Thursday, August 31, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 6th review - Wimbeldon Green/GNBCC

This double review is essentially a continuation of this review of the cartoonist Seth's imaginary worlds.  Much of Seth's work is semi-autobiographical (particularly It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken and Nothing Lasts, which is serialized in Palookaville,* issues 21-23 (so far)).  These two books have flashes of Seth (he shows himself checking his hat at the Ontario office of the Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (GNBCC) and he is poking fun at his public persona with the character Jacob in Wimbledon Green), but they are essentially reflections on the art of cartooning.  GNBCC focuses on the creators of comics, while Wimbeldon Green is a somewhat over-the-top exploration of comic book collectors.  If I'm getting the chronology correct, Seth started working on GNBCC first but set it aside and wrote Wimbledon Green, and then returned to GNBCC and wrapped it up.

Despite both being about comic books, they are actually quite different in style and intent, though it is fair to say that both involve ontology in a fashion (in other words pondering the nature of existence and what is true).  Seth has spoken before about his interest in hearkening back to an imagined past that never quite existed.  In some ways this isn't all that different from what goes on Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, though in that case we, the reader, are in the present looking at the somewhat rundown remnants of a more vibrant and even glorious city that once was a few decades ago (basically Brooklyn for Katchor).  In GNBCC, Seth pulls this maneuver, talking about how the club was much better attended in the past, but at other times (particularly Clyde Fans) the action all takes place in a slightly skewed past that didn't really happen. In fact, the vast majority of GNBCC is Seth's discussion of the work of imaginary cartoonists, giving him a chance to briefly dabble in a number of styles.  However, Seth really throws a screwball to the reader when he then introduces Doug Wright and his strip Nipper, since Wright was an actual, real-life Canadian cartoonist (and Seth has been championing his work in various ways).  On the other hand, the Group of 7 certainly did exist, and probably some of them did a bit of cartooning on the side, but Lawren Harris did not create an illustrated novel, and Seth posits in GNBCC.

Wimbledon Green is less bound up in these kind of games, though the main conceit is that the main character, Mr. W. Green, may be alias for Don Green, who also was a comic collector.  As the book opens, Wimbledon has vanished.  Seth has a number of people who knew Wimbledon give their impressions of the man, and not surprisingly they diverge quite substantially.  This is a bit like the Rashomon-effect, where each person has their own view of the situation (and a slightly different take on Wimbledon).  Fuller's The Best of Jackson Payne employs a fairly similar approach and apparently Lavery's Sandra Beck does as well, though I haven't read that yet.

While I could sort of intellectually appreciate what was going on in Wimbledon Green, it just didn't capture my attention as much, probably because I don't have that much interest in the antics of a bunch of collectors who were willing to pay thousands of dollars for mint or near-mint copies of rare comics.  I'm well aware that this occurs with some regularity now, but I still think it is silly.  Probably the most interesting part of the book was when Seth actually draws some pages where Wimbledon talks about the ultra-rare comic Fine and Dandy, which is about two hobos and their adventures on the road.  Then Seth takes the opportunity to sketch in a panel or two of this rare comic.  Incidentally, these pages are in the Seth's Dominion package I reviewed previously.  I just wasn't all that interested in the rest of the book.

In contrast, most of GNBCC is about these (mostly) imaginary cartoonists and their creations.  Somehow this book or published sketchbook or what have you worked better for me than Wimbledon Green.  On the whole it seems a bit more imaginative or at least different.  The oddest thing in GNBCC is when the narrator discusses their archive, which is in the far north, and often can only be reached by dog sled!  While there is some rationale for doing this for seeds in a seed vault, I can only imagine that the terrible climate and all the snow cannot be good for preserving precious paper documents.  It just was more to my taste, but there is no point in belabouring this.  I would say that anyone interested in Canadian cartoons and cartoonists probably should take a look at both Wimbledon Green and GNBCC.

* I think I have finally gotten the sequence straight in my mind.  Palookaville 1-19 were stand-alone comic books, and beginning with Palookaville 20, Drawn and Quarterly started publishing these as hardback books (which libraries might actually carry).  Issues 4-9 were collated into It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, and issues 5-19 were part of the Clyde Fans storyline (which seems to be wrapping up in Palookaville 23).  That means the only way to read Palookaville 1-3 is to buy them as individual comics, which is a bit unfortunate as I would likely only read them once, and yet issues 2 and 3 seem at least somewhat intriguing.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Return of the gym rat

It's sort of interesting how my physical activity goes in cycles.  I was fairly active, including going to the gym and jogging (but no biking) in undergrad, while I basically only jogged right after I graduated.  At U Toronto, I swam a bit and was ok about going to the gym (and I was in a recreational soccer league, but mostly ended up on the bench, so ultimately I quit).  Interestingly, it was while I was going to Northwestern that I really got into quite good shape, since I was biking from Rogers Park into Evanston on a near daily basis, plus going to the gym and jogging and swimming.  Perhaps it is not too surprising that I have never quite gotten back to that level of fitness.

After I got a full time job in Chicago, I stopped going to the gym, though I started riding my bike downtown and I probably did at least a bit of running.  After we moved to New York, I stopped biking, though I jogged (most of the way to Coney Island a few times) and went to a gym about four blocks away.  I didn't go as much as I should have, of course, and the consultant lifestyle did start catching up with me.

