With the continued success of his one-man show Bookworm, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Corin Raymond has added ‘monologuist’ to his long list of entertaining talents.
The story of a Raymond's relationship with his father, told through the experience of the books his father read to him when he was a boy, and how those reading sessions helped create the man that Raymond would become. Featuring Ray Bradbury, Spiderman, and the Minotaur, with a climax no one could possibly predict, all wrapped into an hour.
Pick of the Fringe at the 2012 Victoria and Vancouver Fringe festivals, Producer’s Choice at the London Fringe. More than its rave reviews and sold-out houses, Bookworm's greatest success was cross-generational. “Fathers bring your sons. Sons bring your fathers.”(View Magazine) In many cases audience members returned for second and even third viewings, bringing first their children and then their parents. "What a gift. Raymond's performance is at once intimate, openhearted, and evangelical." (The Georgia Straight)
Written and performed by: Corin Raymond
Dramaturged by: TJ Dawe
Directed by: Morgan Jones Phillips
Audience: Age 12 & Up
Reviews & Comments:
“Raymond’s way of connecting with the audience is remarkable, and he will generously share his prized personal and fictional stories with you” CFUV Radio
“Some storytellers leave you gaping, forgetful of your surroundings and only wanting more. Corin Raymond is this storyteller. He is the man who is passionate about the pronunciation of Roald Dahl’s Grand High Witch’s speech pattern. He can recount the tale of Theseus from memory, in detail and will freely admit to memorizing the opening lines of his favourite book. And while it would be possible to simply sit and listen to Raymond tell the tales of ancient Greece, Bookworm also manages to convey the cross-generational influences and complex relationship between a father and son. It’s well-paced, well-performed and will have you heading to the first bookstore as you leave the theatre while calling your dad to say hey”. -Samantha Power, Vue Weekly
“Corin Raymond is a storyteller who by the end of the night you’ll have known your whole life.” The Globe and Mail
"The best compliment I can think of to give Corin Raymond’s charming and utterly engaging Bookworm is that it’s like being read to for an hour by a guy who’s totally passionate about the story he’s reading—which is exactly what Bookworm is. An ode to books and the people who love them, Raymond cleverly mixes everyday autobiography with an inherited love of what lies between the covers of his favourite books; and while there is a great surprise waiting in the final minutes of the show, it isn’t the crux of the show—Raymond’s own passion is…Bookworm is the kind of show you want to share with everyone you know. Every local bookstore owner or worker, book club member or solo lover of the printed word—be it fiction, poetry, history or comic books—must see this memorable production." John Threlfall CWmagazine.com
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Books and writers recommended in Bookworm, and a few more besides
2. Poems (there are many missing) that have got me through
3. The books that were onstage with me in the Fringe production
4. The poems that are quoted in the show
1. Books and writers recommended in Bookworm, and a few more besides:
Greek Myths: My tenth Christmas was spent with friends in Forestburg, AB, and my father inscribed me a silk-bookmarked edition of The Heroes, by Charles Kingsley (beautifully illustrated by H.M. Brock), which I loved as a kid and still do. It tells the stories of Perseus, Jason, and Theseus. Other places I found my Greek Mythology (besides on those long-ago car trips) were Sally Benson (Stories of the Gods and Heroes), Edith Hamilton (Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes), Mary Renault (The King Must Die,The Bull from the Sea) and Robert Graves, whose two volumes of The Greek Myths I was making my way through at the time I began making this list.
The Twilight Zone: To this day, the single greatest television series I’ve ever been exposed to, and it was founded largely on literature: the bulk of the original episodes were written by Rod Serling, or adapted by him from his short stories. The series also featured adaptations from stories by the likes of Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend), George Clayton Johnson, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, Jerome Bixby, all of whom turned up time and time again in the fantasty/science fiction anthologies which I collected in my Rod Serling and Stephen King years. Ray Bradbury was adapted only once, with the episode “I Sing The Body Electric.”
