Monday, November 30, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 9th Review - The Cat's Table

How could I resist making Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table my 9th review for the 9th Canadian Challenge?  There are no cats on board the ship the Oransay, or at least none that the narrator (Michael) describes.  There is a dog that his friends smuggle aboard after a port-of-call visit which plays a significant role in the story, but no cats.

I have not heard it but apparently Ondaatje has some interview where he admits many of the details are drawn from his youth, but then he is adamant this is not an autobiographical novel.  I think he is being needlessly precious, but I personally don't care if he was ever on a long boat trip from Columbo, Ceylon to England.  It might, however, explain some things if he was sent from one branch of the family to another as an unaccompanied minor with only a disinterested aunt to look in on him from time to time.  It is hard to believe this would happen today, though mostly due to the length of the trip (3 weeks) than the children travelling on their own, as this still occasionally does occur on airplane trips, for example.

In any case, Michael gets up to considerable mischief with two other boys he knew from school, Cassius and the somewhat reserved Ramadhin.  All 3 of them are taking their meals at "the cat's table," which is the table as far from the captain's table as possible.  The adults there are all slightly outcast.  To go any further out of the social graces of ship life, you wouldn't be eating with the passengers but with the crew.

Somewhat surprisingly, his father's family paid so little for Michael's ticket that he shares a cabin with a man who works on the boat.  He is one notch above the sailors but manages a shipboard dog kennel.  There are a few images that are particularly magical in this book, and one of them is Michael watching from the top bunk as his cabin-mate and 3 other men working on the ship play cards late at night under a blue light bulb that makes it seem they are half under water.

This is where The Cat's Table is stronger, showing children in a special liminal space, interacting with a subset of adults in a new way and learning some very interesting life lessons.  These intense interactions probably would not happen except for the peculiarities of ship life.  These scenes in Michael's cabin remind me in some ways of a few stories from Stuart Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan.

On the other hand, the daytime shenanigans of the three boys reminded me more than a little of Narayan's Swami and His Friends.  What is perhaps strange is that I found the antics more tolerable in The Cat's Table than I did in Swami where they rub me the wrong way a bit, maybe precisely because of the topsy-turvy nature of the cruise.  (Or maybe I've just read too much Bakhtin for my own good...)

I would say, however, that the structure of the novel is a bit strange -- recounting these shipboard events in what feels largely like real time (even though we know it is set in Michael's past), but then it takes on more of a retrospective feel, talking about how one of the three drifted away (and became significant UK artist).  I would even say it is needlessly complex, since it starts on ship, then moves to the present twice and then on the final return to the trip, everything is written in this hybrid style where things are unfolding in what seems to be real time but the watcher knows what will happen.  Is it just Ondaatje's typical flirting with postmodernism, or is it his way of dressing up a fairly straight-forward coming of age story with reveals that are less profound than those in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier?  The Guardian reviewer was generally not impressed with this shifting around of chronological events, feeling that Ondaatje hadn't quite pulled it off.  I liked the novel a bit better as a wistful look back at how a time in one's life could change one profoundly.  However, I must admit I would have preferred a novel just focused on the trip week trip without all the fussy bits where Michael is catching the reader up with what happened to him and his fellow passengers.

To talk about this means at least some SPOILERS will be revealed.


The reader finds out that the boy with the sensitive health condition (again perhaps an ironic echo from The Good Soldier) dies in a strange manner.  In the aftermath, Michael became close with his friend's sister and eventually they married.  However, only a few chapters later we find they divorced.

Then the novel switches back to memories of the voyage, but more clearly rethinking those events in light of newly revealed information, particularly his cousin's involvement with an acrobatic team.  It turns out the troupe was secretly trying to rescue a prisoner being sent to England to be tried and hung.  Then we switch back to the present where Michael has moved to Canada, and, out of the blue, his cousin contacts him and he meets her on Vancouver Island.  What seems to be going on here, even if not 100% acknowledged by the narrator, is that he has been in love with his cousin Emily his whole life but he still doesn't get to act on it.  That is really the big secret that hangs over his retelling of stories from his distant past and more recent events.  Since this is an improper if not technically forbidden love, his life remains unfulfilled.  At least that is my somewhat pessimistic take on the novel.  (Whereas the childhood sections are far sunnier and generally upbeat, so judicious editing could make this a much happier if less thoughtful book.)  Anyway, The Cat's Table is quite enigmatic and more than a little elegaic.  Given that it has made me think quite a bit about the way we relive the past and recreate ourselves in our mind's eye, I would recommend it even though I wouldn't say it is one of the best books I read this year.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Very Busy Day: Barker, Turner, Lear and Mirvish

As the title indicates, today was a busy, busy day.  I had actually hoped to leave a bit earlier so that I arrived at Robarts by 10, but I guess it was closer to 10:30.  I suppose that's ok.  I was up much of the night working.

Anyway, I ran up into the stacks and checked out Howard Barker Plays One and Plays Two.  Plays Two is the volume with The Castle in it, and I'd like to read the script now that I've seen the play.  They had quite a few volumes in this series, but I can only check books out for two weeks at a time, so I have to pace myself.

I debated back-tracking to get the subway down to Dundas, but they rarely have an attendant on duty at the St. George entrance, and it would have been another couple of blocks to walk to the staffed entrance (which was essential since I had a daily TTC pass).  I ended up walking from St. George to the AGO.  I believe I got there just a bit after 11, so I recovered at least a bit of time.

I had hoped that enough time had passed that the Turner exhibit would be easy to maneuver, but it was quite crowded, and in fact there was a somewhat ridiculous art lecturer with a big crowd, which actually prevented me from seeing a couple of the paintings.  Well, I will be going back a few times.  This was really more of a quick preview for me.

It is a good show, though in my case, I must have seen all these paintings before either at the Tate Britain or the National Gallery in London.  One nice and surprising aspect was since the paintings on view come from public collections (primarily Tate Britain), visitors were actually allowed to take photos.  My photo of The Blue Rigi didn't turn out very well, so I'll try again next time.  This is a painting that was kept in Britain, and the public was encouraged to contribute money for the purchase price.  I believe I gave a pound or two back during that campaign.

Here are two others that I liked that came out a bit better.

J.M.W. Turner, Bridge and Goats: "The Ponte Delle Torri, Spoleto," ca. 1840-45

J.M.W. Turner, Rough Sea with Wreckage, ca. 1840-45

I had a quick look at the catalog, and it is nice, though I have two and 1/3 books on Turner already, so I probably don't need this one.  I did note as I was going through it that there are a few paintings only on view in Los Angeles, and quite a few only on view in London, including one of Turner's most famous paintings: Rain, Steam and Speed (see below).

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

While I think it unfortunate people visiting the Toronto show don't get to see all the paintings, there is still a great deal to take in.  I'll try to make sure I get back a few times and plan on taking the kids at least once.

