Thursday, February 7, 2013
At the start of His third week, God sat with His chin resting on his fist. He checked TERRY’S BIG WATCH, like a frying pan on his wrist, and decided to get started. “This week,” He said to no one in particular, “I’m only going to create things that are striped. I don’t know why. Do I need a reason?” He started with a zebra but wasn’t happy with the result. It’s Good, He thought, but not Good enough. So he tried a tiger and said, “Wow – I love the colour – that’s really Good.” Then He made a barber pole and announced, “From now on, all barber poles will be striped. Do I need a reason?” He thought He might call Marcia the stripper in to twirl around the pole but thought better of it. “No, that’s Good enough.” Then He created a painting by Mondrian – but he wasn’t happy with the stripes going one way and tried stripes the other way and then He realized it wasn’t striped anymore. “Well, still Good.” He checked TERRY’S BIG WATCH. “Better hurry, week’s getting on.” He then made himself a pair of striped pants, and had to create a mirror to see how they looked on Him. When He checked in the mirror, he decided the mirror counted as something striped, at least momentarily, so he saved himself some work. But when he saw the striped pants in the mirror, he gasped. “Gack! I look like a sixties hippie. Not so Good.” God realized it was the last day of the week. He knew the day because TERRY’S BIG WATCH is so big it has a calendar too – not just one of those tacky digital calendars that give one day at a time but one that shows an entire year’s calendar on the face. TERRY’S BIG WATCH is that BIG. He couldn’t think of anything striped and then he remembered. Striped Bass. “They’re striped, right?” He had all sorts of trouble with his watercolours running in the water but finally got it perfect. “That’s pretty Good.” So he took the striped bass and threw it into the sky where it swam among the stars, happy enough. Doesn’t look right, thought God. Then He smacked Himself in the forehead, nearly knocking Himself out with TERRY’S BIG WATCH. Right, of course, water. What was I thinking. I’ll put it in a lake. God wiped his hands together. “All done.” He checked TERRY’S BIG WATCH. “Just in time.”
Monday, January 7, 2013
On the 8th day, God created TERRY’S BIG WATCH and said to Himself, ‘It’s about Time.’ He saw that it was Good, well pretty Good anyway, well maybe just okay, but it was definitely BIG. On the 9th day, God created a donut. Staring at it, He said to Himself, ‘It looks good enough to eat,’ so that’s what He did and it was very Good. On the 10th day, God created a stripper named Marcia and He said to Himself, ‘I’ve really done it this time,’ and He gave her a little push and she spun around the pole, and God said, ‘Hey, this is really Good!’ On the 11th day, God created a library book that was exactly twelve days overdue and He asked Himself, ‘How did I do that? Well, anyway, it’s still Good.’ On the 12th day, God created a library, returned the book and paid the fine, having also created a librarian and several quarters with His own head on them, and they too were Good. On the 13th day, God received a call from the librarian who told Him His quarters were no good and God asked Himself, ‘What have I started?’ and He realized that it was a Good question. Looking at TERRY’S BIG WATCH, He said, ‘Time for a rest again’ and it was Good. He smiled to Himself, ‘Another Good week.’
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
My friend Terry has a BIG WATCH. It stares at me from his wrist and scares the livin’ bejeesus outta me. Even though Terry is a big guy, it even looks big on his big wrist, it’s that BIG. TERRY’S BIG WATCH shows up in my dreams. Well, not my dreams, my nightmares! Because any dream that includes TERRY’S BIG WATCH is frightening as hell. TERRY’S BIG WATCH has a big bell inside that goes off every night at midnight and every day at noon. Stupid watch can’t even tell the difference between twelve midnight and twelve noon. But it is BIG, I must admit that. *** TERRY’S BIG WATCH is as big as the moon, the full moon that is, not that skinny punk moon that lies back in its Lazyboy chair and smokes Gauloises. For you kids, those are French cigarettes. I once had a dream that TERRY’S BIG WATCH learned to smoke French cigarettes. It would sneak into the bathroom when Terry was asleep and light up. Then it started sending signals to the moon out the window. TERRY’S BIG WATCH has two hands so it sent its signals in semaphore. At 12:50 a.m., it sent U. At 2:45, it sent R. At 5:45, it sent B, and at 6:20, TERRY’S BIG WATCH sent G. TERRY’S BIG WATCH sat on the toilet in the bathroom and smirked. U R B G. Ha, ha. U Are BiG. Everybody thinks I’m big but that moon is really big. Then TERRY’S BIG WATCH went back to bed, stinking of smoke. *** The next night, when TERRY’S BIG WATCH sat on the toilet smoking his Gauloises, he looked up at the moon. The moon must have five hands, TERRY’S BIG WATCH thought, because it’s signaling a PENTAGRAM. A Pentagram!? That’s the sign of Satan! TERRY’S BIG WATCH hurried back to bed immediately and never smoked Gauloises again. So now TERRY’S BIG WATCH knows what it’s like to be frightened. But it’s SO BIG, it still scares me.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
