Monday, February 25, 2013

6th challenge - 15th review - Barney's Version

I admit, I moved this up in my tbr pile based on John's strong recommendation.  And then fortuitously, it was right there in my local library, so I grabbed it before a cross-country trip with a lot of flying time.  So I managed to read it over a week -- a bit better than my current average for longish books.  (I used to read 100-200 pages a day, but that was when I had fewer responsibilities...)  I have not watched the movie version, but I may some day, though to be honest, it strikes me that there are far too many parallels to Sideways for my liking.  And some of the changes made to the film (that I've read about) seem pretty crazy, particularly Izzy being around to interfere in the murder inquest, which definitely didn't happen in the book.

I have mixed feelings about the book.  There were quite a number of funny passages, but on the whole, I really wasn't enamoured of the way Richler manipulated the reader's feelings/emotions to try to make us feel sorry for (and perhaps even like) this fairly unpleasant man.  I do have one "impossible" friend on the fringes of my life, but for the most part, I really don't see what is so charming about Barney.  He never seems to really interact with the kids when they were small, and was drunk most of the time when he was finally home from work and hanging around them, so why they would have any real interest in him as they became adults is beyond me.  I guess I've never really overcome my Puritanical streak in the sense that I just don't like art that glamourizes drunkards and/or drug-users.  They are never as amusing as they think they are, esp. those that indulge in mean-spirited pranks as Barney does constantly.

It certainly does strike me that Barney is a stand-in for Richler himself, who was often described as a bit of a boor, particularly on the subject of French-Canadian relations with the rest of Canada.  I know it is such a cop out, but it just strikes me that if someone is so unhappy about being an Anglophile surrounded by Francophiles, then it behooves that person to relocate from Montreal to Toronto.  That's the more reasonable course of action, rather than fighting a pointless rear-guard action of insulting the Quebecois and trying to snub them by only printing signs in English or what have you.  It is all very childish on both sides of course (Quebec's language laws), but again, I just don't have much time for, interest in or sympathy for quixotic characters.  Life does strike me as too short.  


One thing that didn't work that well for me was how Duddy Kravitz got dropped into the novel, as someone who gives some advice to Barney.  I just thought it was an unnecessary detail in a book that was already a bit too long.

What I did find interesting was Barney being a fairly unreliable narrator, both because he was too wrapped up in himself to even pretend to care about how others viewed these situations and because it became evident from maybe 1/4 of the way into the book that he was losing his memory.  I found the footnotes added by his son drily amusing, with some being unbelievably pedantic, and one or two of them seeming to include inaccuracies.  (I assume that was intentional on Richler's part.)

I thought it was reasonably effective how brusquely the book ended once Barney was shipped off to an assisted living facility.  While this would have been really drawn out and painful for the family, the son kind of wraps it up and only gives a few glimpses into what happened.  While they still seem to venerate Barney far more than he deserves, the son is the "hero" of his own story and doesn't have a hundred more pages to dedicate to Barney's declining years.  There is a lot of insight in the way this transition was handled.

I found the passages covering the years in Paris to be interesting and a bit of a nice change in focusing on very second-rate artists who were doing their slumming in Paris.  I can see how Richler loads a huge guilt trip onto Barney's shoulders with respect to his first wife, and I can see how some of Barney's actions afterwards are tied up with this terrible guilt.  I probably do take a harder line than Richler in not excusing Barney for being such an all-around jerk.  A lot of people have had bad things happen to them, or feel guilt for things that weren't entirely their fault (or even at all their fault) but that doesn't give them license to act like overgrown adolescents for the rest of their lives.

All in all, this is an interesting book about a person who I would not have allowed to come into my life.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

6th Canadian challenge - 14th review (New again)

As I mentioned in a previous blog, YVR by W.H. New won the 2012 Mayor of Vancouver cultural award.  This poetry collection covers Vancouver's past and present, focusing on New's interaction with the city and his memories of growing up here.  I think I mentioned that he never actually writes any poems about traveling to and from the YVR airport in this collection.

The book opens with "Lines" where New mentions how often he has said goodbye to Vancouver.
"But here I am," drawn home again.
New  immediately tackles Vancouver's defining characteristic (its weather): "We're born with gills, we say to strangers." 

If it isn't raining, people spend all their time on the beach, it seems.  (He does occasionally mention the mountains which are certainly another defining characteristic of the city, but water seems more central to his vision of Vancouver.)

