Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rereading Kafka

I've mentioned before that there are so many books I still feel I need to read that I usually don't make time to reread books.  I make a few exceptions here and there, especially after a long stretch when the new (to me) fiction has largely been a disappointment.

Others have noted that often one finds something different in rereading, particularly if one is at a different stage of life.*  Characters that were simply boring (to a young reader) now may seem to have more wisdom or a prudence that may be somewhat more admirable (or simply sad if they remain overly cautious).  Julian Barnes has written an article about how he has completely re-evaluated E.M. Forster when coming to his novels in his (Barnes's) late middle-age.  (Barnes also parlayed this into a BBC 3 topic on The Essay.)

I wrote just a bit about struggling with new vs. older translations of Kafka, and I decided that I would reread the Muirs' translations of The Trial and The Castle, but the new translation of Amerika.  Down the road, I will probably read the new translation of The Trial, as it is a short work.  I am much less confident I will bother with The Castle, since I didn't like it nearly as much on the second go around.

I also reread a fair number of Kafka's stories in a new translation (this collection only translated the pieces that Kafka actually published in his lifetime, which is a bit limiting).  Generally, they held up quite well: often a bit eerie and almost always unsettling.

The Trial was also still quite compelling.  Having worked in several bureaucracies since having first read The Trial, you did have a sense that some things did appear random, particularly to outsiders.  There were a few things that I hadn't remembered, including the sexual frenzy of K., but also the climbing through a series of rooms/offices that were connected through their upper levels.  In this novel and in some of the parables, the impossibility of clearing one's name when one cannot even learn the charges becomes quite harrowing.  While K. does resist his fate from time to time, most of the time he seems swept up in a nightmare that makes no sense.

The Castle is a bit different.  We hear from K. from time to time that he admits he came to the village with no justification or authorization, and it was only by chance that he was told he was the Land-Surveyor.  I generally view him as voicing all the frustrations that Kafka would have liked to in the face of oppressive bureaucracy.  The bureaucracy is incompetent and mercurial, so why kowtow to it like the villagers did?  Blustering a bit may be the most sensible course of action for K.  That is surely how I saw it as a young man.

This time around, I see K. as unnecessarily argumentative and hard-headed.  He scorns pretty much all the advice he is given by the villagers and assumes he knows better than they, who have been living among the Castle gentlemen, and more specifically their secretaries, for generations.  I think some kind of middle path would have been a far more sensible approach.  At any rate, I had essentially no sympathy for him on this reading, and it seems fairly unlikely I will want to read a different translation to see if I have changed my mind yet again.  Anyway, that was a fairly big surprise to me from my rereading of Kafka.

I'll most likely tackle Amerika in late 2017 and will probably pick and choose from some of the stories in The Complete Stories, and I'll feel like I have done a sufficiently thorough second pass through Kafka and his major works.  Of all his writings, I'd say The Trial is the one that (unfortunately) really speaks to the human condition in modern Western society.

* I have found that I am generally a lot less interested in postmodern games than I was as a younger reader, though I still find Auster's The New York Trilogy a worthy achievement.

10th Canadian Challenge - 14th Review - Liquidities

This will be a relatively short review.  Liquidities by Daphne Marlatt is a thorough revision of her 1972 book Vancouver Poems.  In addition to revising those poems, she added 14 new poems to Liquidities, which was published in 2013.  I can't remember if I picked this up in Vancouver right before I left, or, slightly more likely, in Toronto at the going-out-of-business sale for The World's Biggest Bookstore.

I generally compare Vancouver poems to New's YVR, and I definitely prefer New's relatively straight-forward poems to these poems that seem to skip from one subject to another to another, so that the linkages are really difficult for anyone other than the poet to follow.  This is my second reading of the poems, and some aspects are becoming more clear, but I suspect I'll have to wait another year or two and tackle the collection again before it makes more of an impression.

"Robsonstrasse" is one of the more successful, but it is still unclear what is linking these portraits, unless it is just the poet passing by a number of people on Robson and imagining their back stories: "hausfraus in the rush barely / notice / Chinese girl unhurried / waters down her pots / their pricey shoes"  There is also a Greek sitting on a park bench who seems to regret that he came to Canada only to become a dishwasher in a diner.

"Go on" appears to be a portrait of a lost soul - a wino or a drug user.  The poem opens with the woman apparently still in a drug-induced state: "go on along Main, along the way light lingers in the / goldfish bowls junk shops are made of, junk, a ship, to / sail away on, to opulent shores a commode, old needles, / her gathering flesh knows nothing of."  Marlatt has her "sitting alone / along the curb of public buildins, old Carnegie Library / closed down..."  This places her at Main and Hastings right at the heart of the Downtown East Side, which remains an impoverished, drug-infested neighbourhood to this day.  Interestingly, the Carnegie Library was closed in 1972 when the poem was written, but then reopened in 1980 as the Carnegie Community Centre.  I've never dared to go inside, since it just always seems so sketchy to me.  Anyway, the poem seems to mostly be about how tragic it is that addicts aren't really receiving the help they need in an uncaring capitalist world, though one could certainly flip this apparent concern around and ask whether Marlatt isn't trading on someone else's misery.

The earlier poems do recall Fred Herzog's photos of Vancouver, though these are mostly from the 1950s.  However, this photo is from 1968, which is not that far off from the time when Marlatt was originally writing her Vancouver poems.

Fred Herzog, Two Women in Coats, 1968

The link is made even more explicit, since Marlatt uses another Herzog photo on the cover of Liquidities.

Inside the book, however, she has slightly more up to date photos of Vancouver from the 1970s and 1980s by Trevor Martin.

The newer poems seem even more about how words sound and flow and are fairly elusive (to me).  Here is the opening of "raining buckets": "or backward wind slant street slick / neon used to shimmer Hastings awning shelter from drip / arrays rain city housing beyond the doorway solution for / every civic fabric ..."  Aside from the fact it is raining, I'm not really sure what Marlatt is driving at.

Similarly, "through cloud" is another portrait of a wet city, though in this case Grouse Mountain sort of looms in the background: "... couchant imperial untracked Crown looms legalized / so close down Main tonight hope snows veins eyes loose / change names liquid /  drip eaves long gone in re-/build demolished reconstructed viz city market dream the / local by early water under bridge no willow sole perch / sturgeon at False Creek points slaughterhouse then sawmill ..."

It's an interesting sort of musical poetry, but I definitely prefer more lucid verse.  At any rate, I think this gives a reasonable sample of what the poems in Liquidities are like and whether you would enjoy the collection.

Trouble in Disney World

The title is sort of a play on Trouble in Paradise, an early Lubitsch film.*  Of course, it only makes sense if you consider Disney World a bit of paradise on Earth.  I'm sort of in the middle.  I am not a certified Disney hater (as so many cultural critics are), but I also have no interest in going to any of their theme parks.  I remember being at a sociology conference, and someone was writing about a subculture of adults who were so enamoured of Disneyland and/or Disney World that they would go on a fairly regular basis, whether they had kids or not.  I didn't have time to read all of the newsletters, but this site is really fascinating for people who want a window into this subculture.

One of my co-workers recently returned from a trip to Disney World, and it turns out her boyfriend's parents are very much under the spell of Disney.  I have to say I thought this a bit peculiar, though perhaps not a deal-breaker.  Nonetheless, it inspired me to write a short piece about a young woman who meets her boyfriend's family for the very first time at Disney World.  I tried to exaggerate and perhaps be a bit more cruel in portraying the family than was absolutely necessary.  Given that this is for Sing-for-Your-Supper, I had to try to cram everything into two acts (and 11 pages).  I could conceivably come up with a third act where she kind of reconciles with the boyfriend and his family, though she will probably always be a bit uptight when it comes to feeling pressured to share the magic of Disney.

The two act version is posted here.  I wasn't even sure if Sing-for-your-supper was going ahead, but they just updated the message.  The deadline was Friday, and I had to really hustle to get it done in time.  (And I actually did a bit of research, such as what restaurant would they be going to that has the characters stop in to chat with the diners but that is still close to Main Street USA.)  If my piece is selected, then it will go up on Monday (Jan 2).  I'll circle back if it has been accepted.  I do think I probably have a better shot than normal this time around, since I think many people weren't sure if there was going to be a show in January at all.

