Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Best reads of 2020

This year has been so completely disrupted.  Obviously in terms of all the theatre that was cancelled (to the point I probably won't bother to do a best theatre of 2020 post), but even on the literary front.  I am finding it all but impossible to reconstruct what I actually read, and of the books I did read, when I read them.  For instance, I definitely read Basic Black with Pearls, but it isn't entirely clear whether I read it at the very tail end of Dec. or in January, though I think it was Dec.  While I wasn't completely wild about it (and didn't put it on my best of 2019 list), 2020 has basically been a real dud in terms of reading, and it would certainly make the 2020 list...  Similarly, in a more typical year, Rushdie's Quichotte would probably only have been honorable mention.

I have completely stalled out in terms of my main reading list.  I actually gave up on the last 100 pages of so of William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It, as I thought it was quite an inferior novel compared to his others, and I actually haven't gotten back to reading him or Dawn Powell, where I also thought a bit of a break from her would be a good idea, though I hadn't intended on making it a year-long break!  A large part of the winter into spring was taken up with Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and it is a book that I am glad to have gotten through, but didn't generally enjoy along the way, particularly the last, interminable chapters. 

I did manage to grab a handful of library books before the major travel restrictions came into place in the spring, which meant I had months and months to finish those books.  While Camus's The Plague was definitely worthy, I found I didn't really like Kundera's novels as much as I had expected and finished them more out of obligation than anything.  I generally switched my focus onto e-texts for a very long time after that, and while I certainly amassed an enormous collection of them (which will come in handy when it is time to downsize and move to a condo or something), I didn't necessarily read that many of them, aside from poetry collections, which I generally do not put on my end of year reading lists.  I did, however, reread Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead almost entirely on my phone while in line at the grocery store.  It held a bit more menace this time (there is a virus that wipes out humanity!), though I wasn't entirely sold on the ending, which is the primary reason that Atwood takes the prize for best reread book this year...  Unusually, I even got around to listening to several audio books (which I virtually never do), almost entirely recordings of Toni Morrison reading her novels (unabridged no less).

I also was making a concerted effort to go through books that would then go out into the Little Free Library (and I did make it through The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, though I thought it was nowhere near as good as his earlier books), but sort of by default that means these aren't likely to be great books.  In the fall, I slogged my way through the Library of America's The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, which I didn't care for at all.  I'm hoping to actually resell it (if used bookstores ever reopen), but it may just end up in the Little Free Library after all.  And then I got sidetracked by starting to read Quebecois novels published by QC Fiction but unfortunately not really liking the first 3 books I tackled, and even abandoning one of them.  

I don't think this was all down to me having a generally negative outlook on life and literature due to the coronavirus.  I think I just hit a pretty bad patch and no question I read much, much less than I normally would because I biked exclusively to work (so no reading on transit) and often, though not always, was putting in overtime at work.  Also, over this past month I have started watching a movie or two each week with my son, which also cuts into my spare reading time.

Top 3 of 2020
Albert Camus The Plague
Carrianne Leung That Time I Loved You
Salman Rushdie Quichotte

Best novel reread
Margaret Atwood The Edible Woman

Honorable mention
John Cheever Thirteen Uncollected Stories
Julio Ramón Ribeyro The Word of the Speechless (NYRB)
Sonny Liew The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (interesting graphic novel covering the history of Singapore)
Kamila Shamsie The City by the Sea (ending may be a bit too upbeat given the circumstances)
Sheung-King You are Eating an Orange. You are Naked.
Dawn Powell The Wicked Pavilion (takes a while to find its footing)
Steven Jay Gould Ever Since Darwin
Marc-Uwe Kling QualityLand
Kurt Vonnegut w/ North & Monteys Slaughterhouse Five (the graphic novel adaptation)

I had certainly expected to finish Don Quixote by 2020, along with Nabokov's Lectures on Don Quixote, but instead it will be one of the first things I finish in 2021.  I may also tackle another plague-related book (Station Eleven), and if I can find the time, then I will try to take on Eric Dupont's Songs for the Cold of Heart (published as The American Finance in the US).  There is a small chance that I will read Nersesian's The Five Books of Robert Moses, but truthfully I think it is more important that I read War and Peace and probably even reread The Brothers Karamazov before this contemporary epic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Textile Museum - What Was On

I learned my lesson from the first round of lockdowns and in the summer and fall as museums and galleries opened up, I generally went to them right away.  Now I did not get out to Montreal, though that just involved too much travel around other people and then staying away from home for at least one night, which was just a bridge too far.  However, I was definitely planning on going out to Hamilton (perhaps somewhat enticed by the fact that it wasn't currently in lockdown), but Metrolinx completely cut Hamilton out of the network and a trip that used to take one hour (one-way) stretched to just under 3 hours, which was simply ridiculous.  At any rate, I'll take the next few weeks to post on what I saw, reliving the excitement when you could still go out and do and see things in the region.  After that maybe it will just be a few more weeks of hibernating and seeing if rates have come down enough by the spring that we can resume a bit of normalcy.

