Thursday, October 31, 2013

7th Challenge - 5th review - Dance of the Happy Shades

As discussed in the Munro post, I decided to slowly work my way through her short story collections, beginning from the beginning as it were.  I have just wrapped up reading her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades, and my current plan is to read Proust's Within a Budding Grove before starting in on Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women.  This is the one collection that it is probably better to read straight through in a short period of time, whereas the others might actually be more effective if you only read one or two stories a day and not gorge oneself.

It is true that many of these stories are pretty downbeat, so reading too many at once can be overwhelming.  They generally are about children on the cusp of young adulthood (about to lose what innocence they still had) or young women that find themselves very constrained in their life choices.  While it may not be an exact parallel, I was actually struck thinking of a few of the women in Faulkner, particularly Light in August (admittedly the most recent Faulkner I haved read).  First, there is the nurse (in the orphanage where Joe Christmas grew up) who was carrying on a desultory affair with someone (a travelling salesman?) and who ended up being a complete "B" when Christmas caught her at it (really going above and beyond the pale in trying to have him expelled and thus setting him along a bad path), but there is also the waitress that Christmas takes up with right before he leaves the home of his adoptive parents.  She would fit into a Munro story, though a bit more worldly than many of her characters, except perhaps the girls from "Thanks for the Ride."

A few people have criticised Munro for holding fast to the "epiphany" short story approach, but that seems to be the nature of short stories.  You get an idea across, and usually it does involve the main character either revealing something hidden about themselves (to the reader) or realizing profound something about themselves.  So that doesn't bother me that much.  Actually, there is a bit of variety in Dance of the Happy Shades, including one story written from the perspective of a young wife who is trying to stick up for an elderly neighbour (in the face of suburban conformity and the idea of "progress") in "The Shining Houses" and a young man sowing his oats in "Thanks for the Ride."  That last story is by far the most different from all the others in the book.

Much more often you have a youngish girl trying to rebel against authority (her mother, grandmother or to a lesser extent her employer (in "Sunday Afternoon") but not making much headway.  Life is fairly tough, and illness or other disaster can strike out of the blue ("Day of the Butterfly").   "The Peace of Utrecht" is interesting in that, even after their mother's death, the sister who was left behind to care for their mother doesn't seem to be able to escape from her cage, i.e. small town life.  Like a bound foot freed from years inside its binding and tiny shoes, she has grown cramped.  I could write at some length on how small town life is particularly ill-suited for people who are a little bit different or a bit rebellious and those that can get away (to the big city) probably should, but this has been expanded on at length elsewhere, and I am a bit short on time today.  Atwood's novels also frequently feature fraught relations between mothers and daughters, particularly in Lady Oracle, but it doesn't necessarily dominate the narrative as in Munro, though of course that is at least partly the consequence of working in a shorter form.  (While I haven't read them yet, many of Munro's later stories do reach novella length.)

Men cannot be relied upon -- not fathers ("Walker Brothers Cowboy" sort of suggests the father had an affair), brothers (the snitching brother in "Boys and Girls") and particularly not suitors ("An Ounce of Cure," "Postcard" and even "Sunday Afternoon," where we can sense things will end poorly beyond the end of the story proper).  Male strangers can be quite scary ("Images") or just creepy ("The Office") and accidentally bring break things without meaning to ("A Trip to the Coast").

I really hadn't recognized the first few stories, and I truly don't recall ever reading "The Office," where the first-person narrator is a housewife who rents an office to write in during the evenings, then finds herself blocked by the obtrusive landlord.  (I love how Munro inserts the word "slatternly," which has really fallen out of circulation.)  But I vaguely recall reading "An Ounce of Cure" and "A Trip to the Country," and I definitely read "Boys and Girls," so I presume that I did read this before for a Canadian lit. class.  Still, it was pretty much like reading the stories again for the first time.

"Postcard" and "Day of the Butterfly" are probably the most purely depressing of all the stories.  "Boys and Girls" is interesting in how you see a young girl kind of fall into the trap of gender role conformity and that is a bit depressing, though it is definitely a well-written story.  "Dance of the Happy Shades" has a mixed resolution.  It is quite clear that the mothers will drop the music teacher after a disastrous recital/party, but the teacher has somehow managed to find a student who actually has talent and can play the music of the spheres or some such thing.  That actually makes it worse for the mothers, since the teacher never could make their children play that well...

Of all the stories, the one that I really liked the most was "Red Dress--1946."  First, it has an absolutely killer line: "I lay on the couch in the kitchen, reading The Last Days of Pompeii, and wishing I was there."  (I may have to figure out how to incorporate that into a poem.)  Truly, Munro has a streak of sly humour that isn't always noticed (the same with Carol Shields).

Okay, some spoilers follow...

Anyway, the teenaged daughter has just the right mix of self-loathing and outward embarrassment she feels about her mother (and the often out-of-fashion clothes that the mother sews and makes the daughter wear).  The daughter's friend, Lonnie, is at an advantage because her mother is dead and her father more or less leaves her to her own devices.  Anyway, the story builds to a school dance that the daughter is dreading attending.  The red dress her mother is sewing is for this dance, and she is sure it makes her terminally uncool.  While she and Lonnie talk endlessly about boys, once she gets to the dance, she is so determined to avoid rejection by the boys, that she retreats first to "the wall" and then to the girls' bathroom.  She encounters an older girl there, Mary Fortune, who seems to care nothing about boys at all (I'm not sure if Munro is actually hinting that Mary is a proto-lesbian, but it is possible.)  Mary invites the daughter to leave the dance and go to a soda shop.  The daughter is somewhat flattered and sees a different path open up before her (where she is a bit of an outcast along with Mary -- and Lonnie is not quite as close a friend, since she is still boy-crazy).  She seems to be even a bit exhilarated about this, but then as she is getting her coat to leave, a boy comes up and asks her to dance.  She snaps back into a "normal" life and even gets a first kiss on the way home.  She thinks: the boy "had been my rescuer, that he had brought me from Mary Fortune's territory into the ordinary world."  The story closes with a vision of her mother hoping for the best for her daughter, and the daughter not quite knowing how to close the gap between them.  I just think this story works on so many levels and is so incisive.

While I am not going to try to figure out the order in which these stories were written or published, it wouldn't surprise me too much if "Red Dress--1946" was one of the later ones written, since it is so deep in so many ways.  I'm fairly sure that Munro's work continues in this general direction, getting more at the subtle differences between people, particularly mothers and daughters, and why they end up disappointing or even hurting each other even when they don't mean to.  This can be kind of difficult territory, but Munro mines it quite well on balance.

Spoiler silliness

I had an interesting experience today, which was a bit of a flashback to my elementary school days where I was "the spoiler."  Generally, I ran my mouth a bit faster than I should have.  Anyway, I was on the train home with a couple of people from work on the train back and just heard her saying something about how relatively easy it was to not find out about the World Series.  Sadly, I missed the first part of the conversation where she must have been saying how she was trying to avoid the news.  I said I found that incredible since it was all over, and she was like "Dude."  Now I obviously wish I hadn't said anything, since I hardly care about sports at all and would have easily moved onto another topic.

However, it is completely unrealistic to expect that certain sporting events can be put on hold for 24 hours (ok, 20 hours) while you do other things (and then to try to shame people who tip you off accidentally!).  A typical game or a tv show, fine, but the outcome of the World Series, the Superbowl or especially the Stanley Cup?  What kind of a bubble are you living in?  It pretty much means no internet at all and absolutely no email, since even the subject line of messages from friends will most likely contain spoilers.  What I dislike the most about people who insist on a spoiler-free existence is that it squelches the water-cooler conversations that make up an important part of office life.  In a way it is actually quite selfish to try to maintain this bubble, particularly for really key events that are meant to be discussed openly, such as the World Series.  Now I don't want to go too far in condemning the anti-spoiler squad, but it does strike me as one more example of the extreme atomization of society that we are facing that people think that can insist on time-shifting events to suit their own needs and getting everyone else to play along and humour them.

That said, I wouldn't have said anything (and I really said next to nothing about the game) had I known that she really didn't want to know.  And of course, I will continue to put up spoiler warnings here for the plots of books and obscure movies, given that it is fairly unlikely everyone (anyone?) will have already experienced them.  But I am not going to tiptoe around discussing the outcomes of sporting events if it is actually relevant to the topic under discussion.

7th Challenge - 4th review - Vermeer's Light

This book turned up in the mail much sooner than I expected, so I might as well review George Bowering's Vermeer's Light.  This is a very generous collection for a stand-alone collection, i.e. not a "best of" or collected poems.  There are well over 100 poems in the book, which comes in at 170 pages of poems, along with an essay.  The poems were written between 1996 and 2006, with one major exception "Grandfather," which I will return to in a bit.  As Bowering relates in the Preface, these poems were written during a time of great upheaval in his life.  His wife passed away, after a fairly long (3 year) struggle with cancer on top of the multiple sclerosis she had been dealing with.  Then in 2001 he retired (he was on the faculty of SFU) and shortly thereafter he was named Poet Laureat of Canada, so he traveled quite a bit and gave readings and led workshops and wrote.  Then he moved to Ontario for a couple of years and took up with a new sweetheart (the one he married midway through the writing of My Darling Nellie Grey).  He convinced her to move back with him to Vancouver in 2004.  Quite a few of the poems reflect these events, though not all are autobiographical.

