Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dueling translations

I managed to finish reading Faulkner's Light in August by the end of August, with just a day to spare (only 8 years late according to Oprah's schedule for her summer of Faulkner, not that I had signed up for that or anything).  So now I turn my attention to Proust.  I have been carrying around these tomes for many years, and I have read the introduction and first few pages a few times, though I always knew I wasn't quite ready to start.  Now I finally am...

The introduction mostly discusses the need for a new translation (this the the early 80s updating of the Scott Moncrieff translation from the 1930s).  Essentially there was a major overhaul of the text of À la recherche du temps perdu by the French publishers in the 50s, and this was an attempt by Kilmartin to update the translation to this new text, starting from Moncrieff's version.  Now the French publishers have continued to update/correct the text, and perhaps it was inevitable that they would issue a "definitive" version in 1987.  In short order, Modern Library issued a translation by D.J. Enright that used the Moncrieff-Kilmartin as its starting point.  (Penguin is going a different tack, with a different translator for each volume.  This strikes me as a terrible idea, and I have no interest in these translations.)

My gut feeling is that the improvements to the text between the original and the 1954 version are crucial, and must be incorporated into the final translation, but that the improvements from 1954 to 1987 are much more subtle and only a marginal improvement (with some critics clinging (stubbornly?) to the 1954 version).  What I do think is important is that Moncrieff serve as the base.  Essentially all English mono-linguists have come to Proust through Moncrieff or a revision of Moncrieff, and I don't see any good reason to break with this tradition.  More to the point, I know I'll never have the time to read a second translation of Proust, so it's either stick with the Moncrieff-Kilmartin that I already have or switch over to Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright.  But Proust for me is the silver-colored three volume set of Moncrieff-Kilmartin, so the issue is settled fairly easily.

I feel even more strongly about when studying the Bible as literature, one needs to use the King James Version, since that is the version that influenced 400 years of English literature.  I think I have mentioned this before where a professor decided to use the Revised Standard Version in a class literally titled The Bible as Literature.  Now I suppose the RSV came out in 1901, but I still don't see it having the cultural impact of the King James Version -- and I still stick to my guns that the professor was simply misguided in his approach.  But I guess you just can't be too precious about this.  Shakespeare wasn't influenced by the King James Version, since he had written all of his plays before it was issued in 1611 (aside from possibly The Tempest, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen (written with John Fletcher)).  More to the point, Shakespeare would have been influenced by the version that he was available when he was a child and young man (most likely this would have been the Geneva Bible).  I was particularly curious about Faulkner, since his books are just infused with Old Testament values of vengeance and over-the-top spirituality.  It turns out his copy of the Bible was a Holman's Edition Bible (though the version Faulkner would have had seems to basically be a minor variant of KJV).  Melville is perhaps the other American author that immediately springs to mind when I think of being deeply influenced by Biblical themes and language, and he clearly was brought up on various editions of the KJV Bible.

Now you can take this too far (only reading texts that other writers would have had access to/been influenced by).  Most 20th Century readers of Dostoevsky (and Tolstoy) came to him through the Constance Garnett translations, but there are some problems with her approach.  She did flatten the language a bit.  In those cases I have really investigated, the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations have always been the best,* though for old times' sake, I'll hang onto my Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment.  Indeed, whenever I fit Crime and Punishment back into my reading schedule (2020 perhaps?), this might be another time where I actually read two translations back-to-back (I did this for Bulgakov's Master and Margarita as well), which can be rewarding, if exhausting.  But normally you don't have time for this level of effort -- and it makes you think too much about the fact that you can't access the original, which can be a bit depressing.  There is no chance that I will ever read Russian, but if I have all the time in the world and do revisit Proust, I would go ahead and read (in French) one of the corrected versions from Gallimard that came out in the 90s.  But not the one that essentially doubled its length by including all textual variants -- life is definitely too short for that!

There are lots of nooks and crannies of literature where I just don't have a strong opinion** -- the best translation of Homer?  Of the remaining Greek plays? Or Virgil?  I try to just pick one and then not get too fussed about it.  I definitely am not going to keep seeking out multiple translations of ancient texts, though Homer is "important" enough that I will try to read both the Lattimore and Fitzgerald translations and see if I can settle on one.  (Notice that again, I will stop with translations that were current (or at least around if just a bit dusty) from my days at university and generally not take too much interest in more current ones, with the exception of Pevear/Volokhonsky and Grossman's newish translation of Don Quixote.)

Edit (12/17/2016): I'm considering writing a separate post on Kafka, where there are quite a few dueling translations.  I'm also trying to decide just what to do for my own reading program.  For myself (and most Americans), the translations by Edwin and Willa Muir (with supplemental material added to The Trial and The Castle) in the 1950s are the ones that basically informed my understanding of Kafka.   

Essentially everyone agrees that the Michael Hofmann translation is considerably better than the previous version of Amerika (aside from the great Edward Gorey cover -- incidentally this site has some of the other great Gorey covers).  

It is more debatable whether the other Muir translations have been truly surpassed by Mark Harman’s translation of The Castle and Breon Mitchell’s translation of The Trial (both published by Schocken), or indeed the somewhat unheralded translation of both by John Williams in Wordsworth Classics' The Essential Kafka.  I think for old times' sake, I will reread the Muir version of The Castle (just as I already reread their Trial last year), and then in a few years I will compare the Schocken and the Worthsworth editions and decide.  The Trial is short enough I could probably read both translations, but I think I would pick only one Castle.

* These debates can get quite heated with some of the translators with a lot at stake getting quite peeved at each other, though that may be nothing compared to their fans!  Here is an interesting article on Russian translations, though the piece suffers a bit from seeming to side too strongly with Pevear and Volokhonsky.  

** Of course I reserve the right to have a strong (if not necessarily a well-informed) opinion on translations outside my area of expertise.  So for instance, Dante should be translated as poetry (of course) and the only one that ever seemed to do the job was by John Ciardi, and I don't see any point in seeking out the newer one by Pinsky (and indeed it seems he didn't get around to translating the entire Divine Comedy!).  Not being able to read Italian doesn't prevent me from deciding definitively on this.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The literature of exhaustion

You don't hear the phase the literature of exhaustion that much anymore, but it seems just as relevant now as it did back in the late 60s when it was coined (apparently by John Barth -- there is a relatively pithy analysis of what Barth meant here).

