Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to stir up trouble and lose readers

Basically the minute you move into politics, it is a danger zone and you will be alienating somebody, though, in fairness, attempting to remain neutral will alienate a handful of people who want you (the author) to take a stand and don't like wishy-washy people.

Ok, so the Monty Ponty splunge scene is about being indecisive, not quite the same as being wishy-washy, but pretty close some days.  If you've never seen it, go check it out. What inspired lunacy.

I know I have occasionally gone out on a limb and written a few things that will probably cost me readers (maybe not now but down the line), but sometimes, knowing all this, you do take a stand when something strikes you as particularly important.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the aftermath is incredibly sad and yet it has been interesting watching the most liberal voices in the literary establishment decide if they really do mean free speech means offensive speech is allowable or not.  Where do they stand exactly?  Quite a number have decided that they don't believe in unlimited free speech if it is offensive.  I find that sad, but not really that surprising.  Most people, when push comes to shove, don't believe in freedoms without exceptions. (I certainly don't believe that about other rights in the Bill of Rights, and I don't believe the First Amendment gives one the right to libel or slander others, and only a very small number of First Amendment absolutists hold with that position.  I'm not entirely sure where I fall on someone who uses truly offensive speech to attempt to hurt others in a fairly private setting -- here I am thinking of the creeps from the Westboro Baptist Church.)  At any rate, Europeans in general are generally more accepting of restrictions on free speech to avoid offending people (and certainly questioning the Holocaust is verboten, often rising to the level of a crime in some countries, which seems a bit excessive).  On a jazz board I frequent, I ultimately blocked one European who felt that he had the moral right to prevent everybody else from listening to Gilad Atzmon performing due to Atzmon's political beliefs.  It wasn't enough that he could carry out a personal boycott, but he should make that decision for others.

I think Canadians kind of fall in the middle of the spectrum, with slightly more believing in freedom of expression than believing that one shouldn't hurt others' feelings, though in point of fact, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly does not give precedence to freedom of speech, but rather wants to "balance" this freedom against other things and generally frowns upon people mocking others' religions rather than "respecting" those beliefs.  I consider this a flaw, but I suppose not a deal-breaker.  (For instance, I am certainly not shedding any tears that Canada has basically banned all members of WBC from entering the country.)

At any rate, there are a number of well-meaning, but, in my opinion, misguided writers who are protesting PEN giving a special Freedom of Expression Courage award to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo next week.  A few of them claim that it just isn't kosher to satirize the powerless (their view of Muslims in France) whereas a smaller group explicitly say that religion should never be mocked.  I generally disagree with the first stance and completely disagree with the second stance, and have no respect for anyone who holds this position (and that certainly includes the current Pope), since it would basically lead to the complete annulment of the Enlightenment (not that we aren't heading in that direction anyway).  Anyway, these various authors have signed an open letter against the award and they have decided to withdraw from the awards dinner, and, who knows, a few might even withdraw from PEN altogether.  Salman Rushdie has been right on the money when he called them 6 Authors in Search of a Bit of Character.  There are quite a number of columns on this controversy in the Guardian, and this is probably the one I got the most from.

At any rate, more writers* joined the ranks of the demurrers (or, frankly, the appeasers):
Chris Abani
Russell Banks
Peter Carey
Teju Cole
Junot Díaz
Deborah Eisenberg
Eve Ensler
Nell Freudenberger
Keith Gessen
Francisco Goldman
Edward Hoagland
Nancy Kricorian
Amitava Kumar
Rachel Kushner
Zachary Lazar
Patrick McGrath
Rick Moody
Lorrie Moore
Joyce Carol Oates
Michael Ondaatje
Raj Patel
Francine Prose
Sarah Schulman
Taiye Selasi
Kamila Shamsie
Wallace Shawn
Charles Simic
Rebecca Solnit
Linda Spalding
Scott Spencer
Chase Twichell
Eliot Weinberger
Jon Wiener
Dave Zirin

I'm really disappointed to see a few writers I used to admire on this list, including Kamila Shamsie, Charles Simic and particularly Michael Ondaatje.  They have their right to their opinion (that the Charlie Hebdo staff weren't deserving of an award), but they will also live with the consequences and potentially lost readership.  I will never have as much respect for them as I once did.  I haven't yet decided if I will completely drop them off my reading list, but I might.  (If only I hadn't recently bought The Cat's Table or wanted to reread In the Skin of a Lion it would be an easier decision.  However, I will definitely no longer read Junot Díaz or Lorrie Moore, who kind of rubbed me the wrong way even before.)  As for the others, I may still read some of their work selectively, but I'll always remember how tentative and qualified their support for true freedom of expression really is.  Of course, the stakes for them are quite low (losing readers like me), but my stakes are even lower (losing an even fewer number of e-readers) if I tee off readers who don't support artists and writers who openly mock religion. I would like to hear Margaret Atwood (Vice-President of PEN International) weigh in on this and specifically on Ondaatje, since I suspect she will take a somewhat grey position (in what is largely a black and white debate) and yet still side with those who are offering the award.  She may ultimately need to make some sort of statement, since she will definitely be asked about it one of these days.

Actually, this is also related to another tempest in a teapot, though one that doesn't seem to have really been reported back in the States much, and that is Toni Morrison has basically gotten so fed up with the many, many deaths of Black people at the hands of the police in recent months that she has sort of lost her mind.  She has said, on record, that “There are two things I want to see in life. One is a white kid shot in the back by a cop. Never happened. The second thing I want to see: a record of any white man in the entire history of the world who has been convicted of raping a black woman. Just one.”  Aside from being completely inflammatory, these things have happened, even if they aren't widely reported.  I'm sorry to say that she seemed no different from the race hustlers that were so much a part of the problem in the 80s and 90s, and I lost a lot of respect for her.  I won't boycott her work, but I simply won't be as open to her later work, since I think she is coming from a place that is unhealthy and more than a little exclusionary.  Literary figures often have feet of clay when you examine them closely, but I was still saddened when I read that quote and realized I would never think about her in quite the same way.

* I guess it isn't surprising, but it is to me demoralizing that more liberal writers have joined the ranks of the PEN dissenters, encouraged by Glenn Greenwald of all people!  They are up to 204 now, and while it is tempting to call them all out, frankly, most of them I had never heard of, so I might as well keep it that way.  I did recognize Eric Bogosian and Michael Cunningham, oh, and Joshua Ferris.  I remember reading Then We Came to the End, which has one of the characters sort of snap and only then ends up sent off to become a sniper in one of the Gulf Wars (ironic that).  I guess I won't be reading his latest novel after all.  I suppose passions will die down and something else will take center stage (particularly in a violence-ridden culture like the US), but I will not forget that these writers do not believe in truly celebrating free speech and I will never respect them as much going forward and for the most part I will be forgoing/ignoring their work.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Late April Book round-up

I was a bit nervous but the copy of the U.S.A. Trilogy I had shipped up from the States was the correct one with all the Reginald Marsh illustrations, as discussed towards the end of this post.  I'll definitely have to flip through them, since I only know the ones from the 2nd volume in the set -- 1919.  If there are any that are really great, I'll put up another page.  I do think it is a shame that the L.O.A. edition couldn't have found a way to include these illustrations, as they are quite neat.

