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March: Page Plummet, Novel Nosedive

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It’s just what I expected, but I’m still annoyed that I only read six books this month. Work is quite demanding, so I’m starting to wonder about making it to 100 this year. Since it’s now National Poetry Month, I’ll go ahead and ask: What happens to a triple-digit dream deferred?

1. The Cariboo Horses – Al Purdy.
(I spilled the banks of my overwhelming love for Alfred Wellington Purdy earlier this month. )
2. True Grit – Charles Portis.
I reread this again for Bookleaves Book Group. We ate at Tony Roma’s and discussed the book, then we went to see the new movie version (retitled “The Brave” for its release in South Korea) at Cine Cube. Then I found a copy of the movie a few days ago. I’m up to four viewings. My friend Leigh is going back and forth, trying to decide who is the better Rooster Cogburn: John Wayne or Jeff Bridges? I’m going to have to go with Bridges. When I watch the 1969 True Grit, I’m seeing nothing but John Wayne except the other characters in the movie are calling him Rooster. In the 2010 version, there is no Jeff Bridges, just an old reprobate named Rooster Cogburn. Glen Campbell vs. Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is a no-brainer; I’m more and more charmed by Damon’s nicely nuanced performance with each progressive viewing. Kim Darby vs. Hailee Steinfeld: Gotta go with Hailee. Poor kid, she got robbed at the Oscars. Although I prefer the remake, something young and primal within me cries out for the original movie as well. Sometimes I require both movies on the same day. I’ve hardly spoken of the book, but Oh. My. God. Even better than either movie. If you haven’t read True Grit yet, stop wasting time on this blog and go find it.
3. Another Bullshit Night In Suck City – Nick Flynn.
Probably because of its provocative title, I was expecting to be blown away by this memoir of a ne’er-do-well father meeting his estranged son in a homeless shelter in Boston, where the latter is working. It’s an incredible story without an ounce of the sentimentality I was dreading. I was left wondering what has become of Flynn’s father since the book was published in 2004, but I wasn’t really drawn in the way I am with some memoirs — like The Glass Castle, for example. Flynn has a way of keeping readers at a distance, which really makes sense, considering his life, so perhaps I’m being too finicky. A movie is being made starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. I have plans to see how the Flynns’ story is translated to the screen.
4. Lucky: Maris, Mantle and My Best Summer Ever – Wes Tooke.
First things first: I hate that title. It smells like it was slapped together by a committee. A committee who hadn’t read the book. This is a juvenile novel (told in third person, so why is that first person pronoun in the title?) about a 12-year-old boy named Louis May who is lousy at baseball, but knows (and knows and knows) baseball statistics. Because of a lucky catch at a Yankees game in the summer of 1961 and his statistical inclinations, he gets a chance to be a batboy for the Yankees. All is not so rosy at home, though. Mom ran off to be a beatnik in Greenwich Village (in one scene, she takes him to The Gaslight where one of the performers is a very young Robert Zimmerman) and Louis is having trouble getting adjusted to life with his new stepmother and stepbrother. Louis’ story and his coming-of-age feels a little workmanlike but it’s all worth it for the great scenes with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle teaching Louis (nicknamed “Lucky” by Maris) about life and baseball. Tooke really catches fire as Louis follows the exciting race to Babe Ruth’s record. A quick read and a wonderful way to prepare for Opening Day this year.
5. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff.
 We don’t have the same taste in books, Helene Hanff and I, but I could totally see myself making friends with a bookstore staff in post-war London and shipping them tasty treats at Christmastime. This memoir is related through twenty years of correspondence with Marks & Co. Booksellers. Reading this from a vantage point of more than 60 years onward, the prices made me smile. Hanff has a taste for the old and rare, and she’s sends them a five dollar bill and ends up with two bucks credited to her account. The best part is her feisty letters to the company and no matter how obnoxious she gets, she always gets a gentlemanly response from the patient manager, Frank Doel. I’m more than ready to treat myself to another viewing of the movie version starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel. 
6. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov.
 I read this one for my Cracked Spinz book group. What a strange book. Because of the events in the novel, I am uncomfortable about admitting that I enjoyed it. There’s that numbingly clinical introduction. Then there’s Humbert Humbert, an unreliable narrator with a dark and twisted sense of humor that you can’t help enjoying, but then there’s his nasty, creepy predilection for “nymphets” and then there’s Russian-born author Nabokov playing around in French and English and making literary allusions, puns and anagrams with the same gleeful abandon of a kid at his mud pies and finally, there’s that rich, sumptuous, decadently beautiful prose. My mixed feelings of unease and admiration in equal parts reminds of my reaction to In Cold Blood — Capote’s precise, almost delicate narration and the horrific subject matter. Regarding Lolita, the air in my very own Bybeeary is already crackling, and book group is still ten days away. We are going to have our greatest discussion ever; there’s no other possibility.

