Monday, December 30, 2013

Shakespeare and me, part I

I suspect this entry will have to be broken into several parts, as there is so much that could be said on the topic of Shakespeare, though certainly less (or at least less of general interest) in terms of my responses and reactions to Shakespeare.

The first thing that may possibly be of some interest is that I am related to Shakespeare, though not as a direct descendant.  One of my ancestors had two sisters that were Shakespeare's grandmothers (Abigail and Mary Webb -- you can look it up if not convinced).  I think that makes us second cousins, removed 15 times or so.  So not really that close, but not nothing either.  It does make me that much more defensive when I encounter those people who claim Shakespeare simply couldn't have been Shakespeare for any number of reasons.  Few of the arguments hold up, though I do suppose it is strange that he sort of vanishes from view after leaving London and then doesn't make any reference to his plays (or other books) in his will.  Though given there was nothing remotely like today's copyright scheme, and they may simply not been seen as valuable at all to anyone not in a theatre company.  At any rate they may well have been thought of as work-for-hire and not part of his estate.

What is absolutely true (if one can stomach looking through the various blogs) is that people (particularly English academics) have this deep-seated need to argue that a commoner like Shakespeare simply could not have understood all the intricacies of power and court traditions that are in his histories.  To which I call bull.  First off, most of the insights are not really that earth-shattering.

Second, he gets some details wrong (and don't get me started about how weak his Italian geography is).  I mean some of these people make outrageous claims that the author of the plays was an genius without parallel: a first-rate scientist and lawyer and could read 5 languages or whatever.  Again, I say piffle.  If such a god-like personage existed in Elizabethan times, then he should have spent his time on important matters, not skulking around and passing his work off as written by a commoner.*  Frankly, a writer with a good imagination who did a bit of research could have done this.  Indeed you often see the seams showing in Shakespeare's plays. (How accurate was the sleeping potion in Romeo and Juliet, for instance?)

And third, actors were around the Elizabethan court all the time, picking up gossip and so forth.  In the era before mass celebrities, who else was talked about all the time?  Of course these people close to the court knew the ins and outs of it, and who really ought to have married whom.  It truly is as absurd to say that Coppola or Scorsese must actually have been in the mafia, for otherwise how could they have gotten so much right...

I think where I do depart from the crowd is in the absolute hero-worship that Shakespeare inspires.  I just don't think it is healthy for one writer to so grossly squeeze out all other playwrights.  To say nothing of the fact that legitimate criticism of the plays is really discouraged in high school or college for that matter.  There are a few plays with absolutely terrible plot twists and contrivances, and to sweep this under the carpet doesn't really seem to do contemporary readers any favors.  I'll surely touch on at least a few of these.

Well, this post has already gone on for far too long and has risked becoming "controversial."  The next post will have some comments on which of the plays I have seen and anything particularly memorable about the staging(s).  Down the line I will have a post where I actually comment on the plays themselves (including a few that I consider so weak that I won't watch them or watch them again).

* I think the number one reason to ridicule the deVere crowd or the Bacon boosters (aside from the fact that Ben Jonson and others said Shakespeare was a writer -- and that Queen Elizabeth herself essentially ordered him to write Merry Wives of Windsor) is that these nobles would have had no understanding of how the theatre companies worked.  If they find traces of secret knowledge of the aristocracy in the Histories (and thus the writer must have been a nobleman), then how do they explain away the much, much more obvious intimate relationship with the theatre world?  Many plots involve some kind of meta-theatricality, i.e. putting on a play within a play or focusing on some kind of staging of pageantry.  In addition, we have figures like Prospero or even the Duke in Measure for Measure who order people around just like the director/troup leader would (not that we should imagine they had such specialization or such a clear distinction between roles in those days).  Following this same line of argument suggests that the writer of the plays must have been intimately involved in the theatre, and not merely a patron.  And whatever else we do or don't know, it is incontrovertible that Shakespeare was an actor with The Lord Chamberlain's Men.

But it is truly absurd to imagine that when Richard Burbage or William Kempe asked for a rewrite (and knowing actors a bit myself, I can guarantee that they would have), the request was relayed through Shakespeare to this unknown noble who was the true author and then any changes would have been funneled back to the company through Shakespeare.  This view betrays a total ignorance of how theatre companies would have operated and moreover makes the number of conspirators that much larger.  Not one of his contemporaries would have groused about how impossible it was to work this way?  It just seems such a convoluted way of answering the question: who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

Occam's Razor says: Shakespeare.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

City of Glass

So it is time for a bit of Google-style disambiguation.

City of Glass may refer to the first (and arguably most successful) books in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy.  Despite it being grounded in well-worn (even worn out) postmodern tropes, I liked this trilogy quite a bit.  While it seems to have been done before, I was drawn to the concept of the man wandering through the city, with his path tracing out letters spelling out some message, whether to God or to a potential unknown observer (at least I believe it happens in the first book of the trilogy but don't have time to check).  There are a few reversals with the author and the main character bleeding together by the last book in the trilogy (again pretty standard pomo stuff).  Not sure I've enjoyed anything Auster has written since nearly as much.  I don't quite know what happened, and whether the fault lies with Auster or myself or both.

(I may have been vaguely aware that City of Glass had been turned into a graphic novel, but I'd never read it.  As it turns out the library has a copy, so I think I'll check this out.)

City of Glass is the 3rd novel in Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments (a series for young adults).

City of Glass may refer to a CD recorded by the band leader Stan Kenton comprised entirely of modernist charts by Bob Graettinger.  I really do admire Kenton for going ahead and recording this, but even after repeated listens, it just never fully grabbed me.  It's one of those problematic records that doesn't swing (as most jazz should) and it isn't quite serious enough to be a classical piece.  It certainly isn't something I have on regular rotation, that's for sure.  I do love the cover(s), however.

Original 10" issue

The CD reissue
(I came thisclose to picking up the LP on eBay just for the cover, but decided that was just ridiculous.)

While many cities can claim to be a city of glass, the strongest contemporary claim seems to go to Vancouver, which has taken it as a bit of a nickname.  Douglas Coupland actually wrote a book on Vancouver with that title, perhaps hoping to cement its grasp on the name.  I will get around to a short review of said book at the end of this post.

Finally, there is a Vancouver-based independent band that goes by the name of City of Glass.  At the moment, they have an EP (The Diving Bell) and a full length release (The Modern Age) both of which can be streamed in part on Bandcamp (and purchased as downloads as well).  Once again, the cover art is pretty interesting, and at least a part of the reason I decided to take the plunge and support their efforts.

Ok, on to the review of Coupland.  I have to admit, I have not read a lot of his work, though he did have a flash short story called "Temp" that popped up in Metro (the local free paper -- and most likely in the Toronto edition of Metro as well).  He's certainly well known as a chronicler of Gen X'ers, but his work is generally intentionally quite shallow, so it doesn't hold a lot of interest for me.  However, City of Glass is an interesting attempt to encompass Vancouver and explain it to outsiders.  Coupland seems to feel that Vancouver is just as alien to other Canadians as it is to Americans, though Americans are more likely to lump all Canadian cities and provinces as an undifferentiated "Up North," so he perhaps has a few more sections explaining just how isolated Vancouver is from the rest of Canada, even Calgary/Edmonton to say nothing of "back east."  The book has some really nice photos.  Most of it holds up pretty well.  Vancouver is definitely part of the Pacific Northwest far more than it is part of Canada writ large.  The separation cuts both ways, and Vancouver really does often seem shafted by the federal government (the truly criminal shutting down of a major Coast Guard station being only the latest example).  However, Vancouverites seem far less worried about and/or being resentful over what is going on in Ottawa than the good folks of Calgary.

Coupland also writes quite a bit about the drug trade, which is still flourishing.  However, it is possible than in 5-10 years if the legalization takes hold in Washington State and Oregon, and no progress is made at the Canadian federal level, then Vancouver will lose its "title." I do think it is more likely that there will be a saner approach to winding down the Drug Wars in Canada before the same occurs in the U.S., but I guess time will tell.  His bits on Grouse Mountain and the Lions Gate Bridge are good.  I didn't think the entry on Stanley Park was as informative as it could have been.  I would have added something about crows to the entry on birds.  Where I live in Vancouver, we have a huge crow population (far beyond anything I remember from other cities) and we almost never see seagulls.  I do occasionally see a bald eagle that has a nest somewhere near the Metrotown Mall, and that is always kind of neat.

