Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Proustian contradictions

I should walk back (but only slightly) what I wrote in the last post about M. Vinteuil. Proust does not write that he wrote in code, but rather in an undecipherable scribble. Maybe it was something sort of like what Penderecki indulges in?

However, I had the opportunity to listen to a Penderecki composition and watch it unfold (this was at the Kronos Quartet concert in LA).  Basically, I didn't find it at all satisfying, and it really defies belief that something akin to this could be translated by his daughter's partner into something that is as meaningful and subtle as the Schubert Octet or Beethoven Septet.  It just beggars believe that you can get meaningful harmonization and so forth across the parts without writing this out carefully in a proper score.  So the core of my objection remains the same.

One marginally interesting note is that while M. de Charlus can convince people to turn up at a party where his protégé will play this piece, and even compel them to be silent, most of them wouldn't dream of actually listening to it.

Again, this really makes me wonder about the Narrator.  He is versed in art and takes music seriously, and found the Vinteuil septet sublime.  So why does he spend all his free time attending these shallow people who don't value what he cares about?  He even cuts off a few of his real artistic friends in favor of going to these silly salons and parties.  I suppose this is a "real thing," acting in a way that seems contradictory to one's core interests and values.  And maybe Proust is making a statement of some sort about how commonly one does sacrifice one's self to be part of society.

Certainly some people looking to become part of society are well aware of putting on a social "face" that may be quite different from their real self, and they do it because the trade off is worth it.  But the Narrator doesn't really seem to seek to join society for some ulterior motive (well, except at some points where he was chasing one or another unobtainable woman) but certainly not out of any careerism, so I find it hard to fathom and it is a decision quite alien to me.  If it were up to me, essentially all my free time would be spent around people very well versed in the arts/theatre scene and/or the branch of the intelligentsia that concerns itself with cultural studies and the humanities more generally.  Actually, these last few days hanging out in Baltimore with the best travel demand modellers in North America was good too, as they have wide-ranging interests and can sometimes get out of that engineering "box."

Anyway, I am always finding myself out of sympathy for the Narrator, and at the end of Vol. 2, he went in a direction that I found truly irredeemable.  I just don't like him or anything he stands for.  Which just makes this such a slog... 

In my next and probably last post on Proust, I will reveal exactly what it is that bugs me so much about the Narrator.  Until then...

Monday, April 28, 2014

Proustian disappointments

I don't think it's any surprise to semi-regular readers of this blog that I am not enjoying my slog through Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.  It really is just an endurance test at this point.  There are occasional flashes of insight that are interesting on their own, but not so much when you consider how long it took to arrive at them.

I think I'll focus on two issues and leave the most important objection for another post where I go more into the plot and spoiler warnings.  That post may be slightly more balanced in terms of the pros and cons of tackling Proust.

I believe I already mentioned how I am not crazy about the shifting viewpoint of the narrative.  Essentially all the book seems to be coming from the mind of the Narrator (who is indeed on a few occasions referred to as Marcel).  There are quite a few scenes that seem completely impossible for the Narrator to have enough information on to go (and at such length).  Swann in Love is mostly concerned with a time when the Narrator was an infant, if indeed not even born.  Even if Swann had the same kind of attention to detail (particularly in relation to parties) it seems so unlikely that he would have remembered these parties in such detail.  But the kicker is that the Narrator mentions that he really did not talk with Swann at length about important things (or rather things like party-going that now interest the Narrator).  So where does all this information come from?

If anything, the situation is even worse when it comes to the writer Bergotte who is dying.  He summons the strength to go see Vermeer's A View of Delft.  His dying thoughts are a mix of concentrating on a patch of yellow in the painting and essentially wondering whether the potatoes he ate are giving him indigestion or if it was more serious (the latter obviously).  Since few people even knew he was going to the gallery, where could the Narrator have pieced this together (particularly the last thoughts)?  Of course, this could all be a whimsical reconstruction, but that isn't how it reads.  At least some people consider this a key turning point in Remembrance, so I find it a real shame how "tainted" it is by this untethered perspective.

I'm sure some with disagree with me, but I don't find Proust's writing on music, particularly the supposedly incredible sonata and sextet by Vinteuil, to be profound or even terribly convincing.  (I will concede that his writing on paintings is usually pretty good, and I did enjoy Paintings in Proust: A Visual Guide.)  Proust has some frankly bizarre passages about how much better it would have been if humans had learned to communicate through music, rather than words.  However, this isn't my beef with this section of The Captive.  What I am having trouble believing is that Vinteuil wrote out the scores of these late compositions, not on music staves, but in some kind of code, which only his daughter's lesbian lover was ultimately able to unravel.  I guess there are always people who do inscrutable things, but the idea of a composer deliberately obscuring his work and not using standard notation seems very fanciful.  Furthermore, one might code up a piano sonata, but an entire sextet?  I find that completely implausible, both for the level of effort it would take Vinteuil, as well as the odd chain of events that would have allowed the daughter's lover to even realize she was looking at some type of score, let alone to find the key to unravel it. 

