Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Summer forecast

I have to admit it feels a little weird to have time on my hands, or at least the prospect of time on my hands.  It's not as if I couldn't fill up a lot of time with my projects of sewing or now working on the deck or cleaning out boxes in the basement.  But it does allow me to start thinking of slightly bigger projects to tackle this summer, now that the pace of work is a little more reasonable.

I'm planning on polishing up the transportation poetry anthology and sending that out to a publisher.  I have one in mind, which is always a good thing.

I'm thinking I should take a fairly big chunk of time to rework the full length plays and then submit them to Toronto Cold Reads.  (It appears there is still time to get in before they start up again in the fall.)  I also have an entire scene completed, but written out by hand, which I have to type up.  I'll probably also recycle the 7-11 piece (maybe making it just a bit longer to add back in the sister character). 

I didn't plan on doing it, but I was so inspired by work (or rather a work retreat) that I attempted to convert it into a scene about a real estate developer trying to sell a project with a huge tower to a reluctant city council.  Or rather they are getting ready to make their pitch, hence the title "The Pitch."  I don't feel I had quite enough time to get the right level of manic energy, and some of the set-ups don't pay off until their mysterious visitor turns up in the next scene.  Anyway, you can judge for yourself.  I am not sure they will take it as a stand-alone piece, i.e. just Scene 1.  It might actually be better for Toronto Cold Reads, but I didn't have enough space to get around to Scene 2.  I'll know within a few more days, and I'll probably prepare Scene 2 while it is fresh in my head and give Scene 1 more polish.  Still, I do like the general craziness of Sing-for-Your-Supper and the much more immediate payoff (next Monday as opposed to some time in the fall), so I'm certainly not going to pull the piece.

At the moment, it does look like I will be doing relatively few events on the weekends over the summer, though that will probably change as I get the Fringe schedule.  I'm sure I will stay busy between the deck and the writing.  Still, I am definitely looking forward to this summer.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

FIlling up the calendar

It's somewhat interesting that I don't actually have much planned for the weekends through June and even early July.  (Toronto Fringe might certainly change that of course.)  Oddly, most of the events I am seeing are in the middle of the week, which makes it a little harder to remember to head over after work.  I'll just have to be extra careful this summer.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, I tend to feel that living in the city is more justified when I am doing lots of cultural events, so I am starting to load up the calendar again, at least to some extent.  However, it looks like I also need to fix up the deck, and that will almost certainly require two full weekends.  Sigh...

I am somewhat tempted by a special offer at the TSO (buy one-get one free) to go see James Ehnes playing Elgar's Violin Concerto and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.  The June 11 date would work reasonably well (90 minutes and no intermission), but I actually saw Ehnes doing the Elgar in Vancouver, and I'm not a huge fan of The Rite of Spring.  I think I'll do the mature thing and just skip this.

I just found out that Unit 102 Actors Co. is doing Much Ado about Nothing in an outdoor venue.  Even better it is a covered outdoor venue.  So I think I'll do that, but then I definitely won't see the same play at Hart House.  I haven't settled on a date, but they have quite a few performances in the second half of June.  (I don't always jump at seeing outdoor Shakespeare though.  I see they are doing Love's Labour's Lost in Kew Gardens, but I can tell from the promo video and the approach that this wouldn't be my cup of tea.)

I didn't manage to see any of the concerts at Casa Loma last summer, and these are typically Tuesdays, not on weekends, which can make it a bit trickier.  It does look like they are skewing far more towards vocal performances and fewer symphonies.  (It may be easier to rehearse with a semi-amateur ensemble.)  Too bad, as I am not that interested in the season.  There is some chance we would come out July 26 to see the Vivaldi Four Seasons.  Maybe I will call and see if that is on the first half or second half of the concert.  I think we could probably get the kids to wander through Casa Loma (it's open quite late on these evenings) and maybe listen to half of a concert, but the full concert would be too much for sure.

Not too sure what else is opening, though I realized I had forgotten about the show opening at Coal Mine.  Today and today only they have preview pricing, but the show tonight is not surprisingly sold out.  I will probably try to go next weekend.

Perhaps there just isn't that much going on, theatre-wise, that I haven't already thought about and decided to pass on (Albee's The Goat) or it is playing at Stratford or Shaw.  It's not necessarily such a bad thing to scale back for a while, especially since I was feeling so worn out yesterday due to the heat.


It seems that summer has snuck up on us.  While it is technical still spring, the temperatures jumped dramatically.  My office was particularly unpleasant, as they couldn't get the climate control working, and it was over 26 Celsius inside on Friday.  Needless to say, it was hard to focus and have our various meetings.  Slipping out for iced coffee or other cold drinks was fairly common in the afternoon.

Saturday, it got to 28 or so.  We were shepherding 6 kids from the neighbourhood to and from Withrow Park. Our main fear had been that it would rain on the day, not that it would be so hot.  I was only able to convince a few to put on sunscreen.  With only a minor mishap or two we managed to get them to the park, let them run around for an hour (while we were lounging in the shade) and bring them back.

I would have preferred to lounge around for a while like the idlers in Turgenev's A Month in the Country for example, but I also wanted to get a few things for the garden, and the garden shop nearest us is only open Saturdays until 5pm and is completely closed on Sunday.  (It is crazy how much business they are throwing away with these hours...)  I picked up some purple sage and a miniature lilac bush.  I am more confident in the sage out in front.  I put the lilac in the back and it may not get quite enough sun, but I guess we'll see.

It was certainly a lot more digging than I wanted to do in the hot sun, but so far I am pleased with the results.  In general, the flowers in the front are fairly low maintenance, and I'll just need to keep an eye out on the lilac in the back.

Purple sage in bottom left corner



After this, I really was fairly wiped out, and I crashed for a couple of hours.  I got a few things at the store and then went to bed early.  Just not used to the heat.

I'll try to be a bit more productive today, including typing up a short scene that was inspired by a team exercise.  I'm also going to head out (probably cycling) to catch Sheets, which is the last show that will be put on by Videofag, at least via that venue.  I'll try not to push myself too hard, since it will be another hot day, though it probably won't be quite as hot.  It may rain very briefly as well in the afternoon, which should help a bit.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Kronos Quartet in Toronto

As I already indicated before, Kronos Quartet doesn't come to Toronto that frequently, so it was a real treat to see them Wednesday night.  (They are coming back to the TSO New Creations Festival in March 2017, so something to put in your calendar for sure.)

This actually makes the 4th time I've seen them live.  Somewhat astonishingly, this is not the string group I've seen the most.  That would be Pacifica Quartet, whom I've seen 7 or so times, mostly in Chicago.  In this post, I wrote somewhat extensively about the first time I ever saw Kronos (in Chicago in 2009) and then in Vancouver at the Chan Centre in 2013.  (I did completely drop the ball to see if BBC Radio 3 recorded Philip Glass's String Quartet 6 the following fall.  Oh well.)  In terms of drawing on parallels to this concert, there are probably two important threads.  First, that they had a moment where they swooped their bows, which made a faint whooshing sound, which would have been inaudible in a large venue.  (I'm not 100% sure, but it was probably Sigur Ros's Flugufrelsarinn (The Fly Freer).) Second, the third encore was Purple Haze.  It was pretty raucous and fun, and it is in these kind of covers that Kronos Quartet sort of intersected the Turtle Island String Quartet.  I'm not sure I even saw this review when I was writing my post, but here's another take on the Vancouver concert.

In 2014, I went down to UCLA to catch the Kronos Quartet.  The main reason was to see them perform Crumb's Black Angels, since I don't think they play this all that often (though they did play it a few times on that concert tour, which was to celebrate their 40th year as an ensemble).  I saw Oswald's Spectre and didn't like it any better this time around.  I wasn't that interested in the Penderecki piece, but I did like Philip Glass's Orion: China (with special guest Wu Man on pipa) and a piece they did in conjunction with Nels Cline.  I thought Black Angels was pretty great, though heavy of course.

Last night they did quite a few new pieces.  I'll have to look at which were Canadian premieres vs. Ontario premieres.  Certainly, many people felt the two collaborations with the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq (Sivunittinni and Nunavut) were the concert highlights.  I thought they were interesting, but certainly a bit exhausting.  I'm glad to have seen her, but I can tell I would not want to go through an entire concert of her throat-singing.  Of the two, Nunavut worked better for me.