Coupland is spot on (in the Seattle entry) when he laments how ridiculous it is that B.C. exports all these natural resources and doesn't do any of the manufacturing or other value added processing in the province.  It is an unbelievably short sighted strategy that lets B.C. be treated more or less like a third world economy.  Sadly, one of the few areas where Coupland is out of date is that the provincial tax breaks for film makers dried up, and all the films shot in Vancouver departed for other pastures (largely back to Toronto).  The actors that made a pretty decent living have been squeezed and there has been serious problems in the theatre scene as well.  While this may not be directly related, the video game industry that had a small footprint in Vancouver is also starting to shut down.  Vancouver's few attempts to diversify its economy are not doing well at all in the 2010s, and this really doesn't bode very well for the region.  Vancouver is really vulnerable to economic shocks in a way that is less true of Calgary (at least until the last of the oil sands are sucked dry) or Toronto.  It definitely doesn't help that real estate is absurdly over-priced and wages are quite low relative to the cost of living.  When this imbalance is factored into account, Vancouver goes from a top 10 place to live to well outside the top 50.  Coupland may not share my feelings on this, as he does seem to be part of the brigade that considers Vancouver to be a kind of paradise on earth.  He also goes on at some length on how Vancouver is one of the youngest cities on earth.  He seems to glory in this, whereas in general I just found it a drag that the practical implications of this were that Vancouver had weak cultural institutions and perhaps the worst art museum I've ever seen in a city of over half a million.  So this is a book written by a booster, but it still contains good insights (written in a pithy style) and nice photos.

Note: I don't quite know what changes he made to the revised edition, but I imagine most was carried over from the first edition but perhaps with some updating of comments on the broader economic trends impacting Vancouver.  Apparently the revised version is 24 pages longer and features a few Fred Herzog photos, which I probably already have in this volume: Fred Herzog.*

* Holy smokes.  I had no idea this had gone OOP and was fetching such high prices.  I picked up my copy for $35.  It certainly makes that seem like a bargain now.  I suppose if one doesn't own the Herzog book, it may make the revised City of Glass that much more appealing.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What's wrong with Elf?

I'm actually going to start off with a few slightly more festive photos before broaching the highly controversial topic of "What's wrong with Elf."

First, I did manage to make a couple of snowmen in the front yard.  FWIW, this was some of the best packing snow I've ever seen.  It's anyone's guess if it will rain over night and wash them away.  The one on the left is the little sister of the one on the right.

Then I happened to see both of the TransLink holiday buses decked out in their gear, so I snapped a photo of that.

Finally, my son made some kind of a gingerbread house with plenty of marshmallows and gummy bear trimmings as part of an after-school cooking class.

This super-sweet concoction looks just like something that Buddy the Elf would expect to see in his lunchbox every day, which is my segue into Elf the movie.

While there are definitely many charming aspects to the 2004 movie Elf, there are some things I really don't care for about it.  No matter how cute the duet scene is with Zooey Deschanel, it still starts out in creepy, stalker territory, and it's hard for me to feel good about a movie where the main character is rewarded for this kind of behavior.

I understand that Buddy is portrayed as some kind of weird hybrid between an adult and a child, and you don't really know if he is developmentally challenged or not.  But I find it really disheartening how he really fails to make an effort to adjust and insists on putting his spin on reality rather than learning from those around him who have a better understanding of New York.  I mean he refuses to cut it out after being warned 4 or 5 times about calling Peter Dinklage an elf.  I really found myself upset over that and actually started to check out of the movie around that point.  I really don't find it cute.  He totally ruins his father's career (of course there is a happy fairy tale ending, but why would we expect that to turn out that way under normal circumstances) because he is a selfish, immature person who refuses to listen to his elders.

More upsetting to me is when the younger son says something to James Caan about how all he cares about is work and he doesn't care about the family.  I find myself taking the side of the workaholic dads who are sometimes too gruff and grumpy around the holidays.  What Caan should say is something like I care about keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table.  Of course, he discovers the importance of the holiday spirit and that's all well and good, but I really don't appreciate the idea that people who are serious about their work should be shamed into catering to every whim of their feckless offspring.  Somehow they are the ones with the completely off-kilter values.  Like everything there is a proper balance between work and family, but the makers of Elf put their thumb so much on the scale the other way (work should be relegated to a place far behind family) that I find myself quite impatient with the film in these sections.

Anyway, whether you secretly agree with me or not about the merits of Elf, enjoy the holidays.  And with that, it is time for me to get back to work...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

December updates

Well, I have not been posting much at all, though I have been keeping quite busy.  I am in one of those manic phases at work where I have been desperately trying to finish this project to hand off to a consultant so they can get the work started in Dec. rather than Jan.  I may have missed that window, however.  The most disappointing thing is that this is only the first phase (and it has taken a solid week).  The work all has to be repeated with the Census block group data, but I won't be able to undertake that work to refine the results until late Jan. (if then).

The most important update is that I have a job offer (in principle) to start working in a Vancouver office in Feb. and then to move to Toronto in July, which has been the overarching plan for some time.  However, I really expected (or rather really hoped) to have the offer in hand this week so I could sign and then begin the visa process.  That didn't happen, and now I wonder if I will get the offer before the 25th. I think losing even a couple of days in mid-Dec. has made it unlikely that the paperwork will go through in time, which is most unfortunate.  I still have a bunch of questions as to how the visa paperwork all gets processed (and whether the whole family has to go back out to the airport), but that's secondary to getting the offer in writing.  Curiously, another firm had been a bit interested but dragging its feet.  Suddenly they decided to put a package together, though I don't think they have much of a chance (unless the first offer completely falls apart).  Well, it's always nice to be in demand, particularly in this economic climate.  It partly justifies the insane amount of work I put in over the past two years...

It has properly snowed in Vancouver, which is fairly rare.  It made a huge mess of the Friday morning commute, that's for sure.  I even saw some snowmen in front yards on the way home.  If I can find my proper gloves, I might see about making one with the kids in the morning.  It may well rain tonight, making things an even bigger mess.  Given that we have the snow now, I'd just as soon have a bit left on the grass for Christmas.  Anyway, if the weather outlook doesn't improve, then we probably won't go to the VanDusen Gardens to look at the lights after all (just as well I didn't say anything to the kids).

It will be a fairly Christmas-y weekend.  I promised to help my daughter make some decorations for the tree.  I have a fair bit of wrapping to do Sunday, though I will note that the actual shopping was done a while ago.  Even better, we got the presents in the mail from my side of the family.  My mother-in-law sent some package that has been completely lost, which is most unfortunate.  Last weekend we got the tree up and even sent out the Xmas cards (electronically).  So overall, we're in good shape.  I may have the energy to pick up gingerbread mix and make gingerbread men over the weekend, but I'm not promising anything...

As far as reading, I am just stubborn enough to want to push through Proust, but it has been delegated to secondary reading, and at this rate it takes me about 2 months/book, so I guess by next fall I will be finished.  In the meantime, I read some of Robert Walser's stories and thought they were ok, but not life-changing.  I've just started Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, and they are in the same vein, but a bit more compelling.  The real author of these stories (J.H.F. Grönloh) should be an inspiration to me.  Much like Wallace Stevens, he was a business man (ultimately a director of the Holland–Bombay Trading Company) who carved out a bit of time here and there to write.  Of the Mitteleuropa authors I was discussing, I also read Gregor von Rezzori's Oedipus at Stalingrad.  I liked the early parts (which occasionally reminded me of a George Grosz tableau) but thought the ending kind of disappointing.  Nonetheless, I have also checked out The Orient Express from the library, which is one of Rezzori's last novels.

I am just beginning Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which features an interesting narrative voice -- that of an elderly preacher who has a young son, whom he doesn't expect to see reach his teen years.  While this may not have been her intent, I am hearing the voice in my head as Garrison Keillor.  He's done a lot of stuff obviously, which floats in and out of print,* but one of my enduring favorites is Local Man Moves to the City where he has a classic bit about an idea he gets of preaching from Thoreau's Walden on the NYC subway.  So that is sort of floating in my head as I read the book, and so far it is making it more enjoyable.

Speaking of other strange juxtapositions, I am finding myself thinking of the merry Anglo-Irish in Molly Keane's work as just a bit like the well-to-do Southerners in Faulkner.  Normally Keane is writing as an insider and Faulkner as an outsider.  However, they come together nicely in Keane's Conversation Piece and Faulkner's The Reivers, even to the point of having unreliable cars that become minor plot points.  If I were still in that game, that would be an interesting essay, putting the two novels together. So far, I am enjoying Conversation Piece, though it seems a fairly slight novel, all things considered.
I did manage to finish Moshin Hamid's The Reluctant Terrorist and found it a thoroughly disappointing book.  I'll just call it a damp squib of a book and leave it at that.  (Well, I will add that his earlier novel, Moth Smoke, is a lot more interesting.)  There are a few interesting books coming down the pike (in my TBR pile) and I'm hoping I get to them by the spring.

So once I write it all down, it becomes apparent that actually quite a lot has been going on.  My biggest disappointment of recent weeks (other than not being able to round up a babysitter when I needed one and to a lesser extent not getting the offer in hand this week) is that I simply do not have the energy to write after work.  (The reading is almost all done in transit, but I suppose I could attempt to write, rather than read, on the bus and train.  Something to consider, I suppose.)

