Monday, March 30, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 17th Review - Atwood's The Door

The Door is a fairly long collection of poems by Margaret Atwood, which follows on from Morning in the Burned House about 12 years later.  I would say overall Morning is the more compelling collection, but an Atwood fan will eventually want to read The Door.

The Door falls in five overall sections, though some sections don't work as well for me, particularly an entire section about Poets in a general sense that ultimately felt forced, that is to say Atwood wanted to write an entire series about the poetic process, but had to really strain at them.  I'll only write about the poems that interested me and not try to cover the entire collection.

One amusing poem is "Resurrecting the Dolls' House":
Resurrecting the dolls' house
lying dormant for fifteen years,
left behind by its owner,
we unswaddle the wrapped furniture,
wake up the family:
mother and father; a boy and girl
in sailor suits; a frilly baby;
grandmother and grandfather,
their white hair dusty --
all as it should be,
except for an extra, diminutive father
with suave spats and a moustache:
maybe a wicked uncle
who will creep around at night
and molest the children.
No -- let's make him good!
Perhaps a butler, or cook...

The effort in putting the fantasy on slightly more acceptable terms shows up in some internal strain, and the meals that this creepy cook fixes seem hardly edible.  It isn't clear why the narrator is so anxious, but she clearly is.

Stand back: now it's a home.
It glows from within.
The welcome mat says Welcome.
Still, it makes us anxious --
anxieties of the nest.
How can we keep it safe?
There's so much to defend.
There might be nightmares.
Lucky if it's just the toast
that catches fire.

I can certainly understand why the dollhouse would go back under wraps if it triggers all these anxieties.  Still, it is an effective poem, one of the better ones in the collection.

It is followed immediately by a poem ("Blackie in Antarctica") about the death of a family cat, and then a more introspective poem ("Mourning for Cats") that steps back and analyzes why the death of a pet hits so hard.
We get too sentimental
over dead animals.
We turn maudlin.
But only those with fur,
only those who look like us,
at least a little.
No one laments a spider.
Nor a crab.
Baby seals make the grade,
and dogs, and sometimes owls.
Cats almost always.
Do we think they are like dead children?
Do we think they are a part of us,
the animal soul
fuzzy and trusting,
and vital and on the prowl...

Even though Atwood comes across very analytic in this poem, it seems more of a defense mechanism, since she already revealed that she is a big softie in "Blackie in Antarctica" as well as "February" from Morning in the Burned House.

This collection continues with "January," which is another poem about pets in wintertime, the prime difference being that she is thinking about a deceased cat:
The front steps are slick and treacherous;
at night the house crackles.
You came in and out at will,
but this time of year you'd stay indoors,
plump in your undertaker's fur,
dreaming of sunlight,
dreaming of murdered sparrows,
black cat who's no longer there.
If only you could find your way
back through the locked door of air.

As a cat lover myself, I certainly enjoy or at least relate to these cat poems in both collections.

I already alluded to the fact that Atwood has quite a few poems about poets in this collection, most of which seem a bit strained.  I did think "The Poets Hang On" is one of the more successful ones.
The poets hang on.
It's hard to get rid of them,
though lord knows it's been tied.
We pass them on the road
What is it they claim to know?
Spit it out, we hiss at them.
Say it plain!
Go away, we say--
and take your boring sadness.
You're not wanted here.

"Questioning the Dead" has a somewhat similar feel with the dead giving only gnomic answers that are not satisfying to the questioners: "Their voices are dry as lentils / falling into a glass jar. / Why can't they speak up clearly / instead of mumbling about keys and numbers, / and stairs..."

Atwood keeps returning to this theme of hidden knowledge that cannot be passed on accurately, and perhaps inevitably she turns to the Oracle of Greek legends.  She actually has an entire suite called "Another Visit to the Oracle": "They used to ask me all kinds of questions / ... / Now it's only the one thing: / Is there no hope? / They ask that over and over. / Though the sky is as blue as ever / the flowers as flowery..."

I find "Dutiful" resonates with me, even if I never had quite as many expectations placed upon me, since I was born a boy.  Still, in a great many organizations, it turns out that just possessing basic competence means that you end up stuck with all kinds of tasks that you didn't want to take on.  Unfortunately, it is a bit riskier to employ strategic incompetence in a work setting.  I do recall one summer I wanted to do just a bit of volunteer work, and it was I was going to end up running the whole shebang, so I just pulled out before I had more responsibilities piled on.

Anyway, here are a few lines from "Dutiful": How did I get so dutiful? Was I always that way? / ... / sweeping up dirt I didn't make ... / I didn't perform these duties willingly. / I wanted to be on the river, or dancing ... / That's me too, years later, a purple-eyed wreck, / because whatever had to be finished wasn't, and I stayed late, / grumpy as a snake, on too much coffee ... / But I've resigned ... / I've decided to wear sunglasses, and a necklace / adorned with the gold word NO...

Wise words, though I probably need a few more years before I can completely check out of all the things I don't want to do...

The final poem is "The Door," which is clearly a meditation on death, which is fitting given how many of the poems in this last section are about old age and the settling of accounts.

The door swings open,
you look in.
It's dark in there,
most likely spiders:
nothing you want.
You feel scared.
The door swings closed.
The door swings open,
you look in:
why does this keep happening now?
The snow falls,
you clear the walk while breathing heavily;
it's not as easy as once.
Your children telephone sometimes.
The roof needs fixing.
You keep yourself busy.
The spring arrives.
The dog has died.
The happened before.
You got another;
not this time though.
The door swings open:
It's dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings closed.

It's somewhat interesting that even a poet as reasonably as clear-eyed as Atwood falls back on cliches and a bit avoidance when trying to face up to death.  It's just not something that is easy to face, and I suppose there are only so many ways to talk about "the void" or non-existence.

I enjoyed a few poems quite a bit, i.e. the ones I discussed, but a larger proportion of the poems in The Door didn't quite work for me, compared to her earlier collections.  But it's certainly worth flipping through this autumnal collection to see what Atwood is up to now, as I am only able to give a basic overview of the collection (a perennial problem with reviewing poetry).

Sunday, March 29, 2015

8th Canadian challenge - 16th Review - Active Pass

Somewhat later than I intended, I am finally ready to review Jane Munro's Active Pass, which was published 4 years after her collection Point No Point, which I reviewed here.

The cover references a Mary Pratt painting: Fish Head in Steel Sink, which is basically exactly what it says on the tin.  The second section of the collection riffs on a number of Mary Pratt paintings, and it is a somewhat propitious coincidence that I saw a fair number of these paintings in person at a Pratt retrospective at the McMichael Collection last year.

Mary Pratt, Fish Head in Steel Sink, 1983

But the collection begins with an extended suite of poems called Active Pass, which refers to a stretch of water between the B.C. Lower Mainland and Swartz Bay.  I assume I crossed this pass 3 times on my very occasional ferry trips out to Victoria.

I have to say this is a very complicated suite, which does repay repeat readings.  At first glance, most of the poems just seem to be descriptions of nature that are found on the way to the two ferry terminals (and this is a bit of a callback to the opening section of Point No Point) and particularly the natural world from 20 or more years ago which was relatively less disturbed by humans.  But then the poems get entwined with reminiscences of Munro's father (who also dominated the last poem of Point No Point).

From Poem 5 in the sequence: "'Well, dear -- / goodbye for now.' My father's last words to me. // The man interred not only in my DNA / but in my turn of phrase, my taste."

Reproduction in a somewhat abstract sense or perhaps the issue of reproduction of culture across generations is another recurring theme.  From Poem 4: "What I want now / is not what a woman wants from a man. // I want what an egg wants from its DNA. / I want this with all the greed of a grub."

And then the focus shifts to essentially a geological time scale, taking in the dinosaurs -- and fish who took their evolutionary form millions of years before humans, and yet we, the upstarts, are reshaping their environment.  While Munro doesn't directly touch on this, there are interesting examples of how humans have triggered evolutionary changes in a number of species, with part of the tragedy of our outsized environmental footprint that we are forcing changes on species much faster than most of them can adapt.

Then the poems shift back to the intensely personal to memories of both her parents passing away and how Munro wishes she could have held her father's hand while he was dying. 

The poems speak to a life that is so layered that almost anything -- even seeing a white-haired woman on the ferry -- can trigger up thoughts about and longings for the past.  Apparently for Munro it is the periodic sailing on the ferry that really puts her in mind of her youth (on the mainland, I believe) and her adult life on the island, where she is involved in a number of quotidian tasks like gardening, but it is difficult at times for her to stay grounded in the present.  "Going home" should be going to her adult home, but the mind wanders and she is just as frequently going back to her childhood home (in memory).

The sequence closes with Poem 21: "Going home -- up the gravel drive beyond street lights, / municipal water, or garbage collection. // Mother read Baha'i texts while smoking on the toilet. / Toyota station wagon's my confessional. // After little islands, the big one, I can smell the Pacific. / Feel my cheek on your chest."

As I said, it is a fairly open-ended poem but one that tries to tie together a number of strands of things that one might be thinking about on a fairly long ferry crossing.

