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Category Archives: O Canada

>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.

>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.
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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:
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I wake up next day with Chet scalp in mouth. Seriously, I not Chewbacca. Dude.
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In Japan, he dons a mawashi and sumo wrestles wild animals:
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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:
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…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.
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Unfortunately, for the hunter, Bigfoot had just decided to go on a low-carb diet:
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…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.”
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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:

Happiness
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.

>It’s Raining Books, Hallelujah

>This continues to be my lucky month. Last week, my co-worker Mike came back from Canada “with a shit-tonne of books”. He immediately sent out an invitation to friends and neighbors to come over and grab the old books he’d culled from his shelves to make room for the new. Since Mike’s collection (as well as his sub-collections) is fresh and winsome with beguiling whiffs of quirkiness, I headed over there with The Spawn, who came to visit for a few days.

Although culling is becoming more and more of an elusive concept for me to grasp, never let it be said that I don’t help out my friends in their time of need. Here’s what I brought back to the now dangerously bulging Bybee-ary:
1. Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese – Mike Nelson. Funny, funny guy. I already peeked into this 2000 collection and read his review of The Bridges of Madison County. It made me laugh in that embarrassing way that comes out all snortified.
2. Race Matters – Cornel West. I’ve heard a lot about this book and also read a couple of excerpts from it over the years.
3. Gang Leader for a Day – Sudhir Venkatesh. What began as a graduate school project turned into several years of friendship with a gang leader and an inside view of gritty life on the street.
4. How Right You Are, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse. My first Wodehouse book. Yes, that’s a tear of joy.
5. Meridian – Alice Walker. I’ve only read her short stories and The Color Purple, so I’m eager to check out her early novels.
6. Music for Chameleons – Truman Capote. Except for In Cold Blood, I’ve never read any Capote. This looks like a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction in one volume.
7. King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard. Ever since reading The Lost City of Z, I’ve wanted to read some Rider Haggard.
8. Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir – Graham Roumieu. I thought this was a children’s picture book at first, so I grabbed it for the Children’s Lit class I’ll be teaching in now less than a week (eeeee!). Ooops. Here’s an excerpt from near the front of the book: Stink Yes, everyone know Bigfoot smell like shit. Please make effort not to point out every time you see Bigfoot. Thank you. Oh well. Still looks like fun, and there’s a bonus I just discovered: I was hoping that since Mike is Canadian and Roumieu looks like a French name, that Graham Roumieu was Canadian. Yes, he is! Yay, another one for the Canadian Book Challenge! Maple Leaf me!!!

9. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark. A nice Penguin copy with a still from the movie on the cover.

10. Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham. I already have a copy, but I love the Bantam Classic cover.
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11. Love Me: A Novel – Garrison Keillor. Not sure about this one, but Mike, that silver-tongued so-and-so, glibly persuaded me to take it. I have a big culture gap concerning Lake Wobegon and Keillor, but he’s from Minnesota, my new favorite state, so yah, you betcha, gotta give it a go.
Good thing I brought The Spawn along. I only meant for him to experience Mike’s collection firsthand (he was mesmerized by the graphic novel subcollection), but he proved to be effective as my beast of burden. After that, he rested up and went to Suwon the next day to meet a former exchange student from his alma mater for lunch. Somehow, they drifted into a bookstore. That’s my boy. He came back a few hours later with a copy of The Mist by Stephen King for himself and a copy of Carrie for me! That’s my boy!

>Canadian Book Challenge 4: On My Way To 13

> O, my Canadians! Once I put my mind to it, it didn’t take long to get off to a good start. Here’s what I’ve read so far for this challenge:

