The Vintage Caper

The Vintage CaperThe Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle
Published: 2009
Series: Sam Levitt #1
Length: 223 pages

I love Peter Mayle’s Provence books, where he details his life after moving there from England. He apparently also has a series of detective novels that focus on food and wine, a combination of two things I enjoy quite a bit, so I thought I’d give them a try.

Mayle’s a strong writer, and that does come through here, but the story itself was a bit silly. This follows Sam Settler, a once-thief now working as a private detective, as he tries to track down millions of dollars of stolen wine. I imagine his alliterative name is a throwback to Sam Spade and the golden era of detective fiction, but that’s really where the comparisons stop.

My main problem with this novel is that there’s just no reason at all to care. I think, in detective fiction, readers want to see the crime solved for the following reasons:

  • Sympathy for the victim – The victim here, the wine collector, is portrayed as a complete douchbag. He’s an entertainment lawyer who treats everyone around him with contempt, who values impressing others above all else. You are meant to hate him from the first page of this novel.
  • Seeking justice for the crime – The crime itself is serious, the theft of something worth millions, but it isn’t a murder. If the thief is never caught, the wine will just have a new owner, potentially even one that will appreciate it more. I supposed if you felt really strongly about wine collecting, the idea of this happening would sting, but I doubt most people would lose sleep over it.
  • The detective’s life is threatened – In many detective or crime novels, the detective’s life may be at stake. They may need to solve the crime to prove themselves innocent or to bring down the criminals who may now be targeting them after getting involved. At the very least, it’s a crime from the past that went unsolved and has haunted them ever since. Sam is under no pressure in this. If he’s not investigating, he’s just having nice dinners or sightseeing.
  • The detective’s livelihood is threatened – Most detective or crime fiction protagonists need to solve these cases in order to continue paying rent, whether that’s keeping their job in the police force or just making money as a private consultant. They need to get paid. Sam Settler is independently wealthy from his previous life of crime, so he really doesn’t need to solve this. He travels to France with a first class plane ticket and eats caviar multiple times.

*Spoiler*
Mayle did try to get creative with the ending of this novel, but it instead just felt ridiculous. The rich man who stole the wine is a nice guy, which they determine by his reputation and having met him for five minutes, so instead of turning him in they decided to commit a crime themselves and re-steal the bottles of wine, some of which may or may not have been stolen.

One of Sam’s partners in the theft is a journalist, so the plan was to leave the wine somewhere and have the journalist find it through an anonymous tip, thus finding the stolen goods, returning them to their owner, taking the blame off the nice rich man, and providing a great story to publish.

Not only do they put themselves at risk to protect someone they met for five minutes, but they hide the wine on land the journalist’s family owns, and no one brings this up as being a bad idea. I’m assuming the sequel will take place in prison, because I don’t understand how the police wouldn’t make that connection.
*/Spoiler*

It feels a bit weird reading someone’s fiction when you know them for their non-fiction. I imagine it feels a bit like watching a friend act on stage for the first time, making it harder to see the character rather than the actor, but it didn’t take too long to adjust. As I said, Mayle is a very good writer. I especially enjoyed any scene in which the characters were eating. This feels like food travel writing with a fictional plot thrown in, which I would absolutely love if it was done well.

If you’re the sort of person that complains about George R.R. Martin spending too much time describing food, I’d avoid this. Even though I was disappointed with the plot, I might give the next book a try. He might have just been finding his footing with this one, and I really want a detective series full of food and travel writing.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Published: 1961
Narrated by: Miriam Margolyes
Length: 04:45 (150 pages)

I’ve been trying to read a bit more Scottish fiction in the last year or two, and this is a novel you’ll find on every Scottish list around the Internet. I had heard of Muriel Spark, but to be honest I didn’t know anything about her, not even that she was Scottish, so I picked this up as blind as one could be.