However, the idea didn't exactly come from nowhere.  Ecclesiastes 1:9 says that there is nothing new under the sun, and this is particularly true for authors.  There are only a very few basic plots when background detail is stripped away and stories are boiled down to their essence.  I think it is hard to tell, but quite possibly some people who might have made fine writers got discouraged by how hard it is to tell an original story.  Successful writers generally didn't let it bother them, though some do dwell on where they fall on the line between homage and theft.  (Those that get unduly hung up could be said to suffer from The Anxiety of Influence (to steal from Harold Bloom) and may eventually get out of the business.)

Some cultural critics, who generally find literature to be pretty frivolous, even on their good days, have claimed that fiction isn't relevant, or that it is disrespectful to still be writing frivolous things in horrible times.  I think this is a fairly stupid line of argument to take, but it was certainly more prevalent right after WWII (see Adorno).  Sometimes the criticism is couched more narrowly -- that words cannot really express the horror of war and particularly of the Holocaust -- and it is disrespectful to try.  We continue to hear that about novels about 9/11 -- and certainly the ones I have read that touch on 9/11 haven't really justified their use of the subject (not that I consider this to be a completely taboo subject).

Anyway, John Barth was probably the most prominent novelist of his day who claimed that conventional fictional forms had been completely played out and that postmodern pastiche was the way forward.  He has his place, but in fact culture moved on, and basically said that -- no, conventional fictional forms still had relevance.  If the cultural amnesia (and general ignorance) that so many people have (not only Americans) has any upside, it is that there is a kind of renewal and a freedom from the past (that would mystify a writer like Stefan Zweig or Joseph Roth).  People can still enjoy novels about couples falling in love, or historical romance, or mystery novels.  The novel as a form seems endlessly regenerative, and not particularly burdened by the past.

If anything, it is the postmodern novel that seems really cliched these days.  Certainly it can be a struggle to read and get into these books and often the struggle just isn't worth it.  I really didn't like Graeme Gibson's Gentleman Death.  I haven't read Barth's The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, but just from the review, I can tell I wouldn't like it. It sounds almost exactly like The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, which I did struggle through and basically hated.  At least 5 or 6 of Barth's recent novels have been about the difficulty of putting words to paper to generate something new.  Honestly, give it a rest (and try something that isn't "postmodern" for a change).

Unfortunately, Joseph Heller's last completed book: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man falls directly into these tropes of how hard it is for an author (particularly an old author with presumably not much time left on earth) to actually write anything.  So he starts and stops 5 or 6 different story lines but never gets much past the first page (and often just the title).  I realize this is a genuine problem for creative sorts (and one recently explored by Alan Bennett in The History of Art, which I might go see this season), but it is not that interesting for outsiders to read about.  This truly is exhausted (and exhausting) literature -- the equivalent of the last bit of toothpaste squeezed out onto the toothbrush.  I hope I have the sense to hang it up rather than writing such self-pitying stuff.  (Even if it is Eugene Pota doing all the self-pitying and not "Joseph Heller" it might as well be Heller from where I stand.) Perhaps it will pick up, but I'm not really expecting that.

One thing that is a bit interesting is that Pota is obsessed with older artists that were still creating late in life, so perhaps I will get more examples for my list of last works as they are sprinkled through the text.  So far he hasn't brought up Matisse, who in his old age was a lot more inspired than Pota, to be sure, so he might avoid that particular comparison...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

7th Challenge - 1st review - Nikolski

As explained briefly in the other post, I happened across this book -- Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) -- in the Toronto Library book sale and scooped it up for $1. So this is a somewhat random pick for my first review of the 7th Canadian Challenge, which seems appropriate given that the novel celebrates randomness and chance. (Dickner is perhaps attempting to be the French-Canadian version of Paul Auster).

The plot, such as it is, involves three main characters -- an unidentified character (probably male) who works in a used bookstore (S.W. Gam) in Montreal, a half-brother Noah who comes to Montreal to learn anthropology (or was it archaeology?), and Joyce, who is vaguely tied into the others through her Uncle Jonas.  The structure of the novel has some surface similarities to Rene Clair's Le Million or Orphuls' La Ronde in the sense that every character meets at least once and this odd three-part book is passed along from one character to the next.  Where it is a bit different is that the meetings are generally brief and for the most part don't have lasting consequences.  However, there are a few secondary characters that also link the characters, and the interactions between these characters and other main three characters are more life-changing.  I'll go into a few of these, but that will require detailing the plot, such as it is, so I'll mention a few other things before going into spoiler mode.

I thought this novel was going to remain mostly set in 1989 or the early 90s, and I think I would have preferred that.  This novel ended up stretching over a much longer period, and most of the characters would drop out in the meantime while the novel followed Noah or Joyce (but mostly Noah).  It ended up feeling pretty episodic, and it became hard to care about most of the characters, particularly Joyce.  The novel skates on the edge of magic realism, and I've come around to the idea that this generally doesn't work for novels written by Americans nor Canadians.  Dickner thinks he is pretty clever fellow, but some of his conceits aren't really that clever: Joyce's family tree has some pirates and she joins up with hackers/software pirates, for example.  The one that really takes the cake is that the bookstore clerk is semi-frightened by his furnace, which he names The Beast.  This ancient oil furnace was built by the New England firm of Levi Athan.  So if you think that is particularly clever, you will probably like the novel.  If you think that kind of thing is over-the-top, you won't.  It really wasn't my cup of tea, which is too bad, as it had the makings of a really good novel had it more or less confined itself to the three characters exploring Montreal of the late 80s and early 90s and finding their way in the city.  That would have been a book I would have enjoyed a lot more...


I think the most unrealistic aspect of the novel was that Joyce and Noah apparently lived on the same street (and probably in the same building) but had almost no interaction, except perhaps after she had already fled Montreal ahead of the RCMP.*  Given how gregarious her boss, Maelo, was (manager of a fish shop) throwing these big parties every weekend, he would have more or less insisted she show up at least a few times (and Noah would have encountered her).  Instead, Joyce spent nearly all her free time dumpster diving, first for computer equipment (tipped off by the anthropologist Thomas Saint-Laurent (Noah's advisor)) and then for access cards and work IDs.  I do think Dickner sort of wrote himself into a corner here.  He doesn't want to give up the computer pirate angle, but he never really explains what it is that Joyce is up to with this obsessive hacking into corporate accounts.  She passes along passwords to others in her pirate networks, and some of them must be making money off this.  (Dickner does show one time when Joyce doesn't steal the credit card digits off some awful yuppie, so she still has some kind of moral compass.)  He simply can't give a coherent and internally consistent picture of what she was up to (or at least not without risking antagonizing those readers who don't want to empathize with common criminals), so she largely drops out of the novel, despite being the most interesting character.

