Tuesday, January 31, 2017

February SFYS

I mentioned that I was very bummed out about The Storefront Theatre not being able to get an extension of their lease, though I was glad to hear that SFYS would carry on.  I've found out that the Feb. SFYS will be at the Tarragon Studio Theatre.  The location is ok, not great.  I think the biggest issue is that I don't believe you can take drinks in, which did contribute a bit to the overall mood.  There are a few bar/reading spaces that might work better in the long run, but I am grateful that there is a workable solution for now.

I figure my contribution would be to write one more piece (maybe my last for the foreseeable future) and submit it, though I expect they will have plenty of entries this month.

Anyway, I had started something vaguely inspired by the Donner Pass (with Scott being abandoned along the way), and then I was thinking about an odd train encounter (with a passenger who longed to use a pair of brass knuckles).  Neither of these seemed worthy of extending out to 8-10 pages, but then the creative juices finally started flowing.  At some point after this I decided I would do a parody of a gangster movie but they are trying to muscle in on the maple syrup trade.  And then I set it in Quebec, because why not?  (I did manage to see about 10 minutes of Serie Noire (this time with subtitles) but I don't think it was actually a major influence.)

Basically the core of the play is a parody of Pulp Fiction with a few elements of Reservoir Dogs and maybe just a sprinkling of The Hateful Eight.  I know they don't always go for parodies, but you never know.  This is what I wanted to write.  I finally finished it (it is here if interested), and now I am working on the endings of The Pitch and Meeting Mr. Mouse (to decide if it really is worth putting together an evening of shorts, but I am definitely leaning that way).  I'd say the short pieces have generally been more helpful than not in helping me hone dialog for my longer, more serious pieces, but it is time to just bear down and get them written.  No more excuses!

At any rate, I will find out in a few more days if Les Smattes was accepted for next Monday, and I'll blog again as appropriate.

Update: I heard that Les Smattes is on the line-up for Monday, Feb. 6, starting at 8 pm.  It's at the Tarragon Studio space.  This was really a record turn-around for me.  It's great since it actually allows me to spread the word.

Monday, January 30, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 17th Review - Russian Dolls

I managed to get hold of W.P. Kinsella's final collection of short stories Russian Dolls: Stories from the Breathing Castle, which was published in late 2016, only a few months after Kinsella passed away.  So it is another last work, though in this case, however, it appears Kinsella had completed the book and no posthumous editing was necessary.*  The conceit of the novel is that the narrator, Wylie, is living in a ramshackle rooming house (called the Breathing Castle) in East Vancouver.  He mostly drives a taxi to make ends meet and writes fairly lousy science fiction stories.  Only one or two have been accepted.  He meets Christie, a somewhat troubled soul, on the day she moves into the Breathing Castle.  He makes a successful play for her, and she moves into his room that evening.  Wylie attributes his growth as a writer (and increasing commercial success) to her and her constantly pressing him to tell her stories.  She becomes his Muse.  The book itself alternates between 30 short chapters sketching out Wylie and Christie's adventures and misadventures in Vancouver at the tail end of the 1970s and into the early 80s and the stories that she inspired.  This review from the Star is informative (particularly on the fact that there are no baseball stories in this book**), but it doesn't make it clear just how short many of the stories are (nearly all under 10 pages and several are 3-4 pages).  It is at least plausible that Kinsella's head injury contributed to him working on shorter pieces, since his concentration was not what it once was after the accident, though some of the last pieces he wrote were in the 10 page length, suggesting that he could still occasionally work on longer pieces which were among the best he ever wrote.

While Wylie is a fictional creation, he seems a fairly transparent stand-in for William Kinsella, who did live in Vancouver and drove a taxi around this time.  Where the line gets really blurred in a meta-fictional way is that 6 of Kinsella's published stories (mostly reprinted in the Essential W.P. Kinsella) turn up here.  So if these Christie-inspired stories are the same as the ones that W.P. Kinsella wrote, then Wylie is W.P., right?  I'd say probably not, though there probably was at least one Muse-like female in his past.  In any case, Wylie describes himself as an unreliable narrator, but then discusses how Christie is unreliable in the extreme, with her stories about her past changing daily.  In many ways, this gets at the crux of communication.  The listener (or reader) is told something and must decide whether to believe it.  Particularly in the case of second-hand accounts and fiction, there is no meaningful way to verify the truth of the statements, although it is possible to find them to be inconsistent, which then leaves one with deciding to believe one statement (the last one made?) or none -- and then accept one is listening to a liar.  John Barth often made this point about the nature of fiction and that readers often want to know "the truth" behind a piece of literature, while this leads to an impossible quest.  Taken as a whole, this book engages with many of Barth's concerns but is a bit less heavy-handed than later Barth.  I'm also reminded more than a little of Robert Kroetsch, perhaps because one of Kroetsch's last postmodern novels (The Puppeteer) kicks off in Vancouver.

I have to admit that on the whole, the interstitial material (Wylie and Christie) is a bit more compelling than many of the stories.  It is interesting watching inspiration at work (even if somewhat fictionalized).  Having gone from a bad writer to a fairly good one, Wylie is quite shaken whenever he thinks Christie will leave him.  He has made her into a totem of sorts and believes that his writing will dry up with her gone.  I can't speak for all writers, but certainly some are so superstitious (about the source of their creativity) that this could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  (While it might be apocryphal, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas relates that Juan Rulfo wrote one masterpiece, the novel Pedro Páramo, which inspired a generation of South American novelists, particularly Gabriel García Márquez, but then went silent because his (Rulfo's) Uncle Celerino died and he no longer had access to Uncle Celerino's stock of stories.)

I know that I have read other stories and novels about male authors and their female muses, though I am struggling to think of one off the top of my head.  What's somewhat interesting is that in this case, Wylie and Christie are fairly close in age, whereas often the female Muse is younger (just think of Picasso going after younger and younger models/lovers).  The closest I can think of right now is the real life story of Earl Birney and his companion who was 45 years younger than he was.  I simply never could get over the squickiness over this age gap to enjoy the poems that she inspired.  Actually, I did come across an interesting interview with Kate Christiansen, who says that she has had a number of male muses, though her novel The Astral is about a male poet who gets in all kinds of trouble with his wife when she finds out that she is not his sole Muse.  I haven't read The Astral, but it definitely looks like something that might be up my alley.