Today I will focus on the Textile Museum. There are two exhibits in place: Anna Torma: Permanent Danger (a show of large scale embroidered tapestries which runs through late March so there is a reasonable chance it will be possible to catch it in March, assuming the lockdown is lifted) and a group show of printed textiles from Inuit artists at Kinngait Studios.  The Intuit print show runs through June 1, so there is a better chance of seeing that in 2021.

The sheer amount of work that went into Anna Torma's pieces is quite incredible.  Here are a few that caught my attention.

Anna Torma, Fight 1, 2018

Anna Torma, Dionysia, 2020

The printed textiles exhibit reminded of the Artists textile show from 2015 (which apparently was organized by London's Fashion and Textile Museum.  Given the Canadian content of this show, I presume the Textile Museum organized it, though I don't know if it will travel or not.  There is a nice catalogue to accompany the exhibit, though it currently can only be ordered through the Textile Museum gift shop.

It would be difficult to pick the best fabrics.  In general I was a bit more interested in the repeating patterns and not quite as interested when they were transformed into dresses or curtains, to name just a few of the things seen in the show.

Hopefully this gives you a general sense of the exhibits that were on view and inspires you to go when it is deemed safe to do so again!

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Holiday Giving

I guess this is three weeks late (Giving Tuesday was Dec. 1 this year).  I actually was a moderately active giver this year.  There was a matching donation opportunity with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, so I did that.  I gave a bit to Northwestern University grad school, which is super rare.  (I'll probably get solicitations for eternity though.)  On a related note, I often am solicited by both University of Toronto and Hart House.  This year I am doing a bit of volunteer work for Hart House, so I feel covered in that regard.  The last substantial donation I made on Giving Tuesday was to a nearby food bank.  

I debated giving to the Red Cross, though I have somewhat ambiguous feelings about both the Red Cross and the United Way.  They both have quite substantial overheads and not nearly as much of the donated funds goes directly to people in need.  In the States, it was moderately common for employers to match donations to both charities, so I often took advantage of that.  I'm back in the public sector and matching donations is very rare here, though they do make payroll donations to the United Way simple.  Though apparently not simple enough for me!  Somehow I didn't renew for 2019 and was kind of shocked how little I had donated to charity when I found out at tax time.  Fortunately, I corrected this for 2020 and just renewed my donation for 2021.

I've made a fair number of small donations to arts organizations over 2020 (or in some cases just letting them hang onto ticket payments rather than asking for immediate refunds to help keep them afloat until they can start presenting concerts and plays again), and before the year is out, I'll make a direct donation to the Stratford Festival.  There is essentially an unlimited need for donations in all kinds of areas (child welfare, animal welfare, health, education, cleaning up the environment, etc.) and it gets too overwhelming when I think about it like that.  However, I try to balance putting my money towards things that I would be really sad if they disappeared (like the Stratford Festival) and more broad-based giving to food banks, United Way and the Red Cross.  That's probably all I can do for the moment.  It is true that I feel less guilty about being materially comfortable when I donate or volunteer, though that isn't the prime deciding factor.

Edit (12/30): I forgot to mention that I did give to the Toronto Star's Santa Claus Fund, which apparently smashed its goal of $1.2 million this year.  I generally alternate between the Santa Claus Fund and the Fresh Air Fund.  If they think they can send kids to camp this summer, I'll probably make a small donation.  And it looks like I should get my act together and donate to Stratford Festival today before I forget...

Monday, December 21, 2020

Signed Books

I've touched on this a few times before in the blog, but I thought maybe bringing them together would be useful, at least to me.  In this post, I talk about the author readings (that I remember) and note if I got a signed copy of the book or not.  (I should add that since posting that, I did see Salman Rushdie doing an in-person interview related to Quichotte and picked up a pre-signed book, as he no longer does in-person signings due to the understandable security risks.)  And here I talk a bit about buying autographed books on the internet, which I don't do often but will if there is no feasible alternative, i.e. the author passed away or is simply no longer on the book circuit.  That said, over the last year I have engaged in a bit more autograph-hunting.  With my recent orders of signed books by Sharon Olds and August Kleinzahler, I have signatures of all the living poets I follow closely with the exception of Louise Gluck (where the cost of her signature now seems to be out of my price range...).  Several of these volumes are from Brick Books where they sometimes sent signed copies as prizes for various competitions, particularly linked to Canadian literary blogs, and I was fortunate enough to win a few times.

