Monday, June 30, 2014

Wrapping things up in Vancouver

It's been really interesting as I have raced to get through various things here in preparation for the move.  Things are really winding down.  I've given up on the idea of doing the Grind again.  I'd like to figure out a way to bike in Stanley Park, but I'm just not really seeing that happen.  (Maybe it will be an incentive -- if everything is completely done by Thurs. evening, I will take Friday afternoon off (it is supposed to be nice) and ride to Stanley Park from the office.)

I did get a fair bit done today, but it meant dropping things off in charity shop bins and selling CDs to basically the only store in town that still pays cash (Neptoon).  So I am behind where I wanted to be in terms of the final rounds of boxes, which means that I will be packing on Canada Day instead of relaxing...  Well, it could be worse, and I'd have to take all this time off work.  I was annoyed to 1) run out of tape while trying to seal up boxes and 2) to not have any spackle compound, so I'll need to drop by Home Depot tomorrow around lunch time.

I've completely cleared out my queue at Burnaby Library.  For some reason, one book was never actually released to libraries (it's been on order for months).  I believe the only way to get a copy is to go to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, which is frankly ridiculous.  It's the catalogue for their Mexican art show.  The book is by Nicola Levell and is called Marvelous Real: Art From Mexico.  I'll just have to try to do ILL from Toronto one of these days.

For the Vancouver Library, I have 4 items out, all going back over the next couple of days.  I really thought I would get the DVD of the Dallas Buyer's Club from them in time, but it looks like I will be a few days short, so I will go way to the back of the line in Toronto.  Sort of on the same lines, the library just did not process Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love in any kind of reasonable time frame.  I would actually have been better off going through the Burnaby Library.  As far as I can tell, the Toronto Library doesn't have Cassavetes' Love Streams in the system (yet), so I might actually not be too far back in that queue once it gets entered.  I'm assuming that since it is put out by Criterion, they will eventually get it in their collection.  Or I can look into an actual DVD stores (a few more seem to be hanging on in Toronto compared to Vancouver).

In terms of things that should have been in, but went missing and couldn't be traced, there are just a few things:
  • Britten Death in Venice (CD)
  • It Came From Beneath the Sea (DVD)
  • 20 Million Miles to Earth (DVD)
  • The Time of the Doctor -- Dr. Who (DVD)
  • Globalization and Transformations of Social Inequality (will try ILL)
Perhaps the single most annoying library thing (aside from the Levell book, which is certainly not the library's fault) is that there was some vaguely interesting paperback title by an Indian author.  I wrote it down but the slip got lost.  Burnaby is odd in that adult paperbacks are not in the system by title, so I can't just ask them to point me to the list of the paperbacks they were recommending.  They have no idea.  I spent quite a bit of time trying to track it down and found a bunch of recent Indian and Pakistani literature that looks quite interesting (if only my TBR pile wasn't already so absurdly long).

In the course of this search, I found this article, which I will definitely return to some day.  Of the top 25, I had read 7 so far.  I have to report that I weakened and ordered All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani, as it sounded so unusual.  As for the rest, if I ever do get to them, I will try to be strict and just go through the library.  Here are the ones that looked the most interesting to me (from these lists and elsewhere):
  • Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
  • The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor 
  • One Night at the Call Centre by Chetan Bhagat 
  • Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chanra
I suppose at some point, I will come across that book again (or even the slip of paper with the title), but there is no point in getting hung up over it when I have many years' worth of books still to go.  On that front, it does look like I will finish Two Solitudes before the move (but I'll review it in July) and maybe one or two half-read books.  I'll probably kick off the Toronto commute with The Tin Flute.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Bard on the Beach - Midsummer's Night's Dream

My posts are all out of order, and I probably just cannot get through all of them until more packing is done, which in practice means in about a week after the huge panic of having the movers come here and dumping junk into boxes.  However, I am making progress.  I have been able to give away a number of books.  I'm doing better on the CD/LP front, getting some cash for them! And we managed to sell off the tricycle on Craigslist in one day, which was a big surprise.

At any rate, my son and I went downtown to drop off stuff at the stores.  We just barely made it back onto the bus that drops you off near Bard on the Beach with only 5 minutes to spare before his transfer expired!  Anyway, I really wish the bus had been earlier (or rather on time), as the skies just opened up on us as we were cutting through the park to get to the box office.  (Another five minutes, and we would have made it.) We really did get soaked.  On the positive side, Vancouver rained itself out for the day, and there was no rain at all during the performance.  While the sets often open out onto the park and inlet, this one has a much larger hole, meaning that the sound of the rain would interfere more with the play (and they'd probably have to crank up the mics, which is never good).

The rude mechanicals practicing!
Bard on the Beach often goes with a populist slant (though hewing fairly closely to the text) and this production was no exception.  There were some references to kung-fu fighting and hip-hop dancing (not quite as elaborate as in The Tempest, however). 

The musical cues were a lot more contemporary than The Tempest (where most of the music was provided by a live string quartet!).  The show opens with U2's MLK.  As Bono croons, the cast comes in dressed more or less in 1950s English costumes with large black umbrellas.  (It definitely seemed appropriate for the day, though as I said, I was more than glad that the rain had stopped!)  I am not entirely sure why there were so many umbrellas on the stage (the black thing to the left in the photo above is a huge umbrella that turns into Titania's bower) and as part of the costumes, but they were fun to look at it.

The rude mechanicals seem from a 1950s panto or something.  Bottom (who was pretty awesome) sort of seemed to be partly channeling Steve Coogan (and had a bit of the look though not mannerisms of Coogan in the little seen (in North America anyway) Saxondale).  The play within a play at the end was pretty hysterical including bits with balloons and sausage that I shall not spoil.

Other amusing musical cues were "I Put a Spell on You" when Oberon puts the love potion on Titania, Prince's "Kiss" when Lysander wakes up and falls for Helena, and a very short bit from "Blurred Lines" when Demetrius wakes up and also falls for Helena.  When Titania wakes and sees Bottom, they used Etta James' "At Last."  At the end, they replayed MLK, and then to usher folks out, they used Pharrell's "Happy" (my son loves this song...).

The fairy costumes, particularly Oberon's and Titania's, were pretty awesome.  Oberon looked a lot like he was King of Siam, and he had some great moments.  Puck was good, though I have to say, I thought some of the vocal tics on the most famous lines was a bit annoying (sort of like a one-hit-wonder band tired of singing their song and changing it up a bit).  I thought that was a bit unfair to the newbies in the audience (and there were quite a few).  There were a lot of children in the audience, which I thought was great.  My son's impression was overall very positive, particularly when we see the terrible performance by the rude mechanicals.  However, he would have preferred a version with the dialogue in contemporary English.  Sigh.  I do understand the temptation to modernize it, but it seems such a dangerous path to go down, and I am glad (for myself anyway) that Bard on the Beach is generally pretty good about keeping to what Shakespeare actually wrote.  One very minor detail that productions do change up a bit is whether Hermia's father, Egeus, comes around to accepting Lysander as a son-in-law or not.  You basically can go either way, as Shakespeare is completely silent on the point.  (Egeus has no lines after Theseus overrides his will.)  In this production, Egeus stomps off, unreconciled, and doesn't come back for the wedding banquet and performance.  (It would also be possible for him to chill out and thus come to the wedding and (silently) watch over the proceedings.)

