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Category Archives: authors I love

>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.

>February 2011: Book Buying

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>After acquiring a huge load of (I lost count after 30) books last month for free, you’re probably thinking: No. She could not have possibly gone out and bought books. Well, of course I could and did. You must be thinking of someone else. I almost made it through the month without opening my wallet, but books happen. Two of them this time:

1. The Sum and Total of Now – Don Robertson. I bought Robertson’s wonderful The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread back in April, 2008 and gobbled it down almost as fast as the object in the title. I never meant for three years to pass before buying the rest of the trilogy. One night about a week ago, I woke up with the sweaty dreadful conviction that the new edition of The Sum and Total of Now was going to become as difficult to find and as expensive as its hardback ancestor from the late 1960s. To hell with that. I made my move.

2. The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened – Don Robertson. Bird is the word. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Plus, my Inner Completeist Bookworm was clamoring for me to complete the trilogy. I had to. Buying the second book and not the third would have been like playing only the first three notes of Beethoven’s 5th.

I suppose I should feel ashamed of my book gluttony, but when I think of those two books winging their way across the ocean to be with me, I can’t help but feel pleased. In fact, I would like nothing more than to set up a lawn chair in the lobby of my apartment building and spend the days with my eyes trained on the wall of mailboxes until they arrive.

>All About Alcott


It’s a little late in the year, but I simply cannot resist this challenge. Louisa May Alcott — my fellow Sagittarian — wouldn’t want me to, either.

Wish me luck and pass the blancmange.

>Books: A Memoir – Larry McMurtry

>No, a bookshelf didn’t fall over on me and crush me in an avalanche of hardback volumes. I’m still here, but come to think of it, that wouldn’t exactly be a terrible way to go.

My feeble excuse is writer’s block. I’ve given notice at my current job, and I must write my resume and let the jobhunt begin in earnest. And therein lies the block. The laugh’s on me — I want to venture more into teaching writing, but I freeze up at a simple little task like a resume. Something’s got to crack this frozen sea within me and soon. On the bright side, I’ll have more empathy for any future students who have difficulty writing.

Meanwhile, blogging’s not going any better, but enough’s enough. I’ll share the notes I took while reading Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry.

This book is not without flaws. It is really short, and for the amount of money the publisher charged for this book, it’s a crying shame and a shameful crime that there are so many blank pages within. Also, it’s written in a fragmented and splintery style that reads like a first or second draft. I’m so concerned that this slight offering is proof that McMurtry’s general health as well as his literary powers are in decline.

Having said all of that, I love Books: A Memoir. When I finished it, I was hungry for more anecdotes about Larry McMurtry’s life as a book collector and reader.

Larry McMurtry was born in Archer City, Texas in 1936 into what he called a “bookless” house. When his older cousin went off to WWII, he first dropped by the McMurtry ranch with a box of his boyhood books –19 adventure stories — for young Larry, and a lifelong love affair with books was born. This box of books is McMurtry’s madeline, and he refers to this gift numerous times in Books: A Memoir. “Very quickly,” he writes, “once I had my 19 books, I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life.” He also comments, when discussing the boom of technological gadgets in the past few years, “I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support –reading — is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”

Second only to reading, McMurtry loves being a “bookman” — hunting and gathering and selling books. He turned to that rather than to being a writer-in-residence at some prestigious university because handling and hauling books was physical labor which felt more like real work, given his family’s background as cowboys and ranchers.

McMurtry admits that he is an anomaly among bookmen (which includes women). “Many bookmen, and some of the best among them rarely, if ever, read. The acquire and they estimate and they sell; they collate, measure, hype. They read catalogues, they look in bibliographies, they submit quotes. But they don’t have time to read.”

In all of his years as a bookman, McMurtry has come across some interesting book collections. I was startled then charmed at how specialized (not to mention bizarre!) book collections can be. Here are some of those included in this book: Several hundred books about Byzantine coinage; a library consisting of hundreds of copies of The Great Gatsby; books by H.G. Wells; novels that poets wrote; and American erotica of the Depression era. After reading this, I wanted a weird collection of my own; I was irked that my own shelves lacked any real signs of eccentricity. After comforting myself that my Korea books and Don Robertson novels are a small start in that direction, I began to wonder if any other bloggers have strange collections. I’d love it if you ‘fessed up. Now.

In McMurtry’s personal collection of 28,000 books (Dear Mr. McMurtry, Can I come over?…) his own “odd shelf” (as Anne Fadiman called it in Ex Libris) consists of books written by women travelers that dates back a century or two. (He calls this collection his “lady travelers”. First “bookmen” and now this, but I can’t help but admire him for refusing to even acknowledge that thorny thicket known as PC.) I got excited at this revelation, wondering if he has Josie Dew’s books. (Among others, she wrote The Sun In My Eyes, a recounting of her bicycling adventures across Asia.)