The oddest piece was definitely Mark Applebaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten where the composer set the stage by saying he was exploring post-sound compositions!  So the members of the quartet literally would mime a number of actions, and the audience was taught the last few "bars."  It was vaguely amusing but kind of a waste of their talents.  Anyway, probably my favorite piece in the first half was actually Sunjata’s Time by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, and sadly they only played 2 of the 5 movements.  I'll definitely have to track that down.  I should mention that Kronos is going to be putting up all 50 of their new commissioned pieces up on their website, and I'll follow up soon with links to the ones that I thought were particularly interesting.  It looks like some will be on soundcloud but perhaps not all of them will be.  Here's the link to Sunjata’s Time.  Even more exciting for those that missed it is that the Toronto concert was livestreamed, and I'll link to that as well (at least if it can be repeated, though that isn't clear at the moment).

In the second half, they did Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words," which incredibly enough I had seen in Vancouver.  It stood out a bit more here.  I really enjoyed Laurie Anderson's Flow, but I wish it had been 2 or even 3 times longer.  I thought Mary Kouyoumdjian's Bombs of Beirut was ok, but it felt a bit derivative of Steve Reich's Different Trains.  This had already been a fairly long concert and the group came back for an encore inspired by an Indian violin player.  On top of a drone track, they played some interesting melodies and Sunny Yang made her cello into a tabla of sorts.  Anyway, the group came back again for a second encore and played Baba O'Reilly, saying that Pete Townsend had been inspired by Terry Riley.  It was a nice touch, and a bit comparable to how they closed out the Vancouver show in 2013.  But they still weren't done, and they brought back Tanya Tagaq to help them do Oswald's Spectre, so I've seen this piece three times now (and apparently the composer was in the house).  I didn't actually get out of the venue until 11 pm, but it was a pretty incredible night.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Close Calls and Tragically Devastating News

It seems I have been doing almost nothing but running for transit this past week, starting from Friday.  I had to make it out to Port Credit.  I didn't really want to be on the very last train, prior to the meeting, since I thought it would be cutting it too close.  In the end, I managed to have almost 10 minutes before the morning train, and it wasn't crowded, which was nice.

On the way back, however, things were far too tight.  The event ended at 4:00, and there was a train out of Port Credit at 4:11, but the next one wasn't until 4:40.  I might have still met my friend at 6 on that later train, but it would have been a fairly close call.  As it was, a small group of us went speed-walking back to the station, since the typical time to the station was 15 minutes!  As we turned the corner, we saw that the train was actually sitting on the tracks (apparently it had gotten in early).  I told them not to wait for me, and they sprinted off.  I did my best to run, but I am just not in very good shape.  I sort of stumbled into the station and ran up the stairs.  It looks as though I was the very last person boarding at that station (and for that matter I think the train left a couple of minutes late).  I had a bottle of water on me, which is quite rare, but I definitely needed it then.  The rest of the evening went fairly smoothly.

Sat. I had some work to do, and in the end, I managed to make the 2:05 showing of High Rise with about 3 minutes to spare.  Then I went over to work, since there was an awkward gap until the Tafelmusik concert.  Somehow I had forgotten that they were at the Koerner Centre, and this threw me for a loop, since I had wanted to try to sell off a few books at BMW.  In the end, I went to the smaller BMW near the Eaton Centre, but that meant I walked from Union Station to the Eaton Centre and then ultimately up to St. George station (none of which would have been necessary if the TTC had timed transfers like the vast majority of transit agencies).  My feel were quite sore and in the end I turned up about 5 minutes before the concert.  This pattern was starting to get a little old already.

Sunday, I took my daughter to work.  While we didn't have any specific time to get there, we saw a bus turn the corner and sprinted for that, since the next one was at least 10 minutes away.  So that was a bit annoying.  Finally, on the way back, there was some huge gap in service and the next bus leaving the station was 16 minutes away, so we walked from the station to home.  So transit just was not my friend all weekend.  (I didn't go anywhere on Monday and finally did some weeding and gardening.)

Of course, in the scheme of things, these are all minor annoyances (unless one slips while running to catch the train, as I have seen happen to a few people).  It was all over the news yesterday that the lead singer of The Tragically Hip has incurable brain cancer.  It isn't clear how long he actually has -- a year or even longer -- but the Hip have decided to go out with one last concert tour.  I probably wouldn't have gone, since the Fully Completely tour was pretty great and I am generally losing my interest in rock concerts.  But the situation is different now.  Assuming they do a few nights in Toronto (so tickets aren't ridiculously hard to come by), I'll probably go.  It will be terrible after he is gone and the band breaks up.  It actually feels pretty morbid to be thinking of someone in the past tense while they are still around, but that's sort of how it goes with these things.  Anyway, here's hoping the cancer goes into remission and he has a solid run for a few more years at least. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Feel-Bad Theatre

I should say upfront that I do try to go to a range of theatre, and I definitely do prefer more challenging theatre to comfortable plays.  On the other hand, done well, a really good comedy, such as The Importance of Being Ernest, can be extremely welcome.  In general, however, I do tend to prefer novelty (i.e. plays I haven't seen before) and tougher pieces in general.  The reverse is true for my classical musical listening, where I do gravitate to more familiar pieces and certainly towards pieces with melody, though I still carve out at least some time for contemporary composers.

All that said, I basically avoid plays that are primarily about the horrors of war, about drug use and inner city violence or about serial killers and/or rapists.  I don't think there is anything useful I am going to get out of these plays, since I've seen enough of them to last a lifetime.  While they fall slightly outside of the above categories, I have not wanted to see Tracey Letts' early works, Bug or Killer Joe, because the plots sort of weirded me out.  So I passed up recent productions of both here in Toronto.

In the spirit of still occasionally challenging myself, I have seen three plays recently that have all been real downers: Dreams of the Penny Gods by Callie Kimball (at Halcyon in Chicago), Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced (covered in the second half of this post) and Donald Margulies's The Model Apartment.  All three left me dispirited in different ways, though I suppose they all could be described as black comedies of a sort.  Having seen them (and suffered a bit through them), I would still go to 2 of the 3, but I probably would have passed on Disgraced.  I'll write a bit about the other two in my somewhat scattered way.

Be warned, there will definitely be SPOILERS.

Furthermore, while I generally pooh-pooh TRIGGER WARNINGS, in the case of The Model Apartment, if you (or more likely someone you care deeply about) suffered through the Holocaust, you may want to avoid this play.  At the very least, be aware that references to the Holocaust come up repeatedly -- and that Holocaust survivors are not uniformly portrayed as saintly.

I will start with Dreams of the Penny Gods, which is relatively unlikely to get further stagings, but you never know.  As I mentioned, the set was quite impressive, with all this junk all over the place.  It turns out that Bug and her mother live in a storage warehouse, more or less scavenging through all the abandoned stuff.  I found out after the play, that the setting was supposed to be Maine, whereas I thought (based on the accents) they were slightly outside of Boston.  In several ways, I think the Boston setting makes more sense (isn't there so much empty space in Maine that people wouldn't need storage lockers?), I suppose the pending separation of Bug from her only real friend in the world, Sister Gloria, seems even worse when the distance from New York City jumps from 200 miles to 300 miles, though as Gloria says it is still just a bus ride away.

When the play opens, Bug is trying to summon a god of the dead, using some spell book she has apparently cobbled together from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and an encyclopedia set left behind in one of the storage lockers.  Over time, we learn that she has been home schooled by her mother, Kitty, who is a real piece of work.

Kitty was really the hardest thing to swallow about the whole play.  She is obviously a total monster, who loves tormenting anyone weaker than her, particularly Bug and Sister Gloria.  She is a former grifter and small-time drug dealer, who has joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. It isn't entirely clear if she actually is a believer or just thinks of this as another sort of a scam.  In the first case, she is so far from any kind of genuine joy that it is really hard for me to believe the Witnesses wouldn't eventually have kicked her out.  She is just nasty all the time, and that is one thing that they (generally) don't put up with.  In the second case, the financial return from running rummage sales (even from things she had stolen from the storage lockers) just doesn't seem worth it, even for a petty crook like her.  This disconnect of not believing she would have maintained her position of authority as an Elder member of the Jehovah's Witnesses kept undermining my interest in the play, since I just didn't believe it.  I mean all kinds of things can happen with religious cults, but for me, this character was too much.  I guess my line is that while quite a few religious leaders are actually troubled individuals, they at least can hide this fairly well.  Kitty's veneer of pleasantness (or even normalcy) is tissue-thin, and I simply couldn't buy that she could maintain her facade long enough to be elected as an Elder.  (Note: apparently, the author's mother was a lapsed Jehovah's Witness, which could explain a lot.)

