Sunday, December 28, 2014

Aga Khan Museum architecture

Before I get started, I thought I would share one more objet d'art from the Aga Khan Museum.

Perhaps it is a bit cheeky, but when I saw this coat:

I couldn't help but think of this Davie Bowie cover art.

Moving onwards, from the outside, the Aga Khan Museum is not terribly distinguished, though I assume when the trees are mature, it will be a nice plaza/entryway into the museum.  That's not really a major criticism, as it generally is a bad idea to spend more on the building than on the art within.

From the inside, however, there is quite a nice interior open-air courtyard.

In the last photo, you can even see the pastry bar.

I would say that the architecture is generally low-key and serves the needs of the museum without unduly calling attention to itself, so in that sense it is a success.  The museum has a number of nice side rooms (not pictured), and the main exhibit hall is airy.  Now whether at some point they will feel they need to expand to show more of the collection, it might be hard to grow, unless they add an underground gallery.  Still, I will keep my eyes open to see what else will be going on at the museum in 2015 and if the next special exhibit is worth checking out.

The Lost Dhow surfaces in Toronto

So this could just as easily be Let's Talk about Art, part 3, but I decided that the focus of this post should be on a special exhibit at the relatively new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.  A bit later in the post, I'll go ahead and put up a few photos of their permanent collection.  I'd read about the Aga Khan Museum and this special exhibit in the paper and then when I realized it was essentially just up the street from me (considering the 25 Don Mills bus as a continuation of the 72 Pape bus), I thought I should check it out.  Indeed, it is just a couple of stops past the Ontario Science Centre.

The Lost Dhow show runs through late April.  I thought it was definitely worth seeing, particularly if you are interested in anything vaguely related to archeology or in particular in the Silk Route.  I think my favourite part, aside from a few gold objects was the large number of bowls for trade. Apparently, there were 57,000 bowls mass-produced in China, though the interiors were individually decorated.  How little actually changes over the years.  By that I mean that trade and "globalization" is nothing new, though certainly the scope and impact of global trade has increased dramatically since the early 1900s.

The dhow itself ran aground off the coast of Indonesia roughly 1000 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty in China.  There is speculation that since the waters there (at the time) were quite shallow, the crew not only escaped but took the majority of silk and spices with them.  What is unclear is why they never returned for the rest of the cargo later.  The wreck was discovered in 1998 and has been carefully excavated and put into the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.  This marks the first time that any of the cargo has been on tour in North America, though it is possible that it will travel south later on.  As I said, it is worth seeing if in the area between now and late April.

The rest of the museum is nice, though I would say less spectacular than the Islamic collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  There is an interview with the curator, describing how he is intentionally focusing on everyday objects and deglamourizing them to some extent.  There is something to that approach, but the entrance fee is on the high side, and people may expect to be "wowed" after they have paid it.  I guess I'll see if this style catches on.  It is good that coat checking is free at least.  Also, there is a small pastry bar in the lobby with amazing (and very reasonably priced) baklava for sale.  Probably a good thing that I don't live right next door after all...

There is only one rug on display in the permanent collection, though it is very prominently featured.

Without a lot of editorializing, I'll just include a number of the other objects that caught my eye.

Not surprisingly, they had several Qurans on display.  I thought this was probably the most attractive of the bunch.

Now what was surprising is that they had quite a few artworks with images of animals and even people.  It is an understatement to say that figurative art is not very common in Islamic art, but there were clearly some exceptions in some cultures.  I thought this page from a manuscript was particularly intriguing (sorry for all the camera glare).

This isn't a museum I will go to on a regular basis, but it had some very nice pieces in the permanent collection, so it certainly worth a look in from time to time if one likes Islamic art.  I'll probably make a point of checking out the special exhibits or if they are putting on an interesting concert before I make another trip out there.  The architecture, particularly seen from the inside, is nice, and I'll put together another post on that shortly.

Friday, December 26, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 11th Review - This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For

I read Al Rempel's This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For some time ago, probably all the way back in January!  In my defense, I have generally found it harder to review poetry collections than novels, as it is very hard to convey the overall feel of a collection.  Typically I only end up focusing on the two or three poems I like best, and that can perhaps skew the review towards my mood at the time.  But I'll do my best.

In late 2013/early 2014, I was reading a fair number of poetry collections that I had been tipped off to by the BC Poetry in Transit series.  Here are the actual subway placards for 2013, and here is a page with a more general overview of the program.  I'd already heard of W.H. New's YVR, but several of the others were new to me.  (In general, 2013 looks a bit stronger than the 2014 offerings, though I think I'll check Jane Munro's Blue Sonoma out of the library.)

As it happens, the title poem, which is probably the strongest in the collection, is reprinted in its entirely on the subway placard.  I'll just reprint the first and last lines:
the trains bend and bend and follow the recursive river
and they carry everything I need
somewhere in the North Pacific, my plastic obsession
is being stirred into the brine by an invisible finger

If I am following this, I think what Rempel is discussing is how the freight trains are carrying all kinds of unnecessary consumer goods, many of which will ultimately end up in landfills or, worse, be flushed out to the ocean.  He may also be thinking of several news reports from a couple of years ago about the large number of shipments from Asian (of mostly plastic items of one type of another) that ended up going overboard and cluttering up the ecosystem.  We as humans really only have ourselves to blame for this despoiling of nature, though in the case of a place further north, like Prince George, BC where Rempel resides, much of the pollution comes from outsiders.  Obviously, a cheerful message for Boxing Day,* but it is always worth keeping in mind to keep excess consumption to a minimum and to recycle as much as possible and to absolutely not dump in the ocean.

The general anxiety becomes far more specific and pointed in "Have a Bath" where a parent's fears for his (or her) child becomes quite overwhelming. Danger lurks behind every decision that one makes:
what isn’t a question of risk management? we send
our children off in automobiles and buses.
one minute, their smiles bobbing in the window —
but we mustn’t think of it, mustn’t imagine
gasoline tankers or ditches. we’re not sure
how much reality we make with our minds.

Just thinking of the boogeyman can summon him up!  This is particularly on point, since we are just starting to let our oldest walk around the neighbourhood (a bit) on his own and perhaps next year he'll be able to walk to school on his own. Anyway, the parent finally tries to relax a bit in a hot bubble bath, but still seems very edgy. The final line emphasizes how much generalized anxiety has settled in: "wait for the phone to ring", i.e. it is only a question of when (not whether) disaster will strike.

Moving on, to a slightly more positive poem (though one that still implicitly criticizes the wastefulness of the North American consumer) "We Love Bananas":
here’s what we do with bananas. we buy them just
when they’re turning yellow. we play the Tarzan
theme song in our heads as we carry them to the car.
we place them in a ceramic bowl and leave them
out with the still life. we forget to eat them and they go
soft. we put them on the top shelf in the freezer.
we throw them out when we can’t fit
the box of pizza in. we’ve already bought more.

I'll end with a poem about ferries -- "Leaving the Terminal." While I found a few good poems about ferries while researching my poetry and transportation anthology, they are still relatively rare. This poem launches into the voyage from the start:
we’re on board
and the ocean rises to meet us.
the men at the gates are left standing with their safety vests on,
recede with social conventions and the rebuke of seagulls.
we should talk about the light —
it’s gone.
your hand on my arm draws me back
not to you, but to the beating rain
which runs rivulets down the ferry windows
lit up in the ferry’s strange light

what is it? you ask

it's dark.

I found over time, the lack of capitalization felt a bit gimmicky, especially since Rempel didn't go full-cummings and eliminate all punctuation. Note also that "I" remains capitalized throughout. It's a small point, I suppose.

In general, this struck me as a collection that tended towards darker themes. Relationships were somewhat fraught and miscommunication common. There was a sense that disaster, particularly environmental collapse, was just around the corner. If the end of the world was coming, we wanted something else, perhaps something more glamorous...