Speaking of illustrated books, I finally made it through The Diary of a Nobody, which is a chronicle of a lower middle class striver in Victorian England.  This was written by George and Weedon Grossmith.  It is generally accepted that Weedon illustrated the Diary, and it is filled with fairly droll pictures.  (While Gutenberg does have The Diary of a Nobody up for free, one would be better off searching out a source with the pictures, such as this one, although this source only seems to have a few of the illustrations.)  Curiously, George Grossmith had a very successful career on stage and moderate success as a writer.  He became a member of the D'Oyly Carte company and originated many of the key roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.  Truly a bit of a renaissance man.

While some people find the Diary hysterical, I find it is an acquired taste.  It depends a lot on how one reacts to British humour, and specifically how one feels about class-based humour.  Quite a bit of this humour involves watching social climbers/strivers be humiliated in various ways (Keeping Up Appearances and even Fawlty Towers).  While I don't want to be on the side of those who say everyone should stay in their own place, I just cringe when I see these strivers be so obsequious to their "betters" and so bossy to everyone else.  I can make it through Fawlty Towers due to its manic energy, but I no longer watch Keeping Up Appearance.  In the U.S., too many people would have cut Hyacinth Bucket out of their lives to make the series work, and I surely would have been one of them.  This is a bit of a long-winded way to say that I found the Diary kind of exhausting.  For instance, Mr. Pooter is invited to a party and is quite put out to find out that the butcher was also invited.  Pooter is one of those people who cares enough to try to get his name in the newspaper as an attende of a party, though the paper can't spell his name correctly, and he finally gives up.  On top of being put in his place with some frequency, Charles Pooter was an unlucky man, quite clumsy and getting into minor scrapes here and there.  Given all the misunderstandings with his neighbours, I couldn't quite fathom why they would still spend almost all their free time together (I guess because even radio wasn't around -- wireless broadcasts didn't really take off until the 1920s in the UK).

Though most of the Diary left me pretty cold, there is one passage on dreams that I find quite amusing (and accurate).  This is the second half of Chapter XIX (i.e 19) and by quite a coincidence, it is the entry for April 29, which is today.

April 29.—I am getting quite accustomed to being snubbed by Lupin, and I do not mind being sat upon by Carrie, because I think she has a certain amount of right to do so; but I do think it hard to be at once snubbed by wife, son, and both my guests.

Gowing and Cummings had dropped in during the evening, and I suddenly remembered an extraordinary dream I had a few nights ago, and I thought I would tell them about it.  I dreamt I saw some huge blocks of ice in a shop with a bright glare behind them.  I walked into the shop and the heat was overpowering.  I found that the blocks of ice were on fire.  The whole thing was so real and yet so supernatural I woke up in a cold perspiration.  Lupin in a most contemptuous manner, said: “What utter rot.”

Before I could reply, Gowing said there was nothing so completely uninteresting as other people’s dreams.

I appealed to Cummings, but he said he was bound to agree with the others and my dream was especially nonsensical.  I said: “It seemed so real to me.”  Gowing replied: “Yes, to you perhaps, but not to us.”  Whereupon they all roared.

Carrie, who had hitherto been quiet, said: “He tells me his stupid dreams every morning nearly.”  I replied: “Very well, dear, I promise you I will never tell you or anybody else another dream of mine the longest day I live.”  Lupin said: “Hear! hear!” and helped himself to another glass of beer.  The subject was fortunately changed, and Cummings read a most interesting article on the superiority of the bicycle to the horse.

I do occasionally bug people about my dreams, but I know they aren't that interesting to others.  And generally, I find fiction that really dwells on dreams to be a big cop-out.  I realize there are a few classic dreams (the one about boxing in Ellison's Invisible Man for instance), but generally they are a crutch for lesser authors to lean upon.  I recall this writer at the writing workshop who felt she was most proud of the dreams in her work, and I knew that I would never be interested in reading the entire piece.  I have to admit, I am not really sure I should go back to the writing group.

So I didn't really feel The Diary of a Nobody quite lived up to the hype, and now I am a bit nervous about Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), but I guess I'll see how it turns out in a month or so.

I finished up John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire, and in the end I really disliked it. It was such an unstructured novel with Wideman going in 3 or 4 directions (including the obligatory scene of a Black man dealing with a son he had more or less abandoned) and not resolving anything.  This is not an exaggeration: the novel focuses on a writer named Cudjoe who has returned to Philadelphia (from Greece) to learn more about the city deciding to firebomb the headquarters of MOVE and whether this particular boy survived the fire,* this quest seems to be abandoned or at least it doesn't come to any definitive conclusion.

While it may have been inspired by Invisible Man, it ultimately felt to me like one of those saggy postmodern novels without an ending. It could have been quite something if he had just picked one thread and saw it through, but jumping around so much was just annoying and (to me) pointless.  I can't really tell if the last section (about a apocalyptic Philadelphia overrun by gangs of children) is meant to be taken literally or just metaphorically, and it is implied that the boy that survived is some sort of gang leader, but it is anything but clear that any of this is "real."  About the only section that worked for me was one where Cudjoe is trying to interview a former friend who has gone from a bit of a street hustler to working for the mayor.  A book that tracked this transformation and dealt with the ins and outs of urban politics might have been interesting, but not the one that Wideman turned in.

I thought John A. William's !Click Song was far better than Philadelphia Fire, but the ending was still a cop-out. {SPOILERS} The narrator, Cato Douglass, has been getting more worked up about danger to his person and just in general getting anxious about life in New York to the point he carries a piece most of the time. The novel ends with a vignette where three cops come into his apartment (about some silliness about him adding Afro-centric labels to museum exhibits) and one starts some trouble and this ends in Cato pulling out his gun and going out in a blaze of "glory." But it turns out this is just a nightmare, perhaps the most vivid of a series of nightmares that Cato suffers through (he seems to have some undiagnosed PTSD from his military service).  So the real ending is a bit of a damp squib as Cato is finding life as a low-selling author in the late 70s and 80s is getting more and more difficult, and he may not be able to place his next novel.  Hardly an epic ending...

!Click Song is somewhat more interesting than The Man Who Cried I Am, which was more about Black literary politics in Paris and the US in the 50s and 60s, but fundamentally I don't really find writers writing about writers to be terribly compelling.  At least Cato Douglass doesn't suffer from writer's block, which is a truly deadly subject to take on.  I'm honestly not sure if there has been a great novel written where the main character is suffering from writer's block.  I guess one could argue that Proust's opus fits the bill, though it isn't until relatively late in the game that he truly tries to become a writer, and of course I really didn't like this either.  Barton Fink might qualify, though that didn't actually start out life as a novel.  Perhaps Nathaniel West has a writer suffering from writer's block, since that is a recurring aspect of life for writers out in Hollywood (at least in the 40s and 50s), but I can't recall the details of his novels well enough.  Well, they are short, and I'll reread them one of these days.

Anyway, the larger point is that !Click Song goes into great deal about the literary politics of New York in the 60s, 70s and even the very early 80s (before the arrival of the "Brat Pack" (Ellis, Janowitz and McInerney) shook things up again) and how this impacted Black authors, but this may or may not be to one's taste.  I found it kind of boring.  I also didn't like how a major plot point (about one of Cato's illegitimate children) was left unresolved, though I suppose the outcome was known, just not acknowledged, by Cato.  I'm glad to finally have gotten through two of his major novels, which I have carted around for decades, but he was incredibly prolific (having written 12 novels) and I am pretty unlikely to read any more down the line, having a decent working knowledge of what they will cover.

