Sunday, September 29, 2013

7th Challenge - 3rd review - Tamarind Mem

This book (Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami) fell into my hands fairly randomly.  It was a somewhat water-damaged book that was in the Burnaby Library book sale.  The summary on the back cover made it seem like there would be a lot of back and forth, shifting perspectives from the daughter (now in grad school in Calgary) and the mother, still in India.  That sort of happens, but in fact the book is broken in two parts.  The first half, the daughter reaches back into her memory and recalls a lot of things that happened to her growing up, i.e. long before Calgary.  Her life was a bit unsettled because her father was a big-shot engineer for the railways and they kept having to move every two or three years.  The second half is her mother's recollection of those times (and sometimes the same events).  Thus, there is probably less than 10 pages of content about the daughter's life in Canada (just flashes as she waits for another postcard from her mother, who is now travelling through India on the railroads her husband helped build).  While it qualifies for the challenge (Anita Badami did move to Calgary in 1991 for grad school,* later lived in Vancouver and has apparently settled in Montreal), the amount of Canadian content is very, very low.  Her later novels, Can You Hear The Nightbird Call, and Tell it to the Trees, have more in the way of looking at Indian migrants to Canada, including how they adapt and to a lesser extent how they change the communities they move to.  From the very brief blurbs I have read, it sounds like I might enjoy Nightbird, but I probably should give Trees a pass.

Anyway, I read this book on the plane back from Chicago.  I thought the sections from the daughter's perspective were pretty good, but it just never was satisfactorily explained why the mother had such a difficult ("tart") disposition.  Some people are just born that way I guess,** though her frustration at not being able to develop a career certainly contributed. Also, she {the mother of the novel} had a grandmother who was also fairly strong and/or difficult and bucked convention, and she was apparently the only female in her family who looked up to this grandmother!  There is one sad moment where the mother is still a recent bride, just trying to understand her much older and fairly distant husband.  He makes one attempt at bridging the gap, and she totally shuts him down, even realizing at the time that she shouldn't be doing this, but not being able to stop herself.  No question, she didn't seem like somebody I would want to be around...  Curiously, the father is portrayed (even by the mother) as a good, even doting father, but an indifferent husband.  This is perhaps more surprising given that he and the mother only had two daughters and no sons.

Not really sure what else to say about the book.  Not all that much happens in it really (well, aside from two deaths).  It kind of revolves around how stunted women's choices were in India in the 1940s and 50s (and beyond), along with a fairly detailed portrait of their superstitious nanny (mostly from the daughter's remembrances).  The daughter barely grasps how different things are for her (and her sister -- though her sister seems to have no ambition at all beyond being a wife).  I didn't like it as much as Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, which has a more epic scope (apparently Can You Hear The Nightbird Call does have this broader scope).  Tonally, this novel has some things in common with Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, and if you liked one, you would probably like the other, though for me personally I thought Lahiri's The Namesake was head and shoulders above either (and haven't gotten around to her Unaccustomed Earth).  This review is a bit more positive and may help guide you if you are considering picking Tamarind Mem up.

* It does seem large sections of the book are autobiographical, though perhaps Badami split herself into both sisters.  She did move to Calgary for grad. school but had already married, while the older daughter was single.

** I certainly go out of my way to see the downside of most situations (a deep pessimist), even though I had a relatively happy and certainly secure childhood. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

7th Challenge - 2st review - George Bowering

Not entirely sure how this happened, but I have taken a bit of a detour (putting Proust on hold) back into Canadian poetry.  I've gotten into the works of George Stanley (an American who migrated to Vancouver in 1971)* and George Bowering, who is one of the best-known Vancouver literary figures.  I was familiar with Bowering through his Selected Poems 1961-92, i.e. even before I moved here, though I wasn't aware of how much he had written post-1992.  Now that I have been clued in, I have Blondes on Bikes on hold at the library.  I even read Bowering's Burning Water, but that was ages ago.  I'll try to reread it before I leave the region for good. Today I will be reviewing a fairly massive volume called My Darling Nellie Grey (and will review some of the Stanley books, most likely in Oct.).

It is hard to really review My Darling Nellie Grey, as it is actually 12 books in one (and initially all 12 were published as stand-alone chapbooks, so one way of looking at it is that you get an amazing bargain by getting them all in one place in this volume).  As Bowering approached his 70th birthday, he decided he needed a challenge to keep him writing.**  Eventually he settled on the idea of writing a poem each day for a year, but above and beyond that, he would set different rules for each month and he also self-consciously would repeat ideas/themes/words between the poems for each month. 

For example, for February, he concentrated on short poems of short lines, apparently keeping them all to two stanzas of 4 or 5 lines each. March was a whole series of poems that begin "I remember" and then generally continue on with some memories of his parents and his childhood.