Curiously, this clocks in at 2 3/4 hours, so is just slightly longer than The Tempest.  If you are in Vancouver this summer, I would highly recommend checking out both Midsummer's Night's Dream and The Tempest, as I think they are both very strong, entertaining performances.  If I wasn't leaving in a week, I might even go a second time, which I very, very rarely do*.  As I said before, it is a nice high note to end on, though it may not be the very final play I see in Vancouver, as I am still holding out some hope of seeing Gruesome Playground Injuries if I am far enough along in the packing, which means I need to make a lot of progress today, so I had better get back to that.

* In fact, it may be I have never done it, though I saw Crazy for You on Broadway and then the touring version in Toronto six months later, which was essentially the same production.  The last time I was really tempted to see the same production of a play twice was David Henry Hwang's Chinglish at the Goodman, but I couldn't swing it.  It's been playing in California and a few places on the West Coast but not close enough.  I'll keep my eyes open if it comes to Toronto.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Bard on the Beach - The Tempest

I will try to keep this short for once.  I am just back from the preview of The Tempest at Bard on the Beach.  The play runs 2.5 hours.  I think they trimmed a fair bit, as I am pretty sure there was a lot more about Antonio and the doings of his brother (and Prospero's usurping brother).  What they focused on, much more than I remembered from the text, is the silliness of the two women who give wine to Caliban and end up soused themselves.  They pretty much steal the show, I guess because the director really wanted to have some clowning around.  (There is even a bit where they steal some of Beyonce's choreography from Single Girls.)

It was a very enjoyable performance, and the focus was on fun and spectacle.  What was lacking was any kind of dramatic tension at all.  The whole thing is a wish fulfillment exercise for Prospero.  He is never challenged, never not in charge.  I'm pretty sure I've seen one version where the balance was shifted a bit, but no question it is kind of hard to put on a play where there is no question about who is on top throughout.

I'm a bit sorry I didn't take my son, even with a bit of PG-13 additions (again, the two soused ladies), but he probably would have had some trouble following the archaic language.  I think Midsummer's Night's Dream is a better entree into Shakespeare, and he is coming along to that on Sat.  I've seen an early review, and it was quite positive.  So I've picked two winners for my presumably last experience with Bard on the Beach.  Macbeth from two seasons ago and Hamlet from last season certainly had their moments, but both had a few odd directorial choices.  I think these two will be a fitting send off if I don't manage to get work to bring me back to Vancouver in future summers.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 18th review - How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun

Doretta Lau -- How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

This book (and story) title is a mouthful, although Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central... is quite long as well.  Smart's title is a reference to Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion).  I'm not entirely sure if Lau is referencing anything in particular, although given the context of this particular story, it might be a riff on Mao's blanket dismissal of intellectuals as "a blade of grass atop a wall" that bend with the wind.  (I believe there is a dismissal of the intellectual's individuality and betrayal of communal needs along on top of the characterization of intellectuals as spineless.)

Quick update: in an interview, Lau explains that this is actually reference to a Tang Dynasty poem by Meng Jiao that Yao Ming quoted when he had his jersey retired.  Interestingly, the title story riffs on the potential confusion between Mao and Yao, among Asian-Canadian youth who don't know their history.

So apparently, focusing on the Asian backgrounds of the characters means ghettoizing Lau's stories, but it really seems impossible for me to discuss them as if they were "universal" whatever that means.  Lau writes almost entirely about artistic young Canadians with an Asian background, primarily Chinese or Korean.  They encounter and hang out with other Asian-Canadians, and their artistic reference points are almost entirely Asian (Haruki Murakami, John Woo and Wong Kar-wai).  There are two significant exceptions: Glenn Gould and Jeff Wall. Most of the stories are sent in Vancouver, which has a large Asian population, so that one can hang out primarily with people of the same background.  As an aside, it might be interesting in another 5-10 years to see if there emerges a Canadian literature where the characters with East Asian and South Asian backgrounds interact with each other and with "Anglo-Canadians."  This seems to be occurring in the malls of Burnaby (more than in Vancouver and certainly Richmond), so will this "melting pot" approach ever become an actual theme in Canadian literature or will Canadian literature remain more of a mosaic with not as much overlapping and blurring?  Anyway, I think this discussion is heading into a not very productive direction, so I will cut it short.

What is somewhat more interesting is that Lau herself has an arts background and writes stories on art and culture for Artforum International and the Wall Street Journal, among other things.  So in the spirit of writing what she knows, the majority of her characters have gone to arts school.  In a couple of places there are references to parents or grandparents being befuddled by these children not going into finance, medicine or engineering.  Yet this is the clearest sign that Lau's generation is thoroughly integrated into the majority culture, that they feel they have the economic stability to go into the humanities (and not dabbling in the humanities in a pre-law sort of way).  In one story, a big deal is made about student loans (and how the author isn't supposed to be working in New York on a student visa).  In some stories, economic insecurity raises its head (especially "The Boy Next Door" and "Rerun") whereas in others it appears that the characters are working some type of job but may also be supported by parents (who may be glad to be paying the price so that they don't come boomeranging back). 

The short stories are all over the map in terms of style and content.  The first two are in the fantastic vein (SF/fantasy/occult).  We start off with a story where people can get texts from their future selves, and this has predictable consequences.  What is a bit droll is that the texts have to be kept pretty short, which means that the messages are not always clear.  Nonetheless, the future selves lean towards being quite abusive to their younger selves, and it isn't at all clear why this would be.  What's particularly odd is that the lottery is cancelled, but stock market trading continues.  So I didn't find this "convincing" (not that it was really meant to be a "realistic" story with time-travel elements), but I liked this back-and-forth: "'How does this store stay afloat without the scratch-and-wins?'
'That will be ten dollars, please' he says, pointing to the bread."

The next story is about a woman who is counseled to fall in love with a dead celebrity.  After some thought, she settles on Glenn Gould.  Improbably, he accepts her offer to meet.  It's an odd story, showing off Lau's knowledge of certain facts about Gould's life.  It doesn't have quite the emotional resonance that I think she was going for.  It reminded me a bit more of a Donald Barthelme piece and might have worked better if it was shorter still.

"Little Miss International Goodwill" seemed to be a reworking of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, though much, much shorter.  Here the girl wants blonde hair and she bleaches her hair with laundry bleach.  Fortunately, the outcome isn't nearly as disastrous, and she doesn't seem to suffer any permanent damage.  She ends up closer to her mother and more reconciled to her looks at the end.

"Rerun" is an odd story about a washed up actress whose defining feature appears to be her silicon implants.  The whole thing goes by like a dream or a drug trip.  For some reason, I am reminded of T. Coraghessan Boyle's style in some of his short stories, but that is probably not really an apt comparison.

Several of the stories are clearly influenced by Wong Kar-wai films -- in particular "Days of Being Wild" and "Robot by the River".  I didn't even realize until a quick Google search that "Days of Being Wild" is actually the title of one of his films, in addition to being the title of Lau's story.  In this case, the linkage is that the male lead is improbably handsome and emotionally distant.  There is less physical violence in these stories, so that is a bit of a switch from Wong Kar-Wai (though one character in "O Woe is Me" makes a living dodging paint balls and rotten fruits & vegetables in a carnival).