Anyway, Bug is trying to raise some god in order to bring on Armageddon, so it's not like she doesn't have her own issues.  She is interrupted by her mother and Sister Gloria, and we see just how dysfunctional this family is.  Kitty hands out harsh and unjust punishments for no reason at all, and she browbeats Sister Gloria constantly.  She won't even let Bug get the glasses she needs, which is the first sign that this abuse is really deep-seated.

After they leave, Bug starts up the spell again and summons her father, Bobby, who was supposedly dead.  This is actually a fairly creepy and effective moment.  I thought the story of Osiris was being referenced, since he was brought back to life by Isis.  I thought it was even more appropriate that Osiris and Isis were brother and sister, since when Bobby and Kitty meet, it becomes clear that Kitty is Bobby's mother.  It then takes a while to dispel the incest theme (it turns out that Kitty is actually Bug's grandmother not her mother), though it actually returns towards the end of the play.  Gross.  We find out that Bobby was simply in prison, largely for his role in the death of Bug's actual mother, but that Kitty had told Bug that he died in a construction accident.  In addition, we find out that Bobby is a different kind of terrible person than his mother, and that the two are certainly made for each other.

The playwright makes it clear that Bobby and Kitty are basically modern-life equivalents of Grendel and his mother, though Bobby doesn't have his arm torn off, at least during the events recounted in the play.  I won't detail the final twists and turns, but basically Bug is liberated from these two and sets fire to their living quarters and essentially hitches a ride down to New York City to try to meet up with Sister Gloria.  So one can see this as a positive ending, though she is a pretty messed up kid who will need a lot of therapy to get over this.  I really struggled with the simulated beatings that she endured from her mother, and overall this play dragged me down, even though one could view it as having a positive resolution.

Interestingly, the reason that Sister Gloria was going to New York City was to help them close down their massive property in Brooklyn and put it up for sale.  This actually occurred in 2016, slightly after the play was written.  Despite Kushner writing a bit about Mormons in New York City, I always thought that this big center for Jehovah's Witnesses in the heart of Mammon ought to be explored.  Will I ever do it?  Probably not.  For a take on L.A. based on slightly similar lines, i.e. a subplot about a religious cult organizing in the neighborhood, one can look to Thomas Sanchez's Zoot-Suit Murders, which I may get around to rereading one of these days.

Turning to a play still in production, Donald Margulies's The Model Apartment is running through May 29 up in North York.  Here if you still want to go after reading the rest of the post.

As I had mentioned, probably my main interest in seeing the play was that Eric Peterson was in it.  I'm happy to report that the universe didn't implode when we were in the same space (a bit of a running joke at RedOne).  He is quite good as Max.  In general the acting is strong, though I did tend to find the shrieking of the Debby character just a bit too much (presumably that was the point).  There will no doubt be some questions whether they could have found a starring senior actor who is actually Jewish, but I will leave that aside.  I will say his performance was very different from the irascible coot he played on TV.

The play starts off with this couple turning up at a condo development in the middle of the night.  Their place isn't ready, so they have to stay in a model apartment, and it turns out that basically everything is for show -- the TV and refrigerator don't work.  There are no knobs on the kitchen cabinets and so forth.  But they've made it to Florida, where they are retiring, so they can finally relax.  Fortunately, the fold-out sofa does work, so they do a bit of canoodling and get into bed.  Lights down.

When the lights come up, there is a stranger in the room.  It isn't a regular thief, but their daughter, Debbie.  After this the play swerves into totally different territory.  We have been lulled into a false sense of what this play will actually be about.  Now I had been prepared, but not everyone in the audience had been.  From time to time, there were actual gasps from the audience as the play gets darker and darker.

This piece is actually a pretty good exploration of the play.  It does feel like an even more claustrophobic Long Day's Journey into Night (there was far more breathing room in that play, also usually only two or three characters were on-stage at one time, and the gaps between each act were 2 or 3 hours long).  Here it is all one act and the action resumes only a few minutes after each blackout.  It becomes a nightmare that will just not end.  Even though it is only 80 minutes long, I could definitely have done with 10 or even 20 minutes less...

In short, Debby is the daughter that they have tried to leave behind.  She clearly isn't institutionalized, but perhaps she is in some kind of group home.  Max can't understand how they didn't get notified that she had left Brooklyn, and Lola has to remind him that they don't have a phone with them and there isn't one that works in the apartment.  (The play was first produced in 1995, though it is set in 1988 when beepers would have been common but not cell phones).  While it isn't spelled out in a 40-point headline, Debby is essentially a dybbuk.  She was named after Max's daughter who died in a concentration camp while Max was hiding out in the forest.  While this renaming is bit of a cultural tradition in some parts of Europe, this play highlights some of the problems that come from layering on expectations upon newborns by giving them the names of the revered dead.  Debby herself explains that she is so fat because she is eating for all the Holocaust victims who were starving to death; she feels them all inside her skin.  Clearly, she has major issues.  (I can't remember if this rant happens before or after her mentally-challenged, homeless, Black boyfriend breaks into the apartment, and she introduces him to her parents before initiating a hot and heavy petty session with him.  Again, pretty gross and certainly inappropriate, but it is made crystal clear how few boundaries she has.)

Debby's mother Lola has her own issues to deal with, including the fact that she was forced to pretend not to recognize her own mother, just to live a few days longer in the camps.  What becomes quite evident is that she has been telling Holocaust stories to her daughter, almost as a bedtime story, since Debby can tell some of the stories along with her mother, word for word, including a fantasy that she befriended Anne Frank in Belsen, and that she encouraged her to write a second diary that unfortunately was never recovered.

Margulies makes some very good points that while one should never forget the Holocaust, dwelling on it obsessively, has been damaging to at least some survivors and particularly their families.  I suppose one sees the same thing in Spiegelman's Maus. Some people are simply not able to recover from such indescribable trauma and some are.  Max has considerably greater equanimity than Lola, and basically retreats into dreams of life with his perfect first daughter.  He is more than happy to walk away from his broken daughter, while Lola doesn't feel able to abandon her.  I can see both sides, but I'm probably closer to Max in that I can cut things out of my life, especially when it seems essential for self-preservation.

The Jewish Week piece had a few quotes from Margulies.  I think I read somewhere else that he was getting a bit tied of plays that danced around the topic of the Holocaust and the sometimes less than perfect actions of the survivors.  This would be the play that was so over-the-top that people would hesitate to tackle the subject again.  Perhaps I am imagining this.  It is clear that this is a hard play to take and a hard play to stage.  It is essentially a black comedy without a proper resolution.  One could really play up the comic aspects (like when Debby says she will reinvent herself as Deb-bor-ah, perhaps a bit like Barbra Streisand) or make it a bit absurdist.  I'd say this production plays it very straight, and there are just not many laughs to be had after Debby turns up.

This is a reasonable review, though I'd probably only go as high as 3 stars.  One thing that really continued to annoy me was how much Yiddish and German was spoken throughout the play.  It was quite alienating.  While I could basically make out what Max was saying to Debby (the first Debby), there were a couple of points I missed because the "punchline" was in German.  At some point, Debby actually shrieks at her parents to speak English, and it was the one time that I basically agreed with her.  This is definitely a tough play, and while I don't regret seeing it, I have trouble recommending it, since the ending is so downbeat.  Still, kudos to Harold Green for taking it on and doing a creditable job.

As a bit of a side-note, last night I saw another black comedy, though this is more a proper comedy leading to catharsis, since the outcome appears to be positive, for at least most of the characters.  This was The Anniversary by Bill MacIlwraithEast Side Players are doing this play through June 4, so there are two and a half weeks to go.  There are truly terrible things that are said about the various family members, and you have to think that these three browbeaten sons all have more than their fair share of Stockholm Syndrome.  My companion commented how a normal person really would leave the house (or at least the room) after being so insulted, and I said that the play seemed to be a riff on Sartre's No Exit where people are stuck together (and are actually in a kind of hell) or better yet Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel where guests just can't leave a party.  This isn't strictly true as occasionally some actors do go off-stage, but for the most part they cannot escape Mum's magnetic yet malevolent personality.