I'm starting to wonder if this would fit thematically into the evening of short pieces I am starting to draw up.  In addition to The Re-Up, The Pitch and perhaps the monologue from Blue Grass Mash, I need to write up a short monologue called Forks to open up the second half of the show.  It's basically all in my head.  It's about a young man who finds out too late how cruel it was to give a co-worker the nickname "Forks."  (Why would he do such a thing?  You'll have to turn up to find out.)  Taking a step back, this is starting to fill out to a reasonable length, especially if I add this Disney piece (though in such a case, I probably would not close it with a happier ending).  Anyway, it was good to just pound out a piece in a couple of days.  I think I should write out the Forks monologue next (probably just 3 pages tops) and then get back to The Study Group, since I have been doing so much research to support it.  Hopefully, I'll have more news soon...

* Actually Trouble in Little Disney sounds better, but doesn't mean anything.  Maybe "Who's Afraid of Mickey Mouse"?  That's actually a pretty good title for the actual piece, but it does increase the odds of getting a "Cease and Desist" letter from the Disney attorneys (if I ever manage to put the play on for reals).  I think I'll stick with "Meeting Mr. Mouse,"

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Best reads of 2016

I'm not entirely sure why it is, but it seems that the best of the books I read in 2015 were more satisfying than the ones I read in 2016.  My honorable mention list below includes several "stretch" books that would not have made the list when stacked up against the books from 2015.  There were quite a few books that have a devoted readership that left me completely unimpressed and, more often than not, bored (Han Kang's The Vegetarian, Graham Swift's Ever After, Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival) and in the case of Philip Roth Sabbath's Theatre I'm quite sorry I stuck with the book, since it was such a sordid, unpleasant experience reading it, and the first quarter quite adequately conveys what the whole book is like.

However, I did have a very late entry onto the list - Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, which is mostly a memoir with a few parables or tall tales sprinkled in.  It's quite interesting, and I am sorry I hadn't read it sooner.  I actually got only a few pages into Vanity Fair this year and expect to wrap it up on my way to and especially from TRB, so there's a reasonable chance it will make the 2017 list.

In any event, the top 5 books from 2016 were:
Albert Cossery - The Jokers
Primo Levi - The Periodic Table
Edna O'Brien - Night
Alice Munro - The Moons of Jupiter
Jonathan Lethem - Chronic City

The best book reread was Tess Slessinger's The Unpossessed

Honorable mention

Patricia Highsmith - The Price of Salt
Danilo Kis - A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch
Carol Shields - Unless
Lawrence Hill - The Book of Negroes 
Charles Johnson - Oxherding Tale
Harper Lee - To Kill A Mockingbird
William Faulkner - Intruder in the Dust 
Willa Cather - My Antonia
Samuel Butler - The Way of All Flesh
And there is a tie in the battle of the Steves:
Steve Zipp - Yellowknife
Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

I had anticipated Madison Smartt Bell's Waiting for the End of the World would be the best reread of the year, displacing The Unpossessed, but I'd say the opposite happened.  I actually found the set pieces in The Unpossessed, especially the party where Prof. Bruno Leonard completely unravels, to be of considerable more interest than it was on the first read, at least in part because I became aware of the parallels to Dostoevsky's Demons.  Waiting for the End of the World was still quite a compelling read, but I just couldn't react as positively this time around when reading about a group of misfit revolutionaries who want to set off an atomic bomb in Manhattan.  After 9/11, that stuff just isn't funny any more.  The denouement is also a bit unsatisfying.  In a very strange way, I am reminded of a short piece I wrote for middle school where one of the main character's defining characteristics is unpredictability.  In the piece, the characters have found this magic ring, which was the point of their quest.  As they are leaving, he tosses it into a volcano!  (I must have read Tolkien by this point.)  While there are people in real life who are this contrary and contradictory, I find in general they don't make very good characters, since they violate so much of the reader's trust.

Bit of a disappointment really:
George Bowering Burning Water
Stanislaw Lem Solaris
Stanislaw Lem Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
Isak Dinesen Out of Africa

Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater was a severe disappointment on many levels.

The squeaky wheel

This is going to literally be about a squeaking wheel or some other machine part, and not a post where I am complaining about something else.  I followed the instructions and took apart the front of the sewing machine and added some oil.  I would say the squeaking is a bit less, but it hasn't gone away.  Kind of frustrating.  I am going to let everything soak in today and give it another shot tonight.

Since I'm pretty sure there is nothing that is about to wear out or completely break down, I'll probably just start sewing again this weekend, and at worst I'll sew with a iPod covering my ears.  Eventually, I'll probably look into setting up a sewing machine repair call, but that's going to be fairly pricey, I suspect.

Anyway, I do need to figure something out.  I went out to the new Fabricland location (Dupont and Dufferin) in this weird, mostly empty mall.  I went a bit crazy buying fabric, since most of it was on an incredible sale.  At least I held off from buying this little dress form (apparently used to make doll clothing) which would have been nothing more than another knick-knack (or tchotchke) in which I would have quickly lost interest.  I probably won't go again for many months, since I have far more than enough fabric to last me for the next three or four big projects.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nostalgia trip

Tuesday was a real mixed bag.

I got out fairly early, taking my son with me for the day.  (I was given the day off to ensure I had my full complement of Christmas/Boxing Day holiday days.)  We hit the mall and did some comparison shopping of toasters at Walmart (the one we've had for close to 10 years is starting to give out).  I also got my son some pajama bottoms, since he has outgrown his current set.  I had hoped to pick up machine oil at Home Depot, but they didn't have it in stock.

We ended up catching the Queen streetcar and took it all the way to Spadina.  Since we had just a bit of time to kill, I wanted to show him the fabric shops that are still on Queen St.  While Queen St. from roughly University to Spadina has had a lot of turn over and many of the small stores I liked (especially the book stores) are gone, Queen St. from Spadina to Bathurst is still pretty much like I remember it from the early 90s, i.e. full of small fabric shops.  I'm sure this will eventually gentrify, just as Queen St. all the way east around Carlaw will, but I'm glad it hasn't yet.  It really does bring me back to my first sojourn in Toronto.  It wasn't a complete nostalgia trip, however, since King Fabrics (actually closer to Queen St.) had sewing machine oil, and I picked up their last bottle.  I also found that probably I could find a sewing machine technician over at World Sewing Centre if I can't fix it on my own.

Here are a few shots of the Sewing District.  (Not quite as picturesque as Ben Katchor would sketch them, but still interesting.)  I actually find all these stores, except for King Fabrics, to be a bit claustrophobic and intimidating.  I definitely don't feel that comfortable just running in and trying to get some quilting fabric, but perhaps I will come around.

We then walked over to the movie theatre and saw Rogue One.  It was better than I expected, with the first part feeling just a bit like a WWII movie (spies running around in Occupied Paris, for example) and that was interesting.  I don't know, but I suspect that Lucas would like this one a lot better than #7, since it definitely had more of the feel of a serial film.  However, I would say it was pretty dark and more like PG-13, though I think it was only rated PG.  Still my son enjoyed it.

I realize the whole point is to show how Princess Leia ended up with the plans for the Death Star in the first place, but it was still a little creepy how they spliced Rogue One into Star Wars (#4), but I won't say any more about that for the moment.

At any rate, my son and I grabbed lunch after the movie at a bagel place on Spadina, and he asked me who Carrie Fisher was.  I knew, even without turning around, that the news crawl on the television was going to say she had just died.  A disturbance in the force, as it were...

I'm so very, very sad that she passed away.*  It's like 2016 needed one more kick at the can, and George Michael wasn't enough... Nonetheless, given that she probably had severe brain damage from not getting enough oxygen right after the heart attack, it is likely for the best.  My mother had severe brain damage from an aneurysm, and she would never have been the same, had she pulled through after the surgery.  She lived about a week in the hospital, but I've come to agree that it was better she passed away then rather than lived on as a shadow of her former self.  That's probably what would have happened to Carrie Fisher, and I am fairly confident that she would not have wanted to live under those conditions.  At any rate, it is still a bit too early to tell, but my gut feeling is that Gen X won't have its idols and stars around for anything like as long as the Boomers did.  (In my most gloomy days I wonder if the worrying we do about the age pyramid is all for naught, since Gen Xers won't be living much past 75, given what a toxic environment we grew up in with excess chemicals in our food, water and air...)