Many of the stories are about characters with a lot of emotional distance from each other and unexamined unhappiness and just not knowing what they actually want.  This is a pretty typical condition for youngsters, particularly those immersed in the arts, though to be fair, many middle-aged people don't have things figured out any better (and if they do, they aren't interesting enough to write about -- Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale may be one of the few exceptions, but I can't even vouch for that at the moment).  In addition to the obvious references back to Wong Kar-Wai, I actually wondered if there were closer ties to Tsai Ming-Liang and his films of alienated youth (particularly The Hole, which I have packed away -- and has apparently gotten quite hard to get ahold of).  On the literary side, I wondered if there were purposeful references to Alice Munroe, though I happened across Lau's own blog and she was name-checking Mavis Gallant instead.

What I am not sure is intentional is if the art references are supposed to be fairly easy to capture (so the readers feel smarter) or if I just happen to be immersed enough in the arts world that I am up on these artists.  It isn't that hard to know about Jeff Wall, who is quite well-known (an entire story "Writing in Light" is built around interpretations of a few of Wall's early photos such as The Destroyed Room), but I also caught the reference to Rodney Graham in a different story.  

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978

I've been thinking a bit about one phase of Graham's career, since it sort of ties in with the Coupland exhibit.  (As it happens, I am going to check that out again tomorrow with the kids, so I'll try to blog about it soon.)  I think it would have been nice to work in a reference to Fred Herzog, who was one of Wall's inspirations.  I think I recognized nearly all the references, although I blanked on the non-fiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (I did recall some details after looking it up on Amazon, but it isn't the kind of book that interests me all that much). 

"How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun" is definitely the most different of the bunch in that the kids appear younger (still in high school) and are treading fairly close to delinquent territory.  That's not to say they won't get their acts together, get into university and ultimately become middle class, "model" immigrants, but at the moment, they are acting a lot like a street gang.  Though a street gang that is both appropriating American Black youth culture and is trying to fight against Asian stereotypes.  I was actually reminded of this small gang in Carlos Fuentes' Christopher Unborn that acts partly like a Greek chorus at times.  A perhaps more intentional (though unnamed) influence might be the early plays of David Henry Hwang, like F.O.B. and Trying to Find Chinatown.  I think the only odd note is that one of the girls calls herself Suzie Wong, in an attempt to reclaim the name.  While I know there are few roles for Asian actresses in Hollywood films, The World of Suzie Wong is close to 50 years old.  Is this still in general circulation and is seen as something that young Asian women have to fight against?  (As opposed to Puccini's Madama Butterfly which is still performed regularly, and incidentally skewered in Hwang's M. Butterfly.)  Sometimes it seems that cultural warriors are just looking for excuses to be offended when there are plenty of more pressing and contemporary insults to be borne and stereotypes to be fought.

Now Lau is apparently working on a full novel and/or screenplay, but it is not at all clear which of these many directions she would want to go in.*  I suspect that the alienated art student approach is probably not going to provide enough general interest.  She might be better off going in the street gang milieu, but again, it might be hard to carry this off for hundreds of pages, especially if she doesn't have true connections to this world, i.e. the street gang was a pure exercise in imagination and didn't draw on any people she knew.

My favourite of the bunch was "Left and Leaving."  This is the second story that references the Robert Pickton murders of prostitutes and drug-addicted women from Vancouver (many of them with a First Nations background).  While it is never entirely clear, the story suggests that the mother of the two girls featured in the story was one of Pickton's victims.  In any case, the girls are in the foster system with a particularly sympathetic family.  However, one of the sisters continues to act in extremely rebellious ways and sabotages her chances for adoption.  The reader is left wondering if the causes are primarily genetic (the girls are actually half-sisters) or emotional (abandonment and then pre-emptive rejection of the foster family before they can reject her).  While it is a very sad story, this is one that I think could be expanded into a novella or even a full novel, depending on which direction Lau went with it (either to delve into their back history before their mother vanished and more of their relatively idyllic time with their grandmother -- or to focus on the remaining girl's search for her sister).

While it is a totally different set-up and a slightly happier ending, while reading "Left and Leaving" I kept thinking of Michael Golamco's Year Zero (a play that premiered at Victory Gardens in Chicago).  What is constant is two children more or less forced to rely on each other when they lose their remaining family.  I really liked it, but not everyone shared this view.  Interestingly, it seemed to play better in LA than in Chicago.  It could just be there was too much else going on at the time in the Chicago theatre scene.

To sum up, the stories are quite interesting, though thematically quite different.  Anyone who is interested in literary portrayals of post-millennial Vancouver will probably be interested, as well as those who want to read up on what Asian-Canadian arts students are getting up to nowadays.

* In the same interview, she explains the novel will be about a textile historian, but the novel format will be heavily influenced by Teju Cole's Open City.  I'm not sure whether I am down with that or not.  Time will tell.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 17th review - By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

As I mentioned, I came across a copy of Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept mis-shelved at the library.  I'm not entirely sure when I heard the basic back story, but probably about a year ago. Elizabeth Smart came across a book by George Barker and fell in love with his verse and decided that she was in love with him too.  She started an affair with him, hoping that he would leave his wife, but this never happened.  She had not one, but four children with Barker.  She wrote By Grand Central Station... shortly after the birth of her first child.

It is pretty much impossible to avoid making some kind of moral judgement about Smart, given this background.  I think she was a terrible fool who didn't care at all about hurting others, but she also seems to have a bit of screw loose, which led to some fairly interesting writing.  She certainly strikes me as an unfit mother, but there doesn't seem to be that much written on her children after the first one.

It is also difficult to separate their literary merit as opposed to the scandal.  I suspect that in the absence of this affair, Elizabeth Smart wouldn't have written anything and George Barker would have been less known.  But as a contemporary Abelard and Heloise they have achieved minor literary immortality.  I actually went through Barker's Collected Poems last year, and to be honest only found 10 or 15 of them of any interest.  I thought he was an extremely minor poet, and certainly not worth all this fuss.  I've never met a poetry groupie in real life, though I know they do exist.  I have encountered poets who thought they were special enough to merit a groupie...

The book is difficult to review.  Not all that much happens in the book other than Smart recounting the ups and downs (mostly downs) of her having an affair with Barker, ultimately leaving her abandoned with a "bun in the oven" (but then apparently couldn't leave well enough alone and kept coming back to her but without making any final break with his wife, although this is all after the events in By Grand Central Station...).   The language is very over the top with lots of references to Old Testament imagery (particularly Song of Songs) and other ecstatic poets like Blake (and more than a few apparent references to John Donne and perhaps even George Herbert).  It's quite unusual in that Smart is operating on two levels at once -- the ecstatic and the real (though mostly in the ecstatic world).  I have no idea if she was this way in real life (though some comments in the book suggest she did with people calling her a religious loony), but she certainly retrospectively portrayed these events in that light.  (It may not be a good metaphor at all, but I sort of see her doing what Stanley Spencer was doing in the visual arts, basically claiming that people on the British Isles should be acting as if Jesus would return at any moment, and yet he also would be painting absolutely contemporary scenes.)

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection Port Glasgow, c. 1947-50

I find it extremely hard to take how Smart tries to justify her actions by claiming that she is in the grasp of an all-encompassing love and that it is self-evident she and Barker are soul-mates (so why won't his wife just release him already).  I wasn't always terribly sympathetic to the various odd things that Barbara Comyns' feckless characters got up to, but they didn't try to justify their behaviour using flowery metaphors that claimed they couldn't help it.  Here's a pretty typical example: "To deny love, and deceive it meanly by pretending that what is unconsummated remains eternal, or that love sublimated reaches highest to heavenly love, is repulsive, as the hypocrite’s face is repulsive when placed too near the truth."