Mid-May updates

I have managed to stick to the cycling.  This is the second week where I have biked to work three days in a row.  I wasn't particularly happy about it though, especially as I had to do an uphill sprint at the very end of the trip to avoid being squashed by a bus.  My legs feel very heavy and "unhappy," though I'll have a few days off to recover.  In general, my overall cardio condition does feel better and I am starting to have a bit more energy.  It's a bit early to say, but I think my clothes are fitting a bit better, which is always a good thing.  Nonetheless, next winter I will have to find a way to stay more active, since this cycle of restarting the exercise regime gets harder each year.*  I think I need to find a better rec centre, as I really am depressed by the local one, and that is certainly part of the problem.

I did bike over to Front and Spadina Wednesday.  I saw that the photo murals were in a car park lot on the corner.  While the photos by Mickalene Thomas were pretty good (I had seen most of them before), the setting was kind of dispiriting, and I doubt very much most people could actually see them, due to the way they were set back from the street and the general rush of people (and cars) at that intersection.  Anyway, you can judge for yourselves.

After this, I went over to Robarts for the first time in many months.  While I was mostly there to obtain some articles on millennials and their driving habits (and whether we have hit "peak car" or not), I borrowed a couple of books on precarious work and the new economy (always a cheery topic).**  I also found out that the Engineering Library is closed all summer, and they won't be loaning out the books in the collection, which is more than a little frustrating.  I wish I had known that a couple of weeks ago.

In terms of my own reading, I have finished a couple of books on relativity, and am midway through the third one (Calder's Einstein's Universe).  I'll switch over to Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle next.  It's a little strange not to be reading fiction, but it's a good change for right now anyway.

I have one research project on the go, but in general I am trying not to take on too many other projects.  There are certainly things I could do, but then I find myself spread much too thin.  It would be better to take care of some things around the house (and plant some flowers that cats hate since they are using our front garden box as a toilet -- grr -- I'll be looking for lavender and rue this weekend).

I'm gearing up to submit some material to Toronto Cold Reads, and then to decide whether to work on editing my finished plays or to work on Straying South.  I probably should focus more on the latter.  Finally, I have to dig around in my email, but I had the name of a publisher that still puts out poetry anthologies, and I wanted to touch base with them with my idea of a transportation poetry anthology, since that is essentially ready to go.  After I make headway on these things, I can consider more academic pursuits.

* While it doesn't surprise me at all, it was interesting that the last two or three weeks, we've heard that most of the contestants on the Biggest Loser gained all that weight back.  How can you truly expect people to maintain such an intense workout schedule and still have a life and family.  I'm sure that if you paid me to do nothing but go to the gym for 2 or 3 months, I could get fairly close to my weight at age 25, but the "real world" intervenes for most of us.  Still, I am fortunate that I do live close enough to work that biking is a real option and it is something that I can make routine, roughly 3 seasons out of the year.

** I also borrowed Fox on the Fairway to see if the second act was just as bad as the first.  If anything it was even worse, with all kinds of secrets being revealed that were just cheats to the audience.  Out of nowhere we find that the waitress was adopted, and further surprises await.  I suppose some of these things happen in better farces, but usually there is at least some telegraphing of major plot twists rather than just springing them onto the audience as completely new information coming out of nowhere.  At least the better ones do this.  I might well have stood up and walked out midway through, it was so terrible.  So I am very glad we left at intermission.  On the other hand, I have to admit that I chuckled a few times while skimming Norm Foster's Office Hours, so perhaps I will go to that next year, though in general I am not a fan of his work either.
Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Short TACF 2016 report

The two-day TCAF is over.  I'm sure I should have mentioned it on the blog, but mostly likely if you are interested in comic books and live in Toronto, you were already aware of it.  It is hosted around this time each year at the Toronto Reference Library.  I double-checked the times and Sunday, they started at 11, while the library itself opens at 1 pm.  And indeed, they had quite a few areas where the books were sealed off with police tape until 1!

This year and last year as well, the audience is an interesting mix of mostly young people, all over the map in terms of their hipster vs. nerd quotient.  There were quite a few women in the crowd, confirming, as if it really was in question, that women do indeed read comics.

I was hoping that the folks from Pixie Trix Comix would be there again, but they skipped TCAF this year.  I suspect that Dakota McFadzean was there, whom I met last year, but I really didn't have a lot of time to check each booth.  I had about 20 minutes to poke around before jumping back on the subway to go up to North York Centre to see The Model Apartment (more on that soon).  So it was a very superficial visit.

Upstairs, there was a booth that seemed largely dedicated to Darwyn Cooke, a Toronto-based comic book artist who sadly died right before TCAF. 

I was intrigued by Octopus Pie, though not quite enough to pick up a book.  I know it isn't entirely fair, but after I checked out the strip on-line, I was dismayed and kind of disgusted by the comments of the core followers, who virtually all thought it was totally ok for the main character to toss a drink in the face of her ex-boyfriend.  I have a pretty limited time to add more web-comics to my list, and in fact I basically only follow Girl Genius and the suite of comics at Pixie Trix.  Occasionally, I will dive into another strip for a while, but so far at least none of the others have stuck.

I picked up a book for my daughter and an odd book about time travel called We Can Fix It (at least part of the time she goes back to watch her younger self working at a movie theatre -- if only Annie Baker had thought of that for The Flick...).

I came pretty close to buying a issue of Toronto Comics, but the line was just a bit too long for me to deal with.  The weird thing was that I thought that they had 3 or even 4 volumes available, but at this site, there are just two volumes plus a mini-comic, though Kickstarter seems to indicate #3 is almost ready and perhaps that was what they were showcasing.  I'll definitely try to check this out soon.

I was worried that I wouldn't actually meet any creators at the festival, but then I stumbled across the team that does Super Science Friends.  It is essentially a parody of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with scientists infused with superpowers.  Anyway, they actually managed to animate an episode here, and then had a new comic out (2099), which I picked up.  I'll try to keep an eye out for more activities from this team.

So it was a good but short trip.  If it wasn't so crowded, I might take my son to TCAF next year.

I should have posted this yesterday, but I guess it's not too late.  There are always a few official posters for TCAF, and this one by Kazu Kibuishi is my favourite poster from 2016.

Edit (5/23): One more minor update: the mysterious man behind the Puck comic does not come to conventions (or at least not openly), since he is trying to keep his web-comic and his real job (as a teacher in Hamilton, Ont.) separate.  I haven't decided if I will follow this or not, though the storylines are fairly droll.  What will probably keep me coming back is that the setting is Hamilton, and in this alternative universe Satan is the mayor of the city.  Harsh but perhaps fitting.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Scotiabank Photography Festival 2016

It's that time of year again when the Scotiabank Photography Festival takes over all the smaller galleries in Toronto.  I would say it feels less omnipresent than last year, or maybe I am just less interested in the featured exhibits (and they seem to stretch longer into June whereas the Festival proper ends at the end of May).  In any case, there are still several quite interesting things to check out, and I'll just list a few highlights.  For me, it is good that the ones I want to go to do continue into June, since the second half of May is pretty packed.

It's definitely worth starting at the AGO, especially since they are giving out free copies of the Scotiabank Festival program.  It's quite a nice book, and of course without it, you would miss out on almost all the smaller shows.  Outsiders is still running at AGO through May 29.  I saw it twice, including yesterday.  I blocked out enough time to see Pull My Daisy in its entirety (28 minutes or so), which features Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Larry Rivers (with Jack Kerouac narrating), as well as Marie Menken's Go! Go! Go!, which is closer to 15 minutes.  I didn't care much for the super-frenetic pace of Go! Go! Go!, and its choppy style, but I thought I should at least sit through it.  While the selection of Garry Winogrand photographs is decent, the way they have displayed them is not at all aesthetically pleasing.  I saw much better Winogrand exhibits in San Francisco and Washington D.C.  What does work well is the room dedicated to Gordon Parks.  It is worth checking out the exhibit just to see these photos close up.

Gordon Parks, Rosie Fontenelle Cleans the Bathtub, Harlem, New York, 1967

The other rooms are ok, with a few interesting images by Diane Arbus, as well as a room of secret photos of cross-dressers.  Then things get even more "transgressive" with Nan Goldin's photos and Danny Lyon's photos of a motorcycle club, but I just didn't find them particularly interesting.

