Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Paris Comes to Toronto

I had a chance to check out the Impressionist exhibition at the AGO.  It was a nice show.  I wasn't completely surprised that there were a number of small prints and photos, particularly towards the front end of the show, which definitely threw off the flow of visitors.  I knew I'd be coming back several times, so I didn't get too caught up in the smaller works and focused on the main paintings.

Here is a lithograph by Vuillard that I was able to get close enough to view.

Edouard Vuillard, La Patisserie, 1899

There were also three lithographs of the Eiffel Tower, which was part of a series called Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower by Henri Riviere, who was attempting to bring the spirit of Hokusai to 19th Century Paris.  I actually have a reprint of the entire album, and it is pretty neat.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Caillebotte paintings on view.  I believe there are five, perhaps even six, including one from a private collection that has been on display at the AGO for a while.  (I think the hope is that it will eventually be donated.  It's certainly not a major work, but Caillebotte is among the rarer museum acquisitions (as he was wealthy enough he didn't need to sell his paintings to make a living), so it would be a bit of a coup to land one.)

This painting, from Geneva, was to me the stand-out work in the whole exhibition.

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe, 1876



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I'd actually seen it previously, in a major Caillebotte retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995, but it was great seeing it again.

In addition to some well chosen Pissarros, Sisleys and Monets, there were several paintings by Maximilien Luce, with whom I am much less familiar.  While his large painting The Steelworks is very prominent, I particularly liked this smaller painting, Factory in the Moonlight.

Maximilien Luce, Factory in the Moonlight, 1898

The exhibition closed with a row of Monets.  One is on loan from the McMaster Museum of Art, which I must admit I have never visited, while the other is from the AGO collection, though I am not certain I have ever seen it before.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Fog, 1902

The good news is that I will have several more times to see it and these other Impressionist paintings before the exhibit closes in early May.  I definitely thought this was time well-spent, almost enough to make up for the lousy weather this Feb.

Monday, February 18, 2019

12th Canadian Challenge - 12th Review - The Penelopiad

While it isn't strictly necessary to have read Homer's Odyssey prior to reading Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (as she provides a bit of guidance in the introduction, as well as quite a number of asides by Penelope that comment on the main themes of the Odyssey), it is certainly a much richer experience if you are well versed in Odysseus's adventures.  I'm going to write the rest of this review assuming you are at least somewhat versed in them as well and thus will not bother with the typical spoiler warnings for a story that is over 2000 years old...


Up until a month ago, I was familiar the overall outline of the Odyssey (and had read Joyce's Ulysses) but had never read the original.  Now of course I still haven't read the original Greek, but I've read a couple of solid translations and thus it seemed like a good time to read Atwood's take on Homer.

Atwood focuses generally on the fact that Penelope doesn't do a whole lot in the Odyssey other than fall down on her bed a lot and cry, though she does assist in accelerating Odysseus's plan to rid his palace of the suitors by forging ahead with an archery contest (giving herself up as the first prize).  Incidentally, Atwood is hardly the first scholar to suggest that Penelope easily saw through the disguise,* as it would hardly have made sense to give up on waiting for his safe return right after she had just received the most concrete news that he had not died after all.  But Atwood focuses quite intently on the fact that Odysseus decided that quite a few of the palace maids were "bad apples," so he had his old nurse point out the worst, and she fingered twelve maids who were loose (having taken some of the suitors as lovers) and talked back.  Melantho, the only maid named in the Odyssey, was particularly saucy and had no reverence even for Telemachus.  Odyssey says they must all be killed (after they are forced to clean up the enormous, gory mess after the battle with the suitors) and delegates this task to Telemachus.  Telemachus ends up hanging all 12 of the maids.

Atwood is really going for two things here.  First, she wants to give voice to Penelope, though Penelope mostly tries to justify her general lack of agency (in the Odyssey) by saying that her mother had been a naiad (a water spirit) and had modelled the art of flowing around obstacles and not putting up too much open resistance.  Second, she wants to make the case that the maids were actually acting on Penelope's behalf, getting close to the suitors and finding out things about them that Penelope could then use to play them off each other.  If a few of them, such as Melantho, fell in love with the role** (and perhaps her suitor as well), that was a risk that Penelope had to run.  Given that Penelope was locked away during the slaughter of the suitors (and hadn't been able to fully confide in Odysseus in his beggar garb), her biggest regret is that she didn't tell the nurse, Eurycleia, who might then have interceded to spare the maids.  Nonetheless, Penelope still justifies her own actions in saying that she thought Eurycleia was a fairly big blabber-mouth who might have let the cat out of the bag too soon, i.e. at any point over the previous 10 years prior to Odysseus's return.