In addition to what appear to be references to Blake, Donne and Herbert, I found something of the obsessive Christopher Smart (probably not a relation) in this work, and maybe some of the extravagant metaphors of Dylan Thomas.  I found this passage somewhat amusing and suitably over the top.  Smart is reflecting on Barker's wife and the damage she is doing to her: "On her mangledness I am spreading my amorous sheets, but who will have any pride in the wedding red, seeping up between the thighs of love which rise like a colossus, but whose issue is only the cold semen of grief?"

The single most brilliant sequence -- which really emphasizes the dualism that Smart embodies/suffers from -- is the opening of Part Four:
But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed.
What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.)
How long have you know him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.)
Did you sleep in the same room? (Behold thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair: thou hast dove’s eyes.)
In the same bed? (Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant, also our bed is green.)
Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste.)

This leads to their arrest for crossing state borders for immoral purposes.  By the most amazing coincidence, there was a recent story about a UBC student who was detained at the US border on suspicion that she was a sex worker, and this remains grounds for denial of entry to the U.S., though the laws against your run-of-the-mill adultery barring admission have been eliminated. Plus ça change...

By Grand Central Station is a very short book (roughly 100 pages), and it is hard to tell how well this style would hold up in a longer narrative. I guess I will find out, as there is sort of a follow-up (much less famous though) called The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals that was bundled in the copy I borrowed from the library.  That is also about 100 pages, and appears to be written in a slightly less fraught style.  For those looking for more on Elizabeth Smart and her later works, this page is a good starting place.

Monday, June 16, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 16th review - Generation X

While it was kind of omnipresent for a while in the early 90s, I'd actually never read Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.  Or in fact any of his novels, though I did review his non-fiction book on Vancouver a little while back.

I actually liked his exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery a lot more than I expected, and a review of that is forthcoming.  So when I saw a copy of Generation X sitting up front at the Burnaby Library, I decided to grab it.  

Generation X wasn't quite as flash or as shallow as I had sort of imagined.  At the same time, I'm still feeling that Coupland starts from some social science position he wants to illuminate and sort of builds around that framework.  The characters are really not much more than mouthpieces of their generation, and Coupland is kind of upfront about that.  There really is no one in the book on which one would really expend too much emotional effort.  But it was a moderately entertaining exercise, and it is short, which I am valuing more at the moment.  I didn't feel nearly as much nostalgia about these people in their early 20s as I did about the folks in Bogosian's subUrbia.  Even though I took a different path than any of them, I still could sort of recognize classmates in subUrbia, whereas I didn't know anyone who completely dropped out of life the way this trio did in Generation X.  (Now I am wondering what and how I will feel if I watch Winona Ryder in Reality Bites -- one of the Gen. X movies I assiduously avoided back in the 90s.)  

It does seem like Coupland's bunch (who somehow avoid shacking up together) are 5-6 years older than me (and most of the characters in Reality Bites and subUrbia) but I don't think that is really the issue.  It is more their general listlessness that I can't relate to.

What I do find interesting is that Coupland does tend to capture the zeitgeist fairly well.  There were loads of people who withdrew from consumer society, more or less successfully, during this period.  And notably, most of them did struggle to make it on their own in lousy McJobs, but only a relatively few went home again (Coupland sort of mentions this in a sidebar but it doesn't play a real role in the book).  The Gen Xers by and large did leave the nest, scraping by in dingy apartments or living with roommates long after college, but statistics show that is not nearly so much the case for the Millennials.  Truly staggering numbers are still living at home.  Granted they got an even rawer deal than the Gen Xers, but I just don't see this as healthy at all, either from a personal or societal standpoint.

One thing is that they probably have a lot of (deserved) internalized anxiety over climate change/global warming, but they really do not have the fear of nuclear annihilation that some of us did in the Reagan years.  I know I was affected, and I am a much darker person because of it.  (I believe this is basically the theme of Nancy Lee's The Age, which I expect to read in a few months.)  All I can say is that it is a good thing Reagan was dealing with Gorbachev and not Putin, or history might have taken a very unpleasant turn...  

At any rate, the idea that everything can be lost in a flash seems more real to a lot of Gen Xers than to the Millennials (who may never have had anything that wasn't their parents' to begin with).  As much as there is no question that the fairly lousy economic hand dealt to Gen X is part of their general disaffection and dissatisfaction with contemporary life, another not-insignificant reason is the attitude: why bother if it's getting blown to Kingdom Come anyway.

Not surprisingly, Coupland latches onto this as well.  There is a generalized threat and dread (of nuclear devastation and other types of disasters) that is in the background of this book, though the characters do occasionally acknowledge it directly, as when Dag himself tells apocalyptic stories about bombs leveling shopping districts.

As if that weren't enough, Coupland raises the stakes. Dag accidentally spills radiated beads from New Mexico in Claire's bungalow, and she freaks out.  The nuclear threat suddenly becomes very real to her.  I actually wonder if she is really up for Dag's crazy plans to open up a hotel in Mexico, or is it just an excuse to get the heck out of Dodge (after her home has been violated)?

In general the book went along fairly smoothly, nothing too deep, but there were a few things that bugged me about it.  While it was only a tiny story within the whole work, it was just absurd that there was some cult that had a year that lasted only 1/7th as long as the "Western" year. That is just silly: while human societies sure can get up to strange things, the one universal is that a year is either based on a solar year (364-66 days) or lunar year (roughly 354 days).

I found the final image to be so strange -- the narrator (Andy) pulls over to see a huge cloud generated by farmers burning off a field after it has been harvested.  He is unbelievably relieved that it isn't an atom cloud.  However, while standing there he is attacked by a white egret and then is smothered (in a good way apparently) by developmentally challenged children on some kind of bus trip. A little too sentimental perhaps or symbolic or both. Nature (violently) communes with him, and then he gets all the human contact he can stand in a non-ironic way.

Finally, I did think Coupland tried too hard with the ex-mercenary character (The Boy with the Hummingbird Eyes), where the tale frankly came across as a bad retread of some MASH storyline, perhaps even from the finale.

Actually that is a decent segue to some of Coupland's sidebar comments, which put the action such as it is in the stories or the stories within stories into a broader context.  Coupland sure has a way with these little text bombs or pure aphorisms that he turned into posters for his art gallery show.

Here are a few I liked from Generation X:

Tele-Parablizing: Morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots.

Ultra Short Term Nostalgia: Homesickness for the extremely recent past.

Down-Nesting: The tendency of parents to move to smaller, guest-room-free houses after the children have moved away so as to avoid children aged 20 to 30 who have boomeranged home.

Occupational Slumming: Taking a job well beneath one's skill or education level as a means of retreat from adult responsibilities and/or avoiding possible failure in one's true occupation.

I can attest to the temptation of this last one, though I have been fairly ambitious in my work life.  Still, I basically changed my major to the humanities when it became apparent I would never be a star in either physics or advanced mathematics.  I don't regret too much about my career path, but I do regret giving up. However, sometimes sticking it out just to make a point can lead to really bad outcomes, such as being a depressed high school math teacher who never made the grade.  That would have been pretty terrible.  Or even worse, being just a substitute teacher.  Knowing when to fold them (as Kenny Rogers would say) is a critical life lesson that isn't emphasized enough.