The next section are poems all inspired by Mary Pratt.

Probably the most powerful (and certainly the most graphic of the paintings themselves) is The Service Station, which was on view at the McMichael.

Mary Pratt, The Service Station, 1978

Munro's take: "You've seen it before .../ ... But this is a new world corpse: / moose, headless, ribs and forelegs strung up on a crossbar, / hung from a hook ... / ... [in] this service station, hoisting her body as provision -- / carving her up for roasts and stews."

I probably should be glad that this is a fairly straight-forward take on the poem, and it isn't all about how eating meat, particularly from a female animal, is the equivalent of glorified sexual violence.  I do think it is fair to say that the painting is a bit more ambiguous than the poem...  And if I recall correctly, Pratt was very relieved when she left the rural area they were working in and moved to the slightly more cosmopolitan St. Catherines not far from St. John's, Newfoundland.

Munro tries to capture the quality of light or luminescence that is a fairly notable feature of many of Pratt's paintings.  But it is hard to write poems about paintings, and I usually just write poems inspired by paintings, using them just as a launching pad.

Here is Munro on Pratt's Green Grapes and Wedding Presents with Half a Cantaloupe: "The ivory patter's bruised / by echoes of the silver bowl in sunset light. / The painting's galactic--a spiral in composition. / Round and round their course the two / pursue each other..."

If I recall correctly there was a third section that didn't do that much for me, so I move on to the final section of the collection which is comprised of poems about everyday life and which are also somewhat philosophical.

"Give thanks" is basically Jane jogging around town, near the homes of her children, who have moved away but seem to be doing fairly well, with the run jogging her memory back to the children growing up (not that this is covered extensively in this poem).  "Finally, I could to our home -- / today, you're sitting at the kitchen table, / looking up, expecting me -- / not that I've a lot to say: / a road report, weather news -- / I see a new tarp on the greenhouse roof."  This poem is quite poignant, particularly given the main thrust of Blue Sonoma, her next collection, where this domestic tranquility is shattered.  But all the more reason to give thanks in the moment.

The next poem, "For see how the jasmine releases and lets fall its withered flowers," more directly takes on the issue of the poet moving into old age.  I'm not sure if this line is taken from Shakespeare or Donne, but it certainly resonates like poetry from a much earlier age.  Here Munro considers the literal and metaphoric baggage that people carry around: "The clutter and clatter / of what I drag / along behind me -- a dilapidated cart / rocking on its wooden wheels / over roots / and rubble on a track / ... / ... no wonder / it takes such energy / to get going."  Her solution is to become more like the trees that cast off each season's dying blossoms.   "Can I not / emerge from the past's brown days, leave them / dropped here, to decay / ... / ... and walk / quietly and freely on my way?"  Sadly, I am not sure such renewal is available to non-perennials...

The final poem I am considering (and probably the final one in the book, though I'd have to check) has a title that is more than a little demanding "Live in love. Do your work. Make an end of your sorrows."  The poem opens with an image of the power and majesty of nature: "and now the rains / have come / sword fern frond bent down / collecting water along its seam..."  And it ends "puddle on gravel / pocked with falling drops, filled / with something out of nowhere / sinking slowly in // for now the rains / have come"

Of course, most of us do not have the luxury of living anywhere near unspoiled nature, but part of this is a choice.  I've always considered city life to be more appealing (along with Frank O'Hara!) but it does leave me fewer opportunities to experience unmediated nature and experience its renewing power.   And it is also possible that I would not have this near ecstatic experience.  The opening and closing of the poem (and the shout out to wild horses) reminds me of the the film Solaris (Tarkovsky's original) where I was quite bored by the opening and closing sequences.  Some of us simply are not attuned to nature to the same degree, and certainly do not find as much philosophical comfort (or derive religious imperatives!) while communing with nature. So while we can respect and find some interest in reading about Munro's experiences, they are essentially alien to us.  That's really where I come from when I read the second half of Active Pass (and most of Blue Sonoma for that matter, though that is a story for another day).

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Late March arts updates

I actually have a weekend more or less free, though I am hoping to take the kids to a museum or two tomorrow (even if we don't actually see the Basquiat at AGO -- it is worth noting that the crowds have died down and this is a good time to go).  This morning was still way colder than I was expecting, and I knew that hauling them over the city wasn't the best idea.  Even taking my son over to the library was a bit of a struggle.

I had been giving serious consideration to seeing Wyrd Sisters over at Red Sandcastle tonight (the timing is impeccable as a way of celebrating Terry Pratchett's life and career).  However, this review suggests that the Socratic Theatre Collective is not ready for prime time and may never be.  The reviewer basically felt that they were treating this as a glorified hobby and suggested they would be better off putting on plays for their friends and family.  This review goes over the same issues that I try to tackle in this post, which is that while no one really likes to kick a struggling company, at the same time, they are asking the public to pay for a full price ticket.  Ok, $20 is a fairly cheap ticket, but it's still a bit more than should be requested to watch what is basically a live version of fan fiction (again, according to this reviewer).  I am sure that there are plenty of people who are looking for this sort of thing, just as there were lots of folks in Chicago who came out for the all-Klingon version of Dicken's A Christmas Carol.  But it is not the same thing as a play that will appeal to the general public (and perhaps such a Platonically ideal play does not exist).  At any rate, I've been really meaning to write my own work for a while, and I will take this as a sign to stay home and help the kids finish their homework early and do some writing.

In terms of what I did see recently, I agree very much with the Now review that says there are great performances in the very middling play by Christopher Durang (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike).  This really could be a good play, but Durang just makes too many missteps, and really in a lot of ways it becomes fan service to the Boomer generation.  Vanya's lament about 1950s culture being better or at least more of a shared collective experience goes on far too long.  Durang intentionally considers this Vanya's aria, but it is way too self-indulgent.  The recurring line about licking postage stamps is funny, but half of the description of TV sitcoms should have been cut out.  What I was discussing with someone else though is that there is a serious problem with time.  Durang positions Sonia as 52 and Vanya is probably mid 50s.  If he was mid to late 60s, then he probably wouldn't even care about the "wasted life" thing -- he would accept his life is over before it even started (like a Prince Charles figure).  But there is just a bit of life left in him yet, and he even thinks about getting a job to help out with the household expenses.  At any rate, he would not be nearly as hung up on 50s TV if he was in his mid 50s.  He would be a fan of 60s culture -- I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and perhaps My Three Sons (which was its own throwback show).  Also, Durang has Masha discussing how she was supposed to be the American Judi Dench, but at a time in her career  when Judi Dench would have been a complete unknown in the U.S.  So just a lot of sloppy writing and no attention to internal chronology.  This is one of those things that while it may be a bit boring or annoying for the playwright to work out, there are always a few people (like me) who will be bugged immeasurably by getting it wrong.  So it is better to put in the effort up front, and Durang simply didn't do it.  I discuss my own challenges with keeping time periods consistent here.

Beyond this, I found Vanya's lusting after the entirely shallow Spike to be very disturbing.  It's bad enough that his sister has fallen for this boring, one-note character, but Vanya as well?  At least Nina (the next-door neighbor) is able to see through Spike and dismiss him instantly.  I really thought Durang's take on Millennials was so extreme that it actually backfired for me (and I am hardly a defender of Millennials), but this was like kicking a puppy over and over.  The experimental play that Vanya wrote was so terrible that I could completely sympathize with Spike for checking his texts during the reading.  I did like Nina though, and she had a few interesting observations.  I kind of liked Durang's nod to a younger character who was at least aware of the great art of the past.  Certainly, the most successful aspect of the play was Sonia who turned herself into an entirely different person while impersonating Maggie Smith's turn in California Suite.  I still found the writing entirely manipulative when Durang has her nearly throw away a chance at late-bloom romance (the audience actually goes "Awww") and then rallies herself to take a chance (and the audience practically cheered).  I was not moved to the same extent, to put it mildly, though it was an interesting scene.  So some great performances in general in an script that isn't really worthy of these actors.  (It is still quite amazing that it won the Tony in 2013, but I guess that's what happens when you pitch a softball right at the Boomers in the audience.)

I did enjoy the John Patrick Shanley series of two-hander one acts (or mostly two-handers, the first one has a couple in a restaurant and a sexy, laconic French waitress) -- A Woman is a Secret.  It's sort of amusing that the Toronto Star has no choice but to review this independent production because it is a world premiere.  While I think they have gotten better with time, it still seems (to me) quite difficult for independent theatre companies to get any coverage in the Star.  My take is that one of the six went on a bit long and the one that was basically a riff on film noir conventions fell flat (though the Now reviewer liked it -- again, taste is so variable*).  But that is a very good success rate.  It was nice seeing a pro put the actors through their paces in the script.  I would recommend going and there are basically two weeks left to see this.  I will write a separate post about the master class that Shanley gave last Sunday.  It was really interesting discussion with a true professional, and a few points he made were actually quite helpful, so I will try to recall them and get them down before I completely forget.