>Things You Shouldn’t Say In The Children’s Section Of The Bookstore

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>What the hell. Even the very youngest readers know that sometimes, nothing but a curse word will do:

Shit. shitshitshit.

Remember that fancy foray through What The Book? gift card and all? 48 hours later, I’m smiting my forehead (making it rhyme with “horrid”) and realizing that I left without the ONE book I went in there to get:

April 17 is my Bookleaves Book Club’s 100th book/meeting, so to celebrate, we decided to each read a Newbery winner and discuss our choices. I was determined to finally read the Newbery winner of 1961, Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell. It’s also celebrating an anniversary: it’s been part of the select Newbery circle for 50 years now.

My forgetfulness two days ago seems to be part of a trend with this book. I looked for it at Gwanghwamun’s Kyobo bookstore in March, but I remembered the title as Julie of the Wolves. Kyobo didn’t have a copy. Veronica posted a Newbery Winners list on our Facebook page a few days after that. Ooops. Armed with the correct title, I made plans to pick it up when I went to Seoul again…and there you go. I don’t see how I could have forgotten. I’m practically living and breathing Children’s Literature this semester.

I could read a different Newbery winner, but now, nothing else will do. These glitches have made me wary. If I ask someone to send it to me, it’s bound to get lost. The only thing that will do is that I must go and fetch it myself. There’s a long subway ride in my very near future.

>I Had A Little Gift Card & I Stomped That Sucker Flat

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Actually, the gift card was HUGE. Generous, by anyone’s standards. A (totally undeserved) reward from the other members of last fall’s Writing Center pilot program. We snickeringly referred to ourselves as the Fundamentals for Universal Communicable Knowledge and just barely managed to keep that out of our final report. We had vision and we had fun.

A gift card?! Wow. Just wow. Careening through What The Book? like a hog on ice was a thing of joy forever. Thanks, Team [Acronym]! Here’s how I spent your hard-earned money:

1. Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand. I loved Seabiscuit, and I know I’ll feel the same about her latest offering.

2. Cake Wrecks – Jen Yates. I got this one for the Foodie Challenge. My choice is my old friend Vicki Cheatwood’s fault; she got me addicted to the website.

3. Easy Livin’ Microwave Cooking – Karen Kangas Dwyer. Another for the Foodie Challenge and a chance to prove that I can turn out meals that make people gasp (in the preferred way) without breaking down and buying an oven.

4. Happy Birthday Or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee And Other Family Disasters – Annie Choi. I wonder if she pronounces her name Choy, like it’s spelled or Chae, like my students do. Anyway, a humorous memoir about her Korean-American family.

5. The Grifters – Jim Thompson. Oooooh my favorite noir guy. I saw this movie several years ago and liked it.

6. A Hell of a Woman – Jim Thompson. Can’t go wrong here. This was originally published in 1954, when Thompson was on fire.

7. The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn. Kahn grew up “in shouting distance of Ebbets Field” during the 1930s and 40s, then for a couple of years in the 1950s, he covered the Brooklyn Dodgers as a young sportswriter. For my baseball shelf.