Back to the stories in Russian Dolls: quite a few are set in Vancouver.  Generally, they take place in the Downtown East Side where winos and drug users were and still are common (and while there are people with money in this Vancouver, the city is at least a decade away from being totally transformed by the influx of money from Hong Kong and then mainland China).  Maybe a third are about other lodgers in Wylie's rooming house, often with a magic realist twist to them.  Given that many of the stories are quite short, the magic realism can overwhelm the story, particularly with "Shorts Story" (which I didn't care for and wish had been replaced by "Elvis Bound") and "Parrots".  Of this batch, the most successful were "Truth and History" and "Zachariah Durdle."  As has been said many times before, writers are quite notorious for taking all aspects of their own lives, and those of their friends and acquaintances, and using it all as grist for the mill.  Wylie is certainly no exception to this.

There were a few stories about immigrant forebears, almost obligatory in Canadian literature.  I'd say "The Ridgepole" was the best of the group, though it still seemed a bit predictable.  A couple of stories referenced Canada's shameful treatment of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII, namely "The Bluebird Cafe" and "The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society."  Both are good.  "The Last Surviving Member ..." is very moving -- one of my favourites in the whole book -- and happens to also be reprinted from The Essential W.P. Kinsella.

There were also a number of stories inspired by various couples that Wylie and Christie would see in restaurants, and she would ask him to write a story about them.  Some of them are upbeat, but they get a bit darker as Wylie begins to feel his hold over Christie is loosening.  This includes "Murderous Ways," "Mama's Little Visa Loves Shortenin' Bread," "The Knife in the Door" and "Do Not Abandon Me."  The last two in particular are quite transparent in how Wylie is working through his feelings towards Christie in his fiction and pleading with her not to go.  "Do Not Abandon Me" is a strong story (with an ambiguous ending) and is also included in The Essential W.P. Kinsella.

The collection ends with an amusing two page story (with some echoes of sadness) called "Asian Girl" that reminded me of the short fable-like stories of Donald Barthelme.  Perhaps it was wise not to end on a completely sad note, even though Wylie fears his Muse is lost forever.  ("Asian Girl" also features a cameo by Stephen King -- perhaps just a wry flashback to the trouble Kinsella got into for putting J.D. Salinger in Shoeless Joe.)

I'd say this is essential reading for fans of Kinsella (along with The Essential W.P. Kinsella).  It doesn't always work, but there are a wide variety of stories, many quirky, some sad and/or challenging.   Loss and/or the fear of loss hangs over the collection, though it is certainly not a dark or dreary read.  The issue of creativity may be of particular interest to writers looking for their own inspiration.

* Not to be too grim about it, but Kinsella was suffering from apparently severe complications from diabetes and chose assisted suicide.  To some degree, this gave him more control over not having too many loose ends in terms of his last fictional works.

** The review also doesn't make it clear that there are no stories with First Nations characters, such as Silas Ermineskin from the Fencepost Chronicles.  I don't think that Kinsella was backing away from these characters due to the controversy over appropriation of voice.  He basically felt this concept was a construct of Eastern academic types, though perhaps more recently he would have acidly noted that a few disgruntled, unsuccessful Native authors should be added to the list of people who were criticizing him.  It's at least somewhat interesting that Tomson Highway is firmly in the camp of writers being able to write whatever they want (and directors to cast whomever they want) without being held back by cries of cultural appropriation.  Not that all of his fellow Native writers agree with him, of course.  My own view is that writers should be able to write what they want, and that includes "punching down," but they also have to be willing to take the heat for it, especially in these times when even looking at someone slightly cross-eyed or throwing a bit of shade ends up with people of more than average sensitivity trying to stir up a shitstorm on Twitter.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Annie Baker's John in Toronto (and other upcoming theatre)

I just saw this in Now: Annie Baker's latest play, John, is opening in Toronto.  This really has flown in under the radar, but I expect it will be reviewed next week.  It is actually in previews this afternoon.  Apparently, it is being put on by The Company Theatre, but staged at Canadian Stage (in the Berkeley St. location).  It is another long play (3 hours, two intermissions), so for me, I am only going to be interested in a matinee performance.  I'm not in love with Annie Baker's work, but it is usually worth seeing.  I decided I would pass on today's preview, but I'll go next weekend.  Some basic information here, and the Canadian Stage calendar is here, where you actually order the tickets.  The matinee prices are reasonable ($40 for full price), but I didn't look into the evening performances.  (Yet again, I am finding I am completely uninterested in the Canadian Stage productions, but they rent their space out to some interesting events...)

Incidentally, it was The Company Theatre that was going to put on Baker's The Aliens, so I am assuming those plans have been completely scrapped, so perhaps another (more) indy theatre company will take up the challenge.  My understanding is that no one in Toronto has produced The Flick either, though Vancouver actually got a recent production.*  Time to step up your game, Toronto theatre companies...

I was wondering if any of the theatre review websites even mentioned John, but not so far.  I did see that Rabbit Hole, which is playing for another two weeks at Red Sandcastle, got a quite positive review at Mooney's.  I'm still unlikely to go as the plot just sounds far too painful for me deal with (family dealing with the death of a child hit by a car).  But perhaps I'll reconsider, especially if I get enough writing done the rest of the weekend and need a change of pace.  (It's only $20, which is quite the bargain.  Tickets are $25 at the door though, so book ahead here.)

I then did just a bit of poking around on the DPS website, and it looks like late Feb. will bring Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin, which is a dark comedy/fable about getting on the property ladder.  I might go to this, depending on timing and ticket prices.  (It looks like it will be in Kensington Market in an odd space, and I usually dig stuff like that.  Incredibly enough there will be another production of the same play in April, by Seven Siblings Theatre.**)

As far as I can tell, the Storefront Theatre hasn't been able to find a home for Stupid F*cking Bird in early March, but I will certainly keep checking in.  Early March should bring Proof to Red Sandcastle, and I plan to go to that, so I'll have to be a bit careful given everything else going on in March.

It looks like Alumnae has firmed up their schedule and will be doing Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House in April, and I'll stop in and check that out.  Slightly later in April, apparently Ryerson Theatre School will be doing Ruhl's Eurydice, which is my favorite of her plays to date.  I could go, though I'd say I am leaning against.  (And actually it looks like a single date, so it is probably something like a senior class project and not something open to the public.  Oddly enough, I guess I passed on Soulpepper doing Eurydice in summer 2015.  Was I so exhausted by moving?  Did I think the ticket prices were too high?  Not sure.)

I already mentioned that Ntozake Shange's for colored girls will be at Soulpepper through most of May.  This might be one where I am looking for people to go with, as it is such a downer.

Also, Soulpepper should be leading off next season with Ayckbourn's House and Garden, which should be August/September (apparently this hasn't been officially announced yet...).

