
I am just going to stay here, I think, and go to sleep in a corner when they start flicking the lights off....
I happened upon a fantastically interesting article in the October Harper’s magazine. It’s by contributing editor, Wyatt Mason, and entitled “White Knees: Zadie Smith’s novel problem.”
Prior to reading this article, the only thing I have known about Zadie Smith (pictured here) is that she appeared on the literary scene rather meteorically in 2000 with her debut novel White Teeth [1.5 million English copies sold, and the thing is translated into 30 other languages] and since I live in bookstores, I’ve seen her stuff everywhere. But have never read it. Then she came out with The Autograph Man which was also quite a visible event. Never read that one either.
Now in 2005 she was among the elite half-dozen shortlisted for the Booker prize with her latest book, On Beauty. Haven’t read it, but I want to. It is sitting here, right in front of me, and after reading Mason’s article on the subject, I want to tear into this book, even though his comments regarding On Beauty are not entirely favorable.
His main criticism revolves around the idea that Smith relies too heavily on mimicry of other authors.

In the case of this latest work he repeatedly points out how undeniably E.M. Forster-ish it is. At one point, he describes her style as “the literary equivalent of karaoke.”
He points out (quite forcefully) the specific reasons why such a talent (as Smith obviously possesses) is beneficial, while at the same time, very limiting. He claims that her characters end up acting in the final pages in ways inconsistent with what the reader has learned of them up to that point. He says, “The trouble is that Smith’s borrowings do not liberate her story but bind it. By book’s end, as Smith gathers her many seized threads together and ties them fiercely into knots, all circulation is cut off to her once warm-blooded beings. We are left with clever machination, little of it meaningful.”
And furthermore... “As of now, Zadie Smith has yet to sit down and show us what she can do. Instead she has shown who she can do – pretty much anyone.”
Were I a published author, those comments levelled at me (especially the thing about inconsistency), would probably find me warbling in the wind, standing atop a bridge somewhere white-knuckling the girders and wondering why this whole suicide thing is not nearly as theatrically pleasing in reality as when imagined in the mind..... (when you picture it, cars are not supposed to be heedlessly whizzing by, or occasionally slowing down long enough for someone to roll down their window and yell “Jump, you idiot...”).
But, [and here is the thing about Zadie Smith that has me rather intrigued.....] is she suicidal about such things?

Hell no.
None of this is news to her. In fact, she is quoted in the same article as saying, “My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could.”
In other words.... you don’t like it? Don’t buy the book.
Which... makes me want to buy the book.

Reading more and more about her, (online articles aplenty) I have discovered that she is very averse to the accoutrements and accolades of fame, and is very nearly Salingeresque in her preference for even dimmer light than limelight. She has a royal disdain for the star-status of the accomplished author. She is neither caught up in the hype surrounding her own “success” nor is she bent-out-of-shape by vehement criticism occasionally levelled at her.
For a prime example of this latter thing take a gander at the following diatribe. This, written again, along the lines of her work not being particularly original, and in this case, in reference to her first book, White Teeth:

“A twenty-three year old first time novelist is fortunate indeed if one out of every fifty sentences is truly their own. And by this I mean not only its subject, but its rhythm, syntax, punctuation, and, should it aspire towards comedy, its punchline. To her credit, there are moments when Smith manages this.... but often she doesn’t and what we get in its place is some truly inspired thieving... Smith doing Amis, Smith doing Rushdie, Smith doing Kureishi, Winterson, Barnes, Auster, Viginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Nabokov.... White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive ginger-haired tap dancing ten year old; all the writing is ornamental in the extreme.... There is a damn good writer here struggling to escape the influence of the big, baggy English novels of the Eighties; a little too eager to prove she can write herself out of, back into and around a paper bag.”



Spiteful, it seems.
An excuse to climb up on a bridge if ever I have read one.

And now.... for the good part. The part I love to death, already, prior to reading this author at all...... (drum roll, please.....).....
The person who wrote the above critique.... the critic who took issue with Zadie Smith, was, in fact, Zadie Smith herself.

As Wyatt Mason comments, “With Nabokovian cheek and intellectual bite, Smith had written [the above] review of her own book for the short-lived magazine Butterfly. And for those who might think to dismiss Smith’s mixed assessment of White Teeth as a mere stunt, a self-effacing pirouette on the runway of self-promotion, subsequent evidence accumulated to suggest that Smith wasn’t buying into the hype around her.”

Hey, she had me at “Hello!”
I like this kind of anti-narcissism, or whatever else it is.
So... I may just have to leave here today with this book in tow.
Oh, wait a minute.... that’s right... I’m not leaving.
All the better!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

No. Not easy at all....

“It’s not easy, being green,” the Froggy said in his muppety voice. “I get up what? Before seven? I drive to the studio. No sooner have I poured myself a coffee, eaten a fly or two, when I go all woozy and discombobulated and then..... no, you know what? I can’t talk about it right now. Really.”

“No, no... do go on,” she cuddled closer to him and touched his green felt shoulder. “It may be good for you to just, you know.... talk about it.”

“Well that’s just it, you know. All of a sudden I get to saying things that I had absolutely no intention of saying, I swear to you.”

“That is really remarkable.... you mean, you hear voices? An audible voice... and then you unwillingly repeat the...”

“I SAY THINGS THAT I DON’T REALLY MEAN!” he threw his froggy limbs in the air, and she was frightened by his sudden angst.... “It’s like.... one minute I’m thinking... you know, I’m thinking about you and me last night or whatever and then.... he weeps.... “I’m saying things like 'Hidey-ho’ and just real goofy stuff.... sometimes I break into song... I swear it’s like someone else is controlling my voice.... moving my entire head around and..... dammit Carol, I think someone is slipping something into my coffee as soon as I arrive.... I’m freaking out I tell ya....”

