Saturday, January 30, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 14th Review - The Age

There is a lot going on in Nancy Lee's The Age, which is a Vancouver-based book, though it isn't until towards the end that Lee gets specific about the location of places when she writes about a march for peace through the downtown where things gets a bit out of hand.  Part of my resistance throughout the book is that I basically didn't feel that this was really about Vancouver, but Vancouver standing in for a random U.S. city, as it does so often nowadays in the movies (though it certainly didn't back in 1987 or so which is the time in which the book is set*).  There were a number of things that just didn't feel authentic to me, though I must admit I wasn't even thinking of visiting Vancouver until the mid 90s (and I hadn't visited Seattle either).  I wasn't all that taken with the main character, Gerry.  I understand she was written as an attention-starved adolescent who makes a number of bad decisions along the way in search of love and other human contact, but I really never warmed up to her.  Despite that, this is a compelling story (though it did feel like a novel that was written with at least one eye towards turning it into a screenplay...).  However, I had some serious misgivings about the ending (or rather multiple resolutions), which I will get to after the obligatory SPOILER warnings.  If I was rating on a 5-star system (which I basically never do), I would go with 3.5 stars.  Had Lee stuck the landing, as it were, I would have gone up to 4.  So that's sort of a weak positive recommendation, but you may feel my objections are too picky, so I will explain my reasoning.

To really dig into this book, I have to reveal the ending, so truly don't read on if SPOILERS bother you.

SPOILERS (last warning)

As others have noted, this is a novel where parent are absent, either physically, mentally, emotionally or some combination of all three.  I'm not going back to check, but I believe that neither of Gerry's parents is named, though other parents are named.

Gerry's problems all seem to arise from her feelings of rejection that her father has divorced her mother, moved to California, started a new family and broken off all contact with Gerry.   It is hard to imagine a more terrible move by a parent.  Towards the very end of the novel when Gerry is recovering from a suicide attempt, her mother begs Gerry's father (on the phone) to come and see his daughter and he basically puts her off and says "Later."  Even if his guilt and resentment over being dragged back into a situation he had left (and then probably doubling down on guilt) were coming to a head, how could you abandon a child in that much need?  It is unfathomable to me.  I'm sure there are such people in the world, but I didn't really like having my nose rubbed in it.

Second, there is a touchy yet a bit easy (cheap and easy?) scene where Gerry's mother says that she wasn't "stuck" with Gerry, she fought to keep her (frankly, this seems untrue given what we overhear on the phone conversation with Gerry's father but so be it).  Gerry finally feels sufficiently loved and starts to re-evaluate her relationship with her mother.  I mean really?  Gerry's mother is a bit of a pill (mostly due to stress from over-working) but she regularly showed Gerry affection throughout the novel, and Gerry mostly parried it or rejected these overtures in the ways that teenagers do (that is so infuriating to their parents).  Frankly, I didn't think Lee had structured the novel well enough to earn this scene.  So that was an issue I had with the book.

We only meet the parents of Gerry's best friend Ian once or twice.  They are mostly pleasant ciphers, though the mother's pot growing business explains why Ian is a pothead, who makes questionable decisions throughout the novel.  Ian is a few years old than Gerry, and she has the hots for him, though he sees her as a kid sister.  In fact, he frequently points out that he used to babysit her, though he is dating Lark (a girl basically Gerry's age) as well as fooling around with Megan, one of the radicals.

Megan lives with her basically comatose father, Clem.  He is an old school radical (I guess from the Weathermen era, though he seems to have more in common with the Wobblies), but did a long stint in prison and never really recovered.  Megan is one of a new group of radicals who are against nuclear arms and appear to think that setting off a bomb to blow up the lobby of a building that has vague military-industrial connections, using the downtown peace rally as a cover, is going to accomplish something useful.  Obviously, that is inane, but fairly consistent with the logic of the Weathermen and other groups of the radical left.  Where the logic completely fails me is why Vancouver and not Seattle, which I already discussed a bit in this post.

The other two radicals are Michelle and Andri.  If I recall correctly, Andri is a former Soviet dissident (he's from Belarus), and he frequently talks about how soft prisoners have it in North America.  Later on, he decides that Gerry ought to plant the bomb since she would only be charged as a juvenile if she is caught.  Michelle seems nice but quite pliable.  It is a little hard to see how she got caught up in all this, particularly as she and Andri are having a baby, but she is sort of portrayed as a bubble-headed liberal who just really wants peace, by any means necessary.  So you can see that solid parental figures are definitely lacking in this novel, and the yong'uns have gone off the rails. 

Oh, I forgot another entire side plot with Gerry getting close to Henry, her paternal grandfather, who is a news anchor in Vancouver, as well as being an accomplished cat burglar.  He breaks into his ex-wife's house a few times during the course of the novel.  He was definitely an interesting (if amoral) character, but it kind of strained plausibility in an already improbable novel where up until the last few pages, it appears Henry staged his own death.

I generally had a hard time accepting this was a novel about Vancouver.  In part because I came to Vancouver late, and it had gentrified to the point where you wouldn't have slacker gangs hanging about in the city, since that demographic has largely decamped to Surrey by this point.  But also, I have the distinct impression that Gerry rides her bike through some wooded areas on her way from Clem's house to her house, but this also has to be close enough to downtown that she pops in and out of downtown (scoping out the building they are going to try to bomb) on a short trip.  The geography just doesn't add up.  If Clem and Megan live in Kits (or even more likely near the UBC Endowment Lands where they won't be disturbed in their bomb making), then this is a 30+ minute trip by bike.  Maybe I am just missing something, but I couldn't get the mental map in my head to make sense.*

My biggest problem, however, was with the march, where the presence of Black Flag anarchists causes things to get completely out of hand with drastic consequences, though they still might not have been so dire if Megan hadn't been so inspired by the anarchists to the point she wigged out.  I don't know about Ms. Lee, but I did go on a few anti-war marches in the late 1980s, slightly after when this book is set, and they were fairly low-key events.  She is completely conflating the anti-WTO riots in Seattle from 1999 with this peace rally in Vancouver from a decade and a half earlier.  It really irked me, and it kept taking me out of the book to essentially argue with the author that her narrative made no sense, since Vancouver simply was not a hotbed of anarchism in the mid 80s.  So for me, the book pretty much unraveled at that point, and I was no longer all that interested in it.  I do think it is a cautionary tale for authors tackling recent historical fiction that the details matter -- but also that no matter how careful you are, there will be some reader that comes along and says that it doesn't square with his or her memory of that era. I think some people will definitely eat this up, but it just didn't do it for me.  However, I will say that it is a testament to Ms. Lee's writing that even though I really didn't care for Gerry (far too bratty for my taste at the start of the book), I wanted to see how things turned out.

* Actually according to this interview piece, the book is set in 1984, but I am almost certain I read a passage in the book saying that the Vancouver Expo of '86 was over.  I may have misread it and the point was that the city was gearing up for the Expo, and thus the first waves of gentrification hadn't hit.

** I am sure part of the problem is that I either can picture Vancouver in the late 1950s through 1960s, courtesy of Fred Herzog, or I know Vancouver after it had almost entirely gentrified after 2000.  Nancy Lee actually grew up in Vancouver in the 1980s (though it isn't clear from interviews if she had arrived by 1984, though at one point she implies it), so she should know better, but it still doesn't feel right to me.

There are a few interesting bits in this interview, including how she completely rewrote The Age several times, including changing Gerry from a young boy to a young girl.  She indicates that Vancouver had a massive peace march in 1984, but I still am having a lot of trouble believing that the anarchists spoiled the march a decade before that happened in Seattle.

In fact, even a couple of days later I am still irritated by this.  There isn't a lot of material on the web (since the mid 1980s exist in this weird pre-internet space), but a few article confirm that roughly 100,000 marched for peace in Vancouver, making it the biggest peace march in Canadian history.  They were there to push Vancouver to pass an amendment to ask the federal government (led by Trudeau in the last month of his final term...) to withdraw from any further joint tests of anti-ballistic missile systems.  How Canadian, how polite... 

What I can't find is any news that there were any major disruptions or outside agitators.  Everything seemed to go pretty well, and people certainly seemed chill for the most part.  Here are a couple of photos from Common Ground indicating how mellow everyone was.