I continued heading south and grabbed some lunch, then stopped in at work.  I didn't have much time, but I got a few things done.  Then I walked back up to Queen to catch the streetcar to Bathurst.  I was going to see King Lear at Theatre Passe Muraille.  I heard that it was going to be 3.5 hours, not just 3 hours, and my heart sank a little.  I think I am at the point where I spend more time thinking about the structure of the play, and why does Shakespeare do so much doubling -- two fathers ready to assume the worst about their children, two suitors (only one of whom is true), two characters that disguise themselves (and Kent not even that well, since Cordelia sees through his disguise instantly, but no one else does apparently), 3 characters that are licensed to dispense hard truths (the fool, Kent in disguise, Poor Tom), 4 or more banishments, etc..  I've found it hard to get into Lear, since I don't really see him as a king that ever deserved to be given such absolute loyalty from Kent.  We only see him in decline, and with all the Lears I've ever seen, he seems so accustomed to getting his own way and so unpleasant when crossed that I don't see it possible that he ever was a great and noble king.  He is a doddering old fool throughout who would be best put out to pasture.  (To some extent, I feel the same way with productions of Macbeth that really stress the witches' role in the proceedings, since I think this approach excuses Macbeth of too much.)  This certainly limits my emotional investment in the play, though I agree it is a significant problem for the elderly to get accustomed to a new role after "retirement."  Fortunately, most seniors do move into their new roles without causing so much bloodshed.  I also felt this production was just too long, and I was ready for it to be over midway through the second act.  Some people were tearing up at the Cordelia death scene, but I was just ready to go by that point.  At the same time, while I agree with many of the criticisms in this review (the pointless setting in Canada 1837, the silly battle scene and the endless cracks of thunder during the storm scene) this was much closer to a 3 star production, not a 2 star one.  Still, I'm probably done with seeing Lear from now on.  I wonder if that means I am down to just Hamlet and Macbeth among the major tragedies.  I have already pretty much sworn off The Merchant of Venice and Othello, though it isn't an irrevocable vow in the case of the latter.

I was fortunate in getting a seat on the Bathurst streetcar, and it wasn't completely crowded the way that the Spadina one usually is.  I managed to hop off just before Bloor and I had 15 minutes to spend in Honest Ed's (I had hoped to have closer to 45).  I find this place fascinating and tacky all at the same time.  While Honest Ed's kind of seems stuck in the 70s, it reminds me of my time here in the early 90s.  While I didn't go in all that often, I did come out this way for the movies at the Bloor.  (I really miss the large number of used book stores and second-run movie houses that were around Toronto in the early 90s.  I think Toronto still has a bit more than its share, relative to Chicago for instance, but a lot have closed down.)  I was hoping to get some cheap sneakers, but what they had wasn't suitable.  Still, I picked up some deck shoes for casual Fridays at work.  I did not have enough time to get to Fabricland, but I'll definitely take a look at some point in the next few weeks.  Honest Ed's is going to stay open for business until the end of 2016, so I'll have a chance to introduce my family to it at least once.  It will definitely be the end of an era when it goes.  (I'll probably shed more genuine tears over its passing than I did today over Cordelia and Lear, though that has more to do with my own slow march into the grave.)

So that was my very busy day.  Just rereading everything makes me a bit tired, so perhaps I ought to take another nap...

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Castle at the Storefront

It seems I am emerging from the fog of work more or less unscathed.  Though I was so exhausted last night that I didn't use one of my Black Friday coupons.  C'est la vie.  Even though I longed to take a catnap on Friday after work, I pressed on and made it up to the Storefront to see The Castle on its opening weekend.  (There are two weeks to go, and I suspect there will be a fair bit of buzz about this play, so you might want to go here and find out more about it and perhaps book early.  There is even a coupon code for $10 tickets the rest of the weekend, but you'll have to go there to get the code.)  I'm glad I went, as it was definitely a charged play that kept me fully awake and engaged with the material, though then I crashed like a complete zombie after I got home. 

There is a fair though somewhat unsympathetic review in Mooney's already, and I suspect Now and the Star will weigh in soon.  I am quite impressed that they managed to snag actors with a wide range of experience, both from the Toronto independent theatre scene and the Stratford crowd and somehow it hangs together.  I agree that the script is challenging.  It has many moments that are just ludicrous, and it is approaching Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory.  Then there are more serious discussions of power, including the military architect who says, quite accurately in this play at least, that building a castle will eventually attract people who will attack it.  I really loved the theological discussions between the lord of the manor -- who was nonplussed on his return from the Crusades to find that his wife had basically turned the place into a feminist commune -- and the priest who had abandoned the church (figuratively and literally) and had to be press-ganged back into service (starting with mucking out the church, as it had been turned into a kind of barn or stable).  The scenes between the lord and the priest, as well as the architect, the lord and the lord's right-hand man were absolute highlights.  They had a bit of wackiness to them, but then real meaning (or perhaps a steeliness of purpose) underneath.  The castle builder was droll, but more comic relief than anything.  I thought Claire Burns was good as the witch, but the role itself was sometimes a bit unsatisfactory.

As the Mooney reviewer indicates, this is a difficult script, and I'll try to get my hands on a copy soon (it appears Robarts has a copy).  Barker is mostly working out different issues related to power, sex and religion, and there isn't much of a through-line to follow.  I enjoyed it a lot, and I think it was one of the more interesting things to hit the Toronto theatre scene this year.  (In terms of sheer enjoyment of a "difficult" play, The Castle is somewhat edged out by Albertine in 5 Times.)  But it isn't for everyone.

Just as a head's up, there are two weeks to go for the King Lear at Theatre Passe Muraille where the play is set in Canada in 1837.  An interesting choice for sure, and some of the reasoning behind it is discussed in this preview.  Anyway, for theatre lovers in Toronto, this is going to be a busy couple of months as the year winds down and we head into winter.  Hopefully I will end up refreshed, rather than drained, by seeing some of these moving yet often difficult productions.  And perhaps I can actually carve out a bit of time this weekend to do some creative writing, since there has been so much to inspire me lately (even though I didn't make it into the Fringe, which would have been an extreme wake-up call...).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Trip to Oshawa

Of all the regional art-related trips I was thinking about, I have made them all (Ottawa, Kingston and Oshawa) with the exception of Hamilton.  As I have learned a bit more about the region, I realize that at some point, I should get to Museum London, though I didn't quite realize how far it is from Toronto.  And if I do end up going to Peterborough in February, then there is an art gallery there I would try to pop into.  I'll decide in a little bit about a second trip to Hamilton in December, along with who accompanies me and whether we drive or take the bus.

This post, however, will focus on a trip that my son and I took out to Oshawa.  (Since we were driving -- and my daughter is not that into art museums and galleries -- it was easier to keep it to the two of us.)  As is typical these days, I was working in the morning and got an urgent email asking for a bit more assistance.  I was able to clear that up and we set off at 10:30 instead of 9:30.  That actually ended up being a good thing, since the Robert McLaughlin Gallery does not open on the weekends until noon (for some reason I thought it opened at 10 am).  The drive down was not difficult in the sense that traffic was relatively light, though it was a rainy day and this was my first visit.  I kept worrying that I had missed the turn (not being sure if Oshawa was before or after Ajax for example), and wished that I had brought along a different map, but we made it in just over an hour.  We walked around downtown Oshawa for a while and found a pretty good sandwich shop, so my son was definitely happy.

Then we went over to the gallery.  I was disappointed to find out that one exhibit on abstraction had been cancelled, but there was still the Painters 11 room, where they rotate through paintings by the group members, always leaving up one by each of them.  Interestingly, only two of the ones on view were in the large book on the Painters 11 by Iris Nowell.  (That is how I originally found out about the group and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in the first place.  I've been meaning to go for some time (and it looked like I missed a pretty good show last spring on Jock Macdonald) but now that I know the way, figuratively and literally, I'll try to get out there once or twice a year.)

I'll put up a few that I liked to supplement the ones in Nowell's book.

Walter Yarwood, Cathedral, 1960

Jack Bush, Coup-de-Main, 1957

Harold Town, Monument, 1959

The Town work was particularly interesting, as it is covered with pages from an unspecified Chinese book.  Here is a detail of the work.

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised they did not have more space allocated to the Painters 11, since that is what the gallery tends to be known for.