There are 6 poetry sequences: Sitting in Vancouver; A, You're Adorable; Fragment, Trieste, Dec. 1981; Imaginary Poems for AMB; Six Little Poems in Alphabetical Order; and West Side Haiku, as well as a couple of multi-part poems: "The PGI Golf Tourney..." and "Lost in the Library".  The rest of the poems are essentially stand-alone poems, though "Q & A" reads like a series of very, very short poems.  For the most part, these longer poems and sequences are the more interesting to me, and that's what I will focus on in this review.

I liked the idea of Sitting in Vancouver a bit more than the execution. Bowering lists various places he has been, many of them related to his late wife's condition -- the multiple sclerosis clinic, Vancouver Hospital, UBC Hospital and YVR.  These are basically observational poems.  He makes comments about the other people in these places and curiously enough generally does not dwell on why he is at all these hospitals (classic avoidance of course).  So there is a morbid air to them, even though illness and death are generally not addressed head on.  I think of the bunch, the most interesting is the one where he is sitting in the SFU Cafeteria.  Now I haven't been there, but I have been at the SFU library and student centre, and they are bleak places that feel stuck in the middle of nowhere.  I'm pretty sure the SFU Cafeteria is no different, and that seems to put Bowering in a bad mood: "Can't believe all the fat boys, / fat girls / lined up for burgers / fries and Coke."  He compares his lot to other more famous poets and seems to feel that they wouldn't be stuck out at SFU like he is: "Allen wouldn't be here, Atwood / she wouldn't be here."  Maybe there is just a touch of pride that he will put up with this situation, but in general, he seems pretty discontent.  On the whole this series of poems comes across as a bit of downer.

The next long sequence, however, is my favourite of the bunch: A, You're Adorable.  This was published in 1998, and Bowering claims that the publisher didn't know for a while that he was the author (he used the pen name Ellen Field).  I admire Bowering for submitting work under different names, and I think he had to up his game.  I half wonder if he stopped around 2006, since I thought a lot of his work in Teeth was subpar and probably only was published because it carried his name.  Anyway, this is a series of poems, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet and being very playful about it.  Often the letter is repeated and must be read on multiple lines to make the following words make sense, like "almost Defenceless, nearly / footloose, loving every De- / tail since." or "Enuff of questions, / how about if 'E gives us (you and me) / nothing but answers from now / on / paper, or something."

These are really quite different from many of his other poems, though the occasional repetition of words is something he consciously did in some of the sequences in My Darling Nellie Grey.  These poems are short and often a lot of fun.  I think they benefit from being read out loud, and I'll do more of that over the next week or so.  While he didn't explicitly say so, I think he probably was dedicating them to A(ngela) his wife, who was struggling with various illnesses by that point.

Imaginary Poems for AMB were written shortly after the death of his wife, Angela.  They are suffused with grief and other emotions.  The one that stuck out the most for me began: "I wonder if you send me / my dreams of you--- / Did I do something that day / to deserve your visit---" and later he wonders "If I write poems for your ear / am I talking to myself---".  Even the most fervent agnostic ponders these questions in the face of the death of close ones, though the hard core atheists recognize this for that wishful thinking that is the root of so many religions.

For me, the collection is front-loaded with the best work coming in these three sequences, though A, You're Adorable is worth the price of admission, as they say.  "Q & A" and "Ask a Stupid Question" are the precursors to the "Shall I Compare Thee" section of My Darling Nellie Grey.  "Ask a Stupid Question" adopts the voice of a cynical (NYC?) cab driver who answers poetic questions such as "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind" with the sardonic retort "I'd guess about three months."  The poem ends appropriately enough: "Jesus, Lady, don't you know anything?"

As I mentioned, the collection ends with the essay "Rewriting My Grandfather" where Bowering explains the genesis of the poem "Grandfather," then reworks it 8 or so times.  This is really an interesting exercise in watching a poet at work, at least one who is into Oulipian games.  Some of the reworked poems are better than others, as one might imagine.  It was a nice bonus to a solid poetry collection, and I was glad I was able to pick Vermeer's Light up relatively inexpensively.

Rob Ford - Busted

I do try to steer away from the really political stuff, but I am so glad that the police have busted Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, i.e. they have recovered the alleged video showing him smoking crack, along with a long surveillance trail of him contacting the alleged drug dealer Alexander Lisi.  I'm sure there will be lots of updates, but the breaking news is found here and here and here.  Sadly they cannot actually charge him with a crime for what appears to occur on the video, though of course there might be obstruction of justices charges or the like.  And Toronto has no recall mechanism, and possibly no way for the City Council to actually force Ford to step aside.  But I think even the most thick-skinned politician, such as Ford, will realize there is simply no way he can remain in power after these revelations.  Anyway, what a way to start the day!

So he has admitted to taking crack cocaine, even before the infamous video airs!  But he is still hanging tough and won't resign, and possibly still planning on running again next fall.  And he and his brother are basically digging in and bashing the police chief of all things!  (And it is so so sad how tribal politics have become that many of his supporters will go along with this pirouette.)  But I suspect that in the end, he will find the fall-out from when the video actually airs will be so damaging that he will step aside.  Maybe that is just wishful thinking...

Poetic influences

My mind has been segueing all over the place.  Let me see if I can get the main thread(s) down.  Over the past couple of months, I have been reading a fair number of young and occasionally not-so-young poets who were clearly influenced by Frank O'Hara, most notably Denise Duhamel and now Artie Gold (an Anglophone poet based in Montreal who seemed equally influenced by O'Hara and Jack Spicer).  George Bowering writes in the introduction to the Collected Books of Artie Gold that when he first encountered (and taught!) Gold, O'Hara was barely being read by Canadian lit. majors or poets, though the situation has certainly changed with time.  (I wonder if those that followed O'Hara early in his career all became poets themselves, much like the thousand or so people who bought the first Velvet Underground record -- all of whom supposedly went on to form their own bands...  RIP Lou Reed.)

O'Hara came to my attention in my second year of undergrad when I got into a poetry writing course with a professor who had known a lot of the key figures from the New York school.  At least that is how I remember being introduced to O'Hara's works, though of all the figures the professor brought to my attention, I suspect I would have encountered O'Hara through Donald Allen's New American Poetry anthology or somewhere else, since over time, O'Hara has become so influential.  Still, I might have not paid nearly as much attention had my attention not been focused.  Other poets that the professor promoted included Ted Berrigan, Faye Kicknosway, John Sinclair, Jim Harrison, Jim Gustafson and I believe Ed Sanders.  Some of whom remain very obscure.  The following summer, at NELP, I was introduced to the work of Jane Kenyon, though unfortunately she was too ill to actually meet the class, which would have been quite memorable, I am sure.  I think all of the other poets that I have read, I mostly found out about them by reading widely and then following the poets that these poets looked up to.  More recently I have occasionally followed leads generated by listserv discussions or even Amazon suggestions.  To circle back very briefly to Bowering, I definitely see lots of flashes of humor and playfulness in his work, which could certainly be found in O'Hara or Ted Berrigan for that matter.  However, unless I am totally misremembering what Bowering wrote in an essay, he was more inspired by some of the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Olson and some of the others in the Black Mountain School.  I'm not really sure I see that (the Olson influence), but to be fair, I have not cracked Olson's Maximus Poems (something to start if I ever finish Pound's Cantos I guess). 

I'll try to wrap this up quickly as I still have a review (of Bowering's Vermeer's Light incidentally) to get to.  While there are a lot of very disparate poets that I like quite a bit, and even some where I share a somewhat similar poetic sensibility, I just am not sure I would consider myself that influenced by any particular poet.  But perhaps someone else would feel differently.  Anyway, I will list my top 10 favorite poets (in alphabetical order) and then another group of 15 that I rate very highly.

Paul Blackburn (my favorite Black Mountain poet*)
T.S. Eliot
Faye Kicknosway
Philip Levine
Audre Lorde
Frank O'Hara
Sharon Olds (but stopping at The Father!) 
Adrienne Rich
Anne Sexton
Charles Simic

John Berryman
Robert Creeley
Emily Dickinson
Alan Dugan
Jane Kenyon
Galway Kinnell
August Kleinzahler
W.S. Merwin
Marge Piercy
Charles Reznikoff
Harvey Shapiro
Gary Snyder
Gary Soto
Wallace Stevens
W.B. Yeats

A few thoughts.  Had I drawn this list up 10 years ago, I probably would have included some Beat poets such as Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti; however, my tastes have changed and Beat poetry in general hasn't held up that well in my view. I probably would also have put Yeats in the higher category and possibly included Dylan Thomas in the second category.  I might have included W.C. Williams, but I don't find I read him for pleasure, so while I respect him and his work, he doesn't really belong here.  That might change some day if I really delve into his work (as I once did with Wallace Stevens).  Langston Hughes and E.E. Cummings are sort of just off the edge of the list, partly because they wrote so much, and yet only a relatively few poems speak to me. (One could say the same about Blackburn or O'Hara, whose poetic output was high but the quality was highly variable to say the least, but even their weaker poems spoke to me more.)