Finally, last Tuesday I saw Cake and Dirt at Tarragon.  I definitely have mixed feelings about the play.  I guess I liked it a bit more than Ouzounian, who basically panned it, but a bit less than the Now reviewer who was reasonably positive.  It's basically about the super elite of Toronto and how boring the idle rich are and how their issues and preoccupations are so removed from the rest of us (the hoi polloi).  But it really pounds this into the ground to the point it gets boring.  And, my god, the drunken party scene goes on far too long.  I kept hoping someone on the floor would call the police just to break it up (though indeed one plot point is that the ex-wife is shocked to find out that she doesn't have the entire floor to herself).  It's very dicey to write a play where there really isn't a truly sympathetic character (I don't even think the maid counts as she is so "uppity").  Why do we want to watch these group of rich buffoons act badly?  And MacIvor takes it so far that it becomes difficult to believe that the husband really could succeed in his career as a big shot lawyer.  I guess part of the bile that drives this play (which MacIvor admits to) is just a disgust at how badly Toronto elites act when no one else is around and watching them.  But it is pretty tough to make a play out of this that people will care about, and I think that is where Ouzounian is coming from.  So that's far from a sterling recommendation, either from me or the other reviewers, but there is a certain grubby fascination in watching the well-to-do let their hair down.  If that sounds of interest, then this play is for you.  Three more weeks.

As for me, I am looking forward to Tarragon's next show - Infinity.  I'll catch this in a few weeks, and it looks a lot more up my alley.  That's probably enough for now.  Ciao.

* Update -- as I was cleaning up this post, I came across a review of A Woman is a Secret that I found so different from my own take that I was quite taken aback.  The entire play was reviewed from a feminist perspective and judged to be an unworthy, misogynistic piece.  Wow.  Obviously the reviewer has the right to her opinion, but I find it unpleasant and strident and frankly a bit boring to review from such a political stance.  This in general has always been my problem with the reviews in the Chicago Reader and Now (though the film reviews tend to be more political than the theatre reviews).  They serve a really important function in letting me know about independent theatre, but I have to be willing to look past reviews that are slanted in ways that I disagree with.  As far as this reviewer, after looking through a few other pieces, it is clear we are not on the same wavelength at all (except we both thought the film noir scene kind of sucked).  She reminds me of the completely humourless feminists that I have learned to avoid (as opposed to the feminists who do have a sense of humour and/or don't see the world in such absolute terms), and there is absolutely no point in reading her blog.  I'm aware people can have completely different takes on life and on specific plays.  I don't need to knock myself out reading reviews that will just rile me up.  Life's too short.

Overwhelming toxicity

I am trying not to get dragged down into toxic mess that is the internet today, but I am weak.

I'm very close to completely cutting ties to a jazz bulletin board that has devolved into only a very few regular posters who all have to "win" on each and every post.  The actual threads of interest have gotten very, very few (and the ones I contribute to the most are not about jazz at all).  But this is also part of the overall death spiral of jazz music as a meaningful part of the cultural conversation.  I don't think I've ever internalized the irrelevance of jazz to the point I do now.  It's over.

But that's pretty much how I feel about all non-corporate art.  I was watching part of an interview with The Lowest of the Low (a band I knew about in Toronto in the early 90s, though I never saw them live).  They broke up after two albums, but decided many years later to reform and do a set of reunion shows but then if they were going to continue beyond that, it would have to be on the basis of new material.  (This is actually not that different from Camper Van Beethoven.)  And they did this for a few years, but eventually one of the members got tired of this and pulled out.  Still, they were older and were more mature about it.  But the point was there was a door in the early 90s for alternative music that has been completely closed.  Record sales are maybe only 10% or at best 20% what they were back then, so the number of labels that can make a go of it with any decent return is way down.  But more upsetting is how radio has gotten so corporate that DJs cannot play what they want -- it is all from a list dictated by the corporate types.  Basically, bands now have fewer mainstream opportunities -- they have to make their breakthrough on Youtube or something like that.  To some extent it is just different -- there are some avenues for creative people -- but it does feel like the way to get noticed today is so atomized and a bit alienating, particularly when Gen X types remember how our way of coming to music did have more of a community feel to it.  Anyway, I certainly don't like the way the media landscape has shifted, and I'm glad I grew up when I did, even though it turns out that was the last dying gasps of a certain kind of cultural production.

Ok, that was a bit of a sidebar (only linked to the topic of the internet due to the role that the internet had in killing off the music industry that I grew up with).  What really kills me now is just how irresponsible the media has become, completely selling out their soul for clicks (and just chasing after all kinds of fads in a desperate attempt to stay afloat).  Stuff that we just couldn't imagine, like beheading videos and the like, is up for display on CNN and even The Guardian (even if the very last seconds have been edited out).  It's so unbelievably coarse.  And the comment sections are a disgusting free for all, again dominated by a handful of very loud trolls who disparage anyone who disagrees with them.

But even if you ignore these voices (the trolls) as best as you can, then it turns out that other, semi-normal people just cannot let go of certain topics and become quite troll-like, reposting the same general comments over and over.  It's like the Nancy Grace show translated to the internet endlessly.  The latest is the Amanda Knox case which has riled up passions to a point I find astonishing.  I don't know the truth of the case nor do I have anything to add beyond saying that the Italian courts seem unbelievably cumbersome and in need of an extreme overhaul.  But I don't need to go on comment boards and argue endlessly about it.  What is it that these people are lacking that they need to try to sway others on a case that makes no difference to their personal life?  Some people will not accept that others don't share their views.  Personally, I have given up on the human race.  It is clear that on the whole they have decided to fall back on superstitions and magical thinking (and things are much worse along these lines than they were 15 years ago), so I am just trying to avoid discussing anything of any importance with co-workers, and I am posting less and less on internet comment boards.  That doesn't mean I am not disgusted, but I just don't expect anything better from humans.  It's somewhat liberating to just ignore the foolishness as best as I can.  I actually had another good example of the shortcomings of the media but decided it just isn't worth raising it.  I'll just go "tend my own garden" for a while and focus on the things that add to my happiness, such as it is.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Needles and Haystacks

It took much longer than I had hoped, but I was able to rescue almost everything off of the hard drive of the computer that just died.  This includes a bunch of music files and perhaps most importantly the email archive of all my Vancouver emails.  I haven't restored all the programs yet, but once I get TotalRecorder and the .Wav editor (did I use CDWav?) back up and running, I will be pretty much back in business.  I don't intend to ever get as obsessed with internet recording as I was, but there are always a few shows here and there that I wouldn't mind taping.

Anyway, what is bugging me at the moment is that I cannot find a few mp3s that I downloaded from eMusic ages ago.  They aren't on the rescued hard drive or any of the hard drives I use on a routine basis.  There is a small chance it is on one of the other rescued hard drives (over the years quite a few computers have died on me!) and a moderate chance that I burned it to a CD or DVD.  But the sheer number of data disc lying around makes me very hesitant to really take on this task.  In the good old days, you could just download the tracks from eMusic a second or third time, but those days are gone.  In fact, I don't think that option exists for iTunes either, though most people put their music up in the cloud (surrendering what little control they thought they had over it) to prevent these kind of data losses.  I guess there is no easy solution other than to try to back up key documents on a couple of hard drives.  It is true that I don't lose my writing files, but pictures, music and movie files are just a bit too large and overwhelming to ensure that everything is backed up in multiple locations.

That particular set of mp3s is going to have to wait until my other search is over, which is to try to track down a check stub that doubled as a T4 or T5 form.  I need to know exactly how they categorized some income for my taxes.  Here the problem is that the check was cashed in Vancouver and we moved fairly shortly after that.  I have a few places to look first for the papers that were most important, but I am running out of time.  Well, if it wasn't this, it would be something else.  I clearly need to get my life and particularly my papers in better order.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Notes on Nightwood

I find that with some regularity, novels that I read when I was much younger don't seem to hold up as well now that I have reached middle age.  I don't really think it is that I have a shorter attention span, but it is true that my preoccupations have changed. Probably at the root of it is that I have less time for or interest in characters behaving badly and then justifying their actions.  But if we take an objective eye to it, most interesting characters in literature are monstrous egoists; it is very, very difficult to make basically decent people into interesting characters.  I'm sure I'll have more to write on this down the road, as it is one of the dilemmas I face in my work -- how to add conflict and some dramatic intensity to stories where the stakes are generally lower.

In any event, perhaps because it is fairly short and perhaps a bit over-written, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood still holds up.  Quite a bit of it seems to be comprised of confessional speeches made by and to the Doctor in the night, which almost always turns out to be the long dark night of the soul. 

The Doctor Matthew O'Connor is by far the most interesting character, though the others have their moments as well.  I suppose one could talk about ambiguous poetry, particularly some of Shakespeare's sonnets, but O'Connor is one of the first characters I can think of who openly complains that he was born the wrong gender, and indeed, dresses as a woman periodically and has gay sex.  While the latter is not on-stage as it were, it is still quite obvious what is going on, i.e. his desires aren't all obscured in poetic whimsy.

