Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jonah of the Airways

It has been pretty bad, trying to get from Vancouver to LA and then particularly to Chicago. The flight out was a small jumper and there were mechanical difficulties, which ultimately meant that a mechanic was out straightening the propeller before we took off! A bit disconcerting. Anyway, we left for Portland 40 minutes late, and I missed my flight to LA by about 10 minutes. This set off an unbelievably frustrating chain of events. Not only did it mean I was going to be much later than I wanted getting into LA, but then because Air Canada cancelled a leg of the flight (since I had to go on Air Alaska into LA), then I ended up getting bumped (involuntarily, no less!) because this increased the probability that I was going to just skip out on my other flights on the trip.  Even from Portland to LA, there was a problem.  Someone had thrown up in the bathroom on the previous flight, and it added a lot of extra clean-up during turnaround time, so I was even later getting into LA.

I ended up having to skip the trip to the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and my friend had to meet me near but not at LAX. (I had simply planned on taking the LA Flyaway to UCLA and having some extra time.) Well, I ended up getting cursed out by the cab driver, since the ride was so short. However, my friend and I did meet up and did make it to UCLA and then found parking (!) and then found Royce Hall in time to see Kronos Quartet play. It was quite a nice concert, though I didn't care much for John Oswald's Spectre (nor did I like it when they did it in Vancouver) nor was I crazy about the Penderecki piece.  However, Philip Glass's Orion: China (which they performed with Wu Man) was amazing.  I'll definitely want to see if that has been recorded.  The main reason I went was to see Crumb's Black Angels, and that was eerie and unusual.  I thought the encore (something from the soundtrack to Aronofsky's The Fountain) was quite powerful and entertaining.

Sat. in LA was particularly nice, as the weather was perfect.  We woke up late, and then spent a big part of the day at LACMA.  We met up with some other friends and ate at the food trucks, which are still camping out at LACMA.  It was a great day.

Then Sunday came.  My friend very graciously drove me to LAX, and I had plenty of time to get through security.  Then my troubles began.  All the airlines, but particularly United, have gotten far too aggressive on the overbooking front, and it was particularly bad this Spring Break.  As I mentioned already, they couldn't find enough volunteers (partly because they had no space at all on guaranteed flights later in the day) and I was bumped.  I was supposed to arrive at 5:30 pm.  The best they could do on a direct flight was 12:30 am.  As you can imagine, I was incredibly pissed, since it meant losing half a day with my kids.  Ultimately, they did compensate me (in these situations, you never volunteer to give up your seat, since it means they do have to provide more compensation).  They really dawdled in dealing with this, and then I only had 15 minutes to get to a flight to Denver -- in a different terminal no less.  I just hate LAX with a passion.  It is such a cesspool of an airport -- badly laid out and almost no meaningful internal circulation.  The food is pretty bad, and they have not figured out that if travelers are going to spend days stuck there, they need to provide more outlets and charging stations.  I probably won't visit LA again, and I have vowed never to transfer through LAX again in my life.

The last time I ever see this place? (LAX)

So I was more than willing to go to Denver, which was supposed to get me to Chicago at just about midnight.  Well, this ended up being a 5+ hour delay, which they handled quite badly, sending us back and forth from the monitors and such.  I thought the last person staffing the desk area at the gate did a terrible job, and I'm surprised more people didn't miss the flight once they finally did start boarding.  Anyway, I made it to Denver with only 15 or so minutes before that last Chicago flight, though that was uneventful, mercifully.  At that hour, I had no choice but to cab it to my mother-in-law's house on the far south side of Chicago.

I turned around and flew out to Toronto the next morning, though I have to say Porter was a fairly stress-free experience (getting to and from Toronto), and the return flight wasn't too bad (just long).  Sadly, my travels are not at an end.  I am flying back to Toronto today and finally returning home on Sunday.

Most of this can be put down to the airlines really overbooking flights and maintenance issues really catching up with them.  But I have had bad trouble getting to and from Scotland, and even from DC (when going to TRB in 2013).  It does make me wonder a bit if I am just a trouble magnet for these flights (a veritable Jonah of the Airways), and I certainly hope that nothing unusual happens on this next flight.  I really don't need any more headaches, since my patience has already been worn far too thin.