So I have to admit I don't have really strong feelings for Generation X either way.  It seems to focus a lot more on the drop-outs from my generation than I would have preferred, and I think there were many of us that managed to carve out a path that wasn't a complete rejection of society nor a yearning for yuppie-dom.  But you can't really criticize a person for the book they didn't write, only the one that they did.  My biggest beef was that Andy was far too passive, but that was pretty much the point.  I don't feel I need to ask for the couple of hours it took to read this back, and I suppose that is sufficient.

Notes to self

While these are mostly personal thoughts I've have recently that I would be sorry to forget, a few might be of more general interest, though as always I'll probably go on for too long (rather than breaking this up into shorter posts).

It has generally been a big relief to read shorter novels from time to time, and I will make more of an effort to intersperse the long novels with shorter ones unless there is a particular reason to read them back to back.  I seem to feel as much accomplishment reading a short novel (and crossing it off the list) as a long one.  Even for picturesque novels with more plot, I think 250-300 pages is a good target.  If I get around to my work, this is what I will aim for.  Iris Murdoch's Under the Net was about 250 pages and it seemed just right.

Being short doesn't salvage a bad novel, but at least it keeps the damage limited.  On that note, I am about halfway through George Eliot's Silas Marner and am not liking it at all.  She piles one thing after another onto this guy, just in order to show that even the most crabbed and downtrodden person can find happiness -- particularly if they open their heart to others (and stop being so miserly).  It sounds like a freaking After School Special.  While there were considerable flashes of insight in The Mill on the Floss (more than I see here frankly), the ending of The Mill on the Floss was so lousy (as much of a disappointment as the end of Uncle Vanya but for different reasons).  Given that many people have problems with the ending of Adam Bede, I am just going to remove this from my reading list.  I can understand why some people do think she was a great writer, but I am no longer one of them.  I find her too bound by moral conventions, even when she tries to bend or subvert them.  Anyone (in these early novels) who doesn't ultimately accept society's dictates will suffer.  I am kind of surprised that she supposedly made this quantum leap into greatness with Middlemarch, and I'll give it a shot, but I'll bail on it fairly quickly if it I am not enjoying it.

A bit of randomness to the TBR pile seems to help.  I sort of just happened across a couple of interesting books while waiting for a book from the library where the person ahead of me hasn't returned it on time (grrr).  So I went ahead and read Douglas Coupland's Generation X (inspired by my recent visit to his show at the Vancouver Art Gallery) and I also saw Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which was mis-shelved with the children's paperbacks (it really should be young adult or more properly an adult paperback).  Rather than kicking up a fuss, I decided I would check it out and then take it to the main library where it should be shelved appropriately.  Anyway, it is very short (under 100 pages), so I should have it read in just a couple of days.

It's been a bit heartening and rewarding to see how close I am to wrapping up all the books from my January detour from the primary TBR list.  I really ought to be done by the first week of July or so, and then I will have a brand new TBR list to unveil (and which should keep me busy for a few years).  I've decided that since I've done as much as I can in terms of clearing out books before the move, I will reorient the TBR pile just a bit. I've generally been reading books that I feel I ought to read, and I now will mix in more books that I think I will enjoy and add a few more of the books to be re-read (which I know I will enjoy).  There are some books I've owned and been itching to read for years in some cases, and it is silly to keep pushing them off.  That said, I have quite a nice mix of books to keep me occupied for some time.

Ok a quite swerve into New Yorker magazine territory.  I picked up a small stack for $1 on a recent trip to the library.  For once, I went through them quickly, since I had no intention of packing them up!  One of them had a short feature on the fiction writer Lydia Adams.  She does strike me as the quintessential New Yorker writer -- a bit esoteric, and more than a little stuck up.  The one thing I did appreciate about her is that she tried to keep her children out of her work (unlike Sharon Olds for example), though her husband was fair game. But in general, I thought she was incredibly snobby and was running down others' writing, not just when there was a mixed metaphor (which might have actually been intentional or not) but when she thought that some phrase didn't work.  It's hard to convey without quoting directly, but it really as if she thinks there are objective rules governing style, and that naturally many writers fall short.  I suppose there is a tiny chance I'll investigate her stories stories or a novel, but it's so unlikely that I would look very kindly on her writing, given how awful I thought she was about others not making the grade.

It is always so hard to control how others perceive creative work, and probably it is best to not fret too much about it.  Misunderstandings abound for all kinds of reasons.  I was really intrigued and even a bit disturbed by this piece on Young Jean Lee. I vaguely remember hearing about The Shipment which was at the MCA in Chicago in 2010.  I was pretty sure I wouldn't like it, and indeed, in the aftermath, I feel I did the right thing in skipping it.  I find it particularly intriguing that in an earlier incarnation of this work Lee was not able to get her point across to some audiences (and perhaps the majority of white audience members).  I think it is a clear reminder that authorial intent is often misinterpreted, and that may not be a bad thing in all cases.  But I really feel sorry for her that she felt "sick" that she wasn't able to make most of the audience unhappy by the end of her piece. I don't find this at all a productive or constructive approach to changing minds about race or any number of other social problems.  I know that a lot of progressives will do the internalizing guilt thing, and I did a great deal of this in my youth and still do to some extent.  But I am surely not going to pay $50 for someone to rub my nose into white privilege -- and then say they felt sick that they didn't succeed in making me feel bad enough.  So this is another artist, much beloved by the New Yorker crowd, who I will simply avoid.  Life is just too short...

I was going to make some observations on Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, which I actually did enjoy quite a bit, but that will have to wait for another post after all.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review of last VSO concert

The perhaps sounds a bit apocalyptic (perhaps appropriately given that I have been reading a fair bit of apocalyptic fiction lately), but I really only mean that I am probably not going to be attending any more of their concerts, given that we are moving in only 3 more weeks.  Stranger things have happened, and TransLink might bring me back for an extended trip, but I am not expecting it.  Of all the cultural things in Vancouver, I'll probably miss the VSO the most.  While Bard on the Beach is fun, there is no question that Stratford is a huge upgrade in that department.  I had a good time at the Fringe Fest, but Toronto has one that is fairly comparable.  Same thing with the International Film Fest and the Jazz Fest, with the added benefit that it will actually be easier for me to get to these places, as they won't be tucked away on a hard-to-get-to place like Granville Island.

Obviously, Toronto also has a good symphony, which is probably a bit more technically proficient than the VSO.  However, I am not at all crazy about Roy Thompson Hall.  The Orpheum is just such a nice place to go and see a concert, although does struggle when there is a completely sold out house (last night and then some of the Yefim Bronfman concerts when he was doing the Beethoven piano concerto cycle).  I assume that the Yo-Yo Ma concert will be sold out (and incidentally it turns out Ma is doing a similar concert in Toronto, so I really had better order tickets soon).  I guess my general feeling is that the VSO punches above its weight, and the TSO isn't quite as good as it ought to be.  That feeling may change over time, and who knows what will happen in a few years after Bramwell Tovey retires for good.  (I'm actually feeling a bit sentimental and a little bit sorry that I am not seeing an intimate concert today (just too busy) where Tovey and Dale Barldrop and a few others are going to pay Smetana's String Quartet #1 and a piano piece by Sarasate.  However, it turns out that I actually saw the Pacific Rim String Quartet do this Smetana String Quartet a couple of years back.)