I just can't help but feel it was a mistake for Ms. Lee to hijack this event and make an alternative history version of it, which is why I don't think I will ever really warm up to The Age.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shakespeare only (Canadian Stage 2016-17)

I was tempted to title this post the increasing irrelevancy of Canadian Stage, but I felt that was just a bit too harsh.  After all, many people like this sort of spectacle, fusing dance and theatre and singing and what have you.  I generally do not.  I can enjoy it in small bits (basically Robert LePage) but the rest of the time, I want plays where the dialogue and plot are first and foremost.  The artistic director of Canadian Stage is not interested in that, so it is hardly surprising that I look over each season and find at most one play that I might be willing to see.  Here is the current brochure.  The LePage spectacle 887 is quite interesting, and I would encourage people to go, but I saw it during Panamania last year.

The only straight-forward play they are doing is Nick Payne's Constellations, and I read that already and thought it was completely dreadful.  The best way I can think of describing it is a sketch where they play a scene between a couple one way, then rewind it just slightly and play it another way, and then go off in a different direction.  Then you break and something about their relationship is fundamentally altered.  I imagine it was supposed to be a dramatic representation of quantum universes running in parallel (sort of what I imagined Possible Worlds would be), but the way it plays out (or at least reads on the page) is so tedious and the stakes are so low.  I don't know if I am being hypocritical in that I want to see Caryl Churchill's Love and Information where there is no meaningful plot either, just lots of snatches of dialogue and scenes that dissipate into the ether.  (I'm surprised that Canadian Stage isn't putting this on, as it seems right up their alley, but perhaps the season after this.)  All I know is that I read Constellations, and I hated it and have no interest in finding out if it does work better when actually mounted.

There isn't anything else in their regular season that is of any interest.  I do think The Public Servant sounds interesting, but this is more of a case where they are renting out their space to a different company.  I have no idea how they are doing with their sales and subscriptions, but my personal view is that I simply will never be that interested in the company until they turf the current AD for someone who is more mainstream.

However, I am generally interested in their summer offering: Shakespeare in High Park (despite the seating being so uncomfortable in the park).  This year they are doing Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well.  I'll probably see Hamlet, despite having seen it twice last summer.  It's a bit more of a debate if I should take my son, but perhaps.  I don't think he would be all that interested in All's Well, and I'll plan on going by myself to that, even though it isn't a play that I love or even like all that much.  But I want to support Shakespeare in High Park (if not the rest of the Canadian Stage productions).  I was pretty sure I would manage to get around to seeing some Shakespeare in "Shakespeare 400," and it looks like I have 3 productions to see already, even before Driftwood announces whatever they are doing this year.  (I have a sinking feeling it will be Othello, but you never know.)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Saturday, Bloody Saturday

It was an interesting weekend for sure, but particularly Saturday.

I stopped by the Toronto Reference Library.  I haven't been by in a long time, but I wanted to see this exhibit on Maurice Sendak, celebrating 50 years since the publication of Where the Wild Things Are.

But first, I ran the gauntlet of the used books for sale in the lobby.  I don't know how often they are there, since there is another book sale place inside the library proper.  There were some really great looking books.  If I had perfect foresight, I would have not preordered Mutis's The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, since they were selling it for $1.  I ended up getting it to give as a gift.  They also had Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues.  While this is very low on my list of Canadian fiction to read, it was pretty hard to pass up for $1.  Who knows -- maybe I'll run another book giveaway one of these days.

I then saw the exhibit.  It was ok, though not really worth going out of one's way.  While it was supposedly going to cover other aspects of Sendak's art, basically all the works on display had a Wild Thing in there somewhere or other.  Still, I liked these two pieces.

The first is a poster he designed for the Brooklyn Children's Museum, and the second is some conceptual art for a production of Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges.

I then talked to the information desk.  They weren't entirely sure, but thought that if the library had a novel in its collection but it was treated as reference, then they wouldn't be able to put in an interlibrary loan for it.  In fact, I just looked now, and to qualify for ILL, you must be "unable to travel to the owning library to read it," which strikes me as completely unreasonable.  There is no way I am going to sit down and read a 300 page novel in the Reference Library.  They are just being obnoxious in turning so many of these novels into reference items in the first place.  While the depth of the collection is better than the Vancouver Public Library, in many ways I preferred dealing with VPL, not just with respect to ILL, but in general their on-line presence was better.  It didn't take nearly as long to qualify to put a reserve on a DVD for instance.

Well, this was completely disappointing, though a bit later in the day I found that I can request books from UT-Downsview even with an alumni card, which is good, since they store a lot of the more obscure books out there.  I managed to request two novels by Bove and the third doesn't appear to be anywhere in the system, so I guess I can put an ILL request for it in at the Toronto Public Library.

I did a bit of shopping at the Eaton Centre, then headed to work for a bit.  Then I went off to see The Hateful 8.  Not surprisingly, it is very, very violent, but it basically is cartoonish violence.  The outdoor cinematography is quite well done.  And I was ultimately swayed by the fact that it was scored by Ennio Morricone.  I really did try to listen for the music, but there was often so much going on on screen that I let it fade into the background.  While Samuel Jackson probably should have received an Oscar nod, the nominations that it did get: Best Cinematography, Best Soundtrack and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) were all well-deserved.  I would doubt Leigh gets the Oscar, but I think they are the odds-on favorite for the other two awards.

I haven't seen all that many of QT's films (and probably none since Jackie Brown) but this was entertaining and suitably over the top, even though I did have to distance myself from the ultra-violence.  Also, there is one narrative trick that didn't go over all that well -- I wish QT could have found a more elegant solution than a voice over.  But relatively minor quibbles.

While it may not have been a direct reference, I kept thinking that this was influenced by The Revenger's Tragedy.  Apparently, everyone now says that this is by Middleton, but when I was in college it was Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy.  The other connection I was making, and this is a bit far-fetched is Melville's The Confidence Man, where there is a trickster on board a Mississippi steam boat.  In the book, there are hints that the confidence man is somewhat demonic, or at least that is how I remember it.  I actually liked this book quite a bit and am tentatively scheduled to read it in 2017.  If it holds up, I'll add it to my recommended book list.  In this movie, basically no one is being completely straight-forward about their motivations and there are some people who are not who they claim to be.  This was simultaneously the most intellectually stimulating and bloodiest movie I am likely to see anytime soon.  (Fortunately, all the blood in the post title was just fictional.)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Breaking news -- classical edition

I just received an email from the Royal Conservatory that they are launching a 21st Century Music Festival this May.  Details should be here.  There are several interesting concerts in the series, but the one that leaped out at me was that Kronos Quartet was coming to town on May 25, and they have a special guest: Tanya Tagaq.  So this seems like a pretty big deal.  They don't make it to Toronto that often, whereas they have been to Vancouver a few times since I started paying attention.  I suspect this is going to sell out, so I actually booked my ticket before writing the post, though there were plenty of seats the last time I checked.

I was just at the Amici Ludwig concert which mostly featured Beethoven chamber pieces for winds.  It was quite a nice concert, particularly the quintet that ended the show.  I am tempted to go to their jazz cross-over concert on Feb. 28, but I will probably be down at Brock on that day.  To me the most interesting piece is Milhaud's La Création du Monde, though this is a "reduced" version.

There will be a chance to see the orchestra version on March 31 during the Esprit Orchestra's concert at Koerner Hall.  I'd probably prefer the orchestral version, and I do hope to make this concert, though I haven't gotten tickets yet.  This could be a rare chance to catch both versions, and I would encourage that for any serious musicologists in Toronto.

A few other events, brought over from my other events page.

March 5 Brett Dean Viola Concerto (TSO)  There are actually a few concerts in the TSO's new music festival, though this is the one I am most likely to get to, but I will already be out and about most of the afternoon, so it may not be justifiable to be out in the evening as well.

April 10 Pacifica Quartet (Hamilton) - all Beethoven String Quartet concert.  I've seen Pacifica several times, and they always put on a good show.  I intend to travel down for this.

April 14, 2016 Steve Reich at 80 concert (Soundstreams @ Massey Hall, Toronto)  This is also fairly likely to sell out, and I have booked my ticket already.  This will also make the first show I've seen in Massey Hall, so it's good it is going to be so memorable.

mid May Tales of Two Cities concert by Tafelmusik.  This looks like fun, but I may not be able to squeeze it in.

