Sunday, August 31, 2014

An Artist's Mind in Decline

Fortunately, I am not talking about anything personal.  I've been reordering the art books in the living room, and I came across a copy of Portraits from the Mind: The Works of William Utermohlen - 1955 to 2000.  Every now and then, one stumbles across an art exhibition that just really stands out, particularly if it is in a lesser known gallery.  For instance, I was in Madison and saw a very cool exhibit on James Rosenquist's large-scale prints.  In 2003, I saw a nice exhibit on prints by the abstract expressionists at Northwestern's art gallery.  The Loyola Museum had a very fascinating exhibit on small-scale paintings by the abstract expressionists (and in fact the catalog was called Suitcase Paintings).  Incidentally, that was the best exhibit I ever saw at LUMA and the one most out of character, though I also liked the urban photos of Jean-Christophe Ballot (Paris vs. Chicago).  With the exception of the Ballot, I managed to get the catalog and in most cases I visited the exhibits two or even three times.

While it was less of a surprise to find interesting exhibits at the Chicago Cultural Center, probably the most moving was this exhibit of William Utermohlen's work, which was tucked away on the second floor.  Utermohler was from Philadelphia, but lived and worked in London.

His mid-career works are quite colorful and tend to combine realistic portraits with odd off-center backgrounds or cut-outs.  It's a little hard to describe what I mean, but if you look up the Dante Cycle or the Mummer cycle at this site, it should become a bit more apparent.  Now the exhibit I saw had a fair number of the Mummer paintings, but none of the Dante Cycle paintings, which I think are even more powerful.  As far as I can tell, there are very few publications devoted to Utermohlen aside from the short catalog from the 2008-9 exhibit (sponsored by Myriad Pharmaceuticals for reasons that will soon become apparent) and then a 2012 gallery publication from GV Art which has become extremely hard to come by, though it seems the main difference from the 2008-9 catalog was the inclusion of some late watercolors.  I think that is a shame, as I really like his work and think he was a gifted artist that should be better known than simply due to his decline.

No question my favorites on view were the 6 paintings in the Conversation Pieces cycle.  (The full set can be viewed here.)  Snow was the real standout, showing an exploded house (just a bit Escher-esque), a bunch of people chatting at the table, two cats, some bright oranges and presumably a nod to Matisse with the inclusion of a fishbowl.  The warm interior is in stark contrast to the cold, gray snowscape outdoors.  The perspective is of course impossible, but still quite fun.

William Utermohlen, Snow, 1990-91

Bed was also nice, but Night was another fascinating piece.  Here the fishbowl has gone black and is somehow mirrored in the ceiling (a glass skylight?).  Some items seem to be floating, whereas the coffee grinder is only loosely anchored to the inky-black table.

William Utermohlen, Night, 1990-91

And here's a Matisse which Utermohlen may or may not have been "riffing" on.

Henri Matisse, Gold Fish, 1914-15

In the catalog and even more in the accompanying DVD, there is some retrospective analysis of this period of Utermohlen's work, claiming that his skewed sense of time-space perception was a sign of his encroaching Alzheimer's.  I have a little trouble buying that.  It seems to me Utermohlen still had full control of his artistic facilities and his lines and sense of color are terrific.

They do say there were warning signs about Utermohlen getting lost on the way to the studio and finally having to paint from home.  The decline in his artistic abilities seems to come quickly after the Conversation Pieces were completed, presumably around 1993-4.  Utermohlen got the diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease in 1995, and he responded with a terribly bleak painting (his last full-scale painting incidentally).

William Utermohlen, Blue Skies, 1995

After this, he largely retreats to smaller scale self-portraits that grow less detailed and eventually less assured.  They are really very sad (even sadder than the last Rembrandt self-portraits), and I don't feel like posting them here.  There are a number of places to find them -- this is as good as any.  I doubt Utermohlen would have received even the limited attention he has gotten if it weren't for his diagnosis and then his response to it, but when I think of Utermohlen (which is actually surprisingly often for such an "unknown"), I prefer to focus on his glorious last painting cycle from 1990-91 before he was so cruelly afflicted.

Long weekend

So this weekend, we are not traveling out of town.  It is nice to be more or less settled.  While I have a bit of real work to try to accomplish (and some work-related "stretch goals" that I have pretty much already decided I won't make), I should be able to get a fair bit done on the living room on Sunday.  Then I will still have Monday to take the kids to the CN Tower and probably the ROM, if they behave themselves.

Saturday was basically a fun day, with some spoilers at the very end.  However, with a bit of distance, I shall mostly remember the good aspects.

We went to the library around 10.  In some ways, the timing was pretty good, as we waited out a short but powerful shower.  That cleared up fairly quickly and we set out for Casa Loma.  The kids seemed to like it, particularly my daughter, who kept saying how much she would like to live there!  We wandered around for quite a bit and took photos on the patio.  If the weather holds, I am actually probably going to be going back on Wed. for an evening concert.  So twice in one week after not being back for probably 15 years or more.  There's really not much to say about it, other than my daughter was completely horrified to hear that Toronto or perhaps the province nationalized the electric company he owned.  (Apparently, I did garble this a bit.  They broke up a monopoly he had on providing electricity via the Toronto Electric Light Company, but it isn't entirely clear how they went about it.  It seems that there was a referendum that allowed a provincially-owned company to compete with the private firm.  This firm became Toronto Hydro, which many feel operates like a monopoly today.)

We splurged out a bit and let them have ice cream cones before the walk back to the subway.  So a pretty nice visit all in all.

Back home, I was quite upset to find that when I went to pick up some Chinese take-out, they were cash only.  In fact, I double-checked the menu, and it does not say cash only.  So I got doubly ripped off, since the only ATM nearby was one a very dodgy mom and pop convenience store.  Given that the food is only ok, and not as good as I had hoped, that is probably the tipping point. I am not planning on going back and will have to find another local Chinese place.  There is just a limit to the inconvenience I will put up with, and cash only is a step too far.

And the house has been invaded by the bugs I will not name (too icky).  So that definitely put a damper on the day.  I don't really feel like discussing it further.  I suppose I had better get a bit more rest now to handle the various indoor activities on Sunday.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Every so often I indulge in a flight of whimsy.  I am feeling an attack of whimsy right now.

I was looking up something about Aurora, Ontario (incidentally just north of our suburban office location -- I so can't imagine working there every day*).

This is apparently the train station.

Where had I seen this before.  And then it struck me:

Ok, not a perfect match, but pretty close.


How about now?

Now?  Still no?

Well, that's the problem with whimsy.  It sometimes falls flat.

And with that, I do need to head back to the Russians.

* Another whimsical idea I had was to dream up a sitcom set in a suburban office park.  Unless I am totally mistaken, nearly all of the workplace sitcoms (and there aren't even that many of those) are distinctly urban.  The movie Office Space might be suburban -- I'd have to refresh my memory.  At any rate, it would be semi-surreal with a transfer from the downtown office coming every week and dying of boredom and essentially being stacked in the corner.  And definitely a bit where they have to drive to get to the food court across the street!  I think this actually has some possibilities, but I don't know the right people to make it happen.  So typical. So frustrating.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Keeping things in perspective

It is so important and yet so difficult to keep things in perspective.*  Again, this note is more for myself than anyone else, but perhaps it will be of some limited use to others.

I find that when I get more sleep (something I am generally in very short supply of), then things generally don't seem quite as bad as they did in the middle of the night.  I don't think it is an accident that so many people refer to the "dark night of the soul" as a trying time that one must awaken from (into the light).  And yet knowing this, I still try to get that little bit too much done and then pay for it later.  (Research has also shown that people that cheat themselves of sleep have an imbalance of melatonin and snack too much.  Definitely one of my biggest problems at the moment.  But at the same time it doesn't feel like one life is enough for everything I wanted to accomplish -- or even everything I wanted to read. Until I can identify what I am willing to give up, I won't change my ways.)