“Listen, settle down. Look, I am going to make an appointment with Dr. Henson, you remember him? He is excellent. Now you just settle down.... tomorrow, everythng will be...”

“I’m frigging LOSING IT Carol!”

........ next day......

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Rebel Angels

Turning my attention to the last completed trilogy of Robertson Davies (The Cornish Trilogy), I must confess that I have only read the first installment of it, The Rebel Angels.
Gypsies, defrocked monketry, tarot, Mariolatry, violin repair, Rabelais, scatology, (specifically, the study of medieval excrement)... in short, a usual plethora of Robertsonian esoteric avenues are here for the finding. And, as always, these are generously littered with flagrantly strewn tidbits of arcania, drawn from the author’s fathomless storehouse of incidental knowledge.
Along with being what I would call “a latent love story”, The Rebel Angels is a wonderfully convoluted lampoon of academia!

In his early years at the University of Toronto, while Fifth Business was being conceived, Davies knew that he was resented and even mocked in certain academic quarters. [Reminds me of C.S. Lewis at Oxford, being mocked by his peers, for writing the Narnias]. But by the time he was planning and writing The Rebel Angels, (late 1970’s) the atmosphere around him was much warmer. After its publication in 1981, novelist Anthony Burgess included it among the 99 Novels, his list of outstanding works of fiction written in English since 1939. And in 1985, Burgess (albeit unsuccessfully) lobbied the Swedish Academy to award Davies the Nobel Prize for literature.

It took me quite a few pages to catch on to the way Davies constructed this novel. It's written in six sets of chapter couplets, which made for a really unique storyline.

Two alternating narrators take their turn in describing the current thread of the story.
One is the beautiful and brilliant 23-year old student of Comparative Literature, Maria Theotoky.
The other is middle-aged Professor Simon Darcourt who teaches New Testament Greek. He is not the only professor of the University who acknowledges that Maria is among the "scholarly elect". Indeed, many would like to make her their soror mystica, or “scholarly girlfriend”, to put it in modern terms.
Darcourt becomes enamored of her, but she has already become the special pet of Professor Hollier.
Hollier’s impetuous (and singular) seduction of Maria leaves her a bit bewildered, for rather than the continued intimacy she desires from this man she greatly admires, he becomes distant. When his eccentric longtime friend John Parlabane returns for a visit (which never ends) the relationship between Maria and Hollier becomes even more confined to that of professor -- research assistant.
Meanwhile, a wealthy art collecter (Arthur Cornish) passes away and leaves his estate to be settled by three executors, all of them being professors at the University. They are Hollier, Darcourt, and a true nutbar by the name of Urquhart McVarish.

As they go through the mountain of Cornish's priceless items, Hollier becomes obsessed with the recovery of a manuscript of Rabelais which he is convinced McVarish once purloined and never returned. McVarish denies ever having borrowed the papers from Cornish, but Hollier will not give up. His obsession is motivated and fueled by the fact that the authentic document would greatly advance Maria in her own doctoral work on Rabelais, and he longs to do something tangible that will atone for his earlier seduction of her.
Without ruining some of the comic turns in this story for those who haven't read it, I will hint that it is ingenious how Davies knits the eccentricity of Parlabane and the extra-curricular nightime perversions of McVarish together in a way that becomes the ONLY way the above dilemna (of the missing manuscript) could be solved. And not before Hollier himself has degenerated into a superstitious nut in his own right.

Being a bit of a nut myself made this book all the more enjoyable!

I close with a letter that Davies wrote to one Janet Frankland, who was, back then (1983) a grade 13 student who had written to the author on behalf of her classmates at R.H. King Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ontario. Even though, in my opinion, the letter seems a bit harsh (as he himself even admits) still, it is so representative of the sometimes pompous “rebel angel” nature of Davies himself, that I reproduce it here in full. If his response was not considerate, it was at least considered.
[NOTE: Letter is found in For Your Eye Alone: Letters 1976 – 1995, selected and edited by Judith Skelton Grant and published by McClelland and Stewart, 1999.]

Massey College
University of Toronto
June 21, 1983

[Dear Miss Frankland and Grade XIII Students:]

I was interested to receive your letter of June 6th about The Rebel Angels and glad that some of you enjoyed it. However, there are some matters that you bring up in it which I would like to pursue further. The first was that several of your members thought that the book was above the average reader’s comprehension because of its vocabulary. May I suggest to you, as gently as possible, that the book was written for average readers, and that a Grade XIII class in a collegiate institute cannot quite claim to have reached that status. You hope some day to be average readers but that is not your status at present.
You may think that is hard, but consider these matters: you say that you felt that Ozias Froats was a lampoon of a professor doing fairly useless research, but being paid to do so. If you had read the book with the care that the average reader would bring to it you would see that one of the principal points of the book was that Froats’ research, which was not understood by anybody but himself, eventually produced remarkable results and that the theme of the discovery of great value in what is rejected and despised is one of the main themes of the book. If so, you could not have missed the fact that Ozias Froats is about to receive the Nobel Prize for science. The Nobel committee does not give its prize to fakes.
You may have found that the professors’ conversations dragged for you, but I have had many letters from average readers who liked them very much. As for Maria, when you arrive at the university you will probably meet a number of girls like her and you should – particularly the boys – prepare yourself for the experience. You may say that you have never met anybody like her but I presume you study some of the plays of Shakespeare and I do not expect that you have met anybody like the heroines of those plays either. It is not an author’s object to give a photographic reproduction of reality.
This also answers your final question: none of the characters in the book are portraits of living people. Fiction may be portrait painting but if it is any good it is not photography. The purpose of the book was to suggest that universities are great and fascinating places and I hope that some of you will find it so when you attend university next year.