For better or worse, the list does not include any poetry in translation.  It is much harder to justify how U.S.-centric it is (to say nothing of the fact that nearly all of these are 20th Century poets with only a small handful still publishing in the 21st Century), but these generally are the poets that write within a space/context that makes sense to me, and certainly it is not a fluke that most of them are urban poets.  I am still sort of feeling my way into the Canadian canon, but I would say that Robert Kroetsch is probably my favourite Canadian poet, followed by George Bowering, then Louis Dudek and Al Purdy. W. H. New is in there somewhere as well.

I'll close with a relatively short list of poets whom I respect in the abstract but haven't read enough of their work to truly know them.  It is possible that after I did that I would rate them higher and put them on one of these lists some day.  Perhaps time will tell...

W.H. Auden
John Betjeman
Basil Bunting
Randall Jarrell
Maxine Kumin
Denise Levertov
Howard Nemerov
Kenneth Rexroth
Theodore Roethke
Muriel Rukeyser
Delmore Schwartz
W.C. Williams

* Honestly, I would not characterize Blackburn as a Black Mountain poet -- he is much closer, in my mind, to the New York School (O'Hara in particular) -- but that's where he is generally placed, so whatcha gonna do?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rough weekend

This ended up being a particularly frustrating weekend, since the elements for having a good weekend were in place, but things either didn't quite gel or ended up being pretty negative all the way around.  It doesn't help that the way I am "built" I always glom onto the negative aspect of things and that ends up overwhelming the positive aspect(s).  So the difficulties in getting home from the hockey game on Friday will loom larger than the experience of being at the game (and even the fact that my son was so thrilled to go*).  Why can't I let this go?  After all, we managed to get home, even though I had to pay for a cab.  But I really can't let it go when events or people in particular let me down, and Car2Go and the TransLink bus system really did let me down, leaving me feel completely stranded and upset.  Probably I just hate the feeling of helplessness of being forced to rely on the bus system so much that when it lets me down (as it has so many, many times over the past 2 years) that it just magnifies the negative feelings I have about Vancouver.

My wife has not gotten over some cold, and I keep worrying I will catch it from her.  I found myself pretty exhausted all weekend, so when things did go wrong that just magnified them that much more.  Anyway, while the weather wasn't great, I did take the kids to a local Halloween party on Sat.  And that wasn't too far away, so we were back within about 90 minutes.  Then I cooked some slightly odd butternut & potato pie (probably would have been better with white flour but I used whole wheat flour, making it even heavier).  But I just felt kind of drained.

Sunday the weather was much better, so I planned to go early to Stanley Park for the Halloween Ghost Train.  It takes freaking forever to get there from our place.  My daughter started complaining that she was starving while we were waiting for the second bus.  I told her she was just going to have to wait until we got to the park, and we were maybe 1/3 of the way there when she threw up on the bus.  This is starting to become an on-going thing with her (barely making it out of cab to the airport (and throwing up in the airport itself), then once throwing up on a plane).  It's so upsetting because you feel helpless and a bit guilty for not listening (not that I thought this would happen) but then ultimately so frustrated because I can't tell if this is related to motion-sickness or an over sensitivity to gas fumes or just boredom and her way of getting us to listen to her.  (But at the same time, she just won't tell us -- clearly -- that she thinks she is going to throw up and give me any warning.)  Would this still have happened had she had lunch first?  Quite possibly, and that would have been even worse, but maybe not, and that doubt makes me doubt myself as a parent.  Mostly it makes me feel completely trapped.  I cannot take her anyplace that involves being in a bus (and probably a car) for over 45 minutes.  That means the trip to Seattle is out-of-bounds and definitely Portland is off (again, totally undermining any point of being in the Pacific Northwest).  Maybe a train ride would be possible, but not even sure I want to risk that (to say nothing of the fact that the schedule for trains leaving from Vancouver is so sucky).  It just reinforces so dramatically that living in Vancouver without a car (where virtually every bus trip takes over 45 minutes vs. 20 minutes in a car) is not working for us.  I really have come to hate this place now (and am so disenchanted with the Vancouver planners & politicians who want to drive car drivers out of town).  I would definitely have gotten a car by this point (and maybe been able to make some of these local trips that I have now ruled out) except that we won't be here all that much longer.  But I can't wait until this particular phase of hers is over -- will it be another year or two?  There was some science fiction story about a boy that kept pressing this button to skip over the tough parts of life -- and then found he has grown old and has given up most of his life.  However, I would be willing to skip over two years of my daughter's childhood if it meant being past the vomiting and other body control issues.

Anyway, after this happened, I had to take them off the bus and clean her up and then find some kind of bar for her eat.  At least, they were just in regular clothes so her Halloween costume wasn't ruined...  I was so frustrated and flustered that I decided we were not going on to Stanley Park.  I found a place to eat close to the Central Library and then after she claimed she was better, we went to the library and got a few more books and CDs.  (It turned out that the big library Book Sale wrapped up on Sat., so even that didn't work out for me.  Just one more damn thing...)  Anyway, we got home fairly uneventfully, though I decided we would do the Canada Line rather than take the local bus, which shaved 15 or so minutes of travel time off the journey.  (I don't think I will risk her being on a TransLink bus that takes more than 30 minutes from here on out, but just in general I am going to cut down on the times that I take her anyplace.)  This experience really drained me and I didn't get a number of things done the rest of the day.

In an effort to be a bit more positive, I should not forget that, even though she spends a lot of time shunning me in favour of her mother, my daughter still wants to play a lot of games together in the evening (and she has a pretty good imagination.)  Also, Sat. was not such a bad day, and I should try to hold onto it more -- and to look forward to trick-or-treating with the kids on Thurs (and hope that the rain does hold off).  It looks like I should manage to get through Swann's Way before November begins.  Apparently, November is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann's Way (and Proust had to pay to publish it -- how fitting for today's economy where self-publishing is again on the rise).  I will also be able to finish Munro's The Dance of the Happy Shades and presumably review it this week.  The first few stories seemed totally unfamiliar, but I did recognize (very vaguely) 3 of the middle stories, so I assume that I did in fact read this for a CanLit class at UToronto.

Anyway, I have decided that in the month of November, I am going to focus more on writing, probably writing on the bus, since I have quite a bit of time to kill and a relatively compact notebook that should work well for this task.  I'll start off working on the sestinas and then work on this play (basically a reworking of Lear) and see how it goes.  Obviously, this means I will read less, but I think that is an acceptable tradeoff.

I decided I would start off with the grocery list mentioned in this post, but I went back to the original, dropping coffee in favour of ice.  This is the first stanza, and I'll see how much further I can get tonight:

In many ways, I seem a child of snow and ice,
receiving no warmth from my mother's milk --
and later rejecting the heart-warming properties of beer
or other libations.  As for the comforts of bacon,
those too have been forsaken, leaving (buttered) bread,
cookies and cake as my main vices, which, under my frigid layers, smoulder and smoke.

Signing off for now...

* My son said several times it was one of the best times of his life, and I when I probed (asking didn't he say that delivering the mail to the neighbours was one of the best times of his life!) he said that he could think of 100 "greatest moments" out of millions of moments that he had been alive.  What a great attitude, but not one that I've ever been able to adopt (I think he is more like my parents in having a fairly sunny attitude).  This isn't precisely the same as counting one's blessings, but not that far off.  There is an interesting character in Rajiv Joseph's play Animals Out of Paper who fills notebooks with his "blessings," including some things that are quite painful, but he reckons that even painful events are part of the "blessing" of being alive.  I would certainly be happier if I could adopt such an attitude, but I know it is beyond me.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Progress through Proust

Can I paste a widget?  (Sorry -- apologies to Marvin Gaye)

I know there has to be a more elegant way of doing this -- I really wanted something like a large thermometer where I could customize each tick with the book title and page count, but I'll just settle for something that works... Still not sure I will get all the way through this opus, but this is where I shall track my progress to date.*

X Swann's Way  
Pages: 462
Read: 462
(Note: have finally completed Swann in Love!)

X Within a Budding Grove
Pages: 556
Read: 556
(Note: am done with Madame Swann at Home.)

X The Guermantes Way
Pages: 620
Read: 620

X Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah)
Pages: 549
Read: 549

X The Captive
Pages: 422
Read: 422

X The Fugitive
Pages: 284
Read: 284
(Albertine's gone.  Ohh nooo.)