April is dedicated to sonnets (or "sonnets" in the Ted Berrigan sense of 14 lines of free verse) with large sections coming from found sources, particularly sources that indirectly attack U.S. policy -- or show Americans at their most stupid and racist.  Here I guess I am guess a hypocrite.  I think most people would consider me anti-American (or certainly anti-Red State) but I have a bit of a problem stomaching it from outsiders.  So I wasn't too keen on this month, and I liked the Sept. sequence "Fulgencio" even less where Bowering rants about U.S. policy towards Cuba and particularly how we supported Fulgencio Batista long after he showed his true colours.  I wasn't quite sure he was going to go there, but indeed in the last poem of the sequence, Bowering basically declares Cuba a socialist paradise.  It was very hard after that point to take him seriously.  I think one can be anti-capitalist without actually considering Cuba a particularly good place to live, but that is (perhaps) a theme for another post. I'll just say I wasn't too crazy about these two months and leave it at that.

June was kind of interesting as he pulled questions out of reasonably famous poems by other poems, then riffed a response.  I think my favourite was from an Emily Dickinson poem: "For what are Stars but Asterisks / To point a human life?"  Bowering continues: "Many are huge balls of burning gas / that care for no person / except Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thinks / the universe the externization of the soul ..."  I do think Bowering loses a few points for not randomly capitalizing nouns such as Universe and Soul.  For a quick segue from art to science (and perhaps back), many people are aware of They Might Be Giants' song Why Does the Sun Shine; that is still pretty good, but they returned to the topic with a more scientifically accurate song (and a better hook in my opinion).

Interestingly, Bowering leaves out one of the most famous poetic questions of all time, i.e. Shakespeare's Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?  He makes up for it by titling the July chapbook: Shall I Compare.  As far as I can tell, all the poems are three stanzas long, each stanza is three lines long, and each line is three words.  They are all love poems to a woman he was courting, whom, he mentions in the introduction, he married mid-way through July.

August is dedicated to poems that start from a specific painting and either describe the painting in detail or use some aspect of the painting to venture into different topics.  This would probably work better as an illustrated chapbook (perhaps it was) or a blog where one can provide a thumbnail so the readers have some idea what is being referenced.

October has a funny premise where Bowering finds oddball headlines in the paper (generally ones with double meanings) and then deliberately confuses matters.  For instance, "Mountie Probed in Sex Assault Case": "A taste, said the presiding magistrate / of your own medicine."  I didn't like these as much as I had hoped or imagined.  It is certainly possible that simply knowing he was working through some rough shit (his step-daughter died in a car crash early in the month) colours my impression of the poems, or perhaps the poems become objectively darker than when the series started.  Still, I certainly sympathize with Bowering and have some understanding of how keeping "creative" can be helpful in dark times.

Bowering visited Lorine Niedecker's writing cabin and, for November, was inspired to write short poems in a small autograph book (or like a visitor's log at a museum) following the same themes that Niedecker mined. These seem to all be five line poems and are reproduced in hand-writing (presumably Bowering's).  Finally, December brings us to a series of travel poems, set in various cities that Bowering has visited.  I liked a few of these.

By far, my favourite month of poems was May, which also revolved around the theme of travel.  He seemed to be retracing a vacation in Europe (in 1966, long before the introduction of the Euro).  He more or less flies from Calgary to Germany (Dusseldorf), then heads westward to France and England.    Then they head southeast to Italy, Greece and apparently Turkey.  I don't think (at the moment) I will single out any specific poems, but the grouping as a whole works pretty well.  The chapbook was published as Montenegro, 1966.  For me, these are the poems that I could see returning to again and again to the point it might actually be better to track that chapbook down rather than buying My Darling Nellie Grey, though honestly I would only pick it up if I stumbled across it in some (very upscale) used book store; however, it turns out it was an ultra limited edition (40 copies!), so that's pretty unlikely.  Taken in its entirety, My Darling Nellie Grey is solid collection, but one that only spoke to me sporadically.

Anyway, here is one other review of MDNG where the reviewer was a bit more taken by the collection as as a whole, and here's a curious tag-team review.  And with that, I think I will check out for now -- and perhaps take a nap (it has been a very exhausting week!).

* I've also been reading a bit of Ken Norris, another American who moved up (though to Montreal this time) but then he moved on to Asia for a large part of his career.  Not sure he is Canadian "enough" to count, though I guess he became a Canadian citizen in 1985.  I enjoyed some of the poems in his fairly recent collection Going Home (2007), but I'll wait until I read Hotel Montreal to see if there is enough Canadian content to review his work.  There really wasn't in Going Home.

** It does kind of made me feel worse about myself, since I couldn't get around to writing my 40 sestinas in a reasonable timeframe.  Well, I have been pretty busy, but it is not an abandoned project by any means.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Updates - Sept. 2013

I am back from a business trip to Chicago with a side trip to Davenport, IA to visit relatives (and the Figge Museum!).

I am too bushed to give a complete description of everything I did, but highlights include seeing Miguel Zenon at the Jazz Showcase (playing material off of his live album, Oye) and seeing the University of Iowa holdings at the Figge.  It is a little disappointing that the Jackson Pollack was returned to the university, though actually I would have been even more interested in seeing their Matisse (and the 2 other Guston's in their collection).  However, I primarily went to see the Max Beckmann triptych Carnival, and fortunately that was on display.  (The actual core museum collection is quite eclectic and not really that great.)