* The library has more of Keillor than I had imagined, and I might try to check some of his audio books out before the move, but no local library seems to have Local Man Moves to the City.  I believe I already tossed my cassette version after transferring it to the computer, but if it turns up I could offer it to the Burnaby Library (they actually still have a few cassettes in their collection!).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Britten bricolage

By this, I mean this post will have a number of diverse topics, all held together loosely by a through-thread of being at least tangentially related to Benjamin Britten, who would have been 100 this year, had he still been alive.

I have not actually heard all that much Britten live, or at least not many of his substantial works.  (The way I file concert programs is by the main pieces, so if the program included an overture by Britten and a symphony or concerto by another composer, it would be filed under the second name.  Indeed, the only major work that I know I've seen live was Britten's Violin Concerto by the VSO back in Feb. and this program still gets filed under Elgar's Enigma Variations.  Indeed, this was one of the stronger concerts I've seen them do.)

I had thought that I would have seen more Britten this year had I still been in Chicago, but it looks as if the CSO only did the War Requiem (which received very mixed reviews, so I am not really that sorry to have missed it).  Some chamber music was done at separate festivals (perhaps in Hyde Park).  It's so odd that I read (occasionally) that Britten can lay claim to being the most important British composer of the 20th Century.  He really doesn't do that much for me, and I would definitely rate Vaughan Williams and his symphony cycle over Britten.  But I suppose for people who love opera there is no comparison, and they tend to argue that writing operas is a higher form of music than symphonies.  One of my (dark) secrets is that I loathe opera.  I tried several times to go and soak it in, particularly because a UT professor (Linda Hutcheon) loved it and made it possible for us to see several operas at a major discount.  But I can simply never get away from how distorted the voices, particularly the female ones, are, almost always sacrificing clarity and communication for odd vocal effects.  The transmission of meaning is far below the musicality of the phrases.

As it happens, Vancouver Opera is doing 4 performances of Britten's Albert Herring (a comic opera set in an English village).  One performance is tonight and the rest are next weekend.  Part of me feels I should go, since this is such a rare opportunity.  The larger, more sensible side of me says I would hate it, since I always hate opera.  And indeed, it just so happens that BBC Radio 3 broadcast the entire performance of Albert Herring for the Opera on 3 program.  (Last day is today, or I would provide a link.)  Sure enough, despite the fact that the words are even in English, I can't understand what the women are singing, and I find the whole thing baroque and distasteful.  I thought a bit more of Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice (some excerpts were on composer of the week, but it is almost certainly because male and children's voices were featured), but I can still tell it would be agony for me to sit through an entire performance of either. I don't even care that much for his War Requiem, and that is far more restrained.  I would be pretty surprised if I ever do make it to a performance of the Requiem (perhaps if I were given the tickets...).

So if you completely discount all the vocal works and opera, then Britten clearly is behind Vaughan Williams, though he still wrote some classic works for cello (often premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom I just missed seeing conduct in Chicago, as he passed away shortly before his scheduled concert)) and 3 string quartets.

Sometimes you get second chances when it comes to hearing chamber music, and then you have to grab them.  I honestly cannot remember if I saw the Takacs Quartet earlier this year (January) playing Britten's String Quartet #3.  They are on my calendar, but with a big question mark (and I have not unearthed the corresponding program).  I would have just been back from TRB and may not have wanted to abandon the family so soon.  (I think Monday or Tuesday, I'll actually call the Friends of Chamber Music and see if they still have my order on file.)  Still, it is looking like I gave this a miss, which is a shame, as they have become first-rate Britten interpreters.  However, the Takacs Quartet is back in town Sunday afternoon, and I have recovered enough to sit through this concert.*  They are not playing Britten, however, but Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok (Quartet #2).  It looks like Bartok is back in vogue, and I'll see three of his string quartets this season.  As far as Britten goes, there is a special concert in February where all 3 of his string quartets will be performed.  I'm pretty sure I will go to this, though it looks like it will mean a late night out on a school night.  (I also can pick up a CD of Tackas playing all three quartets if it means that much to me...)

One of the somewhat annoying thing about the move to these massive classical box sets is that you can potentially end up with a lot of overlap with other things you own.  Also, you end up with the core repertoire over and over. (I'm not even sure how many Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles I own, though with different conductor and orchestras at least.)  In any case, I had a few small, focused box sets of Carlo Giulini conducting U.S.-based orchestras.  Then this year, EMI opened the vaults again and put out this massive box of almost everything Giulini recorded in London.  The problem for me is that, while he is recording with a different orchestra, he covered the same repertoire!  I went through the contents pretty carefully, and as far as I can tell, the only major pieces that I didn't already have were Dvorak Symphony 7 (which was available to stream on-line) and Britten's Four Sea Intervals from Peter Grimes.  While these are interesting pieces, I can hardly justify buying a huge box set just for 20 minutes or so worth of music!  As it happens I recently recorded Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in these pieces, so I think I'm covered for now.  (And while I am not buying any tickets that far out, the VSO will be doing the Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, along with Respighi's Pines of Rome, in June.)

Now another important thing about Britten is that he was in a relationship with Peter Pears, who sang in virtually all the operas Britten wrote, but that Britten also apparently struggled with his attraction to young boys.  This is sort of alluded to the composer of the week programs once they get around to discussing The Turn of the Screw, and it became an even bigger issue in Death in Venice.  As I was listening to the clips, I flashed back to Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art, which I saw this summer.  They had a young boy up in the rafters practicing for some opera, and he sounded quite a bit like the bits from Turn of the Screw.  The bulk of The Habit of Art focuses on what it means to be an aging artist, delivering a uncomfortable portrait of Auden in decline.  However, in the second act, Britten breezes in and talks about his difficulties in his work on Death in Venice.  He's still a celebrity, touring the world, but he no longer seems as sure of himself, and there are hints that 1) the public won't accept his move into atonality for Death in Venice and 2) his interest in young boys may cause trouble.  Auden definitely warns him that he is courting trouble, though it seems in real life Britten kept any urges under control.  (While I think the company did a good job, I suspect that they should have found a slightly older actor to play Britten, as this one seemed fairly chipper -- and not like a 60 year old with a heart condition that nearly killed him as he was writing Death in Venice!)  No question this dramatization really put this information about Auden and Britten into my head in a way that just reading about it or hearing it alluded to in the radio programs did not.  As it happens, The Habit of Art is a multi-level play, with the actors putting on a play about Auden and Britten.  This works for me, but certainly confused many in the audience, even after it had been spelled out in the hand-out.  I think there is always this tension between doing something interesting for oneself (as a writer or even performer, slightly bored with conventional theatre) and not making things too complicated for audiences, who are increasingly shallow and trained to prefer linear narratives.

Just last week I saw Except in the Unlikely Event of War, which has two different time periods (1960s and 2010s) and three different sets of characters, including meta-level characters (the actors play themselves grumbling about being in a play that isn't political enough!).  There is no question it was better seeing this in performance with video-- and costume changes! -- that helped me follow along, rather than catching it as a staged reading back in April.  Still, a lot of the audience was very confused.  And while the meta-theatrical parts were often the funniest (and presumably most fun to play), I wonder if they were really necessary, or if they just detracted from the core message.  Not sure about that.  Well, that is indeed pretty far from Britten, and I am not sure I can find my way back, other than Britten was quite political in his own way, being a pacifist during the ramp-up to WWII.  In fact, both Auden and Britten (and Christopher Isherwood and Peter Pears) all left England for the U.S. in 1939.  Britten and Pears return to the U.K. in 1942, registering as conscientious objectors, which caused trouble for them for a number of years, but his obvious talents wore down any lingering resentments in his native country.  Still, his overt homosexuality became a problem in the 1950s when there was a wave of repression led by Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe.

Britten was an extreme example of the single-minded artist, who sacrificed many friendships to art and who often discarded people who were no longer useful to him.  I understand this tendency to be so devoted to work, as well as to think about people instrumentally and have to fight it myself (probably not all that successfully).  He truly was one of the most important English composers of all time, and I will try to listen to a wider range of his work in his centenary year.  (I just wish he hadn't written quite so much choral stuff along with 15 or so operas!)

* Just back from the Takacs Quartet.  After watching them for a while, I am now convinced that I did make it to see them back in Jan.  I'm having trouble verifying this, however, since I ordered the tickets by phone (so no email trail), and I've switched credit card companies, so I can't tell exactly when the order was processed.  I did email Friends of Chamber Music to see if they had it on record.  Ideally, the concert program will turn up, which would certainly settle the matter.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Laid up

So I had out-patient surgery on Monday (nothing too, too serious).  The hardest part for me was following the doctor's orders of two days of bed rest (well that and icing the area for 20 minutes every hour -- or 33% of my waking hours!).

Even with all the many things I have to distract me, I found myself growing very restless, and I did make a short trip outside for a walk on the second day.  (I mean how many more days without rain will we have in Vancouver?)  I think there are people who can retire to bed and pretty much have no problem staying there: Proust's narrator's great-aunt Mme. Octave and indeed Proust himself turned into bed-ridden invalids, the enervated Oblomov and Charlie's grandparents.  However, some do recover like Charlie's grandfather and Aunt Ada from Cold Comfort Farm (at least I think she started out bed-ridden).  Other people start climbing the walls after a day or two.  I definitely fall in the latter category.  I suspect that my need to be out and about will either truly hasten my recovery from anything that lays me out, or will simply hasten the end (the candle burning too bright and all that).  But that's not such a bad thing (maybe).  I really don't want to be languishing in bed for years on end (do I?).