That isn't to say there aren't more light-hearted poems in the collection, but the ones I thought were the strongest had at least some dark elements to them. I'll try to remember to look up Rempel in a few years to see if he puts out another collection and how closely it follows Apocalypse.

* Edit: I probably should not pick on my neighbours, but I was just astounded by the amount of wrapping paper they were tossing out on Boxing Day (at least it was being recycled), indicating a somewhat out-of-control Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Best reads of 2014 - a round-up

So the presents are all wrapped, and I am feeling on top of the holidays for once.  I guess that is one of the advantages of your children outgrowing Santa -- presents can be wrapped over several days and not all in a mad rush on Christmas Eve.  (Of course that assumes that one did shopping early and nothing gets lost in the mail...)

Now as it happens, I have not hung the stockings, mostly because I've been getting home late all week, but I will make sure to get home earlier tonight and take care of that.  If I happen to see the chocolate gold coins, I'll pick up a few as stocking stuffers, but essentially I am done.  It's a nice feeling.  (Actually, the stockings are now hung, but not stuffed.)


I don't think I did much of a round-up of the year last year, particularly my favourite books read in 2013, partly because I knew I was transitioning to a new job, and I had a lot to deal with, so I wouldn't leave my former co-workers high and dry.  I guess I was roughly halfway through Proust (but not enjoying it) as 2013 closed, and I was reading a fair number of Molly Keane and Barbara Comyns books, since they generally weren't available in Toronto libraries. Of the Keane, I liked Two Days in Aragon (probably read in 2014), Conversation Piece and Taking Chances.

I liked Comnys in flashes and small doses -- The Skin Chairs was pretty good and there were some interesting moments in A Touch of Mistletoe and The House of Dolls.  It's possible that with Comyns I saved the best for last (The Juniper Tree, which I should get to in early 2015).  I think that is probably the case for Molly Keane as well.

It would take quite a while to reconstruct what I really liked in 2013, though Faulkner's The Reivers was a lot of fun, and I appreciated Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy quite a bit, once I finally committed to reading it.  I also got through Anna Karenina, though this is a case where I wasn't really blown away by it.  My more recent reading of Tolstoy's short novels have generally left me cold, and I am clearly never going to be in his camp (much preferring Dostoevsky and Turgenev).

In terms of my top 5 books read in 2014, it would be:
(The best novel I reread during 2014 was Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.)

Honorable mentions for 2014 go to:
  • Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  • The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy
  • Rebellion by Joseph Roth
  • Soul by Andrey Platonov 
  • The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

Overall it was a kind of strange year, heavily dominated by Russian literature and books read somewhat out of obligation.  While I still am trying to get through a fair number of books that I can then donate (and clear out my shelves a bit more), I have tried to skew the ever-growing TBR pile towards books I am really excited about reading in 2015 and beyond.  There are actually quite a few at the top of the list that I have wanted to read for a long time, and only one that feels a bit like an obligation (perhaps you can guess which one that is).

Now if I can only remember to carve out some time for my own writing in 2015...

Anyway, Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for the New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Let's Talk about Art, part 2

To wrap up, let me talk about two recent art exhibits/happenings, with a MOCCA tie-in.

It turns out that one of the key staffers at MOCCA also runs occasional shows out of his loft gallery over on Niagara.  I just happened to be reading the Toronto Star on Monday when the story came across that they were doing a one-day show with a high concept twist -- any painting unsold at midnight would be burned.  Also, the pieces were all pretty much 8.5 x 11, and they were mostly priced from $50-300 to help spur quick sales.
I decided that I ought to check this out, so I managed to find the place after work and looked around.  As one might imagine, the artwork was of various quality and probably not the very best that the artists in the show had available, as they knew there was a significant risk of it going up in smoke.  I decided to "rescue" one of the pieces.  In fact, it is one of the ones in the picture in the paper, though I hadn't realized that at the time.

I think it would have been fun to stick around until the show ended and the fire was lit, but I really had to get back home.  My understanding is that most of the pieces did sell and only 20 or so were actually burned.

Flash forward to Friday, I arranged to pick up my piece at MOCCA, which was a good time to catch the Vera Frenkel show Ways of Telling.

It is hard to really describe the show.  Part of it is mixed media, including a file cabinet supposedly filled with private information on other artists or actors (at least I think that was the concept).  There were several video installations, with my favourite being The Blue Train. I should have taken a bit longer listening to and exploring this piece, but I was running quite late, as I was at work writing memoranda until 7 pm.  I might try to go back Sat. or Sun. in the late afternoon.  It isn't entirely clear to me if Ryerson or MOCCA or both now own a copy of The Blue Train.

The real centerpiece of the exhibit is The Transit Bar, which is a functioning bar where drinks are served and occasionally there is a piano player.  You are essentially a participant in reenacting a bar (I believe in postwar Germany) and you can passively or actively engage in such role-playing.  I was pleased to see that the piano player was on the job when I strolled in.  I didn't drink, but I did sit down and read some of the newspapers.  There were a few other people sitting in the space.  Shortly after I sat down, my contact turned up.  We spoke a few words, and then he left to go talk to an older woman.  I half-suspected this was Vera Frenkel herself, and I was right.  So two artist sightings in 3 days -- not bad.  (And three if you count Art Spiegelman's wife, who was also at the AGO, though I suppose she is more of an editor/publisher, but still a key figure in the New York art world.)

I guess the two of us, sitting and discussing the show (in our dark trench coats) was just too perfect, and I noticed that Vera took a few photos of us, so perhaps we'll end up in some future project.  It was interesting to learn that the National Gallery in Ottawa actually owns The Transit Bar, but it certainly isn't something they display on a routine basis, so there really is just one week left to check this out if it sounds of interest.  It was a nice moment, and perhaps a bit of a turning point as I start to make greater efforts to make some contacts in Toronto's art and theatre and even literary scenes.

Let's Talk about Art, part 1

There are actually four things I wanted to discuss about Toronto and the art scene, so I will just break them up into two posts, as four is just too much.

Last Wed. I thought I would pick up some stocking stuffers for the kids from Curry's Arts Supply near the AGO, which I did, though the selection wasn't quite as good as I had hoped. This is a small store, and it appropriately focuses on the needs of the students going to art school just down the street. I was running a bit late, but thought I might as well drop in at AGO and see the Michelangelo drawings one more time.

As it happened, the Art Spiegelman exhibit was opening and Art himself was there to give a short speech opening the show! So I got into the crowd and listened for a while. I had no idea it would be so short and focused, as I kind of drifted off (to see the Michelangelo) but had I waited another 5 minutes, I would have heard the whole thing. I am hoping AGO actually taped his remarks, and I will try to find out. My recollection was that he said he had been a low art snob for the longest time, but someone dragged him to the museum (MOMA) and he really fell for the cubists, particularly Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which spoke to him. If I am interpreting him correctly, he said that he liked the Medieval art and then not much else up through the Cubists, and then not much after. I find that odd, since he ought to have more in common with the pop artists, particularly Roy Lichtenstein. Still, his point was that he liked art that had a bit of a story, so he would certainly like triptychs, and those with some "movement" to them, but overall some meaning had to be conveyed. He made it clear that he thought most contemporary art was a scam, more grounded in Wall Street values than anything else. In another interview, he did point out that he liked late Philip Guston, after he had returned to quasi-representational art. (I wonder if he thought much of Beckmann's triptychs?)

Now as it happens, I have seen the exhibit (or a version much like what will be on at AGO) a year or two ago in Vancouver. So I'll see it, though I am in no great rush. I certainly wasn't going to stand in line (the line on Wed. was very, very long). It is a bit of a problem presenting a comic artist in a museum, since you just really don't have the time to read all the panels. This review goes into some of the issues with this approach.  If I recall, my favourite pieces were the ones after the Maus panels and before the In the Shadow of No Towers material.  What I think will be quite interesting is the potential interplay between the Spiegelman and the Basquiat exhibit, which opens in early February.  It will be quite interesting to see what they actually pick to display, as some of Basquiat is quite intricate and striking, but a lot looks pretty childish and certainly ugly.  I think the apparent craftlessness of much of it is hard for many viewers to get past.  I'm actually glad I didn't buy any of the Basquiat books on offer and just checked a few out from the library.  Still, I'll want to go a few times and probably take the kids as well.