May 25 Kronos Quartet w/ Tanya Tagaq Koerner Hall (Toronto) So exciting, I am repeating it twice. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Red Light Toronto

In order to get that last post up to give people even a chance to get to the Friday night show, I had to drop what was perhaps the most interesting aspect of my trip out to Dufferin to get to the theatre on Tuesday night.  I actually made pretty good time on the streetcar, though I didn't read quite as much as I had hoped since there were several really loud and distracting conversations going on near me.  (I would say in general I am about a day and a half behind where I hoped to be in my reading, though I should be able to wrap up Musil's The Confusions of Young Törless today and start in on Jacob's Room this afternoon.)

Perhaps I was primed to have prostitution on the brain after the teaser of not being able to see Red Light Winter.  At any rate, I had a fair bit of time to kill while waiting on the streetcar back, with occasional trips to the corner to see if the bus was coming any faster.  I saw a young woman come out of an apartment dressed up in a fur coat and all dolled up.  She was talking on the phone and finally her ride turned up.  The strange thing was that she went into the back seat, and then it happened that they turned the corner and sat for a minute before heading off.

The way my mind was primed, I was sure that she was one of the women from the back pages of Now magazine that make out calls, and they were negotiating the scope and price of her services.  And that is still a possibility, since it certainly seems to mesh with the way these services operate (at least according to those in the know).

However, on further reflection, it is far more likely that I was just watching a young woman using the Uber car service and confirming directions after she hopped in the car.  It just happened that she was a bit overdressed for a Tuesday evening, and my febrile* imagination ran away from me a bit.  My first impressions definitely make for a better story though.

* Febrile = fevered, a bit overwrought.  This is a word that keeps popping up in the Oxford Press translation of Young Törless.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Red Light Theatre

I really meant to post this yesterday to give readers one more shot at seeing this play - Red Light Winter produced by Unit 102, but I was just too exhausted.  So you still can go see the play tonight or Saturday.  It will likely sell out (even Tuesday was sold out and I had to come back on Wed.!), so reserving seats is highly recommended.

I thought they did a nice job with a tricky play, and I'd certainly be open to talking to them about doing Yankee Tavern (see this post).  I think that would work pretty well in their space, even though seating is pretty limited (I'd say 1/3 fewer seats than Red Sandcastle and perhaps half of what the Storefront can squeeze in).  The theatre is way out on Dufferin and Queen, and I was not too happy that I had to turn around and go home on Tuesday.  Also, the bathroom situation is just completely absurd, even for a small house.  I guess it isn't all that much better at Storefront or Red Sandcastle in terms of facilities, but somehow it is at least more obvious who is actually in line for the bathroom.  Here people all just stand around in the lobby and you have no idea how long the line actually is.  And while it wasn't their fault, one of the fattest guys I have ever seen (at the theatre at any rate) sat next to me and basically pushed me half a seat over.  So the theatre going experience wasn't so great on my visit, but I can probably overlook that.

I think this review is pretty much spot on.  I really hated the Davis character, who charmingly keeps calling the French prostitute he has picked up a "frog."  In general he is a total douchebag.  I realize he is partially overcompensating for some hidden hurt, trying hard not to show his vulnerability, but really it was just too much.  I really had just had about enough, and if he hadn't vanished fairly early in the first act, I probably would have left at intermission.  What I do find pretty much unfathomable is why Matt would bother sticking around with him.  There is something compelling (perhaps almost Nietzschean) about arrogant assholes (I had a friend from college who was a bit like a very toned down Davis, so I have some experience with letting someone run over you), but one also should have some line in the sand to preserve one's self-respect (I certainly did and not surprisingly our relationship got much better after I stood up for myself).  Matt had a serious girlfriend and she eventually left him for Davis (and the two are still ostensibly a couple throughout the play).  Matt decided to blame her and to preserve his friendship with Davis.  That to me indicates just how little self-respect he has, which is kind of evident throughout the play.  I guarantee you that if any of my friends from college had induced a girlfriend to break up with me, I would never speak with them again, let alone go off with them on a trip to Amsterdam.  Hopefully, this gives you a sense of the messed-up dynamics of the play.

I did enjoy the play so long as Davis was not on stage, and I didn't have to think why Matt or even the prostitute found Davis so magnetic, since he was basically just a total dick.  Matt in particular is a very vulnerable character apt to spew all kind of things.  In a different play, without the Davis character, he would definitely come across as a creepy stalker, but here we identify with him and his longing for human connection, since he is the total opposite of Davis (and I can't imagine anyone watching the play and identifying with Davis at all).

I've been to Amsterdam three times, but I only passed through the Red Light District once -- just out of curiosity -- honest!  You aren't supposed to take pictures, but I did take one just to prove I had seen it.  So here it is.

Middle School in Toronto

I just dropped in on an open house to the middle school in our neighbourhood.  My son will be going there next year.  I realize some parents are shopping around for that personalized experience for their children, but I am more than happy to just send him to the middle school to which we "belong."  In fact, we moved specifically to get into this catchment area.

The middle school is quite large despite having only 2 grades - 7 and 8.  I believe they said it normally has 450 students across the two grades.  There are three tracks -- the standard one with instruction in English, a French immersion and an extended French where somewhat over half the instruction is in French.  I personally was encouraging him in this direction (extended French), but it just wasn't anything he was interested in.

While my middle school had grade 6 as well, otherwise this reminds me quite a bit of my middle school.  It has a pool.  The kids are in home room and basically move in "pods" with their group, though apparently they rotate the kids on the more elective courses -- shop (here called STEM), home arts (sewing and cooking) and art instruction.  I think all kids end up taking these for 7th and 8th grade, but they break up the groups and rotate them through 3 times a year.  They also shuffle the kids for gym and swimming.  That seems like a pretty good system.

Part of me wants to wrap him up in bubble wrap and not let him too close to the power tools in STEM, but he just has to be careful (and they may not even use the jig saws until 8th grade -- it wasn't clear).  And I have vowed to not be too much of a helicopter parent.  After all, I had huge amount of freedom growing up and in school, certainly compared to what he experiences.

I simply can't remember if we had lockers in middle school or not until high school, but they have them here.  He was pretty thrilled about that.  On the whole, I think he'll have a good time.  He does make friends so easily.

It does seem a fair bit like my middle school but it is much larger than the one my wife went to.  (The high school is also quite large.)

I found two things disappointing -- one moderately serious and one very serious.  They don't have enough time to make band a stand alone class.  In fact, it is possible to have children pulled out for band and strings, but it is sort of random which classes they miss.  That suggests this really is more like small group instruction/lessons and not putting an actual band together.  He's not all that interested anyway, but if there is a more formal band program at the high school, it would be all but impossible to catch up.  Anyway, it is a shame, since the elementary does have sort of an arts/music focus and he'll be losing that.

The second issue, which I find far more obnoxious, is that due to a relatively large number of parents who objected to their children taking co-ed gym and in particular swimming classes, they have made all the phys ed instruction single sex.  I deeply resent this, as it sends entirely the wrong message about how boys and girls should interact.  I do understand that these parents have strong objections to their daughters mixing with boys, but they chose to come to Canada with its relatively secular society.  (Personally I do feel there is far too much respect given to religion even here.)  Yes, I can see the downside of children not participating in gym, but I think that would be the better course.  The current accomodationist approach just lets one group hold the rest of society hostage, and it pisses me off.  It's pretty much the same thing going on with the new sex ed curriculum where one school is more or less shutting down to these obnoxious parents and their demands.  I guess that isn't such a flashpoint here, and the principal has decided to pick and choose his battles (bending on swimming but not the sex ed curriculum), but I am still very disappointed.  Nonetheless, I will try not to let this one issue outweigh the overall good vibes I had from the school visit.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


As is often the case, I have been reading books that tie in with other books and make interesting connections in my head.  Even though I feel the stakes are incredibly low in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (not least of which is the publisher's decision to highlight how artificial the ending is -- thanks!), I will soldier on.  I should wrap it up tomorrow and then tackle a few of the short modernist pieces I was mentioning yesterday.  It is interesting that Nabokov complains a bit that everyone assumes he was cribbing off of Kafka's The Castle and particularly The Trial.  I agree it does seem unfair to not get credit for one's ideas.  It is interesting, however, that he doesn't mention Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, which seems another potential ur-text.

The detailed attention to the prison cell triggered some memory I had of a short story where a man's room grows (more or less in the middle of the night) and then he has to hide this from the landlady (and especially his fellow tenants) and minor hilarity ensues.  After turning it over a couple of times in my mind, I still couldn't put my finger on it, so I started sleuthing, hoping to avoid having adding one more item to the What's That Book list.