Beckmann's Carnival is quite an interesting painting.  One thing that you can kind of see in the thumbnails but see much better in person is that, in the center panel, the woman's head is turned nearly completely around (past the point of what a body can actually do without wrenching the back and shoulders). And her eyes go off even further to the left, so she is essentially looking completely behind herself.  It is kind of eerie.  The dwarf bellboy in the right panel also stands out a bit more in person.  Anyway, with this visit I am fairly sure I have viewed 8 of the 9 triptychs that Beckmann completed, though I am only 100% certain about 6 of 9.  I am 100% sure I have not seen The Temptation of St. Anthony in person.  Do I sense another road trip or two?

I bailed on one book during this trip (Chatterton Square by E. H. Young) and completed two: Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection and Anita Badami's Tamarind Mem.  I have to agree with the reviewers of The Manual of Detection that it starts strong but then degenerates into something very akin to the movie Inception (even though it was published before the movie came out).  There are also strong links to Dark City and, on more literary grounds, Jorge Luis Borges and possibly even Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (indeed Borges copped to being an admirer of Chesterton).  I'll try to get around to reviewing Tamarind Mem in the next couple of days.

That's really all I think I can get to tonight, since I am fairly weary.
Anita Rau Badami

Friday, September 13, 2013

Vancouver Fringe Fest

I've had a great time at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.  It may well be the most concentrated theatre event in all of Vancouver.  I wish I had explored it earlier, though two years ago I didn't even really know it existed (it wasn't until taking a writing course at Langara in 2012 that I was clued into the Fringe).  And last Sept. I simply wasn't in the right frame of mind to look into it.  I would say that I think the Fringe could be even better if a larger percentage of shows were curated (the vast majority of slots are given out via lottery, and it isn't even clear if there is any bar that entrants have to clear to prove they can actually pull off a show (like having a production team in mind?)). I'm thinking of this goofball in the Langara play-writing class who was going to enter some crap script into the Fringe, and it is a shame that he and others that are completely unprepared can take slots from more deserving groups.  That said, no question that the Vancouver Fringe gets a lot of new blood, and I have no complaints about the shows I've seen.  I picked well for a first-timer.*

Anyway, I started off on Monday with a one-off from Assaulted Fish.  They pulled together a show (Sacred and Profane) of lightly reworked sketches from their past -- a "best of" show essentially (with perhaps one new sketch about two lost astronauts, which I liked quite a bit, though think it could have been taken just a bit further).  They have been together 10 years together as a group (with mostly the same core), so they have a lot of material to pull from.  The show was funny, though I am biased, knowing a few of the members of the troupe.  One show left! This Saturday at 8!

Last night I saw Strapless -- another sketch comedy troupe.  Here it is 5 fearless female artists (instead of Chinese-Canadian comedians in Assaulted Fish).  The strongest pieces were when they played at being younger males of the slacker persuasion: one bit was an ad for a no-drama break-up moving service -- since today's males (if they aren't living at home) are mooching off their girlfriends and living in their places.  Also very good was a David Lynch-inspired fever dream (with obligatory Chris Isaak music in the background!).

Then I saw The History of Canada.  OMG it was sooo funny.  I'll circle back around and write up a few of the bits later.  As far as I know, the rest of the run is sold out (they do have a smaller venue), but there is a decent chance they will end up one of the picks of the fringe and it would be worth seeing them if that happens (or if they end up remounting this in Burnaby or Richmond where venues are a bit cheaper -- stranger things have happened).  For those in Vancouver and just coming to this post, there are apparently some tickets for their Sunday 2 pm show left.  It is definitely worth seeing.  If I didn't have a few other things going on this Sunday, I might even see it a second time, it was that funny.

Then I saw the late night show 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, which actually originated at a Chicago Sketch Festival (or at least I think so).  Very good as well.

And then Sat., my son and I are going to see Johnny Tomorrow, which is aimed at those people who are still awed by the mysteries of outer space.  Indeed, the actor works at the Vancouver planetarium...

Ok, I might as well add a few updates to my theatre blog post while I am at it.

I'm starting to lean a little bit more to go to The Cultch to see Walsh's Penelope.  Still on the fence though.

However, I've decided that because UBC doesn't do matinees, I will definitely pass on Caucasian Chalk Circle, though I am still somewhat open to the Ubu Roi, precisely because I've never seen it staged.  And I found out that the Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass will be at the Chan Centre (relatively soon), and I will have to go out there for that (actually I should try to score tickets for that very soon before the word really gets out!).

In Nov., Western Gold Theatre Society is doing Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking.  Certainly a good chance I will go to this.

The second half of Nov., Pi Theatre is doing a new piece (apparently a dark comedy) called Except in the Unlikely Event of War.  Shades of Dr. Strangelove presumably.  It will be over at the Roundhouse, and I'm hoping to go.  Some details here.

In Jan-Feb. Honest Fishmongers will be doing Measure for Measure.  While this is definitely one of Shakespeare's more problematic comedies, I think it is worth going to see them do it.  They did such a great job with King Lear last year.  Actually, it appears that they also hit it out of the park with Hamlet, but this was done in 2010, so before my time (& I don't have to kick myself for not going).