In England, I basically only biked to work, though I did that year-round which was nice.  Actually, now that I think about it, I played soccer after work with my co-workers, though I really had trouble playing a full-time game that one time we had a serious game, playing against our Dutch office.

Back in Chicago again, I returned to the biking but somewhere along the way it seemed I developed bone spurs, so I stopped jogging.  I tried to keep up with the gym and swimming, but it was 8 or so blocks to the gym, so just beyond the threshold where I could keep up with it on a regular basis.  (We also had two small children, and this certainly impacted my ability to slip away to go to the gym...)

In Vancouver through early 2013, I had a long bike ride to work (with challenging hills) and I did a fair bit of swimming.  I still remember this pool (and hot tub) with an amazing view of the mountains.  That was pretty blissful.  But then the office moved to a remote location, and I just couldn't bike to it.  That was probably the moment things fell apart for me.

Moving to Toronto actually meant that I could start biking to work again, though I don't do it year-round.  I tried to keep up with swimming at a local community centre, but the hours for lap swimming are generally inconvenient, and it really isn't the nicest facility.  I've occasionally gone to the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, and indeed I hope to go tomorrow after work, but it hasn't been a major part of my routine.*

What has happened is that a gym opened up about two blocks away from me, and it was so inexpensive that I felt I had to try to see if I could start going again.  I was really good the first three weeks, averaging 3 times a week.  While I have fallen off that pace, I am still going twice a week (and in my defense, I have been able to bike to work 4-5 times per week, since August has been fairly dry while July was so wet).  So my level of physical activity is actually on the high end of the scale (for me), yet it still feels sustainable.  (My main beef with those weight-loss shows is that they end up putting these people into completely unsustainable routines, and they inevitably fall off the wagon and gain back almost all the weight.)

One thing I ought to do, however, is to have a doctor look at my arm, as it does feel like I sprained it, which means that I don't do as much with the weights as I would like when I do go to the gym.  My heart rate seems pretty good these days, though I still haven't lost as much weight as I would like.  I also think my blood sugars are a bit better balanced, though I haven't actually had them tested.  I'm trying not to get too discouraged.  I think if I keep at it, and make sure that I in fact do go to the gym more after I stop riding my bike for the season (usually around November), then I'll be closer to where I want to be by next spring (and should be able to drop at least one shirt size).  It usually is the winter that is the real killer for me, so I am grateful to have better options to stay in shape this winter.  I just have to take advantage of them.

* I did after work, though I only swam a very few laps, since I am out of practice.  Still, better to try to get back into it than to just give up.

11th Canadian Challenge - 5th review - Homer in Flight

I'm not entirely sure how I ran across Homer in Flight, the debut novel by Rabindranath Maharaj, though most likely I found it while searching up literature about immigration in the Toronto Public Library system.  I still expect to get around to writing a post (or perhaps several) about novels focused on the wide variety of immigrant experiences, but that is on the back burner for now.  As I started in on the novel, I realized that it was published in 1997, and it seems to be set somewhat earlier than that.  The recession of 1990-91 still seems to be lingering, as employment opportunities seem somewhat limited, particularly for immigrants with somewhat outdated skills and with heavy accents.  Also, the issue of Toronto amalgamation (1998) does not surface at all, whereas it was a fairly hotly debated topic around the region, although perhaps the inside baseball of Provincial politics was not particularly interesting to new immigrants.  In any event, virtually all of the action in the novel takes place outside old Toronto and in the suburbs, which is appropriate, as most new immigrants ended up in these places.  (In that way, Toronto's demographic patterns are closer to Paris with the poor on the outskirts of the city and in the suburbs rather than New York or Chicago, which is largely the reverse, though these places certainly do have elite neighbourhoods near the centre.)  While I was briefly living in Toronto around the same time as the Homer character, my experience of Toronto was so completely different, as I almost never left the core, and of course I was studying and wasn't allowed to work.  Interestingly, immigration issues occasionally simmered under the surface for the international students, including a master's student who was trying to stay on in Toronto to stay with a girlfriend and then my own experience in having to leave the country by the end of August (after I wasn't accepted into the Ph.D. program).  While my experiences were certainly less traumatic (and my culture shock not as extreme as Homer's), I do have experience in dealing with immigration officers.

What is interesting about the Homer's experience is that he doesn't come to Canada due to economic pressures (as was common in the early part of the 20th Century) nor is he a refugee fleeing a war-torn country (much more common towards the end of the 20th Century through today), but he generally is just fed up with living in Trinidad.  He doesn't seem to be coming to Canada to try to make a lot of money, as many of his compatriots do but to try to get away from the crime and disorder and general corruption of Trinidad.  What is somewhat under the surface is the racial tension of being a minority (of Indian descent) in the Caribbean and wondering whether he would be better off in a better run country, such as Canada.  Given that his motives for coming to Canada are a bit unclear and he doesn't have any specific goals in mind, it isn't that surprising that he suffers from culture shock and generally seems to be in a depressive funk moreso than some of the other immigrants he encounters.

Yet Maharaj seems fairly even-handed, roughly half of the immigrants we encounter in the novel seem to be making a decent go of it in Canada (and certainly their children have adjusted) while the other half are in a funk or on welfare or both.  If accurate, this would be an interesting departure, since pre-1960s immigrant literature generally held that the second generation was the most conflicted, and it was only the third generation that was fully assimilated into the host country (and even there if there were clear racial markers, it would make complete assimilation difficult).  Why would assimilation of the children go faster in the 1990s?  Is it because North American culture is so pervasive that the children are absorbed into it right away or that all of their friends share the same shallow materialism?  The novel really doesn't speak to these issues, but they are worth considering.