I'm not entirely sure why these details feeling wrong matters so much to me, but they bug me quite a bit.  At this point, I intend to finish the book, flaws and all.  Maybe I just feel like warning other people off.  Maybe I just want to codify why I dislike Proust.  Anyway, I'll probably read a fairly long section on the plane ride home and then I'll be on the final stretch.  I think there is a fairly good chance that I will be done by the end of May, and I can scratch this off for good.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Interesting overheard conversation #1

While this could be quite a list, I guess I'll just start with a recent conversation I heard on the 22 bus.  It doesn't quite have enough dramatic interest to be a dramatic scene, even when reworked as a monologue, but it might make a decent poem ("Queen of the monkeys," perhaps).  In general, I know when I am coming out of a funk or a period of intense misanthropy (where I have been dwelling a lot lately, unfortunately) when I start to listen to bus and train conversations, with at least half an ear for recycling the material.

There were two women -- one older, probably late 50s and a younger woman, roughly 30.  They knew each other well and were heading to a retirement party (perhaps for the older woman, though I don't believe so).  They were facing a young man in his late 20s.

He was telling them about how he was a yoga teacher that led classes in power yoga.  They actually talked about this for quite a while, which wasn't that interesting.  He did say that this was the best job he had ever had, and that he wasn't sure where it would lead next, but he was enjoying it.  The older woman said that you never know, maybe he would teach in California next. 

The younger woman asked if he had been to India?  The man replied no, but that his teacher was there right now.  He hoped to go, as nearly all the yoga instructors end up visiting India at some point.

Apparently, this was really just a set up for her next line, as she was practically jumping out of her skin to talk about her upcoming trip to India where she was going to be the go-between for her boss, who had been to India loads of times and the rest of the group (of some type of social workers perhaps).  It seemed like she was working at an NGO.  They were going to fly into Mumbai, and then head north after a few days.  She went on at some length about how excited she was even though there were so many potential dangers, even tigers.

While the man said there were few tigers in the cities, she said that was true, but she tended to space out and could see herself following a butterfly for an hour and ending up in the wilderness somewhere. (While this seemed unlikely in Mumbai, it might happen in a smaller village in the north.)

Anyway, there was a somewhat interesting discussion about how hard it would be to adjust to the crowding and the smells of India, but that she was looking forward to it anyway.  They talked a bit how it would then be fascinating coming back to Vancouver and seeing it in a different light (why is it so empty) for at least a few days.

Finally, the young woman started talking about how creeped out she was by monkeys.  And how they would be everywhere (along with the cows), and that she would just have to remember not to carry food outside.

Especially bananas, the young man interjected.

The older woman said you generally were ok with monkeys with longer tails but monkeys with short tails were mean.

The young woman kept going on about monkeys for a while, finally finishing by saying that the trip would be worth it, even if she was attacked by a pack of banana-hungry monkeys.  She would just write it down in her diary that "Yep, she forgot and she went outside with a banana."

That is the gist of the conversation, which lasted a lot longer than I imagined.  It was a weird mix of intriguing and banal.  But that's better than most transit conversations, which are largely or entirely banal.  I don't think this will be a regular feature of this blog, but I'll probably return to the theme from time to time.

BTW, this blog hit 15,000 views.  I think that is a cool milestone, even though at least some of these are "false hits" due to my somewhat obsessive attempts at tinkering with older posts to polish them, and a lot (half?) are from search engine "spiders."  But that's still a lot of actual people viewing these posts over the past couple of years.  I've noticed the most popular posts are the Beckmann and Kurelek overviews, as well as some of my early Atwood reviews, particularly the one for Cat's Eye.  I don't think I have any posts that I think need to be pinned, but maybe some day.

Friday, April 25, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 12th review - Hard Light

For readers who enjoyed Michael Crummey's Galore, Hard Light is the closest equivalent in his poetic output.  He has written quite a few poems that focus on the hard life faced by working class Canadians in the Maritimes, both those who worked as fisherman and those who worked in the mines.  

Crummey adapts a number of family stories/legends of his uncle and aunts into poems.  Some of these work better than others.  Many, though not all, of the family poems are actually prose poems. Of this group, I think my favourite was "Bread," which is about a woman marrying a much older widower, mostly because "he was willing to take in my mother and father when the time came." Such practical people.  Here is another slice of "Bread": "The baby came early, a few weeks after my husband arrived home in September.  We had the minister up to the house for the baptism the next day ... and we buried him in the graveyard in the Burnt Woods a week later. ...  I don't know why sharing a grief will make you love someone."

There are a couple of poems written out like menus or recipes.  "Jiggs' Dinner" is the most successful.  Here are a couple of those ingredients: "Potatoes are inevitable, like grace before a meal. ... The taste is neither here nor there, like its colour... Turnip and Parsnip: Predictable vegetables, study and uncomplicated, tasting of the winter root cellar, the warmth of darkness smouldering beneath snow."  It does make me somewhat nostalgic for the (apparent) simplicity of the early part of the 20th Century.  However, I know in my heart that I would have not been happy working on a farm or, worse yet, been a fisherman or coal miner.  My maternal grandfather came from a line of miners, and he was very glad to have escaped their fate. 