One minor advantage is that I know this is something that I had read in the past six months or so.  I starting working backwards.  I had just reread Kafka's The Trial, and it is still fairly fresh (so I didn't need to flip through any pages).  While there is a bit of strange displacement in K's neighbor's room (taken over for one day by a tribunal) and then all kinds of weird proceedings in upper story apartments in other apartment buildings, I knew this wasn't what I was thinking about.  And it wasn't from Metamorphosis and Other Stories either.

I considered Emmanuel Bove's My Friends (Mes Amis).  While there is certainly a bit of interaction with the landlady, this is primarily a realist book.  (I've read a few books by Patrick Modiano and they are ok (if a bit repetitive), but I'd much rather read Bove, who was actually in Occupied France (though he escaped to Algiers) and tackles more varied subjects.  I'll probably do a bit of a trip through Bove's translated (and perhaps even untranslated) novels in 2017 or 2018.  It looks like slightly over half of his novels are available in English.)

Joseph Roth's Hotel Savoy has flashes of magic realism, but is clearly set in a hotel not an apartment building with a landlady.  (Great book though.)

I thought a likely contender was Bruno Schulz (and I still mean to post on his works in the near future) but I recalled that most of the stories are set in an apartment building but one which the narrator's family owned and rented out some of the rooms.  The narrator's father is a key figure (not some impersonal landlady).  Nonetheless, the image of the growing room could have fit in the context of these stories, which have an undercurrent of magic realism running through them, particularly the ones in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass.

Robert Walser was also a likely candidate, and I flipped through Berlin Stories and A Schoolboy's Diary but didn't see quite what I was looking for.  He is definitely writing about urban life, though I only saw one or two where the action was limited to an apartment building or a rooming house.  Walser was more of a flaneur, more interested in what happened on city streets (very much like Frank O'Hara several decades later).  Still, it is interesting how thoroughly urban so many of these European authors, from my recent forays, were.  That's one reason there are so many connections between them and why it can be so hard to track down a specific story.

I wondered if it could possibly be one of the Russians I had read.  It didn't quite seem to match what I recalled of Platonov's Happy Moscow, so I turned to Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.  Sure enough the very first story "Quadraturin" is the one I was thinking of.  (It's quite Kafkaesque, though as with Nabokov it would essentially have been impossible for Krzhizhanovsky to have heard of Kafka by 1930, when the last of the stories in Memories of the Future was completed.  Kafka wasn't particularly well-known to readers of German in 1930, and he wasn't translated into English until 1934.  I'm not at all sure when he would have been translated into Russian.)  At any rate, this is quite a good collection of stories, though I might even say Krzhizhanovsky's Autobiography of a Corpse is better.  It is really quite amazing that NYRB has brought these short story collections out, and I would also encourage interested readers to check out Happy Moscow and Soul by Andrey Platonov.

I believe there is some literary monograph out there that looks at how 20th Century European literature (and eventually U.S. literature) started dwelling on apartment life and landlords/landladies/superintendents in particular as the population become more urbanized.  One monograph that is more properly cultural studies than literary analysis (and is limited to examples European fiction) is Apartment Stories by Sharon Marcus, though it is a shame she doesn't touch on the way this unfolded in the U.S.  It was particularly an effort for Americans to accept (or even picture) multiple families living together under one roof (and naturally quite a few authors dwell on the erotic possibilities of single females in these rooming houses, whether celebrating this (Patchen's Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer) or more frequently condemning it, as in Dreiser's Sister Carrie).  This is not something I ever plan to undertake, but if I come across any other interesting articles on the subject I will try to remember to put them down here. 


I couldn't resist.  I am still taking David Bowie's death pretty hard.  I do like BlackStar quite a bit, and I think I would have even if it had arrived under different (more pleasant) circumstances.  I think the single hardest piece to take was this article discussing how Bowie knew he was running out of time and yet still thought he could do one last project after BlackStar.  I am definitely thinking of how it is so easy to let time run by, and I am am making baby steps to change my own situation so that I don't have as many regrets on the artistic side when I am 50 or 60.  It's inevitable that I will have some, but I can still pull off a few of these projects if I focus (easier said than done).

At any rate, one thing that was reposted and is quite interesting to me is Bowie's top 100 books of all time.  I've read roughly 20 of them and have a few more coming up in the next year or so.  I particularly like the inclusion of the poet Frank O'Hara and the novels White Noise, Nights at the Circus, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Master and Margarita.  It gives me a bit more insight into his thinking, and maybe had our paths ever crossed in a social setting I would have had something to discuss without being completely tongue-tied (there being some but not that much overlap with what are essentially my top books of all time (so far)).   And Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia!  (Personally I would rank Arcadia higher, but a very interesting choice.  I assume that means Bowie got around to seeing the trilogy on stage either in London or New York.  In any event, being a major Stoppard fan is another small thing I have in common with him.)

This brings me around to the actual title of the post.  I've made a subtle change to the layout of this blog for the first time in years.  I've added a blogroll over on the right.  For the moment I'll just start with 4 that I have found particularly interesting, starting with Book Mine Set, which I think is fair to say has made me into the blogger I am today.  I was hardly blogging at all, when I decided to take on the challenge of reviewing at least 13 books by Canadian authors each year.  A bit of structure and a challenge was really what started me on this path, plus the fact that at least some people would read my reviews once I publicized them over on that site.  I don't need a lot of validation to write, but I did need at least a few readers to make it all seem worthwhile.

One thing that is a bit different from this blog (relative to those in the blogroll) is that only half or so of the posts are clearly literary, since I am a bit more of a generalist, posting on art exhibits, theatre and general musings.  For instance, I will try to keep track of any interesting events related to Shakespeare's 400th anniversary.  There is apparently far more going on in Ottawa than in Toronto, though of course there will be vastly more in London, according to this site.  (I shouldn't have any problem seeing at least a couple of Shakespeare plays this year,* even though I don't plan on seeing at in Stratford this summer.)  I also engage in such drolleries as noting this almost perfectly straight banana I just ate.

It was so straight, it wouldn't even fit in the plastic banana case, so I had to eat it at home.  (I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere...)

At any rate, the other blogs seem much more focused on book reviews.  Pechorin's Journal has quite a number of impressive long-form reviews of modernist masterpieces (as well as science fiction and crime novels).  One thing that Pechorin is doing is vowing to read 20 books (generally but not necessarily off the shelves) before buying any more books.  I probably couldn't quite stick to that, though I have certainly cut way back on book buying.  However, I have already noted (or perhaps moaned) that being in Canada means that deals on books are fewer and further between (and postage on Amazon is considerably higher, so angling for free shipping is always worth it).

So I tend to jump on deals, regardless of if I have cleaned out 20 books or not.  Recently, I found the Eudora Welty Complete Novels from the LOA for a steal, so I ordered that.  And while looking over the books in the Robarts Library used book sale, I saw the Oxford edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South for $4, so I couldn't pass on that.  I also just ordered J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country (tipped off by Pechorin in fact) and I will read that paired up with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.  And on the track of something else, I decided that I ought to get ahold of Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, and splurged (just a bit) on a used copy of the Everyman edition.

However, I just missed out on a good deal on Elias Canetti's Memoirs, and have finally managed to convince myself that I would really be better off reading a library copy.  (Though this may not be any time soon.)  More immanent are a couple of other books recently checked out from the library (after being inspired by Pechorin).  I am going to tackle a couple of short modernist masterworks -- Young Torless by Robert Musil and Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf.  I am actually rereading Jacob's Room, though I can't recall anything about it, so it will be like reading it for the first time.

* Coal Mine will be doing The Winter's Tale soon, and even though I want to support them in the abstract, I hate this play.  I doubt I will ever go see this one or Merchant of Venice again.  I'm not really up for seeing Macbeth again (and certainly not at Stratford prices), since I saw it in 2015.  I did just see that Wolf Manor is going to be doing Richard III up at Tarragon's Workspace in early March, and I think I will go see that, so for sure I will have seen at least one production this year, and there will probably be something to go see during the Fringe or in the fall.  I'm not really too worried about there not being enough Shakespeare around...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Mid Jan scare

Yesterday I woke up in the middle of the night, and I could hardly move.  I had this deep pain when I was standing up or walking.  While I assume it was just a stretched groin muscle (perhaps from having to wear boots a few days in a row for the first time this winter), it could have been anything, including a pinched nerve.  I did a bit of stretching and took some pain medicine.  It wasn't too bad in the morning and got better as the day went on.  Today I don't really feel anything, though I'll still take an aspirin or something.