3/30 edit: the flight to Toronto wasn't too bad, but on the return I just missed the cut-off for the earlier flight by about 15 minutes (darn my attempts to avoid a speeding ticket in Toronto).  The board said that there was already a two-hour delay, which was about the last thing I needed to see.  I was quite sure this would eventually stretch to a 3 or 4 hour delay.  Apparently, the problem all started when one of the stewardesses didn't show up, so one had to be ferried over to Winnipeg to get that flight started.  However, I was glad that it wasn't anything mechanical, and they really did keep it to a 2 hour delay.  I was a bit surprised that the flight time was 5 hours (up from usually 4.5), but perhaps they did some rerouting to avoid turbulence.  I will say that there was remarkably little turbulence on this flight, so it wasn't so bad on the whole.  I did manage to finish reading two books over this trip, though not quite enough work-work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

To Keep or Not to Keep

The progress I made on clearing out books from the basement has slowed pretty dramatically since last year.  In part, Proust just really bogged me down.  Also, I started reading more library books (good on the budget but bad on clearing out already purchased books).  This will probably be the case for the next few months, though if my air travel really picks up (as it is threatening to do), then I will make a concerted effort to take some of these (potentially) second-tier books.  Of course, some books do move from what I expect will be one-time reads to make it into the permanent collection.  Others drop out when I finally do read them (most recently Proust, though there are a few others that now strike me as once-and-done).

I'm actually a little bit torn over Molly Keane's The Rising Tide.  I didn't think this was a terribly good novel by her.  There was some good dialogue here and there, but there was vastly too much telling in the second half, where the plot really dragged.  The other thing is that Keane talked frequently about not being understood by her mother, but I think she must have truly hated her.  Almost all the mothers in her novels are at best completely neglectful and more typically quite monstrous.  (I read Barbara Comyns' The Skin Chairs around the same time, and found it a relief to just be reading again about a totally feckless mother and not a monstrous one, though there is a very young mother who should clearly have her child taken away and put into care, as she is so neglectful and disinterested in the baby.)  You'd wonder if Keane had an Elektra complex a mile-wide, but the fathers are distant and fairly useless, all things considered.  Still, Keane is pretty good on female jealousy.

All in all, I can't even see reading this novel again, and yet I am pretty loathe to break up the set (of 5 Keane novels).  I know I am just being silly, however, and I probably will part with it before too long.  There are a few that are a bit harder calls.  I am not that likely to reread Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (stashed away somewhere) or even Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy.  But these strike me as classic series that just possibly the kids would be ready to read in high school.  So I'll pay to move them one more time...

But not all of them.  As it comes down to the wire, and I really start packing up books in April and May, I think I will make a long list of these books on the fence, and double-check if they are in the Toronto library (and whether they actually circulate).  At least some will have to be left behind (ideally a box-worth or so).  I figure I'll focus on those that I bought used (the vast majority of my books), since it isn't quite as painful as discarding/donating a book that one bought new...

Shields - Departures and Arrivals

I had no idea that Carol Shields had written or co-written four plays.  The one that strikes me as the most interesting -- and that I have checked out of the library -- is called Departures and Arrivals.  Apparently, nearly all of it takes place in airport waiting areas.  I imagine large parts would have to be rewritten today (or at least relocated out near the ticketing area) as it is much, much harder to accompany passengers into airports today.  I hope it is as interesting as I think it might be.


After reading it last night, I have to say the play feels incredibly dated.  One of the major recurring themes is that this pilot is having huge trouble accepting the idea that a flight attendant (with whom he has had the occasional fling) has been taking flight lessons and wants to become a pilot.  Now let's leave aside the fact that to get a commercial airline pilot's licence one has to have a huge amount of flight time, so one would generally work up from private jets or puddle jumpers to becoming a pilot for one of the major airlines (indeed, an awful lot of pilots got around this by getting their flight time in the military), but the dialogue is just pretty cringe-worthy centered around the "awareness" that the pilot experiences as he comes to term with a woman attempting to do his job.  Other sections are about two travelers with identical suitcases pairing up.  And two women buying the huge insurance policies offered at the ticket counter but for their husbands, not themselves.  They both seem to be daydreaming of starting over with the money and with new partners.  The whole thing reeks of the 70s, though it was actually written in the early 80s.  Somehow I am a bit more forgiving of the early books in Maupin's Tales of the City than I am of this play.

Basically I think the whole thing would have to be completely redone to make it at all relevant.  Air travel is incredible frustrating these days and not remotely liberating.  Celebrities don't pose for pictures at the airport anymore.  The number of people who are quite high-strung due to politicians stoking their fears of terrorism is quite large and would have to be included in these vignettes.  Frankly, it doesn't really seem worth the effort.  It's not even funny enough to just live on as a period piece as arguably How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Boeing-Boeing do.  I guess that's really all I have to say about this piece.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 10th Review - Stories for Late Night Drinkers

Michel Tremblay's Stories for Late Night Drinkers, is a very early work.  Rather than being an investigation of working-class Montreal (like most of his later novels and plays), these are short, fantastic fables largely in line with the unsanitized version of the Grimm fairy tales.  I wouldn't say any are truly science-fiction tales (aside possibly from The Thimble), though there is one that falls into the vein of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos (The Warugoth-Shala and possibly The Octagonal Room).  Some go a bit further into fantasy than the Grimm tales, which generally stop at witchcraft. Lady Barbara's Last Outing and Wolfgang, on His Return both involve demons; there a story about a werewolf and perhaps vampires also appear.  Tremblay seems to be skipping around all kinds of legends and fantastical tropes.  It is even possible for Gentle Warmth to occur in real life, though it certainly reads like an urban legend of a crazy aristocrat who roasts women alive in a metal dress.