With good wishes, I am

Yours sincerely,

[Robertson Davies]

Splash du Jour: Friday

Paleo-psychology: It’s really digging into what people thought, in times when their thinking was a muddle of religion and folk-belief and rags of misunderstood classical learning, instead of what it is today, which I suppose you’d have to call a muddle of materialism, and folk-belief, and rags of misunderstood scientific learning.
-- Maria Theotoky, in the Robertson Davies novel The Rebel Angels --

Have a great Friday!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Deptford Trilogy

At 5:58 p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, a young kid throws a rock-laden snowball at his friend, and hits a minister's wife instead. She is very pregnant at the time. She falls to the ground... and that's apparently enough to launch Robertson Davies into one of the most intricately woven stories you will ever read!
This inauspicious first-page scene carries forward the weight of not just one book, but three.
In a 1992 lecture, Davies said that the last book in this trilogy could be summed up by saying... "you never can tell."
The Deptford Trilogy
braids the diverse lives of three main characters who achieve their respective fame in wholly different ways. One, as a schoolteacher/hagiologist; one as an entrepeneur/financier; and the other as a master magician/illusionist. Each book focuses in its order on the above mentioned characters respectively. But the theme of "you never can tell" is consistent throughout.

In the first of the three books, FIFTH BUSINESS.... [this is where the errant snowball incident occurs] oh, where does one even begin?.... this snowball is going to cause atmospheric disturbances halfway around the world! To say that the resultant story is about the life of schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsay and his relation to the prematurely born, snowball-induced Paul Dempster, is akin to saying Niagara Falls is a precipice over which some water falls. Both things are so much MORE, and both need to be seen and experienced to be appreciated.
Davies said that he began writing Fifth Business “because for many years I had been troubled by a question: to what extent is a man responsible for the outcome of his actions, and how early in life does the responsibility begin?” The book addresses this very question..... profoundly, it does. And it is magnificent. A work of art, that is all I will say.

In the second book, THE MANTICORE, we follow David Staunton, the son of Percy Boyd Staunton, in his travels through Switzerland. David is traumatized by the death of his father [which takes place in Fifth Business] and undergoes Jungian analysis in the care of the attractive therapist Johanna von Haller. The book is really almost like a journal of this treatment, and the progress and regress that he experiences. But again, the above mentioned Niagara Falls analogy is apropos here. There is no way to exaggerate the genius of the interwoven fabric of this story. It is a gem.
But my favorite is the third book, WORLD OF WONDERS, where we powerfully re-acquaint with Paul Dempster, who has now become Magnus Eisengrim, the world’s most accomplished magician. Magnus tells his story of the intervening years, [since the fateful snowball] beginning with his grim childhood in rural Canada to his years as a day-laborer and mechanic to his eventual triumph on the international stage. Dunstan Ramsay takes over the final section of the novel and retells the story of the errant snowball, thus bringing the trilogy full circle.
Locktight brilliance!

It is brilliant how Davies disperses these characters all over the planet and then brings them back together, and while these reunions sometimes totter on the very edge of the overly contrived (or improbable), they always seem to fall back on the near side of believability. He literally stuffs the envelope of circumstance without lapsing into the absurd. We are left with the sense that the events of these stories could have happened to anyone... yet these events are, in themselves, so magnificent!

Does this mean that each of our own simple lives have similar potential for greatness?
I believe Davies would answer with a resounding "Definitely!"

He once said, "You never can tell where something quite extraordinary and unexpected will come about. In a little Ontario village three men may be born so closely together that their lives run parallel courses, who may influence the world in quite different ways."
He shows us in The Deptford Trilogy how (seemingly) insignificant beginnings can lead to tremendous endings. In fact, nothing that happens in life is insignificant.
I can't imagine anyone wading into Fifth Business and wanting out before they finished World Of Wonders.
In fact, forget the wading in. You will be more like falling off an edge, into the mist.

What is meant by the term “fifth business”?

Those roles which, being neither those of
Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain,
but which were none the less essential to
bring about the Recognition or the denouement
were called the Fifth Business in drama
and opera companies organized according
to the old style; the player who acted these
parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
-- Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads --


Splash du Jour: Thursday

Saying that God is dead is like saying that there is no Santa Claus; the jolly old man with the white beard may vanish, but the gifts are under the Christmas tree just the same. All that has happened is that the child who thinks it has discovered a great secret no longer feels that it need be good in order to receive gifts; Santa has gone, but parental love is just where it always was.
-- from One Half of Robertson Davies

Have a great Thursday!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"We die and learn, too..."

Yesterday I talked a bit about The Cunning Man, the last novel written by Robertson Davies.
Today I am still thinking about how much I have enjoyed his work, and I’ll say a few things about his prior novel, Murther And Walking Spirits.
Together, these books were to be part 1 and 2 of the next trilogy in the Davies canon.
Murther is a great book, I really enjoyed it. Again, (as with The Cunning Man) it is not my favorite Davies novel, but nonetheless, it is excellent in its own right. It can be read entirely on its own, without reference to The Cunning Man, and vice versa. They are moreso contiguous than continuous. Several of the characters do overlap.
[In case you are curious about it, my favorite Davies novel is World of Wonders.]
“Well why don’t you write about that one then, you Bozo?”
“I probably will cover the Deptford Trilogy as a whole. Dessert. Dessert!”

