Sunday, July 31, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 2nd Review - As for Me and My House

This book (Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House) ended up being a completely different book than I expected.  It is a story about a minister and his wife in small prairie town during the Depression.  The wife, who never names herself in her diary, is an exceptionally keen observer, and the writing is pretty incredible.  So I thought I would settle in for a book about the importance of faith in a small community, much along the lines of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.  Within a very few pages, we find that it is an almost complete inversion of that.

While there is not a great deal of plot in this novel, I am still going to have to discuss the main events and thus SPOILERS abound.

And on the 8th day, there were SPOILERS...

Curiously, in the Afterward, Robert Kroetsch makes a big deal of the diary starting on April 8th, as if the novel all took place on the day after the last day of Creation and everyone was exhausted.  That may be too much heavy symbolism, but it is certainly true that the town residents are a suspicious lot (imagine the town residents from The Music Man layered over with much more bitterness and religious prejudice).  The minister and his wife are given a small house right next to the church, but it is a fairly ugly building that leaks and they have an outdoor privy that has actually collapsed a couple of times!  So these are fairly primitive conditions, but it seems not so different from the other towns that the couple have lived in.  Apparently, there is something slightly off about the minister and his appointments only ever last 3-4 years, before he is asked to move on.

Indeed, within a few pages we learn that he and his wife don't believe in organized religion at all!  This is merely the most reliable way for an educated man to make a living during the Depression.  The wife has clear contempt for most of the town residents, while the minister clearly doesn't think much of them but really has the most contempt for himself.  He is a failed artist and writer, and much of the novel consists of the wife asking herself if he could have made a go of it without having her around.  The strain on their marriage is extremely high.

So already you can tell that this isn't going to be an uplifting story, though it is a fairly compelling one, particularly for those interested in marriages on the rocks.  However, I seem to be a bit under the weather these past few days, and I might have put this novel off for a bit had I known how depressing it would be.  I've never watched Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, though I expect the affect must be more or less the same as with this novel.  Many of the scenes are incredibly claustrophobic, and they recalled Bellow's Hanging Man.  (That may be a bit of a stretch, however.)  At other times, particularly during the winter, the wife goes on long walks through the town just to get out of the house, and there is a very comic scene where she ends up on a railroad handcar brought back to the station, just as the town wives are there to comment and scold her for not acting like a minister's wife.

For a short time, the couple tries to foster a local boy named Steve, though the town does not approve at all, since Steve is a Catholic.  The minister more or less loses his head over Steve and agrees to buy him a horse (for $100, when they are dirt poor!) and the wife wonders whether having a child would have improved their relationship -- or actually made things worse.  Anyway, the novel was definitely heading into Barbara Comyns's territory (with the minister being one of the feckless people that I can't stand reading about), when all of a sudden agents of the Catholic Church turn up and take Steve away to go into an orphanage out east.  (Talk about efficiency...)

Viewed from the outside, the minister doesn't seem like a catch, though at several points the wife talks about how she has subsumed her whole life into his.  There is a local schoolteacher, Paul, who seems in love with the wife, and while this makes the minister jealous, she feels Paul is insignificant next to the minister.  (Again, this seems crazy to me, since Paul is one of the few decent people in the entire book, but some people just refuse to accept happiness even when it is offered to them.)  The wife becomes jealous of Judith, a young girl in the church choir, but it seems that she has better grounds of jealousy than the minister does against Paul.  She wonders what she can do to win back her husband and set him on a better track.

At this point, the wife decides on a last-ditch scheme to raise $1000, so that they can open up some store elsewhere, just so that the minister doesn't have to make a living as a complete hypocrite.  While the minister is skeptical, he goes along.  Judith becomes pregnant and refuses to tell her family who the father is, so she is exiled back to the family farm.  The wife is certain that the minister is the father, and she suggests that they adopt the child.  (There are definitely shades of Sarah and Hagar here, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the diarist was actually named Sarah.)  The novel ends with her plans apparently coming to fruition, and the new family unit moves away from Horizon almost exactly a year after they arrived.  It presents itself as a happy ending, though it doesn't feel like one to me.  It would be quite appropriate if Ross came back with a sequel showing how they were just as unhappy in their new setting, which is certainly how I expect things to unfold.

This is a solid, well-written book, but it is one that left me feeling just somewhat soiled.  I didn't much care for the characters, aside from Paul (and the doctor's wife).  But mostly it just left me glad that I didn't have to live through the Depression when people's options were so cramped and their spirits so low.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Booker Season

That is to say that mid-summer is traditionally when the Man Booker Prize long list comes out.  The 2016 long list is here.  I have two main thoughts regarding the Booker Prize: 1) I think it was probably a mistake to open the prize up to authors from the U.S., as there are plenty of prizes already available to U.S. authors and 2) there is a certain sameness to many of the books, though there is a slightly wider array of genres included in the long-list in recent years (though most don't make the cut to the short list).  David Means's Hystopia is probably the most out-there novel from this year's long-list -- an acid trip of a book where JFK wasn't assassinated and Vietnam War vets come home to have their memories wiped away.  I can't tell if I would like this or not, but I'll certainly consider it at some point down the road.  (Perhaps I am somewhat influenced by the fact Means grew up in Kalamazoo but moved away, which is also basically my life story in a nut shell.)