Anyway, I still need to take it easy and can't run or exercise for a few more days, but I'm definitely on the mend.

So I didn't do everything I wanted, but I got a bit done. I did read Henri Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes.  This my first time reading an entire novel as an epub file.  It went ok, though I still prefer reading printed books, esp. since I still do so much reading on buses and trains.  Nonetheless, inspired by this reasonably positive experience, I downloaded a few classics from Project Gutenberg and will probably join this group reading Middlemarch this Dec.  I really disliked the ending of The Mill on the Floss, so I'll be curious if I like Middlemarch better; quite a few critics thought Middlemarch was Eliot's best novel.

I also wrapped up Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane.  It was ok, but Taking Chances was definitely the better novel.  I made some progress on Carlo Emilio Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, which is ok, but I don't really see what all the fuss is about (at one point it was hailed as a major, modernist masterpiece).  I also read about half of Robert Walser's Berlin Stories.  I find him a bit droll but dated (certainly not laugh-out-loud funny the way Kafka apparently did).  A good comparison is the short films of Robert Benchley that were (apparently) howlingly funny in their day and are greeted mostly with indifference now.  I did not make substantial progress on Proust...

I listened to quite a few classical music CDs and have reduced the number of box sets that I ordered but hadn't listened to.  Still have got a long way to go.  I had hoped to watch a couple of movies, but only made it through Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies.  For some reason, I had thought it was set in the Nordic countries, but it is actually set in Hungary.  This makes more sense (Finns or Swedes wouldn't be that worked up over a whale carcass).  I have to say I didn't think it held together all that well.  Why would the army hold off from arresting the "Prince" before his followers created such chaos? After all, they had already trashed another village before coming to this one.  I mean one could argue that the Police Chief definitely exploited the chaos, but he really didn't have to wait until the followers attacked.  It's hard to pinpoint exactly what I didn't like, but it just didn't work for me.  (I did think Tarr pretty much abused the soundtrack in a very Hollywood way, relying on musical cues to carry the story, which I think is just lazy.)  It does make me remember that art house cinema can be kind of boring and that a bit more structure (and quicker pacing) usually pays off.  I think Bergman had it just about right most of the time.  Indeed, Bergman's Winter Light is the next film I plan to watch, followed shortly by Kurosawa's Ikiru. 

I really will need to find more time to get through these films I've been collecting.  It is definitely the worst (compared to books and music) in terms of just squirreling them away for a rainy day, which never comes.  Perhaps the only good thing about watching Werckmeister Harmonies all the way through is that it has (at least temporarily) dissuaded me from ordering a couple of box sets from of Theodoros Angelopoulos (another director in love with long films that I surely would watch one time only).

Towards the end of my convalescence, I managed to get my old, old, old computer working again, and have the record player set up to transfer over some LPs that I have picked up over the last 2 years.  I should be mostly done with this next week, and then I will look into transferring the video we have shot onto DVD.  It has been 5+ years since I have done this, however, and I don't remember all the steps.  Hopefully, it will come back to me soon.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Authors from Mitteleuropa

My interest in literary figures is fairly cyclical. There was a long period where I was mostly reading non-Western authors, particularly those from India and Pakistan (maybe because -- if one restricts oneself to novels that have been translated into English -- it felt like a manageable are to explore). I kind of stretched this to include a few Middle Eastern writers and then Naguib Mahfouz. I think it is probably safe to say that facing up to reading the Cairo Trilogy turned into a bit of a mental block, and I shied away from it a few times (until finally tackling it -- and enjoying it for the most part -- earlier this year), which meant that I also stopped reading Narayan. Now I am in a different space and am reading some European fiction before I finally return to Mahfouz and Narayan, tentatively scheduled for 2015. While I haven't actually read too much of them,* I am currently finding myself mysteriously drawn to the writers of Mitteleuropa, particularly those that knew they were watching the tail end of the Austrian Empire. I think there are strong parallels today, given that we are kind of watching the death throes of the American Empire, and that it is free-floating anger around loss of privilege which actually can explain part of the stress and anger in the American physche (to say nothing of the toxicity of national politics).

Partially guided by Amazon's cross-promoting tendencies, I have started to think of the following 4 writers as linked and worthy of greater exploration: Robert Walser, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Gregor von Rezzori. Lists of their key works follow.

I had at least a bit of exposure to 3 of them before, but Robert Walser is the one I have almost no familiarity with.  It also seems that he is the least similar of the bunch, being a bit more forward-looking (and more of a modernist writer than the others), less nostalgic and funnier than the others.  Despite being Swiss (rather than Austrian let alone German), he was fairly influential in Germany, winning praise from Walter Benjamin, Hermann Hesse, and Robert Musil.  Perhaps more notably, he was one of Kafka's favorite writers.  Still, I might as well keep him in this post rather than hiving him off.  Walser (1878-1956) had a fairly long career, though he only saw a single story "The Walk" translated into English during his lifetime, though most of his major works have been translated now, even if they have not all remained in print.  One interesting factoid (lifted from Wikipedia) is that he died of a heart attack during a walk in the snowy fields near where he lived, which is an image practically lifted from his first novel, The Tanners.

In the following lists, I will use R for I have read the work, O to indicate I own the book but haven't read it, and * to indicate that I am making it a (relative) priority to get around to reading the book.  If unstarred, I may simply never make it back around to reading this part of their oeuvre, as I will be off on a completely different tangent.

Robert Walser
*. The Tanners (Geschwister Tanner - 1907)
The Assistant (Der Gehülfe - 1908)
R Jakob von Gunten (1909)
. The Robber (Der Räuber - 1925)
(Short stories)
R Selected Stories
Speaking To The Rose: Writings, 1912-1932
Masquerade and Other Stories
R Berlin Stories
R A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories
R Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories

The other authors come from a slightly later generation and were far more impacted by WWII, particularly the persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930s.  (Walser actually served in WWI.)  Roth more or less drank himself to death in Paris in 1939, following his dislocation from Germany, which was directly related to the rise of Nazism.  I may have read Flight Without End but can't recall.  It sounds like something that would have been of interest to me.  Well, it is short, and perhaps I will read it (or reread it) as a palate cleanser between some of the Celine that I expect to tackle in the middle distance (2016-7?).  What's somewhat notable is that his first three novels are written as exposés of post-War German society from basically a socialist position, and then Roth moves from the left to a far more middle-of-the road, even conservative, stance in his later novels.  Of these three, I enjoyed Hotel Savoy quite a bit.

Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939)
The Spider's Web (Das Spinnennetz) (1923)
R Hotel Savoy (1924)
R The Rebellion (Die Rebellion) (1924)
The Wandering Jews (Juden auf Wanderschaft) (1927)
. The Flight without End (Die Flucht ohne Ende) (1927)
Zipper and His Father (Zipper und sein Vater) (1928)
The Silent Prophet (Der stumme Prophet) (1929)
Right and Left (Rechts und links) (1929)
. Perlefter: the Story of a Bourgeois (Unfinished novel) (1929-30)
Job (Hiob) (1930)
*O The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch) (1932)
Tarabas (1934)
R The Antichrist (Der Antichrist) (1934)
Confession of a Murderer (Beichte eines Mörders) (1936)
R Weights and Measures (Das falsche Gewicht) (1937)
The Emperor's Tomb (Die Kapuzinergruft) (1938)
R  The Tale of the 1002nd Night (aka The String of Pearls) (Die Geschichte der 1002 Nacht‎) (1939)
R The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker) (1939)
What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933
O Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939 (aka The White Cities)
R The Hotel Years (1929-1939)
O The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth
The Blind Mirror (Der blinde Spiegel) (1925)
O The Leviathan (Der Leviathan) (1940)

Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942) is the writer I have the most familiarity with.  One of the strangest aspects of Zweig's life is that he had seen the writing on the wall (in Nazi Germany) and had escaped Germany in time, eventually settling in Petropolis, Brazil in 1940.  However, he seemed completely convinced that the Axis would win the war, and he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.  Obviously, I think this is a tragic waste, though certainly part of his decision was that the cultured world of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with a significant Jewish influence) would never return, which of course was accurate.  The World of Yesterday, published in 1942, was his memorial to this world.  The list of his fiction runs very long, as he published quite a few novellas.  (A fair number of these are collected in a really nice 2 vol. set called Kaleidoscope, which I managed to score in a used book store in Oakland.  Pushkin Press has been doing a good job of keeping Zweig in print, along with NYRB Classics.)  However, I think I will list only a subset of his fiction and direct you to Wikipedia for the rest if interested. 