In terms of the other major photography exhibit at the AGO (Thomas Ruff), I didn't think this was at all worth installing, so I won't bother writing about it.

After the visit to the AGO, I went across the street but was frankly not that impressed with the Bau-Xi Gallery or even Bau-Xi Photo.  Last year at this time, they had more interesting work on display.

I then walked over to Spadina.  I was hoping to see this exhibit called Jane at Home, which was celebrating Jane Jacobs and her work in Toronto.  I think this was supposed to be at Richmond and Spadina, but after not seeing any signs or posters in the general vicinity, I looked it up on my phone, and I missed the exhibit by a week.  Sad trombone...

I kept walking south on Spadina and came across one of the more interesting billboards associated with the Scotiabank festival.

Eva Stenram, Drape (Print 1), 2014

Apparently, had I gone just a bit further south to Spadina and Front, I would have seen some additional billboards.  (Instead, I cut east on King.)  Oh well.  I should be able to get there in the next two weeks, particularly on a day I am riding my bike.  I'll also have to keep my eyes open for some photo murals near Metro Hall.  The last one I will seek out is a mural stuck to the side of the Power Plant over at Harbourfront, but that is supposed to stay up all the way to December, so there is plenty of time to get there.

In terms of my recommendations, it probably is worth heading over to the Ryerson Image Centre, as well as seeing the Istanbul Then and Now exhibit running through June 26 at the Aga Khan Museum (though try to arrange not to pay full price!).

I'll try to check out the Alec Soth exhibit at Arsenal Toronto (through June 25 -- actually extended to July 16), though it is a bit off the beaten path.  Finally, I'll see which photos are in the Rodney Graham exhibit at the Prefix Institute, which runs through July 30, so I should have no problem making it (famous last words).  If I am really lucky, they will have The Avid Reader on view, which I featured in this post on Graham.

Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any exhibits featuring Aaron Siskind, and I found out that I will just miss that exhibit on our trip to Chicago (though there is a very slim chance it ends up extending).  What is a bit more surprising to me is that I apparently missed a Siskind exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Photography back in 2003.  I would have been in Chicago at that time, and I was occasionally going over to that part of the South Loop, so I am not sure how I could have missed it.  I guess the saving grace is that the book Siskind 100 has really high quality reproductions, so it is pretty close to being there.  (And apparently, I missed a Siskind exhibit at the Smart Museum at UChicago in early 2009, but that is a little more understandable.)  His gimmick was to shoot close-ups of walls and other surfaces, so that they became essentially abstract images.  This photo of peeling paint actually reminds me a fair bit of Gunther Gerzso, so I'll generate one such pairing.

Gunther Gerzso, Paisaje de Papantla, 1955

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sitting through Shostakovich

The title probably makes it seem like sitting through Shostakovich is a burden, which is certainly not the case for me.  (I just liked the alliteration.)  However, there were quite a few people who left at the end of the 3rd and 4th movements of Shostakovitch's 13th Symphony last night.  Well, their loss for sure.  It wasn't an easy symphony -- it's essentially an hour-long setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar."  So if you don't like sitting through long stretches of unintelligible lyrics, this is probably not for you.  I kid, I kid.  But it can be hard to separate the fact that the lyrics make sense for the Russians in the audience (generally quite a few when they play Shostakovich) and for the rest of us it is mostly ornamentation, and we pay far more attention to the music (though they did provide a full translation of the poem in the program).  I know that Shostakovich has written other symphonies that incorporated some choral sections, but I cannot recall if any others incorporated it so thoroughly.

In any case, I can understand why the 13th isn't programmed that often.  I may have seen it before, but I can't find any definitive evidence.  I will probably remember this one from last night as the definitive performance (performed on Friday the 13th no less!), as the soloist, bass Petr Migunov, was quite magnetic, even occasionally interacting with the chorus up in the balcony.  There were all the quirky characteristic Shostakovich touches, including jazzy syncopation in the lower woodwinds and brass and a section (I believe it was the 3rd) that sounds a bit like a peasant melody a la Dvorak.  Even though I couldn't follow the lyrics, I definitely like the message of the 5th and final movement, which praises Galileo and dismisses the mere "careerists" who attacked and slandered him back in the day.  A very fitting message.  The symphony does end quietly, which is certainly a shift from several of the more bombastic sections.  Interestingly, the Mozart Violin Concerto #5, played before the intermission, has quite a few parallels, including some playful interplay between the solo violin and orchestra and a fairly surprising ending: all of a sudden it stops.  I thought it was a very good concert.

So I decided to go over the scanned programs to see whether I had seen #13 before or not.  As I said, I can't prove whether I had attended this symphony before.  It was interesting, as I was flipping through the programs, in that only occasionally could I recall much about the actual music, like the long drum part in Shostakovich's 7th Symphony.  I am far more likely to remember something about the events framing the concert, like Leonard Slatkin stepping in to conduct Shostakovich's Symphony 5 when Muti collapsed on the podium and had that health scare a few years back.  When I do remember the music itself, it is almost only for very familiar pieces like Dvorak's Symphony 8 or 9 or the Beethoven symphonies, and I am kind of recreating the memory of the piece out of all the times I have heard the music (mostly likely including from recordings).  I simply don't have enough musical memory to distinguish between different performances of the same piece of music, with a few very limited exceptions.  That doesn't mean I don't plan on attending classical concerts in the future.  I do enjoy them, but it is much more of a transitory thing.  In contrast, after spending a few minutes with the program of a play I attended, huge amounts of the play will come flooding back.  I just can keep far more of a play in my head because I can grab onto various plot points, whereas music is pleasant but not central to my mental processes.  I think that is the best way to describe it.

Anyway, I might as well keep track of how many of Shostakovich symphonies I have seen.  I'm coming fairly close to seeing a whole cycle.  Now I think I already mentioned that I saw the Pacifica Quartet do the entire cycle of Shostakovich string quartets -- all 15 spread over 5 concerts.  It was truly remarkable.  I suppose it was around 2005 or 2006 that I caught the Shostakovich bug and made an effort to seek out his work when it was being played.  There are a few other pieces that I hone in on (Elgar's Enigma Variations, Prokofiev's 5th Symphony and Dvorak's 9th Symphony), but the only other 20th Century composer I always seek out is Messiaen; I've seen his Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jesus, L'Ascension twice (once conducted by Boulez!) and Quatuor pur la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) at least three times.

Getting back to Shostakovich, I've also seen Shostakovich's Violin Concerto #1, Cello Concerto #1 and #2, his Piano Quintet a couple of times, Suite for Variety Orchestra (very jazzy!), and his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk suite (the music that started all his troubles with Stalin!).

While I am probably missing one or two, these are the symphonies I can prove I attended:
#1 (VSO - Jan 2012)
#4 (CSO - May 2008)
#5 (CSO - Oct 2008 and Feb 2011)
#6 (CSO - May 2010)
#7 (CSO - Nov 2007)
#8 (CSO - Oct 2010, London Philharmonic Oct 2014 and TSO April 2016)
#9 (VSO - Feb 2014)
#10 (Grant Park Orch. July 1999 and Aug. 2011, Chicago Civic - Nov 2007, OSM (Montréal) - Nov 2015)
#11 (Chicago Civic - April 2008 and CSO - March 2010)
#13 (TSO - May 2016)
#15 (CSO - May 2009 and the reduced version by VSO Chamber Players - May 2013)

I wouldn't be surprised if I managed to see #12 or #14 and just don't have the programs, but anyway those are certainly the highest priority in terms of completing the cycle.  It is interesting how the CSO and VSO are far more likely to play Shostakovich than the TSO, although I did pass up a late night concert a while back where the TSO was playing Symphony #5.  (I just didn't want to be out that late frankly.)  I see that the VSO is ending its season with Symphony #5 and in March 2017, they will be tackling Symphony #12.  I'd like to get out there for that, but it is fairly unlikely at this point.  I no longer am doing any consulting for TransLink.  It seems I have missed out on #5 several times, including on the spring break trip to Boston, but I'm sure I'll catch it again eventually.*  For a composer a bit on the obscure side, I actually have managed to see an awful lot of his work.