X Time Regained
Pages: 401
Read: 401

Done at last, done at last!  Can hardly believe I am done at last! 

(Ok, very inappropriate, I know.  But I do feel freed from having this burden lifted.  Now the sensible thing to do would be to take even a quarter of this effort and use it to become a "real" writer, the same way the Narrator does in the last 50 pages or so of Time Regained.) 

* It's kind of fascinating that 90% or so of the pages discussing these progress meters are all tied back to NaNoWriMo (National (November) Novel Writing Month).  I guess I could take that as a Sign (or at least a sign that November is nearly upon us), but I am not going to tackle a novel (in a month!) this year and probably not next year either.  Just too many other tasks I am too far behind on.  Still I will set some manageable goals of writing more (and surfing the web less), probably starting with resurrecting my broken sestina series.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Swann - Romantic fool

It is just not getting any easier going through Swann's Way.  There are occasional flashes of insight, but really nothing much more profound than "familiarity breeds contempt" or "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of" (Pascal).  And the length is just killing me.  Plus the fact that page after page is just a solid wall of text with no dialogue breaks.  I am not enjoying this much at all, and I don't see it getting any better.  Rationally, I know I should just cut my losses and move on, but it has just about moved into that category of an endurance test -- and I do hate to fail one of those.  I guarantee you if I do manage to finish Proust, I will never ever be tempted to crack its pages again; this is a one-time performance.  Furthermore, if I do stop, I will not finish; it is a make-or-break decision, which I don't take lightly.  What's vaguely amusing is that while I was quite daunted by Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy and put off starting it for a year, it wasn't so bad once I actually cracked Palace Walk and I finished the whole thing in 2-3 weeks (I really should put my thoughts on that down soon).  Even things that should be of some interest in Swann's Way -- Swann finding himself desperately in love with Odette who grew bored of him after he was "hooked" -- are written in a way that drains them of any dramatic interest.  Frankly, it is an old, old story that generally is only of interest when you put in the fights, verbal or physical.  Here it is a one-sided account of an amour fou, with the man keeping as much inside as possible, yet still coming across as querulous to Odette and even some of his friends.

Well, I have been there in my early 20s, getting into an impossible desire situation -- and then boring my friends with it, even losing one or two in the process.  But even I don't want to read this going on in Proust, especially since it has even less surface drama than my buttoned-down escapades.  (Still, definitely something to watch for in that still-gestating novel -- I plan to keep the "frustrated love" storyline to only about 1/3 of the novel before moving into slightly more manic adventures in Toronto.) 

I am particularly struggling to find Swann to be an interesting character to begin with.  The Narrator really seemed to build him up as someone who was a bit of a straight-shooter (though as far as I can tell the extent of it was that he refused to hedge his opinions with socially acceptable phrases*).  Perhaps this is actually supposed to be more layered (and ironic) that I am reading into it, and we see just how low Swann can fall -- and really how boorish he is in some of the things he says to Odette.  It is kind of hard to see why he was so esteemed in some of the circles he moved in, apparently having easy access to the nobility (when was Swann in Love supposedly set anyway? -- it reads more like the Russian nobility than one finds in Tolstoy than what one would expect in post-Napoleonic France -- perhaps it is supposed to be in the 1860s when Napoleon III resurrected the French empire). Once he is finally stung by Cupid, he spends an inordinate amount of time setting up situations where he may run into her (once he is finally forbidden to turn up at the Verdurins' evening salons).  This does exasperate his friends (and the Narrator's grandfather simply refuses to get involved in this pursuit or any of Swann's previous less fraught entanglements), but doesn't seem to lead to a break with any of them.  Still, he shows a shocking lack of self-awareness and loses the ironic view on life that apparently had made him such an amusing companion.  While that is partly the point of this part of the book (that love makes one lose one's head), whenever you actually hear Swann's actual words, he comes across as a self-serious bore; it is hard to believe he was such an interesting fellow prior to falling for Odette.

I would hope that I never lose at least a bit of self-awareness and ironic detachment, no matter the situation.  Or at least in anything I commit to paper...

So I will close with a link to an interesting (but very long by internet standards) essay by Richard Katrovas, talking about, among many other things, the worst restaurant in Prague and perhaps the Free World.  I stumbled across this while trying to learn more about Katrovas' poetry collection Prague Winter.  I'm often intrigued by poets writing about Prague. (For instance, Ken Norris's poems on Prague in Limbo Road are among the best in that collection.)  I suspect that I won't actually like the poems in Prague Winter that much, as Katrovas largely writes formal (and even rhyming) poetry, which I actually find fairly off-putting, particularly if it was written in the past 25 years.  But he seems like a pretty good prose writer.

Anyway, this essay talks quite a bit about the Prague Summer (Writing) Program** run out of Western Michigan University, since Katrovas is the Director of the program and his ex-wife also is involved.  But Katrovas is a lot more knowing and ironic in describing how he navigates the shoals of dealing with (indeed working with) someone with whom you were once romantically engaged than Swann is in Swann's Way.  What is curious about this essay (an extract from Katrovas's Raising Girls in Bohemia) is that it is plastered on the Prague Summer Program website, which may be just a bit too much sharing than I would be comfortable with (do the students really need to know quite so much about what his ex-wife thinks about difficult writers?).  However, one could also take comfort that Katrovas says that with few exceptions, he hasn't brought any difficult writers on board -- it is those other writers not affiliated with PSP that are so hard to deal with, not you...  In any event, it appears that his ex-wife has moved on (since the writing of that essay), and it is his oldest daughter who has taken her place as Program Coordinator.  Perhaps in the end it was too hard for him to work with an ex-wife, ironic outlook notwithstanding.

* Really the equivalent of the Pointy-Haired Boss (from Dilbert) accepting any insult, as long as it was preceded by "With all due respect." Swann, however, refuses to start off by saying "With all due respect" and that annoys his more bourgeois hosts.  To me, this hardly makes him a hero or a paragon of virtue, though it seems to be something that the Narrator admired.

** This actually looks like a lot of fun, if a bit of a cash-cow from WMU's perspective.  And some of the associated faculty, including Stuart Dybek and Patricia Hampl, are quite respectable figures.  But it's something I should have done 20 or more years ago (not that I would have had the money readily available).  And indeed, I did something along similar lines (the New England Literature Program through U Michigan), though that focused on reading/exploring literature and not nearly as much on writing.  I guess I'll just have to time it so that I have a novel or book of memoirs come out once the kids are grown, so I can go off on these junkets as an invited writer and not as a paying guest.  

Thinking about these kind of programs triggered the memory of a play I had seen in Chicago.  After a bit of digging I pulled out the title: Some Americans Abroad by Richard Nelson.  It does a good job of telling the story of the various overseas programs that so many universities run now, but from the perspective of the (fairly cynical and/or careerist) professors and staff who run them, not from the perspective of the dewy-eyed naifs who pay to soak in European culture (and be a bit pampered) on these programs.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Late Bowering

While I probably have not read everything that George Bowering has published since Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), I have now read most of this output.  For the longest time, I owned Selected Poems, then recently I tracked down Delayed Mercies (1987), Urban Snow (1992), Blonds on Bikes (1997), Vermeer’s Light: Poems 1996-2006, Teeth: Poems 2006-2011 and then the selected lyric poems in Changing on the Fly (2004).  Apparently, the only recent collection that I have not read is His Life.

I am not going to attempt to review all these books but will make a few comments here and there.  I found somewhat to my surprise that I generally liked his longer poems and poetic sequences better than his short poems.  This may be because they are not these near-epic or mock-epic sprawling things that span many books (I found bp Nichols' The Martyrology to be just unreadable).  They are generally just 10 or 15 shorter pieces that have some internal cohesion, but Bowering doesn't push them all that far.  That is much more acceptable to me.  While the market for poetry is definitely in the tubes, Bowering would be a poet who would really benefit from a volume of his Collected Long Poems (a la Rexroth), as I think his best work has always come in the form of poetic sequences and not individual lyric poems.  Even Changing on the Fly bears this out.  The three long poems in that book are the best of the bunch (and incidentally all three are in his Selected Poems)!  And while Selected Poems has two long poems from The Catch, "George, Vancouver: a Poem" would definitely benefit from being put back into print and the most likely avenue would be through a Collected Long Poems.

Curiously, while studying English literature, I actually wrote a term paper on (long) postmodern poems (many examples written by Canadians incidentally).  If I can fish it out, I will scan it and post it here.  Given how annoying I found some of these poems, it probably was dodging a bullet that I didn't make studying long poems the basis of my livelihood.  Now when I read literature, and particularly poetry, I can just read what catches my fancy and not what I feel obligated to read to keep up.