Who else but R. Davies could kill off his main character in the first sentence, and then chronicle the experiences of the disembodied ghost for over three and a half hundred pages... and yet keep it increasingly interesting? He does it.

Incidentally, Davies believed that physical death would not spell the annihilation of the animating spirit of man (a belief to which I am in full agreement). He once speculated about his own afterlife by saying: "I haven't any notion of what I might be or whether I'll be capable of recognizing what I've been, or perhaps even what I am, but I expect that I shall be something." Murther is a really interesting fictional account of what that "something" might be like.
The moment that Connor Gilmartin is struck dead in his own bedroom by his wife's lover, he finds that he is still alive! Perhaps even more alive than he has ever been; he is in a state that the opening chapter calls "roughly translated".

He's a ghost; a walking spirit.
This new state is fraught with all manner of possibilities and limitations. For one thing, his powers of awareness and observation are heightened, but (alas, downside) he is unable to communicate with any of the living, no matter how he jumps up and down or shouts in their ear. And for that typically Robertsonian twist, the great author borrows an idea from the Bhagavad Gita which states that after death one maintains a connection with what one was thinking about at the very moment of death.
[It behoved a man to be concerned with what he was thinking of as he died!]
So... what was Connor Gilmartin thinking of at the moment of his own death?
Well, he was processing the fact that he had just caught his wife... ummm... horizontally involved with a man (a co-worker of his) whom he particularly despised for many reasons, and secondly, he was thinking of a particular work-related problem concerning an upcoming Film Festival in Toronto to which this man (his murderer) was vying with him for position as lead writer.
[Are you following me? Am I explaining this well enough?]

The guy murders Connor, right there in Connor's own bedroom!

Now Connor is dead, and profoundly aware of his wife's immediate duplicity in covering up the murder but he (Connor) is unable to vindicate himself in any way, and furthermore he is bound inextricably to his own murderer who attends the Film Festval as lead writer in his place.
In a surreal twist, at the Film Festival, what Connor views on the screen is not what the others are seeing, but rather it is a documentary of his own ancestry... (one's life flashes before one's eyes??) He is seeing something wholly personal. It is very much as though he is afforded the opportunity to become posthumously acquainted with his forbears.
After the festival he is instantly translated back to see how his wife is winding up her affairs.
He sees that she has actually found a way to profit from his untimely demise.
Oh it’s good, it really is. I highly recommend the book.
As usual, Davies raises a lot of interesting things to philosophize about, as we enjoy a great sprawling ball of yarn of a story.
It’s not the best example of Davies' work, but still worthy of our attention.
Which is to say that his other stuff, especially The Deptford Trilogy, is essential reading.

"We live and learn, yes," Glimartin observes. "But we die and learn, too, it appears."


Splash du Jour: Wednesday

If you want to attract real, serious attention to your work, you can’t beat being dead.
-- Bun Eccles, in the Robertson Davies novel, A Mixture of Frailties

Have a great Wednesday!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Cunning Man

Since I am focusing this week on the pithy, ever erudite, and always witty sayings of Robertson Davies, I thought I would write a wee bit about one of his books.
The Cunning Man.

Most readers will know of Davies [perhaps you were forced to read Fifth Business in high-school?] as a result of reading one or more of his fabulous trilogies. The Deptford Trilogy. The Salterton Trilogy. The Cornish Trilogy.
The Cunning Man was the second of an intended fourth trilogy, which would most likely have been entitled The Toronto Trilogy. The first volume of which was the excellent novel Murther And Walking Spirits, followed by The Cunning Man, followed by the death of the great author, on December 2nd, 1995.

Davies (1913-1995), once commented that he knew "nothing about medicine" but had the highest degree of "hypochondriachal curiosity about it that is characteristic of authors." [source: his 1984 lecture entitled Can A Doctor Be A Humanist?]

Here in his final novel, Davies seems to have given vent to his curiosity in the creation of the character Jonathan Hullah... an unconventional physician who gains a reputation through his intuitive (albeit successful) diagnostic techniques. His specialty is dealing with patients considered hopeless by other doctors.
Lost causes.
For the eccentric Hullah, observation of, conversation with, and even "sniffing" of the patient brings him closer to an accurate prognosis than ever would an impersonal reading of a medical chart. Central to this holistic approach to medicine is Hullah's appreciation of not only the physical/biological aspects of man's nature, but also the mental and spiritual, and because of this understanding, he becomes known as the Cunning Man. It is a term borrowed from Robert Burton's The Anatomy Of Melancholy in a passage that appears on Davies' title page:
"Cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind... The body's mischiefs, as Plato proves, proceed from the soul: and if the mind be not first satisfied, the body can never be cured."
Through all of the great doctor's associations (as all the while, it applies also to himself) we find this theme played out... that to be truly healthy one must pay attention to more than merely the physical machine of the body.

In particular, in this story, when a certain Father Hobbes drops dead during a church service, Dr. Hullah suspects that something is amiss. However, he is prevented from performing a more complete examination by his old schoolmate, the mystical Father Iredale.
Some 20 years later, a journalist doing a series on Old World Toronto prompts Hullah to ruminate on the circumstances surrounding the death of the saintly priest. In doing so, Hullah ranges far and wide, recalling his rural upbringing in northern Ontario, his life-changing encounter with a native American medicine woman, his education at an elite boarding school, his rowdy extracurricular activities with a troupe of actors, and his wartime experiences as a doctor.
Typical of Davies’ work, the main focus is on what I would call “character delineation”, and in the curious subjects which arise through Hullah’s reminiscences. These include medieval saints tales, Anglican ritual and especially Church music, acting (drama/theatre), a somewhat psychosomatic theory of disease, church politics, some Freudian psychology, and a great deal more.
Davies loved to dabble in the esoteric, the arcane, the unusual.
Indeed, he has been called (I think appropriately) “the magic unrealist.”
I enjoyed this story, but at the same time, it is not Davies' finest book.
It does not have quite the plot-strength of any of his other ten novels, but having placed such a disclaimer, I would add that reading anything by Davies is better than to have not read him at all.
Highly recommended, here at Bookpuddle.

