Saturday, June 30, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 23rd post

So I thought I would close out this year's challenge with an update on the Brick Books poetry books I won back in April (thanks again!).

I have read all of them now. Alien, Correspondent by Antony Di Nardo is largely set in Beirut, Lebanon.  It had some interesting moments, but wasn't quite to my taste.  I passed it on to a co-worker who is originally from Lebanon.

I reviewed Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O'Meara just a few posts ago (book challenge post #19).  I really liked one poem "Night Train" and thought a few others were interesting, but ultimately decided I could pass this book on to another co-worker.

This is also the fate of Spirit Engine by John Donlan, which I will review just a bit later in this post.

The real sleeper for me was Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair.  I was kind of skimming through the poems, and thinking that I was picking up some echoes of Mary Oliver (though not as overtly religious).  The best way I can describe it is that the poet is imagining some kind of unspeakable force (which I conceive as a kind of luminosity) that they try to describe in order to get a picture to emerge behind and between the words.  But words are fairly limited and this is itself part of the frustration.  I should point out that this set up is more reflective of Oliver than Sinclair, but as I said, I was picking up some echoes, but with the substitution of time (and esp. the passage of time), clocks and dreams as things that are hard to capture and put into words. About halfway through, I realized that I was starting to really get into the book at a deeper level (certainly more than Oliver's work normally resonates with me, though I think she can be a very good poet).  Then Sinclair threw in a pretty good poem about the Toronto streetcar and a quite funny poem about taxis, and I was hooked (my real world job is transportation planning).  So I'll hold onto Mortal Arguments and add it to the groaning shelves.  I think I should go ahead and let the poems sink in and then reread the book and review it later for the next challenge (along with Headhunter and The Engineer of Human Souls).

On to the real review of Spirit Engine, which is John Donlan's most recent poetry collection. I found this a prime example of how totally extraneous things can influence readers.  The back cover blurbs don't do Donlan any favours.  One of the reviewers comes uncomfortably close to saying he is the best poet (or best metaphysical poet) since John Donne.  Donlan's poems are nothing like Donne's, and I don't even understand the comparison, and it took me a while to get past that.  There is also this bit in Donlan's bio where it says he works half the year as a reference librarian at the Vancouver Public Library (and who knows I might even have encountered him) and takes half the year off for his writing.  Now I am generally in favour of flexible scheduling, and indeed have gone to 80% a few times in my career.  But it is very hard for me to understand how he could have found someone who wanted to do a 50% time share (6 months on and 6 months off).  Of course there might be other arrangements...  As I said, this doesn't have anything to do with the book, but I found it awfully distracting and probably publishing this info was a disservice to the poems themselves (given how judgmental, not to say jealous, readers are today, particularly if those readers are also poets and particularly if they are failed poets...).
I guess I'd say there were two or three poems I thought were quite good all the way through and several more where I liked a stanza or some of the thoughts/imagery/wordplay.

My favourites were towards the end of the book -- "Galactic Dynamics" and "Garter Lake Gazette."

"Garter Lake Gazette" jumps from the subatomic level to the more prosaic:
"Now we've found how fast electrons
hop from atom to atom -- something, quintillionths ...
In our '86 Olds
we amble the rocky lane, frog juggernaut,

soaring any road like bird or angel."

Donlan then goes into a tangent about how the "car life" can't last (or "survive") as the price of gas goes into the stratosphere, which then segues into a description of a sudden rainstorm and then he cycles back to thinking of the far future and what the weather might be like after global warming.  (At least I thought that was where he was going with this poem.)

"Galactic Dynamics" has some of the same underlying dynamics (at least I think so), but the poet calls on our future selves to be slightly more accepting or sanguine about the weather than in "Garter Lake Gazette":

"So long as inertia's great flywheel holds all in place
why complain about the weather?  Let it teach us
to vary, repeat ourselves, defy prediction.
At least we're here.  'Cheer,' calls the red-winged blackbird."

The wordplay in both poems in the middle stanzas is enjoyable, though I'd have to reprint whole poems for it to really come across.

"Nostalgia" is probably my next favourite poem (and might have some metaphysical aspects, but it is hardly Donne-like):
"All the old signs are gone, their flaking paint --
everything's new now."