Anyone who shares my love of The Twilight Zone, do yourself a favour: find Marc Scott Zicree’s book The Twilight Zone Companion. It was published in ’82 and you can still find it. It tells the story of the whole series episode by episode. I’ve pored over mine so much that my edition is held together with elastic bands. A further note: the episode I describe in Bookworm is called “Time Enough At Last,” and features Burgess Meredith. Meredith appeared in several Twilight Zone episodes, and it’s worth mentioning that one of them was called “The Obsolete Man,” an original Rod Serling script. It feels appropriate to mention because it’s one of my favourite episodes and also because it has a lot in common with many of Ray Bradbury’s stories, particularly his novel Fahrenheit 451 and his short story “The Pedestrian.” (A story I’ve read aloud to many – you’ll find it in The Golden Apples of the Sun.) Dots worth connecting.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: His Twilight Zone episode! This is one of my all-time favourite stories, I’ve worn through several editions, and what a fantastic book to read aloud!! It’s got one of the greatest opening lines of all time. We’re all familiar with the movie versions, spoofs, parodies, etc., but if you’ve never treated yourself to the original novel itself, well, you’re lucky, because you have it to look forward to.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This book mocked me from the shelf for ten years before I finally found the space and time to open it properly. I read the whole thing, much of it aloud to myself, on a beach in Peruibe, Brasil, where I lived in a tent for two weeks. When the prose got to be too magnificent to bear I’d run straight into the salt waves. I read the whole thing to the roar of the surf and all I need, to read it again, is the shore of another ocean. Another case of the greatest opening line ever.
Ray Bradbury: I think Bradbury would be pretty happy to be tucked here between Melville and Whitman (two writers that come up more than once in his stories – not to mention that it was Bradbury whom John Huston hired to adapt Moby Dick for the big screen). Another reason to read Ray Bradbury is for how full his books are of his own passion for literature, and for reading itself. One of the many reasons he was such a great first love for me as a young reader.
Whenever I revisit Bradbury, it hits me again what a massive impact he’s had on my entire writing life. Safe to say, bigger than anyone else’s. The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun – I can’t recommend them highly enough. His writing is musical; his prose is a feast of visual language; his stories are often fantastic – sometimes frightening (especially to a wide-eyed kid), always wondrous. They spark and bristle with his love of being here.
People walking away from seeing Bookworm might imagine that Ray Bradbury is my favourite writer. I wouldn’t call him that. A lot of his stuff – especially from the second half of his career – I can’t read at all. Or not anymore, anyway. Bradbury can be cloyingly sentimental, and while his greatest work contains and preserves a wonder, and a freedom to imagine usually possessed only by children, his later, and lesser work (to me, at any rate) feels childishly nostalgic.
So it’s not that Ray Bradbury is my favourite writer, but that no other writer occupies the place he does in my life. There will never be a substitute for me for Ray Bradbury. His earlier stories and novels are just plain magic (I’ve listed most of them above), and his childlike spirit suits my enthusiastic temperament just fine.
I could, as I allude to in the show, fill a wall with editions of his books I’ve given away. One of my favourite memories of sharing Ray Bradbury was when a girlfriend of mine, after visiting me in Toronto many years ago, took a copy of Dandelion Wine with her on her bus ride back to Kingston, where she was going to school. When she got there she phoned and left me a message that said, “Corin. I’ve just finished Dandelion Wine… and do you have any idea how alive we are?”