Anyway, this was essentially the final concert of the season, although they repeat the same program on Monday.  Some general program notes are here.

I thought it was a very good concert. It kicked off with the Passacaglia from Britten's Peter Grimes.  I believe there is a different concert version that includes 4 Sea Songs as well, but I think they cut those, knowing that the concert would run long, as indeed it did.  The Passacaglia really features the cellos and I was sitting near them, so that was good.  However, I often find myself drifting off in the first half of concerts.  I have lived most of my life in a state of extreme sleep deprivation, and being in a darkened hall with mellow music is pretty deadly.  I often kind of drift in and out.  That was definitely the case with the Elgar Violin Concerto, though I would occasionally pinch my fingers and such to try to stay awake. I did manage to keep alert for the final movement.  The Elgar was a nice piece, though probably not one I would make a point of seeking out to see again.

James Ehnes got a huge standing ovation, and eventually returned for an encore.  (Encores, even for featured soloists, are actually fairly rare in North America compared to Europe.  I think I've only seen four or so in Vancouver and almost none in Chicago after years of concert going.  Here I'm only talking about for classical concerts.)  He did a very lovely piece by Bach, and I was able to stay awake through that.

After splashing water on my face at the intermission, I returned to my seat.  A few people here and there had left at intermission, but most stayed. They were in for a treat.  Tovey programmed two really up-tempo energizing pieces.  Berlioz's Roman Carnival and then Respighi's Pines of Rome.  I can't believe how big Tovey built up the final movement of Pines of Rome.  It was incredible, and I will definitely try to see this live another time.  It was terrific.  Most amusing was that as the musicians were taking their final bows, I saw that James Ehnes had joined them to play in Pines of Rome (and probably Roman Carnival, since there was almost no changeover between these pieces).  How cool is that!  They made a bit of a big deal a year ago when Dale Barltrop did the demanding Britten Violin Concerto and then joined the back row of violins for Elgar's Engima Variations.*  But Dale is a mainstay of the VSO and would have time to rehearse the Elgar.  I'm certainly not aware of any other time that a featured soloist has gone back into the ranks for the second half of the concert, so huge respect to James Ehnes.  It was a very fitting (and rousing) last concert of the season. I'm glad I was along for the ride.

While I am definitely more of a "program guy" than a ticket stub sort of guy, I did hang onto this one.

* I was also at that concert incidentally with the same general issue of needing to fight to stay awake to hear the amazing music.  Then as now, I generally do a bit better in the second half of concerts, though Britten's Violin Concerto isn't quite as "relaxing" as Elgar's, so that also helped.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Books I should have read

As I mentioned in the last post, I skipped over the 10th grade honors English, which focused on American literature.  I think over time I've gotten around to most of what would have been in that course, namely Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway short stories (and possibly The Sun Also Rises, though intimations of infidelity run through that book), Miller's The Crucible and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  I've also read a fair bit of Emerson and selections from Thoreau's Walden, though I am not sure I've ever read the whole thing, cover to cover.  I've read a fair bit of Mark Twain already (Messieurs Sawyer and Finn and Life on the Mississippi), leaving just a few gaps to be filled.  I've covered several shorter Steinbeck novels as well.  I've even read Moby Dick for kicks, for goodness' sakes.

Nonetheless, I am trying to think of what American lit. I probably should have read back then but didn't.*  Here's a fairly representative list:
Hawthorne The House of Seven Gables
Thoreau Walden (for reals this time)
Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (no idea if this was assigned or an optional pick but I think I am well past the point I would be interested)
Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (this one I really ought to just go ahead and read it)
Willa Cather My Antonia
Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise
Fitzgerald Tender is the Night
Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls
Sinclair Lewis Babbitt
Sinclair Lewis Main Street (this might have been a bit long for high school)
Steinbeck Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck East of Eden (ok, probably not a high school selection)
Agee Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (an edition with the Walker Evans photos)
Sherwood Anderson Winesburg, Ohio
Thornton Wilder Our Town (I've seen the play twice but never read it)
Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology (I've read bits and pieces but not the whole thing.  I'd have to be careful choosing the proper time though, as this is a real downer.)

(I think if I do get through these one day, I will feel I have finally made up for "skipping" that particular class.)

At University of Michigan, at one point I had four reading courses and something had to give now and again.  The one book I regret not reading is:
Arnold Bennett The Old Wives' Tales

I actually remember my mom had to help round up used copies in the days before you could buy books on the internet, and I still didn't read the darn thing!  But it is lurking on my TBR pile, so I expect to pay off this debt next year.

(Minor update -- I came across an "ancient" paper that looked like it was listing all the novels that we were assigned in Honors English at UM.  Apparently, I was supposed to have read Hardy's Jude the Obscure as well.  Oops.  Well, it will get added to the TBR list eventually, but I don't feel quite as bad for skipping over that -- or perhaps just skimming it back in the day to get through class.)

Now my single biggest (academic) regret from University of Michigan is that I skipped out of the Great Books courses.  I had a different honors course that was quite rewarding (the very philosophical "Ways of Thinking," I believe), but I should have found a way to take both.  Or dropped physics a lot sooner and audited Great Books.  I really was keeping my options open by taking humanities and math and physics (and even art history and a couple of courses on comparative religion).  However, I missed out on my chance to have Dante taught by Ralph Williams.  As it happens, I did take The Bible as Literature with Williams, so I did get the Williams experience, but all in all I still think I would have gotten more from taking Great Books.  (It really is a shame he apparently never recorded his lectures.  Update: actually he did record what is essentially a podcast of his lectures on Shakespeare and one on the Book of Job, which I will definitely have to download, and he has a series of Youtube videos as well.  So that is a huge plus, though I am still not sure there are any recordings of Williams on Virgil or Dante, but I will keep seeking.)

This is what I have reconstructed as being part of the series at least in many years (it really varies quite a bit whether the first part is Greek only or Greek and Roman or even the Old Testament mixed in, so this is actually a bit overstuffed for any particular class**):
Plato The Symposium
Aristotle Poetics
Homer The Iliad
Homer The Odyssey
Herodotus The Histories
Aeschylus The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides)
Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War
Sophocles Oedipus the King
Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles Antigone
Euripedes Medea
Euripedes Hippolytus
Euripedes The Trojan Women
Euripedes Bacchae
Virgil The Aeneid
Ovid Metamorphoses
Petronius The Satyricon
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
Selections from the Old Testament of the Bible
Dante The Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso)
Confessions of St. Augustine
Boccaccio The Decameron
Chaucer The Canterbury Tales

(I'm not even sure of Chaucer, but I imagine it is in there in some years in the 2nd part of the course, unless there is just too much of a turf war with the English department claiming Chaucer.)  This is basically where my sources break down. 

Now I've read nearly all of these on my own, though I could certainly use a refresher on the Greek drama. The ones that I have not read and certainly not studied carefully are:
Aristotle Poetics
Herodotus The Histories
Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War
Euripedes Hippolytus
Euripedes Bacchae
Virgil The Aeneid
Petronius The Satyricon
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
Confessions of St. Augustine

That's actually not all that daunting, and I'll go ahead and try to add a couple periodically to the updated TBR pile. (Though more recently I was inspired to do a deeper dive into Roman literature, which means adding The Nature of Things by Lucretius, Juvenal's Satires, Horace's Odes and The Golden Ass by Apuleius.)

