I don't know if I can get through all the updates I need to make on this blog. I have about 5 that are related to recent readings with perhaps the most important being my review of Alice Munro's The Moons of Jupiter. I liked that book a lot and want to do it justice, so I'll probably have to skim certain stories when I do get to the review. I'll aim for a bit later in the week. I also have a double review of Canadian poetry books, but I can take more time with that, since I'm still thinking about these books and will probably read them both a second time. Then there are a couple related to that huge theme of immigration-related books (I knew I was biting off too much). Then I wanted to write at least a bit about Malamud's God's Grace and Vonnegut's Galapagos. Finally, I had a few comments on how books based on pure reversals just aren't that interesting. (I think I can sneak that last bit in at the end of this post.)
I also have a few that are tied to my recent outings in Toronto. Those I'll try to get to very soon, maybe even tonight, since they have pictures that I want to get off my phone. I'm sure I've written about how I feel that moving to Toronto was a great move for me and generally a good one for my family. I'm hoping that this summer, I can take the family around to a few of the funky corners of the city (south of Bloor mostly) that I have been exploring. For me, Toronto has the cool ethnic neighbourhoods that Chicago still has (but New York has largely lost, at least in Manhattan and Central Brooklyn). I would say non-chain stores are hanging on in Toronto in most neighbourhoods (Queen St. somehow excepted unfortunately) in a way that they aren't even in Chicago. Probably my biggest disappointment is that quite a few of my favorite bookstores have vanished, but there are still 4 that could take their place in my heart (if I went out more to browse books, which I just don't do much any more) as well as the slightly more corporate BMV books.
Probably the most important update is related to my own writing. I mentioned just in passing that the Toronto Star is running a short story contest. Last year I used this to kick-start work on my novel/play, and I was quite pleased with the outcome. It was the first piece read at S-F-Y-S, and I mistakenly thought I had tapped into their aesthetic. This year, I just had kept pushing it back and pushing it back until I had one weekend left. (I also have a pretty good idea for a S-F-Y-S playlet based in the near future, but realized that I will be away so many evenings the first two weeks of March that it just wouldn't be fair to go out one more evening (March 7, assuming the piece was accepted), so I will hold off for one month and send it in some time around Easter. That simplified things a bit and gave me enough mental space to start writing, focusing on just one piece.
I still had trouble coming up with any time, but I took advantage of a bus ride to St. Catherines to get some ideas on paper. I'll write a bit more about the bus ride when I discuss the overall trip, but I was pleased that the characters started coming back (if not their names! -- I see that I have called the main character's co-worker Julien and Michel. There's a small joke that works better with Michel, so I guess I'll use that. Also, it is a tiny tribune to Michel Tremblay. I can't recall at all what the girlfriend's name is, but I'm making her just a bit more flighty/flaky than before, so I decided to go with Mandy.) I'm pretty happy with the way that things turned out, but I realized that there was simply no way that this would work as a stand-alone short story. So while the contest deadline was a useful spur, I'm not going to send in anything after all. That's kind of a shame, and had I know that in advance, I might have tried to write something else. But you know what -- I have too many side projects, and I need to focus and bring to some to fruition, and not start new ones. Having said that, I am willing to close out previous projects that I have started. I asked my wife to help me find any publishers that would tackle this transportation anthology (where 95% of the work is done) and I think I may have found one. I'll be emailing them a bit later in the week to see if they like the idea enough in the abstract that I send in a project outline.
Back to this opening scene. As it happens, I wrote it out as prose (not in play format), but it was clearly more of a play, as there is almost no description or editorial comments. It is entirely dialog and a few stage directions. I might be able to salvage just a bit for the novel, but they would be in flashback mode (which I find often overused). I have to say, I still like the opening I wrote (well over 10 years ago!) which has a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am quality to it. Within a couple of pages, Jonathan and Shelly are married, there are hints of something being "off" about the marriage and they are honeymooning in San Francisco. I kind of like the idea that the play and the novel are describing the same events, but there is a major difference that occasionally we see Shelly and April alone without Jonathan, whereas Jonathan is supposed to be in every scene in the novel, since I am trying to use third person limited. I may be stretching it just a bit, since there are probably things that Jonathan doesn't really catch or understand, but would at least he would be witness to them. Whether that really comes across is not that important to me. In contrast, I've decided that the play should focus on Shelly and April's apartment (probably not a loft, though that is tempting in its own right). The characters can certainly can and do discuss things that happened outside the apartment, but there should be a meaningful shift that makes it a bit more balanced in favour of April and particularly Shelly.