Noah meets up with his future partner Arizna Lorenzo in the library, where she is doing some compulsive studying of native rights.  She was particularly taken by Maelo's parties and then sort of fell into Noah's life.  While it might have been interesting had her backstory of having a wealthy grandfather backing her research (and later small publishing company) been a total fabrication (sort of a parallel to Joyce's double life), it actually checked out.  After she gets pregnant (and disappears from Montreal back to Venezuela), she eventually clues him in, and he moves down there for several years.  (This chapter (or two) is really not very interesting.)  Finally, a huge storm displaces Noah and his son Simon, and they return to Montreal, while Arizna stays behind.  Actually it is in the Newark Airport (rather than Montreal) that he crosses paths with Joyce, who wants wait it out with Maelo's relatives in the Dominican Republic until things cool off and she can return. Joyce's flight inspires the bookstore clerk to finally travel, but it is unclear where he (or she) will go first, or at least I cannot remember.

The theme of migration and instability runs deep in the novel, with a secondary theme of how random one's parentage really is (taken to extremes here). All the characters seem a bit drawn to atlases and maps (and it is a bit heart-breaking how Noah keeps sending these postcards off to his mother at various places where he thinks she'll be, but never seeming to ever connect). There is a bit of a sense that these characters are salmon that head out and return to some mythical spawning ground (though this is more metaphoric than literal in most cases).  Even the most settled figure decides to uproot (at least temporarily).  However, it is not at all clear why Montreal would be the lodestar rather than further east where the family seemed to get its start.  There are things that I did like about the novel where it tackles these big ideas, but on the whole I didn't think it quite lived up to its promise.

* Actually, this is only the second most unrealistic aspect of Nikolski.  The most unrealistic aspect is that both Noah, who was totally haphazardly educated by his mother as they drove endlessly through the Western Provinces, and Joyce, who was from the Maritimes and also somewhat undereducated, apparently speak sufficient French to get by in Montreal.  There is no hint that they are living in an Anglo enclave.  For instance, Noah might well have gone to McGill, which would have been far more plausible (fees aside).  I can't believe that Dickner fails to address this even once.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blood work

Had to have blood drawn for testing this morning.  They asked me to fast for 10 hours beforehand, so I wasn't in the best of moods when I set out for the clinic.  The nurse had some trouble with the veins and actually couldn't draw from my left arm (after sticking me) and then I started getting a bit woosy.  So they had me lie down and they eventually got it from the right arm.  She actually suggested that people that used to donate blood sometimes had more problems.  No question I have had problems occasionally giving blood to the point where it is now a bit of a psychosomatic issue and if there is any snag at all, then I really start to feel faint and even get a bit ill (of course, the fasting didn't help).  I haven't been a particularly regular blood donor for 10 or so years, and I think given the problems I have had the last few times, it is time to just skip it.  There are plenty of other things I can do to help.  What I do dread a bit is that I get older and I get one of those illnesses where you do need a lot of blood testing or other blood work.  Well, can't really be helped if that is my fate.

On a more positive note, I will link to a performance of one of Billy Strayhorn's compositions (Blood Count).  This was among the last things he wrote (1967), from the depths of his illness (cancer).  This version should be the one from Ellington's And His Mother Called Him Bill (a tribute to Strayhorn).  I hope that I can find a way to be creative until the very end (and remember that occasionally great art can emerge from tragic circumstances).  I thought U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) was from the same time, but it is from a slightly earlier period (late 50s) but is still a nod to the clinic that took care of him periodically.

End of summer

For most of the weekend, it already felt like fall, though it dried up and warmed up by late afternoon on Sunday.  We probably have about two more weeks of decent weather, then it will be back to normal, i.e. rainy.  While I am not really looking forward to Vancouver's rainy season, it will be nice to have green grass again.  Most of the lawns around the neighbourhood look parched, as few people own sprinklers and even fewer feel that they ought to be watering grass (a combination of environmental attitudes reinforced by laziness -- or vice versa).  I certainly don't care sufficiently about the grass to buy a sprinkler...

This year the kids were in summer camp here for two weeks and did a bunch of activities, including making tie-die t-shirts, which came out well.  In Chicago, they were in ceramics class and dance class, respectively.  We'll try to make it to the PNE and hopefully up Grouse (via gondola not the Grind!) before the end of summer.  I'm trying to get them back into the swing of things by drilling them on math, and they've been pretty good about reading, so they won't be too far behind once school starts up.  (Just two more weeks now.)

Back to fall.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Best Laid Plans (segueing into Happiness)

As long as I am rolling with the cliches, I'll quickly add a post on the topic of how the best laid plans (come to naught).  Or better yet: Man plans; God laughs.  There is actually a novel on Canadian politics by the title The Best Laid Plans (by Terry Fallis).  I haven't read this or his related novels, but will try to get around to it in the next couple of years (certainly before taking any citizenship tests!).

It goes without saying that it is very hard for most of us to bend life to our will and have things come out exactly as planned.  It may even be more true that even when we get what we thought we wanted, it isn't really quite what we expected, which may lead to even more dissatisfaction.  Not everyone is this sour or jaded, of course, and they have a much more positive outlook on life.  When I step back, I find that I had a decent run, but in general my expectations of life (and of other people) are really too high.

Nonetheless, I often am able to follow through on my plans at least in their basic outlines; certainly more than many people I know.  But the details may not be ideal.  So for instance, we move to escape an increasingly difficult housing situation, then within a few months I've got a new job offer requiring me to move to Europe!  This time around, I have been able to extend our current lease so that we shouldn't have to move twice in a year, but I have a vague feeling that to get the job I really want, I will have to take the job next spring rather than next summer, and that will entail some hard decisions (either living apart from the family for a few months or uprooting the kids before school is out).  This has actually led me to think twice and three times about subscribing to various concert or theatre packages, since I don't want to have to try to cancel or give away tickets that I have paid for.

I also had some tentative plans to take the kids a few places before we left the region, but it looks like my daughter really does suffer a bit from motion sickness, and suddenly I don't think I want to plan a trip to Banff -- and certainly not a drive through the Rockies.  Traveling to Portland is probably out unless we can work it out through the kind of tricky train schedule.  I imagine in another couple of years, she will either be over this or at least will have the self-knowledge that would allow us to work around it, but I think I will have to revise my plans a bit (actually my wife was leaning towards travel to Toronto over spring break anyway so she could really get a handle on the different neighbourhoods there, and now I will be less resistant to this idea).