There isn't a lot of plot to this novel, but I will be discussing some events that happen through the course of it, so SPOILERS ahead.


I have to admit that I wasn't really that interested in Homer as a character.  He was vaguely discontented about everything, which led him to leave his home for no particularly good reason and to cut his ties with his family (almost never writing back to his mother and missing his father's funeral).  It shouldn't be that much of a surprise that he didn't find Canada lived up to his expectations (and finding a job was much harder than he expected), and he nearly returns to Trinidad but pulls himself together at the end.

What I really didn't like about him is that he had almost no spunk or drive.  After a short time looking through the help wanted pages, he settles back and just sends out a bunch of ill-formatted resumes and, not surprisingly, doesn't get hired.  He takes the easy way out time and time again, with only occasional departures from this pattern (when he moves out of a friend's apartment to find his own place for instance).  He does bounce a bit all over the region, from Ajax to Etobicoke to Burlington and finally Hamilton.  He actually lands a factory job through his friend, but after a few months decides he is becoming a "zombie" and quits without any prospects.  I just found that really irresponsible, and that is probably when I stopped caring much about him and his ultimate fate.

Homer ends up in a desultory relationship with Vashti, another tenant in the building.  She works at a bookstore and is taking night classes and generally has a bit more purpose in life.  It seems she is trying to escape a failed love affair and settles for Homer.  They get married and move in together, and, for a while, Homer is content, even though he still hasn't found a suitable job.  As a side note, I realize immigration procedures change all the time, but it does seem odd that Homer qualified for immigration in the first place, since his skills were outdated and he shouldn't have gotten enough points to get his papers.  Also several of the West Indians he meets are milking the welfare system, and he briefly considers this.  When I got my papers, it was made very clear to me that applying for any kind of welfare would nullify my right to stay in Canada, so perhaps that has changed.  What is very odd is that Homer never once considers checking with Employment Ontario or some other employment bureau.  (When I am not all that engaged in the story, I tend to think about these tangential matters.)

To save money, they move into a basement apartment in her sister's house in Burlington.  This is where Homer really shows his true colours, since he acts as a total ingrate, saying terrible things about this sister and her husband.  Homer manages to spoil several parties and just generally acts like a bore.  While some of this is surely due to misplaced pride, i.e. feeling humiliated that he can't really care for his family, he doesn't really take any meaningful action to get a job, though I suppose to be fair he does increase his networking at the temple, which indeed does lead to a job offer, which more or less lands in his lap, since he was quite unqualified to be hired as a school librarian.  Even after he becomes respectable again (and eventually even self-publishes a book), it seems the break with his wife and her family is too profound, and he will go living on his own, as a misunderstood, under-appreciated fellow.  And that's how the novel ends.  Clearly, I wasn't moved by Homer's plight or his (economic) salvation, though other aspects of the novel interested me.  Interestingly, Maharaj came to Canada in his late 30s, though he was better credentialed and didn't struggle quite as much as Homer, though there is a bit of a parallel in that he did teach high school in Hamilton.  He has continued to write novels and won several awards with his most recent The Amazing Absorbing Boy (2010).  This also involves immigration to Canada but the immigration of a young boy coming to Canada.  I'll add it to my reading list and perhaps pair it with Bishop-Stall's Ghosted, whenever I get around to that one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

As summer winds down -- Ottawa

We wanted to squeeze in one last event* before summer officially wound down, so we took the train to Ottawa.  And indeed, I did want to get there while some of the Canada 150 events were still going on.  It was actually faster going there, since the return trip made a side trip to Kingston.

We actually left Friday evening, since the main point was to take a tour of Parliament.  I had been told that Centre Block was shutting down at the end of this fall for 10 years(!), but apparently it is next year, so there is still time to catch the tour.  I don't know for sure if we would have changed our plans had I known there was still a full year left.  In any event, you have to get to the information booth quite early to see any tour at all (probably 10 am is already too late) and in order to be able to get the pick of the tours, you have to get there by 8 am.  Here is the line at 9:15 or so, stretching around the block.

I went over with my son even before that, and in fact we were 5th in line.

I had been told that the changing of the guard would happen at 9:30, so I got tickets for a 10:30 tour.  However, the website was wrong, and the last changing of the guard was a few days before, so that was disappointing.

The tour was quite nice, however, and it was a bit interesting that the tour was almost entirely made up of Canadians.  We were one of the fortunate groups able to get onto the floor of the House of Commons and the Senate Chamber, as well as the Library.  We took quite a few photos, but I'll just post a few, mostly those taken by my daughter.

House of Commons

Senate Chambers

Library of Parliament

Then we walked over to the National Gallery. 

The main collections had been shuffled a bit.  I don't recall seeing this painting (vaguely reminiscent of Lawren Harris but painted by Yvonne Housser) or the Letendre either, though I might just be more attuned to her work due to the AGO exhibit.

Yvonne Housser, Rossport, Lake Superior, 1929

Rita Letendre, Tension on Black, 1963

This time around I got a better photo of Cobalt (also by Housser), and I can't resist ending with a proper Lawren Harris painting.