And that pretty much covers April.  I just started Of Human Bondage, and the beginning strikes me a lot like other English novels where the boy, Philip, goes off to boarding school and is unhappy, but it is starting to diverge into new territory, as Philip is nearing his 20s and has moved to London.  I think the closest novel is probably Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.  I don't much care for Philip, but I don't insist on liking a main character to enjoy the novel, though I suppose it often helps, particularly if one is deciding to reread a novel.  This is a long novel (over 700 pages) and I am not sure I would spend that much time on a second go-round if I still am out of sympathy with Philip by the end.  I guess I'll find out relatively soon.

* This is an event that really did happen, incredibly enough.  This PBS special is far more informative, including a short segment about a boy that did survive the fire, and is thus far more satisfying than Philadelphia Fire.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Montreal trip wrap up

It's hard to believe it has been a full week since the trip to Montreal last week.  Probably the single best thing was that my daughter did not get sick on the train, even though the ride back from Montreal was pretty rocky and bumpy. (I think they were trying to make up lost time when we were stuck behind a freight train -- shades of Amtrak -- and the rails still haven't been tamped down after the hard frost of winter pushed them around.)  Unfortunately, I ended up with a severe headache Sunday afternoon, partly just stressing over getting everyone marched through Montreal and back on time and also making sure my daughter finished her homework on the train.  She was particularly resistant to writing this short essay on her favourite story.  I've noticed she doesn't always do well with completely unstructured assignments.  Perhaps not surprisingly, math is actually her favourite subject.  My headache basically took me out of commission, and I missed out on reading at least 100 pages and perhaps more, so I ended up finishing The Subtle Knife and Philadelphia Fire the first part of this past week.

The biggest disappointment of the trip by far was not getting into the Greek show.  I think everyone in Montreal woke up to the fact it was only open for two more weeks.  By the time we got there, it was an hour wait to get in, and that would have left us roughly 30 minutes to go through the exhibit, and it might well have made it difficult to get dinner and then for me to still make it to Travesties that evening.  Had we known everything -- including if the train was going to make it on time or not -- then I could have pre-ordered tickets and made it to the event.  But frankly, I didn't even know if it was just going to be my son and myself walking down or if the whole family unit would go.  Since it was a long train ride and it was fairly chilly out, it was just the two of us.  What was strange was that they had the lines snaking around two different buildings and actually it seemed impossible to even get into the gift shop.  While I might not have felt sufficient goodwill to pick up the exhibit catalog, I would at least have liked to see it.  I may or may not see if it is on Amazon.

At least we had a chance to see Old Montreal.  I remembered a few buildings from my last trip, but I haven't been to the Old City in many, many years.  Still, it hadn't changed that much, whereas the rest of Montreal had more skyscrapers and was a bit busier than I remembered.  Again, I haven't visited in probably 15 years.

My son was fascinated by all the horse-drawn carriages.  We did go into a museum dedicated to the history of Montreal, though I didn't find it terribly compelling, and as far as I can tell, they didn't have a gift shop or at least I didn't see any books about historical Montreal for sale.  Another missed opportunity.

We got back just before 5 and it is as well we did.  We went down into the main train station (the hotel actually connected directly to the station) and basically all the restaurants were closing down.  We just managed to get some food.  It was a similar problem on Sunday with most of them opening fairly late or not at all.  It is such a contrast to the little restaurants in Union Station, which have much longer hours of operation.

Anyway,it was pretty chilly but I made it out to the Segal Centre and saw Travesties.  That was very enjoyable, and I review it a bit here.  I particularly liked the fact that, starting at 6 pm, I was able to get an unlimited Metro pass for $5.  I just managed to miss the train back, but it wasn't that long until the next one.  It was interesting that at that station (Côte-Sainte-Catherine) I almost only was overhearing English and not French.  I also noted that the sound of the Metro when it started up seemed quite different from before.  Maybe that was just the Orange Line.  Probably on the next trip, I'll try to take the Green Line.

We got off to a reasonably early start, checking out and grabbing breakfast, then walking over to the Musee des Beaux Arts.  I enjoyed it, though it was a little disappointing how difficult my daughter was from time to time.  She is not a big fan of museums, though this goes in waves.  My son is pretty much game for anything.  We did a fairly thorough job of going through the main collection.
Jim Dine, At the Carnival, 1996

Marian Scott, Stairway, ca. 1940

Mabel Irene Lockerby, After a Snowstorm, ca. 1935

We even wandered into the design wing and looked at some odd furniture and "artistic" jewelry (finding the modern floor the more interesting of the two).  I liked this stained glass window, though I wonder if it would have been even more impressive had it been installed with natural light coming through it.

Marius Plamondon, Nature morte, 1958

I was a little disappointed later to find out that they have put their George Segal statue into storage.  (And perhaps even more disappointed to find out that in 1997-8 there was a Segal retrospective that passed through Montreal (which I would surely have gone to if still living in Canada) and DC -- but I was a poor grad. student in Chicago and had far more important things on my mind at that time.)  Oh well.

George Segal, Femme assise sur un lit, 1993 (not on display)

I was starting to get a bit worried about the rest of the day, since I really didn't want to miss the train.  We walked up to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) and went into the gift shop but not into the museum itself.  This did get us sufficiently north-east that we could take Rue Saint-Urbain into the heart of Old Montreal, since I really did want my wife and daughter to feel that they had seen the most interesting part of Montreal.

So there was a lot of walking on the trip, and some grumbling about this later on the train.  But on the whole the trip went pretty well, and we didn't end up stuck in Montreal for another night.  While I probably would do it again, I do wish they could cut an hour off the train in each direction (and I wish this even more for the Toronto-Ottawa trip).

Thursday, April 23, 2015

So many voices--so much competition

I don't believe I have ever won a writing competition.  I remember really wanting and even half-expecting to win the Hopwood Poetry award in Ann Arbor, though I never did.  I think I knew one of the runners up one year, and I also was good friends with Stephen Adams, who incredibly won the fiction award two or three times, but seems to have vanished off the literary map.

After college, I generally didn't bother with various poetry prizes, since they normally involved some type of fee and at best you got back a chapbook that you (I) invariably didn't like as much as your own work.  On top of just the wild variations in taste, many of these prizes are at least somewhat juiced, in the sense that they are not blind submissions to the judges.

At any rate, I was basically floored to find out that there were 1700 entries to the Toronto Star short story competition.  In this case, probably a minimal fee should have been instituted to screen out half of these.  I can't imagine the judges really did read all the stories, but perhaps the top 100 or 200, but even that is a bit extreme in terms of the time commitment.  With this level of competition, it really does become pretty random what makes it and what doesn't.  Probably the top 50 all were really good stories, and any of them could be published in a literary magazine if gatekeepers didn't get in the way and primarily publish people who have already been published.  It is both a little amazing at how many people long to be heard and how daunting it is to even get a small taste of success -- the odds are just so long.  If anything, I think it is harder now because many of the small literary magazines and 'zines that were just hanging on in the early '90s have vanished.*  On the other hand, it has never been easier to put up a blog and publish your work, and then bundle it up and go the e-book route.  But then good luck finding an audience.  It is not just talent and a way with words, but you need to have the talent for self-promotion (which I generally am poor at) and then you still need lightning to strike to get a sizable audience.  Otherwise, you just have a bunch of pages sitting there with no hits (and on those lines, the blog as a whole reached 30,000 hits the other day, so many thanks!)  At least with the published magazines, you had a hard copy (to share with parents and grandparents) and proof that you convinced at least one other person your poem or short story was worth reading.  Which reminds me that I did have some success with White Wall Review in the past, and if my story doesn't exceed their word limit, maybe I should send it to them.  (Their review period closes in May, so I had better hustle.)