The poet returns to his youth:
"We used to spend the whole day doing nothing
We'd poke around under the bridge
before anyone was up."

He recalls with some regret how he didn't try to talk to an older man walking with two Huskies (couldn't talk to strangers even then, of course).  As the poem closes, he starts bringing himself back to the present:
"That must have been fifty years ago.
The old man is dead,
and the dogs are dead."

Other bits and pieces that struck me:

I liked the first stanza of "Solstice Song":
"You can sing about the rain
but it won't do a damn bit of good.
You might as well talk to the wall.
You might as well talk to the cat"

I liked the shout-out to the SkyTrain Millenium Line in "Scavenger."  Quite possibly the only time that the SkyTrain has made its way into a poem, even if it isn't the most positive depiction.

I liked the opening of "Fountain," which was clearly inspired by Rilke:
"How can you change your life? Like a wavering fountain's
column, it is continuously refreshed
from a reservoir deeper than sleep..."

I also liked that he did acknowledge the debt to Rilke at the comments on the poems at the end, and of course that I had spotted this without being told...

There is definitely some good stuff going on in these poems, which overcame my initial resistance to them.  It does appear that I can check out all 3 of his previous poetry books from the Vancouver Public Library, so I'll give them a try a bit later.

This is review 25 and my final review for the 5th Canadian book challenge!

Canadian book challenge - 22nd post

The Free World by David Bezmozgis will close out the backlog of reviews for this Challenge.  This is an interesting novel.  It looks at an extended family of Russian Jews from the Soviet era when they gained the right to leave the U.S.S.R. (I believe this places the novel squarely in the mid to late 1970s).  In many cases, the emigres first traveled to Europe to wait for processing and to see which country would "adopt" them.  For many, the choice was easy: Israel was by far the most welcoming and had the lowest entry requirements.  Indeed, Israel went out of its way to attract these Soviet Jews.  The U.S. and Australia were fairly attractive options but also could be tricky to get into, even with distant relatives willing to sponsor the quasi-refuges.  Canada was sort of considered a second-best alternative, but it had slightly lower entrance barriers.  As it happens, Bezmozgis' family did settle in Canada.  While this novel is probably not drawn directly from his actual family and their experiences, their journey clearly inspired this book.  As an another aside, I know a family of Soviet Jews that first settled in Israel but eventually made their way to the U.S.  I suspect because they were willing to settle in Israel, their passage was expedited, and they may not have had to wait in Europe at all.

In any case, the novel is set entirely in Rome where this family (two brothers, their wives, some children and then their elderly parents) are waiting for passage to the US.  The mother has a cousin of sorts in Chicago and they are hoping that will be sufficient.  This was a time when the "Free World" was deliberately tweaking the nose of the U.S.S.R. and would accept almost all refugees from there.  However, there were still some hurdles, particularly for cases like the father, who had significant health issues and, furthermore, did not want to mouth the expected platitudes about how terrible life was under the Soviet regime, particularly as a Jew.  As it turns out, the father was a decorated Soviet war hero.  While he wasn't exactly ecstatic about living in the U.S.S.R., he would not have left, except that he realized how terrible his life would have been after his family left and he was suddenly tagged as a Jew (and his hero status would more or less be revoked).

As one might imagine, there is quite a bit of tension between the father and the two sons, as well as between the two sons (one is a bit of a dreamer and the other is much more driven).  Further complicating the picture is that the dreamer son's wife actually isn't Jewish at all but divorced her Russian husband and then married her current husband.  So she's kind of a double outsider.  Still, she seems marginally happier about her lot than most of the other characters.  The dreamer, who speaks a tiny bit of English, is given a job as a translator for other Soviet Jews arriving after him.  The more driven brother starts getting into somewhat shady deals that generally involve Jews that used to belong to the equivalent of the Russian Mob.  (These other characters have been identified as a problem and neither the U.S. nor Canada wants anything to do with them.) There is an interesting subplot of another Soviet Jew who did go to Israel, but found in its own way (military conscription) Israel felt too much like the U.S.S.R., and he was visiting Rome on a visa about to expire, trying to convince the Americans to take him, but not having much luck.