What links nearly all the stories is cruelty.  Often, though not always, unwarranted cruelty is visited upon one character or another.  To some extent, this is just the nature of fairy tales and legends more broadly.  They seek to understand why evil events strike, particularly when the person being stricken does not appear to deserve such treatment (pace Job).  More sophisticated cultures basically finally settled that bad luck could strike anywhere (this seems to be the case in Wolfgang, on His Return).  Often the European legends settled on a the formula of people without protectors (i.e. orphans or near orphans like Hansel and Gretel) who are just a bit weak and/or greedy.  We see this in Gentle Warmth.  I would say that it is the more naive or superstitious cultures than insist that people with bad luck actually brought it upon themselves by 1) inadvertently insulting a witch (The Thimble) or 2) actually being witches in league with the devil.  Tremblay doesn't really hold with this (I don't think), though The Bluebottles comes pretty close.  I would say that Arthur Miller's The Crucible portrays (in a somewhat heavy-handed manner) the kind of society that insists there are no innocent victims, because their belief that if God were good and all-powerful, he wouldn't allow bad things to happen to good people.

So I understand what he is doing with these tales for drinkers.  However, they are generally very short and not really engaging, partly because they are so short.  I never felt invested with the characters, and perhaps I wasn't supposed to.  I really thought The Thimble was silly, sort of a throw-away idea, and I really didn't care for Amenachem, where the plot was totally driven by incest.  I thought Jocelyn, My Son was fairly successful.  My favorite was probably Mr. Blink, where a man wakes up to find out he has become a candidate for Prime Minister.  Some shades of Being There perhaps. 

Quick note, somehow I stopped reading without reaching the final story "The Devil and the Mushroom" which is a fable/parable of a peaceful country where the devil has forgotten to invent war.  It's certainly in line with the broader question of why is there evil in the world.  One answer of course is that there is an evil agent, trying to stir up trouble.  This eventually leads to very difficult theological questions of why would a good God allow this to happen, but we'll skip over that was now.  It actually is one of the more successful stories, along with Mr. Blink.  But as Milton found out, the Devil always gets the best lines. 

It's an interesting start for a major Canadian literary figure, and The City in the Egg, apparently continues in this direction.  (Not sure I will read this novel, or certainly not any time soon.)  After this, Tremblay started working in a much more realistic vein, though there were some departures into experimental theatre (Albertine in Five Times and The Real World?).  If one is looking to delve into Tremblay's work in a big way (and I expect I will over time), then one could certainly start here.  Otherwise, it probably makes the most sense to work through his novels of Montreal, starting with The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, or his less experimental plays: Les Belles Soeurs if one doesn't mind downbeat theatre or For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again if one is looking for a sentimental and a bit uplifting evening out (assuming one has a choice of Tremblay productions to see, which is no sure thing outside of Quebec).

One person can make a difference

So as I drift away from my previous job, I am left wondering whether the improvements in the regional transportation model I made will stick.  On the whole, I think probably so.  The improvements in New York, Columbus, OH and Houston all seem to have "taken," though in all those cases there were larger staff that could keep using the models that the consultants left behind.  It is a lot less clear here, though one potential recruit to the Forecasting team could make quite a difference.  It also depends how frequently and how far into the future they bring me back (as a consultant) to keep the model well-maintained.

In any event, I just heard that because of my advocacy, they are adding an extra bus on the 49 bus route between 9-10 PM on Saturdays, and they will look into doing the same for M-F (or at least try to adjust the schedule to pick up the kids leaving night classes at Langara).  It is a truism that for all the complexities of doing the long-range planning, it is never entirely clear if the modelling work actually makes a real difference when the decision makers hash things out.  My suspicion is that it rarely does, though if the decision-makers include a few engineers and technical people (i.e. the politicians are deferring to their staff) then the model results weigh a bit more heavily.  In Vancouver, it seems absolutely clear that replacing the Massey Tunnel with a bridge is entirely political and not supported by any analysis, the UBC Broadway Line is largely political (not that the models don't support some upgrade in that corridor -- they certainly do) and the Pattullo Bridge replacement is probably the one project that will be shaped the most by strong technical analysis.  But those are just examples.  Toronto has several examples of where transit decisions are made on largely political and emotional grounds and the process is not particularly evidence-based.  So I'm not sure if it is ironic or if it is simply "the way of the world," that my contribution to getting a bit more late night service on the 49 route is likely to be the most tangible benefit I am leaving to the region.  However, it is ironic that the improvement comes in late June, so I will not benefit from it personally.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Twists and turns