It was also fun to read about McMurtry’s reading streaks. Back in the early 70s, he read The Guns of August and Nicholas & Alexandra around the same time and got hooked on reading about World War I. After a few years, he moved on to WWII, but he’s still “much more engrossed by WWI.”

A darker streak, and one that renewed my worries about his health was when McMurtry mentioned that he “recently got depressed for 1.5 years and could only read a minor literary figure named James Lees-Milne who wrote several books including 12 volumes of diaries 1942-1997” which McMurtry “became dependent upon during my depression.” He has read all 12 volumes several times and is sure he’ll “keep rereading them for the rest of my life.” Of his love for rereading, McMurtry writes, “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security.”

I visited McMurtry’s Book Town in Archer City several years ago, so when he writes about it in the final pages, I could more fully appreciate what I noticed with pleasure when I was there — his scrupulous attention to what is on his shelves: “One essential practice is the purge. Junk inevitably seeps in, and the iron rule is that good books do not pull bad books up: bad books pull good books down.” I laughed out loud when he referred to a customer’s habit of always poking through piles of books stacked on the floor as “the midden instinct”.
I want to return to Archer City so bad. Some of my sweetest dreams have Book Town as their backdrop.

Although there is much that is enjoyable about Books: A Memoir, because it is a little on the skimpy side, I wouldn’t recommend buying it unless you’re a true McMurtry fan or you have an “odd shelf” for books about books. However, you should run, not walk to your nearest library and check it out or put yourself on the reserve list.

>Shel Silverstein

>Saturday morning. Three a.m. I woke up with an earworm, and no one to blame it on.

Usually, Manfred, Jr. places them there by continually (and some might even say maliciously) singing a snippet of a song over and over. He really is diabolical — my son, my spawn, my shot at immortality. When he was in elementary school, he’d come into my bedroom and sing “Good Morning, Starshine” before I was fully awake. I’d have that damn song in my head all day as I worked, shopped, stood in line at the DMV — you name the place and the most annoying soundtrack on earth was right there with me.

But on this particular Saturday morning, Manfred, Jr. was blameless, and the song was “True Story”, sung by Bobby Bare and written by the superbly-almost-obscenely talented Shel Silverstein:

This morning I jumped on my hoss and went out for a ride/but some wild outlaws chased me and they shot me in the side/I crawled into a wildcat’s cage to find a place to hide…

And? And?

I crawled into a wildcat’s cage to find a place to hide…


Not only was this an earworm, this was an earworm that demanded the whole text of the song, would not be satisfied with only a snippet, would not let me rest until I played THE WHOLE DAMN SONG in my head. I lay in bed, cursing as the tune played interminably over and over on that last line, my tired brain trying creakily and failing mightily to pull up that elusive file. Every cell in my body was screaming at me to get out of bed and hie my pajama-ed ass over to my office to the computer to surf for the missing lyric. I grimly waited it out till daylight and tried in vain to give myself a different earworm with The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, but it was hopeless.

After a couple of futile searches, I finally located the stray line of verse but some pirates found me sleeping there and soon they had me tied… finished playing the song in my head, and retired that particular earworm. I’m glad I contracted it though, because it started me thinking about Shel Silverstein.

Most people have experienced Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) as the funny and quirky author of many volumes of poetry that are geared towards children and parents to read and enjoy together. I’m more familiar with Silverstein as the outrageous, earthy and sometimes pungent storyteller-songwriter of country/crossover tunes such as “Sylvia’s Mother”, “One’s On The Way”, “The Unicorn” and “A Boy Named Sue”. It feels really strange for me to be extremely familiar with and a fan of an author and also barely acquainted with him in book form.

I became familiar with Silverstein’s work because “Unicorn” and “A Boy Named Sue” were wildly popular when I was way down in elementary school, but what really defined him for me was the release of country singer Bobby Bare’s album, Lullabies, Legends, And Lies when I was in 7th grade. My parents bought this record and it was hardly ever off the turntable for almost a year. Simutaneously, selections from LL&L were getting heavy airplay on Armed Forces Radio. The album had an embarrassment of riches on it: “Marie Laveaux”, “Daddy, What If?”, “Mermaid”, “Paul”, “True Story” “Winner” “Shiloh” and “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe” among other gems by Silverstein.

I have paged through the Silverstein classics such as A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC, THE MISSING PIECE, and THE GIVING TREE. While I recognize many of the aspects that characterize Silverstein’s poetry, it doesn’t feel like real Silverstein. It feels like a dimension is missing, and the whole effect seems curiously flat.

My Shel Silverstein is the one from LL&L: Fanciful and slightly raunchy. A wonderful example of this exists in “Paul”, Silverstein’s take on Paul Bunyan:

Talk about women/that man was so lusty/he needed a woman every hour/just to keep from gettin’ rusty/the young ones run/and the old ones crawl/to Paul .