I'll be going into more detail about MOCCA (the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art) in the next post, but I was a bit thrown when I learned that the Doug Coupland exhibit is going to be co-sponsored by them and ROM this Feb. through April.  First, I don't quite know how they will split it up, though perhaps the biggest/tallest pieces, such as the Lego towers and the fallen hydro tower, will end up at the ROM.  Second, I am a bit worried that this is the second time that an exhibit has started in Vancouver and then Toronto gets it belatedly.  I made such a big deal about how hit-or-miss the VAG is.  However, I suppose it is more important that more people have the opportunity to see the exhibition.  Also, Lost in the Memory Palace went the other way, i.e. it was on in Toronto first.  I actually liked the Coupland exhibit quite a bit (as I mention here). I'll definitely check out the MOCCA part of the show a couple of times (MOCCA is pretty close to where I work and has free admission), but it is much less clear whether I will go to the ROM.  I don't go very often, not least of all because the expansion was such an abomination (it's hideous architecture and I think it probably ended up losing them actual exhibit space), and the entrance fee is too high.  I guess I'll probably make it to their upcoming exhibit on Pompeii this summer, however.


Ok, that covers off two of the topics.  Next...

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Newsflash: Vera Frenkel at MOCCA - one week left

I'm going to come back to this, probably tonight, in a series of blogs about various art installations I've seen in the past two weeks, but I thought I would mention that there is one week left on Vera Frenkel at MOCCA in Toronto.  If one wants to experience the Transit Bar in full operation, I think it is basically today from 4-6, Tues from 4-6 and next Saturday from 4-9 (with some chance the bar will be open next Sunday the 28th as well).

I'll circle back around very soon to go into why this might be of interest, but I have to run now for most of the day.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Duel in Russian Literature

I want to stress that this is hardly a complete round up of all the examples of duels in Russian literature, but a few thoughts on some interesting examples that I've come across lately in my six month exploration of Russian literature.  It's worth noting that today is the day that I wrap up my initial list from August, but then I added roughly six weeks worth of reading of fairly obscure Soviet-era authors. (No Bulgakov this time around, though I might dip into a couple of his plays, which I have seen but not in quite some time.)

Let me just say at the outset that, since I am focusing on duels and their outcomes, there will be some SPOILERS below.

I decided to put these in order of composition, as it becomes sort of clear that as time progressed and some parts of Russian society tried to become more European, i.e. more Westernized, dueling became increasingly seen as an anachronism and authors became more satirical in their descriptions of duels or failed duels.  There is also an increasing separation between writers and the nobility and/or military men.  One could argue that there wasn't really a distinct intelligentsia capable of writing novels until perhaps the 1850s.  As writers were increasingly drawn from non-titled ranks, it would have been absurd, essentially unthinkable, for a landed gentleman to actually engage in a duel with Dostoevsky for example.  Thus, there is at least some bitter truth in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground where the main character is isolated and essentially a pariah.  He has no meaningful outlet for his rage against society or specific individuals; he does consider engaging in a duel but this never happens, partly from his own cowardice and partly because he is essentially beneath notice.  The unlikelihood of Russian authors after 1860 or so to actually engage in a duel between gentlemen seems to further push them to write about them satirically.

For the first two authors in the list, Pushkin and Lermontov, duels were no laughing matter, however. Both were killed in duels that have some striking similarities to their masterworks.

Pushkin writes about a postponed duel in "The Shot" in his Tales of Belkin (1830).  In this case, an offended man initiates a duel, but then feels that his opponent won't take it seriously because he doesn't seem to have too much to lose.  Years later, the man finds his opponent has been married or is about to be married, so he shows up and announces that the duel is back on.  It is clear that he is the superior shot, and now his opponent is very fearful of death, but his wife appears and the avenging man takes pity on his opponent.  This was a good, concise story that reminded me a bit of a Borges story, or even Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold (aside from the denouement, of course).

However, Eugene Onegin (1833) is generally considered Pushkin's masterwork.  Here, it is really unclear that Lensky really has grounds for challenging him to a duel, but the challenge is made and accepted.  Now there are some aspects of the duel that escaped me on first reading (I suspect these notes are ultimately cribbed from Nabokov).  The main point is that the second does not really try to settle the matter without a duel the way that he was supposed to, so it is a particularly stupid and pointless duel.  At any rate, Lensky is killed and Onegin eventually becomes a changed and chastened and more serious person.

What is somewhat intriguing is that while Pushkin doesn't seem to think there is actually any honor at stake, he also seems pretty cavalier about the business of death and that maybe it is better to die young and have people think you had all this unfulfilled potential than to die old and patently a fraud (at least an artistic one).  (Shades of Neil Young's "It's better to burn out than to fade away?)

Anyway here are the relevant lines (in dueling translations no less):

Chapter 6, Stanza 39
Perhaps however, to be truthful,
he would have found a normal fate,
The years would pass; no longer youthful,
he’d see his soul cool in its grate;
his nature would be changed and steadied, 
he’d sack the Muses and get wedded; 
and in the country, blissful, horned,
in quilted dressing-gown adorned,
life’s real meaning would have found him; 
at forty he’d have got the gout,
drunk, eaten, yawned, grown weak and stout, 
at length, midst children swarming round him, 
midst crones with endless tears to shed, 
and doctors, he’d have died in bed.
(Johnston translation)

Chapter 6, Stanza 39
Or maybe he was merely fated
To live amid the common tide;
And as his years of youth abated,
The flame within him would have died.
In time he might have changed profoundly,
Have quit the Muses, married soundly;
And in the country he’d have worn
A quilted gown and cuckold’s horn,
And happy, he’d have learned life truly;
At forty he’d have had the gout,
Have eaten, drunk, grown bored and stout,
And so decayed, until he duly
Passed on in bed . . . his children round,
While women wept and doctors frowned.

(Falen translation)

I'm not going to go into great detail about Pushkin's actual death by duel, other than it had a huge impact on Mikhail Lermontov. I should admit right now that I have not read Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, so I won't say much at all about him, other than he seemed to have a lot of hero-worship for Pushkin and clearly followed in his footsteps.  Lermontov nearly challenged Georges d'Anth├Ęs, the man who killed Pushkin, to a duel, then wrote a poem, Death of the Poet, about that earlier duel.

While Pushkin's death was certainly a huge loss for literature, I have to say I think Lermontov was calling out the wrong people and trying to drag them into what had essentially been a personal affair.*  At any rate, the Tsar took a dislike to Lermontov and sent him away to quasi-exile in the Caucasus.  However, Lermontov ended up distinguishing himself well and came back essentially a hero (though the Tsar and his officials blocked Lermontov from receiving his deserved medals and awards).

Lermontov managed to write A Hero of Our Time in 1840, but then got engaged in an actual duel (with Nikolai Martynov) in 1841 and was killed.  Perhaps in terms of wasted potential, this is even a crueler loss than Pushkin, who at least had written several masterpieces or near masterpieces by his death.  And the duel was apparently over nothing other than Lermontov teasing Martynov about his style of dress and affectations.  How absurd.  Here's a blog post on Lermontov with some description of how art and reality collided with him, just as with Pushkin.

I have to admit that I am just worn out on the Russians at this point, but the next time around (probably 3 or 4 years from now), I will make a special point to read A Hero of Our Time.  The other books I am likely to tackle then are Dead Souls, Goncharov's Oblomov, Chernyshevsky's What is to Be Done (even if it isn't the best literature, it will be interesting to see what it was that got under Dostoevsky's skin so much -- Notes from Underground is written almost entirely as an attack on What is to Be Done), Bulgakov's Diaboliad and perhaps the remaining Turgenev -- Smoke, On the Eve and Virgin Soil.