In premonition-like fashion, we find in the last paragraph of The Cunning Man, which was to be Davies last completed novel.... the following words:
...this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.


Splash du Jour: Tuesday

Learn [philosophy] as the philosophers learned it – by inward quest. Avoid philosophic systems. Idiots love them because they can all band together and piss in a quill and look down on the unenlightened majority. But nobody can teach you more than somebody else’s philosophy. You have to make it your own before it’s any good.
--- Hugh McWearie, in the Robertson Davies novel, The Cunning Man

Have a great Tuesday!

Monday, October 17, 2005


Well here I am sitting in the Chapters bookstore, at the Starbucks, where the simulated fireplace is all aglow, reminding us all that it is full-fledged autumn now.
My favorite season of the year.
Since I said all of that jazz about amateur poetry yesterday, I thought that maybe I would fling one of my own dear poems out to the four winds of the blogosphere, to land where it may.

Here goes....


The hardening is deliberate and cruel,
as is all that will come thereafter.
The only consolation being that so many,
so very many others, share the same fate.

The heat, the sweat, the pain.
Left and right, succumbing to the pressure,
those known to you perish.
Blown apart, ripped open, left white
in shock. Naked guts torn inside out.
A mushroom cloud of exposed flesh,
shards of skeleton clinging to the core.

Throw these now (still exhaling steam)
to the gaping maw, to be mashed to pulp
and lowered into hot acid.
Ground in the mingled bile and bones
of comrades, and finally
rammed the length of a cold hard pipe
into a rotting cesspool…

where there is nothing,
nothing more devastated
than popcorn.

© Ciprianowords Inc. 2005

Favorable comments, random praise, spontaneous applause, and saying stuff like “You are so very Yeats-like” are welcome!


Splash du Jour: Monday

This week I am going to focus the daily Splash du Jours on one of my favorite writers of all time.
The venerable dude I like to call “Canada’s Charles Dickens.”
The one and only, Robertson Davies.

I would rather listen to somebody who loved meanings better than words themselves, a speaker who would remain silent rather than use a word he did not truly know.
-- from One Half of Robertson Davies

Have a great Monday!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Finding The Acorn.

“Beginners at poetry.... must choose rhyme or reason: they can’t have both.”
Thus saith the character Aristophontes, in a Robertson Davies 1-Act Comedy play entitled Eros At Breakfast.
What does it mean?
I don’t know.
All I know is that I have heard some really horrid poetry today, wherein the poets seemed to lack either of the above options, never mind BOTH.

Now, I do not want to be harsh, really.
It’s just that I was at a certain place today [no place names given so as to protect the innocence of anyone who could even possibly be reading this and who earlier read poetry at this very place], and I am in fact, still at this certain place, writing this blog about what took place at this place... let me start over.
I was just happily sitting here, minding my own swarm of bees, reading Nabokov, when chairs began to be set up in my very peaceful environs, and an eclectic assortment of people began to assemble and seat themselves.
Soon, I realized that one of the regular monthly community poetry-reading events was about to take place.
I reached into my backpack where I always keep a fresh supply of Frankenstein Bolts.
[These are those squishy things that you stick in your ears so that they can then expand and drown out the sounds of people reading their poetry.]
It began. The readings, I mean. As the bolts wonderfully thickened in my ears.
But soon I realized, the bolts were failing me.
My cochlean drumstick shook. Hammer and anvil all aquiver, my overly developed inner ear was picking up the peripheral stanzas.

I should mention that I suffer from a rather severe case of ADS. [Aural Distraction Syndrome].
In other words, I like silence. Especially when reading. Wilfully choosing to live half my life in a public place though, I must endure the odd disruption to my routine of silence. [See my blog entitled Ambient Music, June 13th, 2005].
I was being distracted.
So I pulled the plug. Left ear, to be exact.
When what was to assail my inner thought life but some of the most abstractified poetry I have ever witnessed in my half a lifetime.
"Beginners at poetry" got up, one after the other, and read their stuff. And I sat in horrified stunnation.
It was none of it, good.
I re-installed the left Bolt, and then sank into that mumbled state of distraction and stared at my book again.
And I thought about the few scattered bits I had heard, and how bad it all was.

I have always been an advocate and defender of poetic license. Really I have.
I myself write poetry.
And I am definitely a “beginner at poetry”! [The truth is, I have no clue what I am even doing with the genre].
But I do what I do. I write stuff. And I have an abhorrence of hearing my poetry be read aloud, either in my own voice or anyone else’s. So I shun participating in, or or even attending any such events as the one I witnessed today.
But, as the poets droned on.... I thought.

How brave they are, to get up there and read like that!
[I looked over, and sure enough, there was this guy at the microphone... the paper he was holding was all a’jitter from the muscle spasms its holder was experiencing, from toe to elbow.]
Great courage. Or confidence. Or something.
Whatever it is he has, I don’t have it.
Anyway, so I began to think..... what is poetry?
[The guy is finished now and he sits down to applause from those assembled, and a young girl gets to the microphone.... same shaky paper-jitterdance going on.....]
I began to think.