Anyway, there was some disappointing news at work about a big project that we didn't win.  There will come a point when if we continually lose out on these kinds of projects, then I will have to move on.  But that day is at least two years away, and there are a number of things I am working on to improve our odds of winning the next big project.

What is important is that I do not regret moving to Toronto.  I think it is fair to say while there are a few other places I would have enjoyed living, I have been trying to get back to Toronto for close to 20 years.  And here I am.

I am clear-eyed enough to know there are some things I don't care for here: the recycling plan and even moreso the kitchen scrap program which is basically a green-washing scheme that doesn't actually work, the traffic congestion and general lack of bike lanes, the general lack of investment in transportation infrastructure, but most of all the amalgamation that led to jerkish suburbanites controlling the agenda (to say nothing of Rob Ford).  I would so love to see Etobicoke and Scarborough hived off.  At this point, Toronto and York might as well stay together.  That would have been a sensible amalgamation.  Some of my beefs have to do with provincial and particularly federal policies, so they are unlikely to change, and I just have to put up with them.  However, on the whole, I am happier here.  I'm pretty sure that given the craziness south of the border that Canada is now the better place to raise children.** 

But aside from children and their social and cultural development, I have really been soaking in the culture here.  I've managed to see a play at Stratford and at Shaw, and I just saw a fun production of  As You Like It in High Park.  (I really went back and forth on whether my friend Annika and I saw Romeo and Juliet there.  I certainly don't remember it being so hard to get to, but apparently it was in High Park.  I still have the theatre program to prove it.  Maybe we drove it after all.  It was just under a year since my mom had passed away -- in many ways that year was just a blur.)

In general, I am being selfish and planning stuff on my own (though it won't be too much longer before we start testing out sitters).  In my own mind, I justify it because I do work such long hours, and the kids aren't quite old enough for most of it.  Pretty lame, I know.

However, I've decided to go a bit crazy and try to cram in all the big kid-friendly exhibits in 9 days (that's how the City Pass program works).  So we are going to do Castle Loma tomorrow, then Sunday will be a stay-at-home day to try to clean up the last of the boxes in the living room and upstairs (I am not committing to finishing the downstairs tomorrow!).  Monday is a holiday.  I want to get an hour or two of work in, and it happens that I work awfully close to the CN Tower.  So we'll check that out, and then ROM on the way home (a fairly short trip of the gem stones and dinosaurs and maybe the Egyptian stuff if it doesn't freak my daughter out).  Then the following weekend will be the Zoo and the Science Centre.  My conscience sated, I can then book my concerts and plays for the fall and winter season.  But seriously, I am trying to be a little more attentive when the kids want to talk to me, though it can just be so overwhelming, particularly when my daughter refuses to go to bed at a reasonable hour.  Oh for those days when they didn't know they could get out of bed...

Well, the main thing to keep in perspective is that this too shall pass.  Within only another year or two, she won't need or want to be tucked into bed.  They'll start outgrowing their stuffed animals.  And before you know it high school and then college.  And then I guess we will finally know if everything was worth it.  As much as one ever does at any rate.

* Just a short tangent back to Berlin on the "Russian Thinkers."  One of their chief characteristics was an inability to keep things in perspective and to extend philosophical systems past their point of utility -- and then to try to live according to absurd maxims.  I will say that the introduction to Russian Thinkers had some profound things to say about monism (actually a broad category of totalizing beliefs of which monotheism is one strand) and pluralism.  I'll have to return to this theme later, but it really resonated with me.

** There is no point in starting a flame war, as I won't publish the comments, but a respectful back and forth could be accommodated here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Personal History of Ideas

One thing that jumps out immediately from reading Isaiah Berlin and his take on the Russian intelligentsia is that they really cared about ideas.  Even though in terms of their overall proportion of the population, the Russian intelligentsia was relatively small (certainly smaller than that in the U.S. in the mid 20th Century for example, though possibly approaching the proportion in 21st Century America) but they had an outsized impact on their society.  They also took things to extremes.  Some American and European commentators contend this is because Western ideas like liberty were so alien to the "Russian soul" that it was no wonder they twisted them.  This is quite condescending and probably untrue.  At the same time, it is depressing how willing so many Russians are so supportive of Putin and his totalitarian ways.  Yet one finds a similar follow the leader mentality on all ends of the political spectrum in North America.  (Nonetheless, research in evolutionary behaviour does tend to find more "loyalty" amongst those of a conservative bent, since it is a part of their worldview.  It is kind of sad that a very large portion of humanity are still little more than pack dogs.)

I still care about ideas (and certainly Berlin still thought they mattered a great deal), even though it seems an uphill battle in contemporary society.  Some days I still probably care more about abstract ideas than about actual people.  And when I care about people it is mostly thinking of them in the abstract and groups rather than in the specific.  (I think this is a tendency among progressives, but I digress...)  This is not an unknown phenomena: Chapter 4 of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov addresses this in a sideways manner, though it is the cold Ivan speaking and not the more centered Alyosha: "One can love one's neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it's almost impossible."  When I read these Russian works, I was young enough to identify closely with the trouble souls like Ivan and Rodion (not that I would have gotten into such a fix) and even Turgenev's Bazarov.  (Speaking of consequences, I did take things too far in college bull sessions (at least verbally) and it cost me all my friends and acquaintances from that era.)   Now I have gained the wisdom to see that 1) almost any philosophical or political system pushed to its logical limits becomes intractable and 2) that there is a huge variety in tastes and trying to craft a single "solution" that will work for all people is impossible, I realize the limits of ideas in their practical application.  It is humbling or at least should be.  If philosopher and politicians did not attempt such sweeping solutions and stayed more grounded in their attempts to improve their own corner of the world, in general the world would be a better place.  And certainly aiming to be more empathetic and understanding why not everyone shares your views and convictions would be truly amazing, almost miraculous in today's hyper-partisan era where almost everyone seems to be inhabiting an echo chamber of their own choosing.  Now whether adopting this more constrained (and humbled?) vision will cause me to rethink my connections to Ivan or Bazarov is an interesting question.  I should be coming up to Fathers and Sons around Thanksgiving, and I'll see how it strikes me then.

What I do know is that people who are primarily abstract thinkers -- and who are not grounded by the responsibility of implementing their ideas -- tend to get very extreme.  They also create a lot of schisms.  We saw this among the Russian political thinkers (with Stoppard brilliantly reflecting Berlin in The Coast of Utopia) and their literary counterparts.*  I really had no idea until recently that Turgenev and Dostoevsky had such a difficult relationship, all due to their intellectual differences.  That is in part why I am going to focus on the Russians so intently for a while.  So that's my own "Instead of an Introduction" (which is how Dostoevsky opens The Demons) and it will serve as the entry point to however many posts I actually write to cover these Russians.  I'm not planning on reviewing everything, though I will certainly post when I feel so moved.

* And don't get me started on university professors, particularly those in the social sciences and the humanities. The joke about the fights [in academic departments] being so bitter because the stakes are so low is oh, so true. I suppose I am more than a little jaded, since I am a failed academic, but I can't help but think Yeats nailed this group so long ago in "The Scholars": Bald heads forgetful of their sins, / ...  / All shuffle there; all cough in ink; / All wear the carpet with their shoes; / All think what other people think ...  And yet -- as sad as it is to view dried up academics who studied the world rather than living it, it is even more pathetic to encounter the agéd scholar who wants to prove that he (or she, but mostly he) is still relevant  (or even worse hip or "with it").