* Feel free to comment if you think I missed something, and I will respond, including whether I have actually read the work or not.

** Again, jump in if I have missed something that was typically part of Great Books I or II, and I'll add it to the list.

Teachers made a difference to me

Before I get into this at all, I will just note that 1) currently everything about teachers and teacher unions is so politicized and I am attempting to keep things positive and 2) comments are moderated so insulting comments, particularly about teacher unions or the alleged laziness of teachers, will not be published.  I've actually been on all sides of this issue, having been a very good student in a good public school, actually having been a mediocre teacher myself in a failing public school and currently having children in public school and dealing with the teachers going on strike (and making what I consider a major tactical blunder).  At any rate, I am using this post to remind myself how lucky I was to go to a good public school during a period of minimal and indeed perhaps no labor tensions.  While "the pie" had shrunk a bit from what the Boomers experienced (particularly when it came time for student grants and scholarships), it was a much more generous time in the United States.  My children face an era of constriction, and it will probably get worse from here on out.  It would be nice if people could get over their resentment of what the unions are asking for and recall what they had available to them when they were children.  The world has changed and gotten much harsher.  That said there are still good public schools and many caring teachers, but the worst public schools do seem a lot worse now than they were in the 1970s and 1980s...

I really did soak up knowledge like a sponge in those days and was equally interested in the sciences, particularly physics, as I was in the humanities.  One of my regrets is that, while I have kept up my skills in math (though not advanced mathematics), my natural feel for understanding physics has atrophied.  I'll have to brush up a lot when my children enter high school.

I was fortunate enough to be in the arts programs (no cuts in those days, although the parents did have to do a fair bit of fund raising).  I was in marching band and the pep band for basketball games (I tolerated both but it wasn't really my thing) and the concert band, which I enjoyed quite a bit.  I was occasionally added to the string orchestra, though this happened more in middle school than high school, if I am recalling correctly.  I was supposed to be in the pit band for a musical, but it was cancelled (perhaps the drama teacher had a nervous breakdown, I can't recall).  And I was in a jazz band for two years, even learning saxophone so I could play on more charts.  I was not a stand-out there (and certainly not in college where I learned how average I was!), but I had a good time.  I actually found a tape of one of our concerts.  Sadly, I don't think we ever recorded "The Stripper," which was one of our greatest hits (just imagine how much trouble the band teacher would have gotten in today!) but there is a decent version of Herbie Hancock's Chameleon.  In some ways, in addition to a greater appreciation for the arts, the best lesson was just mixing it up with other kids who weren't in the honors classes, for example.  (Although there was a very high correlation between honors students and the students in band -- probably because we had parents that pushed us to excel.)

While I would have to dig out the high school yearbooks (yes, I have them in a box somewhere) because I can't remember my English teachers' names, I do recall that I came to a great appreciation of literature through them.  Curiously enough, I skipped over 10th grade honors English, which focused on American lit. (and my next post will talk about books that I should have read had I been in that course) and went into the 11th grade honors English.  This was literature from Great Britain (and probably at least a bit from Ireland, since I'm sure we read Yeats).  A lot of it was poetry of course.  Our Shakespeare play for 11th grade was Midsummer's Night's Dream, and we actually acted out in class over a week or so.  (Romeo and Juliet was the 10th grade text.  I'm blanking on what was done in 12th grade, probably Hamlet, though we may also have read Macbeth.*)  I don't remember all the books we read, though I do remember Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd and Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  We might have tackled Pride and Prejudice or a similar Austen book.  I'm thinking that we didn't read any Bronte, though Wuthering Heights might have been an optional book on the reading list.  The 11th and 12th grade Honors teachers always made a point of taking the class to a Shakespeare production in the neighboring "big city" of Kalamazoo.  Sadly, my memory does fail me as to which it was, but almost certainly one of the comedies.  I do remember that I got a bit lost driving there (they didn't bus high school kids in those days!), and we entered in the middle of the first act.  Maybe this will pop up in a journal entry I wrote decades ago.  But the point was they had a bunch of motivated students and were able to inspire them to go even further.  (There was another class trip to see Julius Caesar in 1990 (with Brian Bedford!) but that was through University of Michigan.  While that was a cool trip, the early exposure in high school was more formative.  Still, university trips can be rewarding.  At UToronto, Prof. Linda Hutcheon organized a trip to the opera Carmen for us.)

It's not like I hadn't been exposed to literature through my parents or even on my own (by this point I was working at the library and had first pick over all the donations in the library book sale).  Still, one of the most rewarding classes I took in high school (in addition to world history) was taking the 12th grade English honors class (in 11th grade**).  This was world literature, though in practice I think it was European literature, though it is possible we read a few stories by Borges.  We read short stories by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and perhaps Kafka (I had been reading Kafka already).  I definitely remember reading Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, as I went into a funk for a while, thinking about how the truly great are brought down while the mediocre triumph.  (While this may indeed have been Turgenev's view, I now have a more jaded or at least nuanced view of those who consider themselves to be so special that they deserve special treatment.)  I read Crime and Punishment around this time, but I don't think for class.

I do wish I could recall more (and it is just possible that I hung onto these notebooks, in which case I'll come back around and fill in more details).  We may have read a short story or two by Flaubert, but we did not read Madame Bovary, since I came to that for the first time last year.  It certainly broadened my horizons.  What I remember best of all is during exam week, the teacher said that she was required to pass out final exams, but she was not required to mark them.  She passed out the exams, and then the class left them there, and we all went to an empty room (the band practice room, incidentally) and did a staged reading of Beckett's Waiting for Godot.  How cool was that! That is the kind of teacher who inspires a life-long love of learning.  And I can only hope that most of you out there will (or did) have such a teacher.

* I'm definitely over-thinking this. I know I skipped R & J.  I know that we read Midsummer's Night's Dream, though maybe we actually did two Shakespeare plays a year in 11th and 12th grade honors (and we were reading this one because it was also the play the class was going to see?)  Now I am wondering if we read Macbeth in 11th grade and Hamlet (and King Lear?) in 12th grade honors?  Or Macbeth/Hamlet in 11th grade and Othello/Lear in 12th grade?  It all gets mixed up with the fact that I took a course on Shakespeare at U-Michigan (not with Ralph Williams though) where we covered essentially all the tragedies and a handful of comedies and history plays.  Anyway, I am over-thinking this, as it doesn't change the underlying point.

** I solved the problem of what to do as a senior (facing the problem of running out of classes) by jumping to university a year early.  While I had a pretty good run in high school, I really did come into my own in college, where I was the editor of a literary magazine, I joined a writers' group, I played a bit of indoor soccer with a team from my dorm, I helped build a homecoming float, I was in a play and even knew a couple of musicians in a band.  Just everything that one imagines that the "popular" kids are doing.  I pretty much grabbed every opportunity I could and have only a few regrets from those years, academically, personally or romantically.  I'll deal with the academic regret in the next post. 