Turning to Turgenev, there are a couple of interesting duels.

His Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850) is almost a forerunner of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, though the superfluous man at least is out and about in the world and does take more action, rather than simply carping about things afterward.  The image of a trioka with 3 strong horses harnessed to a 4th weak horse is actually pretty accurate, as the plot of the story is that the Superfluous Man is in love with a young woman who falls for a prince, but then when it is revealed that the prince never had any intentions of marrying her, she settles for a 2nd man, not the Superfluous Man.  The Superfluous Man does keep the action moving along though, as he challenges the prince to a duel and kind of accelerates things, even though he doesn't benefit from the next turn of the wheel.  Turgenev is pretty good at showing how fickle society is, first loathing the Superfluous Man for engaging in a duel (where neither is seriously hurt) to then championing him when the prince reveals himself to be a bit of a blaggard.

Fathers and Sons (1862) has a slightly more sustained section on the duel, really focusing on how the new generation of thinkers and nihilists are generally not willing to engage in duels, as they consider honour a bit of a outmoded concept.  Bazarov decides to go through with the duel with Pavel.  Pavel isn't sure whether Bazarov will shoot his pistol in the air (as a show of contempt) or not, and Bazarov himself isn't sure whether he will do this or try to kill Pavel in earnest.  In any event, Pavel is wounded, though not seriously, and Bazarov clears off, back to his parents' house.

There is a sort of similar duel in Dostoevsky's Demons (1872) where Stavrogin -- the most effective of the "new men" -- is challenged to a duel by the son of someone he insulted on a previous visit to his home province (perhaps that was even the governor).  While tempted to ignore it, Stavrogin finally accepts the challenge, but shoots 2 or even 3 times straight up in the air (if one was intentionally trying to miss it was better form to not be so obvious about it).  The duel is concluded and the son leaves, more humiliated than ever.

Perhaps the most elaborate discussion of the various options open to the two parties in a duel is Chekhov's relatively late novella The Duel (1891).  Here the duel goes back and forth between Von Koren and Laevsky being a total anachronism to a joke to being seen as deadly serious.  Laevsky in particular mostly thinks that Von Koren will shoot his pistol in the air but occasionally thinks he is deadly serious.  Von Koren for his part really does want to kill Laevsky (because he doesn't approve of his lifestyle, apparently) and takes aim but only nicks Laevsky, (though in the neck!).  While Chekhov is probably at least somewhat ironical, he still seems to suggest that the duel did some good: Laevsky basically does take this as a sign to mend his ways and becomes a serious person, trying to work his way out of debt and marries the woman with whom he was living in sin.

Finally, I am going to end with Kuprin's The Duel (1905).  Kuprin basically doesn't see any good remaining in duels, and they are completely outmoded and a sign of a sick society.  Here is a pretty thorough review.

As I was exploring this theme, I found that Melville House, has published 5 different novellas specifically on duels as part of the Art of the Novella series, though I have to say at 300 pages Kuprin's contribution completely violates the basic principles of being a novella.  These particular novellas come with digital bonus material such as writers going into the mores of dueling or writers expounding on why duels should be outlawed.  I don't know why the pricing of the entire Duel series is so off (you pay more than if you ordered them individually), but I think for me, the subscription is the way to go. It looks like April 2015 through July 2015 would give me all five Duel related novellas, so I'll probably do that.  However, this is a case where the Toronto Public Library does seem to have the entire Art of the Novella series, and they are kept in circulation, so I'll definitely be checking a few out.

I feel that I have kind of beaten this into the ground, but I did want to mention two famous duels that "didn't happen," as they are both fairly significant.

As I hinted earlier, the protagonist of Notes from Underground (1864) is not really of a class to challenge the military officer to a duel (he is beneath notice).  However, he wants to do something, and he schemes and upgrades his wardrobe by buying a new fur collar for his coat, and ultimately he stands his ground and bumps shoulders with the military officer.  What a triumph.  (Incidentally, according to Dostoevsky's wife's diaries (as recounted in Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden Baden), Dostoevsky really was frequently just as frustrated and socially impotent in public as his Underground Man.)  There is another challenge to duel issued between the Underground Man and one of his former schoolmates, which is a more serious affair, since it could take place, given that they were more or less on the same social footing.  This duel is apparently not taken up, mostly because everyone gets so drunk.  As the Underground Man is seen as having no face to lose, why bother trying to make him act "honourably?"

Finally, there is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1877).  While Karenin briefly considers challenging Vronsky to a duel after he starts the affair with Anna, ultimately he decides to play it safe.  In many ways it would be far too convenient for Vronsky to kill Karenin, thus satisfying "honour" and then still play around with Karenin's wife.  While much of society scorns Karenin for being a coward, there are signs that things are changing and that Karenin's position (and refusal to just agree to being killed by a superior duelist) actually makes life much harder for Vronsky and certainly for Anna.  Russia and other parts of Europe still didn't have dueling completely out of its system, but more and more intellectuals started to come around to the idea that the stakes were just too high to engage in a duel just to satisfy one's honour, which was an outmoded concept, and that one could just as well retain honour through the legal system or, even better, by writing in defense of one's honour.

* Actually, Bulgakov follows up on this theme with a scene in his play Pushkin where the Tsar -- or rather his network of spies and informers -- finds out about the upcoming duel and then orders the police to the wrong location so that the duel will proceed.  There are supposedly quite a few intentional parallels made between the Tsar and Pontius Pilate here (and not-so-secret allusions to Stalin as well).  References to Pushkin resurface in The Master and Margarita, as well as a long section on Pilate.  The cat incidentally does yell out at the police he challenges them to a duel, though it is clear that this is not going to be a fair fight and he just wants to shoot wildly, just as the earlier incident with the literary bureaucrat Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz losing his head (via streetcar) was a pretty one-sided affair orchestrated by the forces of darkness.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lost Arcadia

I was walking by the Royal Alexandria Theatre Monday and saw that Arcadia had closed over the weekend.  That really bummed me out, as I thought it was open for another week.  Later, looking through an email to a friend, I see that it was always supposed to close that weekend, though it is possible that they skipped the Sunday matinee performance.  Maybe that is just as well, since I would have been doubly-bummed out to realize that I could have gotten fairly cheap tickets* for Sunday's performance after oversleeping and not making it to Buffalo.  (The weather looks like it will hold, so I do plan on making it this weekend, trying to leave some flexibility in case I need to visit an open house up around the Donlands subway station.) 

It would have been particularly fun to go again with my friend and her husband, though mostly I feel bad for her for not finding the time to go.  I saw it a bit earlier in the run, and it was a very nice production.  I figure it will turn up in the next 5 or 6 years in one of the cities I am apt to visit, so will try to catch it then.

I'll go ahead and post a few of the notes I was going to send her way to help catch some of the nuances of the play that are hard to pick up on one's first viewing.  I think they are relatively spoiler-free, but don't read on if one doesn't like any information about a play's plot before viewing it.  I am, however, going to assume some basic familiarity with the play and its characters, though one can go look them up here if one has no idea what the play is about.

There is quite a bit in the play about landscape aesthetics.  The garden prior to 1809 was based upon the Italian (and French) ideal of tamed wilderness, whereas the garden is being reconstructed to look more "natural," overgrown and wild.  This is basically the taste shifting away from the picturesque (or at least the Italianate picturesque) to something more rustic.  However, it is someone curious that it is the (unseen) Lord Croom who completely overrules Lady Croom and puts Noakes in charge of reconfiguring the garden.  (One would have thought that the gardens were the lady's responsibility, but perhaps Lord Croom has too much time on his hands, and thus took an interest.)  Lady Croom is most put out by the upcoming changes and wants to keep her gardens tidy.  She is particularly put out by the noise of the steam pump, which must be involved in powering shovels or rollers to transform her garden.  I'll come back to this engine in a bit, as it becomes fairly important to Thomasina's theories.