8. The Rookie – Jim Morris. AKA The Oldest Rookie. Jim Morris was in the minors for a while, then gave it up for coaching high school baseball. At age 35, he got another incredible chance to be in The Show. A true story and a movie by Disney starring Dennis Quaid. Also for my baseball shelf.

9. The Inner Circle – T.C. Boyle. This time, Boyle takes on sex studies pioneer Alfred Kinsey. After having such an enjoyable time with The Women, I can hardly wait.

10. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – Anne Fadiman. I will always love Anne Fadiman (read that last phrase while hearing in your mind’s ear a complete string section backing Whitney Houston’s vocals) because of Ex Libris, her quirky memoir about being a book lover. In this nonfiction work, Fadiman looks at a terrible culture collision between a Hmong family who has a daughter with epilepsy and American doctors at a small hospital in California.

11. The Road Past Altamont – Gabrielle Roy. Yay! I discovered another Canadian author! Take me to Tim Horton’s and set me up with a double-double.

12. From Here To Eternity – James Jones. Time for another World War II novel. This is my first outing with James Jones, although I’ve seen the movie version two or three times. I’m imagining that the book will be sort of like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. This beat-up mass market paperback edition with that divine aged-book smell clocks in at 955 pages.

>March 2011: Book Buying

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>I hadn’t been to the Kyobo bookstore in Gwanghwamun since they remodeled, so when I was in Seoul for book group on March 20, I couldn’t resist a little look-see. I had been so good all month.

As part of the upgrade, they added a particularly winsome shelf that they’ve labelled half in English and half in Korean. The English words say “Book” and “Die”, so I’m assuming the staff has amassed their selections from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I found the first two books on the above receipt there. 84 Charing Cross Road was a nice surprise, but when I saw They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I breathed in sharply and muttered, “Omigod.” BIG score. Big, big score. As Matthew Sweet put it in one of his songs, I’ve been waiting/and I want to have you… The woman next to me said, “I know. It’s like a candy store.”

Once again, it seems that Restraint is not my middle name, but looking at the particulars of my receipt, it seems that when I go into Kyobo, I am actually another person, so I can’t be blamed for my dizzy behavior. This is entirely the work of “Suran Bylee”.

>Late To The Table

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>I don’t know how I let this challenge almost slip by me. I’m definitely in, tying on a napkin and going for the Bon Vivant level (4-6 books). This is the prompting that I need to finally read Becka’s copy of Chocolat, which I borrowed last fall. It’s also a great excuse to go shopping for some of those food memoirs I’ve been coveting. In addition, maybe this will compel me to stop circling copies of Good Morning, Kimchi! and take the plunge. The upcoming Readathon just got a little tastier. Is this ironic or just merely funny?… it’s the middle of the night, and I’m awake and wandering around in Blogland because of indigestion.

>The Custom of the Country -Edith Wharton

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You say you’re done with The Age of Innocence. Not so fast. Just hitch up your bustle, loosen up your stays and flop right back down on that horsehair sofa. Settle back for another delectable wedge of Wharton.

The Custom of the Country (1913) was written seven years before The Age of Innocence, but takes place in the New York represented in the latter book’s last chapter. The Old Guard of New York society is still hanging in, but its inexorable grip is being peeled away, slowly and tenaciously, one gloved finger at a time.

The novel opens with a beautiful girl (with a decidedly unbeautiful name) named Undine Spragg who, with her mother and father, newly rich and newly arrived from the midwestern Apex City, are perched at the fashionable Hotel Stentorian. Because her daddy is rich and she’s so damn good-looking, it’s only a matter of time before she marries into the big deals. Mrs. Heeney, a “society” manicurist and masseuse, counsels Undine and her mother daily to be patient about getting in: “The wrong set’s like fly-paper: once you’re in it, you can pull and pull, but you’ll never get out of it again…Undine’s all right. A girl like her can afford to wait…she’ll have the run of the place in no time.”