Anyway, in the rest of the permanent collection area, we saw work by Emily Carr, William Kurelek and Lawren Harris.  My son really liked the Harris and a piece consisting of paper airplanes made of aluminum foil and stuck in the gallery walls.  At the risk of deluging readers with Harris, here is the piece, which is very much in line with the Idea of North exhibit.

Lawren Harris, Mountain Sketch LXXXVII, 1937

To compensate for the missing abstraction exhibition, they had a special exhibit on Ray Mead, one of the Painters 11.  It was quite nice.  Here are the ones I found most interesting.

Ray Mead, Bottles in the Evening, 1950

Ray Mead, Crescendo, 1957

Ray Mead, Bouquet, 1956

All in all it was a good trip.  The rain stopped on the return trip home, and I was able to drop off the car with 15 minutes to spare.  I'll plan on making occasional trips out there, trying to remember to check what is on, so that I don't miss a major exhibit like the Jock Macdonald last spring (I don't think this made the Toronto papers, which truly do not do a good job of covering the local arts scene, let alone the galleries outside the city).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ottawa -- part 2 (with more photos)

I didn't dwell on it, but I thought it was actually kind of neat that the kids first visited Ottawa after the fall of Harper.  Anyway, hopefully next time we'll score some tickets to the Parliament Building tour.  It's hard to say what the best part of the trip was, since we saw so much.  I think both the kids enjoyed the Aviation and Space Museum but agreed it would be a one-time visit.

My daughter really liked the Children's Museum, and I have to say it was probably one of the better ones I've seen in a while, though the play it encouraged was definitely more centered around learning about other cultures than moving blocks around or trying out pneumatic tubes or what have you (a bit more physics oriented).  My son feels that he is too old for a children's museum and just wanted to get through it at quickly as possible.  I thought the main area of the Museum of History (formerly the Museum of Civilization) was nice, but a bit one-note.  Essentially everything except an odd gallery of postage stamps was about First Nations culture, and, even within that framework, it was dominated by First Nations from the Pacific Northwest.  I saw very little that explored the peoples of the Arctic or near Arctic.

As a total aside, I was joking with my son about how the house he wanted to build -- totally open plan -- sounded like a wigwam.  He said he needed more space than that, so I said he should build a two story wigwam.  We riffed on that for a while and decided that The Split-level Wigwam sounded much funnier.  I think I will lift it and stick it in my novel somewhere.

My favorite museum was naturally the National Gallery.  As I mentioned, I enjoyed the Monet exhibit.  Probably my second favorite (after the one actually in the National Gallery collection) was this one from the Musee d'Orsay.

Claude Monet, The Coal-Dockers, 1875

My daughter was generally a bit bored in the National Gallery, but did enjoy the workstation where she was able to make her own art.  She also liked the big spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that was outside the entrance (my wife did not like this at all, especially when she saw there were spider eggs about the size of ostrich eggs up inside the sculpture).

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999

Interestingly, it does not appear I posted any photos from my solo trip to the National Gallery (except a couple of Lawren Harris paintings here).  Many came out ok that time, though I was able to get better photos of a few paintings this time, include the Tom Thomson and A.Y. Jackson paintings below (my son particularly liked the Jackson).  I still couldn't get a good shot of Yvonne Housser's Cobalt, however.  Well, maybe third time lucky on our next visit.

Tom Thomson, Autumn's Garland, 1915-16

A.Y. Jackson, The Red Maple, 1914

I can't possibly post all the interesting paintings, but I will add this Pissarro painting which prominently features a bridge, since it ties together so well with the Monet exhibit.

Camille Pissarro, The Stone Bridge in Rouen, Dull Weather, 1896

I was also pleased that I managed to get some better shots of George Segal's The Gas Station and Cales Oldenburg's Bedroom Ensemble.

We were getting a bit weary, but we pushed on to the Museum of Nature.  Clearly the big draw was the dinosaur bones, but the other floors had interesting exhibits as well, including this huge tarantula (that predictably thrilled my daughter and left my wife flustered).

I think that sufficiently covers the trip.  As I already mentioned Kingston was ok, but probably not a place I will visit again without a very good reason.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

No Time for Wilde

I suppose that is a bit misleading.  I just managed to get to Lady Windermere's Fan at George Brown on Thurs.  I have been working quite late for two weeks now and actually briefly debating seeing if I could switch tickets to a different date (since next week should be marginally less busy).  However, it appears that this is the last week, and there may not even be a Sunday matinee.  So that means if you haven't seen it (or planned to and gotten your tickets early), this is the last chance and you may indeed have timed out.

I enjoyed Lady Windermere's Fan quite a bit (concurring with this review), though the one small issue I had was that the characters are all supposed to be of all ages, and here they were all played by people in their early 20s.  Anyway, I actually cabbed it down, making it with 5 minutes to spare, though they held the door another 5 minutes or so.  Still, cutting it too close has been a way of life for me for a bit too long.

I had no idea how many of Wilde's famous epigrams are loaded into this play, which is quite clever and very entertaining.  My favorite was "All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."  But I liked it even more when Wilde had another character flat out mock the first one for using such poetic language.  I still think The Importance of Being Earnest is a slightly better play, but I would be up for seeing this another time at some point down the road.  I wasn't sold on An Ideal Husband and will probably forgo seeing that again.  I think the only significant play by Wilde I have left to see is A Woman of No Importance.  I vaguely remember having the chance to see this, but didn't for some reason.  I probably will at some point, however.

I guess I will report back that I came teasingly close to winning the Fringe Lottery.  (I was working late again of course and had to skip the party, so I just followed the draw on Twitter.)  They pulled OS126, but I had ON126...  Apparently, there are 3 times the slots for the short program than the long program (75-90 minutes), which makes sense since it is so much easier to program around the short ones.  Still, in my case, I couldn't squeeze Straying South into 60 minutes. Still, it is something to keep in mind to aim for the 60 minute slot next year, even though I am pretty sure there are more entries and thus more competition.  Oh well.  I'll just have to finish the script and try to figure out a way to put this up myself.

Anyway, it looks like I can get at least a little sleep this weekend, which would be a good thing.

Though in fact, tomorrow I will be seeing Alan Bennett's Talking Heads (part 2) which also only has a few more days left in its run, so you have been warned.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Back to our regular scheduled programming

I mentioned a while ago that I had a plan to read through the core novels of Nabokov, Narayan and Mahfouz.  The last time I stuck to this plan was about 2 years ago while I was in Vancouver, but thinking ahead to life in Toronto.  I ended up first swerving over to mostly cover Barbara Comyns and Molly Keane instead, since these novels were easier to get out of the library out west for some reason.  I also attempted to go through more of my TBRD pile, so I wouldn't have to move quite so many books.  Then I had a 6 month digression through Russian novels.  Interestingly, Ondaatje's The Cat's Table reminds me more than a little of Narayan's Swami and Friends, though I won't get too deep into that here, since I still am behind on the review of The Cat's Table.  While I could say that this partially inspired me to get back to the 3 authors, that really isn't true.  I finally have come back around to them on my massive reading list.

While I suspect I will read just a few more of the Nabokov novels and then drop him (as he just doesn't appeal to me), I do expect to eventually finish with Narayan and Mahfouz.  Narayan seems to be growing on me as he builds up a picture of his fictional town, Malgudi.  I don't dislike Mahfouz, but I generally liked his longer, more realistic novels.  He more or less gave up that style after the Cairo Trilogy and moved into shorter novels that sometimes were almost fables or parables.  I think I only have one novel in his early style left to go (The Mirage, which fortunately is in the Toronto Public Library).