I would also probably institute some limit on the number of times an author can be put on the long list.  If Coetzee makes it to the short list (as is likely) that would make his 4th appearance on the short list.  Salman Rushdie has also made the short list 4 times.  That's not even a record: Iris Murdoch made the short list 5 times, as has Margaret Atwood!  (Wikipedia has a very useful list of all the Booker winners, as well as the rest of the short list, from 1969-2015 here.)

Anyway, I decided to quickly go through the short listed books to see how many I had read (or at least owned), and then I added just a few to my TBR pile.  This is the outcome of that search:

Author Title
1971 R Doris Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell
1971 O Mordecai Richler St Urbain's Horseman
1971 O Elizabeth Taylor Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
1974 O Kingsley Amis Ending Up
1977 O Barbara Pym Quartet in Autumn
1978 O Iris Murdoch The Sea, the Sea
1978 O Kingsley Amis Jake's Thing
1978 TBR Penelope Fitzgerald The Bookshop
1979 R V. S. Naipaul A Bend in the River
1980 O Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers
1980 R Alice Munro The Beggar Maid (aka Who Do You Think You Are?)
1980 O J. L. Carr A Month in the Country
1981 R Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children
1981 R Molly Keane Good Behaviour
1981 R Doris Lessing The Sirian Experiments
1981 O D. M. Thomas The White Hotel
1983 R J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K
1983 R Malcolm Bradbury Rates of Exchange
1983 R Salman Rushdie Shame
1983 O Graham Swift Waterland
1984 R Julian Barnes Flaubert's Parrot
1984 O David Lodge Small World
1985 O Keri Hulme The Bone People
1985 R Doris Lessing The Good Terrorist
1985 R Jan Morris Last Letters from Hav
1986 O Kingsley Amis The Old Devils
1986 R Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale
1986 R Robertson Davies What's Bred in the Bone
1987 TBR Penelope Lively Moon Tiger
1988 O David Lodge Nice Work
1988 R Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses
1989 R Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day
1989 R Margaret Atwood Cat's Eye
1991 R Ben Okri The Famished Road
1991 R Rohinton Mistry Such a Long Journey
1992 R Michael Ondaatje The English Patient
1993 R Carol Shields The Stone Diaries
1996 TBR Margaret Atwood Alias Grace
1996 R Rohinton Mistry A Fine Balance
1997 R Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things
1999 R Michael Frayn Headlong
2000 O Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin
2000 R Matthew Kneale English Passengers
2001 R Ali Smith Hotel World
2002 R Yann Martel Life of Pi
2002 O Rohinton Mistry Family Matters
2002 O Carol Shields Unless
2003 O Monica Ali Brick Lane
2003 O Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake
2004 TBR Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty
2004 R David Mitchell Cloud Atlas
2005 R John Banville The Sea
2006 R Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss
2006 R Sarah Waters The Night Watch
2007 R Mohsin Hamid The Reluctant Fundamentalist
2008 R Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
2008 TBR Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies
2010 R Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question
2010 TBR Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America
2012 TBR Deborah Levy Swimming Home
2012 R Jeet Thayil Narcopolis
2013 TBR NoViolet Bulawayo We Need New Names
2013 O Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland
2013 TBR Joshua Ferris To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
2014 TBR Neel Mukherjee The Lives of Others
2015 R Tom McCarthy Satin Island
2015 TBR Chigozie Obioma The Fishermen
2016 TBR Deborah Levy Hot Milk

This makes for a total of 36 read with another 20 unread, but on the shelves, and then 12 more on my TBR list.  So I have not quite made it to at least one read from each year, but I am relatively close.  It does appear that I am not synced up with the Booker list until roughly 1978, after which point I am usually interested in one or two books per year.