For me, the most successful is when Crummey reaches even further back to the late 1880s to the diaries of Captain John Froude  and turns a number of these logs into poems.  It isn't even clear where Crummey is simply transcribing the diaries and adding line breaks and when he is adding his own details.  That isn't an issue of concern for me, since I am not reading these poems for their historic value.  They do, however, really get at what it meant to be at sea in those days.  This captain has had many close calls, perhaps none more ironic than the one described in "A hard toil and worry for nothing" where he (a lowly seaman at this point) is sent off the boat with 5 others to try to return to their home port as best they can manage.  They "arrived in Twillingate on June 17th, our boots / sliced through with the rough walking / and blood still in our mouths from the snow."  The next day, the boat comes to port "all hands rested and well fed."

An even closer call comes 13 years later when Froude is nearly swept overboard in a gale, but manages to grab a rope and climb back aboard.  "But I don't remember being afraid when I fell, / only the certainty of knowing I was about to be drowned / a thousand miles from home, / and then the jib whip in my hands, / the peculiar darkness of discovering / there is nothing that is certain."

The randomness of fate is a strong theme running through these poems.  This is almost too nakedly expressed in "Life and its pleasures" where Froude/Crummey writes: "The only lesson the years have to teach / is that life is a lottery and / my name has been called a few times / when I wish it had not."  Yet he came through as a survivor and lived to tell his tales, when many did not.  I suspect that few readers who devour these nautical tales would have any interest in living them themselves.  (I'm sure there are a few exceptions.)  It's a way of getting that frisson of danger by proxy, which is probably why shows like Ice Truckers and what have you are so popular.  Certainly, I thought these were some of Crummey's most interesting poems, particularly because the stakes were a bit higher than those in the following section where he describes some voyages he actually took on the fairly tame Labrador coastal ferry.  It doesn't surprise me at all that Crummey ultimately returned to the theme of imperiled men at sea in Galore, and it largely paid off (certainly it did in terms of sales).  I'd have to say in terms of an overall collection, Hard Light is the most satisfying of the bunch, although there are some fine poems in Arguments with Gravity and Salvage.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Overdue posts

Just to give myself a bit of a prod, I am listing all the posts I hope to get to in the next couple of months.  I'll cross them off as I get to them.  If I ever get through all of them, I'll probably delete this post.

Crummey's Hard Light
Crummey's Salvage
Geroge Stanley's Vancouver: A Poem
Marlatt's Liquidities
Rempel's This Isn't the Apocalypse
Tremblay's The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant
Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia
Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy
Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Done with Russians (for now) and review of The Foundation Pit
I. Berlin and his unrestrained enthusiasm for Herzen
Authors who are their own worst enemy

A few posts on Sharon Olds, particularly her later books

A few posts on my thoughts on various Shakespeare plays

Possibly something on GGM and reading him a second time around

Card-carrying member of the intelligentsia

I haven't thought a whole lot about the term "intelligentsia" in a while.  Stoppard puts the word in Turgenev's mouth in The Coast of Utopia, and I remembered back to when I was in college and self-identified with that class (though whether it is truly a coherent social class is up for debate).  Of course, those days now read like the last gasp of when public intellectuals really counted for anything in American culture.  You could still see Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and others arguing things out on television, particularly the Dick Cavett show.  William Buckley, Jr. and William Safire could publish intelligent commentary as well as columns on language and style (true enough, typically those only appeared in New York media outlets). While I disagreed with most of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, he was generally correct about how anti-intellectualism had spread deeply in the U.S., and it has full triumphed today with huge cutbacks to public education at the university level in nearly all states. I think you see this in the UK as well, though oddly enough, most of the political leaders remain Oxbridge-educated, but popular culture in the UK is certainly yob-infested.  I guess this also has happened to a lesser extent in Canada, maybe slowed down simply because so many Canadians actually live in cities (over 80% of Canadians live in urban areas).

To some extent, to make a full-fledged defense of the Intelligentsia is to throw one's lot in with Adorno and Horkheimer and to be an unabashed elitist.  On my bad days, this is where I end up, totally fed up with the U.S. and its obsession with simpletons from various reality shows.  But of course, it really all comes down to taste, and it is not objectively better to prefer books and music that are vetted by the elite.  And when we look at the High/Low phenomenon in Pop Art where categories are blurred and "low" tastes are appropriated and transformed, then it becomes clear how arbitrary these categories are.

One of the crueler ironies of my life is that I don't hang out with other members of the intelligentsia and that my work world is dominated by engineering types who are at best are advocates for or apostles of digiteracy.  It might be better in Toronto, but only if I make an effort and reach out to people in these circles.  My connections with folks with liberal arts backgrounds/training have gotten very thin.  But I still remember the heady days when I was surrounded by others that thought that philosophical ideas mattered -- and might change the world.  Of course, I am far more cynical these days and am not sure I believe that as much as I did.

For all the arguing (and absurd sectarianism) of the intelligentsia, it is fair to say that in a few societies they made a profound difference, but most of the time they did not.  They did not set the world on fire.