To sort of complete the nostalgia tour, I took my son up to Honest Ed's, which is closing forever this Friday.  I was a bit taken aback to find out that Fabricland had already closed up!  If I had known, I would have found a way to buy a bit more last week.  Oh well.  I have a coupon for their new store, and I guess I'll try to run up after work and check it out.  Most likely I will start frequenting King Fabrics a bit more, as well as make sure to save some time to go to the fabric store in Stratford between shows this summer.

I probably should have bought the slippers on sale upstairs, but this wasn't really a utilitarian trip.  (I so very rarely bought anything at Honest Ed's anyway.)  Most of the bins were empty, and it was kind of weird walking around inside, though there were certainly a few people looking for final bargains. 

Nonetheless, I think most people were there just for nostalgia's sake, looking for a memento of the store.  I ended up picking up a cardboard sign, making sure that it had Ed's on there somewhere.  It's completely pointless to hang onto such things, but that's nostalgia for you... 

It looks like my experience was very similar to that of the Star columnist, who also came away from a recent visit with only a sign.

* I think it is fair to say that while I am genuinely sad about Carrie Fisher passing away and can empathize with her daughter, most of the huge wave of emotion that comes when celebrities die comes from us mourning our childhood and teenage years.  We feel it is unfair somehow that we have grown old.  I have to admit that one of my thoughts on learning of her shuffling off this mortal coil was selfishly wondering whether she had completed shooting for Star Wars #8 (note: she had) and hoping that she had a great death scene in that film, so that they don't just write her out between movies #8 and #9.  That I won't know until next Christmas, though I suppose the news will probably leak out.

Edit (12/28 9 pm): So the shock of her daughter's death has contributed to Debbie Reynolds's death a day later.  So sad.  I am sure if I were somewhat older I would be more broken up over this news, but Debbie Reynolds was not really part of my growing up.  Back to Star Wars... While everything is hush hush, the rumours are that Princess Leia was supposed to play a role in Star Wars #9 and perhaps beyond.  I think it would be pretty difficult to rewrite the material now, especially as they apparently couldn't have any close-up death scene, but I hope they can find a way to pull it off.

Being reasonable, pt. 3

In the spirit of the original post, I was ruminating on travelling to Ottawa, basically only to see the Joseph Sudek exhibit.  While I think I would enjoy the exhibit, it would be a fairly momentary thing.  I'm reasonably up on Sudek, having gone through 3 or so catalogues, and I'm really not sure it's worth going out of my way -- in the middle of winter no less -- to go see this.  Added to this, I basically never like Soviet era abstraction (the other main exhibit at the National Gallery).  Once the catalogue for this exhibit comes back into print, I'll try to get the library to order a copy or just order one for myself.  It would be so much cheaper than making the trip, especially with family in tow, and for photographs, I think having the catalogue really is as good as seeing them in person.

On the other hand, I probably still will try to make a train trip to Montreal to catch the upcoming Chagall exhibit but that can be in the spring (possibly April 8th to correspond with this concert, though I suspect I have too many conflicts already).  I'm a little disappointed that this exhibit doesn't stretch through August, since I'll probably be in Montreal for a sociology conference, but it's not that important.  What's key is that the family doesn't try to get to Montreal in the dead of winter.  I've already done that once and don't really feel like doing it again.

The second trip that I will skip is trying to get to New York just to see the Max Beckmann in New York exhibit at the Met.  I've probably seen many (or at least several) of the paintings already.  (In retrospect, however, I do wish I had been able to see the Exile in Amsterdam exhibit, though it only ran in Amsterdam and Munich in 2007, which really wasn't terribly realistic for me.)  In an ideal world, I would have been able to fly into New York, catch the train to Philadelphia and then head into D.C. for the TRB conference, but it would have been too complicated to do this and then refund my agency for the parts of the trip that were purely personal.  I'll just order the Beckmann in New York catalogue even though I have several Beckmann books already.

So those are my two examples of being reasonable this winter, mixed in with some slightly manic behavior surrounding the reading and the sewing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Boxing Day: Toronto

Another Boxing Day over.  I really don't know what Boxing Day is like outside of the GTHA, but quite a few malls and even grocery stores are open here, especially in Toronto.  I still remember that Sam the Record Man* would be fined for opening on Boxing Day in the early 1990s, or at least the police threatened to do so.  (I don't think the Eaton Centre was allowed to open back then, but I could be wrong.)  Now pretty much all of the Toronto downtown is covered in some tourist zone that lifts the closing restrictions.  Same thing with Yorkdale and presumably the larger regional malls outside Toronto.  Boxing Day is a statutory holiday in Ontario, but it doesn't seem to affect most stores downtown, that's for sure.

People were certainly out and about, and while the TTC wasn't super full, especially in the morning, people were definitely taking it.  Most of the restaurants on Queen St. and Dundas were open.  (I honestly can't remember if the stores in Chinatown kind of ignored the Boxing Day closing rules in the past or they were small enough that they were exempt.)

I'm pretty sure that movie theatres were allowed to open on Boxing Day in the past, and they were open today, though the numbers of people seeing movies seemed fairly low.  Probably because now they can shop...  I actually wanted to buy a few more things at the craft store, but in the end I only bought a box of pins!

Many museums were also open on Boxing Day, including the AGO.  Again, that is likely a long-standing tradition, since one could argue that one planned to spend time with the family at a museum.

Honestly, I was more surprised that Robarts Library was open, but that worked out for me, and I downloaded a ton of files to sort through for my paper.  Now I just need to sit down and sketch it out...

* I definitely did some shopping at Sam the Record Man, including on one visit in the early 2000s, though I don't think I came down for the Boxing Day event, since I don't care for crowds.  I probably couldn't point to any specific CD in my collection as having come from Sam's.  Perhaps The Waltons and Big Faith CDs.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Curtain raising

I guess that is a bit of a tease.  I am making 2 sets of curtains, so a total of 4 panels.  I am now 1/2 done with the first panel.  If I did nothing else over the next two or three days, I should be able to wrap this up, but I'll probably end up doing a few other things, including heading off to work and starting on an academic paper.  I think there still is a pretty good chance of being done with everything before New Year's Day is over.

I've learned a few lessons already.  1) The cutting is really hard to get right, and I should have been a bit more generous in leaving some extra on the sides.  I want each panel to be 15 1/2 inches wide, so I was aiming to cut 17 1/2 inches, but there are places the cut fabric is just over 16 inches!  Oops.  If I had lots of extra fabric, I would probably start over, but I really don't.*  I fussed around with it and sort of cheated on the margins, especially at the top where it won't matter.  I think at the top it is 15 1/4 inches wide and then sort of gradually widens.  I did get a fabric cutter (which is wicked sharp) and a cutting board, but I probably should have gotten the next size up given how the fabric slides a bit as you pull it down the board to cut the entire length.  Live and learn.

2) Pinning and really getting the edges straight is hard, especially given the length of the curtains.  They need to end up at 59 inches, but then you have to clean up the bottom and make an edge and also leave space for the rod to go through.  I think I cut the fabric to 63 inches.

3) The material is fairly heavy (63 inches' worth at any rate, so I may have to reinforce the curtain rod a bit and encourage my daughter to tie the curtains back rather than just pushing them open).  Fortunately, the sewing itself was really straight-forward.  I was kind of dreading having lots of bobbin problems (as I did with the other curtains), but none so far (knock on wood).

You can see the back where one side is still pinned and the other is sewn.

This is how the front will look.  I probably should have gotten a slightly darker shade of purple thread, but it isn't so bad.  I will have to be careful and rip out any really bad stitching though, since it will show up.

Unfortunately, at the end of the last project, the machine started squeaking, and it was a bit worse today.  I followed the advice of some bloggers and blew out the bobbin area with compressed air, but it hasn't made a difference.  I believe I can get some machine oil at a craft store that should be open tomorrow, and if that doesn't work, I can go to Home Depot as well.  I probably can keep going for a while, but I'd rather not risk damaging the machine (and the sound is kind of grating).  In the meantime, I'll try to cut out the rest of the panels.  I don't think I have enough pins to pin up all the edges on all the panels, though I can definitely get another batch of pins at the store.  The sewing itself takes just a fraction of the time of pinning.