Miss Jean Brodie is an unorthodox teacher for a group of ten-year-old girls in an Edinburgh school in the 30’s. We follow the group as they progress through Junior School, under miss Brodie’s tutelage, and carry on to Senior School. There they are taught by other teachers but are still under Miss Brodie’s wing, meeting with her every week or so for tea or golf.

Miss Brodie would often spend class lecturing on her own life, her trips to Italy and her past love affair, asking the students to hold up their class books to fool anyone who might wander in uninvited. She wants to teach them about life and about themselves, at least her idea of what they should be, and there is a worry that they will not learn the subjects in the official curriculum, but the whole set of them seem to come out of the class as top students in the school. They even seem better adjusted as individuals, in a way, so the early years seem innocent enough. It isn’t until the students are older that we really see how potentially destructive Miss Brodie can be.

I really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s writing. This novel is hilarious at times while also being quite dark in places, and I was genuinely surprised at what was happening in the second half of this. What I found most interesting, though, was how she jumped around in time. That is not, by any stretch, an uncommon device in fiction, but she uses it in a very satisfying way. For each girl in the Brodie Set, she would often hint at what they would be ‘famous’ for in the years to come – Rose being famous for sex, Jenny famous for her beauty, Monica for her mathematics – and at one point, in the middle of a fairly innocuous moment, the story flashes forward twelve years or so to show the death of one of the more unfortunate girls in a scene that was both hilarious and horrific, and which was also cruelly foreshadowed in an event during the next school year. It’s easy to lose the reader hopping about in time like that, but she handled it flawlessly.

Miss Brodie is a character I won’t soon forget. At the beginning of the novel, she seems so in control. She is clever and articulate and charming, with a biting wit and a strong passion for what she does, but as the years pass we begin to see her in a less positive light. She’s manipulative and dangerous, a bit sad really. She could have had a much different life if the war hadn’t taken the love of her youth, but instead she’s been left broken. She tries to regain control by dedicating herself to her girls, keeping them in line with her their dictator.

It’s a strange thing to grow up and suddenly see the flaws of your idols and authority figures, these people who always had the answers and worldly knowledge. This novel captures that feeling brilliantly, as well as the aftermath of trying to relate to those early feelings of childhood reverence as an adult.

We watched the 1969 film adaptation with Maggie Smith last night. She was amazing in it, and it was fun to watch, but everything felt so exaggerated. One thing I really loved about Muriel Spark’s writing is that she didn’t explain every theme and every character intention. The movie, however, did not take that route. Also, Teddy Lloyd wasn’t as rape-y in the book, whereas his portrayal in the movie was just ridiculous. We enjoyed it overall, though.

Miriam Margolyes’s narration of the audiobook was a bit over-the-top, but was otherwise incredible entertaining. Muriel Spark, without a doubt, an author I’ll be returning to in the future.

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Kaijumax, Season 1

Kaijumax, Season 1Kaijumax, Season 1 by Zander Cannon
Format: Trade Paperback
Illustrated by: Zander Cannon
Series: Kaijumax #1
Publisher: Oni Press
Published: 2016
Length: 168 pages

Last year, while attending PAX West, we dropped by the Oni Press booth. They had some discounted comics for sale, and since I’ve only read their Bryan Lee O’Malley books, most of it was new to me. I picked out the first volume of The Sixth Gun and a funny little book called I Was the Cat, both of which I still haven’t read, and then I asked which book he’d recommend. He chose Kaijumax, because it’s hilarious and different from anything he’d come across.

He was correct! This is a very odd book. It takes place on an island that holds a maximum security prison for Kaiju monsters. I’m still a little confused as to whether Kaiju is the term for the monsters themselves or the film genre, but it’s basically your Godzillas and Mothras mixed with Orange is the New Black. When he told me the book featured Kaiju, I stared back at him blankly for a while, which I think lost me some major geek points. After he explained it, I vaguely remember hearing the term before, but it’s definitely a part of geek culture that I don’t know a lot about.