Sometimes I get a bit confused about which plays have played Toronto (broadly encompassing Stratford and Shaw).  Lisa D'Amour's Detroit played Ottawa and just recently Vancouver, but apparently not Toronto.  It has more than a few similarities to Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses (which closed at Tarragon recently).  In this case, Detroit was written earlier than The Realistic Joneses.  It is Will Eno's Middletown which is being produced at Shaw this summer.  (I'm sure most of my confusion is that I saw Detroit and Middletown at Steppenwolf in the same season.)  In any case, there should be a two week run of Detroit in Toronto in August.  I don't know if I will go, though of the two plays, I liked Detroit more than Middletown.

Harold Pinter's play about an affair, Betrayal, is coming in September apparently (though I haven't been able to find out much about who is actually staging it).  Soulpepper did this back in 2000, so it's not bad timing for a new production.  I'll most likely go.

Then there is Connor McPherson's Dublin Carol coming in November.  Fly on the Wall Theatre did a great job with McPherson's Port Authority, and they are now tackling Dublin Carol.  However, this is a play that didn't grab my attention when it was done by Steppenwolf many moons ago, and I didn't go then.  And I am not planning on going this time around either, but it is definitely worth checking out if you are a McPherson fan.

Edit (2/18): As I go into more detail here, I found out that Stupid F*cking Bird will be going on as scheduled, and that Love and Information is going up as part of this summer's Toronto Fringe, so I'm a happy camper.

* And I'm just finding out now that UBC is putting on Caryl Churchill's Love and Information as I type this.  I can't believe no one in Toronto seems even vaguely interested, though there was a high school production out in Etobicoke!  This is really embarrassing from my perspective.

** I'm not even sure they are aware they've been scooped.  I remember this happened years ago in Chicago with Mr. Marmalade.  I didn't have the time to see both productions, but I enjoyed the one I did see.  With Radiant Vermin, I'm more likely to just see the Precisely Peter production in Feb., but if I like the script, I might consider going in April.  On Feb. 25, Seven Siblings Theatre is doing a staged reading of Rivera's Marisol.  I like this play a lot (having seen it 3 times), but I'm not so into it I'd go again for a staged reading.  Still for folks who have not seen or read the play, this is a good opportunity.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vanity, vanity

All is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 1:1).   Such a cheerful sentiment.  On the one hand, the universe is so vast, that all our human concerns are just a speck, not even a hill of beans.  And yet we still need to find some meaning for the time we do spend here on Earth.  The way most religious people square this circle is by saying there is a personal God with infinite knowledge and insight who will take the time to care for each of the millions (now billions) of humans and furthermore judge each of us for what we have done and accomplished while alive.  For agnostics and atheists, this seems unlikely, and they must muddle along, often drawing on humanist principles, but assuming that there is no ultimate purpose to their lives.  (It's somewhat interesting that the phrase "This, too, shall pass" is not in the Bible.  One could certainly argue that it could be derived from Ecclesiastes in a (very) general way, say from "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).  This post suggests some other possible origins, though interestingly does not list Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, though again it would be more of a paraphrase than a direct quote.  I might mention in passing that Ecclesiastes seems to me to contain more than the normal share of contradictory passages.)

Before this post gets too philosophical, I will mention that it is going to center around my thoughts on Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which I finished up a short while back.  Still, there is a clear linkage, since Thackeray has in mind the concept that the good and the wicked will not receive their just rewards in this life time, and while this may seem puzzling or unfair to many, it is the way of the world.  (It would only be in the afterworld that this gets sorted out.)  Thackeray also draws on the idea of the wheel of fortune, since individuals (and indeed families) can go up and down in terms of their material comfort and whether or not they will be received in society (intimately linked as Thackeray points out at length), but their elevation or decline has nothing to do with their inherent goodness but with their cleverness (but even moreso their luck).

While Thackeray was probably not the first to really dwell on parents dying and the attendant fussing over wills and legacies, this is incredibly pervasive throughout the novel, with several characters left out of wills and the impact this had on their fortunes sketched out.  But taking the long, long, long view, it doesn't really matter, since the heir and the disowned son both will arrive at the same place (though the poor do tend to die much sooner).

"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)

I have trouble believing Thackeray completely holds with this philosophy, since it makes all human endeavors, particularly writing about such endeavors, pointless.  He may hold a more intermediate (and fairly jaded) view that there is no point in being overly proud, since one's position is so largely due to luck (and in particular one's luck in being born to a particular set of parents).

I think it is probably fair to say that Thackeray is among the least moral of the Victorian novelists, since good people do not ultimately prevail.  They may or may not, but it is largely due to circumstances beyond their control.  And the wicked are not necessarily punished, which is fairly radical for English novelists of this period.  I'd say that Middlemarch (even though written over 20 years later) is still more sentimental (and judgemental) than Vanity Fair.  I didn't particularly like Middlemarch, so I am certainly biased, but I'd say that while there are a number of key elements that Eliot borrows from Vanity Fair (issues surrounding bequests and couples finding themselves ill-matched), Vanity Fair is by far superior in its handling of them.

Let me back up to possible influences on Thackeray's world view.  The most common metaphor that Thackeray uses in the introduction and throughout the novel is that the characters are puppets that the author has been manipulating for the amusement of the reader.  It doesn't have any higher meaning and the play doesn't necessarily have a moral.  This seems a bit of a callback to Shakespeare's Prospero, but it may be ever more closely tied with Jacques's speech in As You Like It: "All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages."

I will stop here and say that while I liked the Oxford edition of Vanity Fair, since it had Thackeray's own illustrations and pretty good notes,* it was extremely annoying in that 1) the Introduction SPOILED the entire plot of the book (which I thought was incredibly rude) and even the footnotes weren't much better what with their foretelling what would come later and 2) there are two paragraphs that have been misplaced (by a couple of pages) for centuries, but the notes only mention this and the book wasn't reset, which seemed unduly prissy.  So if you get this edition and haven't read the book before, save the Introduction for the end.  I wish I had.

To that end, do not read on if you don't want MAJOR SPOILERS.

It may be that Thackeray is one of the first English novelists to cast doubt on the happily ever after aspect of marriage.  I'm sure that some of the Gothic novelists had their heroines marry monsters, but the idea that two normal people get married and then become estranged seems a bit radical for English literature of that time (I could be off of course).  The first chapters of Vanity Fair came out just before Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were accepted for publication, so it probably wasn't a huge influence on those novels.  Maybe there was just something in the air at that time.  It is interesting that while George Eliot definitely picks up on some of Thackeray's themes, Jane Austen's fiction is in some ways more conservative (once the marriageable females have found their mates, the curtain drops -- maybe I am oversimplifying a bit...).