Well, that's enough for now.

* One thing I actually thought was quite cool was that in Fringe Central on Granville Island, the performers all show up and try to entice you to come to their shows.  My understanding is that this happens in Edinburgh all the time, but it sure didn't happen at the Manhattan Fringe Fest (at least not that I ever saw) or the fringe-like festivals I've been to in Chicago or Toronto.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Patronizing authors

Maybe patronizing isn't quite the right word (any more than coddling was).  Perhaps flattering the reader is slightly more apt.  Coddling the reader is something we expect from writers with a younger audience, i.e. they are trying to bring their readers to the river (of even greater art) and have them drink deeply.  Indeed, there are a number of authors who consider their work a bit of a gateway drug to the classics.  For the most part, I also fall in the camp that any reading is better than no reading.  I can vaguely remember that some of the Heinleins and other similar novels I read as I was just getting started discussed specific philosophers -- or more often scientists -- and I sometimes would follow up out of interest.  Certainly I read some of Einstein's work (for general readers) at a very early age -- possibly as early as 12 (and indeed recently picked up some of those same books for my son to explore in a few more years).  Oprah's book club certainly got into this whole issue of whether she was pandering to her readers or whether she was actually going to succeed in occasionally bringing them to great works of literature.  I've looked at the last incarnation of the official list, and there are certainly some softball books on there not to my taste, but there are some very solid books in there, especially from her Summer of Faulkner pitch.  On the whole, I think it was admirable what she did -- no coddling or flattered of those who stuck with it.

Flattering the reader is a bit harder to pin down.  It is when the author waters down certain ideas and then more or less presents them as "the real thing."  I personally do find this patronizing, but admit that the line can be a bit of a grey one, since popularizing important ideas surely can't be all bad.  Yet this can be quite insidious, as the reader (or viewer) might not be aware of what they are missing -- and may feel that they have gotten enough from this Cliff Notes' version.  Almost any book that talks about philosophy more or less goes down this path when they discuss Plato's Parable of the Cave or stoicism or what have you.  The good novels leave you wanting to learn more; the bad ones may leave you thinking you know enough or you aren't interested in learning more.  I have to admit I can't really recall which philosophers Tibor Fischer name-checked in The Thought Gang, and I certainly didn't seek any of them out after reading it (as funny and sometimes provocative as that novel was).

But the absolutely most insidious is the author that presents fairly common ideas/authors/artists and then passes them off as something that only the elite would know.  So the audience, catching these references, feels smarter about itself.  Is this a real problem or just a First World Problem?  I don't know.  I generally don't like artists that pass middlebrow art off as high art.  Yasmina Reza's Art does seem to be a pretty bad offender, in my view.

John Logan's play Red, about the artist Mark Rothko, is a little bit closer to the high art end of the spectrum.  Still there are passages that are in there that if the audience follows them, they'll feel better about themselves.  That said, it was still one of the more intelligent plays on Broadway in years.  It is a hard line -- many people can't follow arcane arguments and then feel stupid.  Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is probably the play that really walks the highwire the most successfully, but still manages to alienate some audiences by aiming slightly higher than some people's heads.

So this brings me around to the unlikely best-seller The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  Curiously, she is actually a philosophy professor in her real-life.  I think it is true that the French have a better grounding in philosophy among college graduates (compared to Americans) and they still value deep-thinkers.  Nonetheless, this still largely comes across as a popularization of various philosophers, such as Hegel or Wittgenstein.  Whether it was specifically the driving force in writing this novel, Barbery illustrated how elitism still keeps the upper classes from imagining that the working class have much of an inner life or would be moved by "art."  So she comes up with the character of the concierge, Renée, who is quite the secret reader.

I wouldn't have as much of a problem with this, if she didn't seem to stop short.  So Renée's favourite author is Tolstoy and her favourite novel apparently -- Anna Karenina. Their shared interest in Tolstoy leads her to bond a bit with M. Ozu (the new tenant in the apartment building proves to be quite a disruptive influence).  Again, fine as far as it goes.  It probably didn't hurt that I read Anna Karenina so recently that I could recall the plot.  It also was a nice touch that she (Renée) focuses on the Kitty-Levin love story, which is generally not as well known as the "main" love triangle.

However, why not go whole hog and have Renée claim that a slightly more obscure novel, like Goncharov's Oblomov or Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or, better yet, On the Eve was her favourite. Would this actually upset her (Barbery's) readers by having a concierge who actually was better read than them?  After all, Barbery's readers are surely aware of Tolstoy (and the film-maker Yasujirō Ozu), even if they have not indulged yet.  So it is only a relatively slight prod (from Barbery) to read Anna Karenina, but it might be a step too far to get them to sample something really quite obscure (and perhaps even more refined).  Perhaps I am being too harsh, but there were definitely moments that had me feel that the readers were being spoon-fed.  And I was quite ambivalent as I went through the novel, leaning first one way then the other.  The ending decided it for me, however...