There's no question I should do more stretching on a regular basis, though there are a lot of things I should be doing.  While I do like this house, I would definitely go to the gym more if we were in the old location.  Having to go over the bridge in the cold, and then knowing that I will be coming back with wet hair (since I mostly go there to swim) is so unappealing in the winter.  Nonetheless, I have to get back into a routine or I will be terribly, terribly out of shape come spring (when I have to squeeze back into airplane seating for a few trips in March).

Growing old is not great, and I am still at the point where I could reverse some of the impacts of bad diet compounded by not enough sleep.  Though to really get at the root of the problem, I have to find a way to reduce stress in my life, and that means taking a different approach to work.  I simply take it too seriously, and I don't see that ever changing (though it might be better if I was getting more fulfillment out of work), which then leads to these other negatives.  All I can say now is that I am aware of it, and I am making some steps to change, but I really ought to get over to the gym more.

I did get a bit further on the sewing, though I have to say the combination of the thick curtain material and the bargain basement thread isn't a good one.  The thread is snapping constantly.  If it weren't for the fact that the other projects went better, I would be giving up on sewing.  As it is, I just need to push through and finish the curtains, then I think it will start getting fun again.

I'm still going to a fair bit of theatre.  I saw an update of Agamemnon that was a bit meh.  It was sort of Agamemnon meets the Sopranos, with the older daughter a foul-mouthed Millennial and Electra a catatonic shell of a girl who just played video games all day.  It had a few amusing moments, but for the most part was forgettable.  Saturday I'm going to see A Man Walks into a Bar, which got great reviews last year at the Fringe.  It also looks like I will be seeing a fair bit of theatre in February, though a couple dates are still tentative, as they depend on the weather cooperating.

I certainly have not been writing as much, though I can feel a bit of pressure building up to make some progress on something.  Part of the problem is that I have always been too deadline driven (and being a consultant for a living doesn't help!).  I'm currently taking a bit of a pause from Sing-for-Your-Supper, though it probably isn't a permanent one.  I did see that the Toronto Star short story contest is starting up again with a deadline in late Feb.  I think this would be a good time to revamp the first section of the play (where the main character gets married but already the immigration officer is sniffing around, looking for evidence of fraud).  That might or might not work its way into the final novel, but should work as a good short story.  So I'll write it in short story form first, then convert it over to a play.  After that, I will use good old-fashioned shaming techniques (on myself) that I must finish two scenes a month and I will be done by late spring.  (Apparently the most effective is to vow to send money to a political group that you abhor if you miss the deadlines.)  That is probably too extreme, but something similar (donating to Scientologists perhaps) would probably do the trick.

I've got an interesting project I am starting, but I don't want to go into details until it is ready to launch.  That's it for the moment. 

Or at least I thought it was it.  I just heard that Alan Rickman died.  Drat.  I liked him in a number of films (not just Harry Potter...).  While the impact isn't anywhere near as devastating as Bowie, it is still an unpleasant shock to the system.


Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie - RIP

I got up a bit early expecting to get some work done and got hit with the most terrible news.  David Bowie has died from cancer, just after his 69th birthday.  News and some early tributes here.  I was actually thinking the other day what celebrity deaths will hit me the hardest.  For instance, my wife will be absolutely devastated whenever Michael Jordan passes. David Bowie hadn't really crossed my mind, since he did seem eternal, but, yes, this is a hard one to take...

I don't think I can really add anything to the conversation, since I didn't know him and am not a musical artist inspired by him.  I did admire the fact that he was one of the few rock/pop artists to not play it safe and he kept changing up his styles.  I have and like most of his last albums (and in fact I am one of the few people who think there is a lot of great material on the two Tin Machine albums).  I had been planning on ordering his brand new CD, and will obviously make that order today (just deciding if it is worth finding something to add to the cart for free shipping and am just about settled on Outside, which is one of the few later Bowie CDs I don't own*).  In particular, I really liked Earthling.

Anyway, it's sort of amusing, since I am on a jazz listserv but I am gradually getting disenchanted with the drift of the board -- and the members who are still the most active tend to be the more annoying ones.  Maybe that is inevitable with anything that lasts over 10 years.  In fact, I pretty much only post on the non-music threads about what I have been reading and art exhibits I have attended.  Most of the posts so far have been along the lines of I never liked/got his music, but RIP.  Everyone just has to posture and maintain their high art credentials.  It's probably another sign that I should just move on and not spend any more time on that site, since the rewards for me are definitely diminishing...

I managed to see Bowie in concert twice -- once in 1990 on the Sound + Vision Tour (when he was supposedly retiring all his hits -- glad he didn't stick to to that).  We were actually in the 2nd row (which is absolutely improbable, but the internet hadn't made things such an impossibility then).  I'm sorry to say I can't remember anything other than Bowie (he apparently wanted people to watch the dancers on the scrim), but I certainly enjoyed myself.

And then in 2004, the Reality tour, which of course was his last tour. That was an amazing though very loud tour, and I'm glad it was put out on DVD, which I do own of course.  I wish we had stuck around for the 2nd! encore which was Panic in Detroit, but it is a relatively minor regret, as it was late and my wife was very pregnant with our son, so getting home was a priority.

I was hoping that he would tour The Next Day, though it seemed unlikely at the time.  I had no idea that he was nearly as ill as he was.  Given his secretive nature, I assume few people knew he had cancer.  Anyway, in terms of going out on his own terms (or as much as one ever can), I am thrilled that he managed to complete Black Star and that it is another swerve into left field.  I only wish he had been healthier and better able to enjoy the accolades that he had already gotten and will continue to get for his last album.  (Since I did just order Black Stars and Outside I might even have them by the end of the week and I can listen and reflect on loss and alienation, which were fairly common themes that Bowie returned to again and again.)


* I think I had a mental block on this one, not that I don't think I'd like the material but that back when I was living in Rogers Park in Chicago in the mid 1990s there was a CD store that had Outside Version 2 (bundled with the bonus CD) in the racks.  I stupidly passed on it and have been kicking myself ever since.  I suppose you can get too hung up on those alternative versions.  Most likely the only thing I would have really felt that lived up to the hype was the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy, and that isn't that hard to track down on Youtube nowadays. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Nuclear Age novels

It is probably obvious from the way I construct my reading lists that I like to group books together in twos and threes by some sort of internal logic (though that logic may be so internal that only I really get the point).  For instance, two or three books involving train rides or two books with similar names (or indeed the same name, as in Saramago's and Henry Green's Blindness).  In some cases it is a bit like a game of telephone operator where the connections get a little fuzzy over time.  Going from DeLillo's Amazons to Findley's Dinner Along the Amazon is obvious, but then you have to know a bit about the plot to know that Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 features explorers and colonialists.  (And that is one of the easier linkages to follow!)

Anyway, I found myself reading Nancy Lee's The Age and was struck by how vividly the main character Gerry dreams of nuclear annihilation.  I believe I mentioned elsewhere how I thought this might certainly happen under the trigger-happy Reagan, though I don't remember ever actually having nightmares about nuclear war.  (I am so thankful that Reagan and Putin weren't in charge at the same time, or there probably would have been a real war, not just a bunch of proxy wars.)  I'll be doing a proper review of The Age sometime next week, but I will say that one thing I find a bit puzzling is why these peace activists are so active in Vancouver in the first place.  It would still have been a mid-sized city (for the U.S. that is, but fairly large by Canadian standards), though Expo '86 did help put it on the map (and the Expo is referred to a few times in the novel).  But more to the point, while children and young adults may well have felt that a missile or two was heading their way either as an actual target* or just due to proximity to Seattle, why would peace activists have bothered targeting Vancouver?  Just possibly Thatcher might have some influence over Reagan, but Mulroney?  (And then again, why Vancouver and not Toronto or Ottawa?)  Their actions just seem deluded and/or completely nonsensical above and beyond the point Ms. Lee seems to be making about the short-sightedness of activists who become radicalized.  (While I don't dwell on it at length in my review, Atwood's Lady Oracle also features a similar group of bungling radicals.)

I also happened to be reading the short novel God's Grace by Bernard Malamud, which features all of humanity wiped out aside for one man. (So we don't even have to go through the motions of wondering whether one couple could restart the human race, aside from all the ickiness that implies for the 2nd and 3rd generations...)  I have no idea how it turns out, but it is an intriguing, if incredibly bleak conceit.