Back to Vanity Fair, it doesn't take too long for the reader to grow weary of  Amelia's air-brushing of the past, selectively forgetting how badly George had treated her in Belgium.  If anything, it is astonishing how long it takes William Dobbin to get sick of being in the friend-zone.**  (And who would have thought that Thackeray would have been so eloquent in describing the friend-zone: "He had placed himself at her feet so long that the poor little woman had been accustomed to trample upon him. She didn't wish to marry him, but she wished to keep him. She wished to give him nothing, but that he should give her all. It is a bargain not unfrequently levied in love.")  If for nothing else, this delving into unrequited love, as well as the commentary on people who marry for love versus more mercenary schemes, guarantees the novel's importance in English literature.  (Nonetheless, both Amelia and Dobbin are less interesting to read about than many of the other characters.)

While I totally accept that Becky Sharp is street-smart, she does make some very poor decisions, with marrying Rawdon Crawley before the inheritance is settled surely being the worst.  It was also extremely foolish to leave Rawdon in debtor's prison while she carried on with Lord Steyne.  Nonetheless, I could see these decisions being organic to her character.  What I don't believe is that she would decide that Major Dobbins, having proved himself a worthy adversary, is worth her intervening in his and Amelia's affairs.  She seems very much the type that would harbor a deep grudge against him.  Even though her relations with Amelia have been more positive, she still doesn't strike me as the type of person who would have gone out of her way to add to Amelia's store of happiness.  Thus, it is very hard for me to credit that turn of events where she shows Amelia the letter that proves once and for all that her husband was a creep not worth mourning.  (Is it just me, or does it seem unlikely she would have been able to hang onto that letter -- to say nothing of the painting of Joseph! -- despite the upheavals after Rawdon and she separated?  For that matter, how does Amelia hang onto her small piano, despite the family having to sell off their silverware?)  This is unfortunate, as it really wouldn't have taken much for Thackeray to achieve the same end but to have Becky reveal the letter in a much more malicious fashion, lording it over her just out of boredom, rather than doing it in order to propel Amelia into a decent match with the noble Major.  (I suppose there is a bit of selfishness in her motives in that if her previous compatriots keep hanging about (trying to marry Amelia) it will spoil her chances with Joseph, but this still seems out of character.)

I'd say there are a few more major plot holes towards the end as Thackeray was trying to wrap up this novel.  I simply can't fathom why Joseph wouldn't leave with Major Dobbin if he was so scared of Becky.  There is also no reason why Dobbin couldn't return the next day to try to convince Joseph to leave, so that seems like a real dropped thread.

Perhaps the strangest bit of all is how the reader is introduced to Becky running a charity gift stall at the end of the novel.  I really do think it is quite radical that Thackeray ends the novel without Becky paying for her sins, but this new role seems so completely out of character that I don't find it plausible.  There are so many other things she might do to show she is back in genteel society, but I think this would bore her to tears.  That is probably my greatest single fault with the novel (with Thackeray's casual racism being the second). The second half drags a bit and could have used some more editing (to clean up a couple of the issues I just noted), though on the whole I did enjoy it.  It is certainly an important novel, so I'm glad I finally got around to it (though I am not terribly likely to read the entire thing again).  I am wondering if its length is the main reason we read Meredith's The Egoist instead of Vanity Fair back in our 19th Century literature course when Vanity Fair seems to be more influential (and certainly funnier).  I have quite a few more Victorian era novels I plan to read, though this may be the last one I felt I really had to read to round out my education.

* One thing that the notes have made me take stock of is how little I know about Roman literature.  Apparently, Thackeray was smitten with Horace and particularly the Odes, and he quoted them extensively.  My impression is that the English (with their love of Empire) were generally more drawn to the Roman authors and the American Great book tradition was much more into the Greeks.  While the UM syllabus may not have been entirely traditional, as far as I can recall, the only Roman texts that showed up were Virgil's The Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphosis.  Somewhat shamefully, I've never cracked The Aeneid, though I did read Ovid (the Humphries's translation).  I've decided to commit to rereading Homer and then going through Virgil by 2018 at the latest (I'll probably just stick with my Fitzgerald though I might at least dip into Sarah Ruden's version).  Somewhere along the line I'll also look into the newish Raeburn translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis.  I'm not quite sure how much deeper I want to go into Ovid, though Prof. Green has made translations of the poems of eros and the poems of exile.  I'll try to get through Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, Juvenal's Satires, Horace's Odes and Epistles and perhaps The Golden Ass by Apuleius.  That will probably be more than enough to cover the basics, and then it would be back to the Greeks.

** I've run across a few people who feel just talking about the friend-zone is sexist, since it implies that women should all give it up to men for the asking.  I don't believe it implies anything like that, but it does point out the unfairness of women that intentionally (or even subconsciously) try to keep men (who want to date them) around but have no intention of changing the relationship to a more romantic one.  It also doesn't apply to opposite sex friends when it is purely Platonic on both sides.  I let myself get sucked into the friend-zone many, many years ago, and I finally stood up for myself a la Major Dobbins and the relationship dynamics did change a bit.  Sadly, I wasn't able to get as much satisfaction as he did, though on the other hand, I wasn't strung along for 10+ years either.

The Oxford notes suggest that Thackeray really did not like mixed-race individuals coming over to England because he had an illegitimate half-sister (Sarah Blechynden) who was half-Indian.  Unfortunately, this animus spread into other areas of his life, and Thackeray was a supporter of the U.S. Confederacy and slavery(!) when most of his compatriots had denounced the practice.  Apparently the racism, which is only a very minor strain in Vanity Fair, becomes more and more pronounced in his later novels, so I'll be giving them a pass.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Mixed up day

This was a little like the up and down day over a year ago, though fortunately no technological melt-downs (knock wood).

I've been working a bit too hard lately, so I tried to sleep in at least a little bit this morning.  I decided I would deal with groceries on Sunday, though I did run a load of laundry.  Then I set out for Kensington Market.  It's always a bit hard to decide the best way to get there, and I thought that perhaps the subway would not be ideal, since it was not going to be running north of St. George, so there would be a lot of chaos at the station.  I walked over to the College streetcar instead.

I'd heard that there was a medical marijuana dispensary nearby, but I hadn't actually paid any attention until today.  It's next to the pizza place (where a nail salon used to be).  I do find it a bit droll this is in a building with lawyers apparently on the top floor.