* Actually, I was going through my subscription for the TSO for next season, and while they still have a fair ways to go to catch up to the OSM, it is a slightly more adventurous season than before.  In addition, to a few favorites like Dvorak's Cello Concerto and his 9th Symphony, I'll catch Shostakovich's Symphonies 1 and 5.  (Now if I could only come up with a good excuse to go to Montreal to see Shostakovich's Symphony 15 and/or Messaien's Turangalîla-Symphonie (which they are only playing on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.  How crazy is that!).)

9th Canadian Challenge - 17th Review - Heading South

I wasn't entirely sure I was going to review Dany Laferrière's Heading South, since it has almost nothing to do at all with Canada.  All the stories and vignettes are set in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.  Even the tourists that occasionally turn up are from the United States or England or France.  However, there was something that was nagging at me, and it broke out in the story "A Small House on the Side of the Blue Mountain."  This combined with a similar annoyance with the play Disgraced, and I decided I would do a hybrid review of both.  It's also a bit of an attempt to get a lot of negativity out of my system, so it won't continue to fester.  (By the way, I don't think Heading South can be SPOILED, but Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced can be SPOILED, so don't read on if you hate SPOILERS.)

Going back to my review of How to Make Love to a Negro, I think the bottom line was I was largely bored with the book but I didn't actively dislike it.  I actively disliked Heading South.  It was truly a sordid piece of work.  Basically all interactions between people are rooted in sex, in Laferrière's vision, either directly or at most one step removed ("friends" hang out with each other because one young man can pull the ladies like crazy makes sure to give his friend sloppy seconds after he is done with the women and has discarded them).

In many ways, this book comes across as the literary equivalent of revenge porn.  Quite a few books and movies have covered sex tourism in the Caribbean (perhaps the most memorable is How Stella Got Her Groove Back) but in a fairly shallow way.  While still shallow in my view, Heading South flips the script and makes it clear that the Haitians are actually in control of these sexual dalliances with Americans or Europeans.  Those stories make up about 40-50% of the little vignettes.  In the other ones, it is class that plays the same role, with the upper class women falling madly in heat (not in love) with their sexual partners from the lower classes.  It is so absurdly reductive, and the book is really not particularly well written.

In one of the more reflective passages in the story "Skin," one of the women talks about how everyone seems to end up sleeping with everyone else, aka it is just a big circle.  (And if that wasn't enough one of the ritzier clubs is named the Bellevue Circle but always just referred to as "The Circle.")  But unlike the effect in Ophüls's La Ronde, which is probably what Laferrière was going for, we are not presented with a clever set of circumstances linking society.  It is just a claustophobic feeling with everybody entangled in everybody else's business.  One would never sense that Port-au-Prince has nearly 1 million people, since it is always the same 20 or so people that end up coupling with each other in various combinations, as one would find in a small village.  (I have a similar bone to pick with Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy, though it is only a minor complaint lodged against a much richer and rewarding work than Heading South.)

I can certainly understand and perhaps even respect a character who feels that everything gets reduced to sex in the end (not that I agree everyone is actually so driven).  However, the author keeps egging the pudding and he is clearly indicating that yes, it is a fact that every character in this book (and by extension the world) is completely driven by sex.  In particular all women will drop their drawers when romanced in just the right way.  Or really barely any encouragement at all.  I still am shaking my head at "A Small House on the Side of the Blue Mountain" where this woman visits Haiti with her husband, meets some old farmer and immediately decides to abandon her husband (and children) and become the farmer's common law wife.  I just thought the whole worldview was so absurd and one-sided, and it angered me that he (Laferrière) was trying to rope me into his sordid view of life.  I guarantee you that this is the last book of his that I will read.

I wasn't quite as upset by Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, but it pulls a similar move at the end.  It takes a while to get there, and we spend a fair bit of time watching this self-hating Muslim apostate lawyer and his ultra liberal artist wife interact.  It's quite odd, since she is starting to appropriate Islamic art into her own work and is bending herself into knots to not be racist.  Eventually she says silly things like "We could learn a lot about submission from studying Islamic art" (or was it discipline) and she takes a very charitable interpretation of the Quran, which upsets her husband since he has thoroughly disavowed his culture.

Up to this point, there are actually quite a few parallels with Jewish writers, particularly Philip Roth, who showed their culture warts and all, and obviously upset a lot of fellow Jews, including his own family members.  Akhtar talks explicitly about this connection in an interview covering Disgraced, including the suspicion that some people have that he gets produced so much because he dwells on negative aspects of Islam.  It must be said that I liked the interview considerably more than the play itself.  It's not particularly hard to find reviewers who hate the play on these grounds, but I won't bother linking to them.


As a side note, it appears that each production comes up with its own artwork, representing the wife's work.  While this piece from the Goodman production is certainly inspired by Islamic art, it is so incredibly insipid that I cannot believe a reputable art critic would be interested in it, even if it was a ploy to get into the artist's pants.

The second piece is the one in the Mirvish production that I saw a few weeks back in Toronto.  It matches the description in the play a bit better (there is some discussion of negative space) but it doesn't leap out and say it is inspired by Islamic art.  However, I could at least believe an art critic might at least give it a second glance.  In this sense, the producers have a much harder task than when they are putting on Red (which ends with a canvas primed with solid red paint) or Art (where they just need a blank white canvas).

There are two major turning points in the play, both of which are supposed to be quite disturbing.  One of which I could buy is when the lawyer beats his wife after he finds out about the affair.  I have to admit, I thought she was so brainwashed into accepting Islam and "submission" that she would accept this as a just punishment.  However, the abuse seems to snap her out of her fog and she realizes that cultural relativism can be taken too far, and that cozying up to Islam isn't just a game.  I grudgingly thought this was pretty well expressed.

What I basically didn't buy is that as the lawyer gets drunker at a dinner party, he keeps arguing about how people are really just tribal and how they will always revert to their own people when chips are down.  The art critic demurs, and eventually the lawyer says that he felt a flash of pride when 9/11 happened.  This sets off quite a few arguments, and basically everyone does get down and dirty and quite tribal.  Some spitting is involved.  So again, the author is putting out this theorem that cannot be denied within the play itself that everyone will revert to their ethnic tribe.  I resent this kind of manipulation.  A better approach would be to show that people are more varied and that some people cannot be reduced down with such a simplistic formula.  I also had a lot of trouble believing that someone who had spent his whole life rejecting Islam would suddenly be proud of the 9/11 hijackers.  It just doesn't compute in any meaningful way for me.  (I mean it wasn't hard to buy that the nephew would be secretly proud, as he was well on his way to radicalization anyway.)  So given all this, it isn't hard to understand why a fair number of Muslims hate this play (and it is playing everywhere, so it is pretty hard to avoid).

I probably won't actually get around to watching them, but it does sound as though I would like Akhtar's The Invisible Hand slightly more and perhaps The Who and the What a bit more than either of those.

Friday, May 13, 2016


I was actually going to write about how I had more or less recovered my equilibrium, though I was still feeling badly about missing the art fair.  After all, I had managed to send some good information on to the city planners and had finally managed to get a memo accepted with my policy recommendations intact.  Those are fairly major accomplishments.  Then I found out tonight that on one thing I care about quite a bit, I am being blocked by some very ignorant planners from another agency.  I simply don't have the time or resources to do anything about it at this point, so a whole planning cycle will be lost.  I'll just have to outlast them and outmaneuver them next time (and who knows, get them fired some day for gross incompetence), but it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth.  Obviously, I still care about these things a bit too much for my own good, and I still haven't figured out a reasonable way to blow off steam.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

How should I relax?

This is perhaps more reflective than many of my posts.  Today was a very strange day, with a mix of good and bad elements, though when I got home I found that I had let down my daughter by not coming home in time to make it to the art show at her school.  I feel quite dreadful about this, but no one reminded me in the morning or put it on my calendar.  I'm particularly annoyed because I might have been late in any case, but I agreed to review a colleague's half-assed paper, and I could have just as easily done it from home.  So on the whole, this feels like a pretty shitty day, even though I did make a bit of progress in advancing/improving transportation policy in Toronto.  I mean that is why I am here after all.

I am not finding reading relaxing enough.  It is too rare to come across a book that really engages me and amuses me sufficiently.  I suppose I could go for a ringer, like rereading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  That's certainly not a bad idea.