This exercise reminded me once again that I keep confusing Penelope Fitzgerald and Penelope Lively.  I will make a more concerted effort to read a few novels by each author.  In addition to a few to be read in the list above, I am also going to add Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower and Lively's How It All Began.  Perhaps that will help me anchor the two separately in my mind.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Strain theory in science and art

I was going to go in a very different direction with this post, focusing more on how interesting it has been to read non-fiction books that have kind of fallen out of fashion, but were very big in their day (Darwin and now Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa).  I think I'll leave that to another day.  Instead, I want to point out a very curious coincidence.  While Mead doesn't really name-check them, she seems to be drawing on the early sociological tradition (particularly Tonnies and Simmel) both of whom saw personal strain emerging when an individual moved from a rural, simple society to a much more complex, urban environment.  There might well be uncertainty over which mores to follow, which would certainly lead to internal conflict.  While there seems to be no question Mead had rose-tinted glasses in her description of Somoan society, she finds that there is much more balance and essentially inner peace in this society, since it is a unified culture and people don't have to more or less decide which group to belong to or which group norms are correct, which was the case in the United States, even as early as the 1920s.  In the last two chapters, Mead alludes to some conflicts within immigrant families where the children want to follow the more permissive dominant society, but in general, in her discussion, she has in mind a population that is already urbanizing.  I think the underlying message really is that unlimited choice can be paralyzing rather than empowering, and some theorists are coming back around to this view.  I'm generally on the side of those who celebrate the multiplicity of choices within the culture (to the point it is questionable there even is a dominant culture or ethos any longer) but I do recognize that it unsettles some people and many of those people would have been better off in a monoculture.

Willa Cather in My Antonia (and from what I can gather O Pioneers) is looking at an earlier transition from rural to urban life, basically the 1890s and early 1900s.  Indeed, Antonia and a couple of her friends explicitly state that moving to the city, off of the farm, gives them a more exciting and perhaps fulfilling life (which of course puts them into conflict with their parents and siblings back on the farm), though the wild life has major pitfalls, particularly for inexperienced girls.  However, the girls also are major contributors to the overall household economy, which is why they were allowed to move to the city in the first place (here it is the fictional Black Hawk, NE, which apparently was based on Red Cloud, NE).  Had the city not been an escape route open to them, it is possible (or at least arguable) that their attitudes would have been more compatible with an agricultural setting, and they would have been closer to the well-adjusted Samoan girls that Mead was studying.  In any case, I think it is an interesting parallel.  One might also look at Upton Sinclair's The Jungle to see how immigrants fared in the truly big city, or Dreiser's Sister Carrie where a relatively simple girl doesn't succeed in making the transition to urban life.

Anyway, the prairie setting has convinced me to pair My Antonia with Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House, which is set during the Depression in a small Saskatchewan town.  The tone is very different from John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death.  (I probably ought to read this now, but I just couldn't bear it, and I will try one more time in a year or so.)  I have only just started Ross's novel, but it actually reminds me quite a bit of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which I ended up liking far more than I expected.  I learned relatively recently that this is part of a trilogy (with Home and Lila), and I'll have to decide some day if I think she was able to write two other books of such insight, or if I should just stop and not spoil the first one.  (My general sense from going through the comments on Goodreads is that Home is worth reading, as it reflects the events of Gilead back from another perspective -- somewhat akin to how Durrell's Bathazar reverses Justine -- but the world doesn't completely shift around, for a variety of reasons I won't go into right now.  There seems to be more ambivalence around Lila, though it certainly has its defenders.)  In any case, this is not a decision I need to make anytime soon.

Update with SPOILERS

Just to bring things full circle, it is very interesting how My Antonia ends.  There is a moment when I as a reader am disappointed in the narrator (Jim Burden), since he seems hopelessly in love with Antonia and he could have taken her back East, but perhaps he was just too constrained by convention and ashamed of scandal.  (And to be fair, at this point in her life, Antonia didn't want to leave the prairies.)  Nonetheless, this more romantic ending is probably how such a novel would end had it been written at any point after the 1960s when some of the stigma about unwed mothers had slowly started to fade.  (It doesn't lessen my overall appreciation for the novel, but I do think Burden should have been just a bit less straight-laced and he probably would have been a happier man.)  Instead, Antonia marries another immigrant and she moves back to the countryside and has a huge family (11 or so children!).  After some prompting from other childhood friends, Jim reunites with Antonia and more or less becomes a godfather to the children, though a distant one, since he lives in New York City, but does travel out West a fair bit for work.  Antonia seems quite content in her role as earth mother, and the boys work in the fields and the girls more or less take care of the babies, almost exactly as Mead described life in Samoa.  (Well, actually mature women worked the fields in Samoa, which is something Antonia used to do and may still do when not cooking and canning, while the men were more involved in hunting and particularly fishing.  But the young girls were heavily involved in caring for babies, far more than they normally would have been in urbanizing America.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

2 small mysteries (& the fatal misjudgment)

I kind of wanted this to sound like an Edgar Gorey story.  (Not sure I succeeded.)

Anyway, a couple of weird things happened the last couple of days.  Last night, at 10 pm, the doorbell rang.  Someone was asking about Rick, who maybe used to live here.  I said that it is possible he was thinking about someone that lived down the street.  There is a slim chance he was a drinking buddy of the former owner, though if he was really close, he would have used the French-Canadian version of his name.  At any rate, I have no idea what he really wanted.  He kept muttering about a family funeral.  Honestly, I think the most likely outcome was that he was looking for a place to crash for the evening, but that was certainly not going to happen.  If he had shown up at 8 or even 9, I might have tried a bit harder to understand the situation, but the former owners have moved 500 km away, so I don't think it would really have mattered.  He still wasn't going to get inside the house.  (Boudu Saved From Drowning would have been a short, boring film had I been in charge...)