Yvonne Housser, Cobalt, 1931

Lawren Harris, Afternoon Sun, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1924

We spent close to 2 hours checking out the main collection.  In the end, we skipped the photography exhibits, but I think we saw everything else.  However, my phone battery completely died, and I was getting a bit tired of the early European paintings, so we really breezed through those rooms.**

Then we walked back to the hotel.  While we were all fairly tired and weary from all the walking and, in several cases, from the early morning rising, I agreed to take my daughter to the Museum of Natural History, which was down the street.  We spent probably 2 and a half hours there.  The main draw for me was a new exhibit on the Arctic, but the dinosaurs were also interesting.  I actually posted dinosaur pictures from the previous visit, but I will post a whale skeleton photo (which came out better than the photos from our ROM visit) and the slabs of ice (part of the Arctic exhibit).

We then had to decide whether to check out the Northern Lights exhibit where they were projecting lights onto the Centre Block of Parliament.  If the hotel hadn't been so close, I'm sure I would have decided to skip it, but in the end we walked down.  It is quite unusual in the sense that instead of just shooting off fireworks, they actually project a bit of a history lesson onto the walls.  I was able to capture the whole sequence, but unfortunately, the sound didn't get captured (and the video files are too large to upload anyway).  I'll just post a few of the more interesting bits we got as photos.

That was more than enough for one day!

We all crashed, then the next day walked over the bridge to Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau.  I had heard good things about it, though I was a little upset that the park didn't open until 10.  Even 9:30 would have worked a lot better (and given us some time to buy snacks for the train).  Nonetheless, it was pretty cool, even though we had to get through quickly.  Basically, there are all these sculptures made of various shapes, celebrating Canada, and then they are covered with different varieties of plants.

In the end, we made it to the train station with about 20 minutes to spare, before they started boarding.  The ride back did feel pretty long, but eventually we made it back to Toronto.  I have to admit that I don't feel particularly rested to start the work week, but I can perhaps catch up next weekend when we don't have a lot planned (fortunately), and I do have Monday off.

* Between canoeing the Humber and catching 3 different outdoor Shakespeare productions, I think I took pretty good advantage of the summer.  I did miss out on She Stoops to Conquer out in Scarborough (one of these days I definitely need to check out the Scarborough Bluffs) and we didn't make it to Niagara Falls (probably next summer) or the Islands (largely because it was shut down half the summer, so again probably next summer).  I'm not really sure I want to rent a cottage as the slower lifestyle doesn't appeal to me (and you pretty much have to drive several hours north).  This summer, we spent 2.5 days in North Carolina at a similar pace, and that was really sufficient.

** I had been interested in the new catalogue that covered the reinstallation of the main galleries for Canada 150, but when I actually looked at it at the end of our visit, I was quite disappointed.  Not only were the paintings completely scrambled chronologically, they had no labels, so for every single painting, you would have to go to the list of plates on the last page, which I thought was absurd.  I could probably have lived with that, however, but it turned out 70% or more of the paintings were reproduced over a 2-page spread with a break in the middle of the painting.  I can't bear it when images are reproduced this way, as you inevitably lose some important part of the painting (which naturally enough is usually right in the center of the painting).  I actually thought it was an incredibly shoddy job and certainly a huge missed opportunity.  Needless to say, I won't be ordering one of these books.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


If I had realized what a big deal it would have been, perhaps I should have shifted the entire trip over by 3 or so days.  That way, we would have been in Greensboro on Monday and seen the eclipse at 95% or so.  It actually got quite dark in Greensboro, though apparently not the total darkness that Asheville got.

At any rate, I did have the eclipse glasses with me at work, and I went down at 1:45 and checked it out.  Then again from 2:05-2:08.  A few people from work came down and we all took a quick peek to see a small chunk taken out of the sun.  Unfortunately, we had a meeting scheduled from 2-4, so I had to miss the best part of the eclipse.  Had it been a total eclipse or even 90% or so, I think I would have bailed on the meeting, but it wasn't so impressive that it was worth losing one's job...

My kids were able to see the eclipse fairly well and thought it was neat.  My wife captured the phenomenon of the crescent shadows through the tree leafs.  That was particularly cool, and I didn't see anything like that at Union Station.

The exciting news is that Buffalo is supposed to get a total eclipse in 2024, and it will be 90-95% in Toronto.  (And the eclipse glasses made to the new standards are supposed to last that long; the older glasses only stayed safe for 3 years.)  I suspect getting to Buffalo will be total madness on the day of and maybe even the day before (with huge lines at the border).  However, it may be the case that staying on this side of the border, say at Fort Erie, we could see the total eclipse, though I can imagine that you'd still need to get down the night before to find a place to park (and the hotels will certainly be jacking up the price).  Closer to the time, I'll decide how much effort I want to put into chasing the eclipse.  I may well decide that what we see in Toronto is going to be impressive enough.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Return to the Humber

What a difference a year makes.  Last year the Humber River was incredibly low, and this summer has been fairly wet.  In fact, it rained last Thursday (while we were out of town).  My daughter decided to bail on the canoe trip this year, so in the end we went without her.  The river was quite high, and we didn't have any problem with scraping along the river bed.  In fact, there were a few times where someone went by on a motorboat and rocked the canoe a bit.  (Even motoring by slowly was a bit of an issue, given the water level.)  Nonetheless, it was a fun, if somewhat exhausting, trip.  This time around we went far enough to see the second bridge (technically this is where the place that rents the canoes insists that people turn around) and we had enough time to go into one of the inlets.  We turned in the canoe 20-25 minutes early.  I was soaking with sweat though, and it was a somewhat uncomfortable ride back downtown.