To round things out, even though I am trying only to add to the back-end of my list, I decided to follow-up God's Grace with Vonnegut's Galapagos, since it seems to have a quite similar plot.  (All of Vonnegut's work has an anti-war/pacifist spin, though most of the time the weaponry is more conventional, though the Ice-9 in Cat's Cradle can certainly be read as a stand-in for the terrible things scientists (and nuclear engineers in particular) will release on humanity if not kept in check.)

This got me thinking about how I have read quite a few post-apocalyptic novels, though not all that many about people simply worried about the looming possibility of nuclear war, which is the prime focus of The Age and Dickner's Apocalypse for Beginners.  Obviously (and most fortunately), those that concern themselves with the after-effects of a total nuclear war** are science fiction. 

I'll just list a few key ones, though there are several others worth exploring here.

It's hard to say how much you can SPOIL novels that feature nuclear war, but I suppose it is possible.

So SPOILERS ahead.

A couple are incredibly bleak where people are more or less just waiting to die from radiation, which is how I remember Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and On the Beach by Nevil Shute.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road may be slightly less bleak, but it is pretty bleak overall.

Then we have a sort of Mad Max-like scenario in Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley and the beginnings of civilization returning (perhaps) in Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog.

I'm going to have to be honest and say that the made-up language in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker defeated me, and I never made it through.  I found it even harder to follow than the slang in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

There is a lot of black humor in This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow and arguably some in Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick.

Finally, we have some green shoots of hope in A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller and David Brin's The Postman.

As I said, this is only a very partial list, but I was reading more than a few of these in my teens, and that did contribute to a fairly pessimistic world view.  I would say arguably I only shook that off in the late 90s.  Interestingly I didn't succumb to the same level of despair after 9/11.  (Tony Blair seems to have gone off the deep end and actually come to believe in the Islamic terrorist boogeymen that he conjured up.)  However, I would say that in the mid 2010s I have kind of backslid -- the combination of creeping intensification of global warming impacts, the recklessness of Putin and the increasing radicalization of Islamic insurgents (to a large degree set off as chain reaction of the West's meddling) make me wonder just what kind of a world will we leave behind.

I think if I do read (or reread) another trilogy of nuclear war-themed books, I'll plan on ending with A Canticle for Leibowitz, just so that I am not totally despairing by the end.  But it might be best just to take a long break from these kind of novels in the first place...

* I remember there used to be a bit of perverse pride in imagining that my hometown of Kalamazoo was somewhere on the tertiary list of nuclear targets maintained by the Soviets not only because we had pharmaceutical operations, but because we were almost exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit and taking out I-94 would sever an important supply chain.  I'm a bit surprised we don't hear any of that in this novel (where Vancouver is on "the nuke list"), though Gerry hardly talks to anyone her own age throughout the novel.

** There are quite a few good novels that focus on the impact on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As horrifying as that was and as powerful as these novels are, here I am only talking about novels where the entire western world is taken out.  I'm not aware of any novel where the breakdown of civilization is limited to North America, Europe, Russia and China.  (Certainly given the shape of post-Cold War history one might well imagine a nuclear war in the Middle East...)  It might be quite interesting to imagine a world in which Africa and South America are more or less untouched by missiles and perhaps even spared clouds of radioactive dust.  Their civilizations return to being the dominant ones while the rest of the world struggles in a new dark ages.  Hmm.  I'll have to think about whether that is worth tackling or not.

I don't want to get too distracted but there is a wiki page listing fiction about the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I've only read Black Rain, but I remember it being quite powerful.  I might reread it one of these days (particularly if I do tackle the project I just outlined).  I wouldn't say this list is complete, however.  At a minimum, it should have Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Marguerite Duras, as well as the somewhat obscure but very moving Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Farewell to the Fox

Not to totally freak anyone out -- the Fox Theatre in Toronto is not actually shutting down.  However, I had a generally unpleasant experience there tonight and have decided it is not worth my time going back.  I realize this is quite the institution out in the Beaches, but when we went last year to see Birdman, I thought the screen was really not that great (it seemed to ripple occasionally) and just in general it isn't (for me) a high quality movie-going experience.  And that might be ok, if the prices reflected true second-run prices, but they are now asking $11 to see a film.  Granted I am still stuck in the 90s as far as my expectations, but I generally only rated the experience there in the $6-8 range.

What made it worse is that I showed up at 6:30 and was maybe the 7th person in line but the box office still hadn't opened up, and then when some employee finally showed up with the cash box, he couldn't seem to figure out how to open it.  It was like amateur night.  The problem was that I hadn't eaten anything and I needed to run out and grab a bite to eat, so this dilly-dallying was very frustrating to me.  I finally left the line and got a bagel a few doors down.  By the time I had finished that, the line was very long, and they put me in the wrong line (for members only) and then the correct line was pretty long as well.  I have to be honest that I doubt I would have paid $8 to see Trumbo in any case, since it certainly doesn't have to be seen on the big screen, and when I found out that it was going to cost $11, I just decided to bail and go home.

So I don't plan on going back, which kind of cuts things down to the Royal (which has $8 matinees, though most screenings would still set me back $10, but at least it is run better than the Fox) and Magic Lantern/Rainbow Cinemas have theatres fairly close to me, where the movies are also priced at $10.  I wouldn't call these pure 2nd run theatres, and I still don't want to pay $10 to see Trumbo, but I might check out some of their offerings some time.  Finally, the theatre I used to go to the most in the 90s is still around though it now mostly has documentaries: Bloor Hot Doc Cinema.  Still, I should try to remember to keep an eye out for their "Back to the Bloor" series where they show retro films.

In reality, I'll probably still mostly wait for the Tiff Lightbox to do a series on Bergman or Kurosawa and go to that.  Most movies today just aren't doing it for me any more.  In terms of popular culture films (not the art films), I was just far more attuned to films of the 80s and very early 90s.  I know there are certainly some fine films out there (scattered between all the super-hero flicks) but they aren't particularly "epic" or even "cinematic" and can all fairly safely be seen on the small screen.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

To Be or Not to Be a Producer

It looks like I will see 3 of the plays on my list of plays I'd like to see, and 4 if I travel a bit.  I generally don't travel too much, since reviewing plays is not my day job for sure.  That said, I do like combining travel with seeing plays if possible.

On our upcoming trip to Chicago, I am now regretting not taking one more day, since it looks like there are three plays I would like to see: Brecht's Galileo, Dreams of the Penny Gods at Halcyon, and Annie Baker's* The Flick at Steppenwolf.  The Flick in particular seems like a play that I would either just love or just hate.  It is also fairly long, so I am particularly hesitant to sign up for it on a vacation trip.  (After a bit of going back and forth and checking websites, it does appear that I could make it to The Flick at 3 pm on Sat., so with a bit of juggling, I think I can do it all.  That is a lot of theatre to squeeze into one weekend, so maybe it is just as well that Yankee Tavern will just have closed.)

While several, and perhaps many, even most of the newer plays on my list will eventually hit Toronto, I often wonder and wish there was more I could do to push these things along.  In this particular case, I think The Flick might work really well at the Aztec Theatre over on Gerrard, since that was a movie theatre and seems to work out for concentrated short runs.  Obviously, Coal Mine or Red One might also tackle it, particularly if given a bit of encouragement.  I just don't really have the connections yet to try to stage a show like that, and I also am not willing to bankroll the entire thing, though I could pony up some funds to help make it happen.  I have to admit it is a bit annoying that not one of the people I left cards with has ever gotten in touch.  Anyway, if anyone out there is interested, leave me your details in the comments, and perhaps we can make it happen.

I'd also like to see Yankee Tavern by Steven Dietz, which I seem to keep missing.  It was actually up in Milwaukee while we were in Chicago, but not advertised at all.  I'm just going to miss a particularly strong production in Chicago by a week.**  I actually did suggest that Red One look at this seriously, but they seem to be going in a different direction (and certainly prefer Canadian plays to American ones).  Indeed, this is such a particularly American play (about 9/11 conspiracies and so on) that I'll probably just have to catch it in the States one of these days. In fact, there was supposed to be a production in Vancouver, but that appears to have fallen through.  Still I'd be willing to try to produce this in Toronto as well if the right opportunity came along.  I have far too much on my plate at the moment, but I may well end up fronting a theatre company one of these days to put on some of my material as well as these plays I just really want to see (or see again).  Maybe that will be my hobby in retirement...