While I find sewing sometimes rewarding, it can be incredibly frustrating during the actual sewing, esp. when sewing curtains, which is my current task.  I should just push on with this and get it over and then sew some easier things (at least with thinner material).

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who gets much of a positive chemical rush after exercising.  I push through because I feel I have to, and clearly I succeed the most when I make it part of my day that I can't avoid, i.e. I biked to work, so I have to bike home.  But I just hate exercise, and I always have.  I don't care much for gardening either.

What I would find relaxing is going to the hot tub or sauna after swimming.  I liked that quite a bit in Vancouver.  Unfortunately, the recreation centre near us is really sub par.  The lane swim times are far too constrained, and there is no sauna or hot tub at all.  It's so fricking depressing...

I have to admit, I am pretty much at a loss for what to do to relax.  But I have to figure out something.  Work is definitely going better on the whole, but I am still wound too tight both there and at home.  It's not a good feeling, that's for sure.

Missing cover

No, this is not about buying books without covers.  In New York in the mid 90s, I used to see sidewalk vendors with many paperbacks without their covers.  I usually restrained myself, but I probably did pick up one or two.  I do remember buying Les Miserables but never got around to reading it.  Anyway, this illicit activity probably still exists in some form, though I haven't seen it in a while.

As it happens, I was looking at upcoming art exhibitions in Minneapolis, and I saw that there is an on-going exhibition on modernism.*  This image caught my attention.

Louis Lozowick, New York, 59th Street Bridge, 1922

I am sure that this was turned into a book cover.  Unfortunately, I cannot remember whether it was a fiction book (something like Zamyatin's We or a J. G. Ballard novel) or an urban studies book.  I'm leaning towards a 1970s or 1980s paperback edition of some novel, and I probably have it in my collection somewhere.  Still, I am stumped for the moment.  If this rings any bells, please comment below.

Sometimes my admiration for a cover can impede my judgement.  I quite like this cover of V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.  Given that the novel mentions the de Chirico painting (of the same name) several times, it is quite appropriate to feature it so prominently in the book cover design.

I had heard that this was an odd book, mostly a deeply contemplative book on the life of a writer, drawn quite heavily on Naipaul's own life, though not strictly autobiographical.  However, I had no idea just how boring this book would be (the equivalent of reading about watching paint dry).  It comes to life briefly in the second section, The Journey, when Naipaul discusses the boat trip from New York to England, but it still pales in comparison to Ondaatje's The Cat's Table for instance.  I will probably wrap this up this weekend, but it has been really painful.  I'm almost reading it just to see if it gets any better towards the end, though I have no idea why it should.  All that said, I am tempted to keep the book merely for the cover, but that is really a silly idea, and I will just memorialize the cover here and donate this to the library, after I limp across the finish line.

Somewhat tangentially related, I didn't enjoy Dany Laferriere's Heading South either, though I will write about that in its own review, probably tomorrow.  While I was seeing what others had thought about it (I was relieved to find that I am not the only one that thought this was a bad book -- and that Laferriere is drastically over-rated by the Quebec literary community), I was tipped off to this book, set in Port of Spain, Trinidad (which Naipaul's narrator briefly visits as well): Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office.

I certainly like the cover, and the reviews have been quite positive.  It sounds a lot more to my taste than Laferriere's work, that's for sure.  It is also a short novel (just over 200 pages), so I may try to squeeze it in after I have read a bit more non-fiction (perhaps right after Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, although the parallels break down a bit, since Darwin saw many islands on his formative voyage, but they avoided the Caribbean entirely).

* Of course, now I want to go to Minneapolis in October or November before the modernism exhibit closes and while the Walker Art Center Highlights exhibit is on as well, though I think it would be a hard trip to pull off, especially as Porter still doesn't fly to Minneapolis.  My wife actually has some interest in going to Minneapolis, but would rather wait a few years until Prince's mansion becomes Graceland North...

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Short vs. long works

I've mentioned already that I am turning a bit away from fiction and have read a couple of books on relativity (one made me feel smarter and the other had the opposite effect...).  Along those same lines, I am currently much more drawn to shorter works (for reading on the subway).  That doesn't mean that I won't eventually get to longer books, and I have Wallace's The Pale King, Murakami's 1Q84 and Thackeray's Vanity Fair tentatively lined up for the second half of 2016.

Shorter doesn't always mean better of course.  I wasn't particularly taken by Kundera's The Festival of Insignificance, which is indeed an insignificant trifle.  But it was nice to finish a book in two days.  On the other hand, I just cracked open Edna O'Brien's Night and am enjoying it quite a bit.  It is sort of a mid-career lark (I don't believe she normally wrote this way), where she is taking on the trappings of high modernism, particularly Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses but also some of the exuberance of Nightwood's Matthew O'Connor.  This also looks like a book I should be able to read in a day or two, though I might slow down just a bit to savor the language.

In contrast, I was poking around trying to track down a book cover, and ran across the listings for Balzac's La Comédie Humaine, which I had been aware of but a bit too awed to do anything about, and Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, of which I only knew about a couple of the books.  I had no idea it was a more or less completed cycle of 20 novels!  Both of these series dwarf anything currently on my list of long works (read or unread).

I'm pretty sure I won't ever read or even attempt to read all of Balzac, though I will try to get to the highlights (by 2020?).  I'd start with the NYRB volume of stories and novellas, which concludes with The Duchess of Langeais (1834).  Then Père Goriot (1835), Eugénie Grandet (1834), maybe Sarrasine (1830) as Roland Barthes paid so much attention to it, Cousin Bette (1846), Cousin Pons (1847) and wrapping up with Lost Illusions (1837-43).  I'm sure there are other worthy books in the cycle, but I think that would be a decent selection.

As far as Zola, it is harder to say.  The two that intrigue me the most are Pot Luck and The Ladies Paradise, but these fall mid-way through the series.  I suppose I will just start with The Fortune of the Rougons and see if I want to try to get through the whole series or just pick and choose.  It is true that I am far better versed in German and arguably even Spanish and Italian literature than I am in French literature, though at one point I had read most of the key French poets (at least post 1850).  Anyway, something to work on down the road...

Monday, May 9, 2016


As I mentioned a couple of posts back, I received the Census in the mail.  After logging in, it became fairly clear that I was selected for the long form.  And it is fairly long with the most difficult questions being those about how much you paid for utilities and what are the property taxes on the house.  I was pretty excited that I could (legitimately) claim that I usually biked to work for the first week of May, since I biked in 3 times and took transit twice.  Given that most of my career I have used Census data heavily, it would be hypocritical to complain about filling in the Census (or to actually lie about any of the information), but it did feel quite long, and I ultimately did it in two chunks.  At least in my case, they didn't ask income, and I believe they probably have some deal with CRA to just go get the income directly from the tax man.  I could be wrong, though I would be surprised if they went to all that effort to get the mandatory Census back and then didn't ask income.  The one thing that I wish they would do (and I am kicking myself for not putting it in the comments) is to ask number of household vehicles.  I guess I'll just email this suggestion to them.

Anyway, I have been biking to work and generally getting in three days per week.  That's actually not bad, given that there has been a fair bit of rain (and this upcoming week is no different).  I haven't felt any more energy (indeed generally I am a bit more tired), and I haven't lost any weight yet, though it is still fairly early days.  What is of more concern is that my legs are very stiff.  I probably need to do some kind of stretching or yoga to try to loosen up.  Right now I feel I have the body of a 50 year old, which is depressing indeed.  What keeps me going is knowing that I should be feeling a bit more myself by the summer, when I may well be up to biking 4 days/week.  I think next winter, assuming I am in a better mental place than last winter (I certainly ought to be) I will have to commit more seriously to finding some way to keep active or I will be back in this same cycle.

I'm totally blanking on the second thing I was going to write about.  I may or may not come back and fill this in if I remember it.  It might well have been something about the clown show that is U.S. politics these days, though I feel completely disconnected from it.  I haven't completely made up my mind, but if things continue along their current trajectory, I will look into renouncing my U.S. citizenship.  But it is a bit early to completely give up hope (I guess).  The demographic trends certainly favor the Democrats, but there is so much gerrymandering and rural states have far too much power in the U.S. system that I don't see things ever turning around.