Whether it was necessary or not, I actually skimmed Mahfouz's Cairo Modern (which I like quite a bit as it is pretty cynical, though not as cynical as Albert Cossery gets!) and Khan Al-Khalili.  I may eventually reread Midaq Alley, but in this case I would read it properly.  While I enjoyed The Cairo Trilogy, it was pretty daunting to actually crack it open (1300 pages!).  I don't imagine I'll read that again, but never say never.  I don't plan on reading The Beginning and the End again, since I found it too upsetting, particularly the fate dealt out to some of the female characters. (This is somewhat kept in check in The Cairo Trilogy where the sheer scope of the narrative somewhat, but not entirely, makes up for the unhappy lot of most of the women.)

I am half-reading, half-skimming Narayan's early novels as well, and I am currently at The English Teacher, which recounts a personal tragedy that befell Narayan and his family.  After this I will finally be able to start reading Mr. Sampath.  I suspect I will be able to get through all of Narayan's novels by some point in 2016 or early 2017.  Mahfouz might take a bit longer, simply because he wrote so much more.  Still, I do find getting back to (and completing) old resolutions is rewarding, even if only at the personal level.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Back from Ottawa

We made it out to Ottawa and back over a long weekend.  In general, it would have been better to stick to our original plan and drive out there, though that basically wasn't really an option.  (We ended up spending a fortune in cab fare.)

I think next time we will try to fly there and back.  While the train isn't terrible, the odds of us breaking the journey and getting out in Kingston next time are pretty slim.  I'll have a more in-depth post shortly with some photos, but I'll just go over the highlights.

I had to push through a lot of work in the morning before we left and ended up working on the plane to Ottawa as well.  However, I was able to email a few things out and then take care of the rest on the phone.  So I think I was able to keep a few projects on track, even though I was away for the day.  (I tried not to feel too guilty about that; I have been working far too hard these past few weeks.)

We took a cab directly to the Canadian Museum of Aviation and Space.  It is by a private airport on the north side of Ottawa.  In general, I think the Ottawa Airport is kind of remote, but this ride just felt interminable, esp. with grumbling from the backseat and then the rain kept getting heavier and heavier.  Fortunately, no one got car sick.  It was an ok museum, but it was about 90% planes and 10% space.  I suppose that is what happens when a country doesn't really have a space program and all its astronauts hitch rides on other countries' rockets.  They do have the original Canadarm on display, which was pretty neat.

It was a much shorter cab ride to the hotel fortunately.  We basically crashed for a bit, then walked over the bridge to see Parliament and grab some food.  My wife and I enjoyed our food more than the kids did.  It turns out if we had only gone one or two more blocks there would have been far more options.

Sat. we woke up early and tried to find the Tim Hortons only to find that the mall it was in was completely shut in the morning (I had assumed it was on the side since the website said it was open 24 hours, which was totally false).  We wandered about for 20 minutes, finally stumbling upon a McDonald's. (I had a general idea of its location from looking at a map of Gatineau in the evening.)  This made people less grumpy, and we got to the Museum of History just a few minutes after 9:30.  My daughter really liked the Children's Museum, which takes up much of the main floor.  After this, we went through the Terry Fox special exhibit, which was moving.  I don't honestly remember how much Terry Fox was on the news in 1980, but I think I probably saw him once or twice (at that time Michigan tended to be tied into Ontario in a way that most of the Midwest is not (perhaps excepting Wisconsin and Minnesota)). It's always a moving and sad story.  It is a terrible shame that he didn't see his goal through or, for that matter, benefit from the amazing improvements in prosthetics.

I actually learned quite a bit about the process of Confederation, particularly the background as to why this was such a pressing issue (and this was after getting introduced to the subject on my recent trip to Charlottetown).  There are a couple of things of interest -- first, even though Charlottetown served as the equivalent of Philadelphia in the process of Canadian Confederation, P.E.I. actually stayed out of Canada for quite some time, while Nova Scotia and New Brunswick signed up right away.  Second, there were addition conventions in Quebec City and then finally in London after everything was hashed out.  Queen Victoria had to give her royal ascent to Canada becoming a country.  Also, Ottawa was a brokered location (much like D.C. was) -- Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto all vied to be the capital of Canada.  I guess from a totally selfish perspective, I would have preferred Kingston, since it would be easier to reach (Ottawa is just so far off the beaten path).

The main exhibits in the Museum of History were almost entirely devoted to First Nations culture.  It felt a bit like the Museum of Natural History in New York or the Field Museum for that matter.  However, both of these museums have dinosaurs, and in Ottawa those are all in the Museum of Nature.  I probably would not go back to the Museum of History unless there was a really interesting special exhibit on.  As I noted, we missed the Greek exhibit (which is going to be at the Field Museum in the spring).  There is a potentially interesting exhibit on Vikings coming to Ottawa soon, and we might go, though I haven't entirely decided.

There is also a tiny exhibit on Canadian stamps, which seemed a bit out of place.  It might just be a hobby horse of one of the curators or major patrons (just like the paperweights at the Art Institute of Chicago).  There are a few really nice stamps with images from Canadian artists, though I am not planning on restarting a stamp collection (the one from my youth is long discarded in some move).  I also liked this stamp from 1976, though I can't recall for sure if I saw it as a child.

After this we walked over the bridge and went to the National Gallery.  We started with the Monet special exhibit, which was quite nice.  I think my single favourite was actually this late Monet which is actually part of the National Gallery collection.  (I find it a bit Turner-esque though far less violent.)  Oddly enough that one was not reproduced particularly well in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibit, or I probably would have bought the book.  (This also was not on display on my last visit to the National Gallery, though it might have been on loan to the other co-hosts of the exhibit.)

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge: the Sun in Fog, 1903

I'll plan to post a bit more on the National Gallery later.  I took the family around half of the galleries, focusing on the Group of 7 and other 20th Century art, both Canadian and international.  I was glad that I found the George Segal installation, since I thought that had been removed.

We then walked over to Parliament.  Unfortunately, there were no more tour tickets.  On our next visit, we will stay on the Ottawa side (never again Hull!) and try to get the tour tickets first.  Then we'll decide about the Museum of Nature and/or the Museum of History.  We probably won't go back to the Museum of Aviation, as that is kind of a one-time thing.  It was probably ok to skip the tour.  We had already done a lot of walking, and we had a fair ways to go to get to the Museum of Nature.  (My daughter really, really wanted to go to this, which was one reason we had done such a short visit to the National Gallery.)

It's a nice museum with dinosaur bones and what have you.  It also has an impressive geology section, which is more informative than the ROM for instance.  I'd say I like the Field Museum better or even the Museum of Natural History (which is just overwhelming), but it was good.  My wife and son were a bit exhausted, however, so we'd have to pace ourselves better on the next trip.

We came back via train on Sunday morning.  As I hinted we got out at Kingston and went to the Agnes Etherinton Arts Centre at Queen's.  That was nice, though quite small.  It is more than a little ironic I had to go there to see the Hart House collection.  (As I mentioned here, I would have preferred to see it in Toronto or even at Museum London.)  I noticed that one of the Lawren Harris paintings was missing, and after some sleuthing, I realized that it is in The Idea of North show, and that I will finally see it when it comes to the AGO next year.  So I guess Kingston just misses out.

Lawren Harris, Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains, 1930 (not on view in Kingston)

While I like the look of the Queen's University campus, I was really put off by the fact essentially all the restaurants only opened at 3 pm (or were closed entirely).  That seems a cruel tease.  We gave up on seeing any more of Kingston and took a cab back to the train station.  Unfortunately, they had no seats together on the next train, so we just sat around in the train station and read or played on tablets and laptops (I was the unconnected one).  I finished my second book of the trip (Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People) and decided I would probably not come through Kingston again unless 1) I absolutely had to and 2) I had a car at my disposal.