In the present day, Hannah finds it terribly disturbing that during the early 1800s England essentially turned its back on the Enlightenment and went all "Romantic" and gooey.  Bernard picks up on this just a bit, but is far more interested in uncovering the Byron connection to really pursue it.  I think an interesting tangent would be how there is almost no "Nature" left.  Even the most pristine-looking forests in the U.S. and certainly all of Europe has been impacted by human interventions at one time or another.  There probably are some stretches of northern Canada that are close to pristine, but that would be about it.  While he focuses on a much broader canvas than an estate garden, William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis has some very good sections on how humans transform the landscape and then, a generation or two later, this becomes the accepted landscape -- the way it has always been.

Most of the higher order maths that Thomasina and Septimus discuss (and then Valentine expounds on) are a bit too esoteric to get into here, though I do like Thomasina's comment that Fermat was just having a jape when he wrote down that he didn't have enough space in the margin to prove his theorem.  Fermat's Last Theorem is now considered proven (and perhaps ironically only a couple of years after Arcadia was published), but it was a pretty ungainly thing and it is done in a very elaborate way that surely is not what Fermat had on his mind.  I suspect his proof, if he indeed had any, was largely based on intuition and only covered n=3 through 10 or something like that.

That is somewhat akin to the flashes of insight that Thomasina has that sort of predate the more formal investigations of chaos theory and indeed astronomy or perhaps cosmology.  Thomasina and Septimus are discussing algebra and classical physics, where certain terms can be passed back and forth across the equals sign or various actions can be undone, transferring kinetic energy to potential energy and back.  First, Thomasina wonders why if one swirls jam into rice pudding, one cannot reverse the process and separate the two.  Septimus doesn't think that much of this discovery, though actually it is an important characteristic of chaotic systems, and I believe this is still considered beyond the reach of conventional mathematics.

What is quite interesting, however, is how his metaphors come back to haunt him, even if he doesn't realize it at the time.
Thomasina: ... You cannot stir things apart.
Septimus: No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it forever. This is known as free will or self-determination.

Then a bit later in the play, Thomasina mentions that she noticed Noakes's engine will always lose a penny's worth of heat energy in the exchange (from one form of energy to another).  This is a somewhat odd thing, as she would have not really had the tools or the maths to directly measure power output.  It's sort of a sly nod to Fermat's margin, I suspect.  However, as the two discuss this, it sort of dawns on Septimus that this implies the heat death of the universe.  Somehow Thomasina has uncovered the fundamental ideas behind the Second Law of Thermodynamics (and to get to the original finding, presumably the First Law as well) only 20 years before they were really advanced at all and 50 years before they were codified and generally accepted by physicists.  Now, it turns out that most of the discussion of the Second Law comes from Valentine explaining this to Hannah (and to the audience).

Obviously, it is a huge stretch to imagine a fairly sheltered girl of nearly 17 to have these flashes of insight, but the discussion around the ideas is quite interesting, as Septimus struggles to understand and reconcile himself to the implications: "So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold.  Dear me.", whereas Valentine pretty blithely accepts that all energy will ultimately dissipate throughout the universe and it will all become an endless, unlit cloud of dust ("everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly").  Perhaps because he is a rational scientist, who was largely schooled in maths and physics.

Gentlemen of Septimus's era really were versed in literature and the classics and natural science and history and even theology in a way that has largely fallen out of fashion today.   Even if Stoppard makes Thomasina just a bit too brilliant and perhaps Septimus a bit too fragile (knowing what happens to him after 1809), this is an exhilarating play about ideas and their consequences, which is just not seen enough upon the boards.  Actually, let me refine that.  There are quite a few good plays about political ideologies and their consequences (and The Coast of Utopia, which I will be reviewing soon, is a particularly good example), but there are few good plays about scientific ideas.  Generally, even plays about scientists are more about personalities than science per se.  I am not entirely sure about Frayn's Copenhagen and where it falls.  I think he does take the science seriously, but it is more about working through the moral implications of scientific research and less about how exciting it is to be working to split the atom and uncover the building blocks of the universe.  At any rate, Arcadia and Copenhagen pretty much stand alone, though I am probably missing a few other contenders.

Just as an aside, I don't count Proof, since it talks in such general terms about the amazing math done by the main character, but it doesn't provide any meaningful details (it's all about primes, and that's about all the audience gets).  It's sort of a cheat in that way.  Now, Proof has some other merits, particularly looking at how being driven to intellectual heights can lead to serious mental instability. For instance, people being driven slightly mad when, like Mr. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse, they sense Z is out there but they can only reach J or K on a good day and don't accept their limitations (as Ramsay ultimately does).  I liked Proof, but it is not in the same league as Arcadia, which is perhaps my favourite play written in the last 50 years.  I can hardly wait to see it again.

*I know ticket sales for Arcadia were a bit weak, but I hope Mirvish did well enough that they consider transferring some of the other great shows from Shaw and possibly Stratford.  I heard very good things about J.B. Priestley's When We Are Married, and I'd see that if it transfers.  But in general, the best plan is to try to see the shows over the summer or very early fall if there is anything that catches one's eye, since there are certainly no guarantees that anything will be remounted.

I'm going to hold off on Shaw, since it looks like I'll just zip in and out for two Saturday matinees, but I will probably end up booking something at Stratford, though I'll want to see what their exchange policy is if I end up with a family emergency and can't make it one weekend. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

You can blame it on me

As I mentioned, the Barenaked Ladies have started doing an acoustic version of Blame It On Me.  I suspect they did it in concert first and then decided it went so well that they rerecorded the stripped down version for Odds Are.  Here is a little peek into the recording sessions, and here is a pretty good live version from a couple of years ago (with the TSO no less).  I don't think the Thurs/Fri concerts have made their way to YouTube yet, but I'll keep an eye out.

While this is only a fairly simple pop song about love, there is something so important about taking responsibility for ones actions.  It isn't fun, but it is more adult, and I do sort of pride myself on taking responsibility -- most of the time.

I'm quite frustrated that I missed my window to get to Buffalo, but there truly is no one to blame but myself.  I stayed up way too late reading and blogging and finishing making the holiday cards.  A few years ago I probably would have managed to wake myself up on only a few hours of sleep (and indeed the bus to Seattle left at really ungodly hours -- there are a few slightly more reasonable times to catch the Greyhound to Buffalo, though the 8 am slot is probably the best).  If I had gotten up 15 minutes earlier, I still would have had a shot at the 9:15 bus, but given the poor travel conditions, I might not have made it.  I suspect that given I was waiting until the last, last minute to reserve a seat on the bus, at the back of my mind I knew I wasn't going to make it.  The weather looks kind of the same for next weekend, but I will make the effort to get out.  I think I only have 3 more weeks before the show at the Albright-Knox Museum closes.

So I'll post a couple of pictures of Toronto covered in snow, as I might as well take the opportunity to try to wrap up Christmas shopping this weekend, so I don't feel quite so low and frustrated with myself, even though I have to take the blame for Buffalo.  (As I am trying to rationalize last night, I can tell myself that I didn't actually lose any money and I avoided a lot of football traffic, which might have made the border a dicey proposition, even on the bus.  But I am only partly succeeding...)

8th Canadian Challenge - 10th review - The Girl Who was Saturday Night

I ended up reading this book (Heather O'Neill's The Girl Who was Saturday Night) much sooner than I expected, as I thought it would take at least another month to turn up at the library.  It was a pretty quick read, however, at least in part because the majority of the chapters were short.