** The title of this post is a semi-intentional mirroring of Jorge Luis Borges' A Personal Anthology and A Universal History of Infamy.  While my deepest affinity tend to be with the fairly pessimistic ideas put forth by Russians authors such as Dostoevsky and Turgenev (and the darker aspects of Bulgakov) as well as Kafka, there is another part that is attracted to more purely diverting game-like works (as long as they are semi-philosophical), like Borges' short stories or Calvino's Invisible Cities or Perec's A Void.  Thus, there is always a tension between these poles and some effort to not take things too seriously but also not too lightly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

End of August updates

Oh, it was so unbelievably hot in Toronto.  It didn't help that I was running extremely late (I had actually taken the morning off to get the kids registered in school -- cutting it close, but the school office really didn't open until this past Monday).  And I was bringing another heavy stack of books to drop off at work.  So I was sweating by the time I arrived.

Work has felt a bit like a vise with unrelenting pressure for a couple of weeks now.  That doesn't mean that I don't blow off a bit of steam (by writing posts for instance) but I've had to work a lot of extra hours to try to meet some tight deadlines, and then am finding that others are not keeping up their end.  But this should only last another two weeks and then things will revert to normal.  We might even hear if we won this big project, though the odds are not looking great at the moment.

In the meantime, I have put together a utility shelf in the basement, which has helped a bit, and am 75% done with a wardrobe (actually the second one I have built).  The quality is not great, and we'll need a better long-term solution one of these days.  In fact, I need to get a bit more glue tomorrow to make sure one of the hinges doesn't come loose.

I think two more weeks and I will be able to get the carpet down in the basement.  The final bookcase I bought (but haven't assembled) will help a lot, but I need to clear enough space to even construct it.  So it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem right now.

Creative chaos?

I could also use a few more short-term wins to make me feel that we are on the right track.  Maybe clearing out the living room enough that we can interview a baby sitter.  That would feel like a significant accomplishment right now.

Anyway, I just came across my copy Russian Thinkers, which I needed since I plan on interleaving Berlin's essays with various Russian works.  While this is more for myself to keep track of the scheme, anyone else is welcome to follow my approach.

X Dostoevsky - Demons, Part I
X Berlin - Russia and 1848
X Dostoevsky - Demons, Part II
X Berlin - The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia & German Romanticism in Petersburg and Moscow
X Dostoevsky - Demons, Part III
X Gogol - The Overcoat & Nevsky Prospect
X Berlin - Russian Populism
X Gogol - The Nose & Diary of a Madman
X Dostoevsky - The Double & The Gambler
X Berlin - Tolstoy and Enlightenment
X Tolstoy - Family Happiness & The Kreuzer Sonata
X Berlin - The Hedgehog and the Fox
X Tolstoy - The Cossacks & The Death of Ivan Ilych & The Devil
(Lessing - Briefing for a Descent into Hell)
X Berlin - Herzen and His Memoirs (in Against the Current)
X Herzen - Childhood, Youth and Exile
X Berlin - Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty
X Herzen - Ends and Beginnings
X Berlin - Vissarion Belinsky & Alexander Herzen
X Turgenev - A Sportsman's Sketches & Diary of a Superfluous Man
X Pushkin - Eugene Onegin (Johnston translation)
X Berlin - Intro to Fathers and Sons
X Turgenev - Fathers and Sons
X Berlin - The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West (in The Crooked Timber)
X Stoppard - The Coast of Utopia
X Tolstoy - Father Sergius & Hadji Murad
X Herzen - From the Other Shore (quite distinct from My Past and Thoughts)
X (Roth - The Antichrist)
X Dostoevsky - White Nights & The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
X Tsypkin - Summer In Baden Baden
X Dostoevsky - Notes from Underground & The Eternal Husband & A Gentle Creature
X Platonov - Soul & The Return
X Tolstoy - A Confession & Master and Man
X (Hogg - Memoirs of a Justified Sinner)
X Pushkin - Eugene Onegin (Falen translation)
X Tolstoy - The Forged Coupon
X Krzhizhanovsky - Autobiography of a Corpse
X Platonov - Happy Moscow
X (Angela Carter - Nights at the Circus)
X Krzhizhanovsky - Memories of the Future
X Platonov - The Foundation Pit

I still need to find the Herzen, but I have a couple of weeks for that.  After I plow through these, I will finally return to Von Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol.  This is a vastly different reading program than the one I set out a few months back, but there is a certain logic to it, closing out a lot of loose ends in my basic Russian literacy.  (And fall is a good time to read Russian authors.  I've decided to update my profile with something a bit more sombre until I am through this revised list.)  I'd still have to read War and Peace some day, and perhaps Oblomov and just possibly A Hero of Our Time, but I'd certainly have the core covered after I got through this list,* on top of the Russian classics I have already read, of course (pretty much all of Bulgakov for instance). Now that doesn't cover the writers of the Stalin era and after very well (aside from Bulgakov), but I am working my way through Vasily Grossman and now Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Andrey Platonov.  I suppose those will just have to get fit in based on whenever they turn up from the library.

I guess there is just time for a quick catnap and then back to work. 

Edit (Jan 28, 2015) I finally have gotten through this list, which did grow a bit since August.  I read some pretty incredible stuff along the way, but I need a fairly long break from Russians now.

* How could I have forgotten Gogol's Dead Souls (despite his turn to a very conservative Russian nationalism towards the end of his life)?  Also, I have to give serious consideration to reading Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.  I've sort of held off, since it truly is meant to be a novel in poetry; it is therefore impossible to accurately convey in English while retaining poetic form and meaning.  The best two poetic translations appear to be by James Falen and Walter Arndt.  Both have their admirers (and serious detractors).  Probably both translations are worth reading; still, I find that not having a clear choice makes me move Eugene Onegin down in my TBR list.  It's not like I don't have a lot of other things on my plate, and this Russian detour will probably prove to be pretty long. 

8th Canadian Challenge - 2nd review - Two Solitudes

Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes (and Roy's The Tin Flute) were two of the last books I read before making the move to Toronto.  They had originally been close but not stacked on top of each other in my TBR pile.  After doing a bit of preparatory research, I realized they were quite closely related, so I read them back to back.  This is a fairly common pairing, also followed by Craig MacBride over at the Toronto Review of Books -- his (quite interesting) reviews are here and here.  I found out a while ago that I had actually read Two Solitudes back in the mid to late 90s, but I really didn't remember much of it, and only occasionally did I think, oh yes, now I recall what is coming.  It was essentially like reading the book for the first time; I had never read any Gabrielle Roy before.  Of the two, I definitely preferred The Tin Flute, which I will discuss at greater length in the next review.  I think MacBride gives Two Solitudes a slight edge.

One last general comment before I start the review itself: a friend warned me that Two Solitudes was quite dated and that it really didn't explain Quebec any longer.  That's sort of a weird warning, in the sense that most fiction over 50 years old describes a world that no longer exists, but then again most novels don't really try to "explain" a province or a people the way that Two Solitudes does.  MacLennan was almost trying to be pedagogical in conveying what it was like to be a French-speaking Quebecker in an English-dominated country -- not quite but almost an "issue" book.  The plot itself sometimes seems secondary (much more so than in The Tin Flute) which does date the book more now that conditions have completely changed.  Indeed, while Atlantic Canada still seems a bit overrun by Catholic dogma (including some truly shameful things that are still happening in terms of access to abortion out that way), Quebec has gone the other way and is mirroring France in attempting to fully secularize their society and even purge religion from the public square.  Quebec has fully embraced manufacturing where this is still a viable business model.  Clearly this is very different from the society that MacLennan was attempting to describe.

There be SPOILERS ahead

While there are actually several sections, the book basically breaks down into two parts.  The first focuses on Athanase Tallard, an influential land-holder and Member of Parliament from a small town somewhat outside of Montreal.  He is the equivalent of the landed gentry.  But his family life has always been quite troubled.  More critically in terms of the plot, he gets into a serious fight with the local priest, Father Beaubien, which leads to his alienation from the villagers which in turn leads to his loss of political power and eventually his family fortunes.  I have to say, for a supposedly educated (if somewhat internally divided) person he is not very clever, since he clearly should have gone over the head of the local priest to the Bishop, with whom he actually has good relations, and thus avoided the whole confrontation.  Indeed, his Anglo counterpart, Huntly McQueen, does exactly this.  It really did seem like a huge mis-step that Athanase wouldn't have made, and thus the later plot developments seemed a bit false to me.