The last thing was even more depressing if you can believe it, but I suppose there are some glimpses of light.  I was talking with someone at work about sustainability and the ever increasing signs that global warming is out of hand.  He basically feels like a Cassandra.  In my case, trying to fight climate change is only a secondary or tertiary part of the job, though it is still in the job description to some extent.  Thus, I don't feel quite as personally responsible for the fact that we still draw up plans that ask far too much of human nature, i.e. if we provide marginally acceptable public transport, the general public will start taking transit in numbers large enough to make a difference (particularly in the suburbs).  This really isn't true, and most of us know and accept this to some degree.  (People are far more realistic if not to say fatalistic in Toronto, particularly when compared to Vancouver where most the planners are "true believers.")  Anyway, he feels humanity is basically screwed -- we've simply gone too far to reduce emissions to the point necessary to make a difference.  (And more to the point, the pain it will take to try to move to a reduced carbon economy guarantees that no hard decisions will ever be taken...)  I basically do feel this way as well, though one ray of hope is that China probably will be able to produce solar panels on a massive industrial scale within the next 5-10 years.  I often wonder just how bad the climate change refugee movement will be and whether there really will be resource wars, particularly over clean water.  I suspect so.  I also think most liberal institutions, particularly the EU and the UN, will simply fracture and wither away into irrelevance as the scope of the problems becomes clear, and average citizens will refuse to share with the have nots.  That will generally be a sad day, though I am so appalled at the smugness of liberal thinkers in extolling how great it is that human rights only ratchet one way up that I will take some satisfaction in watching these edifices crack.  (I've definitely fallen out of the camp of true progressives to something more akin to a pragmatist with some remaining traces of liberalism.)  I even do wonder if it was morally just bringing children into a world that will be a fairly dire place in 50 more years, but I take some comfort in knowing that pessimists have generally been proven wrong to some extent.  Also, of all the places in the world, Ontario is probably going to be a net beneficiary of climate change, even if Canada loses a war over extracting water from the Great Lakes (something along these lines will very likely occur some day).  I guess that is only positive from a personal point of view, since I expect things to get very bad for most African and Asian countries, but that's really all I have at the moment.  It is rare for me to hope that I am wrong, but I would gladly be wrong over the climate change issue if it meant less overall disruption to the world as a whole.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Shakespeare follow-up

This is just a quick follow-up to this post.  While it was a bit of a mad rush at the end to meet the Sing-for-your-supper deadline, I did start writing the piece that weekend.  I definitely think creating my own work was the most meaningful way of celebrating Shakespeare, rather than solely being a culture consumer.  I'm starting to feel that I will have the time to write several of these pieces (they have been incubating long enough!), and revise some of the other pieces.  I am particularly intrigued by Toronto Cold Reads and think I'll ship off a number of pieces to them, maybe even including Corporate Codes of Conduct to see if I can get the second Act to flow better from the first.

One trend that I don't care for in all this Shakespeare worship is rewriting the plays as novels mostly, since it just means even more oxygen taken out of the room by Shakespeare.  Or maybe what really grates at me is that they are commissioning these pieces from the most famous writers around: Atwood, Winterson, Anne Tyler, and Howard Jacobson, who is redoing The Merchant of Venice, which is one I will absolutely avoid (since I find Jacobson drastically overrated and dislike The Merchant of Venice with a passion).  I guess there is nothing terrible about these projects, which I consider safe bets, but it does seem to deflect attention from artists who could really use the attention.  I suppose I will be hypocritical in the extreme if I ever do finish my retelling of King Lear, though I am leaning against tackling that for a variety of reasons I'll eventually disclose.

I left it at the library in their Shakespeare display in case anyone else wanted it, but no one did, so I brought home Shakesqueer, which is pretty much what it says on the tin.  This is an edited volume of queer studies essays on Shakespeare.  A few look interesting, and the rest are kind of forgettable, which is pretty typical.

In the biggest stretch, I am thinking back to the Richard III that I saw this March, and pondering the incredible coincidence that Leicester City won the Premiere League (at 5000-to-1 odds) the year after Richard's bones were discovered and buried in a more proper tomb.  Actually, it was pretty stunning that they found the bones in the first place.  And this will be a year that no one will forget in UK football.

In any case, moving from UK sports back to the arts, BBC Radio 3 had a number of programs on April 22 and 23 that involved music and Shakespeare in one way or another.  They are generally still available for another 2 weeks.  I'll try to post if there are any I find particularly intriguing.  There are 5 new urban sonnets written in response to Shakespeare, and these are by much more obscure UK poets, so I am a little more receptive to this commission.  The programs (15 minutes each) should be archived here but will vanish in about 2 weeks.

Another interesting program is on Radio 4 where they are taking 20 objects from Shakespeare's era and using them to discuss Elizabethan England.  It's the same general idea as History of the World in 100 objects, which was such a huge hit.  It appears that the original 100 and 5 more Silk Road objects can still be downloaded directly as podcasts.  (There is no regional restriction if one is in Canada, though I haven't tested from the U.S.)  I presume that the Shakespeare ones will also remain available and not time out in time more weeks, but I would go ahead and download now just in case.  Here is episode 8, which focuses on urban strife in Shakespeare's day.

I know there are quite a few pop-up Shakespeare things, including some secret show at Red Sandcastle, but I can't recall the details, and if it is that hard to track down, I am not going.  I do see that in addition to Driftwood's production of The Taming of the Shrew coming to Withrow Park in July, Shakespeare in the Ruff will be doing Romeo and Juliet in Withrow in August.  I'll probably go this time around (I skipped Macbeth last season).  There will almost certainly be a few Shakespeare plays at Fringe this year, so I am not worried about not getting enough Shakespeare this year.

Now I should go outside before I waste the entire day.  {Exit chased by bear...}

Looking ahead - Chicago edition

I'm starting to wonder just how much travel we really can do, since it does add up (not just money but time), and at least to date, we really can't do long car trips, which are generally more economical.  I think this might change, but the downside to being in Toronto is that you aren't a reasonable car ride to anywhere really.  Certainly Buffalo isn't that far, but Buffalo...

Detroit and Ottawa are both within range, though I'd just prefer the train to Ottawa.  In terms of Detroit, it would probably be simpler to fly to Windsor and then catch a bus across the border, and I'll investigate that as a serious possibility this fall (particularly since the Detroit Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend is always a major event -- this year Ron Carter is the featured artist in residence).  I suppose the train to Windsor is also an option, and it is an interesting trade off - 4.5 hours on the train for about $100 vs. $300 or so for a half hour flight (but then also time wasted in getting to the airport and going through security).  It is possible to drive to Rochester or Ithaca, and I'll probably do that one of these days, but it isn't a particularly high priority.  For all the other places, particularly Chicago, flying is just the better option.

Nonetheless, my wife and kids will be in Chicago for 2-3 weeks this August, and I'll swing by towards the end to pick them up.  We are also tentatively thinking of going in October, though that will be somewhat dependent upon the school calendar.

Since I like to bundle things together, I have started looking into museums and theatre to keep me occupied on these trips.  Unfortunately, it looks like on the August trip, I will just miss the Aaron Siskind exhibit at the Art Institute by just a week or so (and we missed it by about two weeks on the previous trip).  So that's unfortunate, though I was able to check out a copy of Aaron Siskind 100, which appears to have most of the photos that would be in this exhibit.  But I should be able to check out the Invisible Man exhibit, which looks interesting.  It looks like I could probably skip the Cultural Center and the MCA in August.

In terms of theatre, I am quite likely to check out Maria Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends at Halcyon and possibly Freedman's Sister Cities.  (I'd probably read the first act to make sure I want to see this play, but it generally had good reviews.  Apparently, this will be the Chicago premiere of the work.)

If we do make it back in October, then for sure I want to see the Norman Lewis exhibit at the Cultural Center, and I'd probably swing up to the MCA on that trip.  I would probably check out Posner's Life Sucks at Lookingglass, which is a follow up to Stupid F***ing Bird.  (One of my major regrets from 2015 is that I didn't make it to the Victory Gardens' production of this play, but I think it will eventually hit Toronto.*)

Nonetheless, I should stress that I don't spend all my time looking up out-of-town events.  I have enough trouble staying on top of everything going on in Toronto!

* Speak of the devil, I was checking out DPS, and someone (Vintage Productions?) has applied for the rights for this and it should take place in March 2017.  I'm pretty excited about that, so now I can just focus on making Yankee Tavern happen, and of course see about staging some of my own work.