I’ll leave you with the facebook status I posted the day Ray Bradbury died, as I was travelling to the London Fringe festival:
Wednesday June 5th, 2012
Corin Raymond is inhaling the dark spice of a fifty-year old Bantam copy of The Illustrated Man – the only book I had with me when I boarded this train, where I learned of Ray Bradbury’s passing. This particular edition is from my father’s shelves, and I associate it with the summer cool of basement book dust. This very copy gave me chills just holding it in my hands at age 11. My songs couldn’t and wouldn’t exist as they do without Ray Bradbury, who showed me the way I might turn words into celebrations, how I might myself someday Sing the Body Electric. How I might show everyone how THRILLED I am to be alive. I’m weeping, openly, in economy, just thinking about that. Me and this window of rain. How strange and fitting to be hurtling toward London to perform a show which is as much a love letter to Bradbury as to my own father. I love you Ray Bradbury, and I sing you, and I feel you. And although I never met you I know you would have recognized me immediately, and I know that your death is merely a formality, and that if Walt Whitman waits for us under our boot soles – to grow from the grass he loved- that you wait for us here, in the exhalation of yellowed pages from summer basements, and in the brand new, ink-and-paper oxygen of your stories- your carnivals, thunder lizards and dead ocean-bottoms of Mars- which will be in print forever. In the solidarity of big children everywhere, CR.
Walt Whitman: The Bradbury story I mentioned which was adapted into a Twilight Zone episode is “I Sing The Body Electric,” which I didn’t learn ’til years later came from the poem of the same title by Walt Whitman, from his Leaves of Grass. That Bradbury could lead straight to Whitman makes perfect sense to me. I can’t think of anyone else who’s written about being alive the way those two have. How can I even express how much Leaves of Grass meant to me when I first found it at The Book Shelf Café in Guelph at age sixteen? Or how it got me through my late teens and early twenties? Or how it continues to speak (and sing) to me now? I can’t imagine my life without Walt Whitman. Those are poems that have got me through things.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King: It’s a great read, and like a lot of his best stuff, hard to put down. Just don’t read it when the power’s out, like my dad did. When I read it, at thirteen or fourteen, I couldn’t sleep for three nights running afterward. I even fashioned a stake, which I still have somewhere. I was terrified. It was wonderful.
I might of lied to you in Bookworm when I said that I can’t read Stephen King anymore. Or rather I half lied, because just recently, in April, 2013, I was laid up in the dark with a severe double eye infection, and for several weeks I could barely open my eyes. I was unable to read for close to a month (remind you of a certain Twilight Zone episode?) Something I did to pass those hours was listen to some amazing audio books. One of them was Stephen King’s 11/22/63: a time travel story in which a New England man is given a chance to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. I lay in the dark and was transported by Craig Wasson (for more than 50 hours of listening). What an incredible reader Craig Wasson is. It was worth being sick just to discover him, and I have to say that I did experience that old Stephen King magic. The story lagged a wee bit in the middle but was still a great entertainment, and being a sucker for time travel stories generally, the first few chapters had me feeling 14 again.
All The Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy: One of the only books I ever read twice in a row, straightaway. I had a copy of the next book in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (made up of All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) but the pull was too strong – I had to go right back to page one of All The Pretty Horses and start it again. Besides being a beautiful story about friendship, it’s also the greatest western I’ve ever read (if you have any love of westerns I recommend it very highly). I have trouble getting to the McCarthy books I haven’t read for rereading the ones I love best. No Country For Old Men I’ve read at least five times. I can read it just about any time I pick it up and look at its first page. I have to be careful not to do that sometimes. The film is fantastic but the book is perfect, and every time I read it it hits me harder.
When touring Bookworm across the Fringe Festival circuit last year, I stayed in Victoria with Peter Gray, proprietor of one of my favourite bookshops in the country (Renaissance Books, located in Bastion Square in Victoria, BC) and he told me that I needed to reread less and get to some of these books I was missing out on! His favourite Cormac McCarthy books are some of the earlier ones, like Suttree, The Orchard Keeper, and Outer Dark. Or Blood Meridian. Peter couldn’t believe I hadn’t read Suttree and he told me I should stop rereading All The Pretty Horses until I’d read some of the earlier stuff. And he convinced me! Along similar lines, my father, who knows now that he’ll never get to all the books in his library, is having to decide more and more often whether to read something new or to read something he wants to revisit. The California songwriter Warren Zevon, when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he had only a matter of months left, said, “When we buy books, we think we’re buying the time to read them.” It’s a truth every reader eventually faces.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison: The only book besides All The Pretty Horses I read twice in a row. Come to think of it I read it four times in a row. It helped that I had it with me when I was traveling in Europe at seventeen. Four times on that trip and ever since it’s been a place inside myself I can go. I started reading it again recently and it just blew my mind all over again how perfect it is. I don’t know anything about the movie and I’m gonna keep it that way. Trivia: there’s a line in my song “Record Lonesome Night” that I stole from this book. If you know the song, you’ll find the line when you read Beloved. Which you should.