MacLennan sort of explains this away by saying that the priest got under his skin by needling him about his first wife (a religious fanatic nonetheless much loved by outsiders) and then his second wife, a much younger woman of Irish background (who hates the village where they live and who longs to move to Montreal).  So Athanase chose badly twice in his family life.  His eldest son Marius is an extremely unpleasant French separatist, whom even his own father doesn't seem to care for.  He is depicted as a total loser, a scrabbling lawyer who spends much of his time making speeches in favour of sovereignty and cannot feed his ever-growing family.  I can certainly understand why MacLennan wouldn't have been popular in Quebec after this novel came out.  Marius is mostly around to push the plot in a couple of key instances.  First, he is a draft-dodger (WWI, not WWII) and the visiting daughter (Janet) of a neighbour drops a dime on him.  This leads to the complete alienation of the village from her and causes no end of difficulties for her father, Captain Yardley, who is actually a retired Anglo sea captain, who was making friends in the village despite his background.  Janet has always been a bit of a snob and she eventually becomes insufferable, worrying excessively about her place among the rich English families of Montreal.  I guess this is MacLennan's way of balancing out Marius.  He (MacLennan) certainly paints the most positive picture of those characters who try to bridge the Anglo-French divide, such as Athanase, Captain Yardley, Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen (Janet's younger daughter).  Second, Marius provides some of the family dirt to Father Beaubien, enabling him to rile up Athanase.  As an aside, the priest is dead set against the factory that Athanase and Huntly McQueen want to build, which is why Father Beaubien conspires against Athanase, but he only manages to derail Athanase's participation in the project.  The factory still goes ahead and he is more or less exiled elsewhere (I was briefly reminded of the terrific novel Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers, which centers around a priest exiled to the boonies, though that priest would never have worked against the local gentry, as it were).  Anyway, this part of the book does read like a family tragedy, although the asides of McQueen discussing his business doings are somewhat interesting.

Paul Tallard is the younger son, and the "hero" of the second half of the book.  He is of "mixed" background, although in those days, I am not sure his Irish blood would really have made him a representative of English Canada.  It strikes me that Ontario was far more dominated by those of English and Scottish extraction.  Nonetheless, he functions largely as a symbol of the plight of Canada, torn between two different paths.  It certainly doesn't help that his father lost all their funds, and Canada is deep in the midst of the Depression.  (Oh, and he wants to be a writer!)  Through a series of unlikely events, Paul meets and befriends Heather in Montreal.  McQueen has managed Janet's portfolio quite well, and Heather is well-off and mostly associates with the moneyed classes.  She seems to be seeking out something else, however. At the very least, she wants a career, though if I am not mistaken, her degree is in the arts (something that wasn't terribly helpful during the Depression).

Of course they fall in love and meet up with incredible resistance from Janet, who starts pulling the medical emergency card.  In other words, she convinces herself that she is deathly ill and that Heather must nurse her back to health (for the rest of Heather's life apparently).  Oh, by the way, she will disinherit Heather if she marries Paul. To her credit, Heather is more than willing to break with her mother.  However, Paul basically avoids a complete family break by declaring that now that war (WWII) has broken out, he will enlist and when he comes back he will finally have the connections to get a real job and can take care of Heather.  An unusual plan to say the least...

So it is more than a little like a soap opera.  And MacLennan works extra hard to get us to root for anyone willing to bridge the cultural gap between French and English Canada, and to despise the narrow-mindedness of those who stay in their own camps (Marius and Janet particularly).  And of course to point out how damaging and short-sighted the Church could be in small villages throughout Quebec.  I have to admit, I felt some of this same heavy-handedness in Barometer Rising, which I didn't much like.  I think he moved away from this didacticism in later novels.  At least I recall thinking The Watch That Ends the Night was a better novel, though the moral choices were framed in a particularly stark (and unfair?) way.  I haven't read Return of the Sphinx or Voices in Time, but I may some day.  I've decided I am just not interested in Each Man's Son, which sounds terrible from the plot outline on Wikipedia.  I do think that MacLennan and Morley Callaghan have a lot in common, including a preference for plots offering moral dilemmas and a weakness for melodrama.  Well, perhaps one day after I've read through more of Callaghan's work, I can work up an essay along those lines.  But this is more than enough on Two Solitudes.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Publishers of note

Just as when you delve deeply into music, you find subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) variations between record labels (Blue Note vs. Verve vs. Impulse vs. CTI in the jazz world), there can be fairly significant differences in publishing imprints.

For a lot of classic books in English (out of copyright), the difference between publishers can be fairly minimal and not really worth getting to worked up over the differences in introductions and afterwords and so forth.  I generally try to stick with Penguin and occasionally Signet for these types of books.  When the translation matters, then it is anyone's guess.  I really am not an expert, and the only language I could even limp through in the original would be French.  So I try to balance the competing views on Amazon and Good Reads until I come up with an edition that seems acceptable.  I've pretty much decided that for Russian, Pevear and Volokhonsky are my favourite translators, though Robert Chandler can be very good indeed, particularly with Vasily Grossman.  In general, Oxford seems to be publishing some of the best work in French translations and in Greek translations.  Again, I am hardly an expert, but I did recently bow to the collective wisdom and picked up the Oxford Classics edition of Herodotus' The Histories, along with the Landmark Histories (since it has such an intense scholarly apparatus and hundreds of maps).  This is part of my general push to complete my education and finally read those key texts that I skipped over in college (as per this post).

However, in terms of actually being guided/steered to look at books simply because they came out on a particular imprint, I think there are only two reissue series that grip me to this extent.  The first is Virago Press, which at least until recently, only published (or republished) female authors writing in English (and they also tend to restrict themselves to authors from the U.K. or Ireland).  So many of the Molly Keane and Barbara Comyns books I read were on Virago, as was the box set of Barbara Pym.  It's a fairly narrow niche, but they do it quite well.  If I happen to see a book has been published by Virago, I will give it a second and third look.  Only occasionally have I been really disappointed.

But that is nothing compared to my fascination with the New York Review of Books NYRB Classics imprint.  If I had infinite money and infinite time, I probably would try to get through the entire list.  I know that is not going to happen, and so I try to be reasonable about it.  Lately I have been much better about getting the books from the library only.  Though I already mentioned how odd it is that Toronto frequently will only have a single reference copy of a lot of these books, which kind of defeats the purpose of a library, at least in my mind.  I'll have to see if you can still request a book through ILL if a reference copy exists.  And fairly soon I will pony up the $70 for a UT alumni library card as they have many of the NYRB Classic titles in stock, and they circulate at UT.  For those not familiar with this press, there is a complete list of NYRB books as of Aug. 2014 (Almost all the work of compiling this was done by Trevor of Good Reads.)

I am not going to list every book here, but I think I will put together a list of the books I have read in this imprint (even including a handful that were read by a different publisher, assuming that either they were written in English or the translation was identical), then list the books that I have picked up on this imprint but not (yet) read, and finally list the other ones that are calling to me (a group that does grow periodically...).  Some books from the second and third groups have already made their way onto my official TBR pile.  These do make up quite a few books, but getting through them wouldn't be a completely overwhelming task, while reading through the entire imprint would be!