After the canoeing, we grabbed lunch and stopped in at the AGO briefly, then walked over to Nathan Phillips Square to check out India Day celebrations, then went home.  In the evening we saw Shakespeare in the Ruff do A Midsummer's Night's Dream (definitely worth checking out if you live near Withrow Park).  I'll write more about the rest of the day later, but I thought that if Vancouver wants to advertise about being a city where you can go from the beach to the mountains in one day, then Toronto is a city where you can canoe the Humber, go to an art gallery and an ethnic festival and still have time to do Shakespeare in the Park in the evening.  I know which of the two cities I would prefer to live in...

I did all of the steering and much of the paddling.  I only took a few photos here and there (and sadly I stopped taking a video about 30 seconds before a formation of geese passed overhead).  My son took the majority of the photos.

The geese

CN Tower peeking through in the distance

Exploring the inlet

Nearing the "finish line"
All in all, quite a nice trip with great weather, and I expect we'll go again next summer, assuming it isn't as dry as 2016 was.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Murakami's Octopus

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Takashi Murakami exhibit The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is very strange, but I'm glad I saw it. It stays on at the MCA through Sept. 24. As far as I can tell, Chicago is the only US location for this career retrospective. Here and here are a couple of reviews that give some sense of what is covered in the show.

There are a couple of rooms with Murakami's work before he started dabbling in anime-inspired work. This one, inspired by Anselm Kiefer's work, was quite interesting.

Murakami, Nuclear Power Picture, 1988

From that point on, the exhibit turned towards the Mr. Dob mouse character that Murakami created, and it never really left the anime realm after that.  Still some of them were quite cool.

Murakami, And Then, And Then, And Then and Then, And Then (Red), 1996

Murakami, 727, 1996

I wasn't that interested in his flower paintings or his Kanye Bear material. My very favorite piece was this one with a lion and its cubs playing on a bridge of skulls. There is such a weird contrast between the playfulness of the animals and the grotesque skulls, but then also there are wide variations in the background treatments. It is actually a large piece but it is hard to get a sense of the scale.

Murakami, Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls and Fountains, 2011

However, this was completely dwarfed by the pieces in the next room -- 100 Arhats and Dragon in Clouds. Both were wall sized and it was pretty much impossible to really take them in due to the scale.

Murakami, Dragon in Clouds--Indigo Blue, 2010

The last room was a new installation:
The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.  I did my best to take a selfie in front of a small piece of the exhibit, but there was just too much going on.

It was a very odd show, but I'm glad I stopped in to check it out.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Back to Toronto

I am back from a week-long trip to the States, where I retrieved the family in Chicago.  I spent 3 and a half very packed days in Chicago, then we travelled to Greensboro, NC to visit my family.  What a contrast!  We pretty much hung out and enjoyed the country lifestyle for 2 and a half days, then flew home yesterday.

I'll just give a brief outline of the activities I got up to in Chicago, but will go into more detail in a couple of follow-up posts.  I was perhaps halfway done with Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury on Friday and decided it would be best to bring it along and finish it up on the trip, rather than leaving it for a whole week.  Between waiting for my flight at Billy Bishop, the flight to Chicago and then the ride downtown on the Orange Line, I was down to the last 25 pages, so I finished it in the hotel and then went to bed.

I read The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye on my various CTA trips on Saturday.  It's a curious book, essentially Kafka's The Castle transplanted to Africa (and indeed Laye did seem to be aware of Kafka).  It even has two dancer/acrobats who take the place of the two bumbling assistants!  In general, my experience on the CTA this trip was very poor (almost always having to wait over 10 minutes for the subway) and it added to my general impression that Chicago (aside from its art scene) is in a slow, terminal decline.  On the other hand, I ended up with a lot of time reading on the train...

I went first to the MCA and checked out the Takashi Murakami exhibit The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.


It is basically like wandering around inside a Gorillaz video.  It was cool though.  It runs through the end of September.  I took a lot of photos, and I'll post more tonight or tomorrow.  Because I am an AGO member, I always get in for free.

There was an installation going into the major exhibits of the past 50 years, since this is the MCA's 50th anniversary.  I still remember when it was sort of a scrappy, small gallery a few blocks south of its current location.  I'll try to write a bit more about my thoughts on the MCA shortly.  I did like the Amanda Williams exhibit, which was very much centered around gold.

Amanda Williams, Tuxes Next to the Precedent, I'm Present, 2011-12

Then I went over to LUMA (the Loyola Art Museum).  All summer and early fall, the museum is free, so that was nice.  There is an exhibit on Joan of Arc and a very interesting (but quite depressing) exhibit of photos by Jeffrey Wolin of a housing project known as Pigeon Hill in Indiana.  In this case, the subjects' stories are written onto the photos, much like outsider artist Howard Finster (the guy that did the Talking Heads Little Creatures LP cover)

After that, I walked south.  I stumbled across the new American Writers' Museum, but didn't feel like paying the cover.  I then picked up a ticket for School for Lies at Artistic House (for Sunday) and dropped in at the Chicago Cultural Center, though there was basically nothing on display.  Had I know how the rest of the weekend would unfold, I probably should have just continued on to MOCP at Columbia.