Now I am going to take a slight detour, which will make more sense when I get to discussing the conclusion of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

But first, for those delicate readers, plenty of SPOILERS AHEAD.

This is definitely a generational thing, but in the very early 80s, Newsweek (and perhaps Time) carried these double-page spreads by a variety of writers.  Almost no one with whom I ever discussed this remembers anything about it.  But it was so clear in my mind.  And low and behold, the internet has archived it (surprisingly, quite a bit of early 80s stuff is not on the internet, so obviously it never happened).  Perhaps the best ad was actually Kurt Vonnegut's How to Write with Style (which he sort of gleefully admits is poached from Strunk and White).  I have no idea if it has been collected with Vonnegut's other essays -- or if it will be in the final Library of America volume (though that seems a bit unlikely).  The core of the essay seems to be fairly available on the web. Boingboing has actually resurrected the ad in all its glory here.  As an added bonus, if you scroll down a bit (there), you can find a link to the entire series of 12 ads.*  I certainly remembered the Bill Cosby one on speed-reading (though I didn't think it was one of the better ones) and seeing all the ads triggered me into remembering that I had indeed read the Tony Randall and Steve Allen entries as a kid, though I had completely forgotten them.  (Not sure why the Cosby stuck with me the most, other than I largely disagreed with it even as a kid; I do tend to remember things with which I disagree better than things that simply confirm my beliefs -- because I remember arguing and wrestling with something, even if the specifics get a bit blurry.)  What I certainly did not remember was that this wasn't some high-faluting ad for the U.S Literacy Council or what have you, but an ad from the International Paper Company promoting the printed word.

But I had remembered so clearly one by a humorist that had talked about plot and specifically plot endings.  Basically, every time you wrote yourself into a corner, you could just have everyone run over by a truck (or a bus in urban settings).  I wondered if perhaps this was Dave Barry or Calvin Trillin (a little less likely).  Was this a follow-up to the first set of ads?  Perhaps the internet held the answer.

After several false starts, I found it!  "How to Write Good" by Michael O'Donoghue.  It was originally from National Lampoon (1971), but I suspect it was one of those classics that was reprinted elsewhere, since I only skimmed National Lampoon a bit during breaks from my job at the UM library in the early 90s.  I am pretty sure I had come across it before then.

Well, if you have read to the end of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you know exactly why this crossed my mind.  I had been generally leaning a bit in favour of the book until that point when suddenly the author by-passes all the interesting questions of whether a hermetic (and penniless) French concierge and a rich Japanese businessman can actually fall in love and make a go of it (in a Parisian setting that appears to be particularly class-bound).  No, our narrator gets run over by a delivery van (and Barberry makes such a production over the fact that this ties perfectly together with the concierge's misappropriation of a dead woman's dress from the same dry cleaning service).  And then this terrible, sudden loss shocks some sense into the suicidal 12-year old, who decides she will henceforth live to look for beauty in unexpected places.  It is a complete (plot) cheat and grotesquely sentimental besides. (While I will go ahead and read Gourmet Rhapsody, it also seems unduly sentimental, with the food critic M. Arthens on his deathbed, longing to recapture some flavour that will recall his childhood.  It just strikes me as Pixar's Ratatouille did the same thing (sans the deathbed conversion) with a lot more flair.)  It actually upset me to the point where I may donate Hedgehog (and more than likely Gourmet Rhapsody) rather than hang onto it.

* They have also been collected in a book called How to use the power of the printed word.  What is completely baffling is that this is somehow stretched to 110 pages, when the ads themselves are more like 24 (granted printed magazine style with 3 columns).  Still, it seems like there might be some filler in there. However, I am no longer feeling compelled to find out by ordering the book.

Theatre in Vancouver 2013-14

I should say right upfront that this isn't going to be a listing of all the theatre in Vancouver, professional or otherwise.  That can be better found here, though supplemented by the offerings at UBC, SFU and Langara. It isn't clear yet what SFU students will be putting on.  Last year's Langara offerings were a lot more interesting than this season's, that's for sure.  If UBC were easier to get to, I probably would go see Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle (which I saw very well done in Chicago).  However, I am leaning towards going out there to see Jarry's Ubu Roi in the spring.

In general, the season looks respectable, but just not that full of plays that grab me.  An awful lot of them are shouty, violent plays that frankly bore me (Tracy Lett's Bug and Neil LaBute in general) or plays that I have absolutely no interest in seeing (Driving Miss Daisy or Mamet's Oleanna).  Perhaps the biggest disappointment was that Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries was pushed back an entire year, and I doubt I will see it (unless I truly am traveling back and forth between Toronto and Vancouver a lot for work).

Anyway, this is a list of the relatively few plays that I may see, so that I don't let them drop off my calendar completely.