Didn’t I once say that Everything Is Poetry? [see my blog of June 24th, 2005].
I took the earplug out just as the girl read a line describing her feelings of being run over by the wheels of a big truck, and then after that, a garbage truck. Run over twice, like. By trucks, yet.

In the dictionary, to get to the meaning of the word “poetry” you cannot find it by looking at the word itself. You will be directed back to the word “poem” and there it will tell you something like (as does the Oxford Concise) “a piece of imaginative writing in verse, expressing the writer’s feelings or describing a place or event.”
And “poetry” is simply..... a collection of these individual things... these poems.
Poems “as a whole, or as a form of literature.”
So I began to realize..... these people here assembled.... are doing exactly what poetry is.
They are not even breaking any of the rules.
Who am I, therefore, to say that any of it is so horrid, that it is not worthy of my ears?
Why is my “poetry” any better?
So I listened for a bit, and even clapped now and then.

There are people (I would assume) who would moreso appreciate that nameless girl’s poem about being (figuratively, I would hope) run over by a garbage truck, than they would appreciate some of my most erudite and painstakingly painfully calculated... work.
Is there anything more purely opinion-based, in its appreciation (or lack of appreciation), than poetry?
Granted, in my persoanl opinion, her stuff was badly constructed..... [at one point she plainly said “pronunciated” when she clearly meant “pronounced”]..... but again.... who died and made ME the King of Poetry?
One thing I do know, is this. People today applauded her poetry.
No roomful of people has ever applauded any of mine! I’ve never even given anyone the option of doing so.
Who is the real or better poet, given both scenarios?
In closing, as in opening, I think of Robertson Davies yet again, who has the character of Simon Darcourt say in the novel The Lyre of Orpheus, “Even a terrible poet may hit on a truth. Even the blind pig sometimes finds the acorn.”


Friday, October 14, 2005

Splash du Jour: Friday

"My family can always tell when I'm well into a novel because the meals get very crummy."
-- Anne Tyler –
Have a great Friday!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Splash du Jour: Thursday

What am I currently reading?
One of the best (best-written) books I have read in a long while.
Nabokov’s controversial, mesmerizing, Lolita, published in 1955.
In 1966, speaking of censorship, and related topics, the author said:
Neither can I do anything to please critics belonging to the good old school of "projected biography," who examine an author's work, which they do not understand, through the prism of his life, which they do not know.
-- Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), The Waltz Invention, foreword. –

Have a great Thursday!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Thomas Hardy's "Tess"

Just sitting here having a coffee in the Starbucks at Chapters. Surrounded by books, and other caffeine addicts, like myself.
If I were rich (wealthy) and I mean stinkingly, pukingly, exorbitantly RICH, I would probably spend even more time in coffee shops. Plus, I would open my own chain of stores, called Coffeepuddle.
In fact, I would tour the world, and I would drink coffee all over the place. I would sit at cafes and write stories, and read books. And eat biscotti. And write vignettes about biscotti and macaroons, and about how fun it is to be so horrendously wealthy that I do not have to go to work ever.
But as it is (alas!).... my normal eight-to-five work is totally cutting into by biscotti time.
When all is said and done, I only have a couple of hours each evening to have a wee bit of “me-time” where I can sit and drink a coffee and say a few mumbly prayers over a small assortment of lottery tickets.......
Tonight, as I sit here I am thinking of one of the best books I have ever read. In several ways, it really marked my inauguration into the world of literature.
The book is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Many years ago, after completing a grueling mind-numbing week of exams in college I sat down to read this story, as a sort of reward for living through the previous five days. I have since read many of Hardy's novels, but Tess remains the dearest to me.
Tess is the innocent village girl who is seduced by the stinkingly, pukingly, exorbitantly wealthy rake, Alec d’Urberville.
Early on, in chapter 4, Tess is on a journey at night with her little brother Abraham and he is asking her if all the stars in the night sky are worlds similar to ours. She compares them to apples on a tree and concludes that most of them are "splendid and sound - a few blighted".
"Which do we live on?" asks Abraham.
"A blighted one," says Tess.
Minutes later, their carriage crashes into some oncoming traffic... the family horse (Prince) is killed, and Tess is plunged through this incident into predicaments that will result in her complete undoing.
Those who are familiar with Hardy will know of his fatalistic tendencies. His themes were not exactly "jolly". And here, in the above incident he sets that ominous tone that is so omnipresent in his work. Tess is the story of an exceptionally gifted and beautiful peasant girl of decayed aristocratic stock who is betrayed by two men: one is the rich and sensuous Alec D'Urberville, the seducer of her body and for a while of her emotions; by him she has a child which dies in infancy. The other is the intellectual free-thinking son of a clergyman (Angel Clare), whom she loves with her whole being, and who abandons her when he hears, immediately after their marriage, of her earlier violation.
It is a picture reminiscent of that Victorian double-standard that similarly condemned Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Angel fully expects Tess to forgive his own past indiscretions (and she does), but he, in turn, will not forgive hers! More precisely, he flounders in his disillusionment, and cannot move from forgiveness to forgetness... as is obvious when he says to her in Chapter 35, "O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case. You were one person; now you are another."
The double-standard breaks our heart even as we read of it.
And hearts are broken here.

It is not until many years later that Angel realizes his error by pondering on the Biblical story of "the wife of Uriah being made a queen" (2 Sam.11:1-27). Realizing (a bit too late) that he had judged Tess by the deed rather than the will, he searches for the girl... only to find that the extreme poverty of her family has driven her back to the other man. So strong is Tess's love for Angel Clare, and so powerful her disgust at what Alec D'Urberville has forced her to become, that she kills Alec. Now husband and wife are re-united but on the run from the police, and they spend a few days of loving reconciliation before Tess is arrested, tried, sentenced to death for murder, and.... [I shall say no more...]
Hardy considered this to be his finest novel, and claimed that Tess was the most deeply felt character he ever created. Originally published in 1891, it yet remains a timeless story of the power of love to overcome the most profound betrayal. Significant is Hardy's choice of the subtitle: "A Pure Woman".
Unreservedly recommended, by me.
Present day peasant-blogger..... future coffeeshop-owning-millionnaire-mogul-raconteur!