Some books can be discussed without too much fear of giving the plot away, though you may stop short of the actual ending, and you feel that you've given some sense of the overall structure and feel of the book.  It's still nice to give out spoiler warnings for major events, particularly those in the second half of the book, but you can still have a meaningful discussion.  In other cases, a major twist occurs within the first 10-20 pages (and often ends up on the back cover of the book), so if the author "spoiled it," then that was information that the reader was supposed to have all the way through.  In those cases, the "journey" is more important than the final destination.  That's sort of how I feel about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, though I did put a few spoiler warnings in that review.  Then there are books that are sort of like the film The Usual Suspects where almost anything said about the film is too much information for the first-time film-goer.  That's what the book I am reviewing is like, so don't continue if you don't want it spoiled.


I've tried not to even give out the name of the novel, though close readers of the blog may have guessed it.  It is Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  This book came out in 2006, over a decade after The Usual Suspects, and I basically can't imagine the book being written without The Usual Suspects playing in the background.  (I'm hardly the only one (see this review), though I'm not sure if Pessl ever copped to using The Usual Suspects as a template.)  At any rate, Pessl seems deeply involved with film and film studies.  Hannah Schneider, one of the major figures in the novel, is a film studies teacher at St. Gallaway, an elite school where the main character lands in her senior year of high school.  Pessl has written one other novel called Film Night, which is even more twisty-and-turny (and indebted to The Usual Suspects, but perhaps even more to the Nicholas Cage film 8mm).

So what we find out in the first few pages is that Hannah Schneider has hung herself, and that this traumatic event has eventually led Blue Van Meer to write out her own life story and her interactions with Hannah (after reaching St. Gallaway) in an effort to understand what actually happened.  It is a very convolved tale told in a way that seems a bit unlikely.  A person that actually went through what Blue went through would probably have cut to the chase rather than leading the reader through so much detail.  Some readers cut Blue some slack and say that she is just processing events, but I figure she could process in the first draft and then be a bit more straight-forward in the final version.  No, this is Pessl just showing off and being "literary."  At any rate, after one goes to the end of the book, one is left just a bit empty and one starts picking at some major plot holes, which is pretty much the same thing that happens with The Usual Suspects.


So if you are still with me, there are roughly 4 sections to the book.  First, Blue goes into the story of her childhood.  Her mother died in a car crash when she was an infant.  She was raised by her father, who was a visiting professor all around the South.  They generally did not stay anywhere for more than one semester.  (This is a bit fanciful, but perhaps possible back in the 80s.  Nowadays, such a person would be thought of as an adjunct and not accorded any respect.  Certainly nothing like the rock star treatment her father got everywhere he went.)  This part certainly feels the most pretentious, as we hear over and over from Blue (and her second-hand relating of what the many women in her father's life said about him) about what a deep thinker he was.  No question he was in love with himself and his mental prowess.  He was a Harvard alum, and was insistent on getting her accepted there.  (Second problem.  Sure, there is a big alumni "boost," and Blue seems smart and ends up valedictorian, but how likely is it that Harvard actually accepts a student with such an irregular past?  And yet she does end up there, even after her father disappears on her...)  Perhaps the most interesting thing during this period is that their incompetent gardener, Andreo, is shot, and Blue gets him to the hospital in time to save his life.

Then a large chunk of the novel details Blue's senior year.  She is sort of recruited by Hannah (the film teacher) to join a group of students called The Bluebloods by other students.  They are sort of a cruel clique that seem to derive their power over other students based on the fact that an adult (Hannah) spends so much time with them.  Even though she occasionally worries that she will lose her job over it, she invites them to dinner ever Sunday (Blue tells her father that she is going to a study group focused on Ulysses) and then later takes them camping, with disastrous consequences.  The book does drag a bit here, though there are some interesting set pieces, as when Jade, one of the Bluebloods, comes and kind of ruins Blue's quasi-date at a school dance with Zach.  Also, one of the women that Blue's father is dating comes and wrecks his study.  There is also a moment when Hannah tells Blue about the terrible things in the other Bluebloods' lives (teenage runaway, real parents in jail etc.) and that they are quite fragile under the facades they maintain.  Perhaps the most sordid part of this chapter is when the children spy on Hannah and find out that she is seducing truckers each month at a sleazy motel.  The most freighted moment is when they crash a costume party at her house and are there when an old friend of Hannah's winds up dead in the pool.*  All this generally leads up to Hannah taking them camping in the mountains.  By this point, Blue has worked out that Hannah is not the most stable of individuals (obsessed with stories of women gone missing), so it is a bit odd that they all agree to go.  But kids will do a lot of crazy things when asked by an adult that they still admire. 