"Subduction Zone" references the seismic activity in the region, often downplayed to outsiders:
faultlines beside us, the Juan de Fuca plate / offshore, seismologists warning: / The Big One, / still to come ... not The Best Place on Earth, no / for all the ads and lotos-eaters; / a city of spring and fall, about to bloom, on the edge of decay; / tremors, / underground."

He definitely seems more resistant than many residents to fall in line with the city boosters, who definitely do pitch Vancouver as Nirvana on earth.  Perhaps that comes from having grown up in the city, unlike most current residents.  And perhaps his vision takes in the darker aspects of Vancouver, like the refusal to clean up the Downtown East Side.

He then has a few poems about his early childhood during war time.  Given he was born in 1938, it's hard to believe he would recall much of anything about W.W. II, but perhaps he is lumping that together with the Korean War conflict.  At any rate, these aren't as interesting to me.

The first "Main Street" poem goes back to Vancouver's founding and considers how some streets were named:
From the beginning, margin matters,
city fathers drawing a line on the earth:
they call it False Creek Road, join Hastings town
to plank and privateer, eyes on the loggers' camp
at the edges of the slough, the rough sawmill
where fortunes rise and fall...

New continues peering back to Vancouver's early days in "Speculation" when South Vancouver was a separate city and briefly voted itself dry to the dismay of many.  Still, there was "never any problem buying beer, / no border guards on the streetcar."

The PNE (Pacific National Exposition) was running even when he was a child, and he loved the rides, especially Shoot-the-Chute and being able to climb up and pretend to run train engine 374.  I expect this train still was in semi-active service back then, but it is now basically out of service and stored at the Roundhouse in Yaletown.

In "Disposed," New airs more of Vancouver's dirty laundry: "Surveyors build 'Champlain Heights' / on top of the old city dump— / what's in a name—golf greens sitting now / where bedsteads used to mound, / ashcans / pots, / broken bones ..."

In the second "Main Street" poem, New has moved to Pender & Main, just outside Chinatown and he sees a lion dance, presumably around Chinese New Year.  Perhaps inevitably given the massive change in Vancouver's demographics, lion dances are no longer confined to Chinatown and have spread to shopping districts in South Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby and presumably Surrey. 

In "Outside In," New returns to the theme of water: "downpour, drizzle, / thunder along the mountains, the grammar / of cloud and timing: / my favourite forecast: / scattered showers, / changing during the day / to occasional rain— / the hundred words for dampness ../"
Engaging in a bit of gallows humour, I guess.

New seems thoroughly in the present when he visits Granville Island in "And Yet": "try standing rigid on Granville Island—im- / possible, activity dis- / rupts, engages: coffee / corrugates the air."

In the third "Main Street" New has moved even further north to the heart of Vancouver's dark side.
Where Main crosses Hastings used to be
the centre of town, columns and cupola:
now it's the edge—poverty, trafficking,
lines of powder, tales of abuse ...

He starts south but heads north in the next "Main Street" poem:
I used to take the #7 streetcar the other
way: north into town, up Fraser past
Govier's, Houghland's, the Imperial Bank,
McBain's and Buckerfield's, Cunningham's, Macphail's,
past Hilton's Dairy and the five and dime, past
Mountain View (angels, pebbles,
David's star), past all the mission halls
and the fundamentals:

screech left at Kingsway (the monocled
Aristocrat doffed his top hat
and twirled his neon cane), then
rattle down Main past the old hotels,
already seedy before I knew
what seediness implied:

(I think this is my favourite of the Main St. poems -- it certainly has the most landmarks mentioned.  Mountain View is a local cemetery, by the way.)  

The next "Main Street" actually "cheats" a bit in that Main St. doesn't quite touch False Creek or the False Creek flats, but it does "get close" as New writes.  From this starting point, New discusses how most of the False Creek is built on landfill and then pivots to a discussion of the changes nearby: "Yaletown's all condos now, Strathcona gentrified, / a seawall separates the flats from the sea"

New continues to present his bona fides, like his connection to the oldtimers "eulogizing Woodward's ... Tuesday, once-a month, / My mother useta buy everythin' there."

But he doesn't completely ignore that new blood also brings some benefits; Vancouver is certainly not a city preserved in amber: "Walk, Broadway to King Ed, read / the signs: new life along the strip, / baby shops, sushi, yams, cassava, / vegan, organic, hundred-mile green, / the latest embraces among the young."