The ride was relatively uneventful until we got to Queen's Park.  There was a huge rally/march planned for the day.  I still don't really know what it was about.  It seemed like a total grab bag of protestors with a pro-women agenda who were pissed off about Trump.  (Maybe all the people stopped on the way to D.C. decided to march in Toronto, though it seems fairly pointless to me, since the march didn't have a real focus.*)

I do know that the police officers could have held the crowds back and let the streetcar through (there were almost no people in the actual intersection), but decided instead to make the streetcar wait (at least a half hour).  I thought this was a dereliction of duty, and I was royally pissed off.  Fortunately, I was only going another 2 or 3 stops, so I hopped off and walked it.

I was just a bit early, so I stopped in at the AGO, only to find enormous crowds.  Even to get in to the main galleries (not the special exhibit) took far longer than I expected, so I really only stuck around for 10-15 minutes.  I was getting pretty sick of crowds by this point.

I then walked over to The Round (it's actually on Augusta, but is just one block west of Kensington Market).  I saw Wolf Manor doing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.  I thought the acting was quite good, but actually wasn't that thrilled about the script.  It seemed kind of implausible on several levels.  Anyway, it was quite intimate, basically one ring of tables surrounding the actors.  If this sounds like your cup of tea, you can hustle out and catch them tonight or tomorrow (details here).  That's it for this run.  (I was happy that I was able to keep my cough under control.  I think I'm finally on the mend, and even my ear isn't bothering me much anymore.)

I have to say I am more interested in the rest of Wolf Manor's season, particularly Three Sisters in March.  As far as I can tell, they aren't selling subscriptions, but I'll keep checking in to find out what they are up to.

I swung by a bookstore in the Market, but actually thought the books were overpriced (particularly the ones that had been sitting outside), so I probably will not go back, even though I definitely enjoyed the vibe inside.  I have enough books anyway...

I then walked the rest of the way to U of T.  I actually stopped in at their bookstore.  I didn't get any textbooks or anything (I remember years and years ago, they used to have a big shelf of nothing but Penguin paperbacks), but I did pick up a UT t-shirt on sale.  I could have gotten a Class of 2016 sweat shirt for cheap, but decided that was a step too far.  It was getting quite foggy by this point, and there were far fewer people around, which was quite different from the afternoon.

Robarts Library didn't have the books I was looking for, though I put a search on one of them.  I found out that one book was at Pratt and the library was still open for 30 minutes, so I headed east.  I think I was a bit confused, however, and I stopped in at the Trinity Library instead.  (I realized my mistake quickly, but actually Pratt would have been too long a walk anyway.)  The Trinity Library didn't have any of the Buzzati or Rezzori books I wanted to borrow, but they did have Juvenal and a newish translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis, so I took those.  (I'm on just a bit of a classics kick, inspired by Vanity Fair, but I'll go into more details about that later.)

That's the day so far.  I'll focus on resting and doing a bit of reading this evening.

* To expand just a bit, many women had on the pink anti-Trump hats, but then there were posters about proportional voting (since it supposedly will be better for women's interests) and some pro-union posters and some others that I had no clue about.  So definitely no overarching goals or obvious organizing principle to the protest.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 16th Review - Cafe Babanussa

This recent novel by Karen Hill is a bit challenging to review.  It's quite incredible that it was written at all, given the struggles of the author with severe mental illness.  It is also incredibly sad that she was not alive to see its publication.  She had been working on it on and off for years, and it was largely in its current state when she died (perhaps the family found some comfort in that it was a freak accident and not death by suicide...), and then her brother, the author Lawrence Hill, did some minor editing and brought it through the publication process.  So it is a sad first and last work by Karen Hill.  I'm probably giving judging it slightly differently than other novels due to the author's struggles, though there were still more than a few things about the novel that troubled me.

This piece gives a brief overview of how Lawrence Hill approached the task of editing the novel, as does this Toronto Star story, with the added benefit of family photos.  The foreward to the novel goes into a bit more detail about his interactions with Karen.  The novel is supplemented with Karen's non-fictional essay "On Being Crazy," which shows that the bouts of mental illness apparently intensified over her life (and seemed even more incapacitating than those that were represented in the novel).  There is no question that this is quite useful (if sad) documentary piece written by someone who had experienced mental illness, as well as experienced different health care approaches to mental illness.  While I can think of a few novels and novellas that try to get inside the head of a person suffering from mental illness (Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Gogol's Diary of a Madman, arguably some of Tolstoy's and Dostoevsky's and even Joseph Conrad's characters, Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould's Secret, though that is a bit of a stretch, etc.), this may well be the only one actually written by someone suffering from such debilitating mental illness (rather than just visiting on the fringes of madness as many authors do).  So Café Babanussa is quite valuable from that perspective.

That doesn't really answer how well it works as a work of art.  I think that will depend on how compelling readers find Hill's life story (at least through her travel to Berlin and back to Toronto).  Again, there are very few novels out there that show mixed-race individuals living in West Berlin in the 1980s, particularly those following a bohemian lifestyle.  The novel is paced reasonably well.  I found the dialog serviceable, though somewhat clunky in the opening and closing sections.  I think it would have benefited from a more demanding editor, which is generally the case for most novels published posthumously.

SPOILERS ahead (though anyone that researches the life of Karen Hill will know what ground the novel covers)

Ultimately, I just didn't like the character of "Karen," who made, in my view, one bad decision after another.  I've never been comfortable with novels which celebrate open relationships or "free love," regardless of whether the main character is male or female (though the latter is certainly rarer).  At one point, Karen takes a break from Berlin and does some agricultural work in France and basically hops in the sack with any cute French man she comes across.  I just can't support such choices, but the real deal-breaker for me was when she persists in hooking up with a German drug addict, even after she knows he is a user.  I really lose interest in characters that make such terrible life choices.  I'm sure I see too much of myself in Werner (Karen's estranged German husband), though hopefully I am somewhat less uptight/controlling and certainly less racist.  Probably the final straw for me was when she meets an African artist (estranged from his German wife) at the Café Babanussa.  She starts up a relationship with him and, at some point, decides that to really feel Black (rather than mixed-race) she wants to have a Black child, so I guess she stops using birth control or is more careless than usual.  This was really a selfish decision on many levels, particularly as she knew she would be heading back to Canada relatively soon and that her unborn daughter might never even meet her father.  Basically, how positively the reader feels about "free spirits" will shape how much they like this novel.  Given some of her flitting around Europe and the precariousness of her Berlin days, I actually saw a few parallels to Dos Passos's USA Trilogy (itself a now neglected work of art, which I would encourage people to read once in their lives).

Anyway, the most troubling aspect of the novel is the ending (and here follow some severe SPOILERS).