Plays I don't remember seeing

Probably the most embarrassing aspect of seeing so much theatre is that some of it just slips my mind.  Sometimes this is because I was in the midst of huge work pressures and only managed to sneak out to see a show, and then returned to whatever I was dealing with.  Sometimes I just wasn't receptive to it, and it slipped my mind.  Or I didn't think they did a good job and I let it fall out of my mind.  (Granted, the shows that I really hated I tend to remember.)  And of course the further back I go, the more likely it is that I can't recall much about a show.  (Now I don't want to beat myself up too much, as I've seen literally hundreds of productions over the years and remember bits and pieces from most of them.)

Fortunately, hanging onto theatre programs will often, though not always, trigger at least some memories, and I am essentially done with scanning them.  But sometimes I look at one, and I still can't remember a darn thing about the show.  That's a shame.

Of all the ones that I will list, the most curious is Court Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in 1999.  I can't remember anything at all about the production or the play itself.  I think this is a case where perhaps if I read the entire play, I might remember seeing it.  But it's a shame, as Stoppard is probably my favorite living playwright (just slightly ahead of Tony Kushner).

Here are a few others where a bit more was triggered after I ran across the relevant program as part of this scanning process:
T.S. Eliot The Family Reunion, Downtown Little Theatre, Toronto 1994
Vaclav Havel* The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, Famous Door, Chicago, 1996
Edward Albee Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Northwestern student production, 1997 (it had completely slipped my mind that I had ever seen this)
Lisa Loomer The Waiting Room, Trap Door, Chicago, 1998 (some of this came back after reading the play)
Tom Stoppard The Real Thing, Court Theatre, Chicago, 1999
Bulgakov Zoyka's Room, European Rep, Chicago, 1999 (I wish more of this had stuck with me)
John Orlock Indulgences in the Lousiville Harem, Rivendell, Chicago, 2002
Nilo Cruz A Park in Our House, Victory Gardens, Chicago, 2007 (I remember that I did attend this, but not that much about the play or production itself)
Joe Orton What the Butler Saw, Court Theatre, Chicago, 2007 (the opposite, I blanked on this at first, but then remembered a few slapstick elements of the play after seeing the program)

All in all, I have a pretty good memory of the plays I've seen in the past 15+ years, with just a couple of exceptions around 2007 interestingly enough.**  And there were some very memorable performances, even from 20 years back!  But I may well come back around in 5 more years and some more will have slipped my mind for sure.  I'm just trying to force too much stuff to stay in my head, and some things are bound to escape.✝

* Curiously, I have a much better memory of watching Havel's The Memorandum five years earlier.
** Presumably if I came across a cache of programs over 15 years old, there would be at least a few more I would need to add to this list.
✝ Indeed, I may need to make a list sooner rather than later of plays I attended where I didn't hang onto the program for one reason or another, including that you had to buy the program in the UK and I never felt it was worth it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Plays I've seen twice

All this talk of doubles has made me try to reach back into the memory bank and determine how many plays I have seen twice, though I mean two distinct productions. I don't actually do it that often, mostly because I tend to focus much more on plot (rather than acting or stage sets or costumes), so seeing a play twice has less appeal than seeing two completely different plays. There are also examples where I have seen an incredible performance of a play, and I simply don't want to risk a lesser performance over-writing the better one in my memory banks.  While this doesn't always happen, it is a risk, especially given the huge number of plays that I have seen over the years (some of which I barely remember even after seeing proof in the form of a program that I attended!).  But for the most part, I am open to seeing a different take on the same play, after enough time has passed.  And clearly I have done this. I've managed to track down details on where and when I saw plays multiple times, though that was not possible in some cases.

Plays I’ve seen (at least) twice:

Othello: Kalamazoo (1988?), Stratford (2013); Toronto (2017)
Midsummer's Night’s Dream:- NYC (1992), a couple of other times; Bard on the Beach (2014)
Twelfth Night: Ann Arbor (1990); Chicago; Toronto (2015 & 2017), probably another time
As You Like It: Evanston, IL; Toronto (2015 & 2017)
Much Ado About Nothing: NJ Shakespeare (1992); Toronto (1994)
The Comedy of Errors: NYC; Toronto (2016)
Measure for Measure: NYC; Toronto (2016)
Taming of the Shrew: NJ Shakespeare (1992); Atlanta (2003)
Macbeth: NJ Shakespeare (1992), Bard on the Beach (2012); Toronto (2015)
Henry IV: NJ Shakespeare (1992); Oak Park, IL* (2011)
Romeo and Juliet: Toronto (1997); Stratford (2013)
Hamlet: saw the first half in Cambridge, UK 2006 (totally rained out), Bard on the Beach (2013); Toronto (2015)
The Tempest: Evanston (1997), probably one other time, and I will be seeing it at Bard on the Beach (2014)
King Lear: Vancouver (2013) and I will be seeing it at Stratford in 2014.

The Seagull: NJ Shakespeare (1992), Evanston (1998)
Three Sisters: Ann Arbor (1988?), Vancouver (2013); Toronto (2017)
Uncle Vanya: Chicago (2010), Vancouver (2014)

Ben Jonson-The Alchemist: Stratford (1999); Cambridge UK (2006)
Beckett-Waiting for Godot: Chicago (1998), Stratford (2013) & a bad mix-up trying to get to the Cultch led to me missing a Vancouver performance
Beckett-Endgame: Ann Arbor (1990?); Chicago (1998)
Brecht-Good Person of Setzuan: New York (1994); Chicago (2007)
Eric Overmyer-On the Verge: Evanston (1997); Minneapolis (1997)
Jason Grote-1001: Chicago (2009), Chicago (2010)
"George Gershwin"-Crazy for You: Broadway (1993); Toronto (1994)
Heiner Müller-Hamletmachine: Ann Arbor (1989), Vancouver (2013)
Dylan Thomas-Under Milkwood: Evanston (1996), Chicago (2009)
Rivera-Marisol: Newark (1995), Evanston (1997), Chicago (2011) - I actually tried to see this in New York around 2001, but there was some strange mix-up
Gilbert & Sullivan-Pirates of Penzance: Kalamazoo (1986?), Chicago (2010)
Wilde-The Importance of Being Earnest: NJ Shakespeare (1992), Chicago (2010), Toronto (2014)**
Tony Kushner-Angels in America: Broadway (1994); Chicago (1998)
Tony Kushner-Homebody/Kabul: New York (off-Broadway); Chicago (2003)
Enda Walsh-Penelope: Chicago (2011); Vancouver (2013)
Tom Stoppard-Arcadia: Chicago (2007); San Francisco (2013); Toronto (2014)†
John Logan-Red: Broadway (2010); Vancouver (2012)
Caryl Churchill-Top Girls: Evanston; Shaw Festival (2016)
David Auburn-Proof: Broadway (2000) - original cast; Toronto (2017)

So this is actually more than I remembered at the start of this post.  In addition, I've managed to see nearly all the key plays of the 20th Century (by American playwrights at any rate) by keeping my eyes on the listings and spreading myself thin (too thin probably).  Chicago and the Northwestern School of Drama were great in that regards.  Toronto (and the Stratford and Shaw festivals) should be very comparable, if slightly more expensive.  I have seen some really incredible things over the years, and maybe I shall go into more detail down the road.

* This worked out really well, as I saw Henry IV and V in Oak Park (an inner ring suburb of Chicago) and then a month or so later Henry VI (all three parts boiled down to one play) at Bard on the Beach.

** I took my son to this performance, and he thought it was amusing, though a lot went over his head.

† This is actually the sold-out Shaw production from 2013, which had been transferred by Mirvish.