A very fine novel by one of Canada's master fiction writers. In the typical Urquhart mold, this is a novel about the past, the land and art, subjects found in many of her previous novels. A young artist, Jerome, is alone on Timber Island to take photos of temporary art creations, or “absences”, he has dug in the snow. While there, he finds the body of Andrew Woodman, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, frozen in the ice of the river. Later, an older woman, Sylvia, searches out Jerome and his girlfriend in Toronto. Slightly autistic, she has fled her doctor husband in rural eastern Ontario because she wants to talk to Jerome about Andrew, her lover. The three sections of the book are intelligently constructed, with the two contemporary sections framing the central section, which recounts the history of the Woodman family, 19th century shipbuilders and hotelkeepers on Lake Ontario. Urquhart’s writing is extremely resonant and always echoes her larger themes: “How wonderful the snow was; every change of direction, each whim, even the compulsion of hunger was marked on its surface, like memory, for a brief season.” Her writing is also highly cerebral – little happens in this novel but there is an enormous quantity of thoughtful reflection. The depiction of the Woodman past, with its near-mythical characters and its grand hotel invaded by sand, is so deeply realized that the present feels amorphous in contrast, its characters infused with the ambiguity of modernism. In the end, however, Urquhart shows how this makes perfect sense for, with profound subtlety, she raises a startling question: In the face of shocking change—in landscapes, in memories that fade to nothing, even in the complete dissolution of the human personality in Alzheimer’s—what can still be called reality? Urquhart is a subtle master at work.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
A fine Canadian poet with a great ear. The Airstream Land Yacht is a brand of American motorhome as well as Ken Babstock’s third collection of poetry, shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General's Award. In this vehicle, Meaning and Sense take a back seat while Sound drives. Babstock doesn’t so much mean as sing, packing each poem with a flurry of sonorous details. At times, his images can be utterly exact and startling (“clutching tongs that pincer-gripped a heat-split wiener”), or surreal and humorous, as in this reference to autumn: “…the valley’s trees pulled their embarrassing sports coats on.” The book is divided into four parts: Air, Stream, Land and Yacht. Too often the author whips up an impenetrably dense froth of language; at other times, when he is not quite so intent on revealing the blur inside his head, he can conjure a poem that whispers down and settles inside the reader like a fine, even snowfall, as in ‘The Tall Ships Docked in Kiel Harbour’. There’s little doubt that no one else in Canadian poetry today (except perhaps, George Elliot Clark) has quite the Babstock ear, as he sets the reader whirling with his complex rhythms and rhymes that are never simple but always refreshingly devious: “we finished early to a round / of applause from a bank of thundercloud.”
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
An enjoyable visit to the country and the quiet ways and objects of country life. Subtitled 'Scenes from a Handmade Life', this back-to-the-land memoir is constructed of numerous short sections, many of which are meditations on familiar country things: a leaning barn, a crowbar, a snapping turtle, a towering beech tree, a corduroy road. But the book comes fully alive when McLean recounts her many experiences raising sheep. When the author and her physician husband, Thomas, first came to Grey County in southern Ontario, they gave their farm the singularly appropriate name, Lambsquarters, the name of a local edible weed. The tales of delivering, raising, shearing and caring for sheep and lambs have the scent of authenticity – the reader can smell wet wool and lanolin in the air of the old barn. McLean is good with a simile: a lamb born dead is “neatly contained in a pellucid envelope, as beautifully wrapped as a Japanese present”; half-grown chicks are watched by barn cats “following their moves like tennis fans.” The broader considerations of life in the country are all present (weather, wildlife, social gatherings and so on) but this book excels in its homey, almost invisible details, for example, the way moisture quickly evaporates from a freshly laid egg. At times the book feels somewhat overwritten with too many references to the gods and goddesses of classical myth, and McLean fails to make the few characters outside her own family come alive. Nevertheless, for its quiet reflections on country ways, this is a most enjoyable read.
Monday, September 24, 2012
I enjoy Jonathan Franzen's essays, which can address any number of wide-ranging subjects, but I can't bear his novels. I had to stop reading The Corrections after about 100+ pages. He seems to despise his own characters. Many of these fourteen essays, by the author of the 2001 novel, The Corrections, first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere. Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. A long, much-discussed essay on the American novel, titled ‘Why Bother?’, is included, as well as essays on privacy obsession, the U.S. post office, New York City, big tobacco and new prisons. At his best, as in ‘My Father’s Brain’, on his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, (a piece reminiscent of the masterly John McPhee), Franzen can make the ordinary world utterly riveting. At times, however, it can be difficult to discern where Franzen stands on any particular subject as he often seems to take both sides of an argument. Valid attempts to reflect ambiguity sometimes lead to obfuscation, especially in his essays on privacy and tobacco, although his belief that small town America of years gone by offered the individual little privacy certainly rings true. Franzen can write with panache, as in this comment after he watched, without headphones, a TV show during a flight: “(It) became an expose of the hydraulics of insincere smiles.” A few of the shorter pieces here appear to be filler. But Franzen shines brightest when he gets edgy and a little angry, as in ‘The Reader in Exile’: “Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.”