  • The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett (now through Sep 29) United Players of Vancouver (way, way out in Jericho Park) -- I'll probably go to this.
  • Penelope by Enda Walsh (Sept. 26 - Oct. 13) The Cultch -- I am the most torn by this one.  I already saw this at Steppenwolf (with Tracey Letts incidentally), and I doubt this production will stack up to that.  However, the language is really quite interesting, quite poetic, and it might be worth seeing it again for that. Though I really hate getting over to the Cultch, which is definitely another strike against it.
  • Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz (Sept. 19-Oct. 20) Arts Club Theatre -- fairly likely to go, esp. if it is at the venue that is not on Granville Island (another place I hate to visit*)
  • Hotel Bethlehem by Drew McCreadie (Dec. 10-22) Firehall -- this is an extravagantly silly Nativity play, sort of a frothier version of Life of Brian.  I'll consider taking my son to it, depending on our winter plans.
  • The Seafarer by Conor McPherson (March 2014) Pacific Theatre -- most likely I will not see this somewhat eerie tale, as I saw it at Steppenwolf (with John Mahoney!)
  • March 20 - April 5, 2014
    Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (March 20 - April 5) UBC -- reasonably likely I will make the trek out there for this.
  • The Changling by Thomas Middleton (July-August 2014) Ensemble Theatre Company -- if I am still around or travelling back and forth, I'll try to make this.  I saw them do a very creditable job of Middleton's Women Beware Women this summer.
So it's not nothing, but it isn't a lot of good theatre for a city of this size.  There are generally this many plays opening each week in Chicago, and I can draw up a list of 5-7 "must sees" every two months (not over the entire season).  Toronto is generally in the same league.  I'm sure a few things here and there will be added (patching some massive holes in the calendar), but the typical Vancouver theatre line-up is not at all to my taste, sadly.

I guess the real question mark is Bard on the Beach next summer.  I have a sense that they might tackle Lear, and there would be some closure in seeing it there (I missed them doing it in 1994 by about a day when I was passing through).  I seem to be averaging one play a summer at Bard and perhaps can keep up this tradition for a while.  On the other hand, I know the Stratford Festival is doing Lear, and that is almost certainly going to be a more polished production, and that might be the basis of a new summer/fall tradition.

* For a relatively compact city, Vancouver can be really a chore to get around, and many interesting events are in lousy locations.
March 20 - April 5, 2014

Monday, September 2, 2013

Urdang (Uncollected)

I figured I might as well tackle this while it was on my mind.

Constance Urdang had a decent career for a mid-level poet, but she must have been frustrated at some of the near misses.  She scored an early "hit" in Paris Review No. 15 (all the way back in 1956).  This may have been one of her first poems in print ("The Madman"), but then she didn't appear in the magazine again until 1999, several years after her death.  (I'm quite curious about this, since it must have been submitted by someone else (Donald Finkel?), and there might have been an interesting story in the notes.  I'll try to track the issue down.)  She also had only a single poem appear in The New Yorker: "Emergency Ward, St. Vincent's," which came out in 1989.  This was collected in Alternative Lives, her final collection. Had she not gotten sick, she might have broken through to the next level. On the other hand, she did have a reasonable number (21) published in Poetry over the years, so she wasn't a complete unknown.

I only put about an hour of internet research into it, so this is hardly definitive or an exhaustive list, but these all appear to be uncollected poems: 
"The Old Wives' Tale" Ontario Review No. 34 (Spring/Summer 1991)
"The Snowstorm Collector" New Letters Volume 58 No. 1 (Fall, 1991)
"Transcendence" Poetry (May 1992)
"Into the Trees" The Yale Review No. 81 (April 1993)
5 poems. The Chariton Review: Volume 19, No. 2 (Fall 1993)
"Reincarnation, Goodbye: 1992" Ontario Review No. 39 (Fall/Winter 1993-94)
Two poems. Paris Review No. 151 (Summer 1999)

I am particularly intrigued by what appeared in The Chariton Review and the Paris Review in 1999.  I'll see how long it takes me to track these down, and if any are particularly memorable, I will consider posting them below.  In the meantime, Transcendence can be viewed at the Poetry Foundation website, along with links to her other appearances in Poetry Magazine.

A quick update: I have tracked down everything except the poems in Chariton Review.  I thought I had a line on them at UBC, but for some reason they weren't available electronically (when they should have been).  I will try one more time* and then perhaps just buy a copy of the magazine.  However, due to the truly extortionate shipping to Canada it will have to go to an address in the U.S., which will entail a long delay in getting my hands on them.  Bah.

Anyway, for the next update, I will go ahead and list which of the uncollected poems I liked the most.  It's late and I can no longer remember the ones that I did read.

* UBC only has 4 back issues (even on-line) when they should have a dozen at least.  No idea where that breakdown occurred.  So I will just order the stupid thing and see if there is any way to get it into my hands before the spring...  Blah.

Urdang Again

So it turns out I have one more mid-sized blog post before the longish one that I should wrap up tonight.  Then I have one (on Shakespeare actually) that will probably percolate for a while (and may have to be broken up into sub-posts).  However, my main focus will be on more traditional forms of creative writing for a while.

Anyway, I have gradually been collecting various poetry collections by Contance Urdang.  I talk a bit about her in this post, though it turns out I was not quite as clear as I could be what she actually published.