What is somewhat curious is that the lesbian love trio of Robin, Nora and Jenny feels more evasive or at least less explicit about what is going on between these women.  Jenny tries to interfere between Robin and Nora, but that is because she feasts on the happiness of others and only seems complete when she has caused drama and broken up a relationship.  However, Nora's hold on Robin seems so slight to begin with, and yet Robin hardly seems a prize worth pursuing.  She strikes me as pretty but empty (and it is particularly hard to sympathize or empathize with a mother who would abandon her son without any internal struggle at all*), but I suppose most (tragic) love stories involve an unworthy partner, who is more an object of desire than an actual person.  I suppose things do make a bit more sense when it is revealed that Djuna wrote herself into the story as Nora.  She didn't feel like completely facing up to what a fool she made of herself over Robin.  I suppose a big part of the tragedy of lesbian life, prior to the 1970s perhaps, is that the sheer number of potential partners was so low (and the stakes of getting it wrong so high) that any lesbian woman or even bisexual woman was a prize of sorts.  While I don't think she gets it quite right either, the lesbian couple in Molly Keane's Devoted Ladies at least feels more like a couple (even if an unhealthy one) than Nora and Robin or Robin and Jenny.

I can sort of see where Nightwood would have inspired Carter's Nights at the Circus, particularly the first section of Nights where the aerialist Sophie Fevvers and her maid Lizzie tell the journalist Jack Walser her life story over what turns into an extremely long night.  Most of the characters in Nightwood (as well as Nights at the Circus) are outcasts of one sort or another.  Things are certainly not as they seem in both books.  There was probably some other direct reference that I have already forgotten, but I'll fill back in if it comes to me.  Both are certainly worth reading, though Nightwood (despite a relatively thin plot) is the one I am more likely to come back to a third or fourth time.

As it turns out, this is post #400!  I have been poking around on the blog and am finding quite a few posts of interest that are quite buried at this point, though at least for the reviews, there is a page that pulls all the links together.  While it probably isn't worth it, I am toying with the idea that when I get to post #500 (towards the end of 2015?), I will publish the best of them as an e-book (working title -- My Life in Lists).  I'll have to remove the majority of the images and thus may simply skip over the majority of the art posts, but I could still compile the writings on books and theatre.  If this seems like a good or particularly bad idea, feel free to let me know in the comments.  I do have a few other pressing posts to get to, but I really need to do some creative writing, so I may have to hold off on them for a bit longer.

* This actually puts her (Robin) in the same uncomfortable company as Karen from Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris where she has abandoned her son (Leopold) and seems largely indifferent to him.  While it surely was not the wisest course of action for Leopold to try to force a meeting with her, it will surely strike most readers as quite unnatural that she does not want to face her son.  For better or worse, this will not be an issue between Robin and her sickly son, though it can probably be said that Robin has no maternal feelings at all, while Karen's feelings are more complicated.  It's possible that today we would characterize Robin (and even Karen) as having some kind of trauma or even a psychotic break triggered by overwhelming postpartum depression.  I actually knew someone from grad. school who followed this latter script and had to have her baby taken away (not sure if this was permanent or temporary).  I think in her case it was not having sufficiently escaped her Mormon roots by the time the baby came along that was at the heart of her troubles.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mid March updates

Hard to believe we are only a few days away from spring.  It's been pretty chilly out there after a warm weekend.  Friday actually should be mild but the following week the temperature drops at least for a while.  I'm not 100% sure I really ought to ride my bike, but I'm considering it.  I'm sure if this were Vancouver I would be riding, but that was a very different scenario.  At the moment, Richmond is totally useless as a bike lane, and I don't know if I am up to figuring out an alternative.

I didn't think I would quite have the time tonight to go to the library and to go swimming, but I just managed to sneak in a few laps.  That is the first swimming I have done since I have been sick.

I got through Lethem's Lucky Alan in about a day and a half (it is very short - 160 pages). I have to admit, I didn't think very highly of it. Two stories had sort of interesting plots but were not really well developed ("Lucky Alan" and "Pending Vegan"), and "The Porn Critic" had some grubby fascination, and that was about it. Definitely glad I borrowed this from the library.

I did enjoy Albert Cossery's final novel (or really novella as this clocks in under 100 pages): The Colors of Infamy.  I wasn't entirely sure about the ending, which is sort of an elaborate set up for a punch line, but there isn't much indication of what will actually happen next.  Either the corrupt developer will accept he has been bested and slink off or violence will erupt.  However, I have heard that Cossery is far more about ambiance and mood and less about plot.  I'll have to remember that in the future.  (Also, quite a bit happens in the cafes of Cairo, which is a pretty direct linkage to Mahfouz.) I admit I was intrigued by Karamallah -- Cossery's world-weary intellectual who has been forbidden by the government to publish and who lives in his family tomb in the cemetery.

He reminds me in some ways of the very crass, debauched and yet morally outraged Spider Jerusalem from the Transmetropolitan comic books.

It's a bit hard to make out, but the tattoo on his forehead is a spider.  Spider in turn is an even more amped up and whacked out version of Hunter S. Thompson, who often took refuge in acting gonzo when confronted with the never-ending venality of U.S. politics.  Of all of these figures, Karamallah is probably the most successful in just being detached and finding at least some humour in the corruption around him.

I only have one last short novel (Joseph Roth's Weights and Measures) before I launch into Dos Passos.  I should be done with Weights and Measures tomorrow, particularly as I can read a bit during the intermission of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike tomorrow evening.  So I should begin Dos Passos on the Friday commute unless I actually do bike in.  I wouldn't say I am exactly nervous about tackling it, but I did try to read the USA Trilogy before and set it aside, feeling I wasn't quite ready.  Interestingly, Dos Passos wrote a great deal more than this and Manhattan Transfer and Three Soldiers.  It seems, however, that he departed greatly from his socialist roots and became pretty fanatically anti-Communist and even briefly a McCarthy supporter!  In the 1960s, he campaigned for Goldwater and Nixon, so it was almost a complete reversal from his early days when he attacked Big Business.  While this lost him no end of friends (particularly Ernest Hemingway) and the support of most English professors (who continue to assign only his early works), many detached observers seem to agree that the quality of his books really suffered (in contrast to, say, Koestler's Darkness at Noon, which is also fiercely anti-Communist).  I had no idea that Dos Passos had actually written a second trilogy dwelling on national issues: the District of Columbia trilogy includes Adventures of a Young Man (1939), Number One (1943) and The Grand Design (1949).  The second two don't interest me, but Adventures of a Young Man is essentially a companion piece to Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, as both cover the Spanish Civil War.  It appears Robarts does have this, and I may go ahead and read it in a year or two when I finally get back around to Hemingway.

What was a surprise (at the Toronto Public Library) is that Patrick Modiano's Suspended Sentences would be ready so soon. I'll have to read this right after Dos Passos (most likely interspersing the novellas with Pullman's trilogy). Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, and there is now all this interest in him. It appears that most of his best work is all tied up in memory and history and an obsession with Occupied France. What is particularly intriguing is that this seems to be the same ground that Emmanuel Bove trod, so there is surely a dissertation in that -- for somebody else to write...

It may be silly but someone recommended reading Rue des Boutiques Obscures in the original French, as it was fairly straight-forward, and there was a very cheap copy on Amazon, so I ordered it.  I have not had time to practice French in a long time, but I think I'll have to start.  My son is getting lessons in school, and I'll need to be able to help out a bit.  BTW, this particular Modiano novel was translated as Missing Person and is in the library as well, but I really ought to try to struggle through on my own first.

That's pretty much it.  I'm going to hold off a bit longer on some other reviews and some notes on Nightwood.  I have good ideas for some creative writing projects, but not quite enough energy to follow through...  Maybe tomorrow.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 15th review - The End of the Alphabet

I cannot recall exactly when I came across C.S. Richardson's The End of the Alphabet.  It was probably suggested by Amazon at one point or another.

I think the best comparison is that the author was trying to achieve the whimsy of the Griffin and Sabine books (alphabetical lists all over the place) but combining with a story that tugs at the heart-strings.  For we learn within the first 5 pages that the main character Ambrose Zephyr has a fatal disease that gives him only a month to live.  So he drags his wife, Zipper, off to the places that mean the most to him, her or the two of them together.  Obviously, this has to be done in alphabetical order.

In another somewhat quirky, somewhat manipulative gambit, Richardson ties this obsession to letters and even type sets to the fact that Ambrose's father worked for a newspaper (though as a copywriter not as a typesetter).  After his father died, Ambrose stopped reading the papers altogether.

There is something to be said for this, and I have slowly started cutting newsfeeds from my life.  However, my work does depend to some extent on monitoring infrastructure spending, which is inevitably tied up with state and national politics.  What I really do need to do is stop looking at comment sections.  The comments in the Guardian used to be higher quality, but they have been invaded by all kinds of trolls (oddly enough a lot of pro-Putin trolls).  I'd say the only comments even remotely worth reading now are those on the NYTimes website.  But certainly scrolling through an average article just reminds me how divided I am from most of humanity and makes me feel like a smug but powerless Mencken.  Not a great feeling and one that should not be indulged.