The underlying reason for the move to Toronto is that if we move before the kids have really settled into school and long(er)-lasting friendships, we won't have to move later when that is harder.  But this assumes that I hold onto a job for more than 5 years (usually I max out at about 5 years, though there have always been extenuating circumstances) and that the family adapts fairly well to Toronto (or for that matter if Canada Immigration doesn't throw me for a complete loop).  In my mind it is the right move, but planning too far ahead carries with it a number of pitfalls.

Actually I saw an interesting exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center last week.  The artwork was poor, but that wasn't the point.  It was essentially a conceptual show about happiness.  In fact, it was called Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show.  This has toured various other small museums including ICA in Philadelphia and MOCA in Los Angeles.  Some of the research that made its way into the show I had heard of before, including that married parents with young children are among the unhappiest of all married couples, though they are even more unhappy with teenage children!  It isn't until children start leaving the nest that happiness returns.  Perhaps if more people acknowledged this rather than pretend that family life is the be-all and end-all, they would be somewhat more content with their lives.  (At least Sagmeister seems to think so. He also points out that mostly married people are happier than singles, with the possible exception of gay males before the AIDS crisis.)

He also has some interesting ideas about breaking up one's retirement years so take mini-sabbaticals throughout ones working life but then to work longer.  (This used to be one of the best things about being a professor, though my understanding is that it is harder and harder to come by in the contemporary, corporate-leaning university.)  He also says that being too rigid about making and sticking to plans is unhealthy.  Having a vision is fine, but then some flexibility is necessary.  This is something I do need to take to heart.

Finally, he displayed some great big inflatable monkeys with the message that "Everybody thinks they are right."  Most conflict arises not because we cannot understand that others hold different views from ourselves, but that we don't believe that other views are legitimate.  The more strongly held the views, the less likely we are to admit that others can differ from us (since obviously at most one party can be "right").  I would say I have gotten somewhat better in this over the years, though on narrow technical grounds (at work for example), I have a lot of trouble ceding ground to others.

I also tend to be kind of rigid about how I expect people to behave in public.  I really don't like Millennials that violate this -- particularly those who get in my way by not getting off escalators in time or who walk super-slow on the sidewalk because they are so absorbed by their phones.  I find this rude and I genuinely enjoy it when they stumble around or fall over due to their own lack of awareness of their surroundings and their general self-absorption.  Perhaps tellingly, I had my second-to-last lunch in Chicago somewhat spoiled by 4 Millennials who were trying to come into the restaurant at the exact same time I was leaving.  In the end we sort of squeezed past each other, and we all acted a bit dickish.  I overheard them say, Boy he was in a hurry.  From my perspective, first the people leaving a restaurant to get back to work do have the higher priority, and more to the point, I would never expect one person to have to wait for four people to go through a door.  It is just far more efficient to let that person through first (to say nothing of how rude it is to make one person wait for four).  I have no idea what they were thinking, other than they were hungry and perhaps that gave them the higher priority (or that they were a group that could not be split up -- like a funeral procession or the knobs involved in Critical Mass*).

Anyway, we all thought we were in the right and all of us ended up a bit more unhappy from the interaction.  (There was actually a door at Metrotown in the parking garage that ended up with a similar problem of too many people trying to get through in both directions and then more often than not you were left feeling that others were simply rude.)  Just in general, my feeling is that life very very frequently throws up situations that are essentially zero-game solutions where somebody is in fact worse off (this doesn't have to be materially -- it can simply be mentally/spiritually).  Thus, it should not be a surprise that I don't get along that well with all those folks who think that most things in life can be reformulated as win-win (or win-win-win) situations.  I just don't believe that is the case most of the time.  Sociologically, I am very much from the conflict school of thought.

* Certainly CM is a social phenomena that I absolutely despise because of how they claim priority over everyone, including pedestrians and people trying to get onto and use transit; they don't just inconvenience drivers (not that I think drivers should have to wait five or six light signal cycles either...).  I don't know how big the rides are in Toronto, but they seem fairly restrained in Vancouver.  The CM rides are definitely out of hand in San Francisco and Chicago.  I generally have murderous thoughts when these wankers come anywhere near me, and I just have to think that at this point they are setting back any possibility of a pro-bike agenda in the cities where the rides occur.  Frankly, if I were mayor I would probably criminalize mass CM rides and generally break it down so that it never got over 100 cyclists, which would be more or less manageable.

Easy come, easy go

Maybe the title of the post is just a bit off. Some of the books that I left behind on my recent trip weren't "easy" to come by, though most of them were picked up second-hand or as seconds in various bookstores. However, it is true that I parted with them easily enough (though possibly I should have left a post-it saying the books were being discarded -- it's just as likely that some are now languishing in lost and found offices, though I imagine eventually they'll be donated to libraries). In my current reading I have stuck to my plan to alternating between some stone-cold classics that I have never tackled before (Faulkner's Light in August this August and Proust by Sept.!) with books that I am just trying to clear out. For my recent vacation, I only took the latter. I brought 4 books and left them all behind (after reading them), and I actually picked up two more along the way and also left them behind. So mission accomplished. I'll just go into a few details.

I started with a book that combined Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy (a novella) and Midnight All Day (short stories). I didn't like it. I simply couldn't get past the idea that Kureshi simply detested all his characters, focusing obsessively on the fact that these couples were awful people who split up with no concern at all for their children. I honestly don't think writers should write stories where they detest all the characters in their stories. I also just don't think Kureshi really got the details about class correct in Intimacy. Of all the stories, basically only the small vignette about struggling to get chairs home from the store on the Tube ("Four Blue Chairs") was about a relatively normal couple. I also didn't completely dislike the title story. I wrapped this up on the plane from Vancouver to Toronto and left it at an airport gate.

John Nichols' The Empanada Brotherhood was slight but entertaining, as he relates his early life and career in Manhattan (right before he became a published author and his life changed). He hung out with a random bunch of South Americans at an empanada stand in Greenwich Village in the 60s. While my post-college career was quite different, I can relate to how I hung out with some odd characters, who might well have made an interesting story (if not quite a novel). While it was a little boring reading how pathetically in love he was with this flamenco dancer, I could relate a bit to that, given how I exhausted some of my friends with my stories of the young woman I was pursuing in Toronto in 1994. Appropriately enough, I finished this in Toronto and left it at a bagel place on Spadina.