Thankfully, being a Kaiju newbie doesn’t get in the way here. There are gangs and racial tension, drug smuggling, corrupt prison guards – everything you’d expect from a prison drama. Zander Cannon takes those known clichés and mixes them with monsters and the result is surprisingly fresh. He does very clever things in mixing the two styles. The included picture, of the monster’s gym equipment, is a good example of that.

This comic gets surprisingly dark at times as well. The illustrations are disarmingly cute, so when these things happen it really sneaks up on you. The main drama centres around a monster who was just admitted and the fact that his children are still out there, unable to feed or protect themselves. It’s a completely bizarre premise that happens to be grounded with somewhat relatable issues.

Cannon wrote and illustrated this himself, so you’re getting one person’s (extremely bizarre) vision, which I think gives it a nice personal touch. I will probably pick up the second volume at some point, to see where this story goes.

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Fool’s Quest

Fool's Quest  (The Fitz and The Fool, #2)Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb
Published: 2015
Series: The Fitz and The Fool, #2
Length: 768 pages

I’m so happy to have gotten back into reading Robin Hobb. I’m spreading the books out, partly because they’re quite chunky and partly because I don’t really want this story to come to an end. I’ll console myself with the fact that I have two other related trilogies to go back and read, as well as whatever she comes out with next.

Robin Hobb is a brilliant writer, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Her novels are beautifully written, and she expertly draws the reader into a complex, but understandable, world. Each character is real, flawed, motivated in their own way, and she makes you care about every single one of them. Even when they frustrate or anger with their actions, or inaction, the reader can still eventually understand their reasoning. In these last eight books, Fitzchivalry, the main character, has continuously made decisions that infuriated me, but you can always see why he’s the way he is. Hobb spent nearly the entire last book building these characters up in our imagination, making us understand their relationships to one another and really building the emotional foundation for this trilogy. It was a riveting read, even if not a lot of action took place.

With that groundwork in place, this is the novel where the action really picks up. It’s exciting, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at once. Something happens to Fitz that we’ve been waiting to happen for twenty years now (twelve for me, since I came in late), and it’s done it the most satisfying way I could hope for. One thing that prevented me from getting through her Soldier’s Son trilogy was that it was just so hopeless. She can be ruthless in how she treats her characters, and she was out for blood in that series. This latest trilogy is much more balanced – some chapters raise your spirits while others crush you a little, and it overall makes for a much more interesting and pleasurable reading experience.

One more book left with Fitz and the Fool. Loving the latest trilogy. Will be sorry to see them go.

A photo posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

One thing that did bother me is that there’s a central mystery or surprise in this, which I won’t spoil but I think will be obvious if you’ve read it, and it takes the characters so bloody long to figure it out. It was incredibly obvious to the reader since midway through the first novel, on purpose I believe, but the characters took about a thousand pages to work it out, and that’s always been an annoyance of mine. Either make it less obvious to the reader, so we can experience the discovery with the characters, or speed it along a little. That disconnect does nothing but hurt the writing, in my opinion.

Even with that small gripe, this might be my favourite Robin Hobb trilogy yet. It’s been a long time since I read those first books, so it’s hard to tell, but either way I am loving this. This novel unfortunately comes to an end without really trying to find a natural break, as it’s clearly meant to just transition to next book, so I’m itching to read on. It comes out in May, but I might hold out for the paperback edition later in the year.

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January in Review

Books Acquired:
Irredeemable, Vol. 3 by Mark Waid
Irredeemable, Vol. 4 by Mark Waid
Ayoade on Ayoade by Richard Ayoade
The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman

Books Read:
Morning Star by Pierce Brown
Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb
Kaijumax, Season 1 by Zander Cannon
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

It’s been a decent start to the year. A bit of a rough beginning, as I got ill immediately upon returning from holiday and spent a chunk of New Years Day in emergency, but it all turned out all right. The rest of the month was relaxed. Reading, hanging out, and taking some photos. Last month I bought a new camera, and I’m having fun learning and posting to Instagram. I picked up a copy of The Photographer’s Eye for some inspiration, as it comes highly recommended online as a good overview on composition.