Perhaps less of a true mystery, but still strange, was that I bought my copy of Adiga's Last Man in Tower from an on-line bookstore.  I'm pretty sure the seller is based out of Indiana, but they sent me a book from the Toronto Public Library.  I looked all over, but I didn't actually see any "Withdrawn" stamp.  So the book may have been lost or willfully stolen from the library (or it just wasn't processed properly), and then eventually it made its way to the seller.  I found the book a little slow with just a few too many families in the mix, though I was somewhat amused by the owner of an internet cafe who tries to hard to please his neighbors.  (Every time he leaves the shop to deal with some new crisis at the housing complex, he yells at his customers not to look at dirty pictures.)  I stand by my earlier comments that the novel seems to have a few similarities with Gadda's Awful Mess, particularly that it doesn't really work as a murder mystery.  Anyway, I dropped it off in the library slot, and as I was getting ready to leave, I saw that they had pulled it out and were trying to decide how to deal with it.  Presumably it was reported lost several years ago.

As for the last item, I generally have tried to avoid talking too openly about politics, but I can't quite get over the terrible judgment of Hillary Clinton, on display once again.  While there is no question Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn't "rig" the election against Bernie Sanders, she certainly was pulling for Hillary.  So she goes ahead and resigns from the DNC, and Hillary immediately appoints her as an honorary chair of her campaign.  I've seen a few posts trying to explain that this is just a face-saving measure that Hillary feels she owes a dear friend, but frankly this is playing it far too cute.  Most voters, even the really engaged Bernie supporters, just don't follow all the nuances of insider politics and feel that Schultz has landed some great gig.  I can't imagine a move that would get them riled up more, feeling the fix was in.  What's so frustrating is that it was so completely unnecessary.  It's a complete own-goal on Clinton's part.  There were so many other places to park Schultz until November.  Add to this, Democrats are notoriously less disciplined than Republicans (social science does back this up and indicates that right-wing political types generally do favor hierarchy and group loyalty, whereas these are not valued as highly by liberals).  While the speeches have been great, the convention looks out of control, with thousands of Bernie supporters throwing a wrench into the works.  For the first time since this sorry excuse for an election began, I think there is a decent chance that Trump will win. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hot/cool weekend (& Deck Follies #8)

It was kind of a strange weekend.  Thurs, Friday and even Sat. were so hot that it was hard to get up too much enthusiasm to do anything, though the picnic on Centre Island was fun.

I had thought about taking the kids to the Beaches (and possibly hearing a bit of jazz, since the outdoor Beaches International Jazz Festival was running), but in the end, I decided I would go to the Ryerson Image Museum and on to work for a bit.  Then if there was still time, I would take the kids swimming at Greenwood Pool.

I stumbled across a Falun Gong parade on Yonge.  That was a bit unexpected.


The main draw at Ryerson was the Angela Grauerholz exhibit.  I mostly was interested in her Privation series, which featured a number of damaged books.  Several had been in a fire and a few others might have been fire- or water-damaged, but it wasn't clear.  I certainly hope that these were books she stumbled across serendipitously (rather than damaging the books herself!).  The first one reminds me a bit of toast, while the Tintin book looks an awful lot like a Roy Lichtenstein print that went through the washing machine.

It was actually hotter when I got home than when I had left, and I kind of autocratically decided it was too hot to walk to the park.

Sunday, after grocery shopping, laundry, lunch and then a short digestion period, I set out for Greenwood Park with my daughter.  It was strange, since it got quite cloudy and was really rather cool.  It would have been nicer had it been just a bit warmer.  I tried to work on swimming lessons with her.  I'm trying to get her comfortable enough so that I can take her canoeing before the summer is over, but no guarantees this will happen.  (Based on the weather report, it looks like I should plan on taking the kids to the Beaches Aug. 1.)

We got back and I decided I really ought to tackle the lower deck, given that the heat wave was (temporarily) over.  It looks like the best approach is to do a medium sanding of the whole thing, put on the cleaning solution and rinse it down, let it dry, do a finer sanding and then put on the 2 coats of stain.  That's still a lot of work, but it isn't anywhere near as hard as the upper deck. 

Unfortunately, I kept hitting protruding nails, and I actually ruined my 3 remaining medium grit sanding belts.  I probably was less than 1 hour away from finishing off the medium sanding, and I probably would have pushed through with the cleaner tonight.  Instead, I went over to Home Depot to buy more belts and stain, and called it a night.  (This is how it looked when I left off.)