Up on the mountain, Hannah gets Blue away from the others and tells her that she is going to tell her the truth.  Then a figure comes by and Hannah chases after it, telling Blue to stay right there.  After what seems like an eternity, Blue tries to get back to the campsite, fails at that, but finds Hannah's body hanging in a tree.  She eventually manages to get down to a road and flag down some motorists, but is practically comatose.  The other Bluebloods aren't found and rescued for another 2 days or so.

After this, four of the five Bluebloods blame and shun Blue, though Milton relents a bit and takes her to Hannah's house (as he had been directed).  This begins the third main section, the aftermath of Hannah's death. Blue assumes there must be some clue in the house, and the two of them scour it.  She does find some interesting photos, but mostly there are many more clippings of woman that had simply disappeared.  What may be the most significant clue is that Antonioni's L'Avventura was left in the DVD player.  Blue starts to wonder whether Hannah was telling her that she was planning her own disappearance, and then something went dreadfully wrong.  Interestingly, she learns from Milton that everything Hannah said about the Bluebloods was a lie.  Indeed, Blue learns that all the major adults in her life are inveterate liars.  She eventually agrees with the cop who convinces her that it is suicide. And yet something keeps nagging at her, and she eventually reaches out to Smoke Harvey's daughter, who informs her that her father was ready to break open the case of the Nightwatch when he died, and that Hannah was somehow involved.  Furthermore, she is convinced that her father (Smoke) was actually murdered at the party.

This segues into the final section of the book where Blue goes into the darkest part of the internet and finds out that Hannah probably was Catherine Baker, she did kill a cop 20+ years ago, and that she saved the life of Gracey (the Nightwatch founder).  She presents this to her father, who tries to dissuade her from going to the police (what would be the point) when she quotes back one of his own quotes about the importance of Justice.  So he agrees.  Then in the middle of the night, he clears out.  This is not a metaphor.  He literally vanishes from her life, so she goes into a deep depression and does more thinking and internet searching.  Also Smoke Harvey's notes arrive in the mail (mailed by the daughter).  She realizes that her father was deeply involved in the Nightwatch movement and she actually met Gracey in Paris.  She and her father stayed at his luxury apartment, which turned out to be a rentable suite, etc.  Nothing that she thinks was the truth checks out, aside from the fact that her father did teach at various universities and he did date a lot of women.  It is more than likely that her father ordered Hannah to be eliminated after her erratic behavior and possibly Andreo the gardener carried out the task.  The book never really emerges from the rabbit hole.  Blue hints at some further connections in the final pages (the Final Exam).  Hannah and her father may have had a torrid affair early in their life which led her mother to kill herself.  Blue's father, with his cover essentially blown, may have decamped to Africa to stir up rebellion.  Blue may have hung out with Zach all summer while waiting to move to Boston to start her freshman year at Harvard.  Quite a few loose ends in general.

But as I keep thinking over the story, so many things just don't quite add up.  Her father clearly had access to extra cash (and he even set up a trust** for her, which apparently was going to pay for her to start Harvard).  But where does a secret cult get its funding?  And why do both Blue's father and apparently Hannah keep recruiting agents of the Nightwatch when they do so little, aside perhaps knocking off the occasional corporate executive?  I would argue that cults can't survive completely in secret.  They really do need publicity.  Especially if they are making serious money in some kind of completely unexplained fashion.  And maybe that is what the father was up to with his articles on The Nightwatch in obscure academic journals, i.e. keeping the group in circulation in the appropriate circles, though this seems just a bit too much Poe's purloined letter, hiding in plain sight.  They didn't think that the author of all these pieces on The Nightwatch group might not occasionally attract the attention of the FBI?  And the father's behavior was not a little bizarre and likely to attract attention some day?  What was he thinking?  (I guess he really was a megalomaniac who just thought he was smarter than 99.9% of the rest of us and would never get caught.)  Speaking of odd decisions, why would her father have risked so much to come live where Hannah was living?  And then for them both to pretend they had never met.  Was it just to keep tabs on Hannah?  As others have pointed out, he probably was secretly keeping tabs on Blue, so why he thought allowing her to keep meeting over at Hannah's home and then going on that camping trip(!) was a good idea is completely beyond me.  I kind of feel a bit suckered, since there is a big hole in the plot that just doesn't make any sense to me.  On the other hand, that is sort of the ultimate message of L'Avventura -- that life is sometimes inexplicable.  One basically never really knows the inner workings of another human, even if one thinks one knows the other person well.  Still waters run deep and so on.  I don't regret reading it, but I wouldn't read it again, even to go through looking for clues.  I also have a pretty good idea of what kind of a novel Film Night is (unlike my impressions when I started Calamity Physics), and I wouldn't say I am particularly eager to tackle it.