Undine has her sights set on Ralph Marvell, who resembles Newland Archer in that he’s been abroad and fancies himself broad-minded but it is mostly a veneer; he’s very much entrenched in his upbringing. His one bold step out proves to be disastrous — he falls for Undine. Since she isn’t from his world, she’s practically foreign and he’s charmed by it. When he meets her bumpkin-ish mother, one would think Undine would be undone, but he’s charmed through and through. She meets his family as well and damns herself everytime she opens her mouth. Ralph treats her pronouncements like witty repartee, but his family is aghast.

As the set-up for the romance and the romance itself is grinding through the New York City society mill a bit too slow for Undine’s liking, she tries to help it speed along by asking her father for money for new dresses and one time, she asks him to rent a box at the opera for her for the whole season. Since moving to New York (obstensibly for the single purpose of getting Undine launched into society) Mr. Spragg’s been “a mite strapped” but Undine stubbornly persists and gets everything she wants. Why these common-sense plain folk meekly put up with this late Victorian-era Veruca is a mystery, but Wharton cleverly withholds that for a time, then lets it drop rather late in the novel in an offhand way.

Also arrived in New York City is a red-faced fellow from Apex City named Elmer Moffatt, whose proximity as well as his “spruced up” appearance is enough cause to make Mr. Spragg scowl nervously and Mrs. Spragg reach for her vial of digitalis. Undine encounters Moffatt at the opera when she’s engaged to Ralph and can fairly smell the wedding cake baking, and she’s horrified to see him. She asks Elmer (nicely) to get lost and he obliges, for the moment.

Undine snags Ralph and things go to hell in a handbasket. Even though she’s now among society folk, she’s still working hard to be a big splash, so she’s still spending money like water. The Marvell family isn’t rich, but working for a living is frowned upon, so Ralph is forced to ask his father-in-law for an allowance before the wedding. Undine and Ralph have a son and she’s not terribly interested in staying home and taking care of little Paul.

Meanwhile, Undine has had her Homer Simpson “D’Oh!” moment about society not necessarily equaling tons of money, so she’s already got an eye out for her next conquest, but it’s a mistake she’s destined to repeat. Nothing deters Undine for long, though — she’s a great one for believing in “starting over”. She’s got pioneer spirit, but it runs so amok that it makes amok look normal.

Undine is a fascinating and repelling creation of the Becky Sharp/Scarlett O’Hara variety. Wharton is superb with this character and even more so with poor hapless Ralph Marvell who will break your heart. The Custom of the Country is brilliant and my favorite Edith Wharton novel so far. Really good read — I promise. Go find it.

>Canadian Reading Challenge 4: The Cariboo Horses – Al Purdy

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The Cariboo Horses (1965) was the book that, after 22 years of writing poetry, put Al Purdy (still styling himself as “Alfred” here) on the map — he most deservedly won a Governor-General’s Award for that collection. I feel so full of love for The Cariboo Horses and Purdy that I’m quite incoherent. I just want to type heart heart heart. Those are big ol’ maple leafs dancing in my eyes.

Rather than read my burble, go here to the CBC archives and listen to an 11-minute 1967 interview. Happily, the questions are kept to a minimum and once he audibly settles into the studio chair with a little sigh, Purdy is let loose to perform three of his poems from The Cariboo Horses,”Thank God I’m Normal”, the title poem and the hilarious “Homo Canadensis”. The latter is a poem about a drunken stranger having some fun with patriotism at a watering-hole and demonstrates once again how Purdy could have been a contender for a short story writing crown as well.

I love Purdy’s voice. He’s Canada Wry and has an almost Jimmy Stewart twang. I can hear everything in his syllables and even the spaces between: Ontario, rough weather, smoke, wide open provinces, Kraft Dinner, homemade beer, hockey games. I must have more.


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Happy Birthday, Blob.
This is year #7 and it’s also my 600th post. Wow.