I should be able to wrap up the sanding and the cleaning and the sanding in the middle of the week.  They are currently projecting at least some rain Sat. and Sun. (so that might be a good time to check out the AGO again).  But Aug. 1, I might combine the trip to the Beaches and the staining in one super productive day.  We'll see.  I don't want this to drag on forever and ever like the upper deck, however.  Ideally, all this messing about with the deck will flush the raccoons out before the workmen come to seal up the bottom deck.  That's the plan at any rate.

Update (7/29): On Tues. I finished 85% of the sanding before it got too late to be working with power tools.  Wed. I only just beat the rain home -- 10 minutes after I got inside and was cooling down from the bike ride home, it just poured buckets of rain.  Thurs. I finally was able to finish the sanding and then pushed on, putting down the wood cleaner and hosing off the deck.  The current plan is to do one last sanding with the finer grain belts.  If the weather holds, I should be able to do that Sunday morning, and then put down one coat in the early afternoon.  Ideally, I would put down the second coat Sunday in the early evening, but Monday morning is more realistic.  There would still be plenty of time to go to the Beaches in the afternoon.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

My trip to the Islands

Until yesterday, I had never been to the Toronto Islands.  I was supposed to go last year for a work picnic, but it was rained out.  Actually a few people still went (though it sounds like they didn't have a good time) but I wasn't interested in going and getting so wet.

I had actually expected to have a somewhat restful day, but people at work convinced me that since I had never been, I ought to bring my bike and ride around a bit on the island.  That meant that I rode my bike to work 5 days in a row, with the last two days being heat advisory days.  I think it was worth it, though between the extra biking and playing a bit of frizbee at the picnic, I was a bit sore in the evening.  I think I overdid it a bit.  It was a fun outing, perhaps even a bit more entertaining than I had thought it would be.

While I should take my family, I would say that it probably would have been better going a few years back, maybe right when we arrived.  My son has outgrown a lot of the rides in Centreville (basically the rides for kids that you would find at the PNE or ONE), though he might still like the bumper cars.  They might find it neat to be so near the beach, but really we could go to Cherry Beach or the Beaches, for a similar experience.  Since they don't ride bikes, getting around to the other parts of the island, as I did, might be a problem, though you can rent a 4-person bike-contraption.  Actually, that might be cool.  Maybe I'll consider an outing to the Islands for the late summer or early Sept. when we are back from Chicago.

I'll go ahead and post a slew of photos, then end with a few more reflections.

Looking back

Nearing Centre Island

At the picnic, watching another ferry come in

Swan boats at Centreville

Centreville train

Centre Island beach

Lookout point

"Secret" beach on Wards Island

Island cottages

Heading back - Ward's Island ferry landing

It's kind of neat how the ferry takes you out to a fairly restful location, unlike the Vancouver SeaBus, which drops you off in the heart of North Vancouver, which is nice, but doesn't feel much different from downtown Vancouver, until you get a few blocks further north.  (Granted it was still amazing that you could take a TransLink bus right to the foot of Grouse.)

We certainly were not the only office having an outing on a beautiful (though hot) Friday, and there were several other company picnics going on, many far more organized than ours.  But few people ventured further north to Centreville or the beach.  I thought the lookout point was particularly neat, reminding me at least a little of Shell Beach from Dark City.

Anyway, this is just one more thing to add to the list of things that make Toronto a very cool place to live.  I am hoping that we can check out canoeing on the Humber River as well, which seems like it might be a bit more rustic than kayaking on the Chicago River (not that that isn't cool in its own way).

While it probably won't happen, it would be neat if I am invited to a wedding on Ward's Island some day.  (I saw what appeared to be a reception, as I was biking around over there.)  I suspect I would get a little bored living in a cottage on Ward's Island, but if someone wants to offer me up a summer residency there, so I can work on a novel or finish my plays, I wouldn't say no...

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Justified Grump

This was just supposed to be a short note on the last post, but it spiraled a bit out of control.

In the part where I discuss characters who suffer life's disappointments but don't become curmudgeons, I was going to include Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky's The Idiot.  This isn't one of my favorite novels, by any means, but it is usually cited as one of the few novels which features a good man, who rises above disappointment and remains noble.  At the same time, it struck me that while Myshkin was cruelly used (not all that dissimilarly from Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage), can one bad love affair really "justify" a character turning into a grump?  After all, there are so many fish in the sea and all that.  I would have an easier time accepting someone who had been disappointed in love many times and/or who never married, maybe not even having a true first love.  (Perhaps prior to the 1960s, a really public jilting would turn a woman into a grumpess.)

Nonetheless, when I think of characters who have become justifiably grumpy in their middle to old age, I am thinking of those who were talented but never reached much success in their careers whether blocked by a rival or not, those who had their dreams dashed in one way or another or who literally had their possessions stolen away* -- or who were married and their spouses left them.  And of course, almost any character who had a spouse or a child die on them.  All these would be reasonable grounds for being a least a bit curmudgeonly.  Having given this broader definition, I probably could come up with more fictional characters, particularly secondary characters, but I am running late and will have to decide later if it is worth coming back around and filling up the roster, so to speak.