I had a fair bit of time on buses to and from Stratford, Ont. so I read City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza. It has this weird mix where much of the novel is naturalistic (if maybe just a bit too much Ragged Dick with a twist) but then various saints and indeed the Devil come down and talk with the Mayor (of Barcelona) and the city fathers. I didn't really love it; I didn't really hate it. I managed to finish it on the plane from Toronto to Chicago and left it somewhere in O'Hare.

I actually was quite good in Stratford. Despite visiting a number of bookstores with seconded books, I only bought one (David Foster Wallace's The Pale King in hard cover). There were a couple that I probably would have gotten 10 or so years ago, but now will just read from the library.

Heading into the States, I started All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones. While this is probably the best book from a pure writing standpoint, I do find the stories very depressing. He also wrote Lost in the City, which was also super depressing. I was a little surprised that two stories depart from pure naturalism with one featuring the Devil. I'm not saying that a writer can't do whatever he or she wants, but this seemed a bit out of character. Maybe he is alluding to the idea that so many of the Black folks that moved to DC were really country folks and still had these traditions that meant a lot to them. Anyway, just as in Lost in the City, it seems that people have the choice to move closer to White folks and get ahead in life or to stay in the 'hood and suffer really poor life outcomes (and continue to make poor choices). He tries to reconcile these options a bit in "Root Doctor." Honestly, the only story that I would even claim that I enjoyed was "Adam Robinson acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister," though that also contains a lot of sorrow, as Adam is abandoned by his drug-using mother. It takes a while for his grandparents to track him down and rescue him from the foster home system. I was kind of put in mind of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever where the parents have to cope with the nightmare of their son being a hopeless junky. There are many such grandparents in urban neighborhoods that have to shoulder these unexpected burdens, though it would be too much to say that Adam was an unwanted burden. Where I have a bit of a hard time is that Edward Jones seems to focus obsessively on low-income Black folk who continually make poor choices, and he clearly considers those who move into White circles to be "uppity." So there's really no winning with him. I'm certainly done reading his work and won't be reading any more stories or novels, no matter how well he writes. I left this book with my mother-in-law in Chicago, though I warned her it was a bit depressing.

I wasn't as restrained at Powell's in Chicago and picked up a few books (most of which had to be shipped back to Vancouver). However, I did start reading The Wager by Machado de Assis (generally unknown in the States except for Epitaph for a Small Winner, which I own but haven't read, and perhaps Dom Casmurro, which I'll have to pick up some day). The Wager may also have come out as Counselor Aires's Memoirs and it appears to be the last book he published (so would qualify for my Last Works list). It is definitely an autumnal work, written in the form of a diary. The diarist is an older man who briefly considers courting a young widow, but then steps aside (really without her even knowing of his interest) in favour of a man much closer to her in age and outlook. It is fairly dry and awfully restrained. But it is short, which works in its favour. Somewhat surprisingly, Powell's was willing to buy it back from me, though they wouldn't take an art book (which I ended up donating to the Chicago Public Library).

The final book was one that I picked up in the Toronto Reference Library's book sale - Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner.  This is actually a Canadian book, and I am about to review it for my first book of the 7th Canada Reads Challenge, so I won't go into any details here, but I do here.  It was a fairly quick read, and I had wrapped it up before we got to O'Hare, though in the end I left it in Pearson once we made it to Toronto (en route to Vancouver).  While I probably should have started reading this academic book on mega-cities that I have promised to review, it was simply too difficult keeping the kids under control on the flight from Toronto to Vancouver, so I will just have to read it on the train to work now that vacation is over and I return to "real life" (blah).  Still, it was a good experiment that cleared out 6 books from the basement, so on my next trip, I will plan to bring a few other books that can be left behind.

Toronto Redux

While it wasn't the main point of my vacation, I was certainly glad to have a chance to visit Toronto again last week. I'm having a little trouble reconstructing my journeys there. I lived there from 1993-94 while doing a Masters at UT. Then I visited roughly once a year with the last major trip being in 1997 (a while after my mother died and my brother and I had wrapped up her affairs) to go to a conference, as well as get some solace from friends still in Toronto. Then there was a long period when I didn't visit, as I finished my studies at Northwestern and began full-time work in transportation planning. I think my next trip was around 2002 or 2003 (after we had returned from living in New York), though the only passport stamp is for Jan. 2004. That just seems a bit unlikely that I would have visited Toronto in January, esp. as I would have just gotten back from visiting DC for TRB. On the other hand, my wife was 5 months' pregnant and maybe we just thought this would be the last major vacation we would get for a while (which is sort of true and also not true as we headed off to Europe (with our son) in July 2005). But we didn't have a vacation without the kid(s) for years afterwards. So perhaps 2004 was my last visit until last year (2012). I do recall that it was grey and chilly. I also remember meeting my friend Annika and her husband, Ric. I only remember that my wife didn't really think Toronto was much like Chicago, despite what everyone says...

Anyway, I actually started making trips to Victoria and Vancouver in 2010 and 2011 before taking a position here. I had two opportunities to get to Toronto in 2012, but only one of them panned out. That trip was basically a training session. While I did manage to sneak out in the evenings to see the revamped AGO (Wed.) and ROM (Fri.)* and then I saw Anthony and Cleopatra on Thurs., I didn't really have much of a sense of what the city was like anymore. I stayed an extra day at Annika's, but then we went out to the McMichael collection in Kleinburg, so I still didn't really experience the city.

Last week was my first time with a lot of time, relatively speaking, to explore the city during the day. I landed in the afternoon and it took forever to get to the hotel. I really can't remember Toronto traffic being that bad, but it is quite gridlocked. Some of this has to do with summer construction and some is just due to relatively inefficient land-use patterns. I noticed how many more people were cycling than in 1993-94, despite having a mayor who has more or less declared war on cyclists. I didn't really have a lot of time Wed., but I did go back to AGO and then grabbed some food in the Kensington Market/Chinatown area. That started to bring me back. I did come through that area a fair bit as a grad. student. Thurs. I wandered around the most. I went on the Queen St. streetcar, though I didn't really have time to wander into all the funky little shops. I then went up to the Toronto Reference Library and did a bit of research. I checked out Yonge and Bloor, which didn't seem terribly different (even a couple of the book stores I used to go to are still there). I spent some time at Spadina and Bloor, which has changed quite a bit. I checked out the Ai Weiwei statues on display at Nathan Philips Square near the City Hall. Finally I wandered through the Annex and ended up meeting some folks from HDR for dinner.