Still, it is noble in a way how deep into self-improvement the true intelligentsia are, and how better to express this love of knowledge than by reading.  Here, New Yorkers really outdo themselves, particularly this subset I am discussing.  New York is probably the one place (in the U.S.) you can find several people at a party with an informed opinion about the books on the New York Times recommended list (not the best-seller list) and probably the off-Broadway plays as well.  You would find more of this in Europe, particularly Paris, but not so much in America. In L.A., you might go to parties where people were well-versed in cinema (and not simply their box office grosses), but probably not so much the esoteric books.

There is a very droll news story about how in the notes to the Broadway production of The Coast of Utopia, the dramaturge listed 7 books for further reading, including a pretty obscure book on Russian thinkers by Isaiah Berlin.  Just this note has led to a run on the book, and it has been reprinted by the publisher.*  There has been a considerable uptick in people reading Turgenev and Herzen (two real-life figures who figure prominently in The Coast of Utopia).  There is a real hunger to find out about this quite fascinating period in time, and to read what one's fellow New Yorkers are reading.

And indeed, I am no exception.  I can point to the fact that I read a fair bit of Turgenev and Dostoevsky in my youth, so I am not entirely a Johnny-come-Lately, but I went ahead and read Turgenev's A Month in the Country right after being inspired by Stoppard and then ordered a copy of Fathers and Sons with Berlin's lecture on Turgenev included as a bonus.  I'm not entirely sure which version of Herzen's memoirs to read, and I certainly won't tackle it soon, but I probably will get to it one of these days.  There is a one volume abridgement of Constance Garnett's translation, but that seems to leave out too much.  Interestingly, the entire thing is being reprinted in 6 volumes.  I might get that someday if it is in a cheap digital edition.  Otherwise, I am a bit more likely to go for the two volume edition published by Oxford (presumably a different translation).  I guess the only thing that makes this bandwagon effect slightly less ridiculous is that Stoppard was not spoon-feeding the audiences this time around, as sometimes happens in plays that are ostensibly about "ideas."  This trilogy is packed with real philosophical ideas being conveyed (as well as quite a bit of humor and asides into human nature).  I am glad I was able to see them, and I'll see about getting around to a proper review of them soon.

* There was a slight resurgence in interest in England after The Coast of Utopia played in London, but nowhere near as many theatre-goers rushing out to read up on what they had been exposed to.  This doesn't really surprise me, as I find New York contains the purest distillation of the literary wing of the intelligentsia.

With that said, you can find outposts of the intelligentsia in most major cities.  I was particularly amused by this class offered by the Newberry Library in Chicago where The Coast of Utopia is being taught in conjunction with the essays from Berlin's Russian Thinkers and presumably at least some original texts by Herzen, Turgenev and Bakunin.  While this class does look interesting (and apparently wraps up this Saturday), at this point in my life I do prefer self-study methods.  The same thing with art galleries where I essentially never opt for the guided tour.

Monday, April 21, 2014

7th Challenge - 11th review - Arguments with Gravity

It wasn't until I was fixing up some internal links that I realized I had actually reviewed Galore by Michael Crummey.  I guess he is at least a double threat -- poet and novelist.  My sense is that he is better known in academic circles for his poetry collections, but his novels have sold well and that may be how is known to the average Canadian reader.  This is pure speculation of course.

His poems and, more generally, his other writing tend to focus on how hard life is in the Maritimes, particularly for those who are still trying to make a living from the sea.  Perhaps even harder is the lot of the miners, as many of the mines have closed and those that remain open are more automated (and thus hire fewer miners).

While it isn't until Hard Light that Crummey really delves into his family history (and their hard times), Arguments with Gravity contains a few poems about the randomness of fate.  "Delayed" is probably the best:
His mother had sent him across the road
for milk or bread, or some other necessity.
and the driver of the Coca Cola truck
didn't see him when he fell beneath the wheels.
I had been sent for milk as well --
a tarp thrown over the accident by then,
the corners held by cases of Cola,
In the end I went inside to buy the milk,
feeling ridiculous with my handful of coins
a circle of people surrounded
the yellow rustle of tarp
as if they expected a miracle,
but my mother was waiting at home
and I could not stay.

The randomness of life and death is at play here, and the waiting for a miracle that never arrives.  And yet, accidents are not actually evenly distributed.  Truck drivers tend to be more careful in middle class areas (and usually aren't even allowed to drive in elite enclaves, which so rarely have corner stores to begin with).  Perhaps in Crummey's childhood, young middle class children were occasionally sent on errands, but in today's world, that only happens if you are lower income.  So the accident would be far less likely to happen to a child accompanied by an adult.  Let me be clear, I am not placing fault on the mother in this poem (though I wouldn't send a child out for errands), but showing how class privilege (or really lack thereof) is perpetuated even in something like an accidental death.  I'm not sure that was really Crummey's intention here, though in other poems (particularly "The Way Things Were" in Hard Light) he is acutely class-conscious.  Even without this sociological gloss, I think this is one of the more devastating poems in this collection.

Somewhat along the same lines, Crummey is at first a bit astonished and then comes to understand his mother discovering the blues in "Mom's Blues." 
It's all about longing and loss:
according to the blues, nothing is taken from you
that wouldn't leave of its own accord in the end,
and I think that's what my mother relates to
that life is a study in the blues afterall,
how sometimes it's sweetest when
it hurts the most

While this loss is primarily about the emotional loss of losing a father and brother, there is no question that for struggling families, the economic loss can be devastating.  Nearly all of Barbara Comyns novels start out by a father dying and the children quickly left to fend for themselves, and then making a series of poor decisions, at least according to conventional wisdom. 