One of the crisis points arises when the family's cousin calls up and says that she had to sponsor another family, and presumably they would have to wait another year in Rome.  At this point (after the recriminations), they turn their attention to Canada.  But additional snags come up, as one might imagine.  I think I'll leave the plot there for those that do want to read the novel.

Overall, I thought Bezmozgis did a good job in showing these people out of their element in Rome and their very different takes on the situation, as well as their recollections on their past in the U.S.S.R.  While I didn't care for the crusty father (Samuel?) as a person, in the sense that I wouldn't want to interact with him, he was a very memorable character.  I thought I detected a few flashes of Lear here and there (the deposed king dealing with his difficult offspring), but perhaps it is just because I have had Lear on my mind a lot this past year.  He does get one scene towards the end of the book where he watches his grandchildren playing on the beach where he more or less is reconciled to this new path.  While it wasn't their first choice, it is interesting how Canada becomes a big part of their dreams of reaching the "Free World."  Anyway, Happy Canada Day!

Edit (3/25/2017): I don't know if the Jew in Rome who doesn't want to return to Israel is based on a real person that Bezmozgis or someone in his family met while in Rome, but there are some interesting parallels to Shimon Susskind, a character in Bernard Malamud's "The Last Mohican."  Incidentally, this story ends up both in The Magic Barrel and Pictures of Fidelman.  It's nice to imagine it is a bit of a homage to Malamud, though perhaps an accidental one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 21st post

For something completely different, I reviewed a children's book: Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess.  I'm not going to worry too much about spoiling the ending here...

My daughter (5 -- and a half, she adds) liked it the first time around, but not the second time.  I guess because she was somewhat scared of the dragon, even though she knew the dragon would get its comeuppance.  I thought it was a relatively clever inversion of the traditional princess/dragon story.  It was pretty clear that Prince Ronald was indeed a jerk (even from the first illustration) and indeed he is not at all thankful that he was rescued.  Some parents have problems with the princess calling him a bum at the end.  I didn't get too hung up on that.  I did explain to my daughter that it was really too bad that the prince wasn't grateful, etc.  On the whole, I didn't mind the message that fairy tale romances only work if both partners work at it and some princes simply aren't worth marrying.  (In contrast, I loathe Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants where the anti-marriage princess is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work from the first page.)   I was, however, taken a bit aback by the picture of the naked princess with her clothes burned off before she found the paper bag to wear.  That probably could have been handled a bit differently...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reflections on Vancouver

So I've been here close to a year.  The family is packing it up for the summer, and I'll go get them towards the end of August and bring them back.  There are quite a number of things I like about Vancouver, and yet I am not sure this is really the place for me.  I'm noticing that now that summer is finally around the corner, I seem particularly susceptible to the pollens here (whereas they barely bother me in Chicago).  I think I really am not cut out to be this close to nature and truly do miss being in highly, highly urban environments.  There are parts of Vancouver that quality (Yaletown, much of Broadway and even some of Kits) but relatively speaking it is a much lower proportion than New York, Chicago or even Toronto.  I would probably really like it if I could live in one of those neighborhoods, but I just can't with 2 kids.  I generally like the odd ethnic mix in Vancouver, though it can be a bit overwhelming/exhausting.  One would imagine that as Asia becomes more and more important, Vancouver's international stature might improve, but that seems like a long ways off.  Toronto is still the place to be if one is in Canada and loves cities.