I think more than anything, getting that little bit of validation from the RedOne folks at Sing-for-your-Supper was thrilling, and I will certainly report back if they take another manuscript (in this case, I sent off the beginning of the reworked Act II of Corporate Codes).  It would be quite ironic if I can use the positive energy from getting my work on stage (which is notoriously hard) to finally finish the novel, though that seems to be the way it will go.  I just really need to carve out the time to write, though with the move coming up, that will probably not happen until late summer at earliest.

Actually, there are a couple of passages in Stoppard's Travesties that I find quite relevant to this situation.  While both Henry Carr and James Joyce oppose Tristan Tzara's branding of Dada as art, primarily because they don't accept there is any skill or artistic talent required for its cut-up and collage techniques, Joyce still holds very strongly to the idea of the artist as someone with elevated senses who should be celebrated and feted.  Carr, in contrast, basically feels Art, even when carried out by those with true artistic abilities, is a scam with a handful of artists (and priests, though he doesn't carry the metaphor this far) living on the top of the pyramid as basically unproductive members of society.  While I am not sure of the actual Tzara's feelings, Stoppard's Tzara doesn't dispute this, and in fact, doesn't want to truly democratize art, but simply wants to change the definitions of art and artist so that someone (like himself) with the mental acuity to penetrate the surface and then indulge in Dada-esque art can now be considered an artist.  He basically wants to keep Art a closed club, but with himself and his friends in charge, rather than those who fit the traditional definition of artist.

Nowadays we are so post-postmodern that there is no generally recognized school of art.  Art has basically lost its boundaries and there are no meaningful gatekeepers, aside from museums, though many of those have gone for a real populist approach.  I still remember being pretty appalled by the art of rap show or whatever it was called at the Brooklyn Museum.  Anyone can call themselves an artist or a writer now, and it truly is just a popularity contest.  I wouldn't say this is completely new, but it is an acceleration of trends where highbrow and elite forms of art were generally devalued, basically starting with the Dadaists.  Based on my preferences, I think the fact that skill and craft no longer matters very much is unfortunate and often depressing.  As far as my own work, I probably would have done better in an earlier era, simply because I am an unabashed follower of highbrow art.  But que sera sera.  I'll keep plugging away and find a way to an audience, once I can find my way to a better balance so that I can actually finish up these plays and the novel.

* Actually, this is particularly timely as there was a long piece in the weekend Toronto Star about the folding of Descant and the fact that the Capilano Review is on life-support with the editor having to take a huge pay cut.  This doesn't seem to be in the archives yet, but a much shorter piece was published back in December.

Dreading moving day

I realize there has been a lot going on recently, both at work and trying to keep up with writing and even dealing with taxes, but I am not remotely ready to start moving.  I think a big part of the problem is there is literally nowhere to put anything in this house.  When the books are in boxes, they take up the entire basement.  If we had a garage like we did in Vancouver, then I would have started filling it up already.  Basically, I just cannot see getting serious about this until closing day (about two weeks off now) and then I'll get started for real, though that is quite late as these things go.  We already decided to move through May and most of June, and I'll have to see how things are going to set a drop-dead deadline to bring in movers for the furniture.  We're hoping to move everything else ourselves, and we have done this in the past with in-town moves.

But I do have a few too many obligations in May to commit fully to this scheme, and the movers may end up packing the last of our stuff.  It also depends on how much painting I finally commit to doing in the new place, plus the fact that renting a ZipCar to move over a bunch of boxes each evening is going to add up, though probably it still will be less than what the movers would charge.  So I am not really looking forward to this.  (At least this should be the last move for 15+ years.)  I guess at this point I just can't do anything substantial until the house closes, so I might as well wrap up taxes now and get that off my mind at least.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Two Fine Productions - Travesties and Infinity

Sometimes the theatre deities align and you manage to see very well constructed and well produced plays back to back.  In my case, I saw a very nice production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties in Montreal on Sat. evening, and then Infinity at Tarragon last night.  Both run for another 2.5 weeks or so.  Actually Athol Fugard's Nongogo was also good, but I saw it on its last performance in Toronto, so not much point in promoting it too much.

Then I have a weekend off, then it looks like I will make it to the George F. Walker plays, which should be good -- if perhaps just a bit reminiscent of Reza's God of Carnage -- and also Robert LePage's Needles and Opium at Canadian Stage.  This is a production directed by LePage (though he will not perform in it, as he did in The Far Side of the Moon in Vancouver).  The same production is slated to go up in Ottawa a bit later in the season.  So I'll see if I feel as overwhelmed by theatre magic that weekend.

What was particularly intriguing about Stoppard's Travesties is that there is also a production in Chicago by Remy Bumppo, which I would have loved to see.  However, after a bit of digging, my feeling is that the production at the Segal Centre was a slightly stronger production, particularly in terms of casting (though I thought they gave James Joyce a slightly aggressive lilt), but the audience in Chicago was surely more receptive to the play itself.  Roughly 1/3 of the audience in Montreal decamped at the intermission, though that gave me more room to stretch out.  The man on my other side stuck around and we both laughed at roughly the same places.  But Travesties is a very difficult piece, mostly aware of just how clever it is, and there is not of genuine emotion to be wrung from it.  It is also quite demanding.  One really must be quite familiar with Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and have read Ulysses, particularly Sections 14 and 17. A working knowledge of the art movement Dada is helpful and perhaps just a bit of background knowledge of the Russian revolution.  While I thought Stoppard was mostly just name-checking Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, apparently he is also directly parodying their opera Patience, particularly where women swoon over poets declaiming their poetry.  (This is probably the one major gap in my background knowledge coming into Travesties -- I think I caught everything else.)

Travesties is a challenging, cerebral piece, just a bit more serious than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the discussion of the importance of art or its lack of meaning during wartime, but not tackling anything in a sustained way as he does in Arcadia (and of course Arcadia has true "heart").  Well, it is a very difficult play to get correct, and I thought the production in Montreal was probably the closest I'll ever see to an ideal one, and I suspect the Remy Bumppo one is also quite good.

Infinity is a bit closer to Arcadia in that some heady scientific theories are tossed about fairly casually, including how string theory might be unified with "regular" quantum mechanics and, more intriguingly, that Einstein was wrong and that time does exist and is real, i.e. it is not simply a construction arising from how quickly two (celestial) bodies pass each other.  Interestingly, there is a consulting physicist involved in the play, Lee Smolin, who made the physics at least plausible on the surface, though the actual implications of this theory and anything truly daunting, i.e. actual math, was not incorporated into the script.*  That's pretty much standard.  Proof takes the same approach, talking about math, but using metaphors that basically just convince the audience that the character is smart -- and certainly smarter than the audience.  I wouldn't really expect anything more, as a Venn Diagram of people who go to plays and those who are willing to grapple with actual math or science on stage would show a nearly empty set -- two circles with almost no overlap.  I am struggling with this in Corporate Codes, since I would like to walk the audience through some basic cryptography, but have already started cutting it back.

At any rate, here are two positive, mostly spoiler-free reviews from the Star and Now.  My review will have SPOILERS, so turn away if you don't want things SPOILED.