The Witches, by Roald Dahl: The copy my father gave me when I was eleven is inscribed:
‘For Corin, with much love, and with the hope that this tale will serve as a warning: Never accept candy from a lady you’ve not known for at least five years; it MIGHT contain FORMULA 86 DELAYED ACTION MOUSE-MAKER!! Christmas, 1983 Ottawa’.
As so many of Roald Dahl’s books are (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More), this one’s great for kids. When my dad read it to me I was equal-parts enchanted and terrified. Roald Dahl’s got some grim short stories for grownups too. Find ‘Skin’ if you want yours to creep.
The Freddy The Pig stories, by Walter R. Brooks, Watership Down, by Richard Adams, and The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame: Three books I mention my father reading aloud to both me and my brother. I just opened my copy of Freddy The Detective (a Christmas gift from my father in 1999) and found this inscription:
‘Long ago, I devoured all the Freddy books, borrowed eagerly from the Belleville Public Library. Gordon James and I would chuckle as we recalled this or that from the books, as we walked to school. Not long ago, I attended a meeting of some Friends of Freddy at the Duke of York, on Prince Arthur Avenue, in Toronto. You are never too old, I hope, for the animals of the Bean Farm.’
Both Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows (just like the Winnie the Pooh books) began as stories the authors were telling their children. It only follows that so many other kids in the world have had the chance to hear them since, including me and my brother.
The Little Prince, by Antoine St-Exupery: This one answers almost every question posed in the list I pose in the show in the show (“Are any of these your best friends? Have you ever read one of these out loud on the phone to a girl you’re in love with? Are any of these the 25th copy you bought of the same book, because you love it so much you gave them all away?,” etc.). This book tamed me a long time ago, and if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean by that. I can remember skipping class and reading it in one sitting (it’s very short) upstairs in the library mezzanine at Mayfield Secondary School. Weeping over it up there among the stacks and potted plants while classes (and the rest of the world) happened somewhere else. I’ve given away more copies of The Little Prince than I can count. Right now I’m trying to get my only copy back from a Winnipeg girl who now lives in Brasil. It’s a beautiful edition, illustrated in colour. Wish me luck.
The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger: My dad gave me my first copy and I think I started smoking because of Holden Caulfield, which certainly wasn’t my father’s intention. Holden smoked Winstons, which I smoked for a while myself. I guess that says something about the impact the book had on me, which was huge. (I later smoked unfiltered Camels because of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe). I carried this book around like a banner. I read it out loud many times, to many friends. One night, years later, a friend was at my house and said she was in the mood for Salinger, but a grown up Salinger. I’m proud to say I sent her away with Pigeon Feathers, a collection of John Updike stories, and that it was just the thing (a good library will always provide). If you’re ever in that same mood – to return to J.D. Salinger, but as an adult, find Pigeon Feathers. I had my last cigarette in 2010 (Thanks, Holden.)