It is somewhat interesting that the relatively few fictional depictions of Vancouver are from an earlier period when Vancouver was emerging a bit from its fishing village roots and becoming more of an artists' haven (slight hints of this in Atwood's Cat's Eye and maybe one or two of Carol Shields' stories, though hers are from a slightly later transitional period).  There may be some interesting works from the period when Vancouver collectively turned down the highway plan (I'm thinking of Birney's The Damnation of Vancouver).  This was sort of the height of its hippy days.  But there is not much (that I've read) to document the impact of the massive shift caused by Asian in-migration (and the heating up of the property market!) as the residents of Hong Kong started making back-up plans.  It's fascinating for me to be in a Canadian city that is under 50% Caucasian (about 47% white in 2006 and dropping, whereas Toronto is 53% white, which is itself pretty astonishing if one looks back to the 1980s when Toronto was around 85% white).  If Kroetsch's Puppeteer had actually spent more time in the city, he might have picked up a bit on this.  Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, on the other hand, is set in the era of Vancouver's post-demographic shift that interests me but is too concerned with shallow trends and surfaces.  I suppose the essays in Compton's After Canaan and the stories in Booker's Adventures in Debt Collection are the best I've found yet to sort of tackle the subject.  I don't necessarily want to see a Vancouver-based Crash, but a novel that traced a "native-born" Canadian (not a First Peoples though) who moved to Vancouver slightly after its hippy heydays and now is struggling to deal with the way the city has changed.  Maybe it does exist. (I wonder if I had somehow come out to Vancouver right after I graduated from UToronto, if I would have been able to secure a small piece of property in Vancouver proper before the real estate boom really hit.)

At any rate, Vancouver still might be the better place to raise kids (than say Chicago or Toronto) but in terms of finding a place to retire, I suspect it will be Toronto (assuming the US and Chicago specifically goes down the tubes the way it has been doing -- my Dad has always been a bit of an optimist but he sounded so defeated the other day talking about how bad US higher education has become).  Of course, that kind of defeats the purpose (being old and dealing with cold Toronto winters) but I just really fit in better in places where culture is valued above nature and outdoor activities (and while we will probably have a comfortable "retirement," a place in Toronto and a winter home in Vancouver is probably out of the question).  I found it so odd and a bit depressing that with just a bit of rain, people kind of retreat and don't go out to the culture (and then when it is nice, they are all heading for the mountains).  Theatre attendance is dismal, despite the positive spin that some producers put on the situation.  This is in direct contrast to Chicago or Toronto where even blizzards rarely keep people from concerts and theatre shows and such.  Certainly I am probably twice as likely as my wife to do any outdoor things; she is really more of an indoors person...  So it is not working out that well for her, but I am not really sure what a better alternative is at the moment.  I imagine she is torn between being tired of moving and just wanted to settle down forever and not being at all sold on Vancouver... Probably in a couple of years we could relocate to Toronto after getting all the Canadian paperwork done (and now that I have made a bunch of contacts through my current job), and she'd like that more, but it still wouldn't be Chicago...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 20th post

Actually starting to think ahead to July 2 and what will be left on my plate.  I have one unfinished review to write (The Free World).  Probably will not be able to get through Headhunter in the next week.  That may be the first review of the next challenge.  And definitely not The Engineer of Human Souls, since I haven't even started it.  That might be one to plan to take along on a plane trip to Toronto (scheduled for Sept.).  I've read part of Yann Martel's early story collection, but will probably wrap that up next challenge as well.

I have only a few stories left in Carol Shields' The Orange Fish, and I did finish her earlier collection Various Miracles.  So I will begin a double review and then return to close out this entry when I have conquered The Orange Fish.  For some reason I thought The Orange Fish was published first, which was giving me minor fits since two of the stories share a character (the comic writer Meershank) and it seemed so unusual to write stories of this type out of chronological order.  In particular, why this character would need a prequel.  It certainly makes more sense now that the order has been restored with "Flitting Behaviour" first and "Block Out" second.  Somewhat unhappily, I thought "Flitting Behaviour" was one of the better stories from Various Miracles, but I am not particularly taken by "Block Out."  It's hard to put the finger on where the second story isn't as interesting, but most likely it is because of the disconnect between a comic writer having to deal with heavy, heavy stuff (death of a wife) in the first one (which is sort of interesting) and then dealing with writer's block in the second story, which doesn't have quite the same frisson, esp. when he overcomes it offstage as it were and then writes a new novel in record time.

I have to say that Shields' short stories just are not doing that much for me.  They seem to fall into two modes -- stories that focus on overlooked people, particularly older women ("Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass" and "Hazel") and stories with a magic realism slant ("Words," "Various Miracles," "Invitations," and "The Orange Fish").  The problem is that in these short stories she can't be (or doesn't feel she can be) as subtle as in a novel, like The Stone Diaries, and so is a bit more direct about how we should think/feel about these overlooked, older women and she comes across as a poor (wo)man's Margaret Atwood.  And I don't think the magic realist stories work well at all.  I was particularly annoyed by "Words," which has a sort of clever conceit -- let's take something we all have to do everyday (talk) and make that responsible for global warming in place of the other things we do everyday to keep our society functioning (and that is also killing us).  But I just found it annoying.