As Eliot (the physicist in the play) might say, you can't undo time and make it run backwards, and you can't unsee a SPOILER, so this is your last chance.

This play was almost entirely about the emotional lives of really smart people who neglect their loved ones and family because they are so driven.  I related to this really well, particularly how annoyed Eliot was when Carmen asked him why he was working so hard in the middle of the night when his dissertation was complete.  His response was basically what difference does it make what I do when you are asleep.  That's basically how I think about things.  I saw myself in the "deal" that they had for him to take the time to finish his dissertation, even though they had a new baby. (Indeed I wrapped up final revisions while staying up late with the night shift, watching over our newborn son and was actually pretty good at rocking his little chair with one foot while working at the computer.  Multi-tasking all the way...)  Carmen has to put her foot down and threaten to start sleeping with other men (or worse, call his mother) before Eliot will even agree to have lunch with her one day a week as he tries to wrap up his dissertation.  I routinely had/have to force myself to leave work to make it home by 8 pm, and I still generally work in the evenings after the kids are in bed.  Indeed, I don't want to write about it too much, but let's just say my current position has a poor work-life balance and not even much intellectual stimulation, so it isn't a particularly sustainable situation.  I do spend time with my family, but it generally has to be on my terms -- an outing or a cultural event -- though I do try to just take the kids to the park or to the swimming pool.  Finding a balance is incredibly difficult.

Carmen is incredibly frustrated by her situation, though the reviewers, particularly from Now, seem to miss the point that she has not given up her career -- she is composing symphonies and violin concertos -- and getting them recorded.  However, she does have to take charge of most of the household duties and feels abandoned most of the time by her brilliant husband, who still rarely makes time for her.  While I think the playwright is a bit more balanced in understanding what drives workaholics, both reviewers feel that Eliot has poor priorities.  However, he is supposedly the most brilliant physicist to come along in a generation, and he feels an obligation to get his ideas out there, which means working really, really hard.  Carmen has a shot at immortality, leaving a recorded legacy which will outlast her, and yet she resents it when Eliot focuses on his final paper, which revolutionized physics.

Anyway, during a popular lecture on timekeeping, Eliot suffers a seizure and collapses.  This brought me back to when my mother collapsed at work.  She never recovered and passed away within a week.  Eliot finds out he has brain cancer and only 1-2 months to live.  Carmen simply can't believe that he wants to spend much of his time writing, but he's too sick to leave the hospital even, so what else would he do.  How much can you say to your wife, other than you'll miss her?  They have a brilliant but difficult daughter, who is 8 at the time (and did that hit hard!) and she seems to understand death but then asks when will she see him again after they put him in the box in the ground.  There isn't anything one could really do or say with an 8 year old that will make it better when they are in their early 20s.  So I was very much in accord with Eliot, even his choices about work, which most others couldn't understand.  But his work was important, and mine certainly does not rise to that level.  Clearly, the most difficult thing is watching how troubled his daughter was as a young adult, but even there I think the impact of parenting is somewhat overstated.  Most of us Gen X'ers were raised in sort of a state of benign neglect, and it seems lame (to me) that all emotional trauma is to be laid at the feet of parents who aren't helicopter parents.  Ideally, parents provide a safe haven, but mostly let kids work things out on their own, so that they can gain independence.  Quality of interaction time and treating children and their idea/emotions as worthy of respect probably matters more than the sheer quantity of time spent with children.  And yet and yet and yet...

I guess the bottom line is that there really aren't that many plays about smart people and the sacrifices they make (both good and bad), so I do recommend this play, even though it will probably make one feel incredibly guilty if one is a moderate to extreme workaholic.  I was correct in my prediction that I would prefer it over Cake and Dirt.  These people are productive members of the intelligentsia, whereas MacIvor's characters are essentially parasitical.  I know not every play can or should be reduced to class terms or how "productive" the characters are, but seeing Travesties and Infinity back to back does encourage such comparisons, particularly given Lenin's long speeches about art in the second act -- and of course how Stalin took off the kid gloves and, perhaps inadvertently, made artists incredibly relevant during his reign.  I'm not sure even Stoppard could make Stalin an interesting, fully-rounded character, but perhaps some day he will try, after writing about Lenin in Travesties and adding a couple of cameos for Marx in The Coast of Utopia.  At any rate, it is late, and I am running out of steam, but I did want to share my thoughts on these two productions, both of which deserve to be seen.

* I found out too late that Smolin actually gave a lecture, presumably on the physics in Infinity, on April 11, though I don't see how I could have made that as I was taking my son to a concert at TSO at the same time.  Too bad, as that might have been really interesting.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

George Walker plays premiering in Toronto

I have a couple of posts I should write related to the Montreal trip (which went well though, perhaps not surprisingly, not precisely according to plan).  However, this is quite exciting news: 2 new George F. Walker plays have landed in Toronto.  I honestly had no idea he was still writing, let alone tackling a brand new series of plays called The Classroom Plays.

I guess the title is slightly misleading as one of the two plays on the bill (Parents Night) technically premiered in Hamilton in the fall, though this is the same cast and presumably director.  This will be the first time they are performed in Toronto, and the second play on the bill, The Bigger Issue, is a world premiere.  More information here and here.  I haven't yet made it to the Theatre Passe Muraille, which is yet another reason to try to make it, aside from the fact I have kids in the school system and am always a bit worried about how they are making out and whether we made the right choice with this school, though generally things seem to be on track.  (I wonder if my wife would want to go or if this would just add too much to her own anxiety about the kids and how they are doing in school and perhaps more to the point how they are interacting with other kids in the school.)

I am sure I will find this both depressing and full of dark humour, so I will have to find a way to squeeze it in.  I just ordered tickets to Tafelmusik for this Friday, and if I go do anything else Saturday, I will almost certainly oversleep and miss my flight Sunday morning (not that this doesn't have some appeal if I am honest with myself).  I will just have to see if the following weekend I have time.  The weekend after that, we will have closed on the house, and while I will occasionally slip away to a play (and ideally the Sing for your Supper for May, which was moved to May 11) I really do need to focus on getting the house ready and doing some painting and starting the move, which may be a bit protracted.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Murray Geister - Curious web comic

I have just returned from Regina, which explains (or largely explains) my lack of posting.  I have at least one or two posts that I am considering writing, but I am going to wait a little while longer and decide if I still want to post in the morning, as it were.

I found Regina kind of small and a bit lacking in cultural amenities.  On the other hand, the food was a bit better than I had expected with quite a nice wrap place, and a decent Thai place and perhaps most surprising a good (though not amazing) Ethiopian restaurant.  (The airport food was pretty dire, but still a slight step up from the Saskatoon airport.)  One thing I wasn't expecting was just how much dust there was floating about.  There was a layer of dust over almost everything downtown.

I'm a bit surprised that Regina supports two free weekly papers, with Prairie Dog being a bit more interesting than the other one.  In fact, it appears that we were just in time to see the launch of a new alternative comic called Murray Geister, which is about an older man who investigates paranormal activities, but most of the time realizes there is nothing there.  I think this link (Geister) should work to check out the comic and see if it keeps getting updated on a weekly basis.  The artist, Dakota McFadzean, thinks the first arc of the story will go for 20-30 panels and then he'll decide whether to continue or ditch it.  It's kind of quirky so far, so I think I'll add it to the relatively short list of webcomics that I follow.