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. Another writer who knocked me out – for totally different reasons – alongside Bradbury was Robert Cormier. Another writer perfect for that same age group that first sucks up The Catcher In The Rye. The Chocolate War, I Am The Cheese, and Fade – his teenage take on H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. All great for those suffering the slings and arrows of high school. And good books any time. Another one of my favourite Cormier novels was After The First Death, the title of which, I’d learn many years later, comes from the poem by Dylan Thomas. That story haunts me.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle: Some of the greatest stories ever. Ever. My dad weened me on abridged versions but as soon as I was old enough to drop by 221 B. Baker St. for myself, I was a regular caller and there was no going back. Holmes is like Scrooge: even if you haven’t read the stories you’ve been inundated with parodies and caricatures, all cartoonish shadows next to the Master himself. If you’ve never read them, you are so lucky. Start with A Study In Scarlet (in which Holmes and Watson first meet) and then go from there. I won’t tell you, if you don’t already know, why A Study In Scarlet makes a good companion to the recent Broadway smash The Book of Mormon. You’ll find out for yourself. And I’m jealous.
The Amazing Spiderman: The webslinger’s either a friend of yours or he isn’t. I’ve still got Spiderman on my walls; I can see him in three places from where I’m typing these words. Just one look at him and I remember so much about being a kid, and the dream of power that might be hiding under the most unexpected surface. I relate to him to this day, just as I said in the show.
More recently there’s been more than one Hollywood version of the Webhead, and people often ask me whether I like them. Yes and no. I love the second Spiderman film by Sam Raimi, the one with Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, and I suppose that’s the best one so far. But then again, although the rebooted Spiderman film (with Andrew Garfield as Spiderman) was a flawed movie, Garfield’s Peter Parker is fantastic and, more excitingly, the action scenes were the closest any film had gotten to how I imagined, as a kid, that Spiderman would move. The new film really catches the kinetic, mercurial side of Spiderman. As a certified Spider geek, I have no choice but to watch them all, but, as it is with Bradbury, it’s not that I love all thing Spiderman, but that there will never be any substitute for what he meant, and continues to mean, to my life. Spiderman is my radioactive bud.
The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien: I reread The Hobbit while working on this show and I was in the middle of The Two Towers when I made this list. Like so many I’ve listed, if you haven’t read these for yourself, you’re in for the treat of a reading lifetime – because you still get to have the pleasure of reading them for the first time! And of course, we have Peter Jackson’s new film to look forward to this Christmas.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: If you’re a friend of Frodo’s AND Spiderman’s, this book is for you. Which doesn’t really say anything about its heartbreaking power. This book is for anyone, Frodo and Spiderman notwithstanding. When I discovered it two years ago I bought seven brand new copies of it and gave them all away. Read it for yourself and you’ll understand. Two of those seven gift-copies I gave to two girls I was drinking with at The Done Right Inn on Queen St. one afternoon. I had just finished it and was raving about it to them – and then I told them to just wait a minute and I dashed down Queen St. to Book City and bought two copies, ran back and gave them one each. I remember even the cashier at Book City saying it was the best book she’d read that year as I sprinted in and out of the store. My housemate just read it and he said the same thing himself. Junot Diaz is quickly becoming one of my top favourite writers. Pick up The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (no matter that it won the Pulitzer that year) and find out for yourself.
Titus Groan and Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake: I had the chance to talk about these books on Shelagh Rogers’ program The Next Chapter (the bit just aired last month). These books are unlike anything you’ve ever read. They can be compared to The Lord of the Rings (they were published in England within a decade of each other) only for the sheer feat of another world brought so completely to life, but the world of Gormenghast is utterly unique. Mervyn Peake started his career as a painter and illustrator and his prose is an extension of his power as a visual artist. His prose also sings like poetry (he wrote many poems and plays, as well as stories for children). The characters are so outlandish and fantastic, and the story so compelling, that I can only hope that you find these books and savour them for yourself. I’m due to return to Gormenghast. There’s a third book, Titus Alone, written many years later, but as far as I’m concerned the first two books are perfectly complete in themselves (the same way I believe that The Phantom Menace is not a Star Wars movie). You be the judge.
Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams: I love all his plays. I love the sheer beauty and the ache and the way he doesn’t flinch at the loneliest truths. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen most of his plays onstage, but I have a special place for Night of the Iguana (which is worth reading/seeing just for the poem!) as well as for Sweet Bird of Youth, two of which aren’t produced nearly as much as A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie. I love his short stories too. I once lent The Collected Stories of Tennessee Williams to a girl I was terribly in love with, and about six months later I was in a used bookstore and I saw an edition that looked just like mine – the PICADOR copy I’d picked up on a trip to England. I reached for it like an old friend, opened it, and there was my name inside the front cover. She’d sold my books! Twenty-one year-old girls can be like that (I was also twenty-one, so what did I know). I told the proprietor my situation and he sold them back to me at half price.
Oh and here’s the poem which I quote some of in the show, the poem from Night of the Iguana, Act Three:
How Calmly Does The Orange Branch
How calmly does the orange branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer,
With no betrayal of despair.
Sometime while night obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence.
A chronicle no longer gold,
A bargaining with mist and mould,
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth; and then
An intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth’s obscene, corrupting love.
And still the ripe fruit and the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer,
With no betrayal of despair.
O courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?
– Tennessee Williams
Carson McCullers: Again, my taste for the dark, the unflinching, and the beautiful. Carson McCullers was a Southern prodigy who rocked the literary world when her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published when she was only 23 years old. Years later I lent it to my fellow bookstore clerk Tavis Stoby, and his comment on returning it was that although he loved the book he felt it had been mistitled. ‘It should’, he said, ‘be called The Heart is a Lonely, Lonely Hunter’. If gothic southern melancholy alarms you, be warned. Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read; I can recite whole stretches of it. Please find it. It’s not long; you’ll finish it in one sweltering, painfully lonesome read. Pearl Rachinsky, the artist who created the Bookworm art, told me she had just finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for the third time when she designed the poster for Bookworm. When a book is this exquisitely painful, it’s nice to know you’re not alone with it.
Dylan Thomas: Whom I first discovered in An Anthology of Verse, edited by Roberta A. Charlesworth and Dennis Lee. In the show I mention “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, which we read in school, and “In My Craft or Sullen Art”, the one my father recited to me at the dinner table and one of the first poems I ever learned. I also mention “Fern Hill,” “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” as well as Under Milk Wood, his play for voices (which is simply as beautiful as beautiful gets) which were also in that same anthology. Get into Dylan Thomas and you’ll understand why Bobby Zimmerman hijacked his name. Oh, and here’s the poem I recited in the show, the one my dad brought to the dinner table that night:
In My Craft or Sullen Art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
– Dylan Thomas
The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes: An anthology of poems which I found for two-pounds-fifty in a second-hand shop on the Plymouth Hoe in England when I was seventeen years old, and which has brought me more joy than can ever be tabulated. If you’re someone who’s looking for a door into poetry, take this one. A collection I have literally read to pieces. Even the elastic band that held it together for years has crumbled and had to be replaced. And still The Rattle Bag continues to cause me wonder, and to reveal new secrets.
Robert Frost: I’m old-fashioned. I like pure rhymes (as opposed to words that share similar sounds, like they do in rock n’ roll and in folk music); I like big ideas crystalized into simple, everyday language. I like structure. Robert Frost described the poet’s job as ‘moving freely in harness’. “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” is still one of the greatest poems I’ve ever seen – and check out the way he uses each rhyme four times when you think it’s only three. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Also, if you’re a fan of the songs of Townes Van Zandt, it’s safe to say that Robert Frost was one of the biggest literary influences on his songwriting. He’s definitely had an effect on mine. Here’s the poem I suggest in the show that the army might have a use for:
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
– Robert Frost
Edna St. Vincent Millay: Her middle name comes from the New York hospital that saved her uncle’s life (and where Dylan Thomas later died). Read her for sheer elegance, not to mention melancholy, which she had in spades, but beware – you’ll likely fall in love with her as so many have before you. I know I did. How could I not? She loves you and leaves you, and you miss her long after she’s long gone. Edna St. Vincent Millay is another poet my father recited to me when I was a teenager, in the car no less. The poem was “Dirge Without Music.” What a poem. If you’ve lost someone you love, “Dirge Without Music” is right up there with “Cambridge Elegy”, by Sharon Olds (another poet who takes my breath away). Also, one of my favourite works of non-fiction is Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. If you have yet to be seduced by Millay, I’ll say it once again: you’ve got that to look forward to.
