Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I have to admit that I'm a sucker, a hopeless sucker, for books---fiction or nonfiction--- on the sea. Like a magnet drawn to a metal slug, I will navigate windward at a bookstore to anchor leeward at the picture of a mainsail on a book. Thrill! And if this book has anything to do with the NorthWest Passage, I'm sold. My wife says, " For God's sake, how many times can you read about the NorthWest Passage?" She doesn't understand. These brave, haggard, rum-soaked, mottled tars battling incredibly inhospitable Polar environs with ships made of wood that could snap like a matchstick from any rogue ice floe, while feebly and tenaciously holding on to eroding British decorum and civility, makes for good literature. That's good stuff! And it's true!---most of it. I love it!

The Franklin Expedition, of course, stands out as the definitive Polar epic. This disastrous expedition involved two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, 24 officers and 110 men, set off on May 19, 1845 to seek the NorthWest passage to the Pacific ocean, and was never heard of nor seen again. It's a mystery that has captured the imagination of poets, authors, painters, explorers, etc, etc. (Even M. Atwood wrote an essay on it! I think).

There are thousands of books and articles and essays written about the Franklin Expedition. I'm not going to list them and have not read them all---yet. But I'll put up some authors worth consideration for worthy reading on this matter. Pierre Burton, Ken McGoogan, David Murray, Owen Beattie and John Geiger, David Woodman, Clive Cussler, and Dan Simmons.

OK, I might as well talk about Dan Simmons. I read Dan Simmons' novel THE TERROR last year. Dan Simmons is a mediocre run-of-the-mill author who is very popular. He also writes Sci-Fi stuff. I don't think Dan is taken very seriously by literary critics, but often receives rave reviews for his work. I bought the book because it had a picture of HMS Terror on the front sleeve(see above). It's a rather big book at almost 800 pages, and contains an unseen, spiritual, Inuit-folk-lore based predator with huge claws(scary!) who terrorizes the TERROR. God, I enjoyed this book! I had to cover my more serious novels like Updike, Mailer, Ondaatje, Rushdie, Irving, in deference to "good" literature. Sometimes an exciting story is all you need on long winter nights. Yes, I must say I really enjoyed reading this book.

I see Dan Simmons has a new novel out, DROOD. It's based on Dickens and his last uncompleted novel THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Thar be monsters in this book too, I suppose. This book doesn't have any sails on it but I'm toying with the idea of picking it up.

Besides Franklin, there are excellent sea books about Whaling(I know, sad, but it did and is happening), racing, solo sailing, pirating, war, expeditions, and so on. There's enough material that's very well written out there to keep a wannabe sea-dog like me happy.

Next: Some Canadian authors

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Norman Mailer died November 10, 2007. He's such a controversial American writer that it's difficult to come to any basic conclusions regarding his body of work as far as I am concerned. He was a combative, egotistical, highly opinionated, often rude, in-your-face individual who caused many upsets on the American literary scene. But he was so much fun to watch on television! I remember he was on the Dick Cavett show with other authors, and with his wit and quick tongue made the others look for the exit and the audience to break up. It was great TV. But he wasn't just all bravado, he easily procured the Pulitzer Prize for literature twice! And he has the most memorable scenes and characters in all of Am. Lit.

With his Nonfiction novel ARMIES OF THE NIGHT he joined the NEW JOURNALISM authors such as Tom Wolfe(ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST), Truman Capote(IN COLD BLOOD), and others. New Journalism was a form of writing that combined fiction with nonfiction sometimes in the first person and sometimes not. I really don't see the need to explore in detail this new form of writing except to say that Mailer took them all on and won the Pulitzer for this book. ARMIES OF THE NIGHT deals with the march on the Pentagon in 1967.

It's interesting to note that now there many forms of journalism mostly because of this alteration by these authors in the early 70's. But presently the memoir has taken center stage in popular books. And memoirs are becoming more fiction than actual memories of past experiences which harks back to the NEW JOURNALISM of Wolfe and Mailer. The best example of a fictional memoir recently is James Frey's A MILLION LITTLE PIECES that upset Oprah so much(I love it!). Frey was giving a nod to this form of writing. But now everybody looks on memoirs with suspicion, as they should.