Splash du Jour: Wednesday

"Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."
-- Don Marquis –
Have a great Wednesday!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Splash du Jour: Tuesday

"It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish."
-- S.I. Hayakawa --

Have a great Tuesday!

Monday, October 10, 2005

My Apology.

I have been re-thinking a few of the things I said in a former blog.
About reading.
On Friday I had written about the kid I saw in the Chapters store. The little guy who had found his own name being used in a book, and therefore, decided that this would be the book he would read for his school English assignment. [See blog entitled: The Good Germ: Friday, Oct.07, ‘05 ].
I began that blog with what I now sort of see as the rather harsh and unforgiving statement:
It is sad (extremely sad) to me that so many people have robbed themselves (or have been robbed, whatever the case may be) of the ability to appreciate the wealth of vicarious experience that is bursting out of any good piece of literature.
And then later, in similar harshness and in what I thought at the time to be real witty summation, I asked:
In other words, what is more sad? That Jonnee kant reed? Or that his muther duzznt no probbly howw 2teech him reed to?

Ha ha! I kill me sometimes! God, I am funny!
Now, since that time, (Friday evening) I have come across a few quotes from some fairly reputable litterati.... icons in the field, and they have seemed to really nail down what I was saying there in my own world of narrow-minded over-simplification.
The first is from none other than Mark Twain. In classic wittiness, he said:
"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
My main emphasis in the Friday blog was upon the fact that neither the child nor the mother seemed to know what distinguishes a good book from a bad book. Twain is here nodding his whiskery head, and agreeing with me that to read bad books is no different than being illiterate.
I seem to be in good company.
My next quote is from none other than the great American short-storyist, Flannery O’Connor, and it deals with the issue of vicarious experience:
“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”
I love both of these authors (Twain and O’Connor) but I must say that if I really look hard at what they are saying, along with what I was saying.... I think we are all, the three of us, not altogether correct.

It may be that in speaking about the glories of reading, we are overlooking the myriad of reasons why some people do not read as much as we (the readers) do.
I am thinking today, that while it may be a wonderful thing to acknowledge and applaud a person’s literacy skills, it is entirely another one to berate or ridicule someone else because of their lack of them.
Taken to its extreme, what Twain is essentially saying is that someone who cannot discern the obvious superiority of Nabokov (say) over an Archie comic book, is no better than an ox, which can do neither thing.
Taken to its extreme, what O’Connor is saying is that people who have no interest in fiction cannot possibly exhibit hope or courage, in other areas of life. Secondly, the reason that these unfortunates do not pursue the recreation of reading is because they eschew all forms of meaningful experience.
Both quotes are saying too much, as is my blog on the same topic.

For my part, I have succeeded in doing the very thing I most say that I loathe doing.
I judged someone.
And based such judgement on quick external observation, no less.
So while I do not retract [delete] Friday’s musings, I do want regular readers of this page to consider this that I am now writing as an addendum to the former.

The main reason this has come to the fore of my mind is that I happened across an article by Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections, et al) in his book of essays called How To Be Alone.
The specific chapter was called Why Bother? and was an article that originally appeared in Harpers magazine in 1996.
In the article, Franzen quoted the findings of Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist and professor of English at Stanford University. It seems that things are not quite so simple as I was suggesting in my blog. Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader.
According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. “A child who’s got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight,” she said. “If the parents are smart, they’ll forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her. Otherwise she’ll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them. Finding a peer can take place as late as college. In high school, especially, there’s a social penalty to be paid for being a reader. Lots of kids who have been lone readers get to college and suddenly discover, ‘Oh my God, there are other people here who read.’”
This is so significant. See, I was one of these people described, in every way except for the part about being a girl.
While all the other kids were playing outside, I created a secret world where I just wanted to be with my books, and gosh darn it if I did not even HIDE to do this.... as the title of Franzen’s books suggests, I sought out “how to be alone” in order to read.
While my parents never forbade my reading, neither did they necessarily encourage it, unless the memory of such a scenario has eluded me. In other words, it was just THERE! A part of me, like the gap in my two front teeth.
My own mother would not have known Jules Verne from..... Verne Jules!

So this quotation from Heath caused me to re-evaluate the situation I posited in my Friday blog, where I seemed to be suggesting that if the mother would just realize that her son should be reading Jules Verne instead of the poorly written trash he handed her at the table, well surely... the very next day, rather than playing baseball, the kid would be 30,000 Leagues Under The Covers.
With a book and a flashlight!
It probbly ‘taint thet simpul!
See, my own early temperament, my entire inner being was infused with the wonder of words and books and reading for as long as I can remember deciphering my first sentence on a page.
I would be wrong, however, to think that this makes me a better or more valuable person than someone else, who was not infused with a similar innate (or seemingly innate) passion.

Secondly, Heath noted that there is a second aspect to the early reader.
“There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with people around -- because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.”
This last thing mentioned reminds me of Holden Caulfield, in Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, when he says, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
Exactly. It “knocks me out” too!
And Heath’s statement in its entirety, I think, is a wonderful way of establishing the basis for the vicarious experience that can come to us through books.