NYBR Classics I have read:
Amsterdam Stories by Nescio
Berlin Stories by Robert Walser
A Schoolboy's Diary by Robert Walser
Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories by Robert Walser
Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery
The Jokers by Albert Cossery
English, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee
Henri Duchemin and His Shadows by Emmanuel Bove
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
After Claude by Iris Owens
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick
Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz
Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig
The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye (very Kafkaesque)
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
Notes of a Crocodile by Miaojin Qiu (disappointing!)
Morte D'Urban by J.F. Powers
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
The Unpossessed: A Novel of the Thirties by Tess Slesinger
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Samskara by U.R. Ananthamurthy
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns
A Month in the Country J.L. Carr 
In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano
Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Doblin (Materialism quite good, otherwise disappointing)
Irretrievable by Fontane*
The Captain's Daughter by Alexander Pushkin
Soul by Andrey Platonov
Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov
The Fierce and Beautiful World by Andrey Platonov
The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov
A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhinovsky
Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories by Gregor von Rezzori
The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia
Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia
To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati (strange graphic novel on the Orpheus myth)
Soft City by Hariton Pushwagner (graphic novel about corporate culture)
Cat Town by Sakutaro Hagiwara (NYRB Poets)
The If Borderlands by Elise Partridge (NYRB poetry)
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (at least I'm pretty sure I read this and this appears to be the standard translation -- I would recommend reading the new NYRB introduction as an afterward instead, however, as it covers too much of the plot.)

NYBR Classics I own (but haven't read):
The Snows of Yester-year: Portraits for an Autobiography by Gregor von Rezzori
All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis (read 4 of 7 parts)
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy
The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim 
The Furies by Janet Hobhouse (I believe I still have this)
The Human Comedy: Selected Stories by Honoré de Balzac
The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac
Hav by Jan Morris (includes Last Letters from Hav and a sequel)
The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell
Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig
A Fairly Good Time by Mavis Gallant
Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant
Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick
The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese
The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese
Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy (owned this previously -- this time I should get through it!)
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
Caught by Henry Green (first uncensored version)
Loving by Henry Green
Back by Henry Green
Blindness by Henry Green
Living by Henry Green
Party Going by Henry Green
Doting by Henry Green
Nothing by Henry Green
Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis
Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
Dear Illusions (Collected Stories) by Kingsley Amis 
The Stories of J.F. Powers
Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers
Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson 
The Door by Magda Szabó
Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling

NYBR Classics I would really like to read (& don't own):
Conquered City by Victor Serge
Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge
Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge
The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge
Basti by Intizar Husain
The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat by Carl Van Vechten
The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla
The Ivory Tower by Henry James
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg
The Late Mattia Pascal by Pirandello
The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
Girl 2.0 by Kingsley Amis
Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis (NYRB seems to be on a massive Amis kick)
The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó
Young Once by Patrick Modiano
Letter to Survivors by Gébé
Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf
Zama by Antonio di Benedetto

(Frankly, not quite as sure about these):
Stoner by John Williams (despite its major cult reputation)
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass
A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien
The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott
Naked Earth by Eileen Chang (prob. not as I didn't rate Love in a Fallen City highly)
Little Reunions by Eileen Chang
The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei
The Outcry by Henry James
Envy by Yuri Olesha
The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Totempole by Sanford Friedman,
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó
Houses by Borislav Pekić
Transit by Anna Seghers
The Child by Jules Vallès
Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler
Troubles by J.G. Farrell
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern
Eve's Hollywood by Eve Babitz
Alien Hearts by Guy de Maupassant 
A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett 
Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Havoc by Tom Kristensen
Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov (sounds a bit too much like Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago)
A whole bunch of Simenon as well, but not really sure where to start with those.  Definitely not an author I will tackle in the near future.

* This is a particularly rare case where the Penguin edition (under the title No Way Back) is a newer translation than the NYRB edition, though to my taste NYRB still is the better translation, so that's the one I will read.  The Penguin definitely has better notes, however.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 1st review - Apocalypse for Beginners

So I am very far behind on reviews, but I wanted to at least get on the board in August.  This book was actually read a few months ago.

Apocalypse for Beginners is Nicolas Dickner's second novel, after Nikolski, which I reviewed about a year ago.  My basic feeling was that it (Nikolski) started pretty strong, but that it spun out of control towards the last third or so.  The characters from three storylines didn't interact much or in a particularly interesting way when they finally did criss-cross towards the end.  I guess I didn't want some contrived Crash-like scenario, but it probably would have been better to just skip over their meeting rather than what Dickner came up with.  (As a total aside, I felt Nick Hornby's How to Be Good followed the same pattern of fairly strong start and then a long detour into implausibility and then a pretty damp squib of an ending.)

Well, Apocalypse for Beginners sort of inverts the pattern.  The beginning is super contrived: Hope Randall comes from a long line of prophets, all of whom were convinced the world would come to an end on a specific day (shades of Heaven's Gate -- in fact, there is a whole page on Wikipedia dedicated to the various dates prophets gave for the end of the world -- fascinating).  When the date came and passed, her relatives became deeply depressed and typically suicidal.  So where I have a bit of a problem is that this seems like a genealogical line that would have been snapped a while back.

Once you get past that, things pick up a bit.  Hope and her mother move to town, roughly at the start of Hope's high school years I vaguely recall.  Hope is more or less abandoned by her mother and spends much of her time with a neighbour, Mickey Bauermann, and his fairly normal family.  Hope is super logical, so Mickey believes she has avoided the family curse.

I don't think I am spoiling too much by saying she eventually succumbs.  Also, I know I am not giving anything away by saying that her mother gets increasingly frantic as her personal date approaches, and then more or less collapses after it passes uneventfully.  Hope has to work extremely hard to keep her mother from OD'ing on pills.  Her mother eventually pulls through and finds employment as a bartender at some dive where she can get fairly pissed each night.  Whatever works, I guess.

One thing that I did like about the first half (or even two-thirds) of the book is the fact that Hope is clever at school and is generally a good influence on Mickey.  It is a bit difficult to believe that he never made a move on her, though it was clearly on his mind from time to time.  Another aspect that rang true was how obsessed Hope was with nuclear war.  It's retreated a lot from the front of my mind, but I was just convinced that Reagan was going to embroil us in a real hot war.  Thank goodness it wasn't Reagan vs. Putin, since that could have gotten really ugly.  I've already written how this existential threat coloured my general disposition.  I suppose for a certain group of environmentalists the possibilities of war over natural resources, particularly water, the coming of peak oil (which they largely welcome) and the consequences of global warming have the same impact on their psyches.  I do care about these things and worry about them a fair bit, but I am just exhausted with day to day life most of the time and can't afford to dwell on them to the same extent that a teenager can...


I've sort of forgotten why Mickey never tries to date Hope, but she goes off to Japan (to teach English I think).  Why Japan?  It has something to do with how her date was revealed to her.  Mickey does not go into the family concrete business and in fact moves to Toronto.  He goes through a number of unsatisfactory relationships, and his mother despairs of him settling down and raising some kids.  (She can't quite admit to herself that her other son is gay.)  Mickey comes back for a funeral, and has an epiphany: Hope's doomday date is approaching and he decides he will try to track her down and 1) offer her comfort and 2) see if they are in fact destined for each other.  (While the tone is different, this return to his hometown sort of put me in mind of the start of movie The World's End.)

What sort of bugged me about the book is that it ends without a proper resolution.  (It actually reminded me of Murakami's After Dark in this respect.)  The book works so hard to bring these two together, setting up the readers' expectations.  Either this should come to pass, or some other ending where the two learn just why they can't be together is required.  Cutting off too early is just not cool.  So I can't really wholeheartedly recommend the book, though it does have its moments.

Maybe third time will be the charm, though I have to say I have a lot of other books to read before I would ever get back 'round to Dickner.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death of a Hard Drive

So I am still somewhere in the depression stage over this hard drive failure.  It is simply hard to accept that the short time window where I was trying to back up some files from the main desktop computer led to this chain of events, i.e. the monitor falling in such a random way.  I'm also trying to deflect some blame, since there is no question work policies (and this particularly insistent IT guy) compounded the problem, as I would have made additional back-ups of the data.