Anyway, let's take a look at the books I read by Mailer. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is a novel based on Mailer's experience in WW11. It's probably the best war novel ever written although there have been a few lately to claim that title. (by the way, Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD could easily claim that--more about him later). BARBARY SHORE: I don't remember much about this novel except it took place in a rooming house in NY, the novel was surreal. AN AMERICAN DREAM: I remember we all read this novel, it was a must. It is now considered one of mailer's weakest novels, and at the time it provoked anger from the Feminists because of its negative image of women. ARMIES OF THE NIGHT: Enjoyable and quite unique. MIAMI AND THE SIEGE OF CHICAGO: memorable. THE FIGHT: The documentary on the ALI fight was better. MARILYN: coffee table book(YAWN). THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG: Brilliant! This was an excellent book. It covers the life and execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. Mailer won the Pulitzer for this. WHY ARE WE IN VIETNAM?: This was a strange novel, written oddly, with no exact point except to inform everyone that the young man was going to Nam in the morning. ANCIENT EVENINGS: I gave up on this novel. I never usually give up on a book, I will read a bad book just to finish it. I could not finish this novel. THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST: This is his last book before he died. It deals with Hitler as a young boy being taught by a mentor who is actually the devil. Mailer was writing a follow-up novel on this theme when he died. I didn't read it, and I probably won't.

I believe Mailer considered himself the foremost American writer, and always was in a panic to write the Great American novel. I don't believe he lived up to his hype, and he certainly did not write the Great American novel.

Next post: two Canadian writers

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Well. I seem to have upset someone very close to me(psst: wife), and she demands a retraction on my expose of MA. But first I must clarify my position on THE ODYSSEY.

You see, Odysseus is my hero, and has been since I was a child. He can outfight, out-think, out-manoeuvre, out-spit, out-last, and overcome anything the gods send his way---a good model for the little ominous surprises life sends you. He defies the gods, shaking his fist and cursing them for their interference in his goal. Odysseus has a goal.

Myths teach us about life, and one of the lessons of THE ODYSSEY centers around the fulfillment of a goal and a goal that's ennobled by love.
A goal is important in life. One must always have a goal in order for his/her life to be fulfilling. And the only goal that's totally and irrevocably fulfilling is the one based on love(a concept that seems to be sadly missing in our present world, by the way). Odysseus' goal is to return to Penelope. Penelope: the one person he truly loves, he truly cherishes(It breaks me up just to think of it). And he will brook no impediment to reach her.

Penelope is no less the hero. She's much more than just the lone wife waiting for her husband to come home. With intelligence, poise, courage, craftiness, and loyalty she fends off the many suitors milling around the estate, raises her son to become a prince, and keeps the estate together for all those years. In a way she endures more trials in this saga than Odysseus because she has to contend with doubt. Doubt as to whether Odysseus is still alive. Doubt can be crippling. Doubt can lead to unwise decisions. But Penelope hangs tough, and stays the course.(That kind of breaks you up too).

Amidst these great , noble deeds enters the twelve jolly maids. OH! I don't see how it's important. OH, by the way, Nino Ricci in his latest bestselling novel THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES(excellent book) also mentions the twelve maids. He calls the hanging of the twelve maids a murderous act. OK. Maybe my man Odysseus went a little too far; maybe just got caught up in the moment. Maybe he should have suspended all the maids without pay, or got them to do a community service, but you got to love the clothesline bit, eh?

Anyway, I am compelled to write a retraction on MA's novels for the sake of peace on my estate(psst: my wife wrote it). (Hang on, I'll get my notes). So here we go: I have no business writing a review of MA's novels since I didn't read any of her great works, and furthermore, what makes me think I know any....hang on, da, da, da, da, Ok. MA does not bash men but focuses on women and in a subtle ingenious writing skill brings forth what her characters are not, rather than what they are. (Hey, this is good!) I wouldn't understand this because I'm just a...hang on, da, da, da, da, Ok. MA has an amazing, easy, poetic writing style that sweeps you along on a most enjoyable literary experience, weaving stories with characters of real essence.(Good!). These books are much more fulfilling than the junk you read...hang on, da, da, da, da, OK. MA's characters are so real you feel you really know them(that's if you want to know them!). Canada's literary scene is truly enriched to have Margaret Atwood as...well, you get the idea. I'll stop there. Hopefully that will put an end to the Margaret Atwood posts. Hopefully.

Norman Mailer is waiting in the wings, as they say. I'll get to him next.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Margaret Atwood

I know, I know, Margaret Atwood is not dead, and I'm suppose to cover Norman Mailer now. But my wife insists I talk about Margaret Atwood first because she likes her so much, and has a shelf filled with all Atwood's works. A shelf that glares at me whenever I pass it because, you see, I don't like Margaret Atwood.

To me Ms. Atwood is a male basher. She bashes males with aplomb, with gusto, with joyous abandon. I'm well aware that she is a great writer, much acclaimed, academically erudite, but I don't want to read her. Her insistence that she doesn't write Science Fiction (THE HANDMAID'S TALE) but Speculative Fiction goads me no end.

