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>Blogiversary!

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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.
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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.

>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.

>February: Short Month, Short Reviews

>I know that I said back in the 1990s sometime that I wanted an engrossing career, but teaching is a jealous bastard. It wants every little scrap of me. When I go deep to read, ponder and write, it catches me and yanks me back up by my hair and exposes me to the mental equivalent of harsh florescent light and the cacophony of a construction site. It’s the first day of the semester, and teaching has already covered the nap of my mind like a nest of prickly burrs. I’m not going gently into that good classroom, am I? Vacation, I will miss you like hell, mourning those shapeless hours in which day and night were when I damn well said they were.

Since I’m feeling too frenzied and distracted to write proper reviews, flirty little capsule looks at the ten I read for February will have to do for now.

1. Mother Love, Deadly Love – Anne McDonald Maier. This true-crime book is about the infamous case in 1991 of a Texas mother who was ready to kill in the name of cheerleading. The mom, Wanda Holloway, was obsessed with her daughter becoming a high school cheerleader, so she unsuccessfully attempted to put a hit out on the mother of one of her daughter’s rivals. Crazy stuff. As with most true-crime books, the author tends to put too much of her own scornful opinion into the pages. A quick, fun read if you’re in that special mood for equal parts of ludicrous and horrifying.

2. Book Lust To Go – Nancy Pearl. My bookish heroine and girl-crush kicks smartly into armchair traveling mode, recommending both fiction and nonfiction from all over the world.

3. The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton. I’ll do a proper review of this 1913 novel later. For now, just know that this is my new favorite Wharton novel. It’s like The Age of Innocence with the corset strings tied not quite so tightly. Highly recommended. Now go read it.

4. To Paris Never Again – Al Purdy. I’m going to write a proper review of the last collection of poems Al Purdy published during his lifetime. After being away from poetry for so long, I’m really developing an affection for it again, thanks to Al.

5. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen. I never get these things right, but here goes: I predict that Jonathan Franzen will win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.

6. Your Right to be Beautiful – Tonya Zavasta. I can knock down the ageing process and kick it in the groin if I start eating a raw food diet comprised mostly of fruit and vegetables and generous daily helpings of seaweed. Apparently my love for caffeine, chocolate and the more-than-occasional French fry is what’s making me look like I use a contour map for a pillow.

7. Adventures With The Buddha – Jeffrey Paine (ed.) Since at least the last part of the 19th century, Westerners have been travelling to Asia to seek peace and spiritual fulfillment and writing about it. This book is a sampling of those writings. I found the excerpts quite choppy, but still entertaining.

8. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton. This novel about New York Society in the 1870s shows the strong influence that Henry James had on Edith Wharton, but Wharton is supple where James is often not, and she never gets buried under a ponderous mass of prose. Her writing is powerful and there is so much going on under the surface that The Age of Innocence is now one of the novels that I will revisit over the years. I also watched the 1993 movie, or, I should say in this case, motion picture.

9. Carrie – Stephen King. This story of a misfit-turned-prom-queen-turned-avenger seems so literary. Weighing in at a trim 253 pages, here’s none of the Dickensian bloat that plagues some of King’s later books. I haven’t read this one since it was first published, and gobsmacks me to realize that this was a first novel. Even readers who don’t like horror or Stephen King should read Carrie and check out the 1976 Brian DePalma movie of the same name as well.

10. Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir – Graham Roumieu. Wow, I really went off the rails after the Wharton book. This delightfully, 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.

Sigh. That was really fun, but work beckons, inflaming my sighness. I feel kind of like Merle Haggard: Is the best of the free life behind me now? Are the good times really over for good?

>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!

>People Go Away But Their Books Stay

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People are moving out of my apartment complex in droves this month. Happens every year. It’s the expat way. People get that anywhere but here feeling and go in search of their ‘real life’ which is either beckoning them seductively from a new and mysterious locale or standing on a back porch in their own native country screeching imperatives. People start packing, then they get that other feeling: Damn. Books are heavy. Enter Bybee, with a tear in one eye and a gleam of anticipation in the other. Thanks to my wanderlusty compatriots, I’ve picked up about 30 books in as many days. Here’s my haul from last night:
1. The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons. All about Monty Python. 359 pages of photos and fun. A must for fans. The best kind of coffee table book. Heavy as hell because of that slick paper, so this won’t be going with me on the subway.
2. The Eyes of the Dragon – Stephen King. Dan K., the previous owner of most of these books, had a lot of King. I was looking for Carrie, but any King is good. There’s a lot I haven’t read yet.
3. Catch Me If You Can – Frank Abagnale. I liked the movie.
4. Hearts in Atlantis – Stephen King. King takes on Vietnam. Hmm…
5. Insomnia – Stephen King. I’ve been wanting to read this.
6. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert. Maybe time for a reread.
7. Myths and Legends of India. Looks like fun.
8. Aquariums of Pyeongyang: Ten Years in the North Korea Gulag – Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Sandra loaned me her copy of this one. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so I can get her copy back to her and keep this one on the TBR.
9. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – David Wroblewski. Same thing, except change Sandra to Jill.
10. The End of the Affair – Graham Greene. I really need to read some GG. It’s one of my literary gaps.
11. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. About three or four years ago, every single blog was Jane! Jane! Jane! Now that everyone’s moved on to the Brontes or Edith Wharton, I can assert my contrarian streak and enjoy Austen’s greatest hit again. I like that I found the Oxford edition. All those explanatory notes in the back are great, geeky fun.
12. My War at Home – Masuda Sultan. The author’s parents immigrated from Afghanistan to the United States when she was five. At seventeen, they married her off to a doctor. After three years, she was able to get a divorce, which was almost unheard-of. This memoir is about that as well as an examination of being a Muslim in America and her trips back to Afghanistan. The style is really engaging. I’m looking forward to reading this and loaning it to my friends.
13. First, They Killed My Father – Loung Ung. I borrowed this book from one of my coworkers back in 2005. Harrowing reading. I learned a lot about Cambodia and the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Everyone should read this and also Wild Swans.
14. When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After The White House – Patricia O’Toole. TR had an eventful life. I’m sure his emeritius years were just as fascinating, or maybe more.
15. Confessions of an Econimic Hit Man – John Perkins. I’m not sure why I picked this up. The fever was upon me, no doubt.
16. His Excellency – Joseph J. Ellis. A biography of George Washington. His birthday’s coming soon.
17. Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 – Stephen E. Ambrose. I didn’t realize that some of this construction went on during the Civil War.
18. John Adams – David McCullough. I’ve been circling this one for a while. I want to read it then watch the miniseries starring one of my main crushes, Paul Giamatti.
19. Truman – David McCullough. OH MY GOD YES!!!!!! I’m so happy to find this biography! I started a library copy back in 1997 after visiting the Truman Library in Independence but didn’t finish it before it was due. I’ve seen it in several bookstores here, but even patriotism couldn’t induce me to overcome my laziness and tote the 1,117-pager home. Now it’s mine and I will finish! Probably not a subway book, though. Of course, it’s been so long since my last attempt, I’m going to have to start over.
Thanks so much to Faulkner Guy, Alex, Arlene, Amy and Dan. I’ll miss you all like hell, but I’ve got your books here to comfort me.