Forgotten Dreams, 1900 (Vergessene Träume)
In the Snow, 1901 (Im Schnee)
Two Lonely Souls, 1901 (Zwei Einsame)
The Love of Erika Ewald, 1904 (Die Liebe der Erika Ewald)
R The Star Over the Forest, 1904 (Der Stern über dem Walde)
O The Fowler Snared, 1906 (Sommernovellette)
R Twilight, 1910 (Original title: Geschichte eines Unterganges)
R Burning Secret, 1913 (Brennendes Geheimnis)
R Fear, 1920 (Angst)
Compulsion, 1920 (Der Zwang)
R Fantastic Night, 1922 (Phantastiche Nacht)
R Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1922 (Brief einer Unbekannten)
R Moonbeam Alley, 1922 (Die Mondscheingasse)
O Amok, 1922
R The Invisible Collection, 1925 (Die unsichtbare Sammlung)
Confusion, 1927 (Verwirrung der Gefühle)
O Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, 1927 (Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau)
R Buchmendel, 1929
O Leporella, 1935
*O Beware of Pity, 1939 (Ungeduld des Herzens)
R Chess Story or The Royal Game, 1942 (Schachnovelle)
*O The World of Yesterday
R Journey into the Past, 1976 (Widerstand der Wirklichkeit)
The Debt Paid Late, 1982 (Die spät bezahlte Schuld)
R The Post Office Girl, 1982 (Rausch der Verwandlung)

Finally, Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998)  Curiously, he lived in Berlin through WWII, but was not drafted because of his Romanian origins.  Nonetheless, some of his later novels are often read as an exploration of German postwar guilt.  It appears he wrote quite a few novels, but he has only partially been translated into English. Also it seems he continued to write various stories and novellas about Maghredbinia, though these have not been collected in one place (perhaps something for NYRB Classics to tackle).  I wonder if Kain, his posthumous novel is any good.  If so, I do hope that is also translated in the near future.  Now at one point, I definitely owned The Death of My Brother Abel, and it had nearly made it to the top of the TBR pile, when it was knocked down for some unremembered reason.  I suspect I still own it in a random box of books, but I probably won't get to it until the move to Toronto and the massive unpacking of boxes that will entail.  In the meantime, I will probably satisfy myself with reading his early and late works, and then come back around to the middle works in a few years.  I have a suspicion that at least some of his books will mesh with my interests & sensibilities.  It also doesn't hurt that he seems to have done his best work in his 50s, giving me some hope that it is never too late...

Tales of Maghrebinia, 1953 (Maghrebinische Geschichten)
R Oedipus at Stalingrad, 1954 (Ödipus siegt bei Stalingrad)
R An Ermine in Czernopol, 1966 (Hermelin in Tschernopol)
*O The Death of My Brother Abel, 1976 (Der Tod meines Bruders Abel)
R Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, 1979 (Denkwürdigkeiten eines Antisemiten)
O The Snows Of Yesteryear, 1989 (Blumen im Schnee – Portraitstudien zu einer Autobiographie)
Guide for Idiots through German Society, 1992 (Idiotenführer durch die Deutsche Gesellschaft. Hochadel, Adel, Schickeria, Prominenz)
R The Orient Express, 1993
Kain. Das letzte Manuskript (posthumous novel, 2001)**

Upon reflection, Zweig is by far the most daunting, but I have read a large part of his oeuvre already.  I think for the others, reading a book or two a year would allow me to get through their key works in a reasonable time frame.  Just as with Alice Munro, it might be better to sample occasionally rather than gorging on all of their novels in one go.

* Not counting Kafka.  I've read plenty of Kafka and actually a fair bit of Zweig, as it turns out.

** As I mentioned in this much later post, in 2018 NYRB will be coming out with an English translation of Kain and pairing it with a new translation of The Death of My Brother Abel.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing -- RIP

So it is going around that Doris Lessing has just passed away at the age of 94.  A life well-lived, according to those close to her.  Interestingly, the Guardian obit mentions that she had been caring for her youngest son and he passed away 3 weeks ago. I would certainly assume the two are related, perhaps feeling that she was no longer as needed -- and could thus pass away peacefully in her sleep (according to the report).  Or the stress of losing her son hastened her demise.  Or a bit of both.

Despite always being a bit sad when someone I respect dies, it is definitely worth celebrating that she had a long and productive career.  Her last full novel was Alfred and Emily, which sounds curious but perhaps not really my thing. The first half imagines her parents if there had never been WWI (and they never even meet), and then the second half walks through what their lives actually were like. Maybe just a bit of the alternative reality she did in her SF, mixed with more than a little "As Times Goes By." Anyway, surely not the best place to start with her work.  She had said that it would be her last novel and that proved to be true.  (One wonders if Alice Munro will be as true to her word...)

I really liked The Golden Notebook, which I read at university. I strongly disliked The Good Terrorist and The Fifth Child.* I vaguely remembering reading her Jane Somer novels and thinking they were pretty good. There are some others that I should have read but don't think I ever did. One of these days I will read the Martha Quest/Children of Violence series.  There is no point in saying I will add it to the TBR pile now, but if I can wrestle it down to a managable level, then perhaps I might add the Children of Violence series in 2015 or 2016.

I saw her once at a reading in Newark (probably @Rutgers-Newark) in the early 90s. I can't remember what she read -- either a short story or more likely something from The Fifth Child (which was her most recent novel at that time). I had her sign a paperback(!) copy of The Good Terrorist, but ended up disliking it so much that I eventually gave it away. I wish I had been more together at that time to either buy a new copy of The Golden Notebook or The Four-Gated City.** I was tempted to ask her a question about The Golden Notebook but perhaps wisely just let her get on with the signing.

According to Wikipedia, here are her stand-alone novels:
     The Grass is Singing (1950)
     Retreat to Innocence (1956)
R  The Golden Notebook (1962)
     Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
     The Summer Before the Dark (1973)
     Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
R  The Diary of a Good Neighbour (as Jane Somers, 1983)
R  If the Old Could... (as Jane Somers, 1984)
R  The Good Terrorist (1985)
R  The Fifth Child (1988)
     Love, Again (1996)
     Mara and Dann (1999)
     Ben, in the World (2000) – sequel to The Fifth Child
     The Sweetest Dream (2001)
     The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) – sequel to Mara and Dann
     The Cleft (2007)
     Alfred and Emily (2008)

The Children of Violence series is five novels long:
     Martha Quest (1952)
     A Proper Marriage (1954)
     A Ripple from the Storm (1958)
     Landlocked (1965)
     The Four-Gated City (1969)

To be completely honest, I am not sure I am that interested in anything she wrote after 1984, though I might sample some of them down the line.  I certainly will never re-read The Good Terrorist or The Fifth Child (or tackle Ben).  I simply don't recall if I read Briefing for a Descent into Hell or The Summer Before the Dark, but those would probably be highest on my agenda.  Then if I ever actually start rereading Pym, I will sneak in the two "Jane Somers" novels.  Then I would tackle The Children of Violence series and probably round it out with a rereading of The Golden Notebook.  If I can manage it, I would like to try to read The Four-Gated City close to The Golden Notebook to see which I liked the most. (Lessing apparently thought the most of The Four-Gated City and Briefing of all her novels.)  But that is sort of in the 2015/16 framework, if not in fact later than that.

I don't appear to own that much by Lessing.  Certainly less than I used to.  I have a battered copy of The Golden Notebook, a yellowed copy of Stories (most of her non-African stories) and On Cats (stories about cats naturally).  I'd definitely be in if Modern Library republished Children of Violence in one or two volumes.  What is more likely to happen is that I'll piece it back together from used bookstores (esp. if the ones in Toronto are as good as I remember).  I'm not in any particular hurry with that.

* I don't really remember much about The Fifth Child, other than I thought she was more than a little unfair at attacking the smugness of the middle class and thought she was actually sticking the knife in a bit gleefully showing how they behaved when things fell apart (and they were far from being masters of their domain the way the English middle class like to pretend they are).  And with The Good Terrorist, I found the portrayal of the "terror" cell to be far too glamourized, even though -- on the surface -- you could claim she wasn't intentionally "siding" with the leftists, and the ending was radically open and ambiguous. Still I thought she certainly gave the terror cell leaders the most compelling arguments (or perhaps only the showiest lines) and was knocking the concerns of the bourgeois neigbours. In general, it is a really tricky balance to get right when you are writing about desperadoes and people on the fringes. One is always being asked to explain how much you identify with fairly despicable characters. To this day, there are people that feel Milton made Satan too appealing in Paradise Lost.

** I just took a quick look at Bookfinder and signed copies of her work are already going for quite a bit of dosh (I guess that is what happens when you win the Nobel Prize and also are not out and about doing as many book signings in your later years.)  I was able to score a signed copy of an Adrienne Rich collection not long after her passing, but it's not looking good on the Lessing front.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Things I don't know

With a lot of things that are related to science, I generally have a ballpark idea of how to answer the question, though I'll have to up my game fairly soon as my son starts in on more serious science classes.  Of course, one can never keep all with all the innovations (I still am pretty stuck on "brontosaurus" and not "apatosaurus" for example).  But every now and again, I find myself really stuck to the point where I half wonder if I should send in a question to "Ask Cecil."  I had quite a doozy the other day, but it has slipped my mind.  Anyway, I'll list some of the more intriguing things that have been puzzling me.  I'll add some more as they come to me.