Actually, I have read Margaret Atwood. I read THE EDIBLE WOMAN, and SURFACING many years ago as part of a Canadian Lit. course at university. GOOD BONES---I liked that one(it was short!). And recently THE PENELOPIAD. That's the one that did it.

THE PENELOPIAD: The story goes, and I'll try to be concise. A publisher wanted to make money with an idea that some great writers should write a novel on the Greek myths. Ms. Atwood took THE ODYSSEY and the ILIAD and focused her twisted eye on Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. (Penelope + Iliad--Penelopiad. Get it? I know.)

In an interview, Ms. Atwood had said that when she read THE ODYSSEY as a child the one thing that stood out from all the rest was the death of the twelve maids. I find this astonishing. The story is that when Odysseus came home after twenty exciting, memorable, dangerous, wild years at sea, he killed all her suitors AND her twelve maids(for being disloyal). Odysseus strung a clothesline across the court and hanged the twelve together like wet sheets in the wind, which is quite inventive, really.

Margaret Atwood didn't think so. She has the spirits? of the twelve maids spouting poetry in a chorus line throughout the book. They are really upset with Odysseus.
Odysseus is described as a brute--hairy and mean--throughout the book also. I did not enjoy reading this book.

This little novel was a bestseller across Canada for weeks, and I have not as of yet read a bad review on it. When you are proclaimed as the great Canadian writer, you can write anything, I suppose.

However, I was told by a number of learned ladies to read THE BLIND ASSASSIN, and I would change my tune. So I may visit my wife's Atwood shelf---with trepidation--- and get that novel. There's no twelve maids in it, is there?

Next post, Norman Mailer.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Kurt Vonnegut. I have such an affinity for this author. I've never met him or even contacted him, but I have read---and still have---probably everything he wrote. My fascination with this influential author stretches back to the 60's when I first read SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.

Vonnegut is a cool, laid-back writer who constructs sentences and paragraphs with expert precision, undermining his characters' behaviours or certain events with an almost sardonic nod to Determinism. After which he will insert his now famous phrase: "so it goes". A phrase that he says is a "combination of simplicity, irony, and rue".

Being an active member of the Humanist Society, he viewed life as Godless and concentrated his focus on compassion, virtue, and other human attributes. But it was his humour and his ever-amusing point of view that enriched his novels. His imagination knew no bounds, and he could easily transport the reader to a moon of Jupiter, or back to the beginning of the human race. He probes, jolts, jokes, and makes fun of all the traits of those human beings who take themselves too seriously-- in a nice way.

If you haven't read Vonnegut, do so. You'll definitely have an enjoyable reading experience. SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is a must. It's actually based on his experience in Dresden during WW11, with a bit of Sci-Fi thrown in. BREAKFAST of CHAMPIONS is by far my favourite. It's beyond description but absolutely priceless. DEADEYE DICK, GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER---Read them all!

Oh! I did try to contact Kurt Vonnegut, in 2001. As a rule, I don't do this sort of thing but after much thought wrote up a letter of appreciation for his literary work, and mailed it. The only address I got for him was his publisher who had an office in the Twin Towers. The letter came back. So it goes.

Since we are on this line of now-dead great authors, my next post will be on Norman Mailer who died the past year.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter reading

Why is it that when important authors die you feel a great compunction to read their novels, maybe again, maybe the ones you passed over the first time? That's how I feel about John Updike. John Updike died this past week. He wrote with an extraordinarily rich prose style which sometimes was not in tune to the content of the novel. This caused a great amount of dissent between his readers and literary critics. One in which is still debated today. He wrote about the "American Protestant small-town middle class", of which he says,"It is the middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules". It would be a treat to reread his Rabbit books again: RABBIT, RUN; RABBIT REDUX, RABBIT IS RICH, RABBIT AT REST. Rabbit Angstrom is Updike's most human character, and probably his finest. COUPLES, published in 1968, was an instant bestseller and considered by some as his greatest work. The book covers the chaotic lives and sexual exploits of married couples in middle America. It's an excellent novel. But also the novel I really enjoyed was GERTRUDE & CLAUDIUS, published in 2000. It retells the story of Hamlet through the eyes of his mother and his uncle. It is a very entertaining, enjoyable novel. I suppose the one good thing about a great writer's death is the fact that they leave us with such memorable literature, and so much of themselves.

MY next post will be to honour Kurt Vonnegut, the iconic American author who passed away April 11, 2007.