I suspect that will be the case for some of these quilts that I am interested in trying.  The only saving grace is that I will be cutting out 4 and 6 inch strips, which are a bit easier to keep squared up than 17 or 18 inch panels, which are a bit too wide to handle easily.  (I have to admit, in my mind I'm already trying to think through dealing with what happens after the quilt tops are done, but really first things first -- let me get these curtains done and hung...)

* I will have some extra fabric at the end, but the length won't be there.  I'm not really sure this is suitable for quilting, since the texture is so different from everything else.  If it all works out, I might look into making a throw pillow, since I think the pattern is quite nice.

Christmas Disappointments

I can't really recall how greedy I was as a child.  I know that occasionally I did ask for too much, and I probably just didn't have great boundaries in general.  At least on one occasion, I played with my brother's toys (probably far more often than that he would tell you).  I'm sure this tailed off though I can't recall when.  All this is to say that I can't recall being completely disappointed at Christmas time, though I'm sure I got my share of clothing, over which I had to feign excitement.  Still, I don't think I ever asked for anything big and then didn't get it.  I could well have suppressed this, however.

My children are not all that into toys, and they've never really cottoned onto Lego, so I've stopped getting them additional sets.  Fortunately, they enjoy getting books, though finding books worth buying as presents (that they might actually read more than once) is a challenge.  While it is hard to believe, my daughter wanted a dictionary and thesaurus last year, and was inconsolable when it wasn't the first thing or second she opened.  Fortunately, she did open it next, but it did put a bit of a damper on the morning.

There was not a repeat this year, and while there were not a lot of presents, it seemed like a reasonable number, when the books from their grandparents were added in.  And she definitely liked the atlas she got this year!

However, my daughter didn't care for the cat, as I suspected.  In fact, she knew in advance.  I had wondered about the possibility she would see the previous blog post (and had considered holding off posting for another day), but she usually considers what I write totally boring and isn't interested in it.  So I followed Poe's lead in The Purloined Letter and put it out in plain sight (or rather on a tab in the browser, though the browser wasn't open to it).  Well, apparently she was even more bored by playing her other computer games, and wandered over to this blog and read the post about my sewing adventures!  Oh well.  (Maybe the current generation is too clever to be outwitted by reverse psychology.)

So now I have to decide whether to hold onto it, or give it to a friend's daughter, which was the original intent.  I'll probably hold off until I see how the fish turn out.  At the moment, the cat will keep me company at the computer.

The weather is sort of strange.  We still have snow (actually white Christmases are oddly rare in Toronto...), but it is started to melt and Boxing Day is supposed to be fairly warm.  It was really overcast and dark (and actually a bit dreary while opening presents), but now it is starting to look like a decent day and the sun is even coming out a bit.

I'll try to get out for at least a little while on Boxing Day (there's still one theatre showing Dr. Strange) and perhaps do a bit more on the 27th.
I'm debating whether to take my son to Rogue One.  It just seems like a total retread of all the other movies, but I'm sure he'd enjoy it.  I will probably figure out a way to make one last trip to Honest Ed's (and Fabricland!), but my daughter is fighting off a cold, so she can't come along.  Aside from that, it has been a pretty good Christmas so far.

One person who will be disappointed, though, is the paper delivery guy.  I actually got a card from him two weekends ago, and I guess it is more traditional to tip them the week before Christmas.  However, last weekend there was a big snow storm and I didn't get the paper until well after noon, and then Sunday I got the paper dumped in the middle of the yard.  I wasn't really in the tipping mood.  I did put out an envelope taped to the mailbox Sat. morning, but since he doesn't actually come into the yard, I guess he'll just miss out.  As far as I can tell, we don't actually get a paper today, though there might be one on Boxing Day.  I'll put the envelope out one last time, but I don't think he'll see it.  Not much more I can do than that.

Anyway, happy holidays and best wishes for 2017!  (We're all going to need it...)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Holiday ups and downs

Generally things are going fairly well on a personal level; so as long as I don't think too much about the state of the world, I'm ok.  Actually, I just recently found that I have been authorized to go to TRB in a couple of weeks.  I thought that TRB was generally the 3rd week of January, but perhaps every fourth year when there is an Inauguration, they move it up or down to avoid conflicts.  (It's hard enough to get rooms in DC during TRB, so I can't imagine trying to hold the two at the same time!)  I'm still not entirely sure I would have gone to TRB after Inauguration.  It's all still pretty raw, and it certainly looks like Trump is going to live down to our worst fears.  Maybe in a year or two, I'll think more seriously about taking the family to DC, but certainly no time soon.

While I am in DC to present at the conference and network and go to a bunch of sessions, I should have some time to see museums on Sunday.  I'll probably aim to check out the National Gallery (particularly the Stuart Davis exhibition) and the Hirshhorn.  The Freer is closed, and I probably won't go to the Sackler, since the two are sort of a pair.  I often try to get to the American Art Museum, especially as it is open a bit later than the other ones, though I may not this time around.

The Phillips Collection (off DuPont Circle) is always worth visiting, though I am not interested in the special exhibit (I've already seen the Jacob Lawrence migration series).  Depending on how many other sessions I am going to, I may be able to sneak away towards the end of the day Tuesday and just go see the main collection.  The Corcoran Gallery of Art has been taken over and is being remodeled, so I won't be going there.  At any rate, I think this should be a manageable trip, but it will be sort of weird going to TRB now that it has moved to a more central location.

I'm doing a bit of writing (not as much as I should of course), and I've been reading a bit manically (and delving ever deeper into semi-obscure authors).  I'm just about to wind up my best reads of 2016 post, though there might be a late entry if I get through these other books first (and then I have to decide which books comes off, though I think I know the answer already).  I've had some luck with inter-library loan (one of the local librarians will order novels even if they are reference, since she recognizes people want to read books at home, not sitting in the reference room).  Also, unbeknownst to me, the Toronto library ordered a couple of copies of Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time, which is a much delayed sequel to The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.  I'm fairly excited about reading this in January once it turns up at the local branch.

As far as holiday things are going, I have the presents and stocking stuffers bought, though I suspect the kids might want a bit more in the way of gifts.  It is a relatively light Christmas for the kids this year, though the relatives are adding to their catch.  Anyway, I am about halfway done with the wrapping, so that tomorrow night won't be too bad.

Probably the biggest single downer is that I waited too long on sending the Christmas card around (basically Friday morning when most people had already taken off).  I also sent almost all of them as bcc's, and I think this year that triggered a warning and my account was blocked (and the emails didn't get delivered!).  Anyway, there wasn't any notification one way or another, and I had a technician reset my password, and I went back in this evening.  I sent off the cards as a smaller batch of specific emails with only one or two bccs.  I think these went out, but it is hard to tell.  When I tried to log back in, I was frozen out again, and the Bell technician said it had to get elevated to level 2, so someone will deal with it in the morning.  I'm actually kind of pissed.  It's not so much that I resent my Christmas card being taken for spam, but a lot of people are sending Christmas e-cards and there ought to be a way to tell the email provider that these are legitimate.  In any event, once they block your account for presumably spamming people, they have to notify you that they did this!  It's not fair to have to try to track them down and get them to reopen your account.

On a more positive note, I managed to get back in the sewing mode.  I never did make the other apples for the children's teachers, as I said I would in this post.  The curtains just took so long, though I finally finished them a few weeks back.  I decided to try another idea I had for a while, and that was to make a stuffed cat.  It took about 4 hours in total.


In the end, I would say it came out better than I had any right to expect (especially the tail and ears), but still not quite as well as I had hoped (though seen from the back it is fairly close to what I had envisioned).  The fact that it is homemade and has "character" isn't going to cut that much ice with my daughter, who will probably think it is ugly.  It is nice that the sewing part went really well, with only a few snarled threads, which bodes well for other projects using cotton.

At any rate, over the next week or so, I will try to get a second set of curtains made, and then I'll make one or two more stuffed animals for friends who have kids, but I think I'll try something a lot simpler, like a fish.  Then I guess I'll make an attempt at a Christmas-themed quilt.  Fingers crossed.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Literature of Boredom

There basically is nothing new under the sun, and there have already been quite a few scholars that have probed the literature of boredom.  Certainly, the most extensive look into this area is Richard Kuhn's The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature.  Despite what it says on the title, he probes a variety of forms of boredom, not only the ostensibly Continental ennui.

If we look at earlier novels and works of fiction, there is clearly a religious connotation: idle hands are the devil's playthings and so forth.  This is basically how Hawthorne and Melville would have conceptualized boredom.  While boredom isn't really a sin, boredom is likely to lead to sin.