The story is set in late 1994 and 1995, and indeed the 1995 referendum on Quebec's independence becomes central to the story.  I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this period, though actually I am working on a story set in 1993/94 and I am focusing on Toronto, where people paid very little attention to the separatist threat until the very tail end of 1994.  There were quite a number of upheavals in Ontario as well, though most of those were 1996 and '97 (particularly the amalgamation of Toronto, which was pushed through in 6 months).  That's one of the things that is hard to get used to about Canada, that things can change in the blink of an eye, relatively speaking, particularly when compared to the glacial change of political institutions in the U.S.  Though the status quo is pretty enduring.  I hope it isn't considered a spoiler to reveal that the people of Quebec voted Non in an incredibly close election (51% to 49%).  It was actually closer than the recent referendum on Scottish independence.  Several observers do wonder if there had been another week or two if the Oui vote would have prevailed.  I haven't read it yet, but Chantal Herbert's book is all about what might have happened had Quebec voted for independence, as it wasn't at all clear how things would have unfolded.

As I mentioned in passing in this post, it is always tricky when appropriating others' stories. (For instance, I definitely have to question the wisdom of writing a history of a family named "Tremblay," when that territory was already staked out by Michel Tremblay.)  I don't say that authors shouldn't write about characters outside their class, but it can always get dicey.  In this case, O'Neill is writing pretty extensively about a bohemian class that she doesn't really seem to fit into.  Her background is basically a reasonably privileged Anglo who went to McGill. (In this sense, Gabrielle Roy, or even Michel Tremblay for that matter, will get a pass when writing about the working poor in The Tin Flute or in Les Chroniques du Plateau-Mont-Royal, but I had trouble swallowing it from O'Neill who just cannot really fathom what it is to be Quebecois, no matter how much time she spent among them.)  The only character who remotely inhabits her world is Adam, the occasional boyfriend of Nouschka Tremblay.  What was interesting to me is that delving into this bohemian and/or working poor class didn't bother me too much at the start of the book, but my reservations kept increasing as it went along, particularly in the chapters focused on the referendum and its immediate aftermath.  There is a lot of discussion about the Quebecois and their penchant for backing the wrong horse in a race, etc. that would be somewhat acceptable if written by a Francophone, but coming from O'Neill just seems like she is starting to channel Mordecai Richler.

All that said, I did like this very short passage.  Nouschka is taking Loulou, her somewhat frail grandfather, to the doctor and generally is not too impressed with the doctor's treatment: "Are you voting Oui ou Non?" That got his attention. The doctor looked up at the old babbling lunatic, whose Oui vote could put on end to the life he was enjoying. English speakers had an absolute horror of separation, and scores of them had left after the first referendum. Loulou smiled innocently at the doctor."

Nouschka is the Saturday Night girl from the title.  It is never spelled out where she gets that title, and I don't believe she is ever called that by anyone in the novel itself, but it probably comes from her wanted to have a good time and not caring much about the consequences.  Her twin brother, Nicolas, may be an even more extreme case, but she generally favours short term pleasures over longer-term goals.  However, she ends up the only person in her family who graduated from high school and she is even making plans for college, though these are constantly in danger of being thwarted for a variety of reasons I'll go into after the spoiler break.  For a pretty decent spoiler-free review, you can look here.

Ok, SPOILERS follow.

I have to say given the huge number of stray cats that pass through the small apartments on Montreal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent, I wonder if O'Neill was ever tempted to call the book The Girl with the Morals of a Cat, since she seems to have slept with most of the young men on the street and even some older ones.  (She explains this by saying everyone in Montreal slept together due to the cold -- again, maybe O'Neill is going just a bit too far here.)  It's not that surprising that Nouschka gets pregnant.  What is more surprising is that she waits until she is married and is 20 years old.  Her twin got a 15 or 16 year old girl pregnant when they were both in their teens.  And the twins' mother bore them at 14 and then abandoned them.  Their father is a legendary (in Quebec) folk-singer who is almost never around, so they are raised in squalor by their grandfather.  (Now I like cats, but the idea that cats from the neighbourhood are allowed in and out of everyone's apartments and are getting into food and such was just disgusting.)  The twins are all but inseparable, which is frequently tied to their growing up motherless and essentially fatherless. That's understandable, but then for them to sleep in the same unmade bed (unless one is having sex in it), surrounded by filth, was just another case of O'Neill taking it that one step too far.

However, Nouschka decides that she can only make something of her life (like graduate night school and keep her job) by starting to put some distance between her and her brother.  They have tried and failed at this in the past, and she takes the fairly radical step of marrying Rafael Lemieux, the only other young man even more emotionally volatile than her brother.  He was once a champion figure skater but let the pressure get to him and he cracked.  Like everyone else on the street (apparently) he dropped out of school and got into petty crime, including some drug dealing and illegally breeding dogs (perhaps for dog fights).  Anyway, people treat him as if he is a ticking time bomb, though he manages to keep down a job as a hospital orderly for most of the novel.  There is much that is not revealed about Rafael's past, though I started wondering whether O'Neill wanted to hint that he had been sexually abused by his skating coach.  I'm not saying that is what she was implying, but I started to get a feeling that only a secret of that magnitude would completely explain his erratic behaviour.

While the wedding is quite a success (and her father shows up and sings his wedding song, making it a red letter day for the street), it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the marriage is pretty rocky.  Nicholas keeps trying to butt in and break up the marriage.  Eventually the pressures of having a baby and, to a slightly lesser extent, the referendum cause the two to separate.  Things spiral out of control for Rafael, and even for Nicolas, who needs to pay $3000 in child support before he can visit his child.  Crime beckons, though I guess I am grateful that O'Neill didn't come up with a scheme where both Rafael and Nicolas went in on the same caper, as that would have been just too trite.

While I don't really want to reveal it, I found the ending to be a bit too optimistic, given all that had come before.  (Actually, one of these days I'll have to reread Slesinger's The Unpossessed to see how she wraps up a novel about Greenwich Village bohemians, who might even have been more f'ed up than these latter-day misfits (ill-matched lovers, crazed poets, and small-time crooks, often all at the same time).  The Girl Who was Saturday Night is definitely worth a read, but I am very glad not to have to meet any of these individuals up close, particularly late at night in a dark alley in Montreal...

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Barenaked Christmas concert

So I am back from sort of a strange concert.  I was actually supposed to go yesterday, but then the school scheduled a winter concert and I had to scramble to exchange my ticket for tonight.  Even though I had to pay to upgrade, it seemed to work out for the best.  The seats next to me were empty (probably people having trouble traveling with the extra snow on the roads).  Anyway, the concert was billed as holiday songs mixed in with some of Barenaked Ladies greatest hits.

First off, I don't even think they got to 1/3 of the material being holiday songs, though perhaps if you count "Snowman" and "Green Christmas" it gets close to that.  Second, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but the full TSO was playing behind them on nearly all songs.  It turns out that Andrew Creegan (one of the founding members, but no longer officially with the band) scored most of the songs for orchestra, and in some cases the arrangements were quite interesting.  Actually "Pinch Me" had so much going on that I didn't even recognize it for a while.  I think the one thing I would have changed would be have brought the vocals up in the mix a bit more, but it wasn't a huge problem.

I guess this makes the 3rd time I've seen them.  The first time was also in Toronto in 1993 when the Creegans were playing part of a Christmas show headlined by Sarah McLachlan.  I can't recall who else was there, but there were a few other Toronto-based bands.  Anyway, the Creegans did a song or two and then, surprise, surprise, the other members of Barenaked Ladies joined them and they did a few songs.  I have no real recollection of what they did, but I have to assume it was "Brian Wilson" and "If I Had a Million Dollars."