However, the very next poem ("Intersections") he is back in full nostalgia mode.
Driving Kingsway: where it crosses Victoria, the old
Colonial Motel's renamed—a sense of Empire's still strong
though, fast food chains on all the corners. Burgers. Donuts.

Used to be a carriage road through bush and woodlot, Gassy
Jack's Gastown to New West, the Royal City ...

A few corner stores persist, pails of daffodils in front,
dollar-ninety-nine for five stems, bread and cigarettes
the staples. Used to be Sweet Caps in the window, Crush in
the cooler, Malkin's Best or Singapore's on crowded shelves,
jar of all-day suckers on the counter, ice cream a dime.

In the next "Main Street" contends he did grow up in an immigrant neighbourhood, though at the time, the Irish (and to a lesser extent the Scots) were the newcomers/outsiders.  New offers up praise for a system that can integrate all these cultures, even if somewhat uneasily.  He envisions this mostly happening through the public schools, "where cultures mix to become now, / the lion dance as everyday as / Robbie Burns and Hallowe'en."

In another "Main Street" he investigates how his old hood is host to a different group of immigrants:
At 49th, nearing my old neighbourhood,
is it myself I'm looking for? the grey false fronts
have gone, the ramshackle stores:
the land agent sports a chain realty marquee,
the drug store's plus-sized:            Punjabi
Market's open, dancing to bhangra rhythms,
feasting on barfi, seasoning the air with
coriander, garam masala: I am only
close to home ground:

... a college sprawls where I used to
practise what I once called golfing, on the
bush edge of a clipped Langara green:
what do I reinvent now, reaching here:
how do I change, having left to return:
I listen for the earth to move: a thousand
sari shops spill dazzle onto the sidewalk,
the flash of spring azaleas:

In some ways, I feel the most connected to this particular poem in YVR, as I have only known Vancouver such a short time.  Langara was well-established by the time I arrived.  And just down the street incidentally.  (I have even taken a few evening courses there.)

In general, YVR is a bit of a jumble (not unlike this review!), organized loosely as New stumbles across something interesting in the present and then either stays focused on the present (and he is usually good-natured but somewhat dismissive of the youth-oriented nature of contemporary Vancouver) or delves into nostalgia (this occurs slightly more often and in nearly all the Main Street poems).  His rambles along Main St. are the closest to any true organizing principle for the collection.

I'm not sure he does subscribe to any overarching theory, but he seems to consider being open to new experiences as a good in itself.  I'll close with some lines from the moving poem "Moments": "Stumbling into random beauty / takes the breath away ... / Places in this world stop us, / hold us in contemplation ... / we are custodians of such places— / call them moments: / they do not last, / unless we notice them."

Sunday, February 10, 2013


This post is loosely inspired by the French artist Sophie Calle and her project Douleur exquise (Exquisite pain).  12 or so panels were on display at the Seattle Art Museum.  They were poster-sized panels below photos with the left side being a photo of a red phone on a hotel bed and the right side a series of other photos.  Beneath the photos were the alternating black and white panels.  On the left, Ms. Calle related the story of how her lover had broken up with her via this exact phone.  On the right, she had asked a number of acquaintances what had caused them the most suffering and here she related their tales -- often of break-ups, but also deaths, a miscarriage and going blind. 

The texts (in French) appeared to have been embroidered, though I have since learned there were approximately 90 double panels.  While I suppose she might have undertaken these all by herself, it seems more likely that she found an industrial solution. What was more apparent from the book but not in the panels on display (in Seattle) was that the left hand stories got shorter as the pain dulled and the color of the text darkened and finally went black (the background was also black).  In the next to last two panels, the text is essentially not legible in the book; in the final panel, it is completely black.  It would be interesting to know if the embroidered text could be read in person but not in reproduction (which incidentally was the effect that Ad Reinhardt was going for).

I guess the entire thing was staged in Paris at the Centre Pompidou and occasionally elsewhere.  At least once it was done in conjunction with a Gehry-designed space, though I think that actually detracts a bit from the work.

Most people that encounter this work will run across it in book format -- either the original French or a translation into English.  The book supplements the second half (the doubled up suffering) with some photos of her journey to Japan and eventual travel to India, where she was supposed to reunite with her lover (which is why she was in a hotel room when they talked on the phone and he broke things off with her).  I am fairly convinced that the texts will work better in French (and I did read the handful on display in Seattle).  There is definitely something French about some of the suffering, particularly love affairs that sort of end for no good reason.