We had just a bit of time to kill Thurs, so we wandered around the downtown.  Regina actually has a fair number of tall buildings, many of which appear to have been built in the late 60s in a kind of concrete brutalism.  I did, however, like this sort of curved building which houses the SaskPower utility.

I liked this statue on the City Hall grounds.  It is celebrating immigrants and their contribution to Saskatchewan.

This sculpture of an elephant was right next to the main Public Library.

We continued out to the lake and the nearby park (with the legislative building in the background).

It was still a bit too early to head to the airport, so we went to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, which had a handful of dinosaur skeletons, though not nearly as many actual fossils (as opposed to reconstructions) as I had hoped.

We burst out laughing when one of the habitat displays talked about the wide variety of landscapes in Saskatchewan; it's sort of like flat, flatter and flattest.  Anyway, I picked up a few things for the kids, so the trip inside was worth it on those grounds alone.

That is pretty much it for the trip.  I had to work far harder than I had hoped and only read a bit on the plane going home, so I am a bit behind where I thought I would be.  (I'm halfway through Williams' !Click Song, and didn't even crack The Burn.)  That's all I'll write about the trip for now.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Grumpy Day aka Tax Season

I've completed a "first draft" of the taxes, though it appears I have a typo on one page and still need to fill in some backup material for the Schedule D.  I know it isn't just my imagination that both the IRS and Canada Revenue have increased the amount of information they require related to investment income.  I keep thinking there will be a sustained push to roll things back to mid 90s levels of paperwork, but I guess that is just wishful thinking.  Anyway, normally I submit both US and Canadian taxes at the same time, as they are (in my case) so intimately linked, but we moved provinces and that adds another 3 or so pages to the Canadian taxes, and I just couldn't bear to do any more this weekend.  I'll file the U.S. taxes tomorrow and see about wrapping up the Canadian ones* this Friday (after I am back from another business trip).  I know I won't have any more time on the weekend, since we'll be in Montreal, and I refuse to haul a bunch of tax receipts around with me on the train!  But they'll get done.  I have a bunch of specific gripes about the handling of international income for both tax regimes, but honestly there is no point in wallowing in them.

It's been really up and down on all kinds of fronts.  We are wrapping up some documentation and the client is pleased, but we've had to work far too many hours.  I did ride my bike today, but I think putting a padlock on the shed was a bad idea.  I can no longer get the darn thing open (maybe creeping senility but more likely a rusted out spring inside) and I actually had to unscrew the latch to get to my bike.  I had decided I did want to bike today (it was the first really sustained day of spring) and this just pushed me over the edge.  After I finally got my bike out of the shed, I had to just ride like crazy to make it to the theatre.  I made the trip in 15 minutes, and then it turned out that the play (Fugard's Nongogo) had been pushed back by 15 minutes.  While I do wish they had emailed us, I was actually pretty grateful for the delay, since it allowed me to sponge off a bit and change into a second shirt that I had brought.  I liked the play overall, though it was certainly depressing at points.  (And there are relatively long stretches where the dialog switches into an African language, most likely Xhosa or Zulu, which was kind of alienating.)  I think it is the closest Fugard comes to writing like Eugene O'Neill.  I've now managed to see 4 Fugard plays, with my favourite being Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which was simply incredible.  I had a chance to see The Road to Mecca, but the topic just doesn't interest me.  On the way home from work (I stopped there after the play to put in some time on our presentation) I went up to Robarts.  Not only was I able to borrow quite a few of Fugard's later plays, so I can decide for myself if I like them, but Mamet's Boston Marriage.  Score!

However, my general outlook for the day was kind of downbeat, not only because of the taxes hanging over my head, but because my daughter was quite sick and we don't really know what it was.  Probably just a flu-like virus.  It's kind of touch and go whether she will be up for going to school tomorrow, but we'll see.  We obviously want to make sure she isn't contagious.

I guess it could have been worse.  We could have been going to Montreal this weekend and been forced to cancel yet again.  Of course, there is still time for me to eat something horrible in the Regina airport and get sick or for whatever my daughter had to spread to my wife or son or both.  I am definitely hoping that that does not happen and that we make the train and the trip is relatively uneventful.  That would be a pretty fantastic early birthday present (especially as I am not asking for any tangible gifts this year).  Another great present would be for the nice weather to last and allow me to bike to work Monday and perhaps even Friday.  I'm a little sore, but generally was glad to have made it back up on my bike; the acid test will be tomorrow when I wake up and see how sore I am.

* I guess it is a small consolation, but at least I don't have to file BC and Ontario tax forms, since we switched provinces halfway through the year.  I'm not sure why that is, since I had income in both places, and I always had to file two sets of state tax forms when moving around in the States, but I will accept anything that makes filing less of a burden.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Mamet's Marriage

I'm just back from a production of Boston Marriage at the Campbell House Museum (this is the older -- or perhaps just stately -- house on the corner of Queen and University).  I see it all the time, but have never been inside, though they sometimes have intimate theatre events, particularly during the Toronto Fringe Fest.  I will admit being somewhat curious to get inside helped tip the scale to see this production.

No question that Mamet plays fast and loose with language.  Much of the time there is a lot of stately, elevated discussion from the two main players, but then one will let loose something like "Get out, or I'll have you killed."  In fact, most of what Anna, the older woman, says to her maid is cruel yet often funny and completely out of character for a woman in her position in the 1890s.  It reminds me in some ways of Overmyer's On the Verge, though a bit cruder and perhaps overall a bit funnier.  The core of the play isn't funny at all (a lesbian of "a certain age" who finds that she is losing her partner who has practically lost her mind over a young girl) but the execution certainly is.  I will have to remember how he made some of these lines snap -- and try to check out the script from the library.

This is an incredibly intimate production.  There are only 3 actors and they mostly sit in 2 chairs and a love seat or stand and pace around this mid-sized drawing room.  There is room for about 35 chairs for the audience ringing this drawing room.  So you will get close and personal while the play is being performed.  I would recommend it if one likes interesting, challenging dialogue and a bit of the Mamet sleigh-of-hand with some curious plot twists.  Personally I didn't find the maid role that interesting, as she seemed unbelievably dim and not at all sure of her actual place in the household, but the other two characters more than made up for the maid.

Apparently the play runs most of the way through April.  In addition, there is an all female version of Glengarry Glenn Ross that will also run through most of April, though it opens next week, so curiously most of the cast came out to tonight's performance.  (Details about both can be found here.)  This is just down the street at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, but I think I will pass.  Not so much because I am offended by gender bending productions (though I do find them pointless most of the time) but because the play doesn't interest me as much as other Mamet.  I guess I just see it as a more obvious piece than his other plays.  However, if this does interest you, you have about two weeks to catch it.

Ok, that was fairly short and sweet.  Now I have to get some rest, since I still have so much to do this weekend, even though it is just getting started.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My favorites from the Modern 100

As a relatively short follow up, I am not going to list all the books that I did read from the Modern Library's 100 best novels list, though one could figure it out if one was so inclined by going through the ones I have not yet read.  But what might be of interest is what I consider the best of the just under 50 that I have read (probably over 50 when both lists are combined).

These aren't in any particular order, but all of them seem to me to have significant literary merit, as well as a certain cachet, so that one does pick up a certain amount of cultural capital from reading these books.  I guess I am claiming that they are essentially the best of the best, as least given my literary tastes and interests.