My favourite section is titled The River You Remember, and essentially all these poems are about traveling or travelers.  There are two poems loosely inspired by tales of the Silk Road from Europe to China.

"In Canada There is Already Snow" is about a teacher, most likely in China, teaching children English.  She is corresponding back and forth with a man in Canada (where there is already snow).

I'm still internally debating about "Insomniac Trains."  While the topic is fine, the poem is just a bit over-written to be truly successful:
Insomniac trains steam
all the unforgiving night across
the north China wilderness,
their wakefulness a kind of hunger
a kind of desperation
Stare out the window at 4am
hollow with sleeplessness,
the insomniac train rocking through desert
and a wordless moon travelling above you
a relentless eye of light in the desert,
an open mouth that swallows and swallows
three bright metres of track

It's definitely a different type of poem from many of the other works, maybe a different style that he was trying.  I do think "a kind of desperation" is just a bit over the top and redundant.  It's too bad, as I think this could have been an amazing poem with just a bit more restraint.  Anyway, I'll reread it to see if I am more open to it later.

I think "Silk Road (2)" works a bit better as a poem about trains, perhaps because Crummey flashes between the present (travelling by train) and the past (when he was driving his brothers home on another long journey).  It's also a bit more open-ended, which often works well for poetry (being too literal or rather closing down a poem so it only has one meaning can be limiting):
Everything I have ever been
sits motionless
at the open window of the train,
doorways silhouette the bodies of strangers

Darkness, the small light
of other lives

This is a bit more appealing to me than the relentless hunger of "Insomniac Trains."  Of course, it would hardly be a group of poems on travel without one about coming home, and that is, naturally enough, "The Road Home."  It's a bit cliched, but not too bad for this sort of poem:
The ferry shoulders its way into the north Atlantic,
into rain and an easterly wind, making for
Newfoundland which is no longer my home
bit the place I come from still
the place that made me
and being a stranger there now I am
more or less a stranger wherever I find myself

I liked a fair number of the poems, particularly those related to travel.  It's certainly not bad for a first collection.  Most of the poems were presumably written in Crummey's mid-20s when one aspires to  travel and explore one's self.  Hard Light, which I'll try to review by the end of the week, looks outward, first at members of Crummey's extended family and then to a historic Canadian figure, drawing on the journals of Captain John Froude (not completely dissimilar to what Bowering did in "George, Vancouver" but I'll save a fuller description for later).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Trouble at the Border

Well, we are back from that quick trip to Seattle.  It definitely did not play out the way I expected.  I guess I really didn't expect half of Vancouver to pick up and attempt to go South.  There was almost no traffic heading down Highway 99, so I thought we were in the clear.  As I pulled up to the turnoff where you can choose between the Peace Arch and the truck route crossing, we saw 2+ hour delays at each one.  I thought that can't possibly be correct, but decided to opt for the truck crossing anyway.  That was (probably) the first mistake.

Long story short, we were stuck for close to 7 hours at the border!  When I realized that we had moved only 2 blocks in an hour (and hadn't even reached 8th Ave.), I was in deep despair.  I really don't know if those crossing signs ever read anything higher than 2 hours.  If I had known it was 4+ hours, I probably would have bailed on the trip and just eaten the bill for the hotel room.  If I had known for certain it was going to be 7 or close to 7, then I would have turned around.  Even going through the duty free store was a mistake (though we really needed to hit the rest room after 6 some hours in the car!) as they just turned the exit from the duty free into a great big parking lot for another hour.  It was so infuriating.  We ended up having to skip the Seattle Asian Art Museum and wandering around in Volunteer Park (when it would have been such a beautiful day).

About the only good thing was that the drive from the border to Seattle was fairly easy if a little heavy and the views were nice (we still had some sunlight).  Had I know everything, I probably would not have made the trip.  I would have just tried to deal with the weather on some other day.  The next thing I would have done would have been to leave around 7:30, and then made my call to a colleague while parked in my lane or while at the duty-free shop.  And I probably would have just stuck it out at the Peace Arch crossing.  (We actually ran into one of our son's school friends in Seattle.  I couldn't believe I was jealous of them being stuck for 4 hours, but there you go.)  We went through all the CDs I brought for the drive (and I had thought I had brought an absurd number).  I actually got some stuff out of the trunk and read for a bit. The kids actually behaved relatively well, and our daughter didn't get car sick (she occasionally has been known to get sick in taxis and buses).  This may bode well for occasional trips to Buffalo next year.  (I took a very quick look at rail from Toronto to Buffalo, and it takes a bit over 4 hours (the drive time is more like 3 hours).  There is only one train a day, though the departure and return times are a bit more reasonable.  However, the price is much higher than I would have guessed, so quite uneconomical for a family.  The bus is probably more competitive (and indeed it is, roughly 1/4 the cost of the train, and much less than renting a car), so that is what I shall do if going on my own).