What I find particularly intriguing about Bowering is that he does seem to skip around stylistically (quite possibly to avoid boring himself).  He'll write some longer sequences, then write quite a few short, rhyming poems (some really not much more than doggerel).  Then he will write a bunch of poems that quote questions from other poems.  I'm pretty sure it was in Vermeer's Light that we saw a precursor to the chapbook Shall I Compare brought out in My Darling Nellie Grey.

I tend to either like most of a poet's work (Charles Simic, August Kleinzahler) or all of it with the exception of some specific experiment they were doing (I love pretty much all of Anne Sexton's work except Transformations which contained long retellings of fairy tales).  Some poets gradually lose me (Mary Oliver for sure, Sharon Olds (though Stag's Leap was a major improvement over the previous two collections) and if I am being honest -- Adrienne Rich).  Others I find I appreciate their later work even more (perhaps Alan Dugan falls into this camp), though it would be very rare for me to stick with a poet who really bored me with their first or second book long enough to find this out.  But the bottom line is that there is generally a pattern.  Bowering is rare in that my appreciation/enjoyment of his work doesn't follow a pattern.  (The only other equivalent I can think of off-hand is Pablo Neruda.)

I quite liked Delayed Mercies, a few parts of Urban Snow and Vermeer's Light.  I wasn't particularly taken by Blonds on Bikes and I didn't like Teeth at all (only one halfway decent poem in the entire bunch).  I actually liked Delayed Mercies and Vermeer's Light so much that I ordered both, though due to crazy shipping rates to Canada from the U.S., it may be quite a while until they turn up.  I probably should have just reviewed those two collections while they were in my hands (from the library) but I had other pressing business.  I will try to circle back around to review them early in 2014 I guess.  Delayed Mercies will probably be hard to track down, but I would encourage folks to pick up Vermeer's Light, which in addition to some quite good poems has a long essay where Bowering tells the story behind his much-anthologized poem "Grandfather," then rewrites it 5 or 6 different ways: reversing words, selecting nearby words from the dictionary to replace the actual words of the poem, translating the poem back and forth from different languages.  In short, Bowering is engaging in a lot of postmodern playfulness, but it works reasonably well since 1) the poem is quite short and 2) because he is being so clear about what he is doing and isn't being purposely opaque about whether the new versions "mean" anything profound or if they are just language games.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Random stories

I promise that I won't turn the blog over to a whole bunch of click-through stories, but these two were so strange -- one funny-but-not-really (that has already been picked up by Slate in their own clickbait piece) and one that is a first-person social experiment that Slate occasionally likes to run (some of the columns they run do sound like the musings of Morgan Spurlock).  

So the first truly does sound like a plot for a B-movie: a groom realizes that he didn't properly book the wedding venue and calls in a bomb threat, hoping that after the wedding is postponed he will have time to make the proper arrangements.  It takes the police less than a day to figure out it was him. (In fact the bride's sister says to his face: "You probably done the bomb scare yourself.")  It wouldn't surprise me that there has been a movie based on this premise, and there probably has been a novel or a short story.  The problem is that the set-up is too easy, and then there are only a couple of options on where to go with the consequences of the bomb threat.  (Of course, one might suddenly launch into the tragic with the flustered clerk from the hall where the threat was called in having a heart attack.  Or in real life the nurse that spoke to the radio DJ pretending to be the Queen, then going and committing suicide.  Which in itself has some interesting twists and turns showing how far apart culturally the UK and Australia are with the Australian DJs (at least the male) simply refusing to accept any shame or shaming about his part in the incident, which further infuriates many Brits.*)

The next paragraph has some Gravity spoilers, so skip if you haven't seen the movie.

I guess in general, this incident reminds me of how foolish many people are and how easily led astray they are by what they see in TV or in movies.  Does that mean that artists really do need to exercise more self-restraint before putting out another Jackass or Bad Grandpa movie that will simply encourage more people to harm themselves?  I used to think no, but now I am no longer as certain.  I just see this huge number of really witless people and a chasm growing between the informed and the uninformed.  Just the other day on the bus, I overheard someone inspired by the movie Gravity to ask if there was "scientific proof" that the dead spoke to the living in dreams.  Maybe I am being too harsh, since he was inquiring rather than making a bold claim, and his friend seemed more inclined to think that Clooney was a figment of her imagination rather than a Obi-Wan wannabe materializing in the capsule.  However, the way these conversations usually go is that someone will then say, "Yes, there is scientific proof that X blah blah blah" or "It is a FACT that Y blah blah blah" almost always heading into some tendentious political point that either bashes Bush or Obama.  (Gah, the internet has been a lifeline (on steroids) to the blowhard community.)  No question this specific question implies a very weak idea of what the scientific method is in general (and that this is the kind of thing that couldn't be confirmed in the first place, relying as it would on first-person accounts of what they experienced).  But it also points to the power of shows like Ghost Hunters or what have you to dress up their supposed traces from the spirit world with the trappings of science.  Apparently we need 10 times more shows like Mythbusters or ones featuring James Randi, professional debunker, and ten times fewer bogus entertainment shows masquerading as science.  Instead, we have the reverse.  I have to say I agree with the people who feel the Discovery Channel should be forced to change its name to something more appropriate like the "Science Iz Too Hard Channel."  Well, if I am going to go on a thinly-veiled class-based rant, it is time to stop now.

I will turn instead to one of the funniest pieces I read in Slate all month, maybe all year.  Of couse, given that for the last month I mostly I went there to read up on the Default Follies, there were not too many chuckles from that newsfeed.  (Slate really is my main Web addiction.  I know most of the pieces have become super short clickbait pieces, but still I click through nearly everytime.  I guess you never know when you will get a full-fledged essay (certainly rarer these days) rather than a one paragraph summary with no extra analysis of some other report -- such as their version of the wedding bomb threat story, which I won't dignify with a link.  The one "advantage" is that now that the commenting system is so thoroughly fouled up that I almost never bother to look at the comments with the main exception of the comments on Dear Prudie's column.)  However, a couple of the writers on Slate still make an effort, including Dahlia Lithwick.  Here is her piece on why she wore Axe bodyspray for a week and what ensued.

* Another really odd and indeed tragic story that seems almost incomprehensible to me is that a British man was "rumbled," i.e. found out as responsible for a Twitter feed mocking the Queen's racing manager.  He thought he might have lost his job (possibly**) and his family (really?) and he hung himself.  I think it fairly certain that the typical Australian or American wouldn't have felt such intense shame to kill him- or herself, though of course there are always exceptions.  In the run-up to the Chicago mayoral election, someone set up an obviously fake Twitter feed as the Real Rahm Emanuel -- and ending up getting a book deal out of it.

** Like the WH National Security advisor that got caught running a particularly snarky, i.e. mean-spirited, Twitter feed and just got fired.  Having read a small sample of his output, it really is incredible this person felt he could just publish these tweets.  He looks just a tad too old to be an oversharing Millennial, but maybe just on the border between Gen Y and the Millennials.***  A one-time slip sure -- I have occasionally let things slip that shouldn't, but to constantly publish stuff about people's appearances?  It just means he is shallow and apparently never outgrew high school...  It doesn't really matter how smart you are, you can't be that disloyal to your co-workers, so he probably won't really be missed that much.  And honestly most of the people at the White House are pretty sharp, it's hard to see how he thinks he is that much above them, but apparently he did.  But this is something I struggle with from time to time, which is exactly why I don't need a Twitter account.  Email and apparently even blogging is so 90s that you could say anything you felt like and no one would find out...

*** Holy cow, the guy is a baby-faced 40 year-old!  He really should have known better.  Here is his half-apology: "What started out as an intended parody account of DC culture developed over time into a series of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments."  I guess once the genie came out of the bottle, he couldn't keep himself from writing what he really was thinking.  Again, a very valuable lesson -- to learn from watching others in disgrace!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Kronos Quartet at 40

On Saturday, I was at an "event," perhaps the biggest classical music event of the season in Vancouver.  Kronos Quartet was playing at the Chan Centre and they were presenting the world premiere of Philip Glass's 6th String Quartet and the Canadian premiere of Nicole Lizée's Hymnals.  In general, for the other pieces they dug into their world music bag, although for one that was a transcription of the song Last Kind Words, it actually sounded more like something Turtle Island String Quartet would do (I wonder if they are even still around -- I saw them over 15 years ago at the Montreal Jazz Fest).  Kronos actually gave three encores, with the last one being Purple Haze (Harrington kicking it off by saying they had never played Purple Haze at the Chan Centre).  To make it feel even more like an event, before the concert, Philip Glass was interviewed for a public radio show that will be going out in Nov. (if I can track down the info, I will paste it in here.)  I thought the interview had its moments, and Glass certainly seems like someone who has managed to work with some interesting characters over the years.

It's really hard to characterize his 6th String Quartet.  I tried hard to focus on it, but then would find myself listening too intently.  There are sections that feature serialism.  In general, he has moved away from minimalism, which to my mind is necessary for writing for such an ensemble.  Why bother just stringing together a few notes on end?  So the Glass 6th string quartet is being played around the world, including Stanford, Urbana, IL, Las Vegas and London (I wonder what the odds are that BBC radio will get permission to broadcast the UK premiere next May -- something to try to keep my eye on).  Even Durham, NC, and I told my dad he might want to check them out when they play at Duke.