I should probably mention that all of this is being related as if Penelope is one of the spirits of the dead (just like the ones that Odysseus conjures up in Book XI) and Helen is also around, still tormenting her in various subtle ways.  The maids are there as well.  Odysseus puts in an appearance now and again, but he gets very upset by the maids, who seem to hold him the greatest blame, though they aren't too pleased with Penelope either.  (Unless I totally missed it, Telemachus is just talked about but never really appears in the land of the dead.)  While Penelope pleads with the maids to forgive her husband, since it was at least partly her own fault, they haunt him, dancing with their feet just off the ground, driving him slightly mad, so that he drinks of the river Lethe and gets reincarnated, leaving her again and again.  (I'm almost certain that Atwood is drawing on Virgil here and not Homer.)

There are quite a few sly asides scattered throughout the book, particularly when Penelope and Helen meet up.  She also points out that she doesn't know when or why the shroud that she delayed finishing up became known as Penelope's web (as if she were a spider), which doesn't please her.  Basically, she isn't all that happy with her lot, but she also doesn't think that drinking from the river Lethe will necessarily lead to any more happiness (particularly as Atwood posits that after dying for a second or third time, the dead remember their past lives).

One of the more intriguing aspects of this novel is that it was actually turned into a stage play in 2007.  I've actually seen it twice - first in Vancouver and then when George Brown put it on in Toronto in 2017.  I passed on seeing Hart House do it, and apparently a theatre in London, Ont. just put it on recently.  It's got pretty good legs for a relatively recent play, though of course it is by Atwood and has many, many roles for women (in fact, it is normally staged with an all-female crew, with the actors doubling as the maids and then all the other roles, male or female).  While I like Enda Walsh's Penelope quite a bit, the focus is on the verbal pyrotechnics of four remaining suitors and Penelope is basically just a silent beacon to them.  If anything she has even less agency (and voice) than she does in the Odyssey itself.  That said, it doesn't appear Walsh's Penelope has ever played Toronto, and I do hope it does one of these days.

It does seem fitting that the cover of the play version of the Penelopiad focuses on the maids, which is the inevitable outcome when the focus is split away from Penelope to the suffering of the maids.  It's not that they don't sing their songs of outrage in the novel, but there is a big difference between reading the words on the page and having 10 or 11 or 12 actors say them in unison!


After comparing the two editions, I would say that Atwood (and the theatre types that helped her whip this into shape) have done an excellent job in distilling the main points.  You still have Penelope's discussion of her troubled childhood and her verbal sparring with Helen.  There are plenty of sly asides.  But the material is considerably tighter.  While it is a shame that a couple of amusing stanzas of The Wily Sea Captain song are cut (it goes from 15 stanzas to 7), it is quite possible that the entire song would have just been a bit too much.  That said, it is a particularly clever piece of writing in the original novel (it's section xiii), managing to squeeze in almost all of the key elements of the Odyssey, even his being rescued by Nausica and her maids on "laundry day."  In the play, the second to last stanza really ought to end in "dodger" or "garage-er" or something.  Instead it ends "'Tis she that does send his heart soaring!," which is a fine sentiment but doesn't rhyme with anything else in the song.

There are two sections of the novel that are dropped completely.  One is a fabricated anthropology lecture on the significance of the number 12 in the original legend (section xxiv), while the other (section xxvi) is a People's Court trial where Odysseus is going to try to get relief from the plaintiffs (the Maids).  While these are both interesting, they do stand out quite a bit from the rest of the novel and are post-modern trappings (which some people enjoy and others loathe).  These two sections can fairly safely be excised for a tighter overall narrative.  All things considered, the play version may be the best way to experience Atwood's Penelopiad, particularly if you can actually see it in performance.


*  Athena had transformed Odysseus into the guise of an old beggar, going so far as to make most of his hair fall out.

** This is a deliberate echo of Jon Sinclair's poem on Thelonious Monk where Monk is accused of falling love with the act (of feigning madness).

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Best Laid Last-Minute Plans

I am scaling back this weekend, somewhat despite myself.  I still have some set plans, including checking out Elektra at the Canadian Opera Company, and then going to see the Impressionist exhibit at the AGO on Sunday (I've already booked my member tickets).  However, I was thinking of checking out the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times after the opera, but the process just looked so cumbersome (you bought a ticket for the evening, not a specific performance, which might or might not be sold out).  Given that I only wanted to see a specific show (and not even all that much), I finally decided to bail on the whole thing.