There is no question I have more signed poetry books than novels.  In this list, I will put a star next to the ones where I actually got the autograph at a reading or in-person another way.

Atwood Selected Poems I & II *
Paul Auster The New York Trilogy *
Lindsay B-E The Cyborg Anthology (won a signed copy through a Zoom reading)
George Bowering Errata
Gwendolyn Brooks Blacks *
Jim Carroll The Book of Nods *
Barry Dempster The Burning Alphabet
Adam Dickinson Kingdon, Phylum
Stuart Dybek The Coast of Chicago * (Actually my dad got this signed for me)
Timothy Findley The Wars
Timothy Findley The Telling of Lies
Alice Fulton Powers of Congress *
David Gitlin The Journey Home
Jim Gustafson  Virtue and Annihilation *
Diana Hartog Ink Monkey
Michael Heller In the Builded Place
Faye Kicknosway Butcher Scraps
Faye Kicknosway The Violence of Potatoes
Carolyn Kizer Yin
August Kleinzahler The Strange Hours Travelers Keep
Robert Kroetsch Seed Catalogue
Robert Kroetsch Excerpts From the Real World
Evelyn Lau Other Women
Dennis Lee Riffs
Don L. Lee We Walk the Way of the New World *
Philip Levine The Simple Truth
Ken Mikolowski Big Enigmas *
Ken Mikolowski Little Mysteries *
Sharon Olds The Dead and the Living
Michael Ondaatje Secular Love (This is an odd one.  I went to a reading by Ondaatje in Toronto but I don't recall waiting in line for him to sign this.  At the same time, it would have cost more to buy a signed copy than is indicated on the front page, so maybe I did wait it out...)
Orhan Pamuk The Museum of Innocence
Marge Piercy My Mother's Body
Adrienne Rich Dark Fields of the Republic
John Sinclair We Just Change the Beat *
Josef Skvorecky The Republic of Whores
Charles Simic Selected Poems *
Charles Simic The Voice at 3 AM *
Susan Swan The Biggest Modern Woman in the World *
Constance Urdang American Earthquakes

Janet Abu-Lughod Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco
Neil deGrasse Tyson Death by Black Hole

I think this list is complete, though once in a while I stumble across a book that I picked up used, not knowing it was signed, and I'll just go ahead and add it here if that happens again.  That was the case for Evelyn Lau, Marge Piercy (!) and Constance Urdang.

I guess one benefit of focusing on poets is that they are generally fairly obscure to the general reading public, and there is not as much pent-up demand to get their signatures.  The flip side is that they didn't go to as many readings and book signings in the first place.  Probably the most "famous" signatures I have collected are from Atwood and Ondaatje, both of whom are much better known for their novels than their poetry, though both are fine poets.  (Actually, on further reflection, Paul Auster is the most famous, though I recently scored a fairly inexpensive signature of Allen Ginsberg, but I won't list it until it is in my possession.)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

New Computer

I don't know whether this counts as a Christmas present to myself or not, but I have been contemplating buying a replacement desktop for some time now.  I was finding that my main home computer was having frequent memory problems (and once a week or so would in fact crash and restart itself with only a handful of programs open).  Perhaps even more frustrating is that the optical drive completely stopped working, so I couldn't back up CDs or burn data CDs/DVDs.  So I knew a replacement was inevitable but was having trouble convincing myself to get around to it.

I did a bit of on-line shopping hoping to find a computer with Windows 8 (or perhaps Windows 8.1, since Windows 8 is completely unsupported now).  I really have not liked dealing with Windows 10 on my "upgraded" work laptop, though, to be fair, my biggest gripes are not being able to turn off the constant syncing with OneDrive and the constant notifications.  At least at home, I have more control over those settings and don't have to defer to corporate IT policies.  Anyway, the only Windows 8.1 machines were refurbished ones, and I didn't feel like going that route.

So that reduced my interest in getting a computer, since I wouldn't be able to get Windows 8.1, but I still needed to do something.  I saw that Staples was having a pretty good sale, and it was possible to arrange for curbside pickup, as the computer was in stock in the store.  I ordered a new monitor as well and a portable external hard drive to help with the data transfer.  One nice thing about Gerrard Square is that, while there are generally quite long lines to get in (and probably likely to be even longer as the lockdown rules get stricter) if you have a "curbside" order to pick up, they let you right in.  Now I didn't have to give them an order number or anything, so I could have been scamming them, but that is hardly my problem...