I found the book moving at times, but still resented how manipulative it all felt.  And the book sort of cheats at the end.  For instance, a huge sandstorm prevents the couple from reaching Haifa and then they end up going on to Istanbul without doubling back, and the whole project is abandoned shortly after that.  I am sure that Zipper was pleased that Ambrose relented and reshuffled Paris to come up much earlier in their itinerary (putting it under E for Eiffel), so that they did have one more trip to Paris as a couple.  To a certain extent, one can appreciate that Richardson is showing how whimsy falters in the face of real-world problems or that monomaniacal travel plans are probably better not undertaken by the sick.

That last point certainly resonates with me, considering I had to cancel long-standing plans to travel to New York.  No amount of will power would have made it worth trying to walk through museums for hours on end.  While Ambrose and Zipper do tour a few museums early in the tour (though Ambrose wanted to see the Rijksmuseum by himself and spent quite a bit of time in front of Rembrandt's The Night Watch), their idea of vacationing involves a lot more time in cafes and relaxing than takes place on my vacations.

Rembrandt, The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, aka The Night Watch, 1642

(The Night Watch is an incredible painting, and you pretty much do need to see it in person to really absorb it.  I do hope that I'll be able to arrange a trip to Europe to see this and some other old favorites before I am too old to enjoy it.)

So I am not entirely convinced that Richardson has given us enough on this couple for us to really care about them, that is to say, he has taken short cuts and made his book sentimental.  On the other hand, I was able to read it in an afternoon when I wasn't feeling all that great, and there is something to be said for that as well.

A couple of other tie-ins with travel and health as long as I am on the subject.  I just read the book of poems Letters to Borges by the writer/poet Stephen Kuusisto.  Many of the better poems are imaginary letters to Borges written from various locations in Europe or North America.  Apparently, Kuusisto did travel to all or most of these locations.  It's really impossible for me to tell what I would have done had I lost my vision early in life, but at this point, having seen and taken in so much, I doubt that I would travel extensively if I went blind.  Certainly, I would not do it for pleasure, since as I recently related, my idea of a vacation trip is spending nearly all of it in art museums, and there would be no reward in doing that as a blind person.  I imagine I would mostly hunker down and focus far more on music and learning to read Braille and so forth.  Again, everyone's reaction to such a loss is very personal.

So I guess this concludes a somewhat shaggy review of Richardson's The End of the Alphabet.  It has some pleasures but mostly leaves you hungering for more -- more plot, more characterization, more cities on the itinerary but mostly it made me long to get back to the real, not imagined, Europe for myself.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Northern Lights in Toronto?

While I suspect there is just too much light pollution, I will check outside periodically to see if the Northern Lights can be seen tonight and tomorrow: story.

I've only seen them twice in my life -- and in neither case was it truly spectacular, though it was nice to see them.

I think this site is probably a better one than the one others had relied upon, and I don't believe the Northern Lights came down nearly as far south as had originally been anticipated.  Of course, the last time I checked was 11 pm last night.  I'll give it another shot tonight and see if we luck out.

P.S. No luck.  I think they were wildly optimistic in how far south they would appear.

Early 2015 reading updates

It's no secret that when you have a huge task ahead of you, it can feel like a terrible chore or burden, even if -- in the moment -- whatever it is it that you are doing brings pleasure or wisdom or at least a feeling of accomplishment.  That's kind of how I feel about my reading list at the moment.  I've actually knocked off quite a few mid-length books and some shorter ones.  This was a stretch where quite a few were coming off the To-be-read-and-discarded list and so far, they have basically lived up to or down to expectations.  What was a surprise is three or four "classics" that I assumed would be keepers but really didn't care for and/or certainly don't imagine I'll read a second time, so there is no reason to keep them, particularly in advance of another move.  Probably the single most surprising* is Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but I also assumed that I would be fairly attuned to Dinesen's Winter's Tales and Bowen's A House in Paris.  But I really wasn't, so I now have slightly more room on the shelves for other things.

I think even getting through this list as far as I have (and the previous ones as well, particularly the Russian lit one) is a pretty significant accomplishment, but there doesn't feel like a natural end to it.  It will just grow onwards, since there are far more good-to-great novels than one could read in a lifetime.  This point was really driven home just this evening as I was looking at 20 or so rows of a dozen or more shelves of literature over at Robarts -- tens of thousands of books, many of which are well out of fashion.

I myself must own close to 1000 books, and I have gotten it down to maybe 600 that I clearly plan on reading or rereading.  I should just about get through that in 20 years at my current rate, which might drop off a bit if I start watching classic movies with my children as they enter their teen years.  It can be a bit too much when thought about in those terms, i.e. trying to cover all aspects of "literature."

It is more useful to think about it as finally getting around to reading those books that have a proven track record, as well as a few quirky, unknown books that I have carted around for years.  I am particularly looking forward to Maugham's Of Human Bondage as an example of the former and Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket of the latter.  I'll certainly blog about the supermarket book if it lives up to my expectations. I've generally been pretty good at tackling massive series and ambitious books, though it does seem to work out to only one such set per year: Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time back in 2006, Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy two years ago, Proust last year, Dos Passos's USA Trilogy in about a week and Musil's The Man Without Qualities probably in a couple of years.  I'm actually pacing things out differently than I used to, but should over time manage to get through the complete works of quite a number of key literary figures -- DeLillo, Faulkner, Mahfouz, Narayan, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and so on.  Steinbeck is lower but still in the mix, along with Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and Garcia Marquez.  But it does get wearying at times to the point where it feels like a second job.

At any rate, this post will be on the long side, as I wrap up some thoughts on what I have read so far in 2015.  I expect there will be some SPOILERS, so tread carefully if that bothers you.

I was pretty happy with von Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol once I finally got to it.  The long delay didn't spoil anything.

In contrast, I think I would have liked Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus more had I actually read it back when I bought it, almost certainly 15+ years ago.  I really did like the first two sections, but was not at all sold on the last third of the book.  By no means a failure, just not as good as I had hoped.

Machado De Assis The Alienist was fun and short (or mostly fun -- one story was about a slave who was caught and returned to her master -- that was mostly pathos).  The notes were helpful in establishing his place in Brazilian society.  This unofficially kicked off my undertaking to read a number of short story collections (also Kafka, Chabon, Dinesen and now Lethem).  Probably the best stories were "To Be Twenty Years Old!" and "A Chapter on Hats."

I've already discussed how disappointed I was with As I Lay Dying, so I'll just let that lie.

Perhaps I am even more surprised that I wasn't that taken with Bowen's The House in Paris. The structure is fairly similar to Three Days of Rain (the play). Present, then long flash-back to explain the present situation, then back to the Present to wrap things up.


I ended up not liking this very much. I did like the first "The Present" section but that was about it. It's hard to pinpoint exactly the problem, but really much ado about a fairly pedestrian affair and a number of high-strung characters that didn't seem particularly believable.  Also, this was one of several Modernist novels to have some distracting comments on the status of Jews in Europe.  I do understand that this was viewed very differently in the early 20th Century, but the whole racial legacy of the Jews making all their intermarriages with gentiles impossible is tough to read now.  (This is also a bit of an issue with Nightwood, even though Djuna Barnes is fairly sympathetic to the outcasts of Europe.)  One could certainly argue that for all kinds of reasons, the trope of Jew as Other is becoming more prevalent in modern-day Europe, though I think you would be hard pressed to say it had the same relevance in major North American cities, which is of course where I am coming from.

Anyway, basically the "undeserving" and high-strung Jewish man ends up seducing a young woman, who is best friends with his finance.  After their encounter, he commits suicide and of course she becomes pregnant.  She has the child (the boy Leopold from The Present section) but bundles him off with another family.  What's a bit more surprising is that when she backs out from seeing the boy in Paris, her husband decides to take the boy after all and there is still the chance of a somewhat delayed and surely fraught but perhaps successful reconciliation.  But it is fairly clear that she is not a particularly stable or even deserving individual (compared to her friend).  In this she reminds me of the Robin character in Nightwood.  So I found the first section and aspects of the third section to be of interest, but wasn't at all interested in the middle section covering the Past.  So this is not a book I expect to return to.

I had different reasons for being somewhat unimpressed with Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek.  While I hadn't really heard much about this book, or the novelist as a matter of fact, the introduction positions her as an author who combines the fine attention to detail of Jane Austen with the wild emotional ride of Bronte's Wuthering Heights.  And if I squint a bit, I can see this.  There certainly is the attention to micro-detail and some fine set pieces when Harriet goes off and works in a shop and interacts with the other salesladies.  Also, the early chapters where Harriet and Vesey find that they have fallen in love through long association of spending summers together as children.  Where it falls down is that Harriet is a fairly dim girl who doesn't outgrow her childhood obsessions, while Vesey is a spoiled boy who becomes a failure as a man, a second-rate actor (if that) in a very middling road company.  I didn't find either of their stories very interesting nor worthy of my time.