For a middle-schooler, this was wickedly funny stuff. When my earnestly sober and polyester-clad grandparents came to visit, I “innocently” asked, “What’s ‘lusty’?” just to see them squirm.

Another example, even more hilarious, can be found in “Mermaid”: The narrator falls in love with your traditional, garden-variety mermaid, but is vaguely dissatisfied:

…from her head to her waist she was just my taste/but the rest of her was a fish.

Eventually, she leaves him and he mourns until:

…her sister, she swam by and set my heart a-whirl/’cause her upper part was an ugly fish/but the bottom part was a GIRL!/Yes, her toes are pink and rosy/and her knees are smooth and pale/and her legs, they are a work of art/and I love that girl with all my heart/I don’t give a damn about the upper part/and that’s how I end my tale!

Equally satisfying was “Marie Laveaux”, the Louisiana voodoo queen who exacted the revenge on no-good Handsome Jack that he so richly deserved:

GRREEEEEEEEEEE! Another man done gone!

There’s also the very funny and multiple-versed “Winner”– a chronicle of every contest the infamous Tiger Man McCool won, including stealing his wife from another man:

That woman, she gets uglier and she gets meaner every day/but I got her boy, and that’s what makes me

[the slightest pause with an upwards inflection, deliciously delivered by the inimitably laconic Bobby Bare]


For maximum comic effect, Silverstein piles up a list of Tiger Man McCool’s ailments and injuries that strain both credulity and the Merck manual. Tiger Man matter-of-factly tells his latest challenger:

If it wasn’t for this glass eye of mine/I’d shed a happy tear/to think of all you’re gonna get by being a winner,

Also Silverstein is a master at creating pictures with words as evidenced in “Bottomless Well”:

[Jesse] sits in his big white wicker rocker/eatin’ candy-coated cashews/sippin’ orange lemonade/while that sweet young thing/fans the flies from off his eyebrows…

At least that’s until Jesse meets a mysterious and untimely end:

But it ain’t murder/’cause he ain’t dead/he’s still a-fallin’/fallin’ down down forever in the bottomless well! /Bye, Jesse!

Silverstein fans whose gentle sensibilities aren’t too easily offended are in for a real treat if they can procure Lullabies, Legends, and Lies or a halfway decent Dr. Hook compilation CD. Even more fun is this website (which is where I found the missing line my pesky earworm demanded) that has links to most of Silverstein’s lyrics:

>The Postcard

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>One day, a long time ago in the 1980s, I got a postcard from Manfred, Sr. For some reason, he was on a kick of scrawling out messages on those no-picture postcards that one can buy very cheaply at the post office. I scanned his message, yawned, threw the postcard down on the bed and looked at my other mail. Ah! A magazine! I happily trotted off to the bathroom. When I emerged some time later, it was time to go to work, so I left the apartment.

When I came back, it was really late. I easily and expertly threaded my way around the furniture in the dark living room. When I got to the bedroom, I flipped on the overhead light switch.

I gasped. There on the bed was a 4×6 black-and-white photo of Sylvia Plath, and she was looking right at me.

I began to shake. Was it really Sylvia Plath? Of course it was Sylvia Plath! How could I not recognize her? Wasn’t I one of her most passionate fans? Hadn’t I memorized practically every poem in ARIEL? How many times had I read her biography? I even knew what year that particular photo (1959, Boston) was taken.

But why was Sylvia’s photo on my bed? Was I being haunted? Well, of course I was! Since I WAS being haunted, the next logical question was: Why me? Why had Sylvia picked me out of her legion of admirers? Why not some Ph.D candidate doing a dissertation on confessional poets? Didn’t she know I only had a scrawny little B.A. in English? Through the fear, a sliver of pride crept in. Did she want to share a new poem from the other side? Did she want to reveal some information that her biographers hadn’t managed to uncover? Or was she back to admonish me for my habit of denigrating Ted Hughes?

Frozen in the doorway of the bedroom, eyes locked on the photograph, it came to me that whatever Sylvia Plath wanted to say to me was written on the back of the picture lying on the bed. Problem: I was afraid to go over and pick it up. Squeamishness and fear rolled over me in waves. I was reminded of the time my mother ordered me to remove a dead squirrel from the driveway.

This isn’t a dead squirrel, I reminded myself. This is Sylvia Plath. The message had to be revealed. I had a duty to literature.

I was still afraid to touch the picture. By now, my hands oozed icy sweat. I yanked 2 wire clothes hangers from the bedroom closet, keeping my eyes trained on Sylvia’s picture all the while. About 10 other wire hangers clanged to the floor. I jumped. It felt like I had a live baby animal in my throat.

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo, as Sylvia herself famously said, I used the wire hangers to turn the picture over. It flipped up in the air and landed on the floor. I let out a little shriek which died quickly as I bent over and saw Manfred, Sr.’s familiar handwriting and a 19-cent stamp on the back of Sylvia’s picture.