The Photographer’s Eye and Ayoade on Ayoade, which I’ve been itching to buy for ages now, were both purchased with the winnings from the Back to the Classics 2016 challenge. I was lucky enough to win the draw of US$30, which is equivalent to winning the lottery jackpot with the current Canadian dollar. Thanks to Karen for hosting the challenge!

Sleepy Sunday

A photo posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

Warm enough this weekend to go for a walk by the ocean.

A photo posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

Freighter with the Olympic Mountains in the background.

A photo posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

Lee-Ann and Paisley.

A photo posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

The two Irredeemable comics I picked up used. I started the series years ago and only got a couple of volumes in, despite really liking it. I saw these and thought I should get back into it.

Movies watched:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) – I loved this. Sweet little movie out of New Zealand. Very funny with great actors. First movie I watched this year, and it’s already better than anything I watched last year.

Submarine (2010) – Another fantastic movie. Directed and written by Richard Ayoade. His style of comedy really shines through on this, and it’s filmed in a unique and fun way. The music is great too. Very reminiscent of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen.

TV watched:
Last Chance to See (2009) – Stephen Fry revisits the trip Douglas Adams took, with his original travelmate Mark Carwardine, to see what happened to those near-extinct animals they tracked. Great series. I’m always happy to watch Stephen Fry, of course, but Mark Carwardine really stole the show for me. He’s interesting and affable. I wish he’d continued on doing more nature programmes after this.

Games played:
Inside (2016) (PC) – Beautiful little game. Turned out to be much creepier and bizarre than I expected. Turns out the hype around this was well-warranted.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

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Morning Star

Morning Star (Red Rising, #3)Morning Star by Pierce Brown
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Tim Gerard Reynolds
Series: Red Rising #3
Length: 21:50 (524 pages)

This is the third novel in the Red Rising trilogy, and I thought it came to a very satisfying conclusion. Brown is apparently planning a follow-up trilogy, one that will follow new characters living with the result of this story, and I will probably read through those as well. The first one is due out later this year.

In this world, the people are divided by colour class. The golds rule at the top, treated as gods by some of the lower colours, and at the bottom of the class structure are the reds, who are essentially mining slaves, forced to spend their lives underground at work, never to see the sky. These three novels follow the rebellion of the lower class as they struggle for equality.

I loved the first two novels. Red Rising started out very strong, building up this world in an exciting way and really driving home the inequality and the struggle of those enslaved by this system. The second novel, Golden Son, was just as good, avoiding the lull many middle novels fall victim to while exposing the reader to the entire universe beyond the enclosed story of the first book, essentially turning the series into a space opera.

A trilogy like this could really fall apart at the end, leaving the reader unsatisfied, but I’m happy to say the conclusion hit the mark for me. It left me guessing up until the end with some unexpected twists, and while some of those twists felt a bit hokey, I was able to overlook that. It’s a complicated story overall but still manages to remain a fast-paced and exciting read.

My only real complaint is that everything in this final book felt so high-stakes that it managed to come across as a bit monotonous. Every war movie has that moment when the Sergeant is giving a rising speech to his squad, full of bravado and speaking of glory and honour. Most of this novel is that tone, and it gets a little tiring after a while. I was drifting a bit in the middle of the book. To Brown’s credit, though, the story’s emotional highs and lows still managed to hit me pretty hard, so I guess he didn’t overextend himself.

Overall, this was a great finish to the trilogy. Tim Gerard Reynolds is a superb narrator, and I’m sure my reading experience was improved by listening to him. I’ll be watching for the next trilogy.