What is the largest animal that has actually been caught in a spider web, not just somewhat inconvenienced?  A related question is what is the largest animal that spiders actually treat as prey?  (Perhaps this should be split into spiders that use webs and those that don't.)

What are the practical implications of the earth running out of helium?  Will this actually occur in the next 100 years?

I have great difficulty in understanding how "quantum computing" would be stable enough to be practical.  (One would hardly want the cells in one's spreadsheet to be blank until one actually observed them...)  Is there actually anything quantum about the process, or is it mostly marketing?

Now I remember one that I occasionally think about from hearing about it in school -- the miracle of Dunkirk.  Now clearly it was pretty amazing that so many Allied troops were rescued, but the teacher claimed the "miracle" was how this rescue effort was coordinated, since there was supposedly complete radio silence -- all the ships and fishing vessels and so on just showed up spontaneously.  I imagine this aspect of the rescue was overblown and someone managed to get back across the Channel with the news and bring back help.  Still, I may need to do a bit of research into this.

Anyway, if anyone has some insights into these or any other puzzlers I may add, feel free to comment.  Thanks in advance.

Things you should know

I hate to break it to you, but your friends, even your true friends, are not all that interested in what your children are up to. That doesn't mean they don't "care" about your kids (though they might not) but they really don't need to hear about them all the time. Especially if they don't have children of their own. (I was realizing this the other day, when it struck me that a large number of the friends from my past that I still stay in touch with (electronically) are childless.  This can often put a damper on what I do share in emails.)

This is doubly true of pets, though perhaps you can join a cat-fancier or dog-fancier clique, where story trading is encouraged. However, if your friends (or co-workers!) do not have pets, they may not be able to even pretend to be interested.

And this is triply true for your vacations. Your friends probably are genuinely pleased you enjoyed yourself, but unless you truly are the "most interesting man in the world," stories of your vacation should be kept simple and focus on a few key events. In all my years, I've only encountered a single person who actually wanted a full travelogue. Try to polish your anecdotes so they last 30 seconds or less.  Saving everything up for one end-of-year letter enclosed with your Holiday Card is also acceptable.

You can thank me later.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What's that book? follow-ups

This is meant to be a continuation of the discussion at the tail end of this post.

So I have already tracked down 4 of the 7 or so books titles I couldn't remember.  Not bad...

I am really starting to wonder if the Polish (or Eastern European) book I just can't recall isn't Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke.  So I checked it out of the library and am reading it, and I do have the strong sense that I already read this a while ago (always a bit embarrassing).  However, the Cambridgeshire library doesn't seem to stock the version that I vaguely recall having read, and I am fairly sure I read this book in England.  The kicker is that I recall discussing the book with someone and they said that X was hardly considered a Polish author -- or perhaps that this was not where they would start with Polish literature.  (Gombrowicz would probably fit the bill.  His appeal seems a bit restricted, but that just be my spin on things.).  Anyway, I am hoping that this exchange was actually contained in an email, as I would have a chance of retrieving it.

The weirder thing was that my interest in Ferdydurke was inspired by a piece (probably in fact this piece in the Guardian) where the reviewer was discussing a book about a party where this man gets enchanted by a strange woman (or girl-woman) and sort of spoils the rest of his life trying to reach her again.  Now there is definitely a passage in Ferdydurke that is comparable to this (to say nothing of Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl, which I've just started).  However, the book that that article was specifically referring to was Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier, so I guess I will need to see if I can squeeze Meaulnes into the TBR pile in the near future.  I was actually tipped off to the correct book by skimming through Suzette Field's A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature, which looks like a blast.  

I think with a bit of digging, I should come up with the other two (the man whose long live was intertwined with New York artists and the one about the clinic).  I'll also see if I can check out Petropolis and skim the section about the Russian mail-order bride's biological father.  There will always be some books I just can't recall (and it is shocking how I virtually never remember reading short story collections*).  But that particular itch will have been scratched, and I can move on to something more productive.

There is one other one that came to mind (probably inspired by me thinking hard about that elusive book about that odd clinic that was wired to explode or something).  It was a novel about a man that wanted to blow up Chicago's Harold Washington Library.  This one was a strange, somewhat unsatisfying book, but one I might still read again in the future (it's just over 100 pages).  Anyway, this wasn't too hard to track down, since it is so specific: Instant Karma by Mark Swartz.  What I find particularly memorable is this photo of a statue of a man ringing a bell with his head.  I actually saw (and heard!) this piece of art in the Centre Pompidou, which kind of cemented everything together in my mind (aside from the book title of course...).  If one likes reading about libraries (or librarians), I would particularly recommend reading Instant Karma in conjunction with the play Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger, which is about a somewhat obsessive librarian who believes he holds in his hand a book checked out by a very special patron (to say too much more would spoil some of the surprise).

Anyway, it is quite intriguing, slowly recalling quite a few books that I really didn't remember off the top of my head.  Some indeed were quite well-done (like the just-recalled English Passengers by Matthew Kneale) but not only do I not have space on my shelves to keep every halfway interesting novel, I don't have that much space in my brain.  A lot go into deep storage.

I did, however, think of a fairly creepy plot of a book I read in Chicago.  "Dogs" is probably somewhere in the title.  However, it is not Let the Dog Drive, which I had owned forever but finally read around the same time.  Still, there are some kind of interesting parallels, which is why the two get a bit conflated in my mind.

(spoilers ...)

In this unknown book, a man's wife dies.  The only witness was the family dog.  In his deep grief, he decides to teach his dog to speak (or at least communicate) to find out what happened.  Clearly, he is a bit unhinged at this point, but he is a professional linguist, so he decides he can carry this out.  That's odd enough, but then he is drawn into this group that surgically alters dogs to try to give them voices.  Definitely creepy.  Ok, it turns out that the word "linguist" was key to getting a result from the internet.  The book is The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. (That didn't take long at all.  Still trying to find that obscure plot point that would trigger success on those two books nagging at me.  But even recalling these other books along the way has been kind of fun...) 

* Even after seeing in writing that I read three or four short story collections, including Lorrie Moore's Self Help, I can't recall a thing about them.  I think short stories (for me) are like Olestra for the brain -- they just run through with little sticking.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Too many books

Some days when I am feeling either particularly blue and/or particularly morbid, I do wonder about all these books.  I am not quite ready to convert over to Kindle or Nook or what have you.  Now I did see that Amazon is trying to convince people who bought books through them (though I believe only new books) to shell out just a bit more and get a e-book version.  The problem is that of all the books I have, probably fewer than 15% were bought new, and particularly new and from Amazon.  The reading copies I have are used, sometimes quite beat up reading copies, which means I have to read them in analog format...

But Kindle -- it simply sucks for art books.  Art books are probably my best "investment," in that I have probably looked through nearly all the images and skimmed 25% of the various essays, and I really do return to them again and again.  For a while when my son was really into Art, I would make a point of going through those books.  Perhaps I shall again (and with his sister), though at the moment he is really into fantasy books and some of the easier SF books.  I had probably 200-300 of these books that I finally purged and much of what I did keep is still a bit too mature for him.  It's actually hard to get classic SF appropriate for juveniles, whereas many of the books I did keep are still in print.  I don't know about Toronto, but the Vancouver library has very, very thin pickings for classic SF outside of Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Heinlein.  They have barely any Clifford Simak or Fritz Leiber and not even that much Harlan Ellison (not that this would be appropriate for him).  The Chicago Public Library definitely did better in keeping these lesser known figures in circulation.  For that matter, the tiny library I grew up with had a pretty good SF/fantasy section.

It's so hard to know what to keep and what to purge, but I am starting to cast at least an occasional eye on my collection and wonder if I should keep books that I am pretty sure I won't have time to get to a second or third time.  How much will my children want to inherit all this highbrow lit (since that is pretty much what I plan on retaining)?

I guess all I can say is that I have slowed down the book buying, and roughly 25% more books are leaving (being donated mostly) as are being added.  I suspect that in my 60s I will have a better sense of whether I will keep working, semi-retire or retire, and that will determine how many books I think I can still get through, and I will start a systematic purging then.  Unless of course my children have taken an interest.  I still remember how I thought (as a child) that I would help establish a library or fund a wing at least, and by the time I would be in a position to do that, hardly anyone reads print books anymore.  The libraries are fairly full, but more and more the patrons are seeking electronic books or, more frequently, free computer access.