In any event, I went down to my mother-in-law's for a reunion and barbecue.  It took quite a while for people to turn up, and I actually left a bit early.  As it happened there was music at Millennium Park (though it wasn't as interesting as the following week when they were going to be doing Beethoven's Symphony 9 -- drat), but Benny Golson was playing at the Jazz Showcase.  Since the hotel was fairly close, I walked over and managed to get a seat towards the back.  It was a fun show, though Benny's embouchure seems to be slipping.  He actually sounded better on the one up-tempo piece they played (Coltrane's Mr. P.C.), but generally he wanted to tell stories about his own standards.  I'd say he talked at least 60% of the set and they only played 3 classic Golson tunes: "Horizon Ahead," "Whisper Not" and "I Remember Clifford."  It was still worth seeing one of the last living jazz masters (especially as Sonny Rollins seems to have completely retired).

Sunday I went and saw The School of Lies, which is a reworking of Moliere's The Misanthrope.  I thought I had seen this before, but I must have seen a different play previously, as the plot sort of starts out similarly but goes in a completely different direction.  In any case, it was a lot of fun, and it makes me more likely to go see his adaptation of Corneille's The Liar in early 2018, even though I have not been terribly impressed by the Village Players.

I came back to the hotel (where the family was resting) and we went and got dinner (pizza -- naturally).  Sunday was a bit of a low-key day.  I did a bit of writing, but can't recall too much else I got up to.

Monday, I had to get up quite early to meet a former colleague for coffee before work (8 am!).  I had enough time to stop in at another office where I had worked while in Chicago, then met the kids on the steps of the Art Institute.  We spent a bit over 2 hours inside, then came south to the hotel where we had lunch.  We then set off for the Adler Planetarium.  It was a relatively short visit, though it was neat that they were giving away eclipse glasses.  We won't be able to see too much in Toronto (maybe 50%), but perhaps the kids will give it a go.  When I was 9 or so, Michigan had a complete eclipse, and I saw it through one of those cardboard box viewers.  I just wish the Adler wasn't quite so far from everything.  We got back to the hotel at 4:30.  If we had even another 15 minutes, I would have tried to make it to MOCP, but it just would have been cutting it too close. 

Tuesday we set off for Midway.  I finished another book on the trip (Akiyuki Nosaka's The Pornographers, mostly known because it inspired Imamura's film of the same name).  We didn't have too much trouble getting to Greensboro, though the ride to my father's house seemed to take forever.  In general, it takes a very long time to get anywhere from their house, and we did cut a few trips just to avoid going too many places by car (as my daughter generally gets car sick easily).  We did go into Greensboro proper once and saw the Woolworth's that was the setting of one of the first sit-ins, though we didn't actually go in.

Basically, we kind of lazed around in the heat and just chatted about life.  I was reunited with a bunch of packages I had shipped to the States (some things simply cannot be bought in Canada or not without absurd shipping charges).  However, none of our laptops had CD drives, so I ended up waiting until today to actually listen to any of the music.  I guess a few more days of deferred gratification didn't really matter.

I almost forgot that my dad had an entire box of my old things from storage.  This wasn't exactly welcome news.  The box was largely filled with old notebooks from my undergrad years, but also things like the program from my high school graduation and some other missing theatre programs from 1987-89!  I managed to get it all down to about two inches of paper, but this was one more thing that I had to bring back to Toronto.

We were able to pack everything into the carry-on bags, but mine was very heavy due to several books I picked up (even after shedding a couple of books along the way).  Interestingly, Delta warned me that there was a major rain storm about to hit NYC (we were transferring through LaGuardia).  The on-line alternative options were ridiculous, so I stayed on hold for close to 45 minutes but finally talked to an agent who very helpfully switched our connection to Detroit.  We actually ended up getting in an hour earlier than our original flight (and who knows if we would have made it at all that evening, as several flights were being delayed and cancelled).  Best of all, when we got into Detroit, we only had to walk a few gates down to our connecting flight (as opposed to Tuesday when we were on opposite sides of the airport).

Getting through Pearson was a drag as always, but the UP Express was smooth and then the cab ride home was short.  I did a bit of unpacking and then later in the evening I got back to the quilt.  I am down to the last 2+ rows to stitch together (and all the pieces cut out!) and then the whole thing needs to be stitched length-wise plus a border added.  I should be done by mid September or even earlier. 

Overall, we are more or less back to normal, and in fact, I now have to run off to get groceries.  I am certainly glad I have a couple of days off before I have to go back to work.  Thus, it was wise to cut things a bit short, even though the kids wanted another day or two in North Carolina.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Household maintenance & chores

Last summer while the rest of the family was away in Chicago, I managed to get quite a bit done on the deck, though I remember by the time I actually stained it, I had the kids help a bit (so they had come back by then).  This summer, I probably should have tried to strip the bottom deck and stained it again, but there have been so few weeks with 4 or 5 days in a row that were dry and hot enough.  And to be honest I felt pretty lazy.  I think it will have to wait for next summer.

I gave myself slightly fewer discrete tasks this time around.  I wanted to put up a porch light, partly for those times I do want to be out back after dark, but also to get one with a motion detector to see if I can deter the raccoons at all.  I also tentatively agreed to put up a shelf in my daughter's room, partly because she is short-changed on storage space.  Though I didn't feel as obligated on this task.