Harriet finally ends up marrying a much older man (this was quite a theme for a number of novelists of this period) and has a daughter.  The daughter is bright, though mostly applies herself to learn Latin and Greek because of her obsession with her teacher.  When Vesey's company rolls into town, she finds herself obsessed with him, and there is a moment or two that threatens to become very icky until she (the daughter) decides she must actually be Vesey's daughter and then tries surreptitiously to support her mother in continuing this age-old affair.  I will say the daughter is probably the most interesting character in the book, followed by her teacher.  A book centred on the two of them would have been far more satisfying to me.  Despite being a complete louse, Vesey attempts to break off the affair and pretends that he is moving to Africa or Brazil to look after his father's business interests.  The novel ends as Harriet is seeing Vesey off, and it is expected that her life will go back to normal, though this is somewhat unresolved.  As I said, there are certainly some nice touches throughout the novel, but I found Harriet totally insipid and Vesey a thoroughly unworthy and (more damningly) uninteresting Heathcliff-figure.

However, this was still light-years ahead of Elizabeth Berg's Open House.  This author is often advertised as a cross between Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler.  I can't speak for Hoffman, but I have read quite a few Anne Tyler novels, and Berg does not come remotely close.  There's something about how she writes "uplifting" fiction for very privileged (white) characters that is so unappealing.  When her marriage falls apart, the spurned wife's first reaction is to go into Tiffany's and charge, charge, charge to try to get back at her husband.  I'm sure there are some people like that, but I can't relate.  Then she tries to give this bracelet to a homeless woman to go pawn.  I do understand Berg is poking fun at the total cluelessness of this woman, but I found it appalling and had no interest in going along for the ride.  Finally, I just skipped ahead to see if it got any better at all, and what happens but Martha Stewart calls this woman to give her some advice.  This just totally summed up all that was wrong with this book.  I see from the various reviews of other books on Amazon that this general approach is seen in quite a few of her books, so I have stricken Berg off my list of novelists who I will even consider for the To-be-read-and-discarded pile.  It's nice to be decisive and exclusive at times.

After this is was back to a number of short story collections.  I have to admit that Patrick Somerville's The Universe in Miniature in Miniature didn't do all that much for me.  Most of the stories are quirky and vaguely reminiscent of Jonathan Lethem, so I figured I really ought to go back to the source, and indeed I have just started Lethem's new collection Lucky Alan.

Michael Chabon's A Model World was more successful, though I didn't like the title story very much.  It somehow slipped my attention that the second batch of short stories are all about the same set of characters.  A young Jewish boy, his younger brother, and their parents who get divorced for unclear reasons by the 2nd or 3rd story in the group.  They are fairly melancholy and are not that memorable on their own, but pick up some power in the way they are linked.  It's not dissimilar to Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, which is basically a novel in stories.

As for Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales, I thought they were ok, but more were fairy tales or directly inspired by fairy tales than I imagined.  I can't see reading any of them a second time, except for the first story "The Young Man with the Carnation," which is quite a bit like an O Henry story, but with a mixed ending, happy for one couple and sad for another.  I found the opening a bit slow but it picked up fairly quickly.  I also liked how the stories within the story functioned and, in a sense, provided a bit of moral instruction to the author (the "hero" of the story).  A comparable process takes place in Platonov's "The Return," which is a story well worth seeking out.

I found the first chapter of Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters to be a very tedious retelling of the Noah and the Ark story.  I realize there is no way to tell the story literally in a way that doesn't sound absurd, but somehow the tone was so off and Barnes kept layering on one thing after another -- that's why there are no basilisks and no unicorns and so forth.  Maybe what really killed it for me was the combination of the Ark legend with Kipling's Just So Stories (how Noah's beatings gave the zebras their stripes; how hiding from Noah caused chameleons to change their color; etc.).  See Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage for tackling the same legend/myth (including an on-board unicorn!) but somehow done in a far superior manner.

I did slog through Barnes's History, but never really enjoyed it and found the closing "The Dream" to be quite tedious.  This book generally reinforced my opinion that Julian Barnes is a writer who thinks he is far cleverer than he actually is.  While it's been a long, long while since I read it, I am actually revising my opinion of Flaubert's Parrot somewhat downwards in retrospect.  I'm probably also going to strike him (Barnes) off my list and not read anything further by him.

And with that I finally come to Djuna Barnes's Nightwood.  I did find this a lot more rewarding than most of the other books mentioned in this (too long) post.  To do it any justice, it really needs a separate post, so I'll see what I can whip up in the next week or so before it fades too much from memory.

* That is the single most surprising this time around.  From the previous list, I found that Proust's Remembrance of Things Past was just not to my taste at all, and I divested myself of those thick yet elegant silver-spined books for once and for all.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Short(ish) March post

In contrast to my typical long posts.

I am slowly recovering but still don't have much of an appetite.  I'll probably try veggie hot dogs for dinner and maybe risk just a bit of chocolate afterwards.  I think I'll try some less processed dairy tomorrow, like a bit of milk on my cereal.*  I went through my blog and emails, and indeed, most of my sicknesses of the last 3-4 years have been coming down with a cold and/or lingering cough.  This business with the stomach being so unsettled has not happened for many years.

I did get out to take in some sun, which has been a welcome change.  It doesn't precisely feel like spring, but it's above freezing and the sun is out more often than not.  I'll take it.  Almost all the snow is off the sidewalks and there isn't that much left on the grass.  While I need to take it easy, in a week or so, I'll probably start trying to ride my bike in to work.  I actually have missed that, particularly on bad transit days (or on days where I am forced to pay extra for very short trips that by all rights would be covered under a reasonable timed transfer system -- TTC may actually have the worst and most punitive transfer scheme in North America, primarily because it is so under-funded).

I decided I probably ought to see just how it would feel to go in to work, as well as clean up my inbox (since I had left my laptop in the office).  So I did that.  I felt sore and would rather have stayed home, but that isn't all that surprising.

Anyway, once I was there, I thought I would check out Blood Wedding at Buddies in Bad Times.  I had not realized that there was a parade on Yonge Street for St. Patrick's Day (I've been kind of out of it).  This slowed me down, and certainly messed with the streetcars, but I made it with a few minutes to spare.  I'm not really sure what to say about the performance.  I thought they did a good job, but it wasn't what I wanted to see. The script is too symbolic with even the moon getting into the act, telling the branches below to get out of the way so that her moonbeams can be soaked in blood.  Everyone knows where the story is going, so does it have to be dragged out so long (a bit over 95 minutes)?  All I can say is that in my current mood, I probably would have walked out midway through Iceman Cometh.  I know this goes in waves, but right now I am just not very open to symbolic or poetic theatrical pieces.  I want taut realism or at least neo-realism, though I am open to comedy, i.e. it doesn't have to be drama or melodrama, but it can't meander too much (and I am going to try to apply this lesson to my own work).  So as I said, I thought they achieved what they set out to achieve quite well, but it wasn't really what I was looking for.  Of course, I have read the Garcia Lorca plays before, but it has been a long time, and they can be played in a number of styles. This performance does fall on the mannered side.  I think of all the roles, the spurned wife was the most effective or real to me.

I had hoped to catch the streetcar home and get a little further into Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (I guess moving from High Symbolism to High Modernism) but they were only running the other way.  It was going to be at least another 5-10 minutes before an eastbound one showed up, and then it would be pretty packed.  I gave up and took the subway and bus home.  And that is it for a relatively short update post.  Perhaps after a nap I will get around to a few longer posts that are midway complete.

* I actually planned for some plain sushi for lunch but through a strange set of circumstances ended up risking a slice of cheese pizza, which so far is staying down, so I guess the worst is over.  I expect I've lost 5 pounds, though not in a way I would recommend.  However, I will try to take this opportunity to reset my eating habits at work at least a little and cut out more of the junk food where possible.  Assuming I really can start biking by Friday, I can get a jumpstart on getting back in reasonable shape, which would do wonders for my mental health.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sick sick sick

Well, the trip to Saskatoon proved incredibly costly in many ways.  I had to work like mad to get all the slides in place, helped greatly by a junior who was able to stay home.  I took the lead during the presentation, probably talking for close to 4 hours.  It is exhausting, particularly when one is out of practice.  But overall, it was a successful meeting, and it looks like the project is coming to a relatively good outcome.

I was not thrilled at the lunch that was catered in, only getting half of an egg salad sandwich.  So I was famished by the time the meeting ended and just wanted to get to the airport and get some food.  Well, no luck.  The Saskatoon airport is perhaps the worst I have ever seen in terms of food options.  Even the Island Airport has a somewhat better selection of sandwiches and vending machines.  Anyway, there was a Tim Hortons that didn't have any sandwiches with no meat and a small cafe next door that was even worse.  The cafe had omelets on the menu but said that they were not serving the breakfast menu (as if it really would have been so hard to make an omelet on their grill).  After security, things were even bleaker.  An uninspiring Starbucks and another Tim Hortons.  This one had yogurt parfaits, so I bought one.  I noticed it was pretty watery, but didn't think that much of it.  Well, the next day, I started feeling a bit woozy.  I (fortunately) turned down a burrito at lunch and went home.  Within about an hour, everything in my stomach, including the fateful parfait, had come up.  I suppose it is possible it is just bad luck and that I happened to catch the flu at the tail end of the season, but I basically never get the flu anymore.  I'm pretty sure it was food poisoning.