Then five or so years ago, they played Chicago during a summer festival (it was 2009, so Steve Page had just left the band).  It was the Taste of Chicago.  The setlist looks pretty good, though no "Blame It on Me," perhaps because it isn't much of a kids' song.  I think had we still been living in the South Loop, I would have taken my son.  I kind of hope they play a summer festival in 2015 or 2016, as I think the kids would enjoy them.  There were quite a few kids in attendance tonight, but the late night and the steep ticket prices kept me from bringing my kids.  The weird thing was the average age of the fans was 5 to 10 years older than me, whereas I thought I was basically a pretty typical fan from way back when.  I guess they really are a Toronto institution if they can consistently pull a much older crowd (than even the band members).

So they kicked off with the Bruce Cockburn cover "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."  The first set ended with "Brian Wilson."  I believe it was in the second set that they did an acoustic version of "Blame It On Me" without the orchestra backing them at all.  This may in fact be my favourite track off of Gordon, so I was really glad I hear them do it. I thought the version of "One Week" that they did was quite interesting -- it almost sounded like a trance version and there was some interesting xylophone support from the percussion section.  They wrapped up with a solid version of "Million Dollars" with the crowd encouraged to sing along at the end.  Then they did their patented mash up of rap and other current hits -- I didn't know most of them other than Lorde's "Royals."  The encore was "Feliz Navidad," which was certainly appropriate, though I had really been hoping for "The Old Apartment," which was the only major hit that was left out, as far as I can remember.  I would definitely have preferred they dropped "Boomerang" in exchange for "The Old Apartment."  Well, I'll probably hear that the next time I see them.  Anyway, it was a very upbeat and often funny concert with the band members razzing each other a bit, as they are wont to do.

Definitely worth seeing, but it is still hard to believe that Gordon was released over 20 years ago.  That's the kind of stuff that makes you feel old.  I am sorry that I missed the McLachlan concert back in Nov., but Massey Hall doesn't have nearly as many seats as one might imagine, and by the time I tried to book, the only seats left were quite expensive ones with restricted views.  I wasn't going to go for that, so I'll just see if she tours next year or in 2016 and try to be a bit more on the ball next time.  But it really does sort of seem that musically at least my early 90s obsessions are coming back around, even if they aren't doing full blown tours.  It's a bit eerie actually.  Well, at least I know for certain that Moxy Fruvous won't be reforming and touring...

Friday, December 12, 2014

Slumming It (Payne's Nebraska)

I've now tried but failed to get through Payne's Nebraska for the second time.  The first time I just timed out without watching more than a few minutes.  This time around the DVD came from the library at another awkward time (my wife's father was in town) but I made more of an effort, but still only made it 1/3 of the way through before giving up.  If I had more time, I might have made it through, but it is possible that I would have still bailed, and I want to explore this a bit further in this post.

There is no question that the writing is pretty sharp, and there are quite a few funny lines, but I started to feel almost a bit dirty watching this, as if it were some voyeuristic look into the lives of the working poor.  I really make an effort to avoid watching "reality TV" for basically the same reason.  Clearly many people are just trying to feel better about their own lives by comparing themselves to the truly clueless or at least hapless folks who open up for the cameras.  I guess it isn't so bad in the case of the rich clueless (Paris Hilton and the Osbornes) who end up laughing all the way to the bank, but for the lower class it really is pretty exploitative.  Of course, how different is this for TV shows that sort of simultaneously mocked and elevated the working (or scheming) classes (Steptoe and Son and its US incarnation Sanford and Son, Only Fools and Horses, My Name is Earl)?  I don't really have an answer, other than I didn't watch these other shows with any regularity, aside from My Name is Earl and even that I think I stopped around Season 2.

To be clear, I am not saying that creators don't have the moral right to write these kind of characters, though personally I feel better about watching or reading a work of art (about the poor) if it seems drawn on the creator's experience and not just a look in on others' lives.  So I much prefer the peek in on well-heeled alcoholics in Sideways, as it seems a lot closer to what Payne knows well (compared to Nebraska).  I guess there is a bit of hypocrisy in that I occasionally work on a play about a Black barber who gets in way over his head when his ex-wife tries to repossess his shop.  This is a case where the story wants to write itself and I'll just have to accept others telling me that I should not have written it, so it had better be truly great to make it worth the grief I'll surely get from others.

In general, I have far fewer problems with novels set among the poor, largely because authors are far more familiar with poverty than mainstream film makers, who may have come from modest backgrounds (though increasingly this isn't the case) but now live in a totally different world.  It's quite common for authors to be struggling financially.  As it happens, I am midway through The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill. It's sort of a mirror into a lower class neighbourhood populated by artistic types. The setting is not dissimilar to the ones Barbara Comyns wrote about or Tess Slesinger's The Unpossessed or some of the novels set in Greenwich Village in the 70s or the Lower East Side in the 80s and very early 90s. I believe this novel is set in the very early 90s (before the 1995 Referendum) but I am not entirely sure. It's one of those novels where the characters are interesting, but I'd want to stay 100 feet away from any one of them in real life.

But to return to my broader point, it isn't just the fact that the characters in Nebraska are fairly poor and the main character is an alcoholic, it is that the whole thing plays out as a rural in-joke.  Depending on where one lives in the midwest, there are fairly significant state rivalries.  Michigan and Ohio have a long-standing grudge against each other, and the same is true of Illinois and Indiana.  Wisconsin seems to have rivalries with both Minnesota and Illinois.  And Iowa and Missouri seem to have no love lost between them.  I'm not from the west, but perhaps the same thing happens out there.  Does Montana have a serious regional rivalry with Wyoming?  What I'm not aware of is Montana looking down its nose at the hicks in Nebraska, but that is certainly what the movie implies.

Almost everyone that the main character meets in Montana tells him to his face that he is misled (or being a complete idiot -- according to his wife) but he decides to go off to claim his prize from the Publisher's Clearing House.  It is only when the man (and his enabler son) end up in the man's hometown in Nebraska that almost everyone believes he has suddenly come into this fortune, and not one probes to find out that it is a mirage.  It's like a town of simpletons in an I.B. Singer story.  The portrayal of Nebraska as emptied out of any real potential or sensible men (even compared to Montana which seems no great shakes) is just so negative that I can't take it, even if there is a large grain of truth in the impact of rural depopulation on top of the deindustrialization of the Midwest.  Indeed, my extended family is all in Iowa, which is generally suffering the same fate as Nebraska, though with a few mid-sized cities that are getting by.

But beyond that, I have trouble watching films where people start fighting over money and inheritances (which is the territory that Nebraska was heading into when I bailed).  Again, ironic in that one of my plays puts this front and center, and old money is invoked in Corporate Codes of Conduct.  Maybe if I work out those issues for myself, I'd be more inclined to watch Payne's Nebraska.

Finally, the back of the DVD case keeps talking about how this old wastrel finds some kind of redemption on this trip.  I mean how many movies about the redemption of drunks do we need?  It seems a pretty cheap kind of grace if one can find it on a road trip with one's son after an entire lifetime of being a failure (and a fairly surly bastard at that).  I really don't go for these kind of movies and have never watched Leaving Las Vegas or Barfly and don't intend to.  I'm not completely opposed to "redemption" movies, and I quite liked Bringing Out the Dead, but it has to actually be earned, not just some sappy lines about how the protagonist suddenly realizes that family is what really matters (and that he is actually proud of his cipher of a son) or some such tripe.  I'm so convinced that Nebraska is going to have such a lousy, sentimental ending that I don't want to waste my time finding out.  Surely that is unfair, but combined with my general unease over the treatment of the Nebraskans and the unseemliness of the upcoming fight over money, this movie just isn't for me.  Maybe at another point in my life I will be willing to give it another chance and let its strengths (particularly the comic dialog) offset my reservations. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Toronto - second and third impressions

Having lived through an interminable election cycle and coming up on our 6 month anniversary (back) in the city, I thought it was time for a few comments on my impressions.