I really enjoyed my visit. What I really like (in the area close to the core) is that there are so many small quirky shops. I would say there is less chain-activity than in comparable neighbourhoods in Chicago and even Manhattan (St. Mark's Place is so distressing/depressing to me that I no longer visit). Of the various places I've been, Toronto's texture strikes me as pretty close to that of Brooklyn (which is a compliment actually). Of course, it is much safer than New York and certainly than Chicago.

I probably am falling a bit too hard (again) for a city that is bound to disappoint me in some ways, mostly because of the heavy suburban influence on the City Council (and that means infrastructure is neglected and the transportation politics are a bit crazy to say the least). I probably will have to live further out than I would like because of high housing prices, and that will be a stumbling block that I will have to work on. But in a lot of ways it felt like the city that I enjoyed so much back in the early 90s. There are certainly fewer 2nd run movie theatres than back in the day, but there are still several in existence (better than Vancouver or Chicago and perhaps even New York, though of course Film Forum is still around). It looks like quite a few of the used book stores I used to visit are still open, though one or two have relocated. I suspect that is due to the proximity of UT (in a sensible location, unlike the ridiculous locations of the universities in Vancouver/Burnaby).

I did notice how many dopey millenials there are with their eyes glued to their phones, but I guess that is everywhere now. And the drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are all quite a bit more aggressive than I remember. It definitely is edgier than I recall, but last week even the people in Chicago felt edgier and even angrier -- must be a combination of the poor economy and being around so many chill people here in Vancouver. However, I think I'll adjust quickly.

* I agree completely with Peter Newman who thinks that the AGO expansion was a smashing success and the reconstruction of the ROM is an abomination. Not only have they closed off the entrance closest to the subway, the architecture is ugly and not very functional. I think they must actually have less display space than before. Such a wasted opportunity. I'm sure I'll take the kids once in a while, but I will never become a member of ROM unless they get rid of this hideous hypercube thing they embedded in the museum -- whereas I'll probably become a member of AGO the first week I am officially back in Toronto.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bureaucrats in Movies -- the list

Again, I need to stress that I am not including standard office workers who deal with files nor librarians, even though librarians usually do work for a branch of the government.  I'm finding it hard to be completely consistent, but these are the rules I'll try to stick to.  I will probably include social workers if it is clear they are working for the state (and not a private/religious charity) but not hospital workers and definitely not the police or active spies, though both groups are directly employed by the state.  I might, however, include backroom clerks in these types of agencies if they have a meaningful role in the film and are not simply there as local color.

In many films the bureaucrats are just there to deny the hero some critical assistance and/or information, and then the movie moves on.  I've included a few examples of this but may add more as I recall them.  Just in general, European cinema is slightly more realistic in showing such scenes in addition to the fact that the state has a larger role in society in Europe. 

Before get too deep into this, I will share an unusual documentary on the bureaucrat in his native habitat: Paperland by Donald Brittain (1979).  In a particularly wry twist, it can currently only be bought from the National Film Board of Canada for the institutional market and not for home-use, but it can be viewed in its entirety here.

Bureaucrats who personify the all-knowing state:
(It's hardly a surprise that science fiction movies with a generally distopian bent have these all-knowing bureaucrats.  While I am tempted to add in Enemy of the State or the Jason Bourne movies, these are just a bit too tied to spy agencies.  The main point is that, in the future, there are no boundaries between the spy agencies and everyday government departments.)
Minority Report
Cloud Atlas
Brazil (though we also have a nod to the notion of the fallibility of the state, in particular the one typo that kicks off the events of the entire movie)

Bureaucrats who set off the action/quest/narrative:
Blues Brothers (also the classic ending while Jake and Elwood have to cool their heels in order to pay the back taxes -- having dealt with Chicago and Cook County bureaucracy, this movie captures the frustrations well)
Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (perhaps a bit of a stretch that the case worker who informs Hortense about her mother's identity is a bureaucrat but in a society with more socialized medicine and a stronger safety net, she probably is at least a quasi-bureaucrat).
Raising Arizona (how different it all would have been if the adoption agency had thought they would have made good parents from the start)
The Castle
Green Card
Crossing Over (more of a dramatic approach in representing immigration agencies and their actions)

Bureaucrats as obstacles (minor or major):
Gridlock'd (an almost Kafkaesque urban fable about two men and their efforts to get into a rehab clinic)
Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mister Lazarescu
De Sica's Umberto D (this could just as easily fit into the bureaucrat kicking off the action when the man finds his pension has essentially been revoked, but I recall several other meetings with bureaucrats who can do nothing for him)
Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain
Spielberg's The Terminal
Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre
Moscow on the Hudson
Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor
City Hall
Wall Street (here the SEC get involved at a turning point in the film)
Boiler Room (it appears as though it is mostly the FBI that are involved in backing up the SEC)

Bureaucracy played for laughs:
A Matter of Life and Death (how droll that we will be dealing with bureaucrats in the afterlife)
Beetlejuice (ditto)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (I particularly chortled when I heard that the removal plans were on display at the local planning office the next galaxy over.)

Bureaucrats who end up helping the hero, generally by bending the rules:
Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mister Lazarescu (only to a limited degree -- mostly the red tape and unfeelingness of the doctors finishes off Lazarescu)
Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life (this is hard to summarize, but apparently after death we encounter helpers who construct a perfect moment from our memory to help us move to another level -- far more moving and enjoyable than my notes suggest) 

Bureaucrats who become part of the action or indeed become the hero:
Brazil (Sam Lowry actually takes a job with a different department in order to spy more effectively on his dream girl)
A Bell for Adano
Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Baliff
Costner's The Postman
Neill Blomkamp's District 9

The ultimate bureaucrat who finds a way to use his/her office to help others:
Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (it really does stand alone -- more soon on this incredible film.  Here's Ebert's take.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bureaucrats in Movies -- the theory

So this is a bit of an experiment. There are a number of topics that I thought would make good journal articles, but I haven't had the willpower to write them out, particularly with the level of sourcing one needs for academic articles. I am going to put up the outline here to see if that satisfies my need to get the idea out (circulating in public), or if I need to just buckle down and write the darn thing. The one that keeps pushing to the fore the most is a project that I was going to call BIM: Bureaucrats in Movies. I even had this idea that I would convince the journal to steal the typeface from the Men in Black posters like so:

Well, that gives you a sense of how long I have been kicking this idea around (since the late 90s).  When the sequel came out, I thought, hmm, this doesn't invalidate my original argument, but it could actually be used to enhance it.  Even the anti-bureaucrats of MIB (I'll explain below*) end up requiring the functions of a bureaucracy, though their approach is still far more personalized than one would ever find in a proper bureaucracy.  Of course, I didn't write the paper then (2002) and it's a decade gone already (and the far superior MIB III is now in the rear-view mirror).  So if I keep at it at this rate, I should be ready to publish when MIB IV comes out! 