Flaubert's Madame Bovary generally would fall into this category as well (of acting badly largely due to boredom), though perhaps there are the seeds of ennui in her somewhat tawdry story.

Anyway, there was considerable effort, particularly by French authors, that went into exploring this state of ennui and lassitude, which in its most extreme forms could lead to suicide.*  In many cases, the dissolute French poets (Baudelaire and Racine chief among them) went slumming to try to dispel boredom.

I have not read them, but if I do feel like making a further dive into ennui and "mal du siècle," these are perhaps the best two texts: François-René de Chateaubriand's René and Alfred de Musset's La Confession d'un enfant du siècle (Confession of a Child of the Century).

I'm sort of tempted to pull together a shelf of these types of books and call it The Library of Boredom.  In addition to some of the books listed below, I would include the relatively obscure existential novel The Tartar Steppe by Italian author Dino Buzzati.

There seems to be a bit of a split in the literature of the 20th Century.  Relatively few American authors write about boredom at work** (at least I am having trouble thinking of any that write about office work), but quite a few wrote about suburban ennui that took place on the home front: John Cheever, John Updike, Richard Ford (The Sportswriter/Independence Day/The Lay of the Land) and Jonathan Frazen's The Corrections (though personally I found this unstomachable and stopped partway through).  It may also be somewhat cyclical, and in tougher economic times, there may generally be fewer stories centered around boredom, as everyone is just supposed to be so grateful to have a job at all (and the unemployed are too busy surviving to be bored about their situation).  If this is so, then we are about to enter a period where we long for the "golden age" when authors could still write about boredom in a non-ironic sense.

Saul Bellow was one of those writing in this previous age, though I would argue he mostly wrote about people who seem to go to great lengths to escape boredom (I'd put both Herzog and Henderson in this category), and while I disliked the novel, Mickey Sabbath from Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, takes this avoidance to extremes.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to read this paper (behind a paywall - sorry) where the author posits a link between Dostoevsky and Saul Bellow in exploring boredom.

I have to say that seems sort of strange, since I can recall not only Dostoevsky but Tolstoy and Gogol writing at least a bit about the boredom of working in offices, but I don't recall Bellow's characters holding down 9-to-5 jobs for the most part.

Anyway, I can think of far more Russian examples of the tedium of office work, which often did drive the characters to the brink of madness and beyond.  One example from Trinidad is Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office.  If I've missed any good examples of novels, particularly English language novels, that really delve into the boredom of office work, feel free to add in the comments.

The rest of the post will briefly feature David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.  As I mentioned before, this is a somewhat sad novel with many references to suicide throughout (including people who feel driven to suicide by the tedium of their profession).  I just can't help but feel that this was all an elaborate cry for help, and it's unfortunate he didn't share this material with more people.  Leaving that aside, the novel is an odd, patchy thing where there are long chapters devoted to getting inside a single character's headspace and shorter pieces where arcane bits of lore about the IRS are revealed.  While I'm fairly sure David Wallace didn't actually work for the IRS (as the "David Wallace" character in the book claims), he was boning up on accounting in order to write about an IRS office in downstate Illinois in the 1980s.  (I wonder if he found, as I have, that it can be incredibly difficult to get information about everyday life in the 80s, since it all is just before the dawn of the internet age where everything started to be documented on-line.)  Anyway, here are a couple of reviews that give a pretty good sense of what reading the novel is like: NYTimes and Guardian.

I think it is fair to say, this is a novel only for dedicated DFW fans.  Nothing serious happens in the novel, and that was intentional.  Wallace wanted a novel that focused on the boredom and drudgery of being an IRS inspector and that, several times, some big turning point in the plot would arise, and then it would fade away.  Almost like Waiting for Godot blown up to close to 600 pages.  I would say that the fact that the author makes it entirely clear this is a book about boredom (not just once but twice) is a real weakness.  In general, there is just too much drawing the reader's attention to the artifice of fiction throughout the novel (especially the footnotes, which I find incredibly tedious but DFW fans seem to love) and the announcements about boredom are another prime example.  I'm reasonably glad I read the book, but for me it would have functioned better at shorter length, and honestly I liked the earlier material better than the later material (which got more mystical), which suggests I probably would have liked this less if he had lived to finish it...  Anyway, it is definitely the most monumental work dedicated to boredom I am likely to tackle and actually finish.

Edit (1/15/17): This may be unnecessarily mean, but DFW fans strike me as the most insufferable literary snobs out there, insisting that the only thing wrong with Infinite Jest was that "the market" forced Wallace to prune the thing at all.  None of us are worthy to question the great DFW.  I am extremely resistant to such idolatry and generally it puts me off the author in question.  I personally find the footnotes kind of insufferable and certainly the least interesting thing about The Pale King, so I'm pretty sure I will never read Infinite Jest.

* It's been a really long time since I've read Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, but if I recall the suicide in this novel is tied to romantic disappointment and not to ennui.

** English authors also seem to avoid writing much about the workplace (probably to avoid boring their readers).  The early comic novels Diary of a Nobody and Three Men in a Boat make it clear that their characters are fairly low-level clerks or office functionaries, but part of the comedy is watching them try to inflate their importance outside the office.  Relatively few scenes take place while they are on the clock so to speak.  Maybe some of Graham Greene's work would qualify.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Ten dollar words

I admit, I have a bit of a weakness for using more obscure words, though I try to use them primarily when they are more precise and get at something specific not captured by the more generic, standard words.  Nonetheless, I normally use them more in writing rather than in speech, at least in part due to the fear that I might be showing off.  I do find this definition of ten dollar words from the Urban Dictionary to be a bit droll yet with the ring of truth: "Using large, difficult words that most people will not understand. Makes you look like an elitist prick that wants to flaunt your advanced intelligence or vocabulary."

Anyway, I mentioned that in my post about the differences between the ACT and the SAT that the SAT used to rely much more heavily on knowing obscure words as part of its English section, whereas the ACT had a different focus, more on knowing and applying the rules of grammar appropriately.  I believe the SAT has cut back on the fancy vocabulary words, but they were very much a part of the test in the 1980s (and I have decided that the best way to stick a few of these words in the dialogue of The Study Group is to have most of the kids be prepping for both tests).

I was actually going to use "glissade" in the play, which is both a verb and a noun, and which means to slide down a mountain or a ballet dance step.  However, I ultimately found the dialogue far too contrived even for me, and I dropped it.  (I shouldn't have to define "contrived" should I?)

There are ten dollar words that still trip me up from time to time, including one that I thought had the exact opposite meaning than it had.  It is right on the tip of my tongue, but I can't recall it right now.  Maybe later.

I'm still learning new words, obviously mostly from reading.  In Yellowknife, one of the characters is described as "gravid," which means pregnant, both as literally pregnant (with child) but also heavy as in "pregnant with meaning."

I only recently looked up "contumely" (I believe it was used in Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office and then I also came across it in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King -- in both cases, they are probably doing a bit of a meta-riff on Hamlet's soliloquy, which is the most high-profile case of its use).  Contumely is actually a noun, not an adverb, and that is probably what throws me each time.  Anyway, it means insolent or insulting language or treatment, like being roughed up for persistently using ten dollar words.

Hamlet also keeps "calumny" in circulation.  This is a fancy term for slander.

Just a few others now before I have to go.

Lachrymose means given to weeping.  The Mock Turtle from Alice in Wonderland is generally described as lachrymose, but Lewis Carroll doesn't himself use the term, at least not in the book.

Scrofulous literally means to be contaminated, specifically by tuberculosis, but is more generally used to mean morally contaminated and/or corrupt.  Many of Shakespeare's villains are scrofulous, perhaps none more than Iago, who has no valid reason to undermine Othello.

Crenulated is to be notched around the border, like a leaf or a coast-line

This is almost the same word as crenelated, which is to have battlements (at the top of a castle), particularly notched battlements.

Convivial is to be fun to be around and generally easy going (i.e "complaisant," which I do use in the dialogue), which is not the case for several of my study group characters, though many of them have internal integrity (and are true to themselves at least).

Sometimes I do wonder if English simply has too many words that basically mean the same thing.  There are almost no shades of meaning or distinctions between convivial, congenial, sociable, affable and amiable as far as I can see.  In any case, it is an entertaining way of passing time to look up some of these words, especially on  Feel free to add your own ten dollar words in the comments!