It basically took all weekend to transfer all the files over, and for the time being at least, I am letting my daughter use the old computer as a backup (though mostly I think she plays games on it...).  Then it took a long time to get software reinstalled and tweaked.  I was particularly worried about migrating my email archives (in MailStore) but that was a breeze.  I had to follow some bizarre process (spelled out on the internet) in order to restore the Tif editor (called Mobi) and then figure out how to get my ancient scanner working with Windows 10, as it is not natively supported.  The program that took the most fiddling around (so far) was Calibre, but I think I have it whipped into shape now.  I'm still getting used to new versions of PDFSam and FreeRip, and I haven't tested Nero yet, but generally things seem to be functioning.  The last thing is to go around and reset the passwords for some news sites and iTunes (and Blogger for that matter!).  It has been a dreadful headache, but hopefully I won't have to do this again for another 5 years, and at least the files I care the most about have been backed up in a few places as a result of this new computer purchase.

Saturday, December 12, 2020


It's been a month since I last posted.  There have been quite a few incidents of note and photos I want to log, and maybe I will circle back and maybe I won't.  I thought I would mention that I am extremely grateful that the scientists have come up with a number of (apparently) working vaccines at a truly ground-breaking speed.  I simply would not have expected this level of progress until the middle of 2021, and pessimistically perhaps not until 2022.  However, a handful of citizens have received the shot in the UK, and next week it looks like the vaccine will be rolled out (so very gradually) in the US and Canada.

No idea where my family and I fall in the list, though probably in the bottom half.  Nonetheless, I am assuming a gradual opening up through the spring, and potentially mass entertainment (movies, concerts, theatre) may possibly be able to return in the summer.  As much as I would like that, I think I would be willing to sacrifice it for a "normal" return to school in the fall.  Some children have adapted quite well to the new situation but others, particularly the younger ones, have not, and if we can limit the damage to one and a quarter school years, I would be incredibly pleased.

I think that's all I have to say on the subject for the time being.  I'm still expecting this to be a long, difficult winter, but there is hope that we will be turning the corner as the vaccine is distributed.  And while there are a fair number of vaccine-shy individuals in Canada, the proportion does seem to be a bit lower than in the States.  To be fair, I can understand not wanting to be in the very first wave of vaccinations, though I think at this point I would go ahead and take it as soon as it was offered to me.  (Again, I have no intention of cutting in line and clearly think that the elderly in long term care homes, doctors, nurses and then other essential workers (including transit drivers) have a higher priority than I do.)  But it's nice to have hope when things were looking so desperately awful for so long.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Slow Let Down

I really tried to make it through Réhel's Tatouine.  As I mentioned a week or so ago, this is definitely an interesting narrative voice, though coming from a character I would completely avoid in real life.  I'm not of the mind that "disabled" characters need to be paragons or flawless, but this guy had no ambition in life (other than moving to Tatouine where he could be away from everyone) and apparently he decides to try to live out this fairly stupid fantasy in Algeria, as it was Lucas's inspiration for Tataouine.  Setting aside that he has basically no life skills (not sure I've read of such an incompetent person since some of the feckless artistic types that I hated so much in Barbara Comyns's work), doesn't speak the language* and needs intensive medical assistance for his cystic fibrosis, what could possibly go wrong?  Anyway, the guy just stumbles through a fairly meaningless existence in Montreal, making one bad decision after another.**  It's like the literary equivalent of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, but without the star power of David Cross behind it.  Nonetheless, some people like watching slow-moving train wrecks, but I do not.  I couldn't even get through one episode of Todd Margaret (and I have also largely given up on Ricky Gervais who sort of specializes in this sort of dire comedy), and I am now bailing on Tatouine about halfway through.  

I still have reasonably high hopes for the other books from QC Fiction, but maybe I will temper my praise a bit, given this disappointing first outing.

I am also not entirely sure if I will stick to the Canadian book review challenge.  If I do, I imagine I will mostly be reviewing poetry, given how many books I have from Brick Books still to read.  Given that I didn't finish this book, it would not be fair to consider this a formal review, though clearly I would not be recommending it to anyone...

* Granted he should be able to find a moderate number of Algerians who speak French, due to its colonial past, but if his intention really is to move out to the hinterlands of Algeria, then he will mostly be encountering nomads who speak Berber or more occasionally Arabic.

** Not that I am that likely to ever finish my own novel about a somewhat hapless character in Toronto, but I think I will have to give him a bit more motivation and inner spark, even if he is often a bit over his head, just to avoid coming up with someone who the readers tire of so quickly.