Anyway, I managed to get the materials from Home Depot on Monday, but it was raining, so I couldn't work outdoors, and then it quickly got too late to put up the shelf.  (Since all the houses are so close together, even working on one's home tends to disturb the neighbours.)  So Tuesday, I tackled the porch light.  It ended up becoming an epic job.  First, one of the screws was rusted in place.  Even WD40 didn't do any good.  In the end, I actually tore off the cover plate (I guess the frustration gave me Hulk-like powers) and then finally was able to get enough leverage with the needle-nose pliers to get the screw out.  This took about 45 minutes altogether!

The culprit

Then it turned out that the new screws that they included with the light were just too long and wouldn't support the faceplate.  Since I had torn the cover plate off, I really had no choice but to finish the job, so I ran off to Home Depot and crossed my fingers that the new screws I bought would do the trick.  They seemed to work.  It was getting dark by this point, so I really rushed through the wiring and did that in about five minutes.  Then I struggled to mount the light, though I finally got it up.  What an ordeal!  It does look fairly nice though, and the motion detector appears to work.

That was definitely enough for one evening, and I crashed after that.  The following night I was at Factory Theatre for Summer Works, and I didn't get home in time to do any more construction.

Today I left work a bit late and then had to run to the library.  That didn't leave me a lot of time to put up the shelf.  However, I was fairly efficient in my drilling.  I'd say the whole thing went up in about 30 minutes.  The level is there to show that indeed the shelf is level, though the wood is very slightly warped.

That is definitely it for the home improvement this week.  I actually don't have a whole lot left to do, since garbage day was this morning and I've just finished the laundry, though I do need to make sure I get through the dishes and wash the pots tonight.  That's not so bad...

If I have any energy left I will either read another chunk of The Sound and the Fury or work on the quilt.  It is coming together nicely, and in fact, tonight I cut out the very last pieces (aside from the border), so it is just a matter of piecing it all together.  I think it will end up looking quite nice.

11th Canadian Challenge - 4th review - Cloud Physics

I only just learned that Karen Enns has published two poetry collections since That Other Beauty.  Ordinary Hours came out in 2014 and Cloud Physics has just been published (2017).  I actually own That Other Beauty but for some reason haven't reviewed it.  I'll try to reread it relatively soon and decide if I do want to review it, and at that point I'll borrow Ordinary Hours from the library and read it as well.

Only a few poems in Cloud Physics have much of anything to do with science, but the majority are about things ending in one way or another (and I suppose when compared to the timescale of the universe, all human endeavors are as transitory as clouds seem to us).  The first grouping are about the world, or indeed the universe, ending.  One or two seem kind of cocky, while some of the others are a bit more thoughtful.  Incidentally, I just missed the CBC special on Don McKellar's Last Night, but it looks like his interview can be viewed here, and I think the movie itself can be seen on CBC, though I am not sure for how much longer.  I'll come back to this first batch later.

Other poems are about the death of a man who worked at the local mall, who Enns saw frequently, and there is an entire 12 poem sequence where Enns is responding to the death of her father.  (It's not the same feel at all, but I was somewhat reminded of the poetic exercises that Bowering captured in My Darling Nellie Grey.)  A few poems are less fraught, such as "Empty Nest," which could be taken as the death of the nuclear family, but is generally viewed as a natural and largely desirable outcome after one has prepared one's offspring for the world.  That doesn't mean that there are flashes of desolation.  Enns (or her narrator) does feel bereft and perhaps a bit adrift without anyone in the house (either a partner is absent or doesn't count): "I need cut and paste collage, / bedlam in the basement, geraniums gone wild. / I need a bottle washed up on the beach / with a message from a clown."

The collection isn't actually quite as melancholy as it sounds but isn't particularly humorous or joyful either.  I'll just focus on a few of the poems that grabbed me.

"The Planets are Moving In" is from the first grouping about the end of the world.  In this case, it appears to be brought about by some change in gravity that is leading to a collision between the planets (though I would have to assume tidal forces would tear the Earth apart first).  As in the movie Last Night, knowledge of impending doom is widespread, and humans are dealing/coping with it in a variety of ways.  "The planets are moving in with their cold, elegant sheens. / ... / A fog hangs over the surface of the earth / as we wait ... / Some of us drive inland. Some of us / take to deep river valleys and prayer. / Some of us seek out the warmth of barns, / the smell of hay and tools, old wood."  While indeed many would turn to religion (and this desperate longing for life beyond this existence is of course the main motivator for religion), I can also imagine many trying to reconnect and commune with nature as a kind of solace.

A similar impulse but on an individual scale comes up in "A Son's Story," where the narrator is driving his dying father around. "I want to hear the meadowlark one more time, he said. / And so my father put his cane against the rotting fence / and sat down heavy on a stone. / A meadowlark landed on another one / and sang. ..."  With the wish granted, they "drove back to the city" with the father more or less ready to die.

In "People of the Suburbs, Sleep" the narrator is awake while the suburbanites sleep.  While not overly proud of her wakefulness, she still sees a gulf between herself and the others: "Wrapped in blankets and duvets, you're surrounded / by a mesh of dream and incredulity ... / ... / Roll over on your other sides. / ... / There's at least an hour before your coffee makers, / programmed for a better life, bleep green, / your dogs bark hopefully."  If the poem were a bit longer, Enns would have to be more clear about the narrator's view of life.  Is it foolish to be hopeful along with the suburban dwellers?  Does she have some burning secret that keeps her up at night?  The reader does not know.