At any rate, I got the quote back from the recovery place, and it was too high - $1350.  I think in this case they shot themselves in the foot by saying that it was such an incredibly complex job, so that I figure they will only be able recover partial files that are of limited use.  My understanding is that it is $1350, take it or leave it.  Not $1350 if they recover essentially all the files and only $700 if only 50% of the data is valid.

I think I might have gone as high as $800 if essentially all the files had been reconstructed, but it's that extra bit over the top -- and the fact that the files I want most are almost sure to be damaged (the last recordings of BBC Radio 3 that I moved onto the drive) -- that have convinced me it is not worth it.

So I am trying to reconstruct (in my head) what is actually on there, and what might be backed up elsewhere.  In the last month, I had moved a handful of movie files over and a fair amount of music to listen to at work.  That is on other hard drives.  What I don't have are the DVDs that I backed up over the past two months, so that will be a total pain redoing those.  It was probably 7 or 8.

The BBC Radio 3 stuff is gone completely, so I just have to put it out of my mind.  I find that since going cold turkey, I don't miss it that much.  It was always hit or miss whether I had time to listen to it or archive it properly.  At this point, I have probably 5 year's worth of shows squirreled away, which should be enough for a long time.

The good news is that the TransLink email was left backed up on TransLink servers, as I anticipated they would need it down the line.  Much of what I brought over with me were TransLink files I needed to wrap up the documentation, so I have been able to request that those files be sent over.  I was particularly worried about the C drive Mydocs folder, (which isn't on the TransLink servers), but I just turned up a copy of this from late Feb (about when I had left) on another hard drive.  So that disaster may be averted.

Unfortunately, the final version of the documentation is gone, but I had sent around version 5 and then the edited concluding chapter of version 6, so that covers most of the work I did, and I was able to rebuild the file and only lose a bit of progress.  There are probably some other interim files that are gone, particularly some GIS files I created, but nothing too critical.

It appears that the massive backup (to tif and pdf files) was backed up around late Feb, just as I was leaving TransLink.  A substantial subset of the scans I generated at work between March and June is backed up, but not all of them.  That's probably the biggest loss I am aware of, and I'm sure that at some point I'll be very upset about not being able to track down some file or other.  Some of this is actually backed up because of the way work emails are stored, but I am not sure I really want to go down that path.  Probably better to just accept the loss.  It's pretty clear I am not going to heavily edit my dissertation and turn it into a book, and even if I did, these news clippings and other statistical data just won't help.  I would have already used them and cited them in the dissertation if they were relevant.  It's better to start letting go.  I've already gone from 3 files cabinets of junk like this to 2, and perhaps in another year I will be down to one.

One other piece of good news is that the various academic articles I downloaded (during visits to UBC or SFU and now UT) are backed up because those always were put on a flash drive and not directly to the external hard drive.

No question there is a core of stuff I wish I hadn't lost, but I think this is largely limited to the BBC Radio 3 recordings from the last two weeks and the tif/pdf backups I generated at work March through May.  After I get a better handle on that, I'll decide whether I ask the IT guys to try to restore some of those emails.  I'll probably never completely get over this loss, but there is no question it could have been far, far worse.  It looks like most of the TransLink material was backed up in two or three locations (as everything should be!) and it is only fairly recent material that is completely gone (but that is generally easier to reconstruct, at least the bits that are work-related).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lear's Chaotic universe

While this is indeed what I generally think about life (it is chaotic and often feels unjust for those of us "down here on the ground"), here I am specifically referring to Shakespeare's King Lear.  I am just back from the play, and am kind of wiped out.  It was a good performance, and I picked up different aspects of the play.  My first Lear (a couple of years ago in Vancouver) was such an unbearably intimate affair that nothing else will likely come close.  It did not help that it was like being in a cough echo chamber.  (Last year at Othello there was a coughing woman who was finally removed, but this time the periodic coughs went the length of the play, mixed with sneezes towards the end!  Maybe it was the fake fog that they were using.)  And there was an idiot towards the end of my row who had their phone on vibrate at the start of the play, and then let their phone keep going pretty much all through the storm scene that opens the second half (as if it wasn't already hard enough to hear the words through all the thunder).  I'm increasingly convinced that major theatres and perhaps even movie theatres need to be allowed to implement cell phone blocking technology.  This will never happen in the States, but there is a slim chance of it happening in Canada.  So a lot of things kind of kept me from being completely immersed in the play.

I found the plot more problematic than usual, which is often what happens when you are half in-half out of a play.  Lear really is an unreasonable bully at the start of the play and in general acts like a petulant child whenever he is crossed.  (I kept having visions of Donald Sterling going through my head and was wondering if Lear is the first documentation of early-onset Alzheimer's.)  It is very difficult to imagine him being a decent king who would inspire the loyalty of figures such as Kent.  For that matter, it seems so unlikely that with just a minor costume change, Lear is not going to recognize Kent when he comes back into his retinue.  (At least Edgar as Poor Tom makes a real effort, caking himself in mud and selling the part, as it were.)  As always, Cordelia is almost smug about how she won't butter up Lear even a little bit.  I've been one of those unrepentant truth-tellers, and I know they aren't any fun to be around.

What I honed in on, more this time than before, is how Edmund conjures up the plot against Edgar out of thin air.  In some ways, it is even more unsatisfying than Iago's machinations, as he simply claims all kinds of things against Edgar and Glouster swallows them without really a second's pause.  In this production, Glouster at least sees the letter (that Edmund actually wrote), and I guess it is implied that Edmund spent some time copying his half-brother's hand-writing.  The other thing is that in this production, when you first encounter him, Edgar is played as a bit of a carousing, ne'er-do-well (shades of Prince Hal really) who only comes into his own after much suffering.  So basically the director wanted to give Glouster some tangible reasons for being so unreasonable towards Edgar and so willing to swallow any lie about him from Edmund. (It's almost like this is Henry IV, Part II and all the action is background to Edgar becoming the rightful heir to the throne.  Perhaps not really what Shakespeare was going for.)

There is so much madness or feigned madness in this play: the Fool, Lear, Edgar as Poor Tom.  Even Goneril acts rashly.  I've generally always felt that the Fool often gets squeezed out of the action, when Kent comes back as a simpleton who also speaks truth to power.  I've never understood why Shakespeare has Kent and the Fool in almost the exact same role, and in this one, the Fool seems to understand this and almost aggressively urge Kent to take up his coxcomb.  That said, in this production, the Fool did kind of vanish (maybe he should have been dressed slightly more like a traditional fool -- here he looked like all the other members of the retinue).  If I am recalling correctly from Ran, the Kent figure comes back as a warrior and is part of the action but doesn't hone in on any of the Fool's business.  In addition, the Fool in Ran certainly stands out in his outre costume -- and has a better death scene; maybe it was just cut for time here, but the Fool did not have a proper send-off.  I just found the Fool was really so marginal in this production.  I'll have to check the reviews to see if they agree with me.  I basically felt Lear, Edmund, Regan and Goneril had the biggest impact.

Anyway, today more than usual Lear felt like a kitchen sink tragedy, i.e. Shakespeare threw in everything but the kitchen sink: the feigned madness and poisoning from Hamlet, making unreasonable accusations stick from Othello, the wife more bloody-minded than her husband from Macbeth, the general hot-headedness of well over half the men from Romeo and Juliet.  (And an even better parallel, the unreasonableness of Shylock leading to his undoing.)  It briefly feels like things might turn out ok when Cordelia comes back with troops, though is restoring this aging despot to the throne really such a great idea?  And then pretty much the whole battle takes place off-stage and France's forces are beaten back, largely through the valiant efforts of Edmund.  It really does seem the universe is off-kilter.  It is much like MacBeth where we have glimpses that if Edmund/MacBeth had not rebelled against the natural order of succession, their valor in battle would have led to great rewards in time.  Of course, if we turn to the history plays we find plenty of examples of usurpers being rewarded, despite Shakespeare's attempts to square history with a higher morality (the victor getting to write history and all that).  So perhaps it is understandable that they are a bit impatient...