*  Oddly enough Toronto's Company Theatre has picked up the Toronto rights for Baker's The Aliens, and they were supposed to do a production this spring, but it doesn't appear to be on their schedule.  Nonetheless, they received a grant related to this, so I suspect they will get around to it sooner or later.

** It's not supposed to be extended, but you just never know.  If that happens, then my decisions get even tougher, but I'd probably go see Galileo and Yankee Tavern.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Toronto events - Winter-late spring 2016

This is an update of this post, and where I will focus my attention for the first half of 2016.  I'll mostly only include Toronto and GTA events and discuss the ones I am likely to see.  If I put a date in parentheses, it is my reminder to myself when I am targeting to go.  I'll get around to filling in links later on.

Jan 2016 (Jan 10) Agamemnon (Toronto Winter Fringe)

Jan 2016 (Jan 16) A Man Walks into a Bar (Toronto Winter Fringe)

Jan 2016 Three Men in a Boat (Toronto Winter Fringe)  -- I think I will pass on seeing this a second time, but I would encourage others to go.

Jan 24 Amici Beethoven concert

Jan 2016 (Jan 31)  Exiles by James Joyce (Red Sandcastle)  This has decidedly mixed reviews (as a play, not this specific production), but I am curious and it is quite close.

In early to mid Jan., there is also Red Light Winter, a somewhat challenging play about two men and the prostitute they meet and fall for in Amsterdam.  Just like Exiles it is a love triangle play, but I am not quite as interested -- and it is playing very far from my house -- and it is a long cold ride on the streetcar.  So I'll probably pass, but never say never.  [Actually I did make it out.]

Feb 2016 (Feb 13)  Les Belles Soeurs by Tremblay (Peterborough)  I just found out about this show (which is the last major Tremblay play I am really itching to see), and it is more or less in my backyard, and there is not that much going on in February.  So fingers crossed that the weather is cooperative and I can rent a car and drive out or worst case take the bus.  Actually, it is good that I checked, since they changed the dates on me.  I can make it to the matinee on Feb. 13, so am still leaning toward going.

February 2016 The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov (Chekov Collective)  I'm kind of torn.  I saw an awfully good production of this maybe 5 years back at Steppenwolf in Chicago.  The reviews are a bit mixed for this one (here and here), but both reviewers agree this isn't quite as good as their Seagull from last year.  I'm probably going to pass, especially as there do not appear to be any discounted tickets at TO.Tix.

February 2016 (Feb. 18) The Suicide (George Brown @ Soulpepper)

February 2016 The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams (Neon Theatre @ Tarragon)  Another rarity that isn't often staged, so I should try to see this.

February 2016 Salt-Water Moon by David French (Factory Theatre)

Feb 24 Concert at Campbell House Museum ?

Feb 28 2016 Goodnight Desdemona (Brock U, St. Catherines)

early March Richard III (Wolf Manor @ Tarragon)

early March (March 5) Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti Hart House (Toronto) A bit of a trifle, but I'd much rather see this at student production rates than the quite pricey tickets for the Vancouver production last year.

early March (March 6) Port Authority by Conor McPherson (Fly on the Wall @ Campbell House Museum)

March 11-12 Beowulf reading (Toronto Consort)

mid March (March 10) A Man Vanishes (Videofag) This could be interesting.  I'm appreciative of the fact that they do name-check Shohei Imamura's film of the same name.  While I definitely have trouble watching films (as opposed to going to theatre), I would make sure to watch the film first in this case.  I might have trouble seeing this, as I am traveling a lot in March, but I'll look in to see if they take reservations.

mid-late March (March 23) The Public Servant (Canadian Stage) This could be a sleeper hit, so I just got my ticket.  (It is possible that it was more of a hit in Ottawa, since the whole city essentially works for the federal govt.  It might not seem quite so relevant here.)  There is even a discount code -- EARLYBIRD -- though I don't know how long it will work, or for that matter if I am supposed to publicize it.  I'll take it down upon request.

mid March-April The Crowd by George F. Walker (Studio 58 at Langara College, Vancouver).  When does George Walker ever rest?  He's had something like 4 new plays produced in the last 2 years.  I've managed to catch 3 of them (and am now kicking myself for not going to see more of the Suburban Motel series when I had the chance).  This is the 4th -- a world premiere at Langara College, just down the street from where we used to live.  I suspect it will make it over to Toronto fairly soon, but I should be doing some work in Vancouver in 2016, and if there is travel involved, I'll see if I can arrange it so I fly out towards the end of March.  (I did just find out that he is doing some winter play for next year, most likely at Evergreen Brick Works, so that's something to console me a bit if I can't swing a business trip out to Vancouver in early April.)

March 31, 2016 Esprit Orchestra, Koerner Hall (Toronto) Milhaud La Création du Monde.  I just learned about this, and think I will go to it rather than the Amici version, though both will surely be interesting.  I've probably heard Milhaud's piece live before, but it would take a lot of searching to confirm.

April (April 9) Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar (Mirvish) This is just about the only thing I am likely to see at Mirvish this next season.  I'm just not a fan of the type of show they bring in to town. 

April 10 Pacifica Quartet (Hamilton) - all Beethoven String Quartet concert

April 14, 2016 Steve Reich at 80 concert (Soundstreams @ Massey Hall, Toronto)  This is one show I probably ought to book soon, as I do think it will sell out.

April (April 16) The Great War (Video Cabaret @ Soulpepper)

April (April 22) The Beaux Stratagem by George Farquhar (George Brown @ Soulpepper).  I did consider checking this out at Stratford in 2014, though that year I went to Lear and Lear only.  It will be good to see a second time, particularly at the slightly lower rates of a student production.  Though what I am really hoping to see (and George Brown is probably the most likely to put it on) is Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair.  The most recent time this has been fully staged in Toronto is 2009.  I'm also hoping they do some of the Thomas Middleton plays I've not seen produced.

mid May Tales of Two Cities concert by Tafelmusik

May 24 TorQ Percussion Quartet -- probably will not make it (esp. if I go to the Tafelmusik concert), but I'll consider it more seriously closer to the time

May 25 Kronos Quartet w/ Tanya Tagaq Koerner Hall (Toronto) This is very exciting news.  I believe it has been many years since Kronos Quartet performed in Toronto, so I suspect this is going to sell out.

May-June May 28 Wasserstein - The Heidi Chronicles Soulpepper (Toronto)

May-June (June 2) Arthur Miller Incident at Vichy Soulpepper (Toronto) -- finally!

June Instructions to any Future Socialist Government Proposing to Abolish Christmas, Coal Mine (Toronto)  I'll have to see exactly what this is about, but it sounds at first glance like something I would like.

July-August Lori-Parks Father Comes Home From the Wars Soulpepper (Toronto)

At the moment, I am only planning on seeing John Gabriel Borkman at Stratford, though I may change my mind and go see All My Sons as well.  Unless I catch a ride with someone, I am probably not going to go down to Shaw this summer.

Most companies have not really gotten around to putting their fall seasons together, though increasingly they do lock up rights six months or more in advance, so you sometimes find out about things early if you know where to look.  I have to say I was just not at all interested in Tarragon this season, though I will probably see a Tennessee Williams play in their Workspace in February and perhaps Richard III up there in March.  However, in the fall they should be putting on The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, and this looks like something that I would be likely to see.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 13th Review - Arvida

I'll just start off by saying I didn't like this collection at all (Arvida by Samuel Archibald).  While I often am a bit out of sync with the prevailing tastes, it was really shocking to me that this was nominated for and was a finalist for the Giller Prize.  I just can't see it, since I found the stories either unmemorable or unpleasant.  If you want to read a bit further into why I gave this book a big thumbs down, feel free to continue, though be aware that there will be SPOILERS ahead.

Il y a des SPOILERS partout...

I hate to be too cynical about it, but I think at least some of the hype comes from people not expecting a Francophone author to indulge in horror-lite.  (It is much less surprising that the author or at least the narrator is a bit obsessed with Proust.  Nor is it that surprising that given my negative experience with Proust, I felt this was already one strike against the collection.  However, the stories are generally short, as is the overall collection, so the writing is not at all Proustian other than there are some memory-pieces about growing up in Arvida, Quebec.)  In general, it is odd for any Canadian author to move away from the cliches of Can Lit: earnest immigrants, growing understanding of and wonder at nature, more civility than the dreaded Americans, etc.  Being from Quebec and writing such non-PC stories gets him extra bonus points.  (Incidentally, it is perhaps not a surprise that many of the most negative reviews on Goodreads are from French readers, who aren't conceding Archibald those bonus points.)