* This may be the second biggest misdirect of the book.  The dead man, Smoke Harvey, was working on a book about The Nighwatch (an underground radical group) and was starting to get close to uncovering some truths, namely that Hannah was probably Catherine Baker.  So why would he so nonchalantly go to Hannah's party and pretend to be an old friend?  That simply makes no sense.  Unless he really did fall under her sway...

** Generally, kids simply can't get their hands on trust money without a guardian.  There are too many things that a parent still needs to do and sign for her to be able to go on to Harvard after his disappearance.  So this is quite unbelievable.  I don't think Blue's cover story, that her father had contracted throat cancer and was no longer able to speak on the phone or go back to the university would hold up for more than a week or two.  Certainly not long enough for her to actually get enrolled into Harvard.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Michel Tremblay

While I hardly consider myself an expert on Canadian literature, I still occasionally am surprised when I discover a major author I've never even heard of.  To some extent, this happened to me with the poets Al Purdy and Louis Dudek.  I had been aware of George Bowering and Robert Kroetsch, but not these two.  (Nor was I aware of George Stanley or W.H. New, but these two seem to be secret poets of Vancouver that are not talked about beyond B.C.)

My knowledge is much more limited for authors coming out of Quebec.  Of the Anglophone writers, there is obviously Mordecai Richler and arguably Yann Martel.  I had been aware of Marie-Claire Blais back in the 90s, though only her earlier work like St. Lawrence Blues.  Over the past twenty years, I have become aware of Gabrielle Roy and much more recently the playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who I imagine I'll write about again.  Then in 2012 I learned quite a bit more about Robert Lepage and actually saw him perform his Far Side of the Moon.

However, I had never come across (or don't remember) Michel Tremblay, who is arguably a much more central figure in Francophone theatre.  What is particularly intriguing is that he started off writing essentially fantastic or speculative fiction (Stories for Late Night Drinkers and The City in the Egg), then moved to plays and quickly thereafter experimental theatre, then started writing more traditional novels about the working-class Montrealers that were in some of these plays.  So he's kind of done it all as a writer, which is quite admirable if a bit daunting and overwhelming.

Just a week ago, I saw a production of For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, which is basically a play written to let his mother live again on stage.  She was a loving, but a bit querulous, mother.  Sadly, it appears that she died before Michel had any real triumphs as a writer.  I can certainly relate to that...  I wouldn't say it is a great play by any means, but it is touching.

Of his vast body of work, I just read Late Night Drinkers, which I will review tomorrow.  I think I will work through a few of his early plays, particularly Les Belles-Sœurs (which actually has some interesting echoes (or pre-echoes) of Kieślowski's Decalogue X) and Bonjour, là, bonjour.  Then move to Albertine in Five Times and The Real World.  After the move, I'll certainly keep my eyes open to see if any of his plays are remounted in Toronto.

On the novel side, I guess I will mostly focus on the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal, which is comprised of six novels set in Montreal, beginning with The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant and ending with A Thing of Beauty.  These are basically the stories of his parents and their neighbours and perhaps later his own friends in this Montreal neighbourhood.  I have The Fat Woman checked out and should be able to get through it by the end of the month.  It strikes me as a bit like Ulysses (or even Under Milk Wood) in that there are all these voices overlapping to make one complex portrait of shared life in the city (with Under Milk Wood being more of a village).  I have no idea if the later novels keep up this approach or not.

Tremblay then took a detour and wrote 3 novels (the Black, Red and Blue Notebooks) about the art world of the 60s and its excesses.  It features transvestites, a dwarf, actors of all stripes, and of course various hangers-on and people just slumming.  This sounds a bit interesting, but is not a priority for me.

I am more interested in a trilogy of novels Tremblay wrote after this to provide the back-story of his mother and perhaps a few other characters from the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal.  This explores how a woman with a mixed (i.e. Cree) background came from Saskatchewan to Montreal.  I assume it is explained whether she was an English speaker who learned French later, or if she actually was raised in a Francophone household out on the prairie.  The novels are La Traversée du continent, La Traversée de la ville and La Traversée des sentiments.  As far as I can tell, only the first one (Crossing the Continent) has come out in English translation, though the others are obviously being prepared.