To end, I will bring up "peregrination," which means to travel from place to place, especially by foot.  While I don't travel between cities on foot too often (though I did cross the Golden Gate Bridge on foot, and I did jog from Evanston into Wilmette once), I certainly have journeyed between many cities and uprooted my family along the way.  Anyway, it's a word that speaks to me.

On a tangential note, I am pleased to announce that the blog has hit 100,000 views since its inception, which is pretty incredible.  Thanks for dropping by!

I have decided that I will round up the most interesting posts (but not the art-themed posts due to copyright issues, alas) and compile them into an e-book.  I'll start now and aim to be ready in the summer (around the time that the 10th Canadian challenge wraps up).  It will be mostly focused on book reviews and the theatre reviews that go a bit deeper into the text of the play (rather than the acting, which only lives on in memory).

Naturally, I am thinking of titling my book Peregrinations, which is fairly close to "So Going Around Cities," which Ted Berrigan already used.  More details to come.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 13th Review - Yellowknife

I thought I would manage to read Steve Zipp's Yellowknife towards the end of the 9th Canadian Challenge, but in the end I spent that time with Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.  Yellowknife is a novel set in Yellowknife (obviously) from roughly the late summer of 1998 to late spring (?) 2000.  It is set in Yellowknife, NWT.  It sort of emphasizes the weirdness of the city, as well as how a fair portion of the city's economy is based around resource extraction, particularly mining (apparently diamonds were discovered in the Northwest Territories in the early 1990s, but diamond mining didn't really begin until 2003 (see this piece on the Diavik Diamond Mine), so Zipp has telescoped events a bit in the novel).  Also, the diamond mines are hundreds of kilometers away from Yellowknife proper, so I am not sure gangs would really move into the city of Yellowknife to try to muscle in on the action.  In a similar vein of exaggeration, I assume Yellowknife doesn't have underground tunnels all under the city, connecting to the gold mines.  It is very much an ensemble novel, so a large cast of characters come in and out of focus throughout, and indeed several of the characters that the reader probably considers the "main" characters actually leave Yellowknife.

These two reviews capture pretty well what reading the novel is like: here and here.  I've never been to Yellowknife (the further north I've made it is Edmonton!).  I wouldn't say this novel has really inspired me to go, but perhaps some day I will try to get up that way, particularly during one of the periods where the Northern Lights are likely to be seen.  I'm more likely to head north kind of gradually, perhaps starting with James Bay and then a bit further north up to Hudson Bay.

I did find it appropriate that I started the novel in the late autumn, and the first few chapters introduce us to Danny, who is a restless soul who comes to Yellowknife in search of a bit of adventure and perhaps a job.  He comes to Yellowknife before the chill sets in, and he has to find a way to survive the winter (fortunately, he gets a house-sitting gig).  Then as I got a bit deeper into the novel, the cold really set in (nothing like a typical Yellowknife winter, but still quite frigid -- on rare occasions Toronto actually can be colder than Yellowknife!)  A couple of days I was reading on the 72B, which actually runs all the way south on Pape/Carlaw, then along Commissioners and finally dropping riders off near Union Station.  (It's sort of a slow and bumpy approximation of the path the Downtown Relief Line would take; it's actually a bit faster to get out at Front St. (near the Hockey Hall of Fame) and walk to Union Station.)  Anyway, this stretch along Commissioners seems to be from a much smaller city, perhaps akin to Yellowknife (though as I said, I've never actually been).  So that helped put me in the mood to finish the novel.

I think it is a little difficult to care deeply about the characters, since the narrative never spends much time with any of them.  Essentially all the characters have some hustle going on, though some are more successful than others.

One of the subplots is that one of these hustlers wants to set up a tourist attraction where the tourists would pretend to search out the remains of the Franklin expedition.  This never really gets off the ground, and indeed the business man, Jack Wool, realizes that if the lost ships are ever found, it will be fatal to this business venture.  Given he doesn't have a lot of luck, if Zipp ever decides to write a sequel to Yellowknife, he should set in 2014 or so, with Jack opening his resort, right before the first of the ships was located (in Nunavut incidentally).  This was actually pretty big news here in Canada, since Stephen Harper was kind of obsessed with the Franklin expedition and was positively gleeful when the first ship was discovered on his watch.  One of the more fantastical elements of the novel crops up here with Zipp sort of suggesting this old dog and a wretched waiter are actually survivors of the Franklin expedition, and elsewhere he suggests that one of the older characters in the novel, Jonah, is well over 100 years old and still going strong.

As long as you don't care too much about individual characters and what happens to them, Yellowknife is an enjoyable ride.  One of the recurring jokes is that, because the Government of the Northwest Territories is getting ready to get cut (due to the splitting away of Nunvat which occurred in 1999), there is constant downsizing at the Wildlife Bureau and eventually the remaining biologists end up more or less hiding out in an office in the basement of the Carboniferous Building, trying not to get laid off or, worse, assigned to some remote territory.  At the very end of the novel, we get some interesting new insights into Pfang, who is brought in as a computer expert by the new boss, but rarely is seen to do any work.  It is a bit too little, too late though, in terms of having to rethink Pfang as a character.  Only one of these scientists, Nora, is really described in enough detail for us to care about her fate.  There is a strange set piece in the middle of the novel where Nora, somewhat akin to Alice in Wonderland, goes off and explores some of the underground tunnels that branch off from this basement office.

Zipp shows no serious concern for his characters, and the novel occasionally has a bit of a slapstick feel to it.  Two of the characters end up sinking in frigid waters and are essentially reborn (sort of like the Egyptian god Osiris or the Fisher King in some versions of the legend).  I personally thought one rescue was enough, though Zipp apparently wanted to leave the novel open-ended and not to end on a really sour note.  I will say I felt the final chapter, in which the reader is taken inside the mind of a large, ancient dog, was probably a mistake.

Whether it was a conscious decision on Zipp's part, I thought there were some interesting parallels to some of Robert Kroetsch's work, particularly the novels that had aspects of magic realism to them.  In Gone Indian, Kroetsch has a character head north and take on a new identity (the second part is somewhat akin to the transformation than Hugo undergoes).  Also, Gone Indian has an interesting set piece at a winter festival as does Yellowknife.  Zipp also introduces Father Brown who usually wipes out the truckers in poker games at rest stops along the winter roads.  It isn't quite the same as the ever-lasting poker game from What the Crow Said, but there are a few echoes.  Also, Freddie, one of the characters that becomes more prominent in the second part of the novel, was apparently raised by ravens, and ravens still do him favors and are presumably acting as spirit guides for him.

Note that it is actually difficult to order a copy of Yellowknife at Amazon, but it is in several Canadian libraries.  The publisher's website is here, and most likely you can still download a copy of the novel.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Best theatre events of 2016

While there are a couple of weeks left in the year, I don't have any plans to see more theatre (or concerts for that matter, though I may go see a bassoon concert Monday after work, but it depends if I can leave work early or if I am booked solid in meetings).  Thus, I feel it is fairly safe to put together my list of theatre events I enjoyed over 2016.  It is drawn up the same way as my 2015 list was, which is to say I'm not trying to boil this down to a top ten list.  The best comedy is basically a tie between Boeing, Boeing and Life Sucks.  The most wrenching drama was a tie between Soulpepper's Incident at Vichy and Coal Mine's Instructions (to Any Future Socialist Government Wishing to Abolish Christmas), though honorable mention goes to Red Light Winter, The Circle and The Model Apartment.  Then there is that ambiguous category of plays that mix humor and pathos in equal quantities; the standout shows in this group were Les Belles Soeurs and The Plough and the Stars.

Anyway, it was certainly another really solid year in terms of great productions, both in Toronto and a bit further afield.  Last Feb. I travelled fairly extensively to go to shows -- to St. Catherines to see Goodnight Desdemona and also to Peterborough to see Les Belles Soeurs.  Both were quite worthy productions, though Les Belles Soeurs was actually pretty amazing, easily as good as most of the Toronto shows I saw.  It does look like I'll be going to Buffalo in March 2017 to see A View from the Bridge, so the tradition will be unbroken, and of course assuming we go to Chicago over the summer, I'll try to see something there as well.  As is my way, I'm already collecting events for 2017 and have a few dates circled on the calendar already.