The Great Gatsby -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man -- James Joyce
Ulysses -- James Joyce 
The Adventures of Augie March -- Saul Bellow
Invisible Man -- Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon -- Toni Morrison
Absalom, Absalom! -- William Faulkner 
Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
To the Lighthouse -- Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway -- Virginia Woolf
1984 -- George Orwell
The Good Soldier -- Ford Madox Ford
White Noise -- Don DeLillo
The Alexandria Quartet -- Lawrence Durrell
A House for Mr. Biswas -- V.S. Naipaul
Under the Net -- Iris Murdoch

And there a few that sort of sneak in under the wire due to having been nominated by average readers:
The Handmaid's Tale -- Margaret Atwood
Gravity's Rainbow -- Thomas Pynchon 
The Deptford Trilogy -- Robertson Davies

I don't really reread books that often, but these are all ones that I would at least consider rereading, and indeed a few are likely candidates to get added to the long reading list over the next few years.

It appears that when I was discussing the books that have been most influential to me here, I selected three from the ones listed above: Song of Solomon, Invisible Man and White Noise.

I actually came fairly close to adding in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (Modern Library #43), but that is such a major investment of time and the series really peters out towards the end of book 10 (of 12!).  The one that is probably the most obscure and yet incredibly rewarding is Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, but really I don't think you could go wrong in reading any of these 19, though I suppose most readers will either really like or dislike Gravity's Rainbow.  To make it an even 20 that I am recommending (before I add any more that I happen to read from the list(s) in the next few years), I will add The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written with Alex Haley), which is on their list of greatest non-fiction books.

Bucket List Books (Modern Library edition)

I suppose that my bucket book list could simply be cut and pasted from my overall reading list, since I certainly hope to read them, but that's not entirely accurate.  If I was given only 6 months to live, and if I couldn't travel around to museums or visit favorite vacation spots (as in The End of the Alphabet), I would probably 1) quit work to take care of things I really prefer doing such as reading and writing and maybe even watching some movies, 2) toss out all the books on the To-be-read-and-discarded list and 3) comb through my shelves to come up with the books I really feel I must read or reread.  That would entail a major reworking of my reading list.  I am not going to undertake that exercise at this time.

What I am going to do is go to the Modern Library's list of 100 best novels and supplement it with the rival list from Radcliffe Publishing.  However, I am only going to list the novels on these lists that I still need to read, with some judicious editing.  No way in the world am I taking the time to read Ayn Rand, for example.

I have to admit these lists are kind of boring.  They heavily skewed towards male American writers from the first half of the 20th Century and, unless I am mistaken, do not include any novels not originally written in English.  Indeed, they disqualified any novel written before 1900, which eliminates most of the great Victorian era novels.  So this list is quite limited in scope and not really aligned with my interests, but they are still worth a look in.

I'll go ahead and keep the Modern Library rankings and then just supplement after that in no particular order.  This is certainly not the order I would rank these novels.  It looks like I have read just under half of the 100 best novels off the main list with a few more slated to be read later this year.  I have to admit I simply don't remember whether I've read one or two or not, and for a few of them (Henry James's The Ambassadors and O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra in particular) I remember only smatterings from reading them so that I probably ought to just leave them on the list as unread, though I won't actually do that.

There's no particular reason to get into debates about whether more genre fiction should be on the list or why Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon isn't on the list* when it is better than the ones that are included or indeed why not more from Henry Green, who is sort of considered a writer's writer.  There are a couple of surprises, and that's probably the best one can expect with this sort of project.  After all, this is not really my bucket list of 20th Century fiction, but I will try to remember to cross them off the list if I read them in the course of my own meanderings through the literary canon.  In a couple of cases, looking over this list does inspire me to push on through with my reading project, so that I can add a few more that I have overlooked.  What more can one really ask?

Books remaining from Modern Library's top 100:

8. Darkness at Noon -- Arthur Koestler
9. Sons and Lovers -- D.H. Lawrence **
10. The Grapes of Wrath -- John Steinbeck
11. Under the Volcano -- Malcolm Lowry
12. The Way of All Flesh -- Samuel Butler
14. I, Claudius -- Robert Graves
17. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter -- Carson McCullers
18. Slaughterhouse-Five -- Kurt Vonnegut
24. Winesburg, Ohio -- Sherwood Anderson
25. A Passage to India -- E.M. Forster
26. The Wings of the Dove -- Henry James
28. Tender Is the Night -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
29. The Studs Lonigan Trilogy -- James T. Farrell
32. The Golden Bowl -- Henry James
34. A Handful of Dust -- Evelyn Waugh
36. All the King’s Men -- Robert Penn Warren
37. The Bridge of San Luis Rey -- Thornton Wilder
38. Howards End -- E.M. Forster
39. Go Tell it on the Mountain -- James Baldwin
41. Lord of the Flies -- William Golding
42. Deliverance -- James Dickey
44. Point Counter Point -- Aldous Huxley (probably did read this but don't remember anything about it)
46. The Secret Agent -- Joseph Conrad
47. Nostromo -- Joseph Conrad
48. The Rainbow -- D.H. Lawrence
49. Women in Love -- D.H. Lawrence
50. Tropic of Cancer -- Henry Miller
51. The Naked and the Dead -- Norman Mailer
53. Pale Fire -- Vladimir Nabokov
58. The Age of Innocence -- Edith Wharton
59. Zuleika Dobson -- Max Beerbohm
60. The Moviegoer -- Walker Percy
61. Death Comes for the Archbishop -- Willa Cather
62. From Here to Eternity -- James Jones
64. The Catcher in the Rye -- J.D. Salinger
66. Of Human Bondage -- W. Somerset Maugham
68. Main Street -- Sinclair Lewis
69. The House of Mirth -- Edith Wharton
71. A High Wind in Jamaica -- Richard Hughes
74. A Farewell to Arms -- Ernest Hemingway
75. Scoop -- Evelyn Waugh
77. Finnegans Wake -- James Joyce
78. Kim -- Rudyard Kipling
79. A Room with a View -- E.M. Forster
80. Brideshead Revisited -- Evelyn Waugh
84. The Death of the Heart -- Elizabeth Bowen
86. Ragtime -- E.L. Doctorow
87. The Old Wives’ Tale -- Arnold Bennett
89. Loving -- Henry Green
91. Tobacco Road -- Erskine Caldwell
92. Ironweed -- William Kennedy
93. The Magus -- John Fowles
94. Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys
96. Sophie’s Choice -- William Styron
97. The Sheltering Sky -- Paul Bowles
98. The Postman Always Rings Twice -- James M. Cain
100. The Magnificent Ambersons -- Booth Tarkington


Babbitt -- Sinclair Lewis
Bonfire of the Vanities -- Tom Wolfe
Cat’s Cradle -- Kurt Vonnegut
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest -- Ken Kesey
Ethan Frome -- Edith Wharton
The Bostonians -- Henry James
The Wings of the Dove -- Henry James
Portrait of a Lady -- Henry James
For Whom the Bell Tolls -- Ernest Hemingway
In Our Time -- Ernest Hemingway
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas -- Gertrude Stein
The Beautiful and the Damned -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Where Angels Fear to Tread -- E.M. Forster
Lady Chatterley’s Lover -- D.H. Lawrence
Look Homeward, Angel -- Thomas Wolfe
My Antonia -- Willa Cather
O Pioneers! -- Willa Cather
Naked Lunch -- William S. Burroughs
The Awakening -- Kate Chopin
Rabbit, Run -- John Updike
The World According to Garp -- John Irving
A Separate Peace -- John Knowles
To Kill a Mockingbird -- Harper Lee
Of Mice and Men -- John Steinbeck
Rebecca -- Daphne du Maurier
A Good Man Is Hard to Find -- Flannery O’Connor
Jazz -- Toni Morrison
In Cold Blood -- Truman Capote
Franny and Zooey -- J.D. Salinger