One of the major questions with Tremblay is whether to bite the bullet and attempt to read his novels in French. (I don't think I would ever be able to keep up with French theatre, but have a bit more time and can go over passages when reading a novel.)  However, it might be awfully frustrating, as Tremblay is using a lot of Montrealer slang that probably doesn't show up in any dictionary.  Still, I've found a very good deal on a one-volume edition of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal, so I might pick that up.  I guess I can at least wait to see how I respond to the The Fat Woman in English.

Journals (old)

I have to admit that I am generally quite poor at writing journals.  The only time I was really consistent was for a few years in undergrad, though I do have some notebooks from high school.  I will periodically write a few pages of what I am up to every few months, particularly if it involves a dream, since I don't feel like imposing my dreams on others.  Generally, however, if I can keep the events short enough, I would prefer to put them in an email or, increasingly, post them on the blog.  First, I may get some reaction and, second, the editing required to turn one's life into something at least a bit interesting to others is good practice.

What is a little sad is that the number of people that I can have reliable email exchanges with has gone way, way down.  Partly people are in different mental spaces in their 40s than in their 20s or even 30s.  And I can be an exhausting correspondent, and I have certainly burned through and burned out a number of former email friends.  I think I really do try to respond to what they are saying and not just go into my own life and issues, but it is hard to tell.  Probably putting more of these things on the blog is the way forward.  I do remember that for the longest time I felt I was repeating the same mistakes over and over, particularly in relationships.  I am still doing the overwhelming and burning out friends thing, though my internal "regulator" is a bit better.  Now I have a different set of things that I keep doing (working too late, obsessively working through lists of books, trying to capture/experience all the great music and art of Western Civilization) but some of the other issues hardly seem like a problem any more.

In any event, I am just about done with scanning and collating all the email that I saved from the 90s (yes, Virginia, we had email -- and computers -- back then).  There is a lot of it, and there are some things that I barely remember that I wrote on quite extensively at the time.  I suppose it is less surprising that what I have forgotten the most is what was going on in other people's lives, particularly their romantic travails (there was a lot of that in the emails back then).  No question there was a lot of oversharing (which I am always attacking the Millennials for engaging in), though in my defense it is quite different to email a story or situation to one or two friends versus putting something up on Facebook or, even worse, Twitter.

Two things that seem worth dredging up from all these journals and the masses of email messages.  It turns out that I left Toronto in August 1994, so I will be returning (in triumph?) almost exactly 20 years later.  When I realized this, it gave me a bit of a shock.  The situation clearly demands some reflection.* 

Second, I found some very interesting discussions with a friend that I had totally put out of my mind.  She had been telling me about some adventures that were not strictly state-sanctioned and a few other things that were perhaps a bit shocking, at least coming from her.  And perhaps she was trying to shock me.  I wrote that after she offered up these morsels, she sat back, looking as amoral as a cat, and waited for my response.**  Perhaps I passed, perhaps I didn't.  We remain friends, though someone distant ones today.  It is tempting to write more, but that would certainly be too much information and wouldn't allow me to deny the identity of this friend if she ever happens to come across this post and wonder just what the heck I am talking about.  "You don't mean that time that I--?"  "No, no.  This isn't about you at all," I shall reply.

* Is it finally time to either write out this story that is essentially my life in Toronto in my early 20s or just to let it go?  I've had professional success that very few people from Gen X ever achieved (to say nothing of those poor Gen Y suckers), so why am I so fixated on this one period when I was failing at being an English major, to put it bluntly?  Is it that the story that I have conceived is simply the most dramatic of all the storylines one could conceivably generate from my life (that would be ok) or is it something more mundane like just not wanting to grow old?  If it is the latter, then there just isn't much point in pretending that what I come up with is going to be interesting to others, and I should save my energy.

** I was actually going to tie this in with all the cats in the Delayed Mercy review, but that one already ran a bit long.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

7th Canadian challenge - 9th review - George Bowering's Delayed Mercy

I thought this would sneak under the wire in Feb., but work (and my kids) had other ideas.

Delayed Mercy and Other Poems was a collection that really stood out among Bowering's various collections.  I think it does have quite a bit of internal consistency.  The blurb on the back tries to connect it to Kerrisdale Elegies, but I am not familiar enough that one (though I have read it a while ago) to know if it is a fair comparison.

The largest portion of the book is given over to Delayed Mercy, a large multi-part poem with seven separate sections and different poems in each section.  Then there is a short section of 5 poems from late 1984, simply titled Section Two.  Then there are some poems retrieved from a notebook called Irritable Reaching.  The volume closes out with 7 poems in a section titled The Pope's Pennies.