Red Light Winter (Unit 102)

Dalton and Company (Cart/Horse)
Les Belles Soeurs (The Motley Collective)
Goodnight, Desdemona; Good Morning, Juliet (Brock University)

Richard III (Wolf Manor)
Boeing, Boeing (Hart House)
Port Authority (Fly on the Wall Theatre)
The Public Servant (Nightwood Theatre)
Galileo (Remy Bumppo)
The Flick (Steppenwolf)

The Great War (Video Cabaret)
The Beaux' Stratagem (George Brown)

The Model Apartment (Harold Green Jewish Theatre)
The Anniversary (East Side Players)
Sheets (Video Fag)

Incident at Vichy (Soulpepper)
Instructions (Coal Mine)
The Heidi Chronicles (Soulpepper)
Much Ado About Nothing (Unit 102)

Night Lights (TO Fringe)
The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare Bash'd - TO Fringe)
The Unending (TO Fringe)

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Soulpepper)
Sister Cities (The Den Theater - Chicago)
Fefu and Her Friends (Halcyon - Chicago)

Old Times (Unit 102)
The Plough and the Stars (Abbey Theatre Company)

Hosana (Soulpepper)
Master Harold and the Boys (Obidian Theatre)
The Circle (Tarragon)
Quiver/Mouthpiece (Buddies in Bad Times)
Life Sucks (Lookingglass)

Chasse-Gallerie (Storefront Theatre/Soulpepper)
The Realistic Jones (Tarragon)
The Damage Done (Canadian Rep Theatre)

Measure for Measure (Red Sandcastle)
Paradise Comics (Ignition)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 12th Review - Dressing Up for the Carnival

As I mentioned in my review of Unless, Carol Shields started working on another novel, but in the end only the story "Segue" was extracted from her working notes.  This was included in her Collected Stories.  Several years back I read and reviewed her first two short story collections (Various Miracles and The Orange Fish).  While I knew that her short stories don't usually succeed that well for me, I decided I ought to read through all the stories in Collected Stories, which is how I came to read Dressing Up for the Carnival.

Taken as a whole, it is fairly similar to the first two collections, and it doesn't really do a lot for me, with a few exceptions.  There are a few stories that draw on fantastical elements ("Weather," "Stop!," "Reportage").  At first it seems that "The Harp" is more of a dream, but then Shields shows how it could be grounded, though it isn't one of the more interesting stories.

One thing that does appear to be a bit new for her is how some of these stories are fragmented, built up around 2 or 3 characters or even incidents that are supposed to be more illuminating than just focusing on one at more depth.  This included "Dressing Up for the Carnival," "Dying for Love," "Keys," and "Invention."  "Keys" seemed like it was inspired by one of those stories in the round (like Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon) and yet Shields doesn't write about a single key passed from hand to hand, which would likely have been a more interesting approach, since it forces the author to be more creative.

Curiously, one of the more interesting and successful experiments is "Absence," which is an oulipian text (that is one that follows strict rules in its construction*).  In this case, none of the words in the story use "I" (ostensibly because the author's computer keyboard is missing a key), and the reader follows the struggle of the writer and the gymnastics involved in not using "I."  Perhaps Shields was reflecting back on this experiment when she started writing "Segue," since the narrator's sonnet society suddenly has to start sharing its space with an oulipian group.  It's certainly possible that Shields would have integrated a few oulipian pieces into the novel had she finished it.

There were a couple of stories that didn't work for me as a whole, but did have amusing moments.  I particularly liked this bizarre claim from the story "Invention": "It might be thought that such a man {a successful cooper} would direct his inventive energy toward improving the traditional barrel or cask, but instead my ancestor invented the hyphen."

I also liked the ending of "Soup du Jour," which focuses on a young boy (10 years old) given the important task of picking up something at the store.  It's a near tragedy when he approaches the store and can't remember what his mother asked for:

He takes a breath, pokes a stick between the squares of concrete, and begins the process of elimination. Not carrots, not onions, not potatoes. As he strikes these items from the familiar list, he experiences the same ponderable satisfaction he finds in naming such other absences as father or brother or uncle, always imagining these gaps to be filled with a leather-fresh air of possibility, just around the corner, just five minutes out of reach.

At that moment the word celery arrives, fully shaped, extracted cleanly from the black crack in the pavement, the final crack (as luck would have it) before the three smooth cement steps that lead up to the sill of the corner store. The boy’s gratitude is thunderous. He almost stumbles under the punishment of it, thinking how he will remember it all his life, even when he is old and forgetful and has given up his obsession with counting. 

In terms of the stories that did work for me as a whole, I enjoyed "Reportage," which discusses the impact on a small town in Manitoba when a Roman ruin is discovered in a farmer's field.  This sparks a major tourism boom.  While the idea is clearly impossible, it was still interesting watching it unfold.  Most townsfolk welcomed the visitors, but one or two wished that the town returned to its sleepy former self.

While I found "New Music" just a bit melancholy, it was a bit of a departure for Shields to be writing about a marriage where the wife does get to pursue her creative ambitions (she writes a well-received biography of the English composer Thomas Tallis and is contemplating a second one on William Byrd).  I probably liked it just because it is fairly unusual in her oeuvre.

Similarly, "Mirrors" is about an older couple who have come through the other side of relatively minor marital problems and are still happily married.  They stay at a cottage every summer where they have no mirrors at all (even the wife's compact has its mirror removed).  While this isn't "the secret" to their happiness, it seems to help.  I don't know if this relatively satisfied couple could sustain interest at novel length, though perhaps they were the seed for the couple in the unfinished novel (though in that case, the wife suffers from significant health challenges which presumably would have given more urgency to the events of the novel).  Anyway, "Mirrors" was probably my single favorite story from the collection.

Shields ends the collection with "Dressing Down," a story of a marriage that had sort of gone off the rails, largely because the husband insisted on starting up a nudist colony where he spent every July.  The wife grimly agreed to go until the year that the narrator (her grandson) was going to join the colony, while his parents were away in Europe!  She stopped going to the colony, and this started an irreparable breach between the two.  I think it is more typical of Shields that she sort of privileges bad or unsatisfactory marriages, but it is my prerogative as a reader to focus on "Mirrors" as my main take-away from the collection.

* George Perec was probably the most famous member of the Oulipo Group, or at least his oulipian texts are the most widely known (Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino were also members of the group, but I am not sure that Zazie in the Metro or Invisible Cities are classified as oulipian).  In any case, I've been meaning to read Perec's A Void (a novel written -- and translated! -- without the letter e) for some time, and then perhaps I'll finally be able to tackle Life, A User's Manual, which I've owned for decades.

Being a grouch

It's not so easy being the other green, i.e. more akin to a grouch than Kermit's lighter shade of green.

When I was a small child I had an Oscar the Grouch finger puppet, though it is long gone.  (I don't think I was particularly grouchy as a child, but perhaps my parents saw hints that I might develop in that direction.)  Anyway, I saw a few on eBay but didn't feel obligated to pick one up.  My own kids were only incidentally aware of Sesame Street.*

Anyway, six months ago, we had the division picnic on the Toronto Islands, and I enjoyed myself more than I expected to, even though the vegetarian samosas were delayed.  It was a nice day and we could sit and chat with different people.

How much a difference the setting can make.  Last night was the holiday party for the division and we were upstairs at the Rivoli.  I felt cramped.  The finger food for vegetarians was severely lacking.  One other major change was that I have given up soda and I don't drink alcohol, so going to a bar is just not my idea of a good time.  Given that most of our after work socializing (mostly when people are heading off to new opportunities) happens at bars, I will just stop going (and subsequently become a bit of a pariah).  I also felt incredibly constricted in the place (even though there were some seats) and didn't feel like chatting about anything (work or non-work), so I left after 20 minutes.  It's not that I don't have things that might be interesting to discuss (either my writing or upcoming theatre events) but I seem to prefer doing this in one-on-one interactions.

Still, I think under normal circumstances I would have stuck around longer, but I do not want to celebrate anything in this dumpster fire of a year.  I probably still in some shock and denial over all these terrible election outcomes.  While I am definitely glad to be out of the U.S. (though perhaps suffering a bit of survivor's guilt), there is no question if the U.S. continues to decline (and I don't see how things can possibly improve anytime soon), it will drag Canada down with it, so it is sort of like the people of Pompeii partying in the shadow of the volcano.