So a good but exhausting trip all in all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Spark and O'Brien

I decided that since I do seem to be reading Muriel Spark on an intermittent basis, I probably ought to track her as well.  I have to admit that so far I have not really cottoned to her.  I recall not really liking the structure of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the way in which Spark revealed the student who betrayed her.  Some people have commented that if you don't like sly humour, then perhaps Spark isn't for you.  I don't know about that, but it is true that I didn't find the story about an inappropriate teacher to be all that enthralling, though I suppose it was more of a revelation when it came out (1961).

I also have to admit that in general, I started to like Muriel Spark less the more I knew about her, including her turn to Catholicism in her mid 30s and her feud with her own son where she disinherited him.  Many people seem to agree with me that the essays in The Informed Air do her little justice, though it does make me wonder about how seriously I should take someone who thinks hard and long about the Book of Job, and yet still remains a committed Christian.  I also found her unbelievably snobby in her defense of Marcel Proust, basically saying that those of us who didn't care for him were just not sensitive enough.  So those are two serious strikes against her in my book.

Nonetheless, the novels remain, and there are several that probably should be read by anyone who wants a thorough survey of 20th Century literature in English.  In addition to the books I own, I will probably some day tackle Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate (and just possibly The Public Image).  If I still am struggling to enjoy her or at least appreciate her novels, then I will throw in the towel.

I debated adding her here with Iris Murdoch, but decided it was best to start a clean post.

Muriel Spark - novels and short stories
    The Comforters (1957)
    Robinson (1958)
R    Memento Mori (1959)
    The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
    The Bachelors (1960)
R    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
    The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
    The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
    The Public Image (1968) (shortlisted for Booker Prize)
    The Driver's Seat (1970)
    Not to Disturb (1971)
    The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
    The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
    The Takeover (1976)
    Territorial Rights (1979)
    Loitering with Intent (1981) (shortlisted for Booker Prize)
    The Only Problem (1984)
R    A Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
R    Symposium (1990)
    Reality and Dreams (1996)
    Aiding and Abetting (2000)
    The Finishing School (2004)
    Complete Short Stories (2001)

So as to not leave her too lonely, I added Edna O'Brien, who is also a Catholic novelist, though one who has had a complicated relationship with Irish readers (in fact many of her books were banned by the Irish Censorship Board and even burned in various communities).  I don't know a lot about her, though at first glance it looks like some of her books would appeal to me.  Reading her work is not a very high priority at the moment, but I will still track it below.

O  1960: The Country Girls (Country Girls Trilogy 1)
O  1962: The Lonely Girl, aka Girl with Green Eyes (Country Girls Trilogy 2)
O  1964: Girls in Their Married Bliss (Country Girls Trilogy 3)
O  1965: August Is a Wicked Month
O  1966: Casualties of Peace
    1970: A Pagan Place
    1971: Zee & Co.
R  1972: Night
O  1977: Johnny I Hardly Knew You
    1988: The High Road
    1992: Time and Tide
    1994: House of Splendid Isolation
    1996: Down by the River
    1999: Wild Decembers
    2002: In the Forest
    2006: The Light of Evening
    2016: The Little Red Chairs

Short story collections
    1968: The Love Object and Other Stories
    1974: A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories
    1978: Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories
    1982: Returning
O   1985: A Fanatic Heart
    1990: Lantern Slides
O  2011: Saints and Sinners
    2013: The Love Object: Selected Stories, a fifty-year retrospective

Edit (11/13): I think at one point I owned A Fanatic Heart, which was an earlier volume of her selected stories.  In fact, there is still a slim chance that I still own this, but have it buried in a box downstairs.  I'm not sure whether it is worth looking for it.  There is only a little overlap with The Love Object, so at some point I may acquire both.  I did see Saints and Sinners is widely available for $0.01 (plus shipping), so I'll probably pick that up and later decide about The Country Girls Trilogy.*

* It looks like if I tackle The Country Girls Trilogy, I should read the reissued version with a new epilogue.  (I was trying hard to convince myself just to get this out of the library and not buy it, but I eventually succumbed.  I haven't reordered A Fanatic Heart yet.  I have just enough will power to at least look through some boxes for it...)

Monday, November 9, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 8th Review - Who Do You Think You Are?

Most Canadians will know this collection of stories by Alice Munro by its original title, though many Americans will know it as The Beggar Maid instead.  What I hadn't quite understood when I started reading the stories is that this is actually the second novel-in-stories that Munro completed.  Lives of Girls and Women also feature one main character, Del, in all the stories.  This book is the one that most people talk about as Munro's missing novel.  However, Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) features Rose and Flo, her step-mother, in all the stories as well, yet it is not discussed nearly as often as a missing novel, as far as I can tell.  This is particularly interesting as two or three of the stories cover a wide timespan.  But the main reason I consider this a novel is that some of the middle stories hardly make sense unless you've read the other ones to find out more about Rose's background.  There is a lot of background missing in "Wild Swans," for instance, which is actually one of the more disturbing stories of the bunch (even if you do have Rose's backstory).  Thus, I think I will have to review this as a novel, more than a collection of stories, which means SPOILERS AHEAD.

Do You Really Want to Read the SPOILERS?

To return to the sweeping scope of the stories, the opening story "Royal Beatings" lets the reader see Flo as a youngish bride who ultimately ends up as a bitter old lady in a retirement home.  The older, wiser version of Rose realizes that Flo acted as she did partly out of ignorance and a general unhappiness on how Rose rejected her as a mother figure and viewed her solely as a step-mother.  While it is not clear that Rose ever tried to drive a wedge between her father and Flo, Flo surely saw that as a possibility.  Needless to say, even mothers and daughters with firmer biological ties can sometimes have incredibly fraught and difficult relationships. Off the top of my head, I can think of Atwood's Lady Oracle and Barbara Comyn's The Juniper Tree, but I'm pretty sure there are other stories by Munro that fit the bill.  After all, there are quite a few novels about conflicts between fathers and son (who don't really want to follow the instructions their father push upon them), and it is just a likely for there to be conflict between the females in the household, even if it is often subtler.

Munro's first two collections have a complicated, but largely positive view of growing up in rural Ontario, though it does seem that Del in Lives of Girls and Women was too attracted to an uneducated country bumpkin and ruined her life chances.  Obviously, I am over-simplifying the set-up, but Munro paints a much bleaker view of rural life and its limitations in WDYTYA?  I was actually a bit shocked when I came to "Privilege" (the second story) where she is describing the situation in the rural school Rose attends. Munro makes this sound like some Hobbesian nightmare where the teacher turns a blind eye to all the terrors that the older kids inflict on the younger kids -- and the younger kids inflict on each other. It's practically Lord of the Flies set in Hanratty, Ontario.*  The relationship between Rose and her step-mother Flo isn't much better, though it does improve after Rose moves away.  Playing with time enters this story in a subtle way.  Much of "Privilege" focuses on how Rose finds herself in awe of one of the older girls in school and essentially wants to be in her entourage.  She even steals candy from Flo's store to suck up to this older girl, who rejects this puppy love.  Flo mocks Rose and doesn't understand why she is making such a big deal about the older girl.  At the end of the story, Rose reflects back and can't really understand either, though she sort of understands that she was looking for glamourized female role models, since she was not getting encouragement at home.  Munro and Atwood (particularly in Cat's Eye) are quite good on showing how our memories of the past change over time and we may downplay things (or forget/repress events) that were once incredibly important to us as children.