To be fair, during this period, I had done some actual research, i.e. compiling lists of films that I thought would be useful and watched nearly all of them.  But that's as far as I had taken it.  Let me see if I can outline my argument and group the films into their proper categories (in itself a very bureaucratic thing to do). And then I can decide if this still merits a paper, or if this blog post is sufficient.  I may end up splitting this into a theory post and a post with the movie list, as I think it will be too long for one post.

Going all the way back to Max Weber, he distills the needs for bureaucracy as follows: more than anything else, modern state government requires information and a way of systematizing rules.  When one is in a completely personalized society (a smaller society based on inter-personal relationships and/or one run by a charismatic leader), then developing rules doesn't matter.  Everything is handled on a one-on-one basis, and there is no reason to worry about "fairness."  However, as societies grow larger, it is simply inefficient for things to be handled in such a way.  Codifying rules (even rules that a majority of the population may object to) becomes essential.  While it may not be inevitable, modern societies tend to crave information, esp. information that allows them to ensure rules are being followed.  Bureaucracies are the manifestation of this drive, filing away information for retrieval at a later point.  While modern society probably could not function without bureaucracy (and filing systems more generally), there is always a tension between the populace and the bureaucrats who comprise "the system."  Fundamentally, bureaucrats serve "the state" first and the public second, although it may not feel the public is being served well at all (though generally most experiences with bureaucrats aren't quite as bad as those depicted when Thelma and Selma (of The Simpsons) are behind the desk).  In that sense, there really is a divide between an office worker, even one with clerical duties, and a bureaucrat who is part of the government.  I am not going to consider the broader category of office workers in this post/essay/paper.

Some of the secondary (and negative) aspects of bureaucracy, such as secrecy and an unwillingness to engage the public, are not inherent in society's need for bureaucracy, but are more of an outgrowth of specialization and the way that public service careers are made (agencies grow or shrink for reasons that are only tenuously linked to how they serve the public).  James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy, Jeffrey Pressman's Implementation, Guy Benveniste's The Politics of Expertise, and John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies are all worth reading for a more in-depth look at bureaucracies in action -- or inaction, as the case may be.  To be fair, Weber himself claimed that hierarchy was an innate outcome of growing bureaucracy (and these johnny-come-lately are just building on this), but hierarchy is only indirectly germane to most movies featuring bureaucrats, so I didn't focus on that.

It is very important to note that inflexibility, while often considered a negative, is actually at the heart of bureaucracy, that is it specifically built into the system (a feature and not a design-flaw).  The whole point of the system is that the government should not be set up in such a way that too much discretion is afforded to low-level employees, since too many exceptions and work-arounds make a mockery of the law.  The way bureaucracy is supposed to work is that when claimants come to the desk their needs are slotted (if imperfectly) into an existing structure.  For those whose situations are quite unusual, a different department may get involved, or a higher level manager may be found to see if exceptions can be made.  It is much harder than people imagine to come up with a system of rules that can handle all cases.  It actually seems to me to be the case that a great deal of red tape emerged from trying to be flexible in the past and having these special cases codified.  Also, the fact that different state functions were requested in the past, leading to the minute record-keeping (which I will admit is exasperating) that is required to show how the department covers both X and Y.  Yet it doesn't seem that way from the other side of the desk, and bureaucrats who won't budge or be flexible are often considered heartless.  I wouldn't say this is true; most bureaucrats care about their work, but some care more about the institution than the individuals before them.  They probably take a longer view and possibly have more of a collectivist viewpoint than most people do.  (To be fair, some are "lifers," who truly don't care about things one way or the other, like Thelma and Selma...)  Still, some bureaucrats are more willing to bend the rules than others, and of course those are the ones most interesting from a filmic perspective.

So let me switch away from the needs of the state to the needs of the (despotic) director.

In the vast majority of films, bureaucrats are simply obstacles, either clueless or sinister individuals who keep the hero(es) from doing something important.  I'll list a few of these, but this isn't actually a particularly interesting approach.  It is somewhat more interesting if a bureaucrat willingly or unwittingly sets the hero off on a journey/quest.  For completeness, I will include some examples of bureaucrats as the state personified where they really are seeking all knowledge and all control -- sort of taking Weber to the extreme.

The next set of bureaucrats are those who decide that they should bend or break the rules based on the extreme urgency of whatever is happening to the hero.  They may start out as minor antagonists but can be converted over into being minor assistants.  This seems particularly common when the bureaucrats are associated with the justice system (like a clerk in a police office), since heroism is contagious in filmworld.  (I'm not sure where I should include the more "realistic" cop movies where the police have to file reports and such.  While they clearly interface with the system, police really are not bureaucrats by definition.  Anyway, it's such a cliche for them to throw the paperwork at some clerk and walk away.  I can think of at least a dozen such cases.)  Perhaps the most rewarding (to a director at any rate) is a bureaucrat who ends up swept up into the action and becomes an action-hero.  There aren't too many of these, but a few.  (Incidentally, I started working on a SF novel along those lines but have gotten concerned that it is actually cliched.  I'm still pondering it.)  A quick update: I actually found a paper published in 2001 in an obscure journal that finds 20 movies out of some 20,000 that have a bureaucrat as a proper hero.  So this isn't common, and actually I would probably exclude many of them by arguing that bureaucrats in the FBI, military and/or NASA don't really count, since they aren't viewed as bureaucrats by outsiders.  But I will probably grab two from their list to add to mine.)

The final category and perhaps the rarest is the bureaucrat who actually finds a way to help others but remains completely within the system.  Hermes Conrad (from Futurama) is fairly close to this ideal, although his interventions are usually just to help out the Planet Express crew, to whom he has been assigned (apparently a future where bureaucracy is so rife that all private companies have a bureaucratic interface with the state).  The only one that really comes to mind is Kurosawa's Ikiru.  I've been meaning to watch this again and post on it, so now I have another compelling reason to do so.  (While I wanted to watch it this summer, perhaps it is more of a fall-weather movie.  Just like I might as well wait even a few more months beyond that to watch Bergman's Winter Light...)

I will try to dig out my notes and classify the movies that I can recall into these general groupings and add some commentary here and there for my follow-up post.