Fortunately, there are occasional stories in a third mode, where she looks at the workings of a couple (usually a couple that have been together a long time) and observes them at a crisis point relatively late in their lives.  These seem to work the best -- "Fragility," "Others," and to a lesser extent "Milk Bread Beer Ice"* fit in this category.  Still, for me, Shields' short stories have a hit rate of around 15% of stories that I find interesting and/or worthy out of all the stories she's written (that I've read).  Pretty low, all things concerned.  Munro is probably closer to 75%, though it has been a while since I've read her (next year perhaps).  Simply haven't read enough Mavis Gallant to judge. Of course, in that last poetry collection I reviewed (Noble Gas, Penny Black), I only was completely captivated by a single poem out of the entire bunch and it still was worth reading just for that one.

These are reviews 21 and 22 of the current challenge.  It also closes out my read/review a book by Carol Shields in June challenge.  I thought I was going to read Unless, but couldn't find my copy.  Something to keep in mind for next June...

* While the story is on a different topic, I thought that Milk Bread Beer Ice with a few tweaks might make a good list of things that unify Canadians.  Perhaps add Coffee and Cigs and then substitute Donuts (or more specifically Tim Horton's Timbits) for Bread and you'd have it.  I haven't done much at all with my broken sestinas over the past year, but this would make a good list, esp when I reach the year that I lived in Toronto.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 19th post

So I have finally gotten around to reviewing one of the four poetry books published by Brick Books I won in the challenge.  I think David O'Meara's Noble Gas, Penny Black had the most gripping cover (a florescent light ring on a greenish background), which is probably why I started with it.  There may also be the greatest disconnect between title and contents of any of the volumes.  I think if people gave the title much thought, they would probably be expecting poems that are focused on the past.  There is indeed a poem about going to a postal museum in Prague (to see the Penny Black stamp) but even here, the poem is far more concerned with the present, as are the vast majority of poems in this collection.  Off the top of my head, I can't recall which poem had anything to do with gas, but I may go and look again before I pass the book along to another poetry lover.

In many cases, people struggle to find a way into poetry collections, so they may look for meaning  anywhere.  It caught my attention that O'Meara was a bartender in Ottawa, and I immediately put together a mental image of an overly literate bar tender (with a useless English lit. degree?) writing away in the afternoon after waking up late from another night shift at the bar.  Fair or not, I did pick up a few times where O'Meara was using five and ten dollar words: diurnal, decolletage, mouldering, shuffled conjointly, antiphlogistine, effulgent and unguinous.  For me, this indicates he really is aiming for a very specific, narrow meaning in these poems and isn't all that concerned about leaving readers behind.  That is obviously his right, but it does indicate a certain type of poet.  Only the first poem "The Next Day" seems to draw directly on bar life, but several others do seem informed by a life in the service industry ("Station" and "Cafe in Bodrum").  The last section of poems are drawn from his vacations, mostly to Japan.  While it certainly varies, I tend to be about as excited by vacation poems as by vacation snapshots (though I prefer either of these to poems about dreams, which is not the same as dream-like poems, which can be very good indeed).

Just to prove there are always exceptions, my favorite poem in the collection is "Night Train," which is a poem about his experiences traveling in Asia.  In this case, however, the focus is not so much on "I did this, I saw that," but about the possibilities of communication across cultures as well the remaining limitations.

Quoting extensively here:
With the parents and their child, we were five
in the sleeping car, the scoured steel rails
shunting us further into Asia.
"How old?" I could only try in English
and mimed the years with spreading fingers.
He flashed a loving victory sign.

And then it was night.  We rattled
towards November.  In blue uniform and cap,
a dusty porter haunted the passageway ...

"Papa, are we home?" "We're almost there,"
I heard him say, or maybe
"Not yet, not yet, but soon."