The individual volumes are:
Charades and Celebrations, October House (1965)
The Picnic in the Cemetery Braziller (1975)
The Lone Woman and Others, University of Pittsburgh Press (1980)
Only the World, University of Pittsburgh Press (1983)
Alternative Lives, University of Pittsburgh Press (1990)

Oddly, the back cover of Alternative Lives says she has 8 volumes of poetry out, but I cannot find any evidence of this (maybe they accidentally added in the various novellas she published).  As Urdang died in 1996, presumably she had quite a few uncollected poems in literary magazines (and possibly a really obscure under-the-radar chapbook).

I have been rereading the first section of Only the World, which is mostly about travel and tourism.  I am really liking them (see here and here), and I found the last one ("The Wish to Settle Down") aptly described my life (well, aside from the fact that it would never cross my mind to live on a farm -- I probably would rather be dead).  (The shock of discovery can be so electric for better and worse...)  I'll go ahead and close this post with that poem.

However, I am also enjoying The Lone Woman and Others a bit more than I did the first time around (granted, I had just been skimming this at the library, while preoccupied with other things).  This collection seems to come out of a feminist perspective, but not a shrill one, if that makes sense (see here and here).  I'm picking up some echoes of Anne Sexton (a poet I really adore) and even a few fragments of Plath.

I really do think Urdang ought to be better known.  It does seem that her collections are available in one form or another, but she deserves at least a Selected or better yet a Collected Poems, especially if it could gather up the poems she wrote after 1990.

The problem is: who should do this?  Her husband, Donald Finkel, probably tried, but apparently didn't make any headway before his own death in 2008.  The University of Pittsburgh Press is the logical publisher, but they seem to have deleted her from their catalog.  Washington University in St. Louis (where she and Finkel taught) doesn't have an academic press, and the Urdang collection in their library (which would be a useful starting place) seems to stop short at 1983, so doesn't have the later material (or at least it isn't catalogued).  So unfortunately, there are no logical candidates for an editor or a publisher.  I suppose a dedicated internet campaign might help, but I am feeling too lazy to start one.  (However, if I do make any headway on my transportation anthology and make contacts among editors and agents, I will at least mention this.)

What I will also do is offer up two ideas to enterprizing grad. students, who should feel free to run with them -- and thus build the publicity it would take to get Urdang back into the canon (if she ever was there in the first place) and back into print in a more substantial way.  First, a detailed comparison of Jane Kenyon and Constance Urdang in their poetic outlook and output and even literary reputation.  The second idea is for a more ambitious book on married poets (called Poetic Couplings?) where the three main cases would be Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall and then Constance Urdang and Donald Finkel.

One short side note is that in the course of looking for potential Urdang chapbooks, I came across two Canadian poets that I had never heard of previously: Ken Norris and George Stanley.  I'm still interested in poetry (and am still looking for poems on transportation though not as compulsively as before) and it is so much less overwhelming to read (and review) now that my time feels pinched by Proust.  My guess is the only way I will complete the 7th Canadian Challenge is by sprinkling in a few books by Canadian poets, so I have placed them on hold at the library.  I am particularly intrigued by Stanley's collection titled Vancouver.  This seems to have beaten W.H. New's YVR by about 4 years, but is quite obscure, even when compared to YVR.  I'll definitely be checking this out in the near term.

I have many things to do today, so I will have to wrap this up.  As promised, I will end with another poem from Only the World.

The Wish to Settle Down

And some journey not as pilgrims, but are carried along
On an endless conveyor belt, crisscrossing their lives
Without a stopping-place, like the Flying Dutchman
Traversing the ocean of sky, or the Wandering Jew
Forever on the move, their destiny
A series of provincial capitals;
In one they think maybe they’ll settle down,
Buy a geranium for the window sill,
Join AA, study French, lose weight,
Compare notes on the weather with the neighbors;
But something intervenes, it won’t work out.
Weary of moving, once more they move on
To try a foreign city or a farm,
Their only resting place the final one.

Has U a Cringe-worthy Moment?

Probably just admitting that I am aware of the internet meme of Lolcats will be considered (by me) to be cringe-worthy some day.  I certainly do occasionally think back over the past (or read old journals) and think -- wow, did I actually write (or, even worse, say) that?  I have slowly learned to hold my tongue more and think once or twice before speaking, though this doesn't completely prevent me from slipping up...

I guess this post wouldn't be complete without one of these...

So what has inspired this post?  The immediate inspiration is the trailer for the new indy film American Milkshake, which I had hoped would be good, but looks pretty painful.  (I'm actually not going to link to it, but it will be easy to find.)  It's about this white kid who wants to be Black and manages to scrape by and just makes his high school basketball team (the last roster spot).  He hopes this will make him cool, but he is still just a dorky bench-warmer.  He comes across as pretty clueless, and much of what he says in the trailer crosses the line into cringe-inducing territory.  At about the same level of sophistication as "Accidental Racist."  And there is just too much cluelessness (or faux cluelessness) for me to enjoy. (Kind of a weak remake of White Men Can't Jump for Millennials without the frisson that comes from learning that Woody Harrelson is actually a ringer, though his vertical leap is indeed weak.)