The title story closes the book.  Again, we are treated to a somewhat disturbing story about small town life, centered around Milton Homer, a strange man that Rose knew (but knew enough to largely steer clear of while she was a girl).  Of all the fairly wild young men in the village, he is particularly disturbed, as he disrupts parades and even baptisms.  Eventually he ends up in an old folks' home, where Flo is staying, as there is apparently nowhere else to institutionalize him.  The story is actually fairly complex in that in thinking about Milton Homer brings up related thoughts about going to high school (not many of the children in Hanratty did that) and how her teacher was actually one of Milton Homer's aunts.  It must have been an endless disappointment to her and her sister as they tried unsuccessfully to keep him in check.  Nonetheless, in her own classroom, butter would hardly melt in her mouth.  What is particularly pathetic is the way she punishes Rose one day for trying to be better than her station (she has memorized a poem without writing it down).  "Who do you think you are?" she asks Rose. On the one hand, at that time, Canadians suffered from tall-poppy syndrome, where anyone who was a bit better than anyone else was cut down to size, so the teacher could simply be trying to prepare Rose for this world, but Munro really seems to be indicating that the teacher is indignant that Rose is showing off a bit.  One of her classmates did an impressive impersonation of Milton Homer (though apparently was never caught by the teacher), and this is the second prong of the story, as Rose catches up with this fellow student on one of her rare returns to Hanratty to visit Flo.  His life was not a particularly happy one.  While Hanratty was definitely tamed after WWII (as suburban sprawl from Toronto eventually raised the "tone" of the place), it still seems to be a pretty dead-end location, and clearly Rose was better off leaving.  Still, it is a pretty downbeat story to end on.

I found the stories set in Rose's early days in Hanratty to be pretty dark, though things improve a bit as she goes to high school, aside from occasionally running afoul of the teacher, as in the title story, or getting mocked for putting on airs as in "Half a Grapefruit."  The stories of Rose as an adult are unsatisfying (to me) for different reasons, which I will get to shortly.

The one story that the book sort of hinges upon is quite unsettling in a different way.  I think I had previously read "Wild Swans" in an anthology, since the story seems quite familiar.  Rose is going on a short visit to Toronto for the first time on her own.  It isn't entirely clear how old she is, but probably she is a junior or senior in high school.  She has won an essay contest that comes with a cash prize, and therefore she can go on this trip to bring back some special goods for Flo that you can't find outside "the city." (One of the more interesting things about Flo is that she worked in Toronto near Union Station for a short time but apparently wanted to return to small village life.)  Rose is going to stay with one of her father's relatives (he had actually passed away several years before, making life at home even more difficult for Rose).  Flo warns Rose in a somewhat serious manner to watch out for "white slavers" who will force her into prostitution, and Rose is somewhat relieved when an older minister sits beside her on the train.  After a short discussion about her plans and an admonition to keep an eye on the landscape to see if any wild swans are about, he falls asleep with his newspaper covering his lap and part of Rose's as well.  She feels fingers on her thigh and thinks she must be imagining things, but she doesn't move away either or speak up.  I thought in the version I read before Munro never makes it clear if it is only her imagination or not, but maybe I am misremembering.  In this version, Rose tells herself she will not open her legs and then she does, and he fingers her for miles while she bites her tongue and tries to keep her breathing in check.  Granted Rose is quite inexperienced in the ways of sexual congress and perhaps it was indeed less than it seemed, though under any circumstances, this is pretty bad.  She doesn't say anything partly because she can't believe it is happening, but she is quite curious about sex.  She has already fantasized about having sex (and being dominated -- pounded in her own words) by her high school French teacher, and is somewhat primed to accept sexual advances.  I can certainly understand why people have trouble with this story, since it sort of validates Humbert Humbert, i.e. the young girl really was asking for it.  (Curiously one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues features a similar pedophile with the same kind of self-justification.)  At any rate, budding female sexuality is something not handled all that well in fiction, at least in part because so many critics are fundamentally anti-sex (and authors just shy away from the criticism they know they will receive).  I did find this article focused on the growing sexual awareness of Rose to be worth reading.

If WDYTYA had basically stopped at Rose's high school years or even her early college career (so apparently she does better for herself than Del ever did), it would be a difficult and fairly dark book, but still one for which I had a reasonably high regard.  However, I don't know if it is simply the spirit of the times (mid 70s) or Munro working out her anger at how her marriage fell apart, but I really don't like the adult Rose and her often terrible choices.

She has a somewhat unusual relationship with a graduate student, Patrick.  In "The Beggar Maid," Rose gets engaged, breaks it off, then asks him to take her back.  It isn't clear why, even to her, other than she seems to have a sense that she is so far removed from his social sphere that it will never work.  And this is before she realizes just how rich his family is, which she learns when they move to British Columbia to be near them.  No one from home can believe that she landed such a rich husband, and Flo in particular is baffled.  They see it the same as if she won the lottery, and Rose herself feels a bit like a beggar maid in a fairy tale, but she is also wise enough (at some level) to realize that the happy ending in these stories is so unlikely.  To fit in, she must transform herself and live the way her rich relations feel is correct, even though it doesn't feel right to her.  It doesn't help that Patrick reconciles with his father and starts working in the family business and promptly becomes quite conservative.  (Above all, this irks me as I find it a bit slanderous against her real-life husband, Jim Munro, who ran an independent bookstore in Victoria.)

Rose doesn't know what she wants, but she doesn't want this, and eventually she separates from her husband.  She has an affair (a very unsatisfactory one that is hardly ever consummated) with a friend's husband.  I wouldn't judge her so harshly, but in "Mischief" and in "Providence" she can't find a baby sitter, and ends up dragging her daughter, Anna, along with her as she tries to engage in extramarital sex.  In one of these stories, I believe it is "Providence," Anna is getting quite ill, but Rose still is focused on her own needs and not at all upon her daughter.  I basically hated her at that point, and wasn't much interested in the remaining stories.  It seems best all the way around when Anna moves back in with her father and step-mother, who presumably is not as terrible to her as Flo was to Rose.  In "Simon's Luck," we see Rose having success in an unlikely career as an actress, first on the radio and then the television.  She finally seems to have found a potential romantic partner, and then he dies on her.  "Spelling" mostly focuses on Rose coming in for a visit to Flo and being somewhat overwhelmed by the sorry lives that the elderly are leading in the old folks' home.  (Maybe I am just projecting a bit, but I found this a very depressing story with not much of a point other than growing old is horrible.)

I find it hard to rate the book as a whole.  It was fairly dark in many places, and Rose disappointed me in many ways when we saw the adult she turned into.  I thought it was a bit glib to try to blame this all on her difficult childhood or even excuse her bad behaviour (particularly in how poorly she cared for Anna), which occasionally I felt Munro was doing.  Apparently there are some nuggets of wisdom to be gained along the way as one marches to the grave, but it doesn't amount to all that much in the end.  The final two stories in the book really remind me a lot of Beckett in their overall bleakness.  I'm not sure everyone else would agree, but I found them a real downer, particularly in the way they close out the book.  In short, it is a book worth reading, but not if one is looking for mere diversion or distraction from life's worries...