While the Vancouver concert was officially sold out, there were a few no shows.  Indeed, the woman next to me moved down a row at intermission.  I also don't remember the Chan Centre being quite so cold...

From a pure enjoyment perspective, I liked Lullaby arr. by Jacob Garchik, Purple Haze (this was the 3rd! encore), the Glass piece and then a Colombian cowboy song (the second encore).  I generally didn't like the stuff that relied so heavily on electronics and pre-recorded material (obviously this is not an absolute, since I think Different Trains is pretty amazing).  One thing I didn't quite expect was how much they would have video behind them (mostly just changing colours or abstract line patterns).  I certainly didn't see anything like that the first time I saw them (when I don't think they had any pre-recorded material). I really did not like John Oswald's Spectre, which I thought was a complete waste of time.  It actually got me wondering if they had ever rejected a piece that they had commissioned or requested that the composer go rework it. (Glass hinted that there were a few technical things they asked him to change, but that for the most part they though the piece a good one, though very challenging to play.)

I really was not that taken by Hymnals.  It just sort of seemed like the kitchen sink school of composing where all kinds of disparate elements are forced together, and there are all these sudden tonal shifts.  Now it wasn't as bad as the Unsuk Chin I saw the CSO perform (really I now avoid anything by her) but I wasn't that moved. Aleksandra Vrebalov's "hold me, neighbor, in this storm" is a similar piece, though slightly more organic in nature.  I wish they had performed something else.  One thing that was a bit droll, is that John Sherba bangs on this drum and shouts in a Japanese fashion.  I was sort of imagining that he was getting out his frustration for being second fiddle (literally) for 40 years...

What is particularly curious is that I dug out my concert program from the previous (and only) time I saw Kronos -- in Chicago at the Art Institute actually (not the CSO Symphony Hall).  And they played Vrebalov's "hold me, neighbor, in this storm" that time too.  What are the odds?  After reading this, I did vaguely recall someone banging on a drum, but it was a smaller space and Sherba didn't shout nearly as loud.  That concert (April 2009) had a couple of other world music pieces (from Iraq and India), a piece from Sigur Ros (Flugufrelsarinn -- apparently only available as download), and then quite a bit from John Zorn's score for The Dead Man. Then they ended with the Vrebalov piece.  I vaguely remember liking the Zorn and the first few pieces.  I don't recall for certain if they did an encore, but I think they did.  What I definitely recall is that for part of one piece, they swished their bows in the air rather than actually playing anything (this might or might not have been for the encore).  I wonder if this would come across at all if heard on a recording?

Unfortunately, I never heard them with Joan Jeanrenaud, who retired from the group in 1999 (after being diagnosed with MS!).  Since she has left, the cello chair has been in pretty constant rotation.   I saw Jeffrey Zeigler in 2009 and this time around Sunny Yang was in the cello chair.  Perhaps she'll stick.  One really intriguing bit of news that I just learned was that for their latest album, they asked for a quintet piece (sort of in the lineage of the Schubert quintet) and that Jeanrenaud played on the album and in a concert or two with them.  I probably really will need to track that down.

There is quite a bit to say about Kronos, but I'll try to keep things fairly brief.  They are doing more concerts than ever in their 40th year.  The upcoming concert on Dec. 7 in Berkeley looks particularly tasty as they are going to be performing Crumb's Black Angels with a different piece by Glass and one by Riley.  So essentially no world music on tap, though perhaps as an encore.  If I didn't think I was already coming down to the Bay in April for the Stoppard thing, I might make another trip for that.  So tempting... And actually it turns out that they are also doing Black Angels (and the Glass piece) at UCLA in March.  That may even be more tempting, though I don't see how I could make that concert either.  Hmmm.

Anyway, while I don't dig it out all that often, the Kronos at 25 box set was such an amazing thing and so well put together.  (I picked it up used in Chicago at a very good price around 1999.) However, this afternoon I was kind of astonished to find that one disc is completely given over to Feldman's Piano and String Quartet.  I just picked this (the Feldman) up in Chicago a month ago, and it turns out I didn't need to.  Drat.  Well, it didn't cost very much (it was used) and it is in decent shape, so I will trade it in next time I am at Sikora's downtown.

I've read that there will be a Kronos @40 box set forthcoming from Nonesuch, but I can't find out any details.  Obviously, from my perspective I would prefer that it have no overlap with the Kronos 25 box, even if that meant leaning very heavily on their world music recordings.  That may just not make any sense though.  A Kronos box set, probably needs Different Trains in it and some of the earlier Glass quartets and probably the Gorecki and maybe a Volans piece etc. etc. etc.  I think for the time being, I will hold off on ordering the Music of Vladimir Martynov (with that quintet piece) or the Gorecki String Quartet #3, as those would be likely candidates for the box, along with Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. And possibly Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball in place of Different Trains.  But I do hope the contents are released soon, so I can decide if this is a must-have or not.

Hold the presses -- I finally found the details on the box set.  It is quite a disappointment to me.  From the press release:
The set will bring together five of the quartet’s most admired albums – Pieces of Africa, Nuevo, Floodplain, Caravan, and Night Prayers – with a sixth disc devoted to new tracks from a variety of sources, many of which have never been released on Nonesuch before. Among the selections will be the group’s first recordings with Sunny Yang.

I have 3 of the 5 world music albums and don't rate the others quite as highly.  (I would imagine a fair number of people would be in a similar situation.)  Then you have one CD that can't be found anywhere else, so you have to decide how much duplication you can stand.  It doesn't help that these CDs have generally glutted the used market (perhaps not Floodplain), so they will have almost no trade-in value if you do decide to go for the set.  I really can't see picking this up, though it depends on the final pricepoint and what is on the last CD.  Anyway, it just strikes me as a major missed opportunity, though it clearly means I can go off and get the more classical pieces without worrying about duplication on that end.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gravity - the Movie

So I am back from Gravity.  It is surprisingly hard to find this playing in 2D. (I try like crazy to avoid 3D, since I don't like watching films in this format and feel the format should fail (yet again).  It seems totally propped up by studio greed, despite occasional films that might benefit from it.). 

Not sure how much of a spoiler it is to say that one damn thing after other happens to Bullock and Clooney -- either you sit back and enjoy the ride or you find yourself turned off by the sheer implausibility of it.  I guess I am somewhere on the fence, but heading into Frustration Land* over the implausibilities.  Plenty of spoilers ahead if you keep reading.

There are a number of people tweeting about some of the implausibilities.  I find a few of these to be relatively minor things I was willing to overlook, specifically Sandra Bullock not wearing some type of adult diaper and her hair wasn't floating all over the place.  Her hair was fairly cropped and perhaps she decided that it made sense to have some gel in it to hold it in place. Now whether she would have totally sweated through this "product" is a different question, and I do think for verisimilitude she should have been a bit sweatier after emerging from the space suit (well, ok a lot sweatier, but I would have settled for a slightly sweaty Sandra).  (In general, she seems to be able to get into and out of these suits pretty quickly, especially for a rookie.)  One commentator had said that Clooney should not have been goofing off in the jet pack at the start of the movie, but I am willing to accept the plotline that he was testing an experimental jet pack with a longer range and thus this justified his zooming about.  I thought that at least was plausible.  And one major error that I thought I had caught -- why does the stupid Chinese capsule sink so fast when they were designed to float -- turns out to not be an error.  The Russian (and apparently Chinese) capsules are designed to land on land, not water (the way the American ones do).  I find this pretty crazy -- it just seems that a water landing would be easier on astronauts, but I guess Russia and China are geographically less amenable to having effective control over a large body of reasonably temperate water.

This begins shading into more serious objections from actual astronauts, mostly about how damn hard it is to grab anything in a spacesuit and that most of the grabbing of tethers or hoses, let alone grabbing onto random bits and pieces of space shuttles to stop one's movement, would simply be impossible.  Granted this would have shortened the movie dramatically (as they both would have floated off into space), but it is a quite serious objection.  I don't think there is any way to dodge this one; it just is part of movie characters having near-supernatural powers the rest of us wouldn't have, faced in the same situation.  But I am willing to give them a pass here.