A.E. Houseman: I’m a sucker for anybody who writes well about dying young, and nobody did it quite like A.E. Houseman. Check out “Is My Team Ploughing?,” a poem from A Shropshire Lad. It’s a little movie all in itself.
Archibald Lampman: A 19th century Canadian poet who died at 38, the age I was when I began compiling this list. He wrote one of the sonnets I treasure the most, and one I’ve probably recited to myself (and to others) a thousand times. It’s called “In November.” Find it and say it aloud to yourself, especially when the weather turns colder. Lampman attended Trinity College in Toronto, of which all that remains is the front gate where it still stands at Queen St. and Strachan, at the south entrance to what is now Trinity Bellwoods Park. I used to think about Lampman’s ghost sometimes when running through that same park with “In November” chanting under my breath.
Siegfried Sassoon: One of my absolute, absolute favourites– top top top. I discovered him completely by accident at The Book Shelf Café in Guelph, at about the same time I bought my first Whitman. One of the first poets to write truthfully about the experience of World War I, in which he served as an officer. Also a celebrator of the spirit, and of the natural world. He’s one of those writers – like Mary Oliver or William Stafford – whose personal integrity shines out so clearly in the poems that I can honestly say he’s also a beacon to me as a human being, like a light up ahead.
Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: I refer to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein only in passing near the end of the show, but the reason I was rereading it that Hallowe’en is because it’s a book I return to and return to. More delicious, psychotic, and compelling than Bram Stoker’s Dracula ever was (and I’m a fan of that too). Like Scrooge, like Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein (especially the monster) has been maligned by a thousand caricatures. If that name means Boris Karloff to you (or Mel Brooks), then lucky for you. You still have Mary Shelley headin’ your way. She started writing Frankenstein when she was 19 (in 1816!), after a summer holiday in Geneva where she, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron all dared each other to write a ghost story. Frankenstein is the result of that dare. If you haven’t read it, don’t deny yourself. Especially when the pumpkins start ripening toward the knife (I stole that from Bradbury). You will never think of the monster the same way again.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind: My sure-fire recommendation to anyone who wants a story they won’t put down. Macabre. Psychotic. Wonderful. Working at Lichtman’s (and Chapters), I must have sold an entire box of these over the years. I earned a customer’s trust once-and-for-all with this one, every time. Inevitably they’d come back and tell me they loved it and could I recommend something else – they would read anything I told them to after that – ah, the power! Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s weird, bizarre, and deliciously disturbing. I think the full title is Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Considering the content I find it ironic that the author’s name means “sweet child.” But as stories go, it does not get better than this. Another one that was adapted for the big screen. I saw it but it didn’t make much of an impression. Which stands to reason, since the book is largely about one man’s sense of smell. I’m sucked into Perfume again anytime I pick it up and reread its first sentence. See for yourself. Bite-size chapters. A thinking person’s thriller. Perfect to the last word.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier: I can’t remember the first time I read it but years later I remember it being the first book I was able to get through after the Celexa started working and I was settling into life on Lake Wabigoon, when I was able to sleep again. When I could begin again to look at words without seeing them as an indictment against myself (what have you done?, the voices asked). I’ve read Cold Mountain several times and I’m overdue to read it again. It’s one of those books I’ll be reading for the rest of my life. A perfect case. And please, let’s not ever mention the movie. I attended a premiere of the movie at $100 a ticket, two weeks before its wide release, mainly to see Charles Frazier, who was going to talk about the book and the process of seeing it made into a film in a conversation with Anthony Minghella mediated by Michael Ondaatje. The Literacy Society of Canada or some such put it on, and they sent some poor gal out to tell us that Charles Frazier wasn’t going to be there, sans explanation. And then the movie sucked. One of those movies– like Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula– that I will never see again. Like Billy Bob Thornton’s All The Pretty Horses. I had to see it once, out of curiosity, but we’re done. Cold Mountain, the movie? Never again. But the book is so beautiful. Not everyone feels this way. I gave my Uncle Chuck a copy, thinking he’d love it, and when I asked him about it the next time I saw him he said, “I didn’t finish it.” “What?! You didn’t like it?” He shook his head. “Bad things just kept happening to the guy and I just knew it wasn’t gonna get any better for him. I don’t read a book for that. Real life does that enough. I read for escape. No thanks.” I couldn’t be in further disagreement. It still shocks me to hear someone passing up such a rich and beautiful book because it doesn’t have a happy ending (whatever that is). I will never understand that. It’s like when people say that Leonard Cohen is depressing. No. Leonard Cohen is not depressing. Leonard Cohen is inspiring as hell. Walmart is depressing. Let’s get the distinction straight. As for Charles Frazier, if you could open my heart and go in, you’d find a little bookshelf in there with a number of volumes on it, and Cold Mountain would be on top.