I guess we finally got to the hotel around 8 (whereas I was sure we would be at the Asian Art Museum at 1 or 2).  For some unknown reason, they upgraded us to suite, and my wife crashed.  I decided to take the kids for a walk to the Seattle Center.  They of course wanted to go up the Space Needle.  I decided we might as well.  It was dark out but fairly clear, so you could see the buildings lit up in all directions.  It was chilly up there (and I didn't have a jacket) so we didn't stay that long.  I doubt the photos I took turned out very well.

Sat. went more or less to plan, though occasionally it just poured and we had to pick up another umbrella.  We couldn't find shoes for my son (we were at perhaps the worst Payless Shoes I've ever been in).  I put in a pitch to see the Asian Art Museum on the way out, but was outvoted.  We wouldn't have enjoyed the park anyway.  I guess it was just about 4 when we actually got back in the car for the drive north.  There was light rain on the way back but nothing too terrible. 

I was not feeling great, mostly residual tension from the other day, but we did make it to Bellingham for a dinner break.  We got a few groceries at Fred Meyer, but decided to pass on anything frozen or even cheese, just in case there was a one or two hour delay at the border.  I didn't think it was going to be terrible, but it is just so hard to predict.  The skies opened up and just poured for a while, but we ate dinner at a pizza place and it was largely done raining by the time we finished up, so we kind of dodged another bullet.

As it turned out there only was a 20 minute delay at Peace Arch and 10 or so (really more like 5) at the truck crossing.  There was no one coming south.  It was like a ghost town.  It was so unbelievably frustrating that we made another iffy decision (to not get more groceries).  (They didn't even ask if I was bringing any food across...)  But I was super glad to be able to drop everyone off at home, and I got the car back to YVR without incident.

I did like the Miro exhibit, but I am not sure it was worth the pain.  I certainly would have preferred taking the train (the bus probably would have been snarled at least one or two extra hours, though nothing like 6).  For some unknown reason the train between Vancouver and Seattle runs at ridiculous times (only very early and late in the day) and is very inefficient, taking almost 2 hours longer than the bus.  Why they can't straighten this out, and reduce car traffic at the border is completely beyond me.  It will be one more area where our grandchildren will just consider us the most selfish generation imaginable for totally f'ing up the planet.

I, for one, have vowed to never make this crossing again by car.  (I am not promising the same thing for Niagara/Buffalo, though I will certainly look to see if the train is a reasonable option.)  There is a slight chance I will try to go to SAM/SAAM one more time after a new exhibit opens up in late June, but I would only do it by bus and on a non-holiday Thurs.

I'm still recovering from the trip, so I'll go take a nap before trying to tackle some work and the Canadian taxes.

P.S. I am still trying to decide on Trouble at the Borders vs. Border Trouble as the name of this academic tome I would like to someday write.  I guess I am leaning towards Border Trouble (as a slight echo of "Pronoun Trouble" from Daffy's lines in Rabbit Seasoning.  If you want to weigh in, just drop me a line.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Three busy weekends

Just to give you a sense of how packed the weekends usually are, this is what I have been up to:

Two weekends ago I flew to San Francisco.  I nearly made it in time for an earlier connecting flight, but just ran up as the gate closed.  The next flight was oversold, but this time my actual flight was on time.  It was fairly tight, but I didn't have much luggage with me and make it to BART a bit earlier than expected.

This meant that I had close to two hours that I could spend at the Asian Art Museum (which I had skipped on my previous trip).  I decided to pass on the special exhibit (about yoga) and just really focus on the top two floors.  I had the most fun on the top floor with the Indian art and thought about the discrepancy between the sacred, erotic art and the problematic culture that pervades India today.  I also wondered if this visit would shake loose more thoughts and allow me to wrap up my play (obviously not that weekend).

After this, I took the BART to Berkeley and wandered through the UC Berkeley campus.  I'd been once before for a conference, though I honestly couldn't even tell you where I stayed.  I found out that the Alvin Ailey dance company was giving a performance, and while I was slightly tempted, dance recitals just are not my thing.  I continued on my way to the Berkeley Art Museum, only to find that the on-line information I had was woefully incomplete.  They really weren't open to just anyone after hours -- you needed a special ticket and they were sold out.  So I have now managed to miss out on the UCLA and UC Berkeley art museums.  (I'm sensing a trend here.)  I ate decent Indian food at a campus restaurant and continued wandering through Berkeley.  I decided to check into the hotel, and was severely disappointed.  It really was a run-down motel, and they didn't have internet in the lobby as promised (or I would have at least brought a tablet).  Feeling pretty disgusted, I continued wandering through Berkeley until dusk, then crashed.  (I did more than halfway wish that I had stayed in San Francisco as I might have been able to catch a showing of Churchill's Top Girls Friday evening, and Berkeley turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.)

Sat. was almost entirely taken up by Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, which I will have to review on a different page.  Before this, I did manage to mail off a book to a friend and wandered by the farmer's market, though I wasn't that taken with it.  I saw that there was a flea market right across the street from Shotgun Players, and I explored that for a bit.  I picked up two cars for the kids (overpriced I found out later, but as a WASP I really hate haggling), which has set off a bit of an obsession for my son.  I got pizza at the lunch break from Berkeley Bowl, which was much better than I expected.  For dinner, I had a huge plate of Middle Eastern food at the convenience store next to Shotgun Players.  I kind of hustled back to the hotel, beating the Google estimated time by nearly 10 minutes.