I have to say, I wish Lawrence Hill had provided some insight into whether this was artistic license or real.  (Karen had made some major edits to her personal history when she merged her two brothers into a fictional sister, for example.)  At any rate, her nightmares get more vivid between her first and second hospitalization and she starts dreaming she was raped.  These become more and more real, and at some point she wonders whether she is actually regaining buried memories that she was molested as a young girl.  Then she decides that these are real memories, and that it was a specific family friend.  At least part of her return to Canada is prompted by the need to confront him (again, just a terrible decision for someone as mentally fragile as she is by this point).  I don't know what the medical literature says about whether childhood trauma can trigger or worsen mental illness in someone who was already genetically disposed to it.  (This study suggests it is a key factor, though it doesn't appear to unravel the relative causation of genes and trauma.)  Anyway, what I am getting at is that Karen Hill may have invented a fictional abuser in order to shift "blame" away from her mother (who also had bipolar disorder).  To my mind, the confrontation scene is completely unbelievable, particularly when the abuser (now at death's door) admits he did abuse her -- and says that the main reason he abused Karen was to take her successful father "down a notch"!  On top of everything else, this is a far too pat (if sad) resolution to her story, written from a women's studies perspective.  It would seem that she can now go into therapy and successfully fight off these demons now that she knows the truth, when in fact Karen's mental illness returned many times in Canada (and actually seemed more severe than when she was in Germany).  I personally won't try to dig any more into her actual biography, but it definitely leaves a big question mark over the novel.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

DC tourism, part 2

I went quite quickly through the National Gallery, Main Building.  I felt kind of bad about it, though I had done a fairly thorough tour on my last visit.  I basically stopped to look at the Rembrandt's and a few Italian paintings.  I slowed down to take in the Impressionists (though several galleries were closed for reinstallation) and the American painters Whistler and Sargent (though I believe all of the Ashcan School paintings have been relocated to the East Building).

John Singer Sargent, Street in Venice, 1882

I was quite surprised that the Stuart Davis exhibit was in the Main Building, since thematically it belongs in the East Building.  However, after the reinstallation of paintings in the East Building, it might just be too difficult to put on large exhibits, and they may all go in the Main Building from here on out.

While I was actually fairly hungry by this point, I decided I would push on and see the Davis exhibit, and then eat in the underground cafeteria that connects the two buildings.  (While this isn't a great deal, it is probably the most reasonable cafeteria on the mall itself.)  The Stuart Davis exhibit is very well done, though it is a bit smaller than the version at the Whitney.  I will refer interested parties to the second half of this post where I talk about the show.  In particular, a number of the Paris-inspired scenes were missing.  Nonetheless, it is a very enjoyable and lively show.  It runs until early March.

I went reasonably quickly through the East Building.  It is generally interesting to find there seems to be some new critical attention given to the Chicago artist Roger Brown, and they had some newly acquired works by him, including this painting.

Roger Brown, Waterfall, 1974

While there were many familiar paintings, particularly the Picasso's and the Matisse's and Cezanne's, there were some with which I wasn't as familiar.
Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, 1903

I'm fairly sure I hadn't see this Klee painting before, though I probably had seen the Max Weber.

Paul Klee, New House in the Suburbs, 1924

Max Weber, Rush Hour, New York, 1915

I'm reasonably sure that I had not seen this Beckmann painting before, though I wasn't enthralled by it.

Max Beckmann, Bathing Scene (The Green Cloak), 1934

I was actually fairly bummed out that The Argonauts was not on view (or at least not in the proper room with the other Expressionists) when I turned the corner and saw it in a prominent location.  So that was great.

Max Beckmann, The Argonauts, 1949-50

Yet again, Falling Man was not on view.*

While it was a good visit to the National Gallery, I was starting to stress about the time.  Given that the Metro was kind of unreliable, I just walked over to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, despite the cold.  My timing was quite good, as it was free to visit the museum on Sunday, and one exhibit (No Man's Land) was closing that afternoon and the highlights of collection had just reopened.

My favorite piece from No Man's Land was this neon sculpture called Street Ophelia.

Mira Dancy, Street Ophelia (neon blue), 2014

I have to admit, I don't go to this museum often (partly because you usually have to pay to visit...), and I believe I haven't visited in at least 20 years (and it was probably in a completely different location).  I remember buying some coasters based on this painting for my mother, and I reclaimed a couple after she passed away.  (I didn't see anything like that for sale in the gift shop on this visit.)

Alma Woodsey Thomas, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses, 1969

Other highlights from the permanent collection were this self-portrait by Frida Kahlo and an urban streetscape.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937

Georgia Mills Jessup, Rainy Night, Downtown, 1967

I was finally feeling back on track after this visit wrapped up.  I walked over to the Convention Center and got my badge and all my materials for the conference.  I swung by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (since it is reasonably close by) for another hour or so, then went back to the hotel.

Most of the rest of the trip was taken up with the conference, though I did sneak out Tuesday evening to visit the Phillips Collection.

There were several old favorites and a few paintings that I didn't recall seeing.  By far the oddest display was this room they had completely covered in beeswax, which gave off a pleasant smell.

Vincent Van Gogh, Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888

Juan Gris, Abstraction, 1915

Judith Rothschild, Interior, 1970

So that wraps up my highlights of the trip.  I think I managed to squeeze in quite a bit of art, on top of several days' worth of conference-going.  I'll decide closer to the summer whether I think I want to make the trip again in 2018 (and thus have to get a paper ready) or just focus on travel closer to home.

* I learned later that it is on view in the Beckmann in New York exhibit at the Met, along with Hotel Lobby from the Albright-Knox -- both paintings that I have been disappointed in not seeing in their home museums in a long time (or, in the case of Hotel Lobby, never).  I have agreed to be reasonable and not try to fly or bus it to New York just to catch this show -- aside from these two paintings and two major triptychs, there are really only 4 additional paintings that I really would like to see, and two of those I saw back in the 2003 Queens MoMA show.  I just can't justify the time and expense for that.  I may not even pick up the catalog unless it turns up at BMV on some extreme deal later in the year.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Touring DC (in last days of Obama administration)

I'm not quite sure how many times I've been to D.C.  We went maybe twice during my childhood (and I believe we toured the White House during the Carter administration).  When I was living in New Jersey, I went a few times, including once to see the AIDS quilt (my mother was also in town for that) and then for a Save Our Cities rally (where I saw Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson and perhaps even David Dinkins).  Then I started going for TRB, and I've probably been 7 or 8 times for that.  I think my wife came and visited with me when my brother lived in the area.  My kids have not been to D.C. yet.