* The stories are set in small town Ontario - Hanratty, which is actually Wingham, Ontario.  A place small enough that everyone knows everyone, and many people were very, very unhappy that Alice Munro would write about their darkest secrets.  Actually reading the article is interesting, as the journalist is more than a little surprised that the family that had a dark secret exposed (a baby accidentally scalded to death when an older sister was left in charge) doesn't feel that having their baby immortalized in print should somehow take the pain away.  I'm not saying that there aren't some people who would feel that way, but it is a very small and probably overly intellectual clique that finds that much solace in literature.  Far more people would feel that this is an unwelcome and unseemly intrusion on their misery.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Being handy

While I have handled most of the immediate tasks from the move (though I only have purchased the sewing machine and have not actually sew up the new curtains), it turned out that the light in the study was just not adequate.  It was some track lighting from Ikea, but the filaments that held the bulbs on were not strong enough.  One of them snapped off while I was changing the bulb, and then another bulb burned out.  I decided enough was enough, and I decided to change the lighting fixture.  My wife wasn't sure I was up to the task, but this is a relatively simple home improvement job.  Or at least it should have been.

I don't even like track lighting particularly, so I found a simple overhead light.  What is different about this is that the lighting unit is all one piece with a LED lamp inside, so there are no bulbs to change.  Supposedly this will last up to 30 years, though I have my doubts.  I suppose I'll have to see if there is some warranty card.

It looked like a 20 minute project, though just as I was about to get the bracket mounted to the electrical box, the screw head sheared off.  It appears to be a cheaply made aluminum screw, which annoyed me to no end.  It would have cost $0.15 more to put in steel screws or something a bit sturdier.  Then it took close to 45 minutes removing the broken-off screw from the bracket.

I also think it was foolish not to have some kind of hook built into the bracket to rest the unit while connecting the wiring.  So that took longer than expected, since I essentially had to do everything with one hand, while holding the unit up by the mounting bracket.

Still, it seems to be working well.  Here are the before and after photos.

The rest of the day was spent getting groceries, taking my daughter swimming, buying a rake to rake up the many leaves in the yard, and now I can take a bit of a break, though not as long as I would like...

Generation gap (the writers)

I'm trying to see things from the broader perspective, but really it comes down to being rubbed the wrong way by certain writers/artists and feeling that at least part (perhaps a large part) of this comes from being on the wrong side of the generational gap.

In general, I can read older works of fiction and while bemoaning the state of women (practically chattel if you go back far enough, or if you are reading Egyptian authors such as Naguib Mafouz).  Where I really struggle is with female writers from the early 20th Century writing about sometimes sudden and almost always badly-matched marriages of the lead female characters to much older men.  This is rarely seen in U.S. fiction, but seemed to be a big staple in British and European literature.  In some cases, this simply caused deeper problems down the road (Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Harriet from Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek, etc.).  With Elizabeth Bowen, we sometimes see the characters knowing better but still getting into bad marriages for reasons that are not always that clear to the leading ladies (primal fears of becoming spinsters most likely), but then the action ends before we see the inevitable disappointments that stem from such marriages.  This marrying much older men was never quite as much of a staple of U.S. fiction, though there are still plenty of women who marry for money not for love.

What I am getting at is that, while this is fairly alien to my own experience, I can still understand what is driving these novels and generally enjoy them.  But the newest generation of artists seems unbelievably shallow and uninteresting.  Nearly all of them are about children who have been cocooned and are not really capable of running their own lives.  They also are pretty entitled, given how they are not as special as they think they are.  Obviously I am projecting a lot here, but I just find contemporary work that focuses on Millennials to be really annoying, particularly as it seems to be coming from people who are high enough in the social strata that it is more about their emotional neediness and not really about the fact that their job prospects are so bad that they are still living with their parents.  At any rate, anything that Lena Dunham touches is completely horrid, as far as I am concerned.  One of the few movies that I have given up on is Tiny Furniture, and I had suppressed the fact that she was the writer, director and star of it.

Another terrible Millennial writer is Amy Herzog.  (I've read two of her plays and am so glad I didn't pay to see them; I will steer far away from her work.)  It is hard to put into words just what I hate about her characters and her plays (aside from the absolute snobbery of ending a play with an entire scene in untranslated French -- or having one senior character constantly say "whaddayacallit" almost as a verbal tick while waiting for her mental synapses to start firing again) but they seem populated by unrooted characters that are shallow and act in ways that I find unbelievable.  They seem to be characters that have been raised by TV and computer screens and have no idea how people really behave (or should behave, which means not blocking doors and escalators while texting).  I guess there are all types in the world, but I don't want to interact with any of the characters that Amy Herzog dreams up (or steals from her family).  I mostly blame the generation gap for that horrid quasi-play All Our Happy Days are Stupid by Sheila Heti.

I can just sort of understand writers and playwrights that (to me) seem to straddle Gen X and Gen Y, which is where I would put David Lindsay-Abaire and Sarah Ruhl (though it turns out David is my age, so the tail end of Gen X).  Ruhl's characters are shallow to some extent, though I think the biggest knock against her by theatre types is that she writes these elaborate stage directions which are impossible to put on stage.  Thus she is almost a novelist, writing for that tiny fraction of people who read plays, rather than a playwright. She is also a bit of a dilettante in terms of grabbing interesting myths and legends to add weight to her scripts (Eurydice and even Dead Man's Cell Phone to some extent).  I don't mind the borrowing and the mash-up that much, though I do agree there is not always that much actual depth to her scripts.  Still I enjoyed Eurydice and may go see it again some day.  We just saw Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World, and it was quite manic (so that was a big plus over some of the Gen Y scripts where people just sit around talking and texting).  There was a weird mash-up of pop culture references (Marilyn Monroe, the Newlywed Game, Costco and of course Barbie) and a sense that most of the characters really didn't know what to do with their lives to find happiness.  I think my favorite characters were the odd couple that were hired as detectives (they reminded me just a bit of the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson from Tintin).

As I think more about it, Gen X authors have more than their share of annoying tendencies as well (the mote in one's one eye and all that...).  Aside from narcissism (basically a problem of all artists), there is a general snarkiness and cynicism that does get old fast.  And while we aren't quite as nostalgic for the 80s the way the Boomers are about the 60s, there does seem to be a complete lack of originality in Hollywood now that Gen X is nominally in charge (nothing but sequels and remakes and reboots).  I still can't get over how they ruined the Muppets in the terrible reboot that crawled onto the telly this season.  I wasn't about to let the kids watch it, and apparently most people felt the same.

I'm not really sure there is that much of a point to this rambling half-rant other than to say one's enjoyment of a particular piece of art or artist is inevitably bound up in one's likes, dislikes and prejudices, which follow to some extent from one's generation* and in particular from the popular culture one absorbed growing up.  I am resigning myself to not liking or caring much about work by the newest generation of artists, based on my experiences to date, though I am sure there will always be some exceptions, particularly if said artist reaches back to older, more classic references.  There is actually a character (Nina) in Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike who embodies the Gen Y'er who finds her contemporaries vapid.  One might even look at the character played by Kristen Stewart in the film Clouds of Sils Maria as a person who wishes she was born earlier, as she feels somewhat out of place in her own time.  (I sometimes feel this -- that I probably would have been better off being 15-20 years older than I actually am, so that I would not have to deal with the extreme economic uncertainty that is facing today's young adults.)  I think I've meandered enough for now.  I would provide a link to Wonder of the World, which was enjoyable, but last night was the last night of the run, so if you didn't pick up on it from this post and put it in your calendar, you missed your window of opportunity.  Sorry about that.

* As well as one's social class (as Pierre Bourdieu explains at length in Distinction), though class is somewhat less important in setting one's tastes in North America, as it is more culturally homogenized here than in Europe.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Straying South -- the outline

I've been rolling this around in my head for a while and decided to put it down on paper.  The general outline for the novel (Northern Latitudes) has been in my mind for decades now, but only recently did I decide that the scenes set in the apartment(s) where Jonathan and April and Shelly live could have a life of their own as a stand-alone play.  Now some scenes that would more naturally take place somewhere else need to be shoehorned in, just to advance the plot, but there are quite a few things that would be off-stage in the play but would be fleshed out in the novel.  At least that's how I think things would work.