What made this so frustrating and terrible is that I was supposed to fly off to New York the next day (Friday).  If I had had one more day to recover, I might have made the flight, but I knew around noon  that there was no way I could make it.  I canceled what I could, but there are very little credits and refunds left when you have to cancel on such short notice.  And before people pop up and say what about travel cancellation insurance, if you actually look at the policies, most of them do not allow you to just claim you were sick and have the money refunded.  It generally applies to a huge weather system interfering with traffic control or a death in the family or something a lot more significant than just being under the weather.

I haven't been this sick in quite a long time, and I can only recall one other instance of having to cancel a flight due to sickness (I think I was planning on visiting my father).  While I don't believe in karma with a big K, it is true that I was feeling guilty about leaving my family while going off on this jaunt.  Of course, I would have been even more upset had a vacation for all 4 of us been scrapped!

It is also true that my idea of a holiday is not remotely restful.  I basically view it as an opportunity to do a forced march through the museums, eat as quickly as possible and take in some other culture.  It will be very hard to square this with the kids' idea of a good time now that they are starting to be old enough to travel and have some say in the matter.  If we all go to Montreal, that will be an interesting experiment.

I knew that I was not up for 5 or 6 hours of wandering through MOMA and the Met, but even the main reason I was going -- to see The Iceman Cometh at BAM was appealing less and less to me.  I was expecting 3 or 3.5 hours of greatness, but they announced that this was 4.75 hours (with 3 intermissions) and that just seems wildly indulgent.  I cannot see the point in letting the play stretch out to that length or not negotiating any cuts at all.  So while I am sure my mind did not secretly conspire with my body to get sick to spare myself that much time in the theatre, missing Iceman is probably the lowest on my list of regrets.  At this point, I don't know that I will ever go see the full play.  But for certain I will check the running time before I ever commit in the future.  I can't even tell where the line falls for me.  Maybe if they had kept it to 4 hours, I wouldn't have been quite so put out, but really the story that O'Neill is telling is so simple that 2 hours should be plenty.  Long Day's Journey into Night reveals itself in a far more interesting way that justifies 4 acts, but even so I've seen it in productions that couldn't have lasted more than a bit over 3 hours.  That's about right.

Anyway, I am slowly working my way up to more complex foods.  I took a short walk around the neighborhood today.  There is a small chance I will be willing to travel further tomorrow, maybe even to see Blood Wedding at Buddies, but I don't feel like committing until I know how I feel in the morning.  I was going to work on another post, but really I think it makes more sense to go lay down and get a bit more rest. More than anything though, this experience is showing me that it is time to change my life, though perhaps not as profoundly as Rilke would have it.  Probably best just to leave it at that for the moment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Early March arts update

I'm just back from seeing an adaptation of Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology over at Soulpepper.  I'd guess they covered 20-30 of the epitaphs, so only a small slice (of the full 244), but it gives you a pretty good sense of the work.  They actually turned quite a few of the poems into songs, some melancholy, some upbeat.  It was well done, though I do prefer a bit more of a coherent through-line in a play. A few of the people around me were getting a bit restless towards the end.  It was a somewhat radical departure from the norm in that we were ushered into the hall in near darkness (to keep the mood very somber) and the programs were only handed out at the end!

It just dawned on me that I'm going to see Soulpepper doing Maugham's Of Human Bondage in May, and I would definitely prefer to read that first, so as not to spoil the novel later on.  However, it's longer than I recalled (700 pages!), and it's hard to see just how to fit it in.  But I have a couple of months, so there is no need to panic. I think I'll take Dinesen's Winter Tales with me on the flight to Saskatoon, but if I have made sufficient progress with that, then I might take Bondage to New York, and certainly to Montreal (and particularly if I do end up on the train by myself) and then the last-ditch effort will be Omaha in late April when I probably won't have anything else to do.  So I should manage to get through this and not distort my reading list too much.  Still, it seems incredible that they can turn a 700 page novel into a 2.5 hour play.

I should report that Angela Lansbury was in fine form in Blithe Spirit. It turns out Simon Jones (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) is also in the cast, though his role was a minor one.  I'd say of the cast members not named Lansbury, the woman playing Elvira (the first wife) was the strongest.  The play is a fun romp, never too serious.  This is apparently going to be Lansbury's last tour (she is 89 after all!), so if you want to see her, it will have to be mid-March at the National Theatre in DC.  I think for once, the New York area will miss out, but that's what the Amtrak Acela is for, I guess.

I've written a bit here and there about the Toronto Symphony (TSO).  I'd say it is only slightly better than the Vancouver Symphony, which is frankly a bit shocking, considering Toronto's size.  However, what I've decided is that the overall going-to-the-symphony experience was simply better in Vancouver, since I like the Orpheum Theatre so much better than Roy Thomson Hall, which I don't like much at all.  Where Toronto has Vancouver clearly beat, however, is in all the small concerts put on in random halls and churches.  In fact, I should manage to see Tafelmusik in Trinity Church on Bloor and the Mendelssohn Choir in another church in early April.  I didn't realize until recently that Toronto has so many classical concerts that it can support its own magazine: The WholeNote (online and in print).

All that said, I did find a few TSO concerts worth going to next season and put together a subscription.  I'll be going to:
Beethoven Symphony 5
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F/Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 (and even a short Shostakovich piece thrown in)
Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 (actually the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal decamping to Toronto for an evening)
Angela Hewitt Plays Bach (combined with Shostakovich Symphony No 8 for some reason, not that I am complaining)
Mozart Violin Concerto 5 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar"
and finally Second City's Guide to the Symphony, which was such a hit last year.

It's a decent series of concerts, but it's really surprising to me how rarely TSO actually plays.  There are huge gaps in the calendar whereas in Chicago or New York these calendars are completely full (except for the summer).

Anyway, I suppose if the symphony was more compelling, I'd have less time for theatre, which really is my first love amongst the arts.

In March or very early April I plan to see:
Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding over at Buddies in Bad Times (somehow they slipped in a M. Tremblay play without me seeing it until too late, which is frustrating).

Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike over at Mirvish as part of the Off-Mirvish series.  (Sadly next season at Mirvish looks very boring with almost nothing I want to see and no high profile transfers of Shaw or Stratford productions)

A world premiere from John Patrick Shanley: A Woman is a Secret (I've actually booked my ticket for the 22nd which is supposed to feature a discussion and masterclass with J.P. Shanley after the performance -- should be interesting)

Finally, I need to make sure to book my tickets for the last plays over at Tarragon, with Cake and Dirt coming up pretty fast.

So that really should be plenty to keep my occupied over the next few weeks and months.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Late Levine

So I have gotten caught up as much as is possible with Philip Levine's late work.

The basic chronology of his collections can be found in this earlier post, but the short version is that New Selected Poems covers everything from On the Edge (1963) through A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988).  He later supplemented this with Unselected Poems, though he drew the line at Sweet Will (from 1985).  The vast majority of Sweet Will was incorporated into those two collections, whereas Tom Jefferson was not considered,* primarily because it was still in print.  Indeed, all the remaining books with Knopf, from What Work Is (1991) onwards, have never been re-anthologized, at least not in North America.**

While I suspect it won't happen, I think it would be a good thing if an editor at Knopf put together a supplemental collection that rounded up a few of Levine's missing poems (like "The Last Shift") and anything that appeared in print after 2009, but primarily going through What Work Is (1991) through News of the World (2009) and gathering up the best of them.

I'll just add in my two cents as to my preferences:

What Work Is (1991)
     "Coming Home From the Post Office"
     "Coming of Age in Michigan"
     "On the River"

The Simple Truth (1994)
     "Ode for Mrs. William Settle"
     "The Trade"
     "In the Dark"
     "Dreaming in Swedish"
     "Getting There"
     "The Escape"
     "The Simple Truth"
     "The Spanish Lesson"
     "My Mother with Purse the Summer They Murdered the Spanish Poet"
     "My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart" (some thoughts on this poem here)

The Mercy (1999)
    "Flowering Midnight"
    "Reinventing America"
    "The Cafe"
    "Night Words"
    "Philosophy Lesson"
    "The Evening Turned Its Back Upon Her Voice"
    "These Words"
    "The Return"
    "The Mercy"

Breath (2004)
     "The Great Truth"
     "The West Wind"
     "The Two"
     "The Lesson"
     "The Esquire"
     "My Given Name"
     "The Genius"

News of the World (2009) (a partial review of this collection here)
     "Dearborn Suite"
     "Arrival and Departure"
     "Library Days"
     "News of the World"
     "The Music of Time"

I haven't had much of a chance to track down any poems published after 2009, as I was quite short on time on my last visit to Robarts, but I'll make sure to spend some time on this on my next visit and will post an update on that, probably in a new post, however.