I had a good time wandering around Stratford for about 90 minutes before the play started.  If I didn't already mention it, I really like the Stratford Direct bus (though I was sitting just in front of a couple of real chatterboxes coming in!).  It was even better going back, since there was a fair bit of congestion on the return trip, and I didn't have to deal with it.  I managed to get 100 pages into Dostovesky's Demons, which seemed an appropriate choice, though I am nowhere near the darkest part of that book.  (The Brothers Karamazov would have been an even more apt choice, but I am not going to be rereading that for years.)  I'll write more on Demons a bit later, but I think I will go ahead and reorder my reading list so I can kind of round out the Russian thinkers theme -- Isaiah Berlin of course, Herzen, Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and perhaps The Double (in case I have a chance to catch the new film version of it starring Jesse Eisenberg and directed by Richard Ayoade).  While I read Turgenev's A Month in the Country a couple of months back, it may also be just about time to reread Fathers and Sons to sort of round out the picture.  This was a book that affected me deeply in high school, and it would be quite interesting to see how I respond to it now.

I think my wife would have liked Stratford a bit better than Niagara-on-the-Lake, as it feels more like a real place and not just a tourist trap.  I was sad to see that The Book Vault was closing down (literally the last day), as I liked it a bit better than the other book store on the main strip.  I tried to find something to buy there, but it was basically just filled up with puzzles and maybe a dozen remaindered books selling for a buck each.  I am hoping that within a few more years, I can come down with my son and then eventually the whole family.  (I did see a few families in the stands, which I thought was great.)  But it is just such a narrow window -- roughly 15-19 -- when the kids will be able to share my main interests and before they fly the coop.  Of course, maybe they will end up going to university here and staying closer to home.  It's so depressing that I will be 50-55 when this golden age finally arrives.  Nonetheless, this was one of the things I was planning for (summer trips to the Stratford and Shaw Festivals) when I finally engineered this move, so I hope it comes to pass.  I guess Shakespeare and a thousand other literary examples caution me that life doesn't usually turn out the way one wants.  But that's probably enough melancholy for one night...

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Douglas Coupland exhibit in Vancouver

This is another very tardy review.  The Douglas Coupland exhibit only runs for two more weekends (three if you count this weekend).  I do apologize about that, but my life has been hectic as should be clear from just a short inspection of the posts from 2014...

While I will mostly be focusing on the Coupland exhibit, there are some other quality exhibits on other floors and in most cases they are up for another couple of weeks past the closing of the Coupland.

I should say right up front I thought I was not going to care for the exhibit.  I generally find Coupland's books a bit empty (which is largely the point) and it is surprising how much he glamourizes the glass skyscrapers that make up most of downtown Vancouver.  He really does embrace the spirit of the age (this must be the only exhibit I've ever seen advertised in elevators -- see below), whereas I would say I have a far more complicated relationship with today's society, finding that many things I valued have not survived the Internet all that well.  I suppose this is an old (and trite) lament: we see it in Stefan Zweig (in the World of Yesterday) and even more acidly in the Frankfurt school, particularly Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Should I really be aligning myself with unabashed elitists?  At the same time, I am sure I will never throw my lot in with the optimists who see things as always getting better.

At any rate, I liked the exhibit a lot more than I thought I would.  Coupland has a quite good grasp of pop art (while it isn't my favourite period -- I prefer the abstract expressionists that came immediately before then -- I still think they are generally worthy of study).

For an in-depth overview, you can go to this site.  One thing that was a bit different is that Coupland made it explicit that anyone that wanted to could take photos of his art and post them on-line, particularly to Flickr.  I have not spent a lot of time looking on-line for other people's photos, but I do have a few of my own.

Right off the bat, you start in a section that celebrates Canada, but Canada of the 1970s or so, with some of the objects even older from the 60s or 50s.  This is an intriguing era when Canada was sort of struggling with whether its ties with England were strong enough to counter-balance the trickle (turning into a flood) of US consumer goods (and later and more insidiously US media).  I think most objective observers would agree that the battle was lost by the late 1970s.

I felt the first part of the section had a shared sensibility with Rodney Graham, who has become a bit of an art world darling.  I will probably write a separate post about Graham later.  As it turned out, I had to skip out on a couple of exhibits of his work in Vancouver, right before I left.  But I did see a small, focused exhibit at VAG a couple of years ago.  This was probably my favourite piece from that exhibit.

Rodney Graham, Canadian Humourist, 2011

But back to Coupland: the first part of the exhibit displayed some interior shots that had this same kind of colour scheme.  But there was also an ice machine that held a dark secret.  The liquid pooling at the bottom was clearly blood.  Perhaps Fargo by way of Vancouver.

The next rooms were totally different.  There was a sculpture of a electric power line tower that had collapsed.  My son said it looked a bit like a fallen bull.  But on the walls were simplified versions of some Group of Seven painters.  I guess one could choose to take this as a slight or a sincere homage.  I suspect it was somewhere in between, but I actually thought they worked pretty well, and it indicated to me that Coupland really had engaged with the art at some level.  Here are a couple that appear primarily inspired by Lawren Harris.

Then there was a large section devoted to Lego buildings.  While we missed out on the all-night Lego building event, there were still bins of Lego for children to build with.  Here is the building my son worked on in an early phase.

After this, there was an entire room filled with aphorisms related to the Internet and the modern world.  Nothing quite as punchy as one might find in Nietzsche, but still a few zingers here and there.  Here are a few that I thought were worth repeating.

Then there was a room that showed Coupland grappling with the Pop artists of the 60s.  I liked this piece, which seemed a bit of a fusion of James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein.

I also thought that the mounted wigs, supposedly worn by Andy Warhol, were a nice touch.

The next section was a bit creepy where Coupland was sort of reflecting on 9/11 and the World Trade Center.  There were a couple of paintings that only came into focus when viewed through a cell phone.  Some of these showed the people falling from the towers, and a few showed Osama Bin Laden.  I preferred the ones that were slightly less weighted down with symbolism -- there was a series of just the World Trade Center facade -- which was Coupland riffing on Lichtenstein riffing on Monet. (My son photo-bombed this one.)

After this, there were two room-sized installations -- The World (dominated by petrochemical processing places) and The Brain (which had sort of a left brain-right brain, white-colour scheme going on).  Both were pretty overwhelming.

Douglas Coupland, The World, 2014

Douglas Coupland, The Brain, 2014

Douglas Coupland, The Brain, 2014

Douglas Coupland, The Brain, 2014

So certainly a lot to absorb.  But that is not all!

If one goes up a floor, there is considerably more on view. There is a bit of a traveling exhibit: "Lost in the Memory Palace: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller."  This was one view earlier in the spring at the AGO, and I was thrilled to see that the key pieces made it to VAG, and even a couple of pieces that I had not seen in Toronto.  This will be on view through Sept. 21 and is definitely worth a look.*

A very creepy piece is The Killing Machine, which combines electronic music (perhaps inspired by Berg's Wozzeck), Kafka's In the Penal Colony and a trip to the dentist.  (Not sure how long it will stay up here, but Youtube has a video of this piece.)  My very favourite piece in the Memory Palace is Storm Room, which does have to be seen in person, but it is basically a spartan room with a storm outside.  The ceiling occasionally drips real water into a bucket.  One advantage is that I was actually able to make it inside the The Dark Pool installation, whereas the lines were too long in Toronto.  So definitely a very cool set of exhibits on this floor.  I've written too much already, but here is a good blog covering the Memory Palace as installed in Toronto.