To be honest, I just wasn't that grabbed by this collection, though the 5 poems in "The Old Story" tracing a failed relationship have their charm (being so self-aware of how little new there is to say about relationships).  However, "Night Train" strikes me as a truly great poem where O'Meara really elevated his game.  Probably not coincidentally, he keeps it simple and doesn't go looking for opportunities to use fancy words to show off how much he knows.  The poem takes you on that train through Asia and shares this special moment between O'Meara and the father (and son).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 17th post

I made a long trip from Vancouver to Austin, TX this past weekend (June 1-3), so I had a lot of time on the plane. I had just started rereading Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, and I wrapped that up on the way back (with a little time to start Carol Shields' story collection Various Miracles). I still enjoyed Cat's Eye, though it didn't grip me quite as much the last time around. Is that because I am a bit less interested in feminist takes on literature? Is it because I am marginally less interested in the lives of artists? I definitely did focus on different aspects of the novel this time around. Cat's Eye is basically about an artist (now located in Vancouver) thinking over her past growing up in Toronto and the traumas of childhood that helped shape her art. You almost get an exposition of all her major pieces. Many, though not all of the editions of this book, have a representation of what one of the pieces ("Unified Field Theory") probably looked like. (You almost wonder if Atwood should have gone that extra step and gotten someone to create all the art works she described, or if that would have robbed people from imagining them in their own minds.) Somewhat curiously, her relations with her parents and brother were very solid, but she was tormented by a small group of "friends." It goes into other aspects of her life as well, and might fairly be called a feminist take on the bildungsroman tradition. Perhaps my favorite part of the novel is how she describes the outskirts of Toronto getting more developed. Even I experienced this in my little hometown where the open field we crossed to get to school turned into a whole bunch of houses the last time I was back. There was a "huge" woods behind the school where we would explore for hours. I assume much of that is also developed. I also can't imagine my wife letting the kids wander around for hours on their own, even in relatively safe Vancouver.

I also happened to finally dig up the term paper I wrote on Cat's Eye for a Canadian lit. class.  It's definitely on the long side (20 pages).  If anyone is interested, I believe it can be accessed here: Cats_Eye.pdf

In general, I would still agree with most of the assessments in the paper, though I am sorry that I wasn't more specific up front about Stephen's relation to the main character, Elaine.  He is her older brother.  I noted one thing that I liked about the novel, that while it is written from first-person perspective, the interpretation of events shifts and the past gets cloudy (so this isn't an omniscient narrator by any means).  The time period shifts regularly, so we are back in the outskirts of Toronto in the 1940s, for instance, and not merely in the present with Elaine casting her mind back to 1940.  I thought this was particularly useful in watching her relationship with Cordelia unfold.  I was struck, then and particularly now, that while much of Elaine's life actually took place in Vancouver, all her mental energy (and 97% of the book's pages) are concentrated on Toronto.

I think this time around I was a bit more attuned to Elaine and her relationships, whereas the first go-around I was concentrating a bit more heavily on Toronto as a setting (and a setting that changed over time as the city continued to develop and it became much less rural on the outskirts).  I'm not really sure how much more I can add at the moment, particularly since I don't want to repeat what I wrote in the term paper.  Anyway, I was glad to reread the book, and I have moved on to Findley's Headhunter (for a totally different take on Toronto).

Actually, I have returned to add a few more comments.  Enough time has passed since the last time I read this book (dangerously close to 20 years ago) that I had forgotten a few key plot points.  Much of it came back to me relatively quickly, and I sometimes found myself anticipating events.  However, I had kind of repressed a bit about Stephen (perhaps because I identified with him more at that time), and it suddenly dawned on me where Atwood was going, and I was kind of unhappy all over again.  I wonder if I do reread the book a third time if I would succeed in forgetting again.  Anyway, it is interesting that the painting that generally graces the cover of the book itself links everything together -- the event depicted in the painting is one of the turning points of Elaine's young life (when she came close to dying in the frozen creek near her house) and the title "Unified Field Theory" is a bit of a nod in the direction of her brother's profession (physics).  While the parallel isn't exact, much of the book is prismatic and sort of reflects the vantage point of someone who could step outside time and see a person's entire life.  This is supposedly the vantage point of Dr. Manhattan (the naked blue guy in the Watchmen comic).  I think the one area Atwood is being just a bit too pat is how you see the early life experiences and how they are directly feeding into Elaine's later paintings (even if, in some cases, she no longer can recall the linkage).  Maybe if we did see the paintings it would be more apparent how these experience were translated and transmuted the way a creative person would go about it.  It's not a major criticism, but I would have thought she could have been a bit more subtle here.
Cat''s Eye