Real estate is shockingly expensive.  Probably slightly lower than Vancouver for what you actually get, but certainly many properties are overpriced.  And yet, we'll have to find something, if only to make sure we are anchored fairly close to the kids' schools.  I decided to pass on a property because it would be extremely difficult to carve out another foot or two of head space in the basement and am now having second thoughts, given how rarely anything turns up in our desired area.  I guess we've got several months left, but I have the sinking feeling that that was probably the best we are going to see.  And I really didn't want to change their schools.

Toronto is really cramped.  As I related here, the City Hall plaza is just too small and unsafe for the various functions that it hosts.  Eric Miller said it well when he said that Toronto functioned pretty well for a city of 1.5 million, but was floundering at 3 million.  The streetcars are very overwhelmed during rush hour, though they aren't too bad otherwise.  Just getting into and out of the subway is a chore with not enough space for people to get up and down stairs safely, and the transfer point at Yonge and Bloor is a complete mess (St. George is a bit better, which is where I generally transfer).  Transit politics are a nightmare, with quite a few projects cancelled by the Conservatives years ago and then the one thing City Hall finally agreed on was an expensive subway that served far fewer people than the proposed LRT (hmm, sounds sort of like Vancouver transit politics but in reverse).  I suppose there are stations on the Red Line in the far north reaches of Chicago that are even worse in terms of the platforms themselves being cramped and dangerous, though in the downtown stations, the staircases are wider.  However, it is true that Chicago is stuck with narrow, unique gauge trains (which are thus considerably more expensive to purchase) on its transit system.  Once you are on the trains, the Toronto system is better than Chicago's.

I remain convinced that the amalgamation was a huge mistake, in the sense that neither the urban nor suburban residents really get their preferred mix of taxes and services, though in general the suburbanites get to outvote the urban residents.  That's certainly not what most progressive proponents of amalgamation have in mind, and it is usually progressives who push for these types of arrangements, though occasionally business-types urge it in the name of efficiency in service delivery.

But Toronto has been living up to its reputation as an arts hub.  The theatre scene is so much better than Vancouver's it is hardly worth mentioning (same thing with AGO versus VAG).  While it is still somewhat behind Chicago, I do find myself in the familiar situation of opening the paper and seeing more theatre openings than I can possibly attend, many at quite reasonable prices.  What Toronto has that Chicago really doesn't have, is the Shaw and Stratford summer festivals, a bit out of town granted, but still a concentration of classical performances with some contemporary theatre sprinkled in that is just really hard to beat.  Last night I saw Sextet at Tarragon, pushed by some glowing reviews.  It was fun, though derivative of The Big Chill.  In a strange way, it gives me a bit more confidence to keep working on The Study Group, in the sense that a perfectly enjoyable piece of theatre can be constructed where the conflict is low-key.  I mean there has to be at least some conflict between characters to move things along -- if everyone wants the same goal and shares the same approach to obtaining it, how boring that would be.  It wouldn't even make for an interesting documentary.  The set up of the play is that this sextet on tour has managed to get trapped in a motel by an on-coming blizzard* and all kinds of secrets come out and many lies are unraveled.  It is just a bit heavy-handed in that the leader of the sextet decides to substitute Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht for the Schubert Quintet, as the storyline (a married women pregnant with another man's child) hits so close to home to his own situation.  But having made this artistic choice, the playwright milks the jokes about Schoenberg and serialism.  Who knew this could be so funny?  Here's a non-ironic performance of Verklarte Nacht as originally composed for string sextet.  The play was well acted, and the characters had pretty distinctive voices, though as the expense of making a few of them almost cartoonishly dim or twee.  (I find it is very hard to have voices distinct from each other and still be normal personalities.)  It definitely makes me a bit more inclined to get a 3 play subscription to Tarragon for the rest of their season, so that's something I'll consider fairly soon.

For a totally different experience, next week I have (cheap) tickets to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is almost nothing but expressed conflict between characters. I haven't seen this in ages, and I guess I wouldn't say I am looking forward to it, but I am curious how well they do it. I am trying to make the rounds of the small companies in Toronto just to see what they are up to.  I doubt I have the time to get on a company board, but I might see about getting a bit more involved with a smaller company.  It would be nice to put some roots down in Toronto, though maybe I need to wait until I know where I am actually living first!

I don't have any real regrets about the move here, other than if I had actually been possible, I should have just stuck around in the mid 1990s and I probably could have bought a nice house (or at least a semi-) after I had straightened out my employment prospects.  Of course, the truth is that without going on to Northwestern, I wouldn't have had any decent employment prospects.  My life would have been just as irregular and insecure as the protagonist of my novel.

* Actually, I was caught on a school athletic trip in a blizzard and 10 or more school teams had to camp out in the school gym where we were supposed to compete.  Assuming I ever do wrap up the first novel, that anecdote would supposedly find its way into the sequel.  I guess it is just a nice white lie I tell myself, just like I will at some point get back in shape.  I am on a path that just doesn't offer up enough free time to do either.  That said, I am starting to at least consider doing more winter biking, but I need some special winter biking gear.

Monday, December 8, 2014

No More Santa and Other Stories

I can't actually recall believing in Santa, though I may have at one point.  I was a pretty skeptical kid from about 3rd grade on.  Our son was basically willing to go along with the story after he found out (around age 8) for the sake of his sister.  My daughter started questioning seriously a few weeks ago.  It started with the tooth fairy -- why is her handwriting just like yours?  Then she found a tooth in a drawer.  I guess there was still some lingering faith, but she decided the tooth fairy wasn't real after a week.  Then she started questioning Santa.  Right around her 8th birthday, she put us on the spot.  And while we said we were just helpers and such, eventually when your children ask you point blank about something, you really shouldn't lie.

As in all things, there is now a cottage industry in psychologists who will either support the Santa story as an innocent white lie that allows children to learn things on their own and distinguish truth from fiction, as well as those who see the world more black and white and feel one should never mislead children.  My daughter is a bit angry that we tricked her and says she won't tell her children there is a Santa Claus.  I said that is her right, but she might feel differently when she is older.  I doubt there has been any permanent damage, but we'll see.  My wife wishes there had been one more Christmas with Santa.  I think it's good she figured it out, though I wish she wasn't upset about it.

Anyway, I have pretty much all the gifts for my son, but only one thing for my daughter (though I have stocking stuffers for each).  I am not really looking forward to dealing with holiday shopping, so I had better figure out what to get her and do it in the next two weeks.

Generally, I feel out of sorts.  I have more or less caught up with work, and it was kind of strange not feeling quite so obligated to be up all hours of the day.  Of course, there is work that I could have or should have done, and I am extremely tempted to just take one day this week or next and sleep in.  But I don't think that will be today.  I spent quite a bit of time getting caught up on reading.  I should be 75% through my list of Russian authors by the end of the week, though then I will take a one-book detour into Canadian lit.  There's a pretty good chance that I will wrap up this Russian trek by mid-January.  While it has been quite rewarding, I am a bit exhausted.  It really did feel like graduate level work, though no final exam.  I suspect I am ready for my next project, which will be a couple of academic papers (on car sharing services though not Uber, which is basically just an unregulated taxi service, which is different) and the creative writing.  I think I do need to carve out an hour each evening to write or nothing will get done.  I've already used Leechblock on a couple of other websites, and possibly I need to apply it to my own blog...

Edit: So there have already been some spin-off consequences.  We were at a holiday breakfast at a local community centre (extremely empty compared to the ones in Vancouver, almost depressingly so), and my daughter didn't want to bother sitting on Santa's lap. 

The loneliest Santa?

I suppose there is not much point in trying to track down the Santa train on the TTC.  Now if we were in Chicago, I think we'd still go look for the CTA Santa train as riding it is such a cool experience -- it is clean and smells nice and elves ride inside and hand out candy canes and they even play holiday jingles inside the cars.  I don't think the TTC goes to such lengths, but I could be wrong.  Anyway, maybe in another year or two, she will "forgive us," and we can return to the simple joys of seeking out Santa during the holidays.