* Oops, it is on Radcliffe's list after all.  There are still quite a few great novels that ought to be there, but it is a popularity contest at some level.  Probably if they had done the list 15 years earlier, John Barth would have had a place and perhaps a bit more Philip Roth (Zuckerman Bound?).  And probably Joyce Cary -- after all they cheat a bit by including other trilogies so why not Cary's first trilogy, the one that ends with The Horse's Mouth? I don't think Edmund White and his trilogy is on any of the lists (nor is Christopher Isherwood, though it is arguable he wrote very few novels at all aside from A Single Man).  Well, Cary and White are both represented on my list of long-works that I hope to get to some day.  A few key authors are not represented primarily because they are more known for their short stories than novels, if indeed they wrote any at all (Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, and perhaps T.C. Boyle).  It's not particularly surprising that almost no Canadian authors make the list.  A Canadian focused list would certainly have Timothy Findley on it, though probably The Wars and not my personal favourite Not Wanted on the Voyage.

** This may be even a bit more embarrassing, but I simply cannot recall whether I read Lawrence's Sons and Lovers or Lady Chatterley's Lover back in an undergrad lit. course.  Most likely Sons and Lovers.  I guess in this case, I might as well keep both on the list, as it would be essentially like reading Sons and Lovers for the first time, if indeed that is the one I read.  I suppose it is just my gut feeling that Lawrence's star has set, and he is no longer a major figure in the literary canon, mostly because people cannot appreciate how he was one of the primary leaders in the move towards confessional, highly sexualized writing, i.e. the putative literary father of Erica Jong and the grandfather of Lena Dunham.

† Actually as I was researching something for this post, I read that Sons and Lovers had been significantly edited when it was first published, though not really to tone down the "pornographic" aspects of the novel but to cut out some of the scenes that didn't directly involve Paul Morel. This is somewhat reminiscent of how Raymond Carver stories had been edited into a different shape than when they started. Nearly 10% of the book was cut away. Most likely this was the correct decision, as authors generally are not truly the best judges of their own work and a bit of pruning usually improves a novel. However, not everyone agrees, and in general the cult of the solitary author has swamped a lot of other schools of interpretation, in no small part due to the efforts of Lawrence and Joyce and other authors who braved persecution and unsympathetic editors but were proved right in the end. This unexpurgated edition came out in 1992 from Cambridge University Press, so it would not have been the version I read in university (I am leaning more and more to the idea that it was Sons and Lovers I read). Thus, it is not too much of a stretch to go ahead and leave it up above on the unread list.

The same thing happened with Lady Chatterley's Lover, though there the editing was deemed necessary to keep the book from being considered pure pornography in Britain (beyond the passages just deemed somewhat risqué in Sons and Lovers).  At any rate Penguin published an edition that restores all or essentially all of these cuts (so the complete reverse of the Kraken edition of Melville's Pierre).  As it happens, I just noticed that I picked up a copy of this edition from the Salvation Army consignment shop in New Westminster. What a curious coincidence stumbling across this book as I start to pack up the books yet again, though only for a 1 km move north of the railroad tracks.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Illustrated books

I am going to be completely upfront and not claim this is a comprehensive look at illustrated books through history.  I am simply going to note a few that I find of particular interest that are in my own collection.  I'm also limiting myself to books written primarily for adults, as it just becomes endless when taking children's literature into account.  Do feel free to comment on interesting cases I passed over.

I suppose Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass are right on the margins, and it is debatable whether they were truly written for adults or children.  Nonetheless, when I think of books that are basically inseparable from their illustrations, this is the one example that always springs to mind.  John Tenniel's sketches are so incredible that one really ought not to try to redo them, though some illustrators have tried.

I generally find Ralph Steadman's illustrations for Alice a bit too crude, with most of the soldiers looking like they strolled in from the set of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, but I did think this one with Alice growing too large for the house was effective.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that Salvador Dali illustrated Alice in Wonderland, though with only one image per chapter, so many interesting events were left out.  Here is Alice caught in the pool of tears.

That does seem to be the trade-off, that major 20th Century artists like Dali or Picasso or Chagall will illustrate a book, but with only a relatively small number of plates.
Another extremely prominent illustrator was Gustave Doré, who illustrated the Bible, Dante's Divine Comedy and Cervante's Don Quixote with over 100 plates for each, in other words almost all key episodes are captured with a full-page plate. There are a bunch of resources out there on these illustrations, as they are out of copyright.  I recently picked up a pretty nice copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy with Doré's illustrations, though the translation is by Longfellow, so somewhat out of date and certainly a different style than we are used to now.

I actually have two relatively modern translations of Don Quixote, neither of which have the Doré plates, so in this case, I might pick up a publication by Dover that only contains the Quixote plates.  For his illustrations from the Bible, I'll just get them from Project Gutenberg. 

Inferno, Canto 7

Paradiso, Canto 31

Don Quixote

Don Quixote has been frequently illustrated by both obscure and prominent artists: William Wiley, Francisco de Goya, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

Dali's Don Quixote

Picasso's Don Quixote

It isn't that much of a surprise that Marc Chagall illustrated the Bible, but he also tackled books that had some dreamlike aspect to them, so he illustrated La Fontaine's Fables (again arguable whether this is primarily aimed at children) and Tales from the Arabian Nights.  Below I have included his illustrations for The Ox and the Frog and what is probably the tale of Abdullah the Fisherman from the Arabian Nights.

I'm really not sure how many books Picasso did illustrate, but one of his more interesting efforts was a set of 30 etchings for Ovid's Metamorphoses, 15 of which are full-page illustrations.  I'll have to see if I have all or most of these already.  Even doing a bit of background research to fill in this post has led me to want to buy a few more art books. I'll have to try to be strong.

One of the more surprising entries into this category of illustrated books is Dos Passos and his U.S.A Trilogy.

While the most commonly available editions of the Trilogy (the Modern Library and Library of America one volume editions) do not have these illustrations by the artist Reginald Marsh, several editions with the books bound separately do have them.  There are quite a number of these line-drawings, but only in the main sections, i.e. Marsh doesn't provide illustrations for the thumbnail sketches or The Camera Eye or the Newsreel sections.  I've only seen the ones from 1919, but I liked them quite a bit (even if he has a few too many ships and not enough café scenes), and after a bit of hesitation (due to not planning on rereading the trilogy), I ordered a copy that is supposed to have these illustrations.

That finally brings me around to another special edition -- the "Kraken" edition of Melville's Pierre  illustrated by Maurice Sendak, which I discussed here.  I found out about this in a really roundabout way.  The Art Spiegelman exhibit had some panels where he (Spiegelman) was illustrating a talk he had had with Sendak where the Pierre project came up.  So I did a bit of on-line sleuthing and found out about this project.  This edition is OOP, but there are still some floating around.  I won a copy off eBay and one of these days hope to check it out in person.  I'll close this post with just a couple more of these fascinating images.