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Sex Criminals, Volume Three: Three the Hard Way

Sex Criminals, Volume Three: Three the Hard WaySex Criminals, Volume Three: Three the Hard Way by Matt Fraction
Illustrated by: Chip Zdarsky
Series: Sex Criminals #3
Published: 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 160 pages
Collects: issues #11-15

When I was skimming reviews before purchasing this, I saw that they were generally less enthusiastic than the last two volumes, but I seem to be having the opposite experience as everyone else. I was lukewarm on the first volume, really enjoyed the second volume, and I thought this latest one was just as strong. At this rate, the comic will be cancelled as soon as it becomes my favourite series of all time.

Sex Criminals is a filthy, juvenile, and hilarious comic about people who have powers that activate when they orgasm, all of which seem to relate in one way or another around stopping time. In the first volume, the two main characters used this power to break into a bank, hence the name Sex Criminals, and the story has now progressed to include an ever-increasing number of characters. The plot is becoming somewhat unfocused, but I’m hoping this was just setting up some story elements in the next volume, because right now it’s in danger of just being a showcase of weird sex powers with no real goal, which would be a real shame. The writing is hilarious, and I’m just hoping the plot can catch up.

One of the newly introduced characters was an asexual woman, and I found her chapter really interesting. I thought Fraction did a brilliant job of introducing the topic of asexuality in an understandable and respectful way while still being funny. Another character was a man who creates semen demons, so a slightly different tone there.

A fun comic. It’s very funny, Chip Zdarsky’s art is fantastic, but that won’t be enough to hold it up if the plot doesn’t tighten up a bit. I still have high hopes for the next volume, though.

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Born a Crime

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Trevor Noah
Length: 08:50 (224 pages)

I never sit down and watch The Daily Show, but over the years I have seen quite a lot from people just sharing the videos. Since Trevor Noah took over, very few clips have made their way to me, so I wonder how well the switch from Jon Stewart is going. I imagine it’ll take some time for him to find his stride on there, and I do hope he’s given the chance, because, from watching his stand-up and reading this book, it’s clear he’s the type of person that needs to be on American television right now.

Trevor Noah was born in South Africa during the apartheid. His father is a white Swiss man and his mother a black Xhosa woman, which is where the title comes in. It was illegal to have a child of mixed-race at the time, and the stories of him growing up with parents who were not allowed to be seen with him in public are heartbreaking, but he also manages to make them hilarious. This whole book is a testament to finding the humour in dire situations.

If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

One thing I really found interesting was how racial lines were handled during that time. There were, of course, black people and white people. Those of mixed race are classified as coloured in South Africa, which isn’t the derogatory term that it is in North America. There are obviously racist attitudes towards those people, but the term itself apparently isn’t treated as a slur. But just to drive home how ridiculous the classifications get, for convenience sake everyone was placed into one of these three categories. So Japanese people were labelled as white and Chinese as coloured, for example, and people could apply with the government to have their classification changed depending on their skin shade and economic standing. It really was idiotic, and I believe a lot of those attitudes still exist to a certain extent in the country.

This is his story of growing up poor in a country that didn’t think he should exist. His father couldn’t be seen with him, and his mother had to pretend he wasn’t her son or risk him being taken away. He grew up with a violent and unpredictable drunk of a step-father and had a lot to struggle through, but he also grew up with an incredibly strong mother who clearly had a huge influence on him. It’s not just his story that’s interesting; it’s his outlook and the lessons he learned from his family and his life experiences. This isn’t a comedy book, it deals with some very dark subject matter, but it’s written by someone who can’t help but be funny.

I would highly recommend the audio book. Trevor Noah is a natural storyteller, his narration of this book is brilliant, and you also get the added bonus of listening to him speak phrases in Xhosa. That’s the language with the clicks that you may have occasionally seen Robin Williams mimic, but it really is beautiful and mesmerizing to hear.

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.

Loved every minute of this. If you enjoy memoirs, I don’t think you can go wrong with Born a Crime.