To order the book is just slightly more than I want to spend on just a whim, so I am trying to convince myself that I should order it and then compare the two versions (I have the English version out from the library).  That's a fairly weak rationalization though, since I don't expect I will ever truly regain my fluency in French.  I guess one never knows though, and I will probably practice French a lot more in Ontario than I would in B.C.

But it still might make a good totem/touchstone when I think about the continuum of unhappiness.  I certainly spend a lot of time in the disgruntled/dissatisfied region, but I suppose I am not truly sad all that often, and I have done relatively little true suffering, except when my mother passed away.  Ms. Calle certain thinks that she brought this particular suffering upon herself, since her lover warned her that their relationship wouldn't survive a 3 month separation, but she went to Japan anyway.  3 months is certainly a long time, but context matters a lot.  I actually was more upset over a 6 week separation from my family than a 3-month separation that had happened earlier.  Perhaps reminding myself how ridiculous people seem when they get operatically sad might be useful.  Or maybe not.  The same with keeping a clear head when analyzing whether and how one might have brought some unhappiness upon oneself through one's own actions.  Almost no decisions in life lead to unqualified success/happiness or conversely failure/unhappiness.

I think my daughter tends to be a sad a lot, though she recovers fairly quickly.  Here is her drawing of how sad she was at school when her best friend was out and she didn't have anyone to play with at lunch.  She is all of the girls in the chain, indicating just how sad she felt.  (I think the flower might even be crying.) 

I guess I am a little sad that she seems to have inherited some of the more negative aspects of my personality... I suppose it is too early to tell for sure, but I would hope she would be spared some of the things that afflict and burden me.

I've decided to return to add to the original post.  On the one hand, it is actually fairly interesting to see the slightly different variations Calle runs through as she slowly gets over the break-up and the pain dulls.  However, given that the exhibit and panels weren't created until 15 years after the break-up, it is more of a recreation of a mourning process (unless she took really good notes at the time, which she may have done).  She kind of explores different facets of the earlier stages of the relationship, reliving it; other times, she focuses more on the cause of the break-up and even tries to convince herself that the relationship was an impossible, inappropriate one that would have ended anyway.  I remember going through this obsessive recounting phase in the early 90s and burned out a couple of friends, since most people don't need to hear the same thing told 90 different ways!  But I do recognize that she truly was mourning in her own way, and I think the fade to black is fairly clever, even if not ground-breaking.  Rituals can be very helpful in going through trauma of various types.  After my mom passed away I wore black exclusively for 6 months (probably even my tennis shoes but I am not certain) and then gradually added greys and dark blues for the next 6 months.  At least, that is how I recall it.  It certainly was a long period of time, and I guess it was fortunate that I was a grad student and it wasn't viewed as completely eccentric or indeed out of the norm for TAs to show up primarily dressed in black.

Where I do find fault with Ms. Calle is that she seems to not have benefited from her 3 month stay in Japan.  Maybe the experience entered her art in other ways and for other projects, but really she seems to consider the whole thing this huge drag that ended her love affair.  Why did she bother leaving Paris in the first place?  Her art seems to be either very personalized (a slightly more sophisticated and polished version of Tracey Emin) or is about watching people interact in public spaces, such as hotels, and always with a bit of Gallic flair.  Why anyone thought her leaving Paris was a good idea is beyond me.

It is only when you look beyond Exquisite Pain, esp. Appointment with Sigmund Freud, that you find that she really does gravitate to irresponsible lovers and unreliable friends.  In short, she does not seem to be someone who chooses wisely.  I suspect she is a thrill-seeker, and it is always easier to maintain thrills in one's life if one's relationships are always on edge, ready to crumble at a moment's notice.  She also seems to let chance dictate a great deal of her decisions, including at least once whether she would start sleeping with a near-stranger (she did).  It probably sounds like I am judging her harshly.  I wouldn't put it like that, since I don't feel I am moralizing, but I do think she is more responsible for her own actions and occasional suffering than she acknowledges.  I am not surprised that she eventually collaborated with Paul Auster, who has written a fair bit about chance and fate.

One last comment, which is more specifically directed to the Seattle art show (Elles) than to Ms. Calle's work, is that it is kind of depressing when you go to an show filled with female artists and so many of the pieces are simply about their relationships with men.  It's almost like there is this double or triple bind and these artists have still given far too much power to the men in their lives.  Even when they dance around naked (in virtually all the video pieces), they still can't really reclaim their bodies away from the male gaze.  I can't express it well without a very long and boring exposition, but it just feels like something out of Foucault's writings on power and hegemony.