Of the entire book, the most tolerable stories were two stories about incompetent criminals -- not even full-blooded criminals but people willing to commit minor larceny or smuggling or running gambling rings.  One of the things that fiction sometimes gets right, but the movies rarely do is that most criminals aren't masterminds.  They are generally a bit thick and lazy.  This is particularly true in small towns, such as Arvida.  Anyway, in "América," two guys get asked to smuggle this woman over the U.S. border so that she can rejoin her lover in L.A.  They ask for a low sum of money, most of which is blown by a third guy they bring on board at the last minute to help them drive.  They make a number of other bad decisions, most notably trying to cross at Windsor rather than at one of the points where New York and Quebec touch, where at least they probably would have found a French-speaking border agent.  The woman of course is inadmissible, and then when they eventually try to put her on a plane back to Costa Rica, but she has vanished (apparently having more street smarts than the two guys).  Even this story is a bit spoiled by the heavy handed coda, where one of the guys says that a friend wants to make this story into a movie, and needed a name for the woman.  "Just call her América.  That's all she had to say, anyway."  Ba-dum-bump.

The second one is called "The Last-Born," and starts off a bit contentiously by saying that the last children in all the households of Arvida are spoiled somehow because they were all born of mothers who should have stopped having children at 38 or so, but "whose husbands and priests never gave them any peace as long as there was one egg left in their innards."  Anyway, two of these misfits run into each other and manage to talk themselves into a bit of a pickle: one has offered to kill a bookie for the princely sum of $2000 and the other one can't quite see how to back down and still maintain his image of himself as a tough guy.  Neither really wants to go through with it, but their credibility is on the line.  Let's just say things don't go according to plan.  This was probably the best story from the collection.

There was also a decent five page description of a pick-up hockey game between former Canadiens and the local boys that was amusing.  This was in the middle of "The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness."  The game may or may not have occurred, as other parts of this piece are non-fictional.*  This interview suggests that the hockey game is fictional, but, sadly, the incest that is at the heart of several stories, particularly "The Animal" was real.

It's very difficult to critique anything related to incest for all kinds of reasons, but I have to say that it was handled extremely clumsily in "The Animal," since the story was for all intents and purposes over, when suddenly Archibald adds a few more pages where some "demon" comes and molests the two sisters.  WTF?  Either integrate this in properly or drop it.

I was basically bored by the other stories.  There is so much casual racism and sexism permeating these stories that they are all hard to take.  "House Bound" is particularly dreary, as it takes us inside the mind of a very coarse (and alcoholic) contractor whose marriage falls apart as he rebuilds a run-down family mansion that he has bought.  He is so far gone that one night in an alcoholic rage he kills his annoying yappy dog and tosses it in a ravine.  Even though his daughter adds this to her list of reasons she thinks the house is haunted, he refuses to reveal the truth.  (I suppose I wouldn't either, but I certainly resented being asked to show some understanding and perhaps even sympathy for a dog-killer.)

However, I actually stopped reading "Jigai," as it is literally torture-porn.

I would never have liked this collection in any case, but the decision to include this story basically enraged me.  It isn't edgy -- it's just the same woman-hating crap in a different format -- and getting a lot of undue and undeserved praise.

I know it is hard to separate an author from his or her characters, but Archibald's latest project is about a serial killer that was active in Saguenay in the 90s.  It is possible he means Roch Thériault, though he was more of a horrifying cult leader than a true serial killer.  I don't know whether it is preferable that Archibald is doing a true crime story or is just inventing it (obviously it is better if the victims are imaginary), but at a certain point you have to ask yourself what is it about a writer who just can't get away from writing about violence against women -- and dressing it up as literature.  I know I will steer far away from his work in the future.

* With footnotes even!

P.S. I'm kind of sad that I will close out the 13 books for the 9th Canadian Challenge with a book I so strongly disliked, but on the positive side, this is definitely the fastest I got to 13 reviews.  Generally, I get to that mark by February (and one time May!), though I see that for the 6th Challenge, I wrote my review of Underwater Welder on Jan 25.  I didn't much care for that book either, so it looks like review 13 is often a downer.  The more positive reviews have been poetry collections, and perhaps I should have flipped Arvida and Ossuaries, which I did enjoy.  Anyway, I have two more Canadian books coming up soon, and I should have those reviews in by the end of Jan. or very early Feb.  It is a little hard to predict how the rest of the challenge will go, though I wouldn't be too surprised if I end up getting to 20 reviews by June.  If I am close enough, I'll try to rearrange the list so as to end this challenge with Paul Quarrington's Whale Music.  I have some very tentative ideas of what I might do to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Canadian Challenge, but that is really getting a bit ahead of myself...

Friday, January 1, 2016

First post of 2016

I decided I didn't want the first post to be too negative.  (I am preparing a fairly negative book review that will go up tonight or tomorrow.)  So I will talk a bit about the day and my plans for the new year.

I actually did take it fairly easy, sleeping in a bit, reading and picking up just a bit.  The main event was taking down the tree and all the ornaments.  Often we leave it up for one more week, but the layout of our living room/dining area is such that the tree really is in the way, so my wife was eager to take it down.

I suppose a fair number of museums were open, but I just didn't feel like going to any of them, though as I noted, I would have gone to the Aga Khan Museum if they had honored the museum pass.  Well, I will probably swing by the library tomorrow after taking my daughter to her first skating lesson, and then Sunday, most likely we'll hit the AGO.  I can pace myself a bit, getting a bit of reading in, some work, maybe some creative writing (not blog related) and not be totally exhausted by Monday.

That is certainly my biggest problem -- refusing to prioritize enough and just taking on too much.  Even the sewing feels like I have made it a chore and not something that is fun.  Well, I have decided that if I do get to making that quilt top, I will take it to one of those companies that finish it for you with the batting and everything.

I don't really do resolutions, but I will see if I can scale back here and there.  That might be difficult at work, and we'll see what kind of changes I can actually make there.  But I don't have to push myself so hard all the time.  All it means is that I have too many on-going projects that I then abandon when I get bored with them, or I don't find instant success.  For instance, I only tried with one publisher to get my anthology published.  I could try again.  Or better yet, I could outsource that, and keep focused on other things.

While I do think I will finish my Toronto-based play at some point this year, that probably means not editing the other two (both are at the first draft stage).  I mean I could work on those, but then something else would suffer.  I do think I'll have to cut back on the blogging in 2016.  I'll still write the occasional review and put up some lists of interesting plays/art exhibits, but I am finding that it just isn't as rewarding as I thought to put out these long-form posts and never get any feedback.  Anyway, I am always fighting the tendency to publish personal things about my family, which I would regret later, or highly charged political posts, which I would also regret.

If I can reclaim some time, I probably ought to try to watch one classic movie a month or something, since I feel so ridiculous stashing them away and never getting to them.  (Probably the only way I would actually do it, is if I made a list and crossed them off...)  I suppose I simply feel that live theatre needs my support in a way that movies do not.  Also, I can get around to the movies at a later time, which is not the case with theatre.  Of course, there are limits.  Even now I probably won't have time to watch everything in my collection unless I take early retirement!  I probably also ought to listen a bit more to my jazz and classical CDs, since I have retreated to pop lately (something I sometimes do when under stress), though this is not nearly as difficult to attempt (than the film watching) since I can listen to music and do other things.

(It is a positive thing for me that I can write-off television programs and sports and not devote any meaningful to thinking about them.  One of the only shows I followed was The Simpsons, and I guess I stopped bothering two seasons ago.  About the only program I would actually follow is Futurama if that ever gets brought back again.  That said, it was weird to see just how many college football bowl games there are now.  Talk about diluting the product (and what a time waster for people who actually watch these games).  It is ludicrous that virtually all the teams in the Big Ten and SEC ended up playing in a bowl game.  I don't think my brother is particularly bothered, but his school (MSU) got totally stomped.  My schools were split -- Northwestern continues its record of post-season futility, but Michigan had an impressive win.)

I've been doing reasonably well selling off books or donating them.  I really thought I would do better with the CDs, but the classical music store near work has just been giving me the runaround and not letting me bring in the CDs, since they never have any petty cash left!  I'll have to find a better outlet for these things.

I guess that is all I have time for now.