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The Thirty-Nine Steps

The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
Published: 1915
Narrated by: David Thorn
Series: Richard Hannay #1
Length: 04:10 (100 pages)

I think I first heard of this while browsing lists of classic Scottish literature. It’s referred to as one of the earliest spy novels, a man-on-the-run thriller really, in which an ordinary man finds himself wrapped up in an international conspiracy with his country’s safety on the line. This is the first in half a dozen novels featuring Richard Hannay, and it’s been adapted to film multiple times (none of which I’ve seen), the earliest being a Hitchcock film from 1935. It looks like a new adaptation is in the works as well, due out in 2018.

This is a very short novel, and even at this length I felt it drag on in parts. It begins just before World War I in 1914 with Richard Hannay arriving in London after working in Rhodesia for many years. He’s incredibly bored with this new life, so when a stranger with a crazy story begs for his help, he takes the time to listen to him and provide him a place to stay where a busier man may have just moved on. The man claims to have uncovered a plot to assassinate the Greek premier during his upcoming stay in London, with the goal to destabilize the continent in the wake of war. Those chasing him soon turn their attention to Hannay, and he runs north to Scotland with these anarchists in pursuit.

The rest of the story is Richard Hannay sneaking through bushes, being chased through Scottish moors, disguising himself in working class clothing, and participating in some fairly implausible events. I did enjoy Buchan’s writing, which was the saviour here, but this wasn’t the most thrilling thriller I’ve read. It feels like its longevity is largely due to it defining a new genre and it having been adapted into a well-loved Hitchcock film.

At this point, I don’t think I’ll carry on with the series, although I am intrigued. I may let myself be convinced to read further in the future.

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Ballistics: Poems

Ballistics: PoemsBallistics: Poems by Billy Collins
Published: 2010
Length: 113 pages

After reading Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, Billy Collins stuck in my head as someone to further explore. I enjoyed his poem The Lanyard, which was J.J. Abrams’ choice for the collection, but I also really liked Collins’ choice, Bedecked by Victoria Redel. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and while I don’t actually know what that is, it does sound very impressive.

So while we were in Portland last year, I picked up this small collection of his. There were poems in this that I did really enjoy, but I felt a little underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. There were maybe half a dozen poems I marked down to return to while reading through this, and the rest just really didn’t strike me in any way. He can be hilarious at times, and I love that, but a lot of these felt more like unsuccessful exercises in trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

I’m not going to write him off completely, as I know there are some of his poems that I really do enjoy, and maybe this was just the wrong collection for me. I find it tricky to actually pick out poetry and find the best place to start with each poet. On our way home from Portland, we were taking a taxi in Seattle to the ferry terminal, and I got to talking with the driver. He was a big poetry buff, it turned out, and when I mentioned I’d picked up a Billy Collins book he mentioned he wasn’t a fan. I asked what he recommended, and apart from briefly mentioning Robert Frost, he was mainly enthusiastic about poetry anthologies, even naming Kenneth Rexroth and Oscar Williams as two of his favourite anthologists. Maybe I should take that advice and stick to anthologies for a while.

The few I did like, I really liked. Some of my favourites were: Divorce, Old Man Eating Along in a Chinese Restaurant, Ballistics, and Adage.

Here’s the title poem, which turned out to be one of my favourites. I’m an easy sell on bitterness and snark, though.

Ballistics

When I came across the high—speed photograph
of a bullet that had just pierced a book —
the pages exploding with the velocity —

I forgot all about the marvels of photography
and began to wonder which book
the photographer had selected for the shot.

Many novels sprang to mind
including those of Raymond Chandler
where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed.

Nonfiction offered too many choices —
a history of Scottish lighthouses,
a biography of Joan of Arc and so forth.

Or it could be an anthology of medieval literature,
the bullet having just beheaded Sir Gawain
and scattered the band of assorted pilgrims.

But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written

by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance

at twenty—eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world,

and then through the author’s photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet’s hat he loves to wear.

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