* And then of course there are a couple of cases where entire lives were stolen by another in a supernatural fashion.  Here I am thinking of Dostoevsky's The Double as well as Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Famous Literary Grumps

I'm just launching into Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. I don't think it is too much of a SPOILER to say that this novel focuses on the conflict between a developer in Mumbai who wants to buy out an entire apartment building and a retired -- and widowed -- school teacher, Masterji, who refuses to sell.  The cover flap indicates that this becomes a murder mystery (and Masterji has a bunch of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries in his apartment), though I suspect it is much more in the style of Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, where the mystery is somewhat secondary to exploring a slice of society.  (So far it seems I am the only one that has made this connection, and perhaps it doesn't hold up...)  I'm not even certain that it is Masterji who ends up dead, though he certainly seems the likely candidate, since he is preventing the other tower residents from receiving a huge windfall payout.

The book shifts around a bit, and one thing it does is to explore Masterji's past and his current fraught relationship with his daughter-in-law to explain why he is so unbending and a bit of a grump.

This led me to think about how frequently grumpy or curmudgeonly characters turn up in literature, and how there are three main ways that they are used.  The most common is simply to be a mouthpiece for the author's somewhat unpopular views, particularly as they get older, and here I would certainly include Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, and arguably William Wordsworth.  I simply haven't read enough of Philip Roth's late works or the last few of Updike's Rabbit novels to judge if they qualify, though there is a strong chance that they would.

The second approach is to show how the disappointments of life accrue over time and lead to a grumpy, even embittered, character.  I'd say Dickens's Scrooge is a classic example and then the creepier case of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (and then I suppose Emily Grierson, from Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"). Other relatively well-known characters in this vein are Balzac's Père Goriot, Némirovsky's David Golder, and most of the lead characters from the later half of Bellow's career, particularly Arthur Samler, who is a Holocaust survivor (and it goes without saying that such characters are often understandably gloomy).  I'm sure I've missed dozens, and feel free to add your own favorite examples of grumps in the comments.  I actually just recalled Aubrey Tearle from The Restless Supermarket, though he would fail on the basis of being from an obscure novel, even slightly more obscure than Last Man in Tower.  The hermit from Stoppard's Arcadia might count, but Stoppard doesn't actually give him any lines to recount life's bitter ironies.

Sometimes the emphasis is on how these grumps don't fit within today's society, and sometimes the emphasis is more on the path through life that brought them to this stage.  (As an aside, I'm sure it's harder to come up with characters who have suffered great disappointment and/or loss and still do not become curmudgeons.  One particularly notable example is found in R. K. Narayan's The English Teacher, which incredibly enough is drawn on events from his life.  Elie Wiesel is another artist (who sadly left us this year) whose work transcends despair.)

Finally, the third general use of these grumpy characters is to show how an intervention or extensive kindness can redeem them and bring them back into the fold as it were.  Once again, Scrooge is the exemplar of this approach.  It is hard to write this storyline and not become too sentimental, at least in my view.  I think in today's fairly cynical society, these redemption stories just don't ring particularly true.  No question I found Eliot's Silas Marner unbearably mawkish, though Silas was more of a loner than a full-blown grump.  I'm struggling to think of other examples, but mostly because I don't read "uplifting" fiction as a general rule.  (And at least for now, I am not counting film or TV grumps who are redeemed.)

If anything else comes to me, I'll add it below, but again feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Redeeming the Shrew 2016

I've written a bit before about the Taming of the Shrew and how painful it must be for the actors involved to have this fascinating, wild woman find herself "loved" in this suffocating way and then completely submit to her husband's will.  Generally, contemporary productions try to make it clear that Katherine doesn't really mean what she says at the end, but that is a bit of a cop-out and doesn't always translate when in a large venue (such as the Stratford main stage).

I think the closest one can make to "redeeming" the play, while still playing it straight is to have Katherine find herself always the lesser loved child, compared to Bianca, who then ends up locked in a negative spiral of acting out and turning into a shrew.  Petruchio in this telling must genuinely see something in her that is worth valuing (probably her quick wit), and finds himself somewhat in love (and thus not motivated entirely by money).  He holds up a mirror to Katherine and shows her that her stubbornness is childish, and then they move into a more equal relationship.  This still doesn't really redeem the submission speech, however.

Drfitwood is taking a different approach.  First, they are undermining a lot of assumptions about heterosexual love and marriage being the only acceptable way to end a comedy.  Second, they are turning the core relationship into a dom/sub relationship, which is risky but interesting.