Note: It can come to us. This is not to say that it will come to us.
Everything about our individual personality, our cognitive ability, our upbringing and our social milieu (I believe) affects how we will feel about literature when it inevitably approaches us.
As I suggested, I gravitated toward it (and continue to do so) as though being reunited with air after suffocating.
As a kid, just as Heath suggests, I did indeed see myself as “different” (the social isolate, if you will) because of my love for reading, and I did not want to declare my love outwardly.

This would not have been "cool" and the really important thing was to be "cool".
I recall, in grade six, when the teacher asked us to read individually from a portion of a book that we each had on our desks. One by one, he went through the rows of kids, and we each read aloud. Most were reading very poorly, and so I wanted to fit in. When it came my turn I deliberately read as though I was still in the womb. Ever the comedian, I really played this to the hilt. You would have sworn that I had never seen a word in my lifetime, and all the while, in my mind I was reading the page flawlessly.

Then the teacher, Mr. Radmacher, wrote something down in his book, and murmurred.... “Hmmm. One out of ten for you.”
“What?” I yelled. “Were we being graded on this? Wait. Wait. Let me do it again. I can read this junk perfectly. I bessech thee!”

But to no avail.
I had too successfully proclaimed my feigned illiterance!

And so, what I am saying here today is that I acknowledge that there are certain propensities in some people (and of course, some children) that will cause them to naturally gravitate toward a more cerebrally oriented, literature-based mindset. This does not make one person necessarily better than the other, but it does make them different.

The difference may be as subtle as simply having a sense of detachment about reading which, instead of asking “Why is this important to me?” allows the reader to ask instead, “Why am I important to it?”
There is a big difference between the focus on why I ought to read something, and why something ought to read me. The lover of books is able to focus on this latter thing.

Everything they read becomes for them, an opportunity for vicarious experience.

Admittedly, I am a person who perhaps places an inordinate amount of value upon the vicarious experience that is available in the reading of literature. Often, to gauge how much I can expect to enjoy the rest of my middle age-period and beyond, I simply tally up how many books I have read in the previous year, and multiply this figure by a realistic number of years I can be expected to live!
Hmmmm. 40 books a year? Times what, 30 more years?
Hell, given that my eyesight doesn’t falter, or some piano fall on me in the street.... I’ve got at least 1,200 journeys yet to take!

All kinds of people yet to meet!

And I realize that as wonderful as the adventure of reading is to me, the above-mentioned attitude toward time and life could be just as easily (and just as wittily) criticized by a non-reader, as what I was conversely doing here on Friday night.
Basically, my apologies to the Hell’s Bastard kid.


Friday, October 07, 2005

The Good Germ.

It is sad (extremely sad) to me that so many people have robbed themselves (or have been robbed, whatever the case may be) of the ability to appreciate the wealth of vicarious experience that is bursting out of any good piece of literature. It is why I think that literacy programs are so important. Reading.... and I mean the ADDICTION to reading, is one germ that, if caught early enough, cannot possibly do harm. It can only do good. It can only be beneficial.
Just a few moments ago, in this very Chapters bookstore I am in right now, two ladies came in, with three kids distributed among them. The kids took off in all directions throughout the store and the ladies sat at a table in the Starbucks and drank coffee. Then one of the kids, a boy, I would say about twelve years old, came running back with this book in his grubby kid-hands, and he was waving it in front of his mom.... bursting right into the two ladies’ conversation ruder than a mongoose and shouting “This is the book I want. Teacher said it had to be 100 pages and this one is like 102, and I want to get it because it has my name in it.”
The mom took it from his hands, and I looked over to try and see what it was.... I could see some devil or demon on the cover (I’m not kidding) and the title was something like Hell’s Bastard or whatever.... I think you know what I mean right? The author probably unintentionally wrote the whole thing in one afternoon after eating magic mushrooms.
The mom is looking at the price of the book, that being the only criteria that is important to her.
The kid, sensing that Mom is not quite sold on the Satanic theme and all, grabs it back from her and closes the deal.... “Look, the main character has my name, this is the book I want.”
She acquiesced, and the kid, victorious, left the book on the table and tore off in search of other affirmations of his identity (I guess).
Maybe I am being sort of harsh here, but the whole scene says a lot of things to me. Firstly, the kid would probably not be reading anything at all if it was not a requirement from school. I can live with that, it is one thing (the main thing) I think that schools should emphasize with young kids.... LITERACY SKILLS. So, perhaps the kid will catch the good germ in this way. Secondly though, he leaves the book on the table and runs off. He has no interest in the value of that book. He is already, in fact, avoiding its presence in his life. OK.... let’s leave the kid alone now. The saddest thing about the story involves the person who will pay for that book at the cash register. The parent has nary a clue as to what the boy ought to be reading. No suggestions. No guidance down an avenue of life that is so woefully neglected, and yet so important.

Has this mother of a young boy never heard of Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, or J.R.R. Tolkien? Never heard of Arthur Conan Doyle or Rudyard Kipling or C.S. Lewis? Stephen Crane? Daniel Defoe? H.G. Wells or Robert Louis Stephenson or Jack London or Kenneth Grahame or Jules Verne or Charles Dickens or Lewis Carroll or Alexandre Dumas?
In other words, what is more sad? That Jonnee kant reed? Or that his muther duzznt no probbly howw 2teech him reed to?
Again, not to be overly critical of this kid, but chances are, if the only reason he wants to read a book is because he sees his own name in it somewhere, he will probably become the kind of adult that overlooks great literature for the remainder of his life.
Which is, in my opinion, a tragedy.
Steer them toward the good stuff as early as possible, I say. And of course, you can do only do this if you become familiar with it yourself!