In general, each time I visit, D.C. seems a bit shabbier and the Metro system seems worse (with longer headways and fewer employees to talk to when something goes wrong).  Maybe it doesn't help that the majority of times I've visited have been in the winter, which is certainly not the best time to visit.  D.C. is definitely not a well run city, particularly if it does snow, but the museums are pretty incredible.  I haven't honestly decided if I will go back to DC (even for TRB) while Trump is there, but perhaps I will.  Nonetheless, I am relatively unlikely to take the kids there while he is in the White House.

After I dropped my stuff off in the hotel and took care of TRB business and meetings, I still had a few hours of daylight.  It turned out that I was staying quite near the White House and the Renwick Gallery.

I don't go into the Renwick that frequently (it's generally full of interior design objects that are artistic and not all that practical), but it was right there, so I stopped in.  The most interesting artist was making these objects from unfired clay and then painting them.  She generally left them unfinished and looking like ruined objects, as with this piano.

Kristen Morgin, Piano Forte, 2004

The Corcoran is just down the street, but it was completely closed for renovations.  It may open later in 2017.  The lions seemed appropriately sleepy.  (Yes, there was still some snow on the ground, though less than I had expected.)

I started wandering down to the Lincoln Memorial.  I actually don't get over that way that often (only every fifth trip or so), even though I generally consider Abraham Lincoln the best President.

I ran across a small museum called the Art Museum of the Americas, sponsored by OAS (Organization of American States).  I'm sure I've never been in there before.  I took a quick look around.  I thought the exhibit The Great Swindle: Works by Santiago Montoya was not bad.  Most of the pieces of art were made out of currency, manipulated to emphasize different colors.

It took me a while to find it, but I finally tracked down the Einstein statute near the National Academy of Sciences.


For a moment, I thought that they had completely closed off the Lincoln Memorial, but it was open.  It was pretty slippery though, given the snow and ice on all that marble.  I didn't see anyone fall down, however.

I didn't get really close to it, but on the way over to the Washington Monument, I saw that the Korean War Veterans Memorial is sort of a paired concept to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with the main difference that there are sculpted soldiers nearby.  I thought it was somewhat derivative, but I wasn't particularly troubled by it.

However, I am appalled by the National World War II Memorial.  It looks exactly like something Hitler would have built to glorify the Third Reich (had they won).  I'm far from the only one that thinks this, and this is a particularly good post saying why the Memorial is terrible.  About the only good thing that can be said is that from most angles from the Lincoln Memorial steps you can't actually see it.

I got a few good shots of the Washington Monument.  I didn't realize that due to elevator malfunctions, the entire Monument is closed down.  Seems like a pretty good analogy for D.C. and the entire national political establishment since roughly the mid 1990s.

I was running pretty late at this point, but I decided to try to get up to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is always open until 7 pm while the rest of the Smithsonian closes at 5 or 5:30.  Thus, it usually is the last thing I see most days I am doing touristy things in D.C.

I generally spend far less time in the National Portrait Gallery, which shares the building.  They had a lot of Presidential portraits, which they haul out each inauguration.  I did think the sculpture of Geroge H.W. Bush by political cartoonist Pat Oliphant was good, and you can see Chuck Close's take on Clinton right behind.

The biggest draw for me was an exhibit of Bill Viola's work, centered mostly around subjects in water one way or another.  The most compelling was The Raft where a whole bunch of people get sprayed with fire hoses.  I really wonder what he paid the actors for that, since it must have been really unpleasant.

I enjoyed the feature on American painting from the 1930s through 50s, but, due to spending so much time in the Viola exhibit, I had to go very quickly through the modern and contemporary area on the 3rd floor.
Agnes Tait, Skating in Central Park, 1934
Skating in Central Park (detail)

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, 1950

I decided if I had time I would try to get back to the Smithsonian American Art Museum later in the visit.  Then I made my way back to the hotel.  I read a bit longer than I should have (The Sisters Brothers)* and then got up roughly an hour behind schedule on Sunday.

While the subway was still messed up on Sunday, it would take me to the Smithsonian at least, so I took that.  I had already to skip the Sackler, since the Freer Museum was closed.  I did duck into the National Museum of African Art.  I really liked the sound installation called Market Symphony.  Apparently it has been in place for most of a year, and it is coming down in two weeks.  It's worth checking out if you are nearby.

I went over to the Hirshhorn next.  The video art in the basement was fairly interesting, though I find it really challenging to carve out enough time to watch, particularly for pieces in the 15-20 minute range.  If they are longer than that (some of the pieces in the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibit upstairs were well over an hour), then I just keep moving.

I'm sure I've seen this Barbara Kruger piece of agitprop art before, but it did sink in a bit more this time (and no, I didn't buy anything in the gift shop).

The Ragnar Kjartansson exhibit was interesting, though I'm not entirely certain he deserved the entire floor.  One (short) video piece was amusing.  He was dressed up like an old-fashioned version of Death and tried to scare school children in a cemetery, and they just made fun of him.  One of the kids said, "You're just an elf with a stick."  Hilarious.  Apparently, the exhibit just closed.

In terms of the rest of the museum, I felt that the curators were really focusing on ugly art (Jean Dubuffet, Lucien Freud) that was seeped in alienation (Giacometti, Hopper) and sometimes misogyny (de Kooning).  While I do understand the impulse, not all artists were quite so gloomy, even during the Depression and the various stresses of the Cold War (basically the only exceptions here were a Miro painting and a couple of Calder sculptures, though I knew I would be seeing Stuart Davis at the National Gallery, and he is a much more optimistic and energetic artists).  One of the few pieces that I enjoyed looking at in the Hirshhorn was this Hooper painting, despite its anomie.

Edward Hopper, 11 A.M., 1926

One thing that the Hirshhorn has going for it is the sculptures and the sculpture garden, which I do think is considerably better than the National Gallery's sculpture garden.**

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1996

And then I traipsed over to the National Gallery, but this post is quite long enough as it is, so I'll follow up with a second post to take care of the rest of my touristic activities.

* I got through a large chunk of Vanity Fair, though I didn't finish it.  I probably would have had I not read The Sisters Brothers, but I wanted to have at least one book to purge from my collection, and I rightly guessed that this wouldn't be a keeper.  I'll make one big push this weekend, and I should be able to wrap it up.  It's fairly enjoyable for such a long novel.

** Though apparently in 2009, the National Gallery sculpture garden picked up a massive Chagall mosaic called Orphée.  I was certainly unaware of this.  I'm sorry to have missed that, so I will make an effort to catch it on my next visit, whenever that happens to be.