Across the street

(Hot) Bikes at the Flea Market

Toy stall

Sun. was a lot of walking and taking transit.  I checked out early, then caught the BART into San Francisco.  I took the bus cross-town, though we were snarled up by a half marathon or something.  The ride seemed interminable, and was not helped by being forced to sit next to an old man smelling very strongly of pee, and then three very loud and obnoxious 20 year olds.  However, I finally made it to the Legion of Honor building, which houses European art work.  I definitely had not made it there, even on my first trip to San Francisco, when I had crisscrossed the city on foot.

I had slightly more luck taking the bus back to Haight-Ashbury.  Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera ready to capture this mother-daughter team with their parrots on the bus.  The girl's hair was blue, almost as blue as her parrot...  I had a light lunch with a former co-worker and we both told crazy stories about what was happening at our old place of work.  I had a bit more time to kill, so I went into Golden Gate Park to see the DeYoung Museum (the American art counterpart of the Legion of Honor).  My phone totally died, which was a shame.  I only needed another hour or so to get some great photos, since the weather was so great.  Now, I don't think I visited the DeYoung back in 1991, which was my first visit to S.F., but they have rebuilt it substantially, so it is hard to know for certain.  There were definitely some pieces I liked a lot.  In general, the collection spoke to me more than the art in the Legion of Honor.  Afterwards, I walked quickly through the park, caught the Muni, then the BART, then arrived at the airport and had roughly an hour to kill.  So all in all, a very packed day.

Last weekend was a bit different.  I agreed to take the kids to the movies and we saw Mr. Peabody & Sherman.  I actually did like it a fair bit, particularly this segment early on with John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" playing in the background and Mr. Peabody thinking back over his custodianship of Sherman, earlier and earlier in time.  He has them both flying a kite with Ben Franklin, riding bicycles (and then flying) with the Wright Brothers, skating in the ice age with mastodons nearby, wading in the Nile (Moses is snatched out of the river as Peabody looks on -- another joke for the adults) and finally Mr. Peabody discovering Sherman abandoned in a box as an infant.  It's a bit more saccharine than the opening of Up, but has that same sort of feel.  It was surprisingly effective, and definitely aimed more at the adults than the children in the audience.

After that, we went to the library, then the mall, and we got lunch, shoes (two different stores), a haircut for my son, went to the toy store (for more Hot Wheels) and then the grocery store.  I was pretty wiped out and generally cranky by the end of that.

Sunday, I had to finish U.S. taxes, saw a concert (Shubert's Octet was the highlight), swung by the library, and then I think I still had to pick up something that was forgotten at the grocery store.  Still pretty intense, but a little easier to manage on my own.

And then this weekend we are driving down to Seattle, which is always an adventure.  I've tried to only plan two things per day (mostly the Children's Museum and the Miro exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, plus the monorail) but I'm sure there will be some shopping involved.  To be honest, I didn't even realize I had Friday off, so we will go Friday and Sat.  Sun. will be reasonably low key, though I assume there will be some kind of Easter egg hunt, though my wife is in charge of that.  I'll try to relax a bit, though I will also try to get through the first pass of the Canadian taxes and then get at least a bit more written for this proposal I'm leading for work.  (I actually have to have it written up next week, since I fly to Baltimore and DC the following weekend!)  And that really doesn't leave any time in early May for packing up boxes for the move.

So not too much rest for the weary...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Garcia Marquez, 1927-2014

As many had feared when he went into the hospital, Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away at the age of 87.  My understanding is that his health had been poor for some time.

I'm certainly a big fan of his work, though I will admit he inspired a lot of really lousy followers who used magic realism indiscriminately.*

Of his major works, I like them in roughly this order:
The Autumn of the Patriarch
No One Writes to the Colonel
Collected Short Stories
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Love in the Time of Cholera
In Evil Hour

I'm not going to have time to go into any details about them.  This article is a decent overview of a few of them, in case you want to know if any of them are going to be up your alley (and if somehow you've never head of One Hundred Years of Solitude).

I actually did read The Autumn of the Patriarch first, in one of those great Avon Bard paperbacks (they also put out a lot of Jorge Amado and some Vargas Llosa).

I'm pretty sure I read the novellas and the short stories right after this. Slightly later I got around to One Hundred Years of Solitude.  (I have to say this order is not a bad one.)  Patriarch is not an easy book, and Garcia Marquz is clearly imitating Faulkner in long stretches, but it is still a considerable achievement.  

I've actually never read The General in His Labyrinth (and some of his later story collections), and I'm going to start The General this weekend, slightly reordering my reading list to accommodate this.**

* One of the few that used it relatively well was Ian MacDonald's Desolation Road (I see I'm not the only one that noticed the connection).  I definitely have mixed feelings about the use of magic realism in Rushdie's Midnight Children and other works.