At any rate, one of the droller promotional videos I've seen so far from Driftwood is when they ask members of the cast why they should be putting on the Taming of the Shrew in 2016.  They start with crickets chirping...   To be fair, actors mostly are so desperate for work that they will take most parts and worry about the politics of the piece later.  Not in all cases of course.  In any case, they quickly come around to some explanations of why they feel the play is worth putting on today, particularly with the tweaks that the director has made to the play.  The most notable change is that Lucentio is now female and her pursuit of Bianca makes this a lesbian love story.  (Without seeing the play, I can't tell if Bianca identifies as lesbian (or bi) from the start or opens up to this as a new possibility throughout the play itself.  Also, I don't know if all the other suitors are female or only Lucentio.)

The most detailed discussion (so far) about the directorial choices is in this post.

Apparently, in this version, Katherine is one of those bossy types who either secretly longs to dominated or finds out along the way that she likes being submissive.  The second is trickier and gets into the grey areas of consent and whether art should ever show situations where consent isn't explicitly granted.  (Not to set off a total sh**storm, but art is a lot closer to lived reality in recognizing ambiguity and uncertainty around sex than whatever college administrators think should happen in dorm rooms when they mandate the heavy-handed affirmative consent sexual conduct codes that are becoming a "thing" in the United States and most likely here in Toronto.)

Nonetheless, even with Katherine becoming a willing participant in her own domination, Driftwood still has one major problem remaining with the core plot and they have actually opened up another problem around trust.

If one doesn't change the wording, Katherine still hauls her sister and the widow into the room and harangues them with these words: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee..."  It is fine if she makes this choice for herself to act submissive, but what right does she have to impose her own choices on all the other women in the room?  That is no solution to the core problem of The Taming of the Shrew, and I will be very curious to see what they do with it.

But the new issue is trust.  I can't help but have flashbacks to when Ghomeshi was claiming to be part of the BDSM community, and yet he didn't actually get consent from his partners nor did he have a safe word.  At what point does Petruchio give Katherine a safe word?  He does not, of course.  He never gets affirmative consent, and I just don't see how any of these actors can claim that there would be any trust between the two until much, much later, after Katherine has been broken.  And I guess then the relationship gets built back up on a mutually supportive relationship (from a foundation built upon abuse)?  You can see how this remains tricky, and I would be very surprised if Driftwood has truly managed to square the circle and redeem the play.

All that said, The Taming of the Shrew remains an entertaining play with some wicked repartee.  I am particularly interested in seeing how they portray Toronto, circa 1989 (only a few years prior to my first sojourn in town), and can't wait to hear all that great New Wave music that has been promised.  I'm sure I can tell my inner voice to quiet down and stop telling me that I shouldn't be enjoying myself -- at least until the evening is over.

Update (7/21): So I'm back from Driftwood's The Taming of the Shrew.  It was an entertaining version, though I don't feel they resolved any of these issues.  Katherine's speech at the end of the evening is as dreadful as ever.  While the costumes were pretty wild, and this was a high-energy version of the Shrew, I would say they didn't push nearly as far as I thought they would have, particularly after watching the video talking about dom/sub relationships or even Tranio being pan-sexual.  This may well be the actors' motivations, i.e. what they are telling themselves they are up to, but it doesn't really come across.  Could they not have had Tranio try to seduce male and female servants while in the guise of Lucentio?  Aside from some musical cues, I would not register that Katherine was at all feeling anything for Petruchio until late in the play.  (In this case, the actors playing Petruchio and Katherine are also playing Chris Sly (as a dominatrix) and a boy toy in the Prologue.  So one might claim that they just reverse their roles within the play itself, but that is a pretty big stretch.)

Perhaps the biggest issue I had was that it wasn't at all clear when Bianca learned that Lucentio (as the scholar Cambio) was a woman.  It felt like Cambio was played as a male, and there really ought to have been a scene where Lucentio reveals herself both as a suitor and as female, and Bianca takes the plunge.  It just wasn't a big enough deal, and this probably comes down to Driftwood being quite respectful of the text (aside from changing all the place names and substituting bikes, i.e. motorcycles, for horses).  We at least have a scene where Baptista does look angry and horrified when she (another gender flip) finds out about the lesbian elopement, but comes around fairly quickly.  I suppose it should be noted that gay marriage was not legal in Canada in 1989 (and in fact it appears homosexual domestic partnerships were only legalized in 1990), so that's another problem that can't be easily fixed in this approach.

It probably sounds like I didn't have a good time, and that isn't the case, but I do think they could have pushed further, once they chose this approach.  I also think they probably need at least one, perhaps two, more cast members, since the amount of doubling they needed to do was a bit distracting (virtually every cast member plays Gremio at one point or other).  Finally, there was New Wave music, as promised, but this was all sung by the cast, rather than using the recorded versions.   I think it is worth going, but note that this is actually a fairly traditional Shrew despite the Pride trappings.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Living with liability

I have to admit I have been really morose over the past few days, and I really don't know why.  I'm trying to settle on some upbeat music to cheer me up, and I've finally landed on some Nat King Cole.