Sunday, I was leaning towards checking out Antibalas at the Horseshoe Tavern, but the show was sold out.  I'm pretty sure a day or two ago there were still tickets, but I held off for too long.  C'est la vie.

There is a very small chance that I will take the kids to Fort York on Monday for Family Day events, but I'm pretty sure that won't actually happen.

I suppose I really ought to use the "extra" time to straight up a bit, do some reading and maybe finally get back to the long abandoned quilt I was working on.

Actually, even next week something dropped out of the calendar.  I was looking at Tafelmusik's Tale of Two Cities and thinking that would be an interesting concert that mixes music of the East and West.  Something at the back of my mind was triggered, and I went off and looked through my old emails.  Sure enough, I saw this back in 2016!  While it was a very interesting event, I don't really feel the need to see it twice.  Now I am a little surprised (and disappointed) that the library doesn't have the DVD of the concert.  I may eventually order it, but I'm in no particular hurry.  (I would be far more likely to order the DVD and then donate it to the library if I was sure it would remain in the collection, but it almost certainly would just end up in their annual book sale...)

Friday, February 15, 2019

Nova Explosion

Ok, so a bit of click-bait in the title (and the one before for that matter).

I'm in this weird mood where I'm starting to return to the books I read in my very early 20s.  I read a huge amount back then (just a bit under 100 books/year), but, not surprisingly, I don't remember a lot of details of most of the books.  One of my major accomplishments of 1993 was reading through all the novels of Saul Bellow, Graham Green and Barbara Pym.  In the case of Bellow and Green, there are just a small number of novels that I expect to reread, though I will probably reread most of Pym (although it may be a while before I actually get started).

I recall that during that period I read many of Craig Nova's novels and thought they were quite good, though that's about all I can recall.  I probably even owned a fair number of these at one point, but I don't believe I own any Nova any longer.  Unlike the other authors mentioned above, he has written a fair bit since the mid 1990s, so I have a fair bit of virgin territory to cover, as it were.  It actually looks like he has drifted into science fiction a bit (Wetware) and crime novels (Cruisers), whereas I read far more science fiction in my teens and early 20s and hardly do at all any more.

From the list below, I am fairly sure I read Incandescence through Tornado Alley (and maybe Trombone), though I certainly wouldn't swear to it.
  • Turkey Hash (1972)
  • The Geek (1975)
  • Incandescence (1979)
  • The Good Son (1982)
  • The Congressman's Daughter (1986)
  • Tornado Alley (1989)
  • Trombone (1992)
  • The Book of Dreams (1994)
  • The Universal Donor (1997)
  • Wetware (2002)
  • Cruisers (2004)
  • The Informer (2010)
  • The Constant Heart (2012)
  • All The Dead Yale Men (2013)

While I have far too many other things to do to just devote my time to rereading Nova, I might alternate between reading a book I think I've read before and one that is clearly new.  However, I do think I'm going to skip Cruisers as it just doesn't sound remotely appealing to me (not up my Alley, as it were).  Also, the set-up of The Universal Donor sounds so absurd that I think I will also give this a pass.  One of the Goodreads reviewers said it had an unearned happy ending, and from what little I have gleaned, it sounds like it has many of the weaknesses of McEwan's Saturday, which I really didn't care for, regardless of all the hype surrounding it.

I had no idea that Nova lived in North Carolina and taught at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where my father worked.  Had I known, I might have tried to get an autographed copy of one or more of his books.

You're So Wrong

No, not another post about the fake National Emergency to the South...

I was at work listening to a co-worker telling me his tale of woe.  He was moving from one cubical to another on the other side of the office, and he had put all his things together and then they were thrown out.  This sounded pretty terrible, but when I probed it turned out that he had put everything into the blue recycle bin -- and then left it overnight!  He wasn't even sure if he had left it on the floor, or put it on top of his desk.*  He was obviously upset and had lost some things he cared about, but I simply could not commiserate, particularly when he said he was trying to file a report against the staff!  First off, it isn't really the job of the cleaning staff to understand when things are there to be recycled and when they are "obviously" just resting in the blue bin.  He had some elaborate argument that they should have known no one would be recycling perfectly good office supplies, but really what did he think would happen when he left them in the blue bin (for no apparent good reason given that there are other boxes around the office)?  And was he that exhausted that he couldn't just make the move that evening, given it wasn't even a partly large or heavy bin?  This seems like a clear case of not really thinking things through and then trying to blame others for one's poor decisions.