Now I don't have an objection to Clooney's character telling the doctor about oxygen deprivation and so on.  (Someone has raised this.)  She has plenty of theoretical knowledge, but he has that practical experience, and she is a panicking rookie.  That seemed plausible.  What seems absurd (to me and some random strangers) is that Bullock would know more about electronics than the NASA crew.  Seriously, what doctor would build their own imaging technology (or whatever) and then go through the bother of installing it in space?  Sure, it is basically a MacGuffin, but every time Cuarón attempts to explain it, it gets worse.  It is going to be some sort of sensing technology used in hospitals, but they decide to test it in space first?  (This is from when Bullock explains to Clooney something that he already should know...)  That makes no kind of sense on five or six levels, starting with there isn't anything one would probe in space that would have any relevance for a terrestrial hospital and ending with space missions are so freaking expensive that this would hardly be the place to test out experimental electronics.  This little back and forth definitely made me question the intelligence of the script.  And frankly it is so unnecessary.  There is no valid reason Bullock's character has to be a doctor than virtually any other technician or scientist type (with a legit reason for being in space and spacewalking), just so long as this is their first space walk.  Other than Cuarón perhaps imagines that scientists are naturally colder than doctors.

Now we start getting into the serious, serious objections.  Neil deGrasse Tyson certainly has said the most about the problems with the movie, but still enjoyed it anyway.  One thing that bothered him a little, but didn't bother me was that the debris from the satellite should have been orbiting west to east, not east to west.  I simply didn't know this and it is hard to say it spoils the movie.  Now here is an interesting example of what I thought was fundamentally wrong, but I am partially wrong and the movie is partially wrong.  It just shows that I am not up on my space stuff.  I thought it was absurd that the debris would be circling the Earth so fast that it would essentially lap the Hubble and the ISS.  It turns out that really isn't what the movie is trying to say.  The Hubble orbits the Earth every 97 minutes (much, much faster than I had imagined), so this is a detail the movie actually gets right.  So if the debris from the blown up satellite suddenly lost all its angular momentum and rained straight down, then indeed the Hubble would pass through it every 97 minutes, which is what Clooney warned about.  However, things in orbit don't work that way, even after being blown up. Communications satellites (and almost certainly spy satellites) are in geosynchronous orbit, meaning they rotate at such a speed as to remain over the same spot on earth.  (An awesome list of such satellites can be found here.)  Which means that most of the debris would begin to descend but continue rotating at largely the same speed as the original satellite (this isn't entirely true as speeds change with altitudes).  Nonetheless, the bottom line is that it is really hard to imagine more than a single pass through the debris (not 3 times as seen in the movie).  If it simply "drops" straight down immediately which is of course impossible, then the Hubble should pass through it only once before it clears.  What this movie seems to be insisting on is a rain of large chunks of debris that goes on for 4-5 hours -- and without any moderating effects of the initial rotational velocity.  Unless I am completely mistaken (and it is quite possible that I am) it seems that by the time the debris got to their level, it would be the Hubble that would be whipping through the debris and having vastly more momentum and knocking the debris away rather than the other way around.  Still dangerous but possibly not quite as catastrophic.  Ironically, that would make the movie a lot closer to Speed.  (I'm pretty sure that it would be Hubble that gains on the debris rather than being caught up in flying debris each 97 minutes the way it is presented.** I will say that this has almost inspired me to dig out my old physics textbooks and actually try to figure this out "for reals" as they say.  If Gravity inspires a few more high school seniors to stick with physics, then that would definitely be a net positive.)

But my biggest beef is that most of these communications satellites are fairly small (2500kg -- about as much mass as a small SUV) and the idea that the fairly small chunks remaining from an explosion would then trigger a chain reaction among a bunch of other satellites and blow them up as well apparently and then escalate this until there was just a huge wave of debris raining "down" (apparently) on Clooney and Bullock is just laughable.  Conservation of momentum, people.  I imagine that the vast majority of satellites would get bumped (maybe quite firmly) but then would be able to stabilize with thrusters (they must have something, right?).  They just aren't going to be able to knock out half or 75% or whatever of the planet's communications satellites with one crazy carom shot.  I realize movie physics are always bad, but this was really just too much for me, and I have to say, it definitely spoiled the entire movie.  And the way that these huge chunks of debris completely spin around the space arm and then Bullock.  I mean yes it is visually exciting, if a little hard on the stomach, but the physics are absurd. 

Similarly, I sensed something was wrong about Clooney having so much momentum that he was going to pull Bullock away from the ISS (after she had come to a stop), though I didn't feel it quite as viscerally as Tyson.  What got me a bit more worked up is right before that when Clooney's jet pack is running out of fuel, so they are just barely edging up to ISS and having trouble maneuvering when the debris comes round again and suddenly, these little bits are causing the whole structure to rotate (or something) in a crazy way.  Then they hit the ISS at a tremendous rate of speed (how?!?) and their tether snaps (as if someone designed the edges of the ISS to be razor sharp or something).  I couldn't buy it, and Cuarón pretty much lost me there, and I never bought into the movie past that point.  (I think for quite a few physicists, the fact that Clooney truly doesn't have to sacrifice himself does pretty much ruin the rest of the movie.)  Forget all the crazy crap that happens on the ISS (with Bullock outracing fire in some of its sections).  And then she finally gets to the Chinese space station when for no apparent reason some bits and pieces of the debris apparently are causing it to descend to earth in an uncontrolled fashion.  It was just too much for me.  The amazing visuals just don't make up for the stupid science.  I also particularly disliked the POV of being jerked around at the end of the tether and some of the POV spinning.  Enough already.  This isn't supposed to be like going to Disneyland.

I guess I would suspend belief (had I had any left) that the ISS and the Chinese space station have been maneuvered onto the same plane and are in visual contact (when this is clearly not the case as some "haters" have pointed out).  But then a space shuttle is servicing the Hubble and this is also on the same plane?  Again, Cuarón is just cramming too much in.  He stuffs in three space disasters when really two would seem sufficient, given that none of this would be remotely survivable.  To my mind, a fairly routine visit to the ISS (with a more defensible explanation for the spacewalk) with then a desperate escape to the Chinese space station would have been actually more enjoyable since I wouldn't be objecting so strongly throughout.

Maybe I am overly sensitive, but I felt even some of the weightlessness was treated as a way to "play" the audience and not really giving the audience full respect.  For instance, all the junk floating about in the three different stations.  This will inspire hours of freeze frame to find the different items, driving up Blu-ray sales.  Perhaps as I type Cuarón is anonymously encouraging a drinking game that involves taking a shot every time a pen floats by...  Again, I am surely reading too much into this.

So did I like anything about the movie?

Another SPOILER warning.

I kind of liked Clooney's reappearance in the Soyez module (a damaged one has still been attached to the ISS and she is trying to use it to get to the Chinese space station).  As Bullock gasps "how did you make it?", he relates that he had enough battery life once he had detached and yada yada yada and gives her a pep talk about not giving up.  Then he says something like landing boosters, main rockets, same difference when she tells him the main rockets are completely empty of fuel, being clipped by debris or something.  (Really, it is amazing how selectively destructive this debris is -- later on it will just manage to sideswipe the Chinese lander just enough to set it on fire but not enough to blow it up -- almost as if it had a mind of its own.)  It is then revealed this is just a hallucination that Bullock is having to inspire her to keep going.  I wonder if this is a subtle shout out to Clooney's role in Solaris (another space epic).  However, I can't help but wonder if this is information that Bullock's character would have had subconsciously?  It seems so far-fetched.  The movie honestly would have hung together so much better had Bullock's character been an engineer (with rocketry as something she did with her dad growing up -- or rather learned in order to to share an interest with him but he still half-rejected her (he of course wanted a boy...) to get that sob story in there).  Now about Solaris: there is an alien presence (the size of a planet!) that can generate apparently solid manifestations from the astronauts' psyches.  Surely that says something about my nitpicking the "small things" when I am willing to suspend disbelief (at least to the point of enjoying Solaris) whereas I can't get past core physical laws being broken by Gravity (at least in my understanding of the physics involved).  But it is just as true that I'm not particularly moved by all these movies where heroes outrun explosions, which is generally impossible.  I just kind of switch off...

I also sort of liked Bullock's emergence on the island, though for an odd reason.  The visuals harkened back just a bit to Tarkovsky's epic version of Solaris where you have this endless opening shot of rain and grass and I think horses.  This is repeated at the end of the movie, though it suddenly becomes apparent that the main character is only imagining he is back on Earth.  I am perversely imagining that Cuarón is putting in a subtle signal that Bullock doesn't actually make it out alive (quite possibly passing away in the Soyez module) and that this is just an escapist dream as she passes away (also see: Gilliam's Brazil, ending of).

I wish I did like it more as it looks amazing, but I think this is a movie that will annoy me more and more as time passes, let alone if I saw it a second time.  I just prefer movies that don't require you to suspend so much belief, so this wasn't the right movie for me.

Edit to add:
So oddly enough deGrasse Tyson was on Bill Maher's Real Time and seemed to indicate that the Kessler effect was a real thing, and something that he was actually quite worried about.  This was about to cause me to start rethinking some of my criticisms of the movie.  However, I have to say, I think he got a bit carried away and was playing to the cameras a bit.  The Guardian finally caught up with Donald Kessler (who first theorized this domino effect) who said that the impact between satellites, particularly those up in geosynchronous orbit (like the spy satellite that kicked everything off) would be measured in years, not minutes.  Currently, impact between satellites is roughly once every 10 years and it might get down to once every 5 years.  So a problem, but nothing like the wall of debris in the movie.  In this cage match, I am going with the real Kessler.  In the comments to the article, someone said there was an anime series (Planetes) about a crew that actually goes around removing space debris.  While probably cost prohibitive, that is something that might have to happen some day.  I may have seen an episode or two of Planetes; it does look like something I might want to check out later.