Gone To An Aunt’s: Remembering Canada’s Homes for Unwed Mothers – Anne Petrie. From the 1930s through the 1960s, unmarried Canadian girls who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant were whisked away from their homes and families under the most secret conditions and sent to serve out their pregnancies at homes designed for unwed mothers. When neighbors or friends remarked on the girls’ absences, they were told vaguely by family members that they’d “gone to an aunt’s.”
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If the term “serve out” sounds a little prison-like, it’s not accidental. Many of these institutions, especially the earlier ones, had strict rules about keeping these young women cloistered from society until their babies were born (for example, they could go out into the backyard, but never the front yard in some places or they could only venture out as a group after dark). In some instances, the girls had to assume false names to increase the probability that word wouldn’t get out about the girl which could soil her family’s reputation.
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Anne Petrie writes about how the girls including her own story, from the late 1960s) were often made to feel ashamed of themselves, hired out as servants to unsympathetic employers, pressured to give up their children for adoption (unless an unwed father could be brought to the altar) and if a girl wanted to keep her baby, she was met with a brick wall of the staunchest disapproval from everyone. Whether the homes were good or bad, sympathetic or strict, all the women interviewed for the book remembered with anger that their feelings and their wishes weren’t taken into account — weren’t even considered a thing of importance.
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Much the same thing went on the United States, so I wasn’t surprised by these stories. Recently, my mother told me about a relative who turned up unmarried and pregnant. The father of the child was willing to marry her, but the two sets of parents were vain and worried about what the neighbors would think, so without any input from the couple, they arranged for them to be married at a courthouse more than 100 miles away then collaborated on a bogus wedding announcement for the newspaper saying that the couple had eloped 6 months before and had only just revealed their marriage.

I feel as if I’m not so far from those days, either. When I was in high school, once a pregnant female student started to show, she disappeared from classes and finished out the term (hers or the school’s, whichever came first) at Marie Detty, the local detention center. When I was a senior, one girl managed to fly under the radar since she was already stockily built and big shirts layered with scarves or vests were the fashion at that time. I remember feeling a flash of admiration that she put one over on the administration. It seemed wrong to me that these girls had to go where the really incorrigible kids went. After all, they hadn’t destroyed property or harmed anyone.
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Anne Petrie did good and thorough research and her interviews were in-depth and poignant, but instead of telling each young woman’s story in successive chapters, she chronicled their ordeals by the stages of pregnancy. This made it difficult to keep each person straight in my mind as I read. I recommend this book to readers from younger generations so they can compare how much society has changed — and improved — in this regard.
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The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler. Like most of the memorable characters in fiction, Duddy doesn’t seem so much created as unleashed. The younger of two sons, (his father and uncle have pinned all their hopes on the older son, who’s in medical school) he’s always in trouble at school for pulling pranks, and in one example, goes too far and drives a teacher over the edge. A cross between Holden Caulfield and Sammy Glick, Duddy would probably be a totally unsympathetic character except that he’s fiercely devoted to his family and has decided to make his grandfather’s dream of owning land come true, so even before he’s graduated from high school, he throws his intellect and creativity into moneymaking schemes. The novel is set in Montreal, and at times, the city seems almost a character in the story. Richler has a nice sense of pacing, an ear for dialogue that crackles and an indefinable gift for making the reader want to punch Duddy in the nose and hug him all at the same time. If you haven’t read this book yet, you’ve got a treat in store. I’m going to try to find the 1974 movie starring Richard Dreyfuss.
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The Diviners – Margaret Laurence. If it isn’t already, this should be THE Canadian novel. In the story of Morag Gunn, which spans a few decades, Laurence incorporates Canadian nature, history, a couple of provinces (Manitoba and British Columbia) and splendid Canadian vernacular. Written in 1974, this novel has that 70s kind of earnestness, and in lesser hands, could have been a mess. But it’s not that at all, it’s brilliant. I also read that it shows up on banned books lists, and, relating back to my first Canadian book in this post, Laurence and this novel have been held responsible by some absurd people for causing all the unwed/teenaged pregnancies in Canada! After I finished The Diviners, I went to Wikipedia and read about Laurence’s life. I got a chill when I read about her suicide at 60, since there’s an episode in The Diviners that seems eerily like foreshadowing.
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Piling Blood – Al Purdy. I bet Jim and Becka hate to see me coming, because the bookshelves in their living room are getting progressively balder after each visit. I’m not much into poetry, but the evocative images in the title poem made me want to keep reading:
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It was powdered blood
in heavy brown paper bags
supposed to be strong enough
to prevent the stuff from escaping
but didn’t


I forgot to say
the blood was cattle blood
horses sheep and cows
to be used for fertilizer
the foreman said