This cartoon sums up my home situation so perfectly (except I collect the books):

Now interestingly, I have the best of Borges (in English) in two volumes, but I occasionally pestered friends/acquaintances to help me score this in Spanish (where it is a full 4 volumes).  I don't know why.  I don't read Spanish well enough to have really profited from having this in Spanish, but I do feel compelled to have the absolute greats in their original language.  Indeed, for quite a while, I owned a fairly complete set of Goethe in German, but I finally parted with that.  Anyway, I have managed to get a complete (or complete enough) electronic version of Borges in Spanish, so that is one thing I won't have on my shelves.  And indeed, I have digitized a lot of non-fiction books (at least key chapters and core concepts) to get them off my shelves.  These are books that would have been better off staying at the library, except that the way I worked (as an academic) meant I needed to have all these urban books at my finger tips as I wrote my papers late at night.  But those days are finally past me.

Another slightly different issue on the theme of too many books is that sometimes I read so much that things just get lost in the shuffle.  I am starting to go off on a tangent where I will probably read Witold Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, but I am slightly haunted by the idea that I have read it before and simply don't remember.  Now that probably is not the case, but I do remember reading some Eastern European book that was all the rage in the UK about 5 years ago and I simply cannot track it down.  I think it was about a young man who was visiting cousins in a remote village (in Poland?) and then there was some stuff about a pig and that's about all I can recall.  I actually didn't care that much for it (it was supposed to be somewhat experimental and "deep"). I mostly want to find the name of the author, so that I don't read anything more by him (I think it was a male author).

I used to keep a list of all the books that I read, and I have sort of restarted this practice, but there is probably a 20 year gap.  So sometimes I just flail around and can't quite remember the book, particularly if two books on similar topics or themes were read together (this is actually a tendency I have -- to pair books).  If it works (and I like the books), then they reinforce each other.  If I am a bit down on one or the other, then they go into the memory hole and don't come back much.  While in general, I am glad that (most) libraries no longer have a list of books that patrons checked out (to make it impossible to track reading habits), it would often be nice to go back over those lists.  Well, I have been going over old journals and personal emails, and that may help me reconstruct another large group of books I have read in the past 10 or so years.  (My how time flies...)

What might be interesting would be to try to recall some of the books, trendy or not, that I have tackled since moving to the UK, then back to Chicago and then up to the move to Vancouver (most of the post-Vancouver books have been documented in some way).  This will definitely be a work in progress and am making no attempt to put in the actual order I read them in.  I am definitely not going to add in poetry, though at some point I may throw in the full-length plays that I read (quite a few actually as I was on the board of a small theatre company!).  I probably will mis-classify quite a few into the wrong location and of course forget some novels that were particularly forgettable...


J. J. Armas Marcelo - Ships Afire 
Marie Darrieussecq - Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation
Marina Lewycka - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise
Alexei Sayle - The Weeping Women Hotel
Jose Saramago - All the Names
Jose Saramago - Blindness 
Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Anthony Powell - A Dance to the Music of Time (yes, all 12 volumes)
Chimamanda Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World (actually read on a trip to Japan)
Robert Newman - The Fountain at the Centre of the World
Orwell - Down and Out in Paris and London
Albert Camus - The Myth of Sisyphus
Hilary Mantel - Beyond Black
Tom Holt - The Portable Door
Tom Holt - In Your Dreams
Tom Holt - Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard
Ali Smith - Hotel World
Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Ian McEwan - Saturday
(I discovered Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books towards the end of my sojourn in England.  I also read a bit of British SF and a fair number of Terry Pratchett's books as they were published)
Jasper Fforde - The Eyre Affair
Jasper Fforde - Lost In a Good Book
Jasper Fforde - Well Of Lost Plots
Jasper Fforde - Something Rotten
Jasper Fforde - The Big Over Easy
Howard Jacobson - Kalooki Nights
Andrey Kurkov - Death And The Penguin (apparently the sequel has just been translated, so I might look into this)


Kevin Brockmeier - The Brief History of the Dead
Ayi Kwei Armah - The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born
Dorothy Baker - Cassandra at the Wedding
Stephen Crane - Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
Zadie Smith - White Teeth
Stefan Zweig - Chess Story (and some novellas)
Walter Kirn - Up in the Air
Joshua Ferris - Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Jess Walter - The Financial Lives of the Poets
Arthur Nersesian  - Chinese Takeout
Salman Rushdie - Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Ben Elton - Popcorn (I suspect this was actually read in Chicago, pre-Cambridge)
Maxx Barry - Syrup (ditto)
Steven Sherrill - The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (ditto)
(Some of these are books bought in the UK but read in Chicago)
Sarah Waters - The Night Watch
Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Malcolm Bradbury - Rates of Exchange and Why Come to Slaka?
Gary Shteyngart - Absurdistan
Anya Ulinich - Petropolis
Carol Anshaw - Aquamarine
John Rechy - City of Night
Brad Kessler - Birds in Fall
Tess Slesinger - The Unpossessed
(Hard to believe I completely forgot my foray into South African literature)
Alan Paton - Cry, the Beloved Country
Alan Paton - Too Late The Phalarope (nowhere near as good as his first novel)
Marlene Van Niekerk - Triomf
Can Themba - Requiem for Sophiatown
Zakes Mda - Ways of Dying
Bloke Modisane - Blame Me on History
Athol Fugard - Tsotsi
Nadine Gordimer - Something out There
Es'kia Mphahlele - In Corner B
Phaswane Mpe - Welcome to Our Hillbrow
Kgebetli Moele - Room 207 (also set in Hillbrow*)
Amos Tutuola - The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Amos Tutuola -  My Life in the Bush of Ghosts 
Claire Messud - The Emperor's Children
Patrick McGrath - Ghost Town: Tales Of Manhattan Then And Now
Steven Millhauser - Dangerous Laughter
Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole
Oliver Rolin - Hotel Crystal
(also went on a SF kick for a while. A few of the more memorable ones)
Richard Morgan - Altered Carbon
Alastair Reynolds - Revelation Space
Alastair Reynolds - Redemption Ark
Alastair Reynolds - Chasm City
Alastair Reynolds - Absolution Gap
Alastair Reynolds - Century Rain
Demetrio Aguilera-Malta - Seven Serpents and Seven Moons
David Bowman - Let the Dog Drive
Glen David Gold - Carter Beats the Devil
Matthew Kneale - English Passengers
Michael Frayn - Headlong
(there was a long stretch of Indian and Pakistani literature)
Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss
Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga - Between the Assassinations
Amitav Ghosh - The Shadow Lines
Amitav Ghosh - The Hungry Tide
Mohsin Hamid - Moth Smoke
Uzma Aslam Khan - Trespassing**
Uzma Aslam Khan - The Geometry of God
Kamila Shamsie - Burnt Shadows
Kamila Shamsie - Kartography
Kamila Shamsie - Broken Verses
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Namesake
Sonia Singh - Goddess for Hire (Indian chick lit)
Maxx Barry - Jennifer Government
J. G. Ballard - The Drowned World
Lorrie Moore - Self Help
Mary Helen Stefaniak - Self Storage and Other Stories
Italo Svevo - Confessions of Zeno (apparently quite different in a new translation) 
Goffredo Parise Abecedary
Goffredo Parise Solitudes 
(Brazilian dectective novels for a real change)
Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza - The Silence of the Rain
Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza - December Heat
Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza - Southwesterly Wind
Roberto Bolano - The Savage Detectives (I did not care for this)
Junot Diaz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Antal Szerb - Journey by Moonlight
Michael Chabon - The Yiddish Policemen's Union
(Then I went on a bit of a Russian kick)
Yevgeny Zamyatin - We
Vladimir Voinovich - The Ivankiad
Vladimir Voinovich - The Fur Hat
Vladimir Voinovich - Moscow 2042
Venedikt Erofeev - Moscow to the End of the Line
Bulgakov - Black Snow
Jess Walter - The Zero
Albert Camus - The Stranger
William Gibson - Spook Country (well, I think this is the one I read)
Julia Glass - Three Junes
Jonathan Coe - The House of Sleep
John Banville - The Sea
Haruki Murakami - After Dark
(Towards the end, I was reading quite a few books by Narayan and Nabokov, but these are tracked elsewhere, so I won't list them here.)
Ismael Reed - Flight to Canada

This has brought up a lot of interesting books, some of which I no longer own or only checked out in the first place, and I may make one more list of the key books I read before the move to the U.K. so that these don't vanish into the mists.  But not today.

Anyway, I am going to throw out some that are just plot summaries (sorry but there will be some spoilers). I hope to track them down. If you have any ideas, feel free to post in the comments.

That contemporary Polish? novel

There is one about a man with a long-life, spent mostly hanging out in the modern art scene. It is vaguely in the style of Kalooki Nights, but a bit more restrained.