I won't quite move the progress bar just yet, since I need to rewrite this in the proper format, but that really should only take another evening (see the play outline and progress bar here), but I feel as if I am up to 3/8 and I probably can hammer out the ending this week (I just need to decide quite how far I want to take it). I'm a bit stuck on the title of the piece. Straying South is not bad, but doesn't quite live up to my intentions of spreading the focus beyond Jonathan. At one point I was thinking of The Futon Moth, but that was just silly (it put way too much emphasis on a cat trying to catch a moth in the apartment) and was a somewhat bad pun on Foot-and-Mouth disease, but even more that April nearly put her foot in it (her mouth) when she came close to spilling the beans to the immigration officer. I'm actually quite taken with the idea of using "The Old Apartment," given that I often have The Barenaked Ladies' Gordon blasting while I write these scenes* (I didn't on the bus, however). I'm also a bit partial to The American Neighbour or The American Downstairs (both of which ironically comment on Jonathan living in a separate apartment from his wife), but would make it a very tough sell in the States (and yanks the focus back to Jonathan, the Yankee). And obviously Upstairs, Downstairs is already taken. I'll probably think about it a bit more, but for the time being, I'll just stick with Straying South, which is fairly ambiguous, which I do like. (If one has one's mind in the gutter, then it can even be imbued with naughty connotations.)
Ok, let me close out this post with one thought on novels with a gimmick, so I can cross that off my list as well. Even though it was a flawed novel in some ways, at least Vonnegut's Galapagos got me thinking about what the world might look like if the Western nations all destroyed themselves. There is definitely the seed of a good science fiction story in there (about how the kingdoms of the Middle East and perhaps finally Africa emerge as the remaining source of civilization). I had thought that Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt would cover that, and I suppose to some extent it does, but the ridiculous use of reincarnation in what is ostensibly an alternative world novel undermines it fatally. Anyway, I was certainly open to a pair of books that both write about what would it be like if African culture was dominant and White people were the victims of racism: Abdourahman Waberi's In the United States of Africa and John Litweiler's Snake Mojo Minuet. But I was sorely disappointed in both. I didn't really care that they didn't explain very well how this state of affairs could have come into effect. Waberi sort of hints that Europe was totally disease ridden (dengue fever, malaria and AIDS), but honestly that's just stupid. That is getting everything that Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) writes about and simply inverting it. I could buy a story where the Black Death plague was never brought under control and the Middle East and Africa had far more vibrant economy, but the particular vectors of malaria and such are really quite limited to equatorial countries. (In fact, they have been testing and finding that the zika virus is not likely to spread too widely in Canada, as the mosquitoes that carry it cannot really survive in the north.)
I was willing to overlook that (and Litweiler never bothers to explain why the big reversal, which was probably the better choice overall), but what both of them do is claim that the jazz stars of the 1950s and 60s would have been just as big (and I think even in the Ministry of Culture in Snake Mojo Minuet). That completely misses the point that most of these musicians went into entertainment because they did not have the opportunities for equal advancement in politics and business. The real jazz stars would almost entirely have been white in this reversed world. Litweiler comes closer to realizing this, though he makes the underground culture about singing German peasant songs or even some hillbilly music. But all the major cultural figures (Miles, Coltrane, Bob Marley and so on) are larger than life in both these books, and I think that is just silly and even lazy writing. So I didn't care for either of them, though at least there was a hint of a plot in Snake Mojo Minuet. In the United States of Africa was just really bad. It attempted to be provocative, but the gimmick was so poorly thought through it failed for me on every level. And that's really enough on that.
* Yes, I do realize "The Old Apartment" is not on Gordon.