It was a matter of some delicacy
to plop the bags down softly
as if you were piling dynamite
if you weren’t gentle
the stuff would belly out
from bags in brown clouds
settle on your sweating face
cover hands and arms
enter ears and nose
seep inside pants and shirt
reverting back to liquid blood…
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Purdy’s range is wide — he writes about diverse topics such as relationships, Minnesota Fats and his wife, Menelaus and Helen of Troy, his trips to Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, Moscow and other places. I really like that because poetry often feels to me a little cramped up and claustrophobic — practically airless. Purdy’s sense of humor and his sense of wonder emerge in a poem about animals mating. “A Typical Day in Winnipeg” reads like some of the best of Raymond Carver. Purdy is obviously a D.H. Lawrence fan, because there are a couple of poems about him, and the animal-mating poem’s title (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate”) is from a Lawrence poem. “The Death of DHL” is so immediate, so sad but so beautiful. The last poem, “In The Early Cretaceous” imagines what flowers’ first day on the planet was like and how the rest of nature responded to them:
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They came overnight
a hundred million years ago
the first flowers ever
a new thing under the sun
invented by plants
It must have been around 7 A.M.
when a shrew-like mammal stumbled
out of its dark burrow
and peered nearsightedly
at the first flower whiff
an expression close to amazement
and decided it wasn’t dangerous
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Happily, I’ll have the opportunity to read more of Purdy, because Becka and Jim loaned me another volume called To Paris Never Again, which I’ll discuss in my next roundup of Can Lit.

>Blame Canada?!

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My numbers were as putrid as ancient cheese curds for the last Canadian Book Challenge. Five books out of thirteen! I only made it to the Snowshoe level. Mortifying. I let my neighbo(u)rs to the north down badly. If Alex Trebek knew….? No. Some imagined scenarios just can’t be borne.

So I thought to myself that I’d skip out on the challenge this year. Not so good, eh? But while I was home (and so much closer to Canada!) I watched Regis and Kelly visit Prince Edward Island. When Kelly dressed up like Anne of Green Gables and reenacted that first book, I started to get maple leaf pangs. Then I went to Minnesota and I was in a state that touches Canada. That did it. I knew I was good for another round.

Yep, I’ll start my Canadian reading this month. I’ll get caught up to where I need to be. Reading about a place notorious for its cool climate may save me from heatstroke.

>That Olympic Feeling: The Canadian Reading Challenge

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Although I’ve still got a long trek (snowshoes, where are my snowshoes?) I feel as if I’m finally making some progress with the Canadian Reading Challenge.

1. The Paper Bag Princess (children’s picture book) – Robert Munsch. I’ll love him forever.

2. The Cellist of Sarajevo (novel) – Steven Galloway. I was underwhelmed when I first read this novel and irritated that the title character was more of a symbol than an actual person that readers got to go, but now that the book has settled in my mind, it seems to keep improving and I found myself recommending it the other day. It’s funny how some books will sneak up on you like that.

3. Divisadero (novel) – Michael Ondaatje. When Ondaatje abandoned the Anna/Claire/Coop story that begins this novel and started doing intricate and interlocking loops back into the past, I went along but not willingly. I love looking for meanings and patterns and repetition as much as the next reader, but I also want a fairly linear storyline and to see the characters I initially invested in through to some sort of conclusion, whether it be satisfying or unsatisfying. An irritating reading experience; I was left feeling like the most unsophisticated of readers.

4. A Boy Of Good Breeding (novel) – Miriam Toews. Toews relies too much on quirky charm but I’m still eager to read the whole of her canon.

5. Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (nonfiction) – Owen Beattie & John Geiger. This is far and away my favorite of the Canadian reads so far. In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out to find the Northwest Passage with his two ships the Erebus and the Terror and a crew of 129 men. (With ship names like that, wouldn’t you have been tempted to turn back?)

When no one had heard or seen them by 1848, search parties were organized. The ships were never found, but there was evidence the whole party had perished. No one could understand why, since they’d shipped out with plenty of provisions, including thousands of pounds of that newfangled invention, canned food. (So new that the can opener hadn’t yet been invented.) For years the question persisted: Was it blundering incompetence or something else?

Fast-forward to the early 1980s. Forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie took a team back to the Arctic and dug up and examined 3 of the victims, who were perfectly preserved in ice. Mystery solved — cutting-edge technology was their undoing. The cans had been improperly sealed by the manufacturer and Franklin and his men died from lead poisoning.

First published in the late 1980s, Frozen In Time was updated and re-released in 2004 with a lively introduction by Margaret Atwood (I’d recommend saving it till the end of the book). The book is illustrated with photos and maps. Some of the graphic descriptions of the fate of Franklin’s men aren’t for those with a weak stomach. Incredibly engrossing; a perfect winter read.