Friday, January 13, 2017

TRB 2017

I'm still recovering a bit from the trip to DC for the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board.  It is always overwhelming (there are close to 13,000 visitors and perhaps 5000 posters and other presentations).  I didn't even attempt to go to any of the committee meetings.  I also was still fighting off the tail end of a cold, and my left ear kept closing up (which it is still doing, though I think it is getting close to being back to normal).  It didn't help that it was bitterly cold Sat-Mon.  It still hadn't warmed up much by Tuesday, though it wasn't quite as bad.  Finally, it started warming up on Wed., but I was heading out that day.

It did snow Sat., which made for an interesting landing at Reagan National, but we weren't seriously delayed.

The view from inside Reagan National

What was far more annoying is that there were major shut-downs of the subway system, and I had to walk quite a ways to my hotel.  In the end, it only snowed 1/2 inch (rather than the 3-5 inches they had predicted), so I didn't really need my boots aside from the first day.

I mostly did touristy things Sat. and Sun., and I'll write more about that over the weekend.  Sun. I stopped by the Conference Center to get my badge and spent a bit of time talking to the exhibitors, and in the evening I headed back over since the Northwestern reception was at the Marriott right next to the Convention Center.  I didn't see a couple of colleagues I was looking for, but I'm definitely glad that I went, since in the end, Dr. Koppelman showed up.  He hasn't been back to TRB in roughly 10 years, so it was a rare sighting indeed.  It was a good time overall, but staying up made it all but impossible for me to get up early enough to get to the 8 am sessions on Monday!  I settled for the poster sessions starting at 10:15 then had lunch with a former co-worker and we chatted about various things, including the jazz scene in Toronto (fairly weak, all things considered).

Monday evening was the UIC reception, and I talked to quite a few people.  The main person I went to find finally showed up just as I was leaving, but I did have a couple of minutes to buttonhole him and ask him about a couple of things related to committee work.  (This is the kind of thing that does make it worth going in person to these events...)

Tuesday morning was our poster session.  We had to get there at 7:45 to put our poster up.  Brutal.  I think we did the smart thing and just emailed our poster to Kinkos to have them print it up.  Definitely worth it.  I think it came out pretty well in the end.  We got 15 or even 20 people dropping by and asking questions.

I saw a few more sessions and posters throughout the day, then left at 2:45, heading up to Dupont Circle and to check out the Phillips Collection.  It's always worth seeing, though I was tired and probably should have just sat in the galleries longer.  The issue was that I was meeting people at a used bookstore nearby, but not until 6 pm, so I ended up with a lot of time to kill, and I didn't really want to browse the bookstore for an entire hour!

Anyway, my former colleagues and I did meet up, and then walked up to Adams Morgan for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant.  It was quite good.

Wed. I went through all the posters at the mega-poster session, then headed to the airport.  I will say that it is super convenient to go from the Convention Center to Reagan National.  While I have a lot of nostalgia for the way it used to be (the three hotels clustered up the hill from Dupont Circle), the Convention Center wasn't too bad.  It was easier to get from session to session, and I thought the poster session area was laid out well.  I saw nearly everyone I wanted to see, and I can say that this TRB was a success.  Just exhausting as ever.

Edit (1/16): I totally forgot to talk about the conference swag.  I only scored a few pens at the exhibitor booths, but I got a few squeeze toys (for the kids, really) and this nifty scarf.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 15th Review - The Sisters Brothers

The actual Canadian content of Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers is essentially zero.  The author was born in Canada but had moved to the US before he wrote his first novel.  The Sisters Brothers was a follow-up novel that caught fire, as they say.  After this, he briefly moved with his family to France, which inspired him to write his third novel, Undermajordomo Minor.

The setting of The Sisters Brothers is the American West, starting in the Oregon Territory and then travelling with the Sisters Brothers to San Francisco, which is in the grips of gold fever.  (We don't even get the hint that the same kind of gold rush will hit the Yukon at some point.)  There's nothing wrong with this of course, but it is an extremely nebulous link to Can Lit.

I have to say I don't really understand all the fuss about this novel.  It is basically someone steeped in high-brow fiction slumming it in the Western genre.  It might be one thing for the narrator, Eli Sisters, to think and talk in such high-falutin language, but pretty much everyone does throughout the novel with only one or two exceptions.  It kind of grated on me and gradually I lost interest in this novel.  I think the one part that was droll was when Eli was trying to lose weight and was cutting back on his meal portions until his brother, Charlie, convinced him that the woman he was slimming down for was not worth the effort.  After this, Eli stuffs himself with biscuits and pork.  I know there are a lot of fans of this novel, but I just didn't feel very invested in the characters or the plot.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Winding down 2016

I am definitely not going to miss 2016.  It will go down as one of the worst years ever -- basically when average people lost their minds and decided that sticking it to the man was the best thing since deep-fried Snickers.  Of course, 2017 may end up considerably worse, but I am trying very hard not to pay any attention to what happens in the U.S.  (I know my daughter would be thrilled if we visit Europe rather than the States again.)

For me personally, 2017 will likely be a decent year. I've made some decent progress on writing various plays.  I've gotten two actors interested in putting on some shorts, and that may be enough for me to commit to making this happen.  I'll also look more seriously into getting my anthology of transportation poetry published, though I don't want to spend a lot of time on that.

Anyway, I tried growing a bit of a goatee.  While it was supposed to be a quasi-tribute to George Michael (his last look anyway), it just looked bad.  Mostly it was coming in completely white and made me look even older than I actually am.  I looked like a scuzzy version of Peter Gabriel, so I ditched the whiskers.

Due to catching a cold, I put on hold making the curtains and these stuffed fish toys.  I'm sure the germs wouldn't have lasted, but I just wasn't feeling that well anyway.  (It probably is even more sensible not to try to make any sugar cookies right now...)

I'll do it when I get back.  I've just finished packing for my trip to DC.  I've also just learned that it is going to snow tomorrow (in DC, not Toronto) and that always makes for an unpleasant visit (since DC is never prepared for snow of any kind).  It means I'll have to wear boots, and I'll probably have to wear them on the plane, since they won't fit in my duffle bag.

Normally, we put away the Christmas tree and take down the lights a full week after New Year's, but I'll be gone next weekend.  So we took advantage of the fact that I had Monday off, and got everything packed away by Jan. 2!  That has to be a record for us.

This year my daughter wanted a gingerbread house.  I debated getting a kit, but then just bought one that was pre-assembled, and we added the frosting and decorations.

Even though we've now eaten almost all of it, she is quite upset that some is going to end up in the compost.  But it is starting to get stale, much like 2016 did there at the end.

With that, I need to bid you adieu and get some rest before flying out early in the morning.  Best wishes for 2017!