One about a man who helps run a bookstore and his impossible next door neighbor. It turns out he is recruited to pass as "the boyfriend" on the neighbor's last trip to his family.  After the neighbor passes on, he finds that he (the neighbor) had a crush on the bookstore worker and wonders if he should have acted on this. Julia Glass - Three Junes

A novel about a woman who lives in a polluted part of Russian/Ukraine, who gives up her baby and eventually becomes a mail-order bride for a slobby American.  Eventually she recovers her passport and escapes to a family in Chicago? Anya Ulinich - Petropolis

A book about a man whose father was a fairly famous Russian engineer but who died (was crushed?) and was sent to either cold relatives or an orphanage.  Somehow he makes it to the U.S. (Jewish relations?)  He is not a particularly suitable husband but there is some reconciliation with his wife or girlfriend.  (Actually, now I am wondering if this is the father's story from Petropolis, but I don't think so.  Still I might be compelled to go double-check at some point.)

Now there is one novel (that I didn't even like) but is nagging at me.  This was an "audacious debut" or something like that, where there was this odd institute that the narrator was hired to join.  At least a few (maybe the majority) of residents didn't speak.  I vaguely remember there was some bomb that was going to be triggered.  While most of the reviews called the author a modern-day X (Kafka? Flann O'Brien?), I thought it kind of shamelessly ripped off Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.  This one may actually nag at me the most, so I assume I will come back to it until I eventually fill in some of the blanks.

Ok, one more just popped up.  This is a post-9/11 novel with flashes of Fight Club in it.  The main character gets involved in a CIA-like group and starts going too far when interrogating suspects, but then can't remember any of it.  I should be able to find this one. Jess Walter - The Zero

And there is a book that is almost certainly inspired by Bradbury's Rates of Exchange where this linguist ends up in a country where he can't speak the language nor can he escape its chief city.  I probably can track this down as well. Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole

* Hillbrow is this quite interesting neighbourhood just off Johannesburg's CBD.  It had a lot of high-rise apartment towers that were luxurious for a brief moment in time, then the neighbourhood was taken over by students from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).  Hillbrow also was on the forefront of racial transition, becoming a "grey zone" where racial mixing occurred but a bit of a blind eye was turned (perhaps due to the needs of property owners to keep these residential towers filled).  Later, Hillbrow became a dangerous slum and sore spot for the post-Apartheid governments (this is the period described in Room 207).  Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket has a slightly more upbeat take on things (or perhaps covers a slightly earlier period).  This is a book that I've been meaning to read for a long time and should get to in 2014/2015.  When I get around to that, I may also try to read Lauren Beukes' recent SF novel Zoo City, which is set in Hillbrow in the near future.

Anyway, enough withdrawals from the memory bank for the first pass through.  What I am finding is that thinking this hard about books that I have read in the relatively recent past, just makes me want to start reading those books I haven't yet read...

** I read this fairly recently, and actually I don't think I read it before, i.e. in Chicago.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

7th Challenge - 5th review - Dance of the Happy Shades

As discussed in the Munro post, I decided to slowly work my way through her short story collections, beginning from the beginning as it were.  I have just wrapped up reading her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades, and my current plan is to read Proust's Within a Budding Grove before starting in on Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women.  This is the one collection that it is probably better to read straight through in a short period of time, whereas the others might actually be more effective if you only read one or two stories a day and not gorge oneself.

It is true that many of these stories are pretty downbeat, so reading too many at once can be overwhelming.  They generally are about children on the cusp of young adulthood (about to lose what innocence they still had) or young women that find themselves very constrained in their life choices.  While it may not be an exact parallel, I was actually struck thinking of a few of the women in Faulkner, particularly Light in August (admittedly the most recent Faulkner I haved read).  First, there is the nurse (in the orphanage where Joe Christmas grew up) who was carrying on a desultory affair with someone (a travelling salesman?) and who ended up being a complete "B" when Christmas caught her at it (really going above and beyond the pale in trying to have him expelled and thus setting him along a bad path), but there is also the waitress that Christmas takes up with right before he leaves the home of his adoptive parents.  She would fit into a Munro story, though a bit more worldly than many of her characters, except perhaps the girls from "Thanks for the Ride."

A few people have criticised Munro for holding fast to the "epiphany" short story approach, but that seems to be the nature of short stories.  You get an idea across, and usually it does involve the main character either revealing something hidden about themselves (to the reader) or realizing profound something about themselves.  So that doesn't bother me that much.  Actually, there is a bit of variety in Dance of the Happy Shades, including one story written from the perspective of a young wife who is trying to stick up for an elderly neighbour (in the face of suburban conformity and the idea of "progress") in "The Shining Houses" and a young man sowing his oats in "Thanks for the Ride."  That last story is by far the most different from all the others in the book.

Much more often you have a youngish girl trying to rebel against authority (her mother, grandmother or to a lesser extent her employer (in "Sunday Afternoon") but not making much headway.  Life is fairly tough, and illness or other disaster can strike out of the blue ("Day of the Butterfly").   "The Peace of Utrecht" is interesting in that, even after their mother's death, the sister who was left behind to care for their mother doesn't seem to be able to escape from her cage, i.e. small town life.  Like a bound foot freed from years inside its binding and tiny shoes, she has grown cramped.  I could write at some length on how small town life is particularly ill-suited for people who are a little bit different or a bit rebellious and those that can get away (to the big city) probably should, but this has been expanded on at length elsewhere, and I am a bit short on time today.  Atwood's novels also frequently feature fraught relations between mothers and daughters, particularly in Lady Oracle, but it doesn't necessarily dominate the narrative as in Munro, though of course that is at least partly the consequence of working in a shorter form.  (While I haven't read them yet, many of Munro's later stories do reach novella length.)

Men cannot be relied upon -- not fathers ("Walker Brothers Cowboy" sort of suggests the father had an affair), brothers (the snitching brother in "Boys and Girls") and particularly not suitors ("An Ounce of Cure," "Postcard" and even "Sunday Afternoon," where we can sense things will end poorly beyond the end of the story proper).  Male strangers can be quite scary ("Images") or just creepy ("The Office") and accidentally bring break things without meaning to ("A Trip to the Coast").

I really hadn't recognized the first few stories, and I truly don't recall ever reading "The Office," where the first-person narrator is a housewife who rents an office to write in during the evenings, then finds herself blocked by the obtrusive landlord.  (I love how Munro inserts the word "slatternly," which has really fallen out of circulation.)  But I vaguely recall reading "An Ounce of Cure" and "A Trip to the Country," and I definitely read "Boys and Girls," so I presume that I did read this before for a Canadian lit. class.  Still, it was pretty much like reading the stories again for the first time.

"Postcard" and "Day of the Butterfly" are probably the most purely depressing of all the stories.  "Boys and Girls" is interesting in how you see a young girl kind of fall into the trap of gender role conformity and that is a bit depressing, though it is definitely a well-written story.  "Dance of the Happy Shades" has a mixed resolution.  It is quite clear that the mothers will drop the music teacher after a disastrous recital/party, but the teacher has somehow managed to find a student who actually has talent and can play the music of the spheres or some such thing.  That actually makes it worse for the mothers, since the teacher never could make their children play that well...

Of all the stories, the one that I really liked the most was "Red Dress--1946."  First, it has an absolutely killer line: "I lay on the couch in the kitchen, reading The Last Days of Pompeii, and wishing I was there."  (I may have to figure out how to incorporate that into a poem.)  Truly, Munro has a streak of sly humour that isn't always noticed (the same with Carol Shields).

Okay, some spoilers follow...

Anyway, the teenaged daughter has just the right mix of self-loathing and outward embarrassment she feels about her mother (and the often out-of-fashion clothes that the mother sews and makes the daughter wear).  The daughter's friend, Lonnie, is at an advantage because her mother is dead and her father more or less leaves her to her own devices.  Anyway, the story builds to a school dance that the daughter is dreading attending.  The red dress her mother is sewing is for this dance, and she is sure it makes her terminally uncool.  While she and Lonnie talk endlessly about boys, once she gets to the dance, she is so determined to avoid rejection by the boys, that she retreats first to "the wall" and then to the girls' bathroom.  She encounters an older girl there, Mary Fortune, who seems to care nothing about boys at all (I'm not sure if Munro is actually hinting that Mary is a proto-lesbian, but it is possible.)  Mary invites the daughter to leave the dance and go to a soda shop.  The daughter is somewhat flattered and sees a different path open up before her (where she is a bit of an outcast along with Mary -- and Lonnie is not quite as close a friend, since she is still boy-crazy).  She seems to be even a bit exhilarated about this, but then as she is getting her coat to leave, a boy comes up and asks her to dance.  She snaps back into a "normal" life and even gets a first kiss on the way home.  She thinks: the boy "had been my rescuer, that he had brought me from Mary Fortune's territory into the ordinary world."  The story closes with a vision of her mother hoping for the best for her daughter, and the daughter not quite knowing how to close the gap between them.  I just think this story works on so many levels and is so incisive.

While I am not going to try to figure out the order in which these stories were written or published, it wouldn't surprise me too much if "Red Dress--1946" was one of the later ones written, since it is so deep in so many ways.  I'm fairly sure that Munro's work continues in this general direction, getting more at the subtle differences between people, particularly mothers and daughters, and why they end up disappointing or even hurting each other even when they don't mean to.  This can be kind of difficult territory, but Munro mines it quite well on balance.