* Ok, so in my teaser, I consider the Men in Black to be anti-bureaucrats since they go around and interfere with the information-gathering aspect of normal bureaucrats (and their police agents).  In extreme cases, the MIB goes into existing records and alters them (obviously for the higher good of humankind's continued existence on planet Earth).  Since every Earth-endangering crisis situation was so unique, it didn't seem that they would benefit that much from keeping their own records.  K seems to allude to that in a speech to J where he tries to instill some perspective about just how many threats the Earth faces.  Of course, it turns out that the MIB do have their own records.  We see them the most in MIB III actually, though the relevant records are erased once time-travel is invoked.  In MIB II, we learn that some alien threats do come back around and that records do come in handy.  However, for some reason that escapes me now K thought it was best to erase all evidence of this particular threat not only from the MIB files but from his own memory.  Thus the individual acting on his own is more effective than the state (even the secret state agencies) with its massive bureaucratic filing system behind it.  The message remains remarkably the same in all three movies.  It fits far better into the standard narrative (of escapist films) than a message that the bureaucracy has its own advantages and purposes.  Incidentally, I'd kind of like to see a film like that, but I imagine I am one of only a handful of people receptive to such a message...

Background research -- Canada

It may be becoming apparent that I often like doing background research more than handing in a final product.  For things I really care about (more than transportation consulting work broadly speaking), it is hard to let go.  And this is at least one reason I am not a super-star academic.  The other primary reason is that the academy has really shifted and become quite a bit more conservative and balkanized.  It used to be somewhat encouraged to work across disciplinary lines, which is what I do, and now it is discouraged -- at least for junior hires (once you are tenured senior faculty you can go back to doing inter-disciplinary work if you so choose).  Granted there are some interesting centres that are doing inter-disciplinary work but you still need to be hired by a home department.  My work was generally on the line between sociology and political science, and then to make matters worse, nearly all of my publications are in journals that specialize in transportation!  But the snag in going over to transportation completely is that the area I could teach in is usually hosted by civil engineering but I don't have the credentials from my undergrad(!) days to be allowed to teach engineers.  Truly an unfortunate Catch-22.  And I now have passed the point where it would be wise to shift careers.  Even a few years ago I would have considered it, but now I would have to shed so much status (and salary) that it doesn't bear thinking about.

Anyway, the current background research I am doing is on Toronto in the 90s: 1993-94 to be precise, the years I was in the city doing a Master's in English literature at UT.  Now I need to take a minute to admit that I have been knocking myself out researching 1995-96.  I don't know quite why, though I must have kept so much in contact with Canadian friends (after my departure from UT) that some of the really key moments (the Mike Harris take-over of Toronto and then the Quebec separatist referendum -- both in 1995) were being talked about a lot.  And thus I sort of felt I lived through them.  I know for certain that I was in Toronto when an important election was held.  Everyone thought it was going to be a minority government, but it was actually a sweep (maybe not so different from the recent BC elections where the pollsters got it completely wrong).  Looking over a history book, this was probably the federal election in 1993 when Chrétien first came to power.

One of the premises of the novel (that I work on periodically) is that I stayed in Toronto in 1994 and didn't leave for another year or two.  Of course, it isn't "me," and the characters in the novel are all composites of people that I knew.  So it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to have the main character live through these events I have been studying.  It does, however, mean a few more days in the library to wrap up the 1995-6 research and then to go all the way back to 1993.  I think for sure, however, that he should be gone from the city before the 1998 Toronto amalgamation (and really before the anti-amalgamation referendum of 1997).  He can hear of that from afar, in the unlikely event that I continue working on his story in a sequel.

I think it is a delicate balancing act writing what would now be a historical novel.  (And it is more than a little depressing that events from my youth have become historical...)  You don't want Exposition Joe to run up and start talking to Receptor Rita, which is what happens in the worst of such novels (very common in bad sci-fi novels as well).  At the same time, I used to talk about politics all the time in coffee houses, though not as much at parties.  And being American, some things about Canada did have to be explained to me, just as they would with this character.  I'm not wanting the main character to be a grad student, though several of the secondary characters would be.  Also I think he would be hanging out with people just a bit more mainstream, which means that they might not talk about politics quite as much and if they did, they would hold closer to the MacLean's view.  Maybe this isn't correct, but it is how I have structured my research, and it is the reason why I am going through the MacLean's archives.  It strikes me as a fairly close companion magazine to Time, which was sort of centre-left in the 80s and 90s, as opposed to Newsweek, which was sort of centre-right.  Now during the 90s, MacLean's did carry one conservative opinion writer, but I don't really read through her pieces.  I do usually read Peter Newman's columns (basically a mainstream Liberal) and sometimes Allan Fotheringham.  Harder to get a handle on him -- seems a bit to the left of Newman at least in the 90s.

In addition to skimming through the MacLean's issues (on microfiche!), I decided to order two of Newman's books, which expand on his columns.  The Canadian Revolution covers his thoughts on how Canada shifted from 1985-95, and then Defining Moments : Dispatches From an Unfinished Revolution, which came out in 1997 and has quite a long section on the 1995 Quebec referendum.  That really gets at the gist of the period I am interested in.

For a small handful of the really critical events: Harris taking control of Ontario in 1995 and Chrétien and the liberals winning in 1993, I'll go ahead and look at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star issues.  But this isn't intended to be a crash course on Canadian politics; rather I'm just trying to re-familiarize myself with what reasonably well-informed Canadians would have been thinking about from 1993-96.  In that sense, MacLean's is pretty good* since it covers international events with a Canadian slant and, perhaps even more importantly, culture -- what films/books did it review and so on.  The truth is I don't think I need to do too much more research, but a little bit more wouldn't be such a bad thing if it prevents me from making a horrendous error (like moving the Ontario provincial election up by 2 years!).  I probably won't even use that much of it, and maybe I will go ahead and post some of the more interesting findings here for kicks. 

(Just to add that on my last visit I found that the Chicago Public Library had a pretty complete set of McLean's as bound volumes, which are so much easier to use than the microfilm at the Vancouver Library.  Too bad I didn't realize this a couple of years ago, though I wasn't quite in the right frame of mind then.  I suppose I will be back in Chicago in mid-Sept. and may have an evening free...)

* It does seem to me that the current MacLean's has slipped a bit and is more of a tabloid rag than it used to be.  I can't really tell but certainly the covers are more sensationalistic.  Once I return to Toronto, I'll probably start getting The Star delivered, but I haven't decided about MacLean's.  I'm not really sure I need it, and I don't get the feeling that today's columnists measure up to those from the 90s.  But maybe this is just get-off-my-lawn syndrome (i.e. everything was better in the 80s through the mid-90s).