2. Here’s a handful of poems (there are many missing, but this is a start) that have got me through things. I’m sorry to leave you with only the titles, and of course, the best thing to do is to have the books which contain them, but for any detectives out there willing to dig, here’s some of my all-time favourites:
“Out of Danger,” by James Fenton
“Seventy Feet Down” and “Days,” by Philip Larkin
“The Poet With His Face In His Hands” and “Lead,” by Mary Oliver
“Song of Myself” and “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman
“December Stillness” and ‘Slumber Song,” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost
“And The Trains Go On,” by Philip Levine
“Why I Am Happy” and “Ask me,” by William Stafford
“In November” by Archibald Lampman
“When I Have Fears,” by John Keats
“Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
“I Go Back To May 1937″ by Sharon Olds
“Attempt” by Al Purdy
“Reason Has Moons” by Ralph Hodgson
“Poema De Sete Faces” by Carlos Drummond De Andrade
“Broadcaster’s Poem” by Alden Nowlan
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3. The books that were onstage with me in the Fringe production, for which I carted a collection of volumes from my personal library across the country:
The Original Illustrated ‘Strand’ Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Gloria by Keith Maillard
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Miscellany by Dylan Thomas
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
The Slip-Knot by TJ Dawe
Antologia Poetica by Carlos Drummond De Andrade
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
The Collected Stories of Tennessee Williams
The Big Lebowski by Ethan Coen
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Stories from the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Sneaky People by John Berger
I Want To Go Home! by Gordon Korman
The Turning by Tim Winton
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury
Siegrfried Sassoon Selected Poems
Alex Driving South by Keith Maillard
I Sing The Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Our Man Weston by Gordon Korman
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
The Emergency Monologues by Morgan Jones Phillips
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
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There are so many books missing from this list – which is a dangerous list to begin!!! Of course there will always be books missing from this list. There is no complete list, ever, when it comes to books – but there are books from the show I still haven’t gotten to, particularly The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. I haven’t even mentioned The Chronicles of Narnia, in which there’s a Prince Corin. I skipped Shakespeare! Didn’t say a word about James Ellroy, or Raymond Chandler (except that he got me smoking Camels). No Jack Ludwig or Keith Maillard. No Ursula K. Le Guin or Michael Ende. No Gwendolyn MacEwen. No Ian McEwan. No Julian Barnes! I didn’t even mention E.M. Forster, or his novel Howard’s End (a book I could not live without). I didn’t get to John Fowles (The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Nada. As I sign off, an entire room of books is floods my head, Sorceror’s Apprentice style – and I’m washed away on a tide of titles I’ve neglected.
I will be updating and adding to this mad inventory. What books do you remember? Which ones to you return to? I’d love to hear about the titles you count as your best friends. Signing off for now, and wishing you a language-savouring, page-turning, book-befriended summer.