One of the more difficult aspects of my personality is that it is difficult for me to enjoy myself fully when I think about all the problems of the world.  Of course, this is paralyzing and overwhelming when you really stop to think about it (one of the characters of Carol Shields's Unless is driven around the bend when trying to face up to all the problems of the world).  So I block it out most of the time, as most of us do.  Do I really do much about other people's problems?  No, since the scope of them is so overwhelming.  I do side with liberals who favor state-sponsored approaches (which can still never cope with all the need out there) as opposed to conservatives who tend to help out a few people in a personalized way and are satisfied with those gestures.  (I probably sound more snarky than I intend right there, but it is an interesting point, which is debated at some length here.  It has been shown that there is a form of self-licensing that if we are good in one aspect of our lives (i.e. voting for progressive politicians or commuting by bicycle or even recycling) then this gives us a certain amount of credits that we can use towards being selfish in other aspects of our lives.  This is kind of depressing, though I have seen it in myself at various points.  Here is a pretty decent paper exploring the phenomenon.)  Anyway, while I do feel kind of financially squeezed, I will see if I can increase my United Way contribution from my paycheck before the year is out.  While worthwhile, this is unlikely to put me in a better frame of mind, and I'll probably still skip all the rest of the holiday celebrations this year, since I am feeling deeply Grinchy/Grouchy right now.

* I just didn't like the direction the program took in the 1990s -- while Elmo actually became a recurring character in 1985 he didn't start to dominate until the early 1990s (a veritable nadir for children's television with the parallel introduction of Barney & Friends), and the show's pacing and themes became kind of unwatchable to me after this point, not that I really tuned in until I was deciding whether to let the kids watch the show.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Escape from Buffalo

I have been planning for a while to get to the Picasso exhibit at the Albright-Knox.  Initially, I had anticipated going on Sunday (today), but the weather forecast started calling for snow on Sunday (possibly as high as 10 cm through Monday morning, though I don't actually think Toronto will get that much).  Nonetheless, it usually snows considerably more in Buffalo, so I decided to switch the plans around and go Saturday morning, bringing my son along for the trip.

We didn't have too much trouble in getting to the Greyhound station, though we had to leave early and I was quite tired on the bus ride.  I had anticipated getting in 5 or 6 hours of reading in total, so I actually switched books and took David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, which is considerably longer than Steve Zipp's Yellowknife.  In the end, I managed to get through a bit under 200 pages, which is still a decent chunk of the book.  However, I could have stuck it out with Yellowknife, and it might actually have been a bit more appropriate, given that Zipp is writing about a city in a very cold climate with its share of eccentrics.  (I'm not quite sure how I feel about The Pale King.  I'm glad that readers have a chance to read it, but it is a sad book, full of death and suicide (perhaps it functions on a meta-level as Wallace's cry for help).  It isn't likely to be on my top ten list for the year.)

It was a bit unusual that there were only 19 passengers on the bus, but it meant that there was no problem in finding a good seat.  It was a bit frustrating to get hung up at customs for 20+ minutes.  Our bus breezed through, and the charter bus right before us.  But the one before that must have had a number of people without visas or perhaps some passenger was suspected of smuggling something.  Anyway, kind of a drag.  We did manage to get to downtown Buffalo around 12:30, which was slightly ahead of scheduled time, but we ought to have made it just after noon.  Given that we had to mail off a few things at the post office, and then go to the Albright-Knox, I decided we didn't want to gamble on getting back for the 4:30 bus and booked the 6:55 return instead.

It was pretty cold in Buffalo, but there was no snow.  I don't think we managed to get to the museum until 2:30. 

Obviously, we would have made better time taking a cab or Ubering it, but we stuck to the local bus or walking (to and from the post office).

The main attraction at the Albright-Knox right now is of course the Picasso exhibit, which runs through Feb. 19, but to get to it, you first walk through an exhibit called Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?  Drexler is a relatively unknown pop artist, who was big into recycling (images, that is).  One of the droller moments in the show is that Warhol did a series of images of Rosalyn Drexler in her role as a woman wrestler.

I wasn't blown away by her exhibit, but there were a few interesting pieces.

Rosalyn Drexler, Shadow Figures in the City, 1962

Rosalyn Drexler, Night Visitors, 1988

The crowds at the Picasso exhibit were very manageable, and we had no trouble in looking at the various paintings (it was slightly busier than this, but not by much).

The exhibit had two rooms dedicated entirely to Picasso, but then another 4 rooms with paintings from the same period, drawing on the museum's collections.  Honestly, most of these paintings were stronger than the Picasso's.

I was glad to see a few of their cubist paintings (Braque and Juan Gris) and some of the surrealist paintings.  But it didn't make any particular sense to include the Stuart Davis in one of the other rooms.  Why Davis and not Beckmann?  (Again, I have a bit of an axe to grind that they still haven't reinstalled Beckmann's Hotel Lobby in the last two years, since they sent it off to Milwaukee.)

Anyway, here are some of the non-Picasso highlights of the exhibit.

Kurt Schwitters, Difficult, 1942-43

Giorgio de Chirico The Anguish of Departure, 1913–14

Robert Delaunay, Soleil, tour, aeroplane, 1913

As far as the Picasso's, La Toilette (1906) from the Albright-Knox and Three Musicians (1921) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art are the stand out pieces (both shown above).

I also quite liked this painting from the Wadsworth Atheneum* and two prints from the Albright-Knox.

Pablo Picasso, The Women of Algiers (after Delacroix), 1954

Pablo Picasso, The Black Pitcher and Death's Head, 1946

Pablo Picasso, In the Studio, 1965

The rest of the Albright-Knox had a few treasures that we hadn't seen previously, or at least not that I can recall.  I'm still hoping that they reinstall their Beckmann soon, and I'll definitely ask the next time I am considering making a visit (probably late 2017 or 2018).

Oskar Kokoschka, London, Large Thames View I, 1926

Robert Rauschenberg, Painting with Red Letter S, 1957

We hopped on the bus back downtown and were anxiously watching the clock.  We actually lost a few minutes when the police blocked the road to let a bus full of visiting NHL players speed along!  We ran over to the terminal.  It was 4:30, but the bus hadn't left yet!  Unfortunately, the driver wouldn't take us, since we didn't have open tickets and the clerk was extremely slow.  I imagine it would have cost another $20, and I just didn't feel like paying the difference.

So we went back out to do a bit of shopping in downtown Buffalo.  While there were fewer construction barriers up, Buffalo's downtown just seems drearier each time I visit.  The strip mall where I had bought some shoes on the last visit now appears to be completely vacant (possibly the food court still operates).  I wouldn't have been completely surprised to see a couple of zombies from Dawn of the Dead shuffling along...

We did get a few things at Rite Aid and looked at the Christmas lights in this park.

Most of the restaurants were closed or closing (even the Tim Horton's closed at 6 pm!), but we did stop in at this Chinese restaurant I had eaten at on the last visit.  It was also empty and desolate.

After we got back, I looked up some of the stats about Buffalo, and it has lost essentially half the population it had in 1950, and its population is just over 250,000 today.  Most tellingly, the average household income is under $25,000, so not only is it a shrinking city, it is a very poor one as well.

When we got back to the bus station, we saw a great big sign saying that all buses to Cleveland (and indeed any points west) were cancelled.  There was a big snowstorm in Ohio that had closed off all the major roads!  They really didn't seem too concerned about what people were going to do, and some stranded passengers probably got hotel rooms but others were just going to camp out in the station apparently.  Fortunately, the buses heading on to New York City were unaffected, and the 6:55 bus back to Toronto was fine (and indeed far less crowded than the one that left at 4:30, so that was a bonus).  As unpleasant as it would have been to be stuck in Cleveland overnight (as almost happened to me last December), getting stuck in Buffalo would have been worse.  So we managed to get out of Buffalo without seeing any meaningful snowfall.  On the whole it was a decent trip, though mostly it reminds me that I am glad I don't live in Buffalo.

* I didn't recall immediately this, but I actually had seen the painting from the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2004, when it was on loan to the Phillips Collection.  I actually had seen many of these Picasso's previously.  The best painting I had never previously seen in person was this one from Fondation Beyeler, located right outside Basel, Switzerland.

Pablo Picasso, Le Sauvetage (The Rescue), 1932