* New Selected Poems is missing (in my view) just a few from A Walk with Tom Jefferson.  I can understand why it wouldn't be worth the flak to add "Dog Poem," which is actually an anti-dog poem.  But I think "Winter Words" should have been added, and probably "I Sing the Body Electric" and "Picture Postcard from the Other World."

** Stranger to Nothing (Bloodaxe, 2006) is for the UK market and while it does cover all the Levine's books through Breath, and indeed is somewhat heavier on the later collections, it is a bit slimmer than is ideal.  It is not surprising that only about half of the poems I picked ended up in Stranger to Nothing, and it does include some that don't do as much for me.

I want to be entirely clear I have no stake in this, and I am happy to delete this post if it truly impedes an editor from Knopf from actually undertaking such an endeavor.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 14th Review - Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You

So as I move into "overtime," I thought I should review a book by another Can lit. icon -- Alice Munro.  I've now reached the point where I am reading collections of her short stories that are completely new to me.  I've been reading quite a few collections of short stories (by other authors) lately and I do read them a bit differently.  I am more likely to read one or one and a half stories on the way to work and the same home, but then I might only read another story in the evening.  It's sort of nice to space them out with other things and not try to force my way through a lot of short stories in one go, or at least by the same author.  There can be exceptions to this approach, of course.  After I finish the short story collections I am currently reading (Chabon's A Model World and Somerville's The Universe in Miniature in Miniature), I should probably wrap up the collection of Kafka stories (in a new translation).  I think relatively soon I will start working my way through Isak Dinesen (starting with Winter Tales, assuming it is still chilly outside), and then very late in the year or next year I will alternate through the collected stories of Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor.

But back to the collection at hand.  Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You is Munro's third collection.  I won't go too deeply into any particular story, but I warn sensitive readers that there may be SPOILERS in my discussion.  However, the collection came out in 1974, so they've been out for a while.  (You snooze, you lose, as they say.)  I suspect more than a few of these stories were written in the late 1960s as they often feature a middle aged or elderly character dealing with some aspect of the counterculture of the 60s (perhaps it got started a bit later and ended later in Canada).  Somewhat curiously, Munro would have been in her late 30s or early 40s when she wrote them, but in several of these stories, she writes from the perspective of a retiree who has seen it all.  It will be interesting to see if she keeps that up in later collections or perhaps now that she has reached retirement age she primarily writes about younger characters.  I suspect more than a few stories she will be reaching back into her past, just as in several of these stories she imagines life down the road as a senior.

Of the 13 stories, overall I'd say I liked 3 a fair bit and really disliked one.  The others sort of floated by in a neutral way.  I could see why Munro had written them, but they didn't do very much for me one way or the other.  A large number of them feature broken marriages and marital betrayals of one sort or another.  I don't know exactly what happened in her first marriage, but she was divorced from her first husband in 1972, so the feelings were particularly raw around the time these stories were written.  As most people know, Munro's Books in Victoria remained with her ex-husband (only very recently was it sold off to the employees and became a collective enterprise of sorts).  Alice Munro returned to Ontario, remarrying in 1976 (apparently quite happily, though by this point she had an entirely different life -- going off on book tours and teaching creative writing at various universities).

As I said some SPOILERS are pretty much inevitable.  The title story is about two sisters who live in a small town presumably on the outskirts of Toronto, as the most notable local mansion was built by a Toronto distiller (and perhaps bootlegger?).  One of the sisters is considerably prettier than the other, which means that she gets the most interesting boys.  But she is also less emotionally stable than her sister.  The pretty sister tries to commit suicide when she is left by the most dashing beau, who moves off to California with his family.  The other sister helps her through this crisis.  The pretty sister marries a young high school teacher (only shortly after she is out of high school herself).  I don't believe the other sister ever does marry.  Certainly neither of them leaves town, though the former flame returns, somewhat worse for wear.  This sets off a chain of events that, while somewhat restrained, have a tragic element.  The other sister is left to decide if she should tell the husband (her brother-in-law) about his wife's past, but basically never gets around to it.

So the story is full of thwarted but genteel passions, as are many of these other stories, though given that infidelity is a recurring theme, passions are less tamped down than in many other Munro stories.  Certainly quite a few of these stories feature women in restrained conflict with each other or at least at odds with each other.  In "Memorial," it is again two sisters, though it is "the other woman" and the wife in "Tell Me Yes Or No," which I didn't find particularly successful.

More frequently it is conflict between generations, in part due to different expectations and simple failure to communicate.  I don't think Munro means to blow this up into a general statement about women at war with each other, but just to point out how relationships between women can be just as fraught as those between men and women, which is a more typical topic of literature.  Anyway, while "The Ottawa Valley" has a mother-daughter-aunt triad of mini-conflicts, two of the stories feature grandmothers and granddaughters, as Munro seems (even at this point in her life) to be looking to represent senior citizens in her fiction.  These stories are "Winter Wind" and "Marrakesh."  There is actually very little conflict in "Marrakesh," though at the end, the grandmother does seem to be both puzzled and somewhat refreshed by her granddaughter's liberation.  This was one of the more successful stories.

I wasn't entirely sure what to make of "Executioners," where Munro is writing about a particularly rural town, full of ne'er-do-wells, that are almost out of Faulkner.  (Actually Faulkner was much on my mind as I had just wrapped up As I Lay Dying, and this story has more than a little Southern Gothic flavour to it.  But if I recall, there was actually a whole section of Lives and Girls and Women that feature a countrified boyfriend and his rambunctious family.  At any rate, for the moment I much prefer keeping my daily dosage of rednecks down to a minimum, so "Executioners" was a lot more palatable than As I Lay Dying.)  One thing that was curious was a callback (or really a call-forward) to the idea laid out in Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead where at some point there won't be any people left to remember anything about this town and its scandals.  I guess that can be comforting or disturbing, according to one's views.

The only story I strongly disliked was "Forgiveness in Families," where there is a small family -- a mother, her sensible daughter and a spoiled son, who is always having to be bailed out of trouble and can't or won't hold a steady job.  As one might imagine, the daughter deeply resents her brother, since she must be the ant to his grasshopper.  What I disliked about the story is that it implies that her brother managed to pull his mother back from the brink of death with his ridiculous chanting and incense, and that the daughter decides she really ought to be nicer and more understanding of her brother in the future.  I didn't care for any aspect of this story.

While I didn't really care either way about "Material," where in this case the somewhat selfish ex- was only an ex-boyfriend and not an ex-husband (so the stakes are somewhat lower and the former lovers can at least communicate more-or-less civilly), there is a strong paragraph at the start.  While it offers an extremely unflattering portrayal of academics/intellectuals, I think I'll repeat it anyway:
The wives of the men on the platform are not in that audience.  They are buying groceries or cleaning up messes or having a drink.  Their lives are concerned with food and mess and houses and cars and money.  They have to remember to get the snow tires on and go to the bank and take back the beer bottles, because their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them.

The narrator has broken away from one such man, Hugo, and married a more understanding and reasonable man, Gabe.  She has a career of her own, as a part-time teacher at a girls' school.  As the story ends, she sits at a table, trying to shake off the influence of just having seen Hugo (and read a story he wrote based on their former life) and grading papers.  I have to say, it reminded me a fair bit of Patricia Arquette, trying to keep it together on numerous occasions in Boyhood.

I can't cover all the stories, so I will wrap up with a short discussion of my favourite story in the collection: "How I Met My Husband."  I should say that, just as in the TV show How I Met Your Mother, there is just a bit of bait-and-switch going on, but that's ok.  What is interesting is that the young girl who narrates the story did so poorly at school that they practically had to come up with a longer list to put her at the bottom (37, presumably out of 100).  Curiously, I was just reading Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek and the female lead was a terrible student as well.  It was just more expected back then (pre-1960s) that most girls would not succeed and that they would either marry or find some other low-paying job.  The main issue would be whether they fell into the domestic servant category.  It was obviously a bigger blow if the family started out middle class; then one definitely would not want one's daughters going into service.  It isn't nearly as much of an issue here where the girl's parents are basically farmers.  She goes to work in the house of a doctor and his wife, who are relatively new to the area.  There are some very amusing scenes in the story, and it turns out that the girl, while not book-smart at all, does have some common sense and is even a bit sly.  (Whereas the female lead in A Game of Hide and Seek makes some very foolish mistakes, getting emotionally tangled in a completely undeserving and frankly boring/boorish Heathcliff type.)  There is a scene of considerable power where a woman betrayed turns on this young girl that manages to be kind of horrible, yet just a bit funny at the same time.  I think I will skip the details to leave it as a surprise if you haven't read the story before.

On the whole this is a reasonably good collection, though I think Lives of Girls and Women was more focused and a bit stronger.  I do think Munro's rawness over the break-up of her own marriage does get in the way a bit, as I wasn't as moved by nearly every story having marital problems at their root.  But I am supposing or at least hoping that she got this break-up collection out, and that the ones that followed are more varied.