Canadian book challenge - 18th post

I thought I would do something different - review a Canadian play. As it happens, Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex has been published as a stand-alone play, and it is staged occasionally (though certainly not frequently).  I believe in North America, it premiered at Stratford, ONT and its first US production was Ann Arbor at Performance Network (I actually saw a number of shows there during my undergrad days -- glad to see they are keeping up the good fight).  Then it played the Twin Cities,  NYC, DC and just recently Chicago. As far as I can tell, it didn't actually play Toronto, but I might be mistaken. It did have a 3 week run in Montreal.  As a side note, I am glad that Findley managed to live to see the play open at Stratford as well as win the 2000 Governor General's Award for English language drama (thank you, Wikipedia)

Edit: Elizabeth Rex is going to be featured at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver this summer (2013).  I probably will not go (since nothing could top the production I saw in Chicago), but will encourage others to do so.

I did go quite a bit out of my way to catch the Chicago production while visiting Chicago over the Xmas holidays (third row seats no less).  Diane D’Aquila,who originated the role of Queen Elizabeth at Stratford, reprised her role.  She was terrific, as was the entire cast.  It is quite interesting that there are some significant changes to the stage version from the published version.  A second lady-in-waiting role was eliminated and the Queen interacts a bit less directly with the bear in the staged version.  The revisions aren't earth-shattering, but seem to make sense.  However, it isn't clear to me when Findley would have made them (I certainly assume that these were authorized changes...).  This review will draw on both the stage and published version where appropriate.

The basic conceit is that Shakespeare and his troupe have put on Much Ado About Nothing in a command performance for Queen Elizabeth, but most of them have gotten caught up in a curfew (to prevent any popular uprisings against the queen on the eve of the execution of the Earl of Essex).  They end up spending the night in the Queen's stables.  It quickly emerges that one of the lead actors (Ned) is dying of the pox (syphilis), which he caught from a soldier who went off and died fighting the Irish.  (The pox=AIDS meme is established but not driven into the ground.  Still some of the subtexts remind me of queer theatre of the late 1980s or early 1990s; not necessarily a bad thing, just I wasn't expecting it.)

The Queen -- still troubled by the need to execute Essex -- visits the actors. (In this play the working assumption is that Essex was once her lover -- and that everyone knows this.)  After their initial deference wears off, there is a long night of truth-telling.  To be sure, it is hard to believe the actors would ever let themselves go to the extent portrayed here, but then there wouldn't be much of a play, so some suspension of belief is required for sure.  The basic bargain struck is that Ned, who plays all the female lead roles, will help Elizabeth mourn Essex as a true woman should, while Elizabeth will help Ned man up and face his death with some dignity.

An interesting side plot is that Shakespeare is unwilling to complete Anthony and Cleopatra while Elizabeth is still ruler, as it seems too transparently about her.  Findley also adds in the true historical fact that Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, was also due to be executed also with Essex.  Shakespeare had clear ties with Southampton, and many scholars contend that Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets with Southampton in mind (though whether they were truly lovers is in much dispute).  Findley has Shakespeare plead with Elizabeth to spare him, though he will not grovel to save Southampton.  For the most part, Shakespeare is a relatively minor character with a few good lines, while the real focus is on the interactions of Elizabeth and Ned.

Elizabeth Rex is certainly not a perfect play, but it is clever and a committed piece of theatre.  It never comes across as a third-rate attempt to imitate Shakespeare, though the attempt to wrap things up neatly wasn't completely convincing (to be fair, this is frequently a problem in Shakespeare's plays as well). Overall, it did help that Diane D’Aquila really sold the role, particularly in the waning hours before Essex's execution when she begins to have second thoughts.  It probably does play a bit better on stage than on page, though I saw the play and read it so closely together that they are now mutually reinforcing in my mind.