In any case, it should be obvious there are going to be SPOILERS all over the place, but in my limited experience so far, if I stick a progress bar on this post and keep track of how many of these scenes I've actually written, I am going to be far more motivated into finishing this.  If this actually works (and I think it will), then I'll do the same thing for the chapters of the novel.  (Needless to say, many chapters will simply be reworked from the scenes from the play, but there will be more detail in the novel, and numerous settings.)  It also seems that naturally this would be close to 2 hour play, but I have to edit it down to make it 90 minutes or ideally closer to 80.  That might be tough, since most of these are going to naturally be close to 10 minutes, though I suppose they don't have to be.  It's just that most scenes do work out about that long.

Act I - Scene I: the wedding.  One of Jonathan's co-worker's is best man (torn between Julien and Daniel -- maybe save Julien for the somewhat skeevy employer that pops up later?).  The immigration officer (Helen?) pops up and makes it clear she has an eye on Jonathan and Shelly.

Scene II: Jonathan tries to put the moves on his girlfriend, after the honeymoon.  I guess she breaks up with him since he has no real character.  Need to make sure this scene works, or if it gets merged into Scene III in a somewhat confusing scene with people working and talking at cross-purposes.

Scene III: Daniel comes over with bad news slightly later: Jonathan has been fired.  Helen should probably pop up towards the end, almost catching Jonathan in what she thinks is compromising position.

Scene IV: Focus on April and Shelly.  Mention that Jonathan is off on a trip to BC.  Read a postcard from him.

Scene V: Jonathan's return.  Agrees to watch apartment (and cat? -- maybe just in novel).

Scene VI: the Straying South fragment

Scene VII: one more transition scene? (where Helen starts to figure things out and nearly gets April to spill the beans)

Scene VIII: the Job Seekers fragment

Scene IX: Jonathan has a new love interest, but a fragile one.  Helen comes over and scares her off, then basically kidnaps Jonathan to end the play.

The main thing would be if I want to discuss that Shelly decides she wants a baby.  In the novel, that would probably fit best between VIII and IX.  Actually I could have Shelly blurt it out in Scene VII to throw Helen off track (and definitely upsetting April) but Shelly realizes that this is actually something she wants.  Then she could bring it up after VIII (a natural transition since Jonathan is totally chafed from the job he gets as a consequence of Scene VIII).  What I probably wouldn't do would be to go all the way in Scene IX where Helen actually makes him provide a semen sample (while watching).  That could be reserved for the novel.  Some things are just a bit much, even for the Fringe.

So assuming I go with that short scene about telling Jonathan that she does want a baby (and he thinks she means doing it the natural way...), that is essentially 10 8 scenes with 2 already written.  That is a pretty solid show (I think so anyway).

Here is my progress bar:

Straying South: scenes written

For some crazy reason I am reminded of the Blues Brothers:
Elwood: It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.

And so I shall.

Edit: 10 scenes is just too many, both in terms of audience engagement, but especially with the lights down/lights up and resetting the actors.  That really won't work in a 90 minute time frame (the very longest a show can run at the Fringe).   But I also agree that working within limits can actually make plays (or other literary forms) stronger.  No question I have often thought plays should be edited down, and here's my own chance.  Since this is primarily a comedy (with bits of crunchy seriousness included), it will only gain comic power through pushing incongruous events and characters together, leading to close calls where people who are supposed to stay apart just miss meeting.  On the other hand, it isn't a farce, so I don't want to push this too far.  Still, I think Scenes II and III can be combined, and really Scenes IV and V.  They can be reading the postcard while he walks in the door.  That means I am actually 25% done.  Woo-hoo!

F**k Ryerson

This has just not been a good week for me, both at work and more specifically in my relationship to Toronto theatre.  I had the mix-up Monday, but even more upsetting was tonight.  I had to work until nearly the last minute, hop in the subway and half run over to Ryerson, only to find out they had sold out the show and the wait list was way too long.  So I will not get to see two of the Suburban Motel plays, since this was the last weekend of their run.

I argued that they were supposed to have my name on the list from before, and I was even looking at the person from Wed. who was supposed to add my name to the list for Friday.  But she pretended she had never seen me before.

I find this so completely inexcusable that I am boycotting Ryerson from here on out.  Absolutely no more theatre shows, which I am sure has them quaking in their boots.  But if I do start a company or become a producer, and that is increasingly likely, whatever happens on the 20th with the Fringe, then I will not hire any Ryerson grads.

I guess to be consistent I can't send in any material to White Wall Review (Ryerson's literary magazine) either, but I guess a boycott isn't really a boycott unless you give up something that actually means something to you.

In any case, I am pissed off beyond belief.  I need to take a break for now and then use this time (where I am not watching the Walker plays as planned) somewhat productively, probably to finish outlining Straying South.

Suburban Motel - first impressions

Edit: I am withdrawing this recommendation and boycotting Ryerson.  I will explain in a follow-up post.

I mentioned this on a previous post, but it is worth its own post.  Ryerson is doing 5/6 of the Suburban Motel plays, plus Filthy Rich, which is sort of a spoof on The Big Sleep, but here the "detective" is working out of run-down motel.  If you go tonight through Sunday, you can still make the whole series.  I am going tonight, and I think is should be quite a bit of fun.  Details here.  Somehow they didn't have my name down on the list Wed., but I managed to pay the rush ticket price ($5), so that was an extra bonus for an entertaining evening.

I tend to forget just how outlandish most of Walker's plots are, particularly when you start paying attention to what the semi-incompetent criminals are up to.  (It is a good reminder that, with some exceptions, most criminals are in fact pretty thick or they would find a path through life less likely to end with jail time.)  Risk Everything is no exception.  Now there is one major change to this play, which I assume Walker approved -- the gambler is not Denise's older sister, it is Denise's mom (since the actors are all at about the same age).  This switch makes some of the action in the original much creepier, like when Denise's husband R.J. is quasi-seduced by the mom character.  On the other hand, it would have tied together a bit better with Problem Child, where Denise lays much of the blame on her inadequacies as a mother on her own mother.  I'm not going to see Problem Child again, but it is an interesting book end where Denise is by far the most "together" person in Risk Everything, whereas she is totally losing it throughout Problem Child, even at the end.

I thought all the actors were quite good, with a bit of haminess in Filthy Rich, though that seemed to be called for in the script.  I'm looking forward to tonight, which is Adult Entertainment & Criminal Genius.

After this, I will have seen X 2 of the 6.  I am still secretly hoping that Triple Bypass remounts The End of Civilization, though I don't see why they would.  In general, I am hoping that some Toronto company in 2 or 3 years will tackle the whole sequence, and I will see it straight through again.

What I am taking from Walker is that I can be a bit more audacious and outrageous in my plots.  I tend to write such genteel things and that just doesn't translate all that well to the stage.  It is probably because I am also tied to realism (with some exceptions in my shorter pieces), and in my life I would shun those too-large characters who are always veering between hilarity and violence.  Still, I think the immigration inspector might serve that kind of role.  I'm imagining her as a slightly overdone Inspector Javert character, who hounds Jonathan, partly out of duty, but really out of a sense that she has not had her fair share of sexual conquests that seem to fall to her male colleagues. (Yeah, she is more than a little "bent" -- not that I think this is actually representative of Canada's immigration officer!)  The biggest problem is arranging for her to keep showing up in the apartment, whereas it would be easier in the novel for her to keep following Jonathan.  Still, I have basically conceptualized how I can cover the key themes in the novel all while keeping it to one set.  I just have to finish writing it...