In general, I don't like watching TV or movies about totally clueless characters.  I don't find them interesting and I don't like laughing at people acting stupidly; consequently, I don't like a lot of mass culture, though what I really dislike are badly written shows where characters act clueless for 20-odd minutes, then more or less come to their senses for the finale.  I think smart people with large blind spots are much more intriguing, since we all have some blind spots.  Also, once you move outside your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, it isn't that hard to find someone who takes offense (real or feigned) about almost anything (and who may or may not accept your excuse that you meant well).  Thankfully the ranks of the professional grudge-bearers seem confined to internet chat boards, but in our increasingly polarized society, it really is easy to cause offense the second that one starts talking about politics or religion.  I'm well aware that I have cast my lot with the secularists and no longer worry overmuch about offending deeply religious types, to give only one example.

There's no question that I have a lower tolerance for cringe-worthy material than others.  I really was turned off by the UK and US versions of The Office.  I would refuse to interact with David Brent in any meaningful way -- and I would simply cut dead Hyacinth Bucket (from Keeping Up Appearances).  So I would have to be written out of such shows quite quickly.  Just a few weeks ago, I watched Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, and while much of it was quite funny or at least droll, the main couple are such a horrible pair that I can't understand why their friends don't simply forbid them from coming round (school ties notwithstanding).  I suppose that really is a large part of British comedy (and occasionally US comedy) that overbearing, awful characters run roughshod over others, who really ought to tell them to piss off.  I only had one friend who was remotely like that, and I have phased him out of my life, so I don't have that much interest in seeing this replicated ad nauseam in television and movies.  I honestly think it would be more interesting if at least 25% of the people they ran into told them off good, rather than always letting these difficult characters be tolerated or even coddled.  (I'd say precisely for this reason One Foot in the Grave is actually a far more compelling Britcom than Keeping Up Appearances.)

As I said, I really prefer characters who are generally together but clueless about certain social cues (certainly not everything) or who have specific blind spots.  Or -- and this is a relatively productive vein that doesn't seem to be well-tapped -- that function perfectly well in their own environment but don't have a clue when running up against people from different backgrounds.  I mean obviously the fish-out-of-water thing has been done, but what hasn't been done nearly as much is someone from the dominant culture really getting to know someone from another culture (in the melting pot/mixing bowl of either the U.S. or Canada) and then running up against their ignorance of other cultures.  There's nothing that says they actually would know these things, and they can certainly get by without knowing these things, but as they try to get to know others from other backgrounds, then they will probably find themselves tripped up.

To give a concrete example, from my play Corporate Codes of Conduct, the white manager starts talking to the new Chinese programmer.  She is actually second generation and fairly assimilated, but has "inherited" a very deep dislike of Japan and Japanese people. This is actually a quite well-known attitude, but it wasn't something that the manager had ever troubled himself to even think about.  It doesn't mean he is racist or even that he thinks all Asians are alike and should get along, but it was simply well-outside his WASP frame of reference.  He does show a capacity to learn from others once this is pointed out -- and the programmer has her own blind spots as well.

I suppose I am not being entirely consistent* in my second play Dharma Donuts, which does raise the stakes a little.  There is a character that comes across as a bit more cringe-worthy and even a bit of a jerk, but I want to see if I can redeem him (somewhat) for the viewers, i.e. how can a person walk back from a bad first impression and perhaps even get the viewer to root for him.  That is basically what they are trying to do in The Office (though certainly moreso in the U.S. version).  But those guys are just so unbelievably clueless across the board, whereas my character is a bit too irreverent and a bit too full of himself.  A bit too sure that people (of all cultures) would like him once they know and understand him.  (Or that, like Blackadder, he can always talk himself out of a corner.  I used to share this delusion.)  But he is not stupid nor even tone deaf in all situations. Still, it's definitely a thin line -- and perhaps I have crossed it by writing a character that I probably wouldn't want to watch if anyone else had written him.  Well, definitely something to consider during rewrites...

Speaking of that, I have one more long post to complete tomorrow.  After that, I am finally feeling the time is right to turn my creative juices back to working on these plays and my novel about Toronto.  So in the near future I may be a little slower to post than in the immediate past, but I will try to do some shorter update posts from time to time.

P.S. While it does pain me a bit to recall it now, I think my personal worst cringe-worthy moment was when I was an assistant with a color guard team from a Newark school (I was a very inexperienced teacher at the time who had been conned into donating my time to tutor the girls on field trips).  There had been a lot of turmoil and various things going on, and I gave them some pep talk about how, even though to get the same score they would have to outperform all the other suburban teams (who had all these breaks they never got), that we still believed in them.  I have mercifully blanked a lot of my speech out, but it definitely could have come straight from the script of Bring It On, with me being more or less in the role of the token white assistant/mascot to this inner city team.  In my defense, I really did mean well...  And this occurred a couple of years before Bring It On came out, so I wasn't a plagiarist, accidental or not.  But wow, it did feel like art was imitating my life in that case when that movie hit the big screen.

* Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself... (lifted from Whitman).