That's helping a little bit.  I'm also going to write a post about positive government decisions, or at least ones that I agree with.

It is hard sometimes to appreciate it but city councillors are generally trying to balance a lot of competing interests and conflicting advice.  I think it is fair to say that most take their jobs seriously, and it is often the fickleness of the public that leads them into some of the more puzzling decisions that they make.  But there is one thing that is a constant, and that is that the city's legal staff are always recommending bylaws to limit the city's legal exposure.

And in the abstract, that is fine.  That is what they are there to do, though over the past 20-30 years, the tort system has generally removed all personal responsibility from the equation and municipalities have been sued for some of the craziest things and often have lost.  (I suppose in some cases it is questionable whether the municipality had done enough to warn of the risks, but generally these cases highlight an out-of-control legal system.)  This leads to another round of CYA legislation.

Council always has the opportunity to override staff recommendations, though they rarely do.  So I think it is worth celebrating that Toronto City Council has taken a few chances, particularly when it comes to allowing kids to play "the way they used to."  Mayor Tory in particular has been willing to support this, accepting of just a bit of risk here and there.  Maybe I am being too optimistic, but perhaps the pendulum is swinging back a bit to when most kids were raised "free range," as it were, and helicopter parents were rare.  In general, there may be just a bit more common sense in Canada (and slightly fewer lawsuits) than in the U.S.

I'm specifically thinking about the recent decision to overturn a municipal ban on street hockey (and street basketball) in Toronto.  Some information about this decision here and here.  The vote really wasn't close at all (35-2).  What's particularly interesting is that 5 years ago council was asked to overturn the ban, but the decision at that time was that since the bylaw was rarely enforced, it was better to leave it on the books (to not open the city up to liability and to leave the cops one more tool to break things up if a game was getting out of hand).  I have to admit that seems an extremely cynical view of the role of municipal bylaws and one that leaves parents at the mercy of a rogue cop, who could hit them with $55 tickets.  So I'm quite pleased that they changed their mind this time around, since it would have been easy to stay with the status quo.

Along similar lines, Toronto allows sledding and tobogganing on most hills (and Tory was strongly opposed to outlawing sledding), though there are a few specific hills that are considered too dangerous and are marked as "No sledding."  Apparently, it is fairly hard to monitor these hills, but the city has basically covered itself to the point where it should avoid liability.  To me, this is a very reasonable approach.  Certainly, all the parks near us have decent sledding hills and they are heavily used in the winter.  However, the City of Hamilton was burned by a lawyer who injured himself while sledding, and they had to pay out $900K!  In consequence, the bylaws are not going to be dropped in Hamilton and technically one is not supposed to sled in the city, though the article goes on to note that no one has actually been fined in recent years.  So the situation is a tough one for parents, who basically end up teaching their kids to ignore bylaws when they don't make sense or aren't actually enforced.  (Not really a great life lesson...)

Also, Toronto is experimenting with bringing back legal skating to Grenadier Pond in High Park, trying to make the tradition legal again.  This is a case where the lawyers may end up having the final say, but we'll see.

Sometimes the bylaws are written in a way that ends up being pretty broad.  There was a problem with fighting kites in some parks, and then they passed a broad bylaw.  In fact, someone told me that flying kites in Toronto is illegal, though that isn't entirely true.  This is the bylaw:

While in a park, no person shall:
(1) Fly a kite with a string made of hazardous materials;
(2) Fly a kite within 25 metres of any tree, building, light pole or hydro or other utility pole;
(3) Fly a kite in parking lots, roadways or pathways;
(4) Fly a kite for the purpose of competitive flying unless authorized by permit;
(5) Fly a kite where posted to prohibit kite flying; or
(6) Leave in the park any part of the kite, including the string or other type of
tethering material, except in a waste disposal container

The rub is that "hazardous materials" includes materials made of metal, wire, piano wire, fishing line or any type of nylon that can be or is chemically treated or contains glass fragments.

Virtually any nylon string could be chemically treated.  Obviously, the only string that would completely satisfy this bylaw is a cotton string.  So while one could be hassled for flying a kite in a park, especially too close to trees, in general one is probably going to be left alone (and the liability is generally low so city council isn't likely to push for a wider ban on kites, particularly under Tory).

I did buy a kite a while back, and it appears that the string is cotton or a cotton/poly blend, and it probably doesn't violate the bylaw.  This might actually be a good weekend to attempt to fly it, so I'll see if the kids are interested.  That might be fun, provided we don't crash it into a tree...

I was going to write about the ridiculousness of Illinois State law with regards to bicycles, but I fear that would just upset me and undo the point of writing out this post.  Perhaps some other time.  For now, I will just focus on the fact that Toronto is willing to accept at least a bit of liability in order to let kids play the way they used to in generations past, and that, in my view, is something to celebrate.