I'm actually glad I won't have to be around him for a while, since he kept trying to get me on side, and finally I said to his face that he was in the wrong.  Pretty uncomfortable...

* One thing about this episode that I regret is that I didn't see his stuff in the blue bin (I suppose he did this after I left work), since I would either have moved it myself or put it into a cardboard box, as I would have known his approach was going to lead to disaster.  Oh well.  It can't be helped now.

False Hope?

Today the sun came out for a bit and some ice broke up.  However, for the most part the sidewalks, at least in Riverdale, were still very icy.  In some places the ice is still over an inch thick, and one day of thawing won't do much at all.  I think tomorrow will hover around freezing, and then Sun-Wed. the temperature drops quite a bit.  I suspect we won't actually manage to get these sidewalks cleared in time for them to freeze all over again.  Basically, it really does look like we have another week to go before we see any improvement on the weather front.

So disappointing.

Edit: Indeed coming home was even a bit worse than I feared, and I confronted a long stretch of sidewalk that was nothing but ice and came fairly close to wiping out.  It may dry off slightly over the next week, but there's nothing that suggests it will melt.  I am just so sick of this.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Wrapping Up Greeks and Romans

I'm finding that I am really tired of reading Greeks and Romans.  It definitely did not help that I read two translations* back to back (including for the Aeneid).  While the story will probably stick in my mind a bit better (the second time around the meaning was often a bit clearer), there were parts of these epics that I just did not enjoy (particularly the funeral feast games in both the Iliad and the Aeneid) and they really dragged the second time.**

Interestingly, I had someone comment to me, on the subway last night, that the Aeneid was his favourite of the bunch, so we spoke very briefly about it.  Honestly, the Aeneid (while the shortest of the three due to Virgil's untimely death) is not very inspiring to me.  In many ways, the Aeneid strikes me as a kind of fan fiction, taking significant elements of the Odyssey and the Iliad, but recasting them so that Romans could see themselves linked to the Trojans -- though why they would want to be connected to the losing side is a bit beyond me.  Humphries's footnotes are much better than the postscript in the Fitzgerald version in actually making these connections, so it is clear which Roman emperor Virgil is sucking up to.  I was pretty astounded that Virgil draws on reincarnation, which I didn't realize was at all part of Greco-Roman thought (it seems to be very much a minority preoccupation) to say that quite a few of the Trojan heroes became famous Romans!

While I realize we wouldn't have Dante's Divine Comedy without Virgil, even though the best bits about torments in the Underworld are already in the Odyssey, I much prefer Dante's roasting of the many figures who had fallen short (in his estimation) to Virgil's sucking up to Caesar Augustus.  (I suppose to be fair, Dante does end up putting his patrons into Paradise, but the Paradiso is so much less memorable than the Inferno that it hardly counts...)

I'm still glad that I finally did get around to reading it, even though the odds of me rereading the Aeneid are very, very slim.  I'm going to go ahead and read (and review) Atwood's take on Telemachus and the maids in The Penelopiad, though this is one I can read quite quickly, as I've already seen the stage version twice.  But it would be good to read it while the source material is so fresh in my head.  Then I'm going to switch to something completely different, probably a short novel or two and then Musil's The Man Without Qualities, since if I don't read this while I am still mostly commuting by transit, I will struggle to find the time to read it at all, given it is so long and dense.  I may then switch back to Humphries's translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis, but I'll probably hold off on the rest from the list, like Horace, Juvenal and Lucretius.  I'm more likely to tackle Montaigne and/or reread Dante, though I'll get back to the ancient authors eventually.

* While there are certainly nice phrases here and there in Fitzgerald, he always came in second to either Lattimore or Humphries.  I honestly wasn't that impressed with Fagles after the first few pages, so didn't bother digging into him the same way.

** I just hit the part of the Aeneid where Virgil spends several pages describing the shield of Aeneas, custom-built for him by Vulcan.  Boring!  If possible even more boring than the description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, since it is so derivative.  I'm getting more and more tempted to bail, since the war scenes in the Iliad were pretty intolerable for me, and that is pretty much all that is left in the Aeneid from here on out (we never do get around to the death of Aeneas, which might have been marginally interesting).