The next floor has a lot of pieces from the VAG's permanent collection.  Presumably, if they move to bigger digs closer to the Main library, more of their permanent collection will be on display.  I jokingly said that once this opened, it restored the natural order of things, as there was about a month where there was no Emily Carr on display.  I don't recall too much about this, other than they had a decent Jeff Wall piece, and I liked the urban themed room.  Unfortunately, they didn't allow photography up here, so no pictures.  Perhaps some day VAG will put together a proper catalog of their permanent collection.  This floor will be on display through mid October, and is worth a look if you are coming for the Coupland and/or the Cardiff-Miller exhibits.

Finally, on the top floor (where they traditionally display Emily Carr), they have some new acquisitions.  While it isn't going to be too everyone's taste, I liked Angela Grossman's Wish You Were Here.

Image Credits: OutofSight-08 Angela Grossmann Wish You Were Here, 1985 oil, tar, collage elements on plywood Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Pamela S. Boles Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery
I found it vaguely reminiscent of Max Beckmann, maybe in the overall composition and the use of heavy black outlines.  One interesting fact is that it appears to be painted on a kind of textured wallpaper, which can only be made out up close.  Actually, Grossman had another piece I liked in the permanent collection a floor down.  Interestingly, I don't care for her current work, but perhaps she will return to her mid 80s style at some point.

So a lot to see and take in.  I think at this point, I need to stop.  My next posting will probably be one of the much delayed reviews for the Canadian book challenge.  Until then...

* After a considerable delay, the catalog finally turned up. (I can't imagine VAG was pleased about them not being available to sell during the exhibition.) It's actually quite thorough and nicely done, though I was surprised that they don't have a good picture of the blood from the ice machine, but fortunately, I have that posted just above.

Minor post-move updates

Well, I have sent the hard drive off to a data recovery site.  They haven't provided a quote yet.  It will be high, but perhaps I shall pay it.  I may be able to get work to cover a portion of the cost, since roughly 25% of the files are related to work, though they are all concentrated on a single client/project.  And this is probably 50% of what I would ask to recover.  I can safely have them skip some mp3s and such that are backed up elsewhere.

I'm always running a day or too late at work, but that's pretty normal for a consultant.  It looks like Sept./Oct. might be pretty busy for us, which is generally good.  I tend to respond better when the work is a bit more continuous and at least a bit interesting.  (And of course I mostly respond to deadlines, and I have to get at least some work work done today to hit a deadline next week.)

I've sort of hit a wall with unpacking various boxes, but I think once I accept that some of the art books have to get boxed up, that will help.  I may scan a few images from a few to make the transition a bit better. I do want to get a bit more done today, since I will be away almost all day Sunday at Stratford watching King Lear. (It's been getting really solid reviews whereas the two versions of Midsummer's Night's Dream do not sound like my cup of tea at all.)  I should be able to get a bit more of the art work hung.  (It was kind of a sad day when they all came down in Vancouver.)  And make more progress tying up boxes and getting them out of the way.

We've basically planned out a trip to New York in March to see relatives (but most likely my wife's best friend will have moved back to Chicago by then).  Ideally, I will also be able to get a ticket to The Iceman Cometh at BAM, though I suppose I had better be willing to pay through the nose for it.  I'll find out if we decide to take the whole week of Spring Break off if my wife wants to try to loop through Boston (another place Porter flies, though it may not be cheapest overall to go on Porter) on the way back or if that is just asking for trouble.

I'm having a little trouble figuring out a short trip to Detroit, but what I am leaning towards is something in April or May (or even June), where we take the train to Windsor and then the bus over to Detroit and perhaps just have my wife's relatives meet us downtown after we visit the DIA.  On the other hand, if I push it that far back and we pick a non-holiday weekend, then maybe I would drive it after all.  I won't ever try to drive across the border on a holiday weekend again.  (While I would like to bundle the trip with a side trip to Cleveland (very cheap from Detroit on Greyhound) this makes for so many logistical challenges that it could only happen if I took a bunch of days off (and spring break is already largely spoken for) and/or went over a long holiday.)

We've have already booked our trip to Chicago in Oct., which is sort of my wife's birthday present, since she didn't get to Chicago this summer.  (Next summer we will probably be there for a couple of weeks in August, assuming I can get permission to work remotely from the Chicago office.)  In another week or so, I'll book the tickets to the two plays I want to see.  Curiously, I am not that interested in anything on at Goodman or the Steppenwolf main stage.

There is a small irony in that I had kind of counted on seeing the TSO perform Dvorak's 9th Symphony, since I had skipped out of an amateur performance in Vancouver as recounted here.  Well, the dates that the TSO perform Dvorak 9 coincide exactly with the Chicago trip.  Oh well.  Perhaps U of T Symphony will do it (their schedule isn't up yet) or it will pop up the following season.  It's a warhorse I've seen a number of times (including in Prague!) but I always enjoy hearing it.  Anyway, I should go ahead and put together my season soon with TSO, being mindful that their tickets are a bit more expensive than the VSO's, and also being a bit mindful of these future short trips I am mapping out.

What was a bit of a shock was just how much Soulpepper's tickets are, even for students.  The base adult ticket is $75 with only small discounts for being up in the balcony or having quite poor sight lines.  That seems considerably more than The Cultch.  In Chicago, the main floor tickets are often in that range, but both Goodman and Steppenwolf have more balcony seating at a more reasonable price (and certainly this is the case with the Chicago Symphony).  My general impression from the paper is that there are quite a few theatre companies that are priced more in my comfort zone, but Soulpepper is definitely on the high side, so I suspect I'll only go to a show or two each season and not plan on subscribing. I'll still try to make it to Tartuffe, especially as they added some shows in September, but I am going to pass on The Crucible.  There will be a university production before too long, and that's what I'll take my son to.  There's no rush, and he'll probably understand it better in a couple more years anyway.

I was able to bike to work yesterday, and the shed looks like it will work out pretty well.  I just need to paint it soon.  If rain wasn't in the forecast, I would do it today (probaby), but at this point I will aim for next weekend.  So it turns out it isn't too bad of a ride, though there is a rough stretch on Richmond downtown where all the bike lanes end (this is somewhat equivalent to getting dumped into the Loop though not quite as busy).  If they actually do surface Richmond and paint on some bike lanes, I think I'll be set.  I just need to figure out where to store the bike and if I want to try to shower at one of these bike station places.  The ride itself looks like it will take 25 minutes each way, which is a bit less than I was biking in Vancouver, but still useful exercise (that has slipped greatly since the move) and it seems like biking will be faster than the streetcar and obviously cheaper.  However, it will take 115 days where I don't take the streetcar or subway to pay off the shed!  The only real downside is that I will read less when not on transit, though I was typically finding I couldn't read on the streetcars anyway due to crowding and trying to carry too much here and back.

In general, the reading is going well, though it does feel I will never get through these various lists, to say nothing of the books that are getting stuffed back into boxes.  I didn't care much for the second half of John Williams' The Man Who Cried I Am, but I am not sure whether it merits an entire review post.  (The short version is that the novel devolved from one that was more or less a typical Harlem renaissance novel with the character occasionally going to Paris and then became a paranoid screen on the order of Chester Himes' Plan B.  While both can be great, stuffing the two into one book doesn't work very well.)  I'm starting Dostoevsky's The Demons now and then will tackle Von Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol.  Then I think I will move up Faulkner's As I Lay Dying just a few positions to be next after that (I mistakenly said in the comments that I had read this already, but it just feels like I have given that I had restarted reading Faulkner last summer...).  So many great books to tackle, so few years to do it in.

I haven't actually scheduled a specific time each day to do creative writing, but I will do that soon.  It's the only way to stick to it, I find.  At the moment, I just can't until the boxes are more under control.  Ok, I am off to work on that for a while.