a collection of interesting and not-so-interesting things. including information on current & upcoming projects.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Recent Reads

Been reading a lot and thought I'd talk a little about my most recent reads, some mini-reviews, as it were. The books discussed in this post are:

33 lines, a stolen phrase & a short apology by rob mclennan
A Painted Elephant by Jill Hartman
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel
Life of Pi by Yann Martel

all of which i liked, so no real bad reviews here.

33 lines, a stolen phrase & a short apology by rob mclennan

This is a chapbook published by mclennan's own above/ground press. mclennan has a great talent for combining clear, minimalist writing with the kind of exuberant, post-whatever excess that typifies so much of Canada's "experimental" poetry. Maybe I just like this book because it's the kind of writing I've been trying to do recently. mclennan resists the urge to use complicated language for its own sake, a failing of much of the experimental work I see, while at the same time doing something interesting with the lyric instead of the same old same old. Lots of good jokes, which have been making their way into poetry more and more in this country over recent years. Simple, deft, use of language, recalling William Carlos Williams, especially in a few pieces, like "the line that mentions another prairie":

the wrong end
of a too short road. her

red red car.

Just a wonderful little book, packed full of great language, one of the best chapbooks I've read for a long long time.

A Painted Elephant by Jill Hartman

A Painted Elephant is another beast, one of those experimental works that revel in complex language. I stated above that this is often to the detriment of the actual poems, but of course this is not always the case. Many fine poets, most obviously Fiorentino, can pull off these language gymnastics. Hartman too, does a fine job with the book. A very funny, very smart work. A long poem about a lonely Indian elephant in the Calgary Zoo who escapes nightly to pursue a doomed romance with a wooden statue of the Maytag Man on 9th Avenue, the text is fun, fanciful, and smart. The language is exquisite, making good use of the kind of words you just want to roll around your tongue for fun in you leisure hours.

My only real complaint about this book is that it contains a narrative but doesn't seem particularly interested in narrative itself. I find this to be a common failing of much CanLit these days, where writers are so hung up on language and their theories that they fail to pay the attention to narrative structure that they should. Pacing is perhaps the first thing to go when a writer gets hung up on playing with words. Hartman's narrative is obscured by the wordplay and the poems don't really contain any dramatic tension. This would be less troublesome if Hartman didn't include chapter title pages which gloss over the action which each chapter claims to contain. Why is she paying all this lip service to narrative when she's obviously more interested in wordplay, which often must be sacrificed to narrative?

It's a fractured narrative, true, but a bit too fractured to really still maintain any narrative thrust. However, this is a mild complaint in the face of such a fun and clever text. I read this book twice through before moving on to my next book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants intelligence without pretension and who is interested in the possibilities of language. A truly imaginative work executed with real skill.

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel
Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Yann Martel is one of those writers that I was sick of before even picking up his book. I just find it hard to be as enthusiastic as the masses. Usually when I hear about a writer or any artist as much as I heard about Martel, it turns out that it's really a con artist being discussed who has duped the nation into think s/he's the new big thing. So I didn't read anything by Martel until recently. Here is a writer who really deserves the hype. Outstanding work. Both these books are fantastic and stunningly creative. Martel has a great knack for combining thought-provoking, stylish prose with solid characters and bizarre and intriguing plots. Wonderful stuff.

The Facts... is a collection of four short stories, the first of which is a small novella from which the book gets its title. That story is a deeply moving story about two friends writing a story in an attempt to come to terms with the slowly deteriorating health of one character, who is dying of AIDS. Martel has a real power to be touching without being saccharine. The other three stories are excellent, surprising, moving, and cultured works. Manners of Dying is my favourite, a series of letters from a prison warden to a woman relating the execution of her son. Each letter is a modified version of the previous letter. It's a simple tactic used to great effect. The final story in the book, which tells the story of a character listening to the memories of his grandmother which are used to create a homemade mirror through the use of a mirror machine, is the weak point in the book, a bit too sentimental and obvious a metaphor. Still, the story has much to recommend it, in particular its interesting construction, where Martel puts the column to good use. One "okay" story in a series of four might be more damaging were the other three not so powerful. Also, the mirror story is only really poor in comparison to the other works, and more than holds its own against the works of most authors.

Life of Pi is as good as you've heard it is. A perfect story which works on many levels, though the narrator's claim that the story will convince the hearer of the existence of God is true overstatement. Martel seems to forget partway through the book that this was its intention. That said, the book contains flawless prose and boundless imagination. I'm sure everyone knows by now that it is the story of a young boy (Pi Patel) who finds himself shipwrecked on a raft with a live tiger. Pi's struggle to survive is gripping and Martel's prose manages to be both gritty and magical at once. Martel is a huge talent, the kind of writer that makes me angry and jealous. A virtuoso.


Blogger couchpotato said...

The Life of Pi is the only one I've read. Didn't live upto my expectations, though. Found it just OK.

9:55 AM

Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

Do you have any books to suggest? I'm always on the lookout for new stuff. Especially if you know of some Indian writers I might not have heard of over here in Canada. I have read Bapsi Sidhwa and of course Salman Rushdie but that is about it.

3:09 PM


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