* Like Candy Land I guess, but, well, more frustrating.  I spend much of my mental energy in these stomping grounds, as apparently everyone that bothers to engage on internet comment boards.  These past two weeks watching Congress engage in literally historical levels of dysfunction (not since the Civil War has Congress been so partisan) have not helped.  You would think that a movie would have been a welcome bit of escapism, but my critical facilities keep kicking in...

** Now no question the way the movie presents it, it seems as if there is this huge wave of space junk that keeps passing Clooney and Bullock -- both going faster and on the same plane as them, which is flat-out impossible for many, many reasons.  I am slightly hopeful that Cuarón really did intend for the stuff to be "above" them, i.e. further from Earth, and passing them on the way to Earth, and it is just the disorientation of weightlessness that makes it hard to tell where it is coming from.  If he just essentially said screw the science, everything is on the same plane, then I just lost any little bit of respect left I had for this movie.  I know I keep overthinking this, but that is just my style...

Novel (or play) in a month

Surely at this point, people familiar with the internet have heard of National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo apparently) where participants must write a 50,000 word novel in November.  A vastly more obscure website has claimed that November can also be play-writing month.  (This organization has far fewer goodies or support -- if you complete NaNoWriMo at the very least you get a printed version of your novel from Lulu.  On the other hand, they have a much better idea -- to set aside March as play-rewriting month!  I could definitely use a bit more structure and encouragement to rewrite the two plays that I did complete* but haven't done much of anything with.)

While on the one hand, I really would prefer to finish this novel (that I pull out of the drawer every five years or so), the rules of NaNoWriMo, such as they are, suggest that I would have to start from scratch -- just keeping the plot and characters but none of the dialogue.  Some of it surely does need to be trashed, but I have 7000+ words written, and it seems crazy talk to toss that aside for some artificial goal.**  Truly, it's not like anyone would know if I actually reused a fair bit of this material, though it would certainly violate the spirit of NaNoWriMo.  While I probably could live with myself, I don't think I will do that.  I think for me, I already have so many major work commitments in my life (and barely spend enough time with my family as it is) that these somewhat obsessive goals don't make much sense.  I need to find a more sustainable way and more reasonable goals to keep going.  It's not like I can't reach 50,000 words.  Given that my posts usually are in the 500 word range, and have been known to go beyond 2000 words, and that I am quickly closing in on my 150th post, I'd say at a conservative estimate I've written 75,000 in this blog (certainly book length if it was published in its entirety), not even counting the posts that are mostly just lists.  Most of this has come in the last 24 months.

Now as it happens, there is a play (presumably my last one) that has been begging (figuratively) to be written for some time.  (I actually was going to work on it last summer, but then pulled together a poetry anthology instead.)  I probably have one page written as a super-rough draft and I wouldn't feel so bad about slightly bending the rules for NaPlWriMo (and then signing up to do play rewrites in March).  I am not sure it is worth it, however.  First, there is the obviously large time commitment to generate roughly 75 pages of a draft of a play this November (and kissing any hope of getting through Proust in 2014 goodbye).  More to the point, I don't know if things improve once November actually kicks in and the moderators get serious, but at the moment there appear to be 10 participants and 900+ spambots that have totally taken over the forums.  The disparity in energy and the number of participants and frankly the professionalism between the two sites is huge.  I am not sure I can be bothered when the payoff seems so small (and entirely about internal satisfaction) and at the moment seems so corrupted by spam.  At the same time, this just does sound a bit like I am looking for excuses not to make a serious attempt to wrap up these projects (and I have plenty of legitimate excuses).  Perhaps what I need to do is get one of those programs that blanks out the internet and/or all computer games for hours on end so that you can really focus.  If that was in place for even an hour or two each evening, I think I could make some serious progress (whether I sign up for either challenge).  Of course, I would cut way back on the blog, but that seems like an acceptable trade-off.  I'm starting to feel diminishing returns from it, though I'll probably still put up a few reviews.

I mean this play that wants to be written has a really good idea at its core and I've already done what little research needed to be done (whereas I still have just a bit more background reseach to go on the novel).  I think if the NaPlWriMo site was a little better run I would give it a go, but it probably makes more sense for me just to do it my way and not worry about keeping to their structure.  At some point in the future (when the kids are grown), I might try the November novel (with some other storyline), but I think that I will definitely have to pass on this challenge for now...

* I may have mentioned that the first play was written under my own steam in probably 30 days or so.  The other one was stretched out longer and I did take a creative writing course to help add enough structure to my life to complete it.

** The other issue I have with NaNoWriMo is that it focuses so much more on process and getting that first draft out whereas if I was focusing on reusing/rewriting the first 7000 words, I would be in a totally different mindspace of editing and crafting the story, and I don't think I could jump back to first draft mode once I used up my initial stock of words.

Coldturkey and Focalfilter both seem pretty good, and I might test them later this week. I do need to make sure they don't kill my internet connection to work, however. Obviously, it is lame that one would need a program to force one to stick to one's goals, but no question in the middle of the night, willpower is low and it is just so easy to sneak back onto CNN and see just what is going on in the news.

I actually waste very little time on computer games (aside from an addiction to Mahjong tiles that has flared up after a year in remission) and almost none on TV. I never get around to watching the movies that I do own, which troubles me sometimes. It does make me wonder about rethinking my life (pace Rilke).

Friday, October 11, 2013

Alice Munro - Nobel Prize winner

As anyone following the news has heard, Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She is the first Canadian to do so, unless one counts Saul Bellow, who self-identified as an American.  She seems like a good choice overall.

I'm well aware of Munro but actually have read little of her work, though I am slowly correcting this.  This is despite owning nearly all of her short story collections, which are:
R Dance of the Happy Shades – 1968
R Lives of Girls and Women – 1971
R Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You – 1974
R Who Do You Think You Are? – 1978
R The Moons of Jupiter – 1982
The Progress of Love – 1986
Friend of My Youth – 1990
Open Secrets – 1994
The Love of a Good Woman – 1998
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - 2001
Runaway – 2004
The View from Castle Rock – 2006
Too Much Happiness – 2009
Dear Life – 2012

I own all except Dear Life, which I was waiting for to arrive in paperback.*  Since I am going to the mall today, I will see if the paperback version has already been stickered over with "Nobel Winner," in which case I'll probably pick one up.  It is somewhat sad that Munro has said that Dear Life will probably be her last collection and possibly she won't write any more stories at all, but she did get plenty of recognition in her time.  Who knows -- she may decide to write one or two more vignettes down the road.  It just depends on whether the writing bug strikes her again, I guess.

I did read one or possibly two collections for a Canadian fiction class focusing on Ontario at UT.  It was probably Dance of the Happy Shades, but it might possibly have been Lives of Girls and Women (or both).  One of these days I'll track down the notebook for that course...

One interesting factoid about Alice Munro is that she has a reasonably strong B.C. connection.  While living in Victoria with her first husband, they opened Munro's, which is still a very well-stocked bookstore (a lot like Borders when it just operated in Ann Arbor and was a local store -- it was great back then).  I knew someone who worked there, though on my last two trips to Victoria I resisted the opportunity to pop in (and buy more books that I don't really need).

Anyway, it is pretty shameful how little of her oeuvre I have actually read.  While I would love to say I would just add her to the TBR pile for 2014, I am so oversubscribed already, particularly now that I am trying to read the core of Barbara Comyns and Molly Keane before leaving for Toronto.  I may just settle for reading (or rereading) the first two collections (interspersed with Proust perhaps -- Munro as the anti-Proust?) and read the rest in Toronto starting in late 2014 but not expecting to finish until 2015.  That actually might be appropriate, as the stories in the first two collections were largely written while she was still in B.C.  It also might be nice to only set out to read one or two at a time instead of feeling obligated to read them all at once (the stories in Lives of Girls and Women are more linked, however, and that collection should be read a bit more as a novel than her other collections).  Sounds like a plan.

* Did I post this list already?  It seems that I did and I may even have mentioned that Hate, Friend, Love and Marriage would be a good starting point for a sestina (would only need two more words -- children and divorce probably).  I had another comment somewhere about what would make a particularly good Canadian sestina -- something like Bread, Milk, Smokes, Bacon, Beer, Coffee. (This was based on a short story title by Carol Shields that was in turn riffing on a sign in a convenience store that read Milk Bread Beer Ice-- I write just a bit about it here -- still a bit torn over whether to substitute donuts for bread, but bread has more possibilities for other uses, which is critical for a sestina, and I could always slip in a couple of donuts anyway on the side.)