Enns includes a 12-part suite called Twelve Months, which is dedicated to her father Peter Enns who died in 2015.  It seems Peter was a farmer from the Niagara Region, which could explain Enns' metaphoric use of the earth and soil as a shelter or comforting home.  It isn't entirely clear to me whether Enns is reflecting on her father's death in the 12 months following his death (somewhat akin to Bowering's poetic sequences) or if she is putting the poems into his voice for the year preceding his death.  I would lean towards the latter interpretation.  Leaving aside whether there was a specific diagnosis, this awareness of the advancing stages of death generally fits better into the overall scheme of the book, and the narrator does seem to be particularly aware of the natural world, as if each view of a bird or even snow melting off of boots might be the last opportunity for such a sight.  In a way, it is unbearable -- how could one truly live as if every moment would be one's last.  This knowledge has to be pushed aside to allow the average person (like the slumbering suburbanites) to get through the day.

Here are some of the moments that have been captured in these poems.  In "July": "But here the crickets are making such a din, / reminding me of what is blasting through the present, driving us ... / ... / What is lovely with burden."  In "August": "I am built of dust. You will see how this can be. / ... / My eyelids are flaked with goldenrod and ragweed chaff, / and the shimmer off the bales is something I can almost taste. / ... / But you remain. You haven't moved. You're standing in the light / of small things: ricochets of dandelion seeds."  In "November": "You wouldn't believe it if you saw it yourself. / A blast of starlings, hundreds of them, / going hell for leather towards the inarticulate light. / ... / Leaves on the vines have darkened and curled. / The ruts made by the tractor have hardened so we know / where we've been."  And finally death comes for the farmer in "April": "I can hear the birds this day that I am dying, / Voices in the distance carry wild cravings and wind away from me. / There is silence in the walls and along the floorboards. / So this is how it ends."  This last poem in particular reminds me of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" though Enns's narrator (presumably her father) is not as "pinched" and has a less crabbed vision than Eliot has here or in "Journey of the Magi").

This is definitely a collection that requires a second or third reading, and I've already found more of interest on the second time through.  I hope I've conveyed enough of the preoccupation with death and other endings to allow you to decide if you want to take it on.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 3rd review - Seth's Dominion

This is a curious artifact put out by Drawn and Quarterly.  It is primarily a fancy slipcase for a DVD of the film Seth's Dominion by Luc Chamberland (from the National Film Board).  The movie is sort of a documentary about the Canadian cartoonist Seth, but it also includes animations of some of his work, as well as shots of the model town of Dominion that Seth has constructed over the years.  The DVD also includes as a bonus feature two short animations of Seth's work -- The Death of Kao-Kuk and The Great Machine -- and an hour-long talk Seth gave in Montreal at a Drawn and Quarterly store.  The copy I borrowed from the library had scratches on the DVD, so I could only watch the short features (and bits of the longer features before the DVD went on the fritz).  I'll have to see if I can borrow another copy, though I don't think I'll update this review, which is more about the book aspects of Seth's Dominion.  The front of the slipcase has several pages of photos of Seth, his family and his cartooning buddies.  I was not aware that he worked with Dean Motter on Mr. X (I have nearly a complete set of this comic book series), but I am not clear on what Seth actually did (perhaps the lettering), since the style seems quite different from his normal style, which draws a bit from Peanuts as well as Chris Ware's work.

The second part of the slipcase has about 40 pages of Seth's cartoon work, including a few pages from his books It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, George Sprott, Wimbledon Green and The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. It's effectively a sampler of his work.

Like many modern cartoonists who are producing graphic novels, Seth's work has strong autobiographical components, although Seth also seems to be someone who isn't much interested in modern culture much past 1955, so sometimes he seems to be projecting himself back into an imagined past.  I have to be honest that his style is a bit too simple to really keep my attention, but based on the sampler, I'll probably read The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists* and possibly Wimbledon Green.  One interesting feature of Wimbledon Green is that Seth can make up comics and then have his collector (W. Green) go on about them without really having to create more than a short excerpt.  Stanislaw Lem went ahead and reviewed dozens of imaginary books (in A Perfect Vacuum and One Human Minute), and of course Borges played similar games.  I'm not sure what else Seth gets up to in this portrait of a committed comic book collector, but it's probably worth reading once.

As promised, I'll add a few of my own shots of Seth's town of Dominion (currently on display at the AGO):

It's definitely a strange and interesting world.   I'm still not sure if this city makes its way into any of his major works, though most likely Palookaville, so I'll probably check out one or two of those volumes (fortunately the library has a fairly complete set of Seth's works). This book/DVD combo is a fairly good introduction to Seth and his work, so it is worth checking out if you are at all curious about him.

* Kao-Kuk is an Inuit astronaut, apparently introduced in The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists.  It is fairly amusing seeing most of the space crew as First Nations in the short film.  I'd have to read the rest of the book to see what Seth does with this concept.  I'm not sure if cartoonists fly sufficiently under the radar to avoid the appropriation debate, but Seth may be attempting to sidestep the issue by claiming that the Kao-Kuk story was actually written by Bartley Munn, a mythical Canadian cartoonist.  Here is a solid review that unpacks what is real and what is imaginary in this collection.