I thought Nicholas Dickner did not really pull off the magic realism in Nikolski.  I also thought that the magic realism in Michael Crummey's Galore were the weaker aspects of the book.  (Canada just doesn't seem like a fertile ground for magic realism.)  On the other hand, I wasn't totally put off by elements of the fantastic in Michel Tremblay's The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant (it's at least possible that Tremblay wrote his earlier works without being directly inspired by Garcia Marquez).

Edit (3/21): Several papers are reporting that there may be one more piece of fiction coming from Garcia Marquez.  He had written a few short stories and had reworked them into a novella called We’ll Meet in August, but he was struggling with the ending.  So his family is deciding if this would be a worthy legacy to be his last published work.  It certainly sounds more substantial than Nabokov's The Original of Laura (which really was a mistake letting it come out) and not quite as dreadful an editorial burden as Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth.  Personally, I hope it is published, but I do have quite a few late stories left before I run through all of GGM's work. Then in a year or three, I'll probably go through all his works again, this time in proper chronological order.

** I should have added that Elizabeth Jane Howard died recently (early January), and while I do have one novel of hers on my short-list TBR pile (Falling), I didn't move her up in the list, mostly because I have no real attachment to her, just a general curiosity about her work.  I know there is no way I can tackle her The Cazalet Chronicles (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) before I get to Toronto, but it does appear that they are available from the library there. Maybe I'll put off reading her major works until I've gotten through more of my TBR pile, and then will read her in conjunction with Iris Murdoch and going through Pym for a second time. Or perhaps that is actually a bad idea, and I'd prefer more contrast during those months. I guess only time will tell.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What's Wrong With Dale?

I suppose it is completely unfair to speculate on the health of the first violinist of the VSO - Dale Barltrop.  However, I saw him up close and personal this afternoon in a very good performance of Schubert's Octet.  They also did Bartok's 3rd String Quartet, and while that was well done, it wasn't as memorable a performance as the Octet.  I'm not sure whether I've seen Schubert's Octet before, though I might have in Chicago.  I've seen the Mendelssohn Octet at least once and perhaps twice.  I'm about to go see if I have the Schubert on CD, since I'd really like to hear the closing movement again.

Anyway, Dale had some very deep creases in his face and his eyes looked a bit sunken.  I had an eerie feeling that I was seeing some major sickness hover over him.  My mom said that occasionally she could tell when one of her clients was nearing the end.  I definitely hope I am mistaken.  What I imagine is that Dale is just greatly overworked (I can relate!) now that he has taken on more responsibilities back in Australia.

To pivot from that, I was overhearing a woman behind me (during the interval only fortunately) with Australian roots.  Her family is going through much trauma at the moment, and she feels quite terrible in not being able to reach them.  She said it was a bit of a relief just to hear another Australian (Dale doing some intros to the pieces).  She later pivoted from the personal to the social and talked a bit about events in her church (a Unitarian one on 49th and Oak).  She takes quite an interest, naturally.  It really was like walking into a Barbara Pym novel.  Despite the overbearing figures (like Hyacinth Bucket), so much of church life is social and would grind to a halt without these largely overlooked women.  She actually reminded me a bit of my mother (I imagine they would have gotten on like a house on fire) and that made me just a bit melancholy.  Will I ever seriously write out my life story and create a character that does justice to my mother (the way Tremblay has attempted to do with many of his novels and, most overtly, with For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again)?  It's starting to look doubtful, though I guess I still have time.  I just have to change my priorities.

To tie up several threads, after they announced a minor change in the program (Schulhoff first and then the Bartok), she said something to the effect of "Of course, Bartok was a famous Unitarian."  I haven't gotten it quite right, but I found this so droll that I almost burst out laughing.  The program really was delightful (and largely made up for the pain of wrapping up my U.S. taxes). I so hope that there isn't anything seriously wrong with Dale Barltrop and that he has many more years ahead of him to devote to entertaining Vancouver audiences.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

More than you need to know: Jean Anouilh

Sometimes I just get a bit obsessed over something, and I just have to run with it. After pondering the fact that libraries have started to discard Jean Anouilh, I quickly became quite interested in the fact that Hill and Wang and Methuen sort of had competing editions of Anouilh, presumably with different translators. There is almost no overlap between Methuen's Collected Plays (from the mid 1960s) and the two fairly recent volumes they put out in the late 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, the Hill and Wang are reprints of two volumes that came out in 1958 and then a 3rd volume in the late 1960s. Hill and Wang have occasionally published single titles, but have not as of yet offered a 4th volume of plays. The Hill and Wang set is certainly cheaper to track down than the Methuen books. It appears both publishers stop short with only plays published up to the early 1960s.

I decided to try to put a spreadsheet together to help me keep track of which plays had been translated, so that if I do decide to track them down at the library or bookshop, I won't get the same plays over and over, which I have been known to do if I am not careful.

It seems evident to me that Anouilh's later plays are only occasionally translated into English and/or kept in print. Perhaps only 1/3 have a reasonable English translation, with his final staged play (Chers zoiseauxs) not available at all. Maybe his sensibility is really out of fashion, but literary fashion is a bit cyclical, and it wouldn't completely surprise me to see a bit of an Anouilh renewal in the future.