I wasn't that taken with The Pope's Pennies, and I'll just skip over it here.  Section Two was fairly slight, though I liked the opening of "Thanks, Bob":
Reading Kroetsch's poem
about taking the wrong German
train, I missed
my stop.  On the Toronto

Irritable Reaching was by far the most different from the other parts of the book.  I think I mentioned before that Bowering seems determined to move to different stylistic techniques, most likely to prevent himself from getting bored, or even as technical exercises that he then deems worthy of publication.  Nearly all the poems in I.R. rhyme, but the rhyme schemes start to move away from AABB or ABAB fairly quickly.  (Brain that Vanishes has just one extra line that breaks it away from ABAB.) "Detachment from Self" is ABCABCABC, which is fairly unusual.  My favorite of the bunch is "Ground and Sky" which goes ABCDEF ABCDEF.  I'm not sure if I've ever seen this scheme before.  Years ago I wrote a poem that went ABCDEF FEDCBA (though it might actually have another 2 or 4 paired lines -- I'll have to try to track it down to check), which is also very rare.

Still, there is no question that the heart of the collection is Delayed Mercy.  Virtually all of the poems are dedicated to different poets, primarily from Canada or the States.  It is not clear if these are all poets that Bowering actually knows at least in passing, though it wouldn't be that unlikely if he knew many of them.  However, I doubt he knew Samuel Beckett or even Charles Reznikoff, and these are poems that are responding to their public personas.

One or two of the poems to the poets he clear did know do feel a bit "intrusive," as if Bowering is giving you a peek into some shared backstory (that the other poet might not want to share).  For instance, "Motel Consideration" is from Margaret Atwood.  It opens: 
The one more child you never had.
her face appears outside the window,
but when you go outside
only happy birds chitter in their hundreds.
   You need a fierce cat.

I'm aware that it is common knowledge that Atwood only had one child, and has talked about this a bit in interviews, but it still feels like oversharing someone else's personal history.  Still, poets are notorious for over-sharing (Sharon Olds is one of the more notorious from our era, but the confessional poets of the 50/60s (Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Snodgrass and Sexton) paved that path.

The poem continues with a bit of highway driving, perhaps apropos of a poem about a motel:
      Sitting down, I can travel
nearly as fast as my mind,
but beneath me is the highway
made of a constant formula. It sticks fast
to the surface of the earth ...

Interestingly, the next poem, "Facial Massage," also references "the road":
Years ago she said you just drive all day,
you never go anyplace.  I said the road
is the place.  In those days I was twenty-eight
& profound.

These two poems both seem more American than many of Bowering's other poems, tapping into Kerouac's On the Road, though of course, one could argue that there is just as much of a highway culture in Canada's Prairies and the West (perhaps excepting B.C.). Kimmy Beach's In Cars is about growing up in Alberta and driving around aimlessly.

There are certainly many poems about cars and highways and highway culture throughout the rest of the collection, but there are even more about cats (a missing cat makes a cameo in "Motel Consideration").  I think that Bowering's decision to make these "late night poems" led him to return over and over to the cat theme, as cats, particularly black ones, are so closely linked with night and poetry more generally.  Close to half the poems have a cat in them.

Essentially all the poems in Section V of Delayed Mercy feature a cat that brings its half-eaten kill to the doorstep as an offering to Bowering.  I have to say that these poems don't do as much for me as some of the others, but they are probably the most realistic...

The poems that I liked the most take the cat theme and twist it a bit.

In "After the Dance," riffs on Carroll's Cheshire Cat, then goes in an unexpected direction:
What did you expect, a cat's smile
in the branches?  Cats write
the worst poems in the language. ...

In "Soft Gums," Bowering writes: "Words followed / a few paces behind, like cats interested / but uninclined to show it."

Finally, in "Whey" he writes:
the meaning of life
yourself, deadeye,
look hard
into the flames, those
handsome guys are
cool cats ...

Of course, there is a lot more going on in this collection than just sly references to cats.  The meaning of many of these poems is obscure, but they are fun to read and each time through the collection I pick up on different aspects of the poems (this is similar to Kerrisdale Elegies, which I really ought to reread soon).  I think it should be clear that I found this a strong collection, definitely worth reading if one is interested in Canadian poetry.

I'll just end with a few bits and pieces from the poems in Delayed Mercy that I found particularly interesting or amusing.

From "A Swing in the Rain":
                 You see that creature
waiting in the dull light for the 17 bus?
That is the hope of your age, that is bread
going stale tomorrow.

From "Down Long Black Stems":
                Cities of rain are judgement
on a failed species.  What do you think
that pavement was poured over?

(Could he be thinking of Vancouver?)

Finally, from "A Mask Over the Eyes":
                It is dark,
finally, everywhere, the centre of the outside
is dark, black as a mother's imagination.