>Canadian Reading Challenge: Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir

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This graphic novel? picture book? by Graham Roumieu is a delightfully and grubbily illustrated no-holds-barred memoir written in Biglish (Bigfoot English) is so much fun. Nasty, silly, profane, a gross-out fest, an encyclopedia of yuck — I can’t praise it highly enough.
Bigfoot tries hard to get by in the world and be a “forest gentleman” but the world often makes him “angry like Henry Rollins”. One of his few human friends, Chet, compares himself and Bigfoot to Han Solo and Chewbacca. Bad move, Chet:
I wake up next day with Chet scalp in mouth. Seriously, I not Chewbacca. Dude.
In Japan, he dons a mawashi and sumo wrestles wild animals:
Not want to toot own horn or anything, but I really good. I Harlem Globe Trotter of Sumo. Tear head off puma, throw head in garbage can 50 feet away and pretend play rest of body like guitar…walk down street everybody whisper: ‘Bigfroot! Bigfroot!’

He readily admits that his luck with women isn’t too great: Most of them run away, a few haul out the pepper spray, but Worst is when they do silent scream and vomit trickle down chin like hot fudge on sundae.

Even on the bad days, Bigfoot can always take comfort and pride in being one of a kind:
…me very proud of being on endangered species list because of all privalege of being in exclusive club. Some day, I just pick up phone, call Black Rhino and shoot the shit. I can even use the word rhino and shoot in same sentence and nobody think twice. Crazy! I get away with murder cause everyone think I fragile since I last of kind and so on.

Of course, the downside of being a rarity is that Bigfoot also attracts a lot of poachers. A safari hunter who had a yen for Bigfoot’s organs stalked him and studied his habits. Learning of Bigfoot’s love for Count Chocula cereal, he hid in the refrigerator, disguised as a carton of milk.
Unfortunately, for the hunter, Bigfoot had just decided to go on a low-carb diet:
…so no Chocula. Man freeze to death in fridge. Bigfoot also have cirrhosis at time so it convenient for me use him for liver transplant donor. Bigfoot enjoy irony.

Blame it on the compost smell or maybe that family of voles nesting in his armpit, but I find him pretty damn irresistable, and can’t wait to read his follow-up memoir, Bigfoot: I Not Dead.

>Canadian Reading Challenge: To Paris Never Again – Al Purdy

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>I don’t know any good living poets. But there’s this tough son-of-a-bitch up in Canada that walks the line.
-Charles Bukowski-

Apparently, the hard-bitten admiration was mutual, because the first poem in Al Purdy’s last poetry collection published during his lifetime is “Lament for Bukowski” in which Purdy says, “You wrote like God with a toothache” and leaves even the most casual reader of Bukowski, or anyone who’s ever seen Barfly with this spot-on image:

Pop Bukowski in his coffin
dead as hell
but reaching hard for a last beer
and just about making it

The second poem in the collection, “On Mexican Highways” is a disturbing memory of being able to see the final expressions of a family in a car in the last seconds before they plunged from the trecherous road and down the mountainside. He compared it to a photo. Spooky stuff, the seeds of future nightmares.

To Paris Never Again consists largely of memories of the past that seem to have been covered in his earlier volumes, but this is no shambling about in old age — he’s revisiting these scenes expertly, eloquently. There are also meditations on approaching death and coming to grips with the passage of time:

The Clever Device
Time is a thing you invented
for a point of reference
for yourself
–after three score years
and ten of your clever device
you point to yourself
in the mirror
and say POUF
you no longer exist
and laugh
or not be able to laugh

I’m a little sorry (“soar-e”, as the Canadians would pronounce it) that Al Purdy wasn’t more of a fiction writer. (He wrote one novel rather late in his career, A Splinter in the Heart.) He had an endearing gift for detail and setting a scene. In “Case History”, he goes back to the 1950s and early 60s, hardscrabble years when he and his family were just barely getting by. They lived in an “A-frame house, half built” and he did a variety of odd jobs: “collecting scrap iron, picking tomatoes, selling apples door-to-door”. When even the odd jobs became scarce, they subsisted on “Kraft Dinner [macaroni and cheese] and cooked road-killed rabbits.”
One day, Purdy discovered the garbage dump near the Mountainview RCAF base and found discarded food rations. He brought his family back and they scavenged cans as well as “boxes of quarter-inch plywood and cans of red and black paint.” This “manna” meant that not only would they be able to eat better, he would be able to make progress on the A-frame:

With literary confidence
I didn’t really feel
Stashed the worksheets of a poem
inside the house overhang
along with a note
directing future discoverers
to take the sheets to the English Dept.
of any Canadian university
and receive as reward
for this unknown masterpiece
one small case of beer
or more likely
an embarassing question
“Purdy — who he?”

In another meditative poem, “Happiness”, Purdy has a lovely image about writing that echoed exactly how I feel about reading his work and just about reading and books in general:

the writing itself
the words exploring
all my veins and arteries

Then, there’s that exquisite grappling again with life and time and what it all means:

–and by this time
it has become plain to me
that I’m not writing about happiness
at all but the puzzle of being alive

Purdy is also generous in making sure that people who helped him get credit. During the road-killed rabbit and Kraft Dinner days, there was an editor, Bob Weaver, who evidently saw promise in him and other struggling poets. “Do you need any money, Al?/Just send me some poems/I’ll make sure you get the cheque fast.” Purdy remarks, “Bob Weaver was Santa.”

I don’t know if he ever got any thanks
or for that matter wanted any
for making the connection
that these rather scruffy human beings
with all the faults of everyone else
were responsible (though very rarely)
for something that leaped up from the printed page
dazzled your brain
and fireflies whizzed in the cerebellum.

Another Carveresque short story masquerading as a poem, “Aphrodite At Her Bath” takes the reader back to Montreal, 1957 and relates an odd incident. Purdy’s wife’s cousin, a beautiful young woman is newly married and newly pregnant. She doesn’t want the baby and has heard that the combination of beer and a hot bath would induce a miscarriage. Purdy’s wife goes off to work and leaves the two there alone, the cousin sitting in the bath and Purdy fetching more and more of his home brew. They’re both getting sloshed, then abruptly, Purdy flashes-foward. Aphrodite is sixty now, he tells us, with two kids:

And now the venue changes
from Montreal to Sidney BC
Anno Domoni 1995
near forty years later
where I sit writing
these words on paper
trying to avoid the eyes
of quite a large crowd
of pro-life denonstrators
gathered threateningly
around this poem.

One of the last poems in To Paris Never Again is about Marius Barbeau (1885-1969), a Canadian ethnologist and folklorist. Barbeau spent years during his career living among the Native American tribes. One evening, when Barbeau was older and largely retired from field work, Purdy asked him about Tsimsyan drumming dances. Instead of telling, Barbeau said he’d show him. Purdy writes that Barbeau really got into it and forgot everything, “focused on only the mountain at the end of the sky.” Purdy admits that at the time “I was embarrassed for him/but now I’m embarrassed/that I was embarrassed/Barbeau was one of the ancient rememberers.”

I first became acquainted with Al Purdy’s work in his 1984 collection Piling Blood. I’m now reading 1965’s The Cariboo Horses and meeting the younger Al(fred) Purdy, with smiles and shocks of recognition, a growing affection and that deepening sense of sadness readers get when they freshly discover someone who is long gone. I want to know all the incarnations of Purdy, all the way back to 1944 and his debut collection, The Enchanted Echo.

Purdy died in 2000, three years after To Paris Never Again was published. His stuff (I don’t mean “stuff” trivially or dismissively. I mean it in the baseball sense, in which a pitcher is lauded for his “stuff” — his talent and skills) makes me wish I could have met him and shared a glass of his home brew.

I’m really grateful to my Canadian friend, Jim Cooper, who is sharing his Al Purdy collection with me. I’m also glad that John Mutford continues to host the Canadian Book Challenge. Wish I could give my thanks in the shape of a poem, guys.