Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween

So Halloween has finally rolled around again.  I think this is one where (as an adult) if you are really into it, it is a lot of fun, but otherwise it is a lot of logistics and preparations and a bit of a headache, particularly if you are in a neighbourhood where the youth still come to the door after 9 pm.

I'm about halfway into it this year.  I was more into it the last two years in Vancouver, which were the first times that the kids really got to go into the neighbourhood to trick or treat.  In Chicago, they only got to go to the daytime Halloween parade sponsored by local merchants, but I think neighbourhood trick-or-treating is so much more fun.  At least usually.  This year, it is rainy and I am fairly tired, but I'll try to have a good time.  We might luck out and see if the weather breaks around 6 or 7 pm.  (Edit: it didn't.)  At least we have decent costumes for the kids, so that was less of a scramble than some years.

Why am I so tired (other than the obvious reasons)?  I stayed up most of the night reading Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October, which was his final novel.  It has its moments, particularly the focus on the familiars rather than the humans trying to open and close the portal that would allow the Elder Gods to come through to Earth.  But it is a bit much trying to shoehorn in Frankenstein and his monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and some other witches and crackpots on top of Lovecraft's universe.  Still, many people try to read it each October, and I only had one day left, so I figured I would attempt it.  (It is already obvious I am not going to read Middlemarch in December, which is another new tradition, but maybe December 2015...)  It's nice to know that I still can power through a novel in a day or two; I really will try to do that more with the books on the TBRD pile (and stop midway through more often if I am not enjoying a book -- there simply is no rule that I have to finish a book once I start it).

One new tradition that is sort of interesting (until it spreads and people start demanding it of others) is the teal pumpkin campaign where people who are giving out non-food treats like stickers and spider rings and so forth put out a teal coloured pumpkin on their porch.  If they give out candy, it has to be without any nuts or even peanut dust.  I have to admit, I generally feel the anti-peanut brigade has gone a bit too far in the schools, but I won't belabour the point.  So if people want to adhere to these rules during Halloween, more power to them.  But I am certainly not going to be shamed into avoiding giving out candy with traces of peanuts on it in my own home.

It's really interesting how worked up people get over Halloween.  There is a contingent, particularly prevalent among the British, who find it an appalling import from the U.S.  That is very much a minority view among Canadians, though there are certainly some who find it a distasteful holiday, full of excesses and bribing children with candy.  (Of course, I generally felt that way about carolers in the U.K. (or the mummers in Philadelphia -- glad I never encountered them). I wonder if caroling is  a bigger tradition in Toronto.)  Then there are those that get very bent out of shape over inappropriate costumes of various types (either the ones that are too sexy or the ones that are ripped from the headlines like an Ebola containment suit).  In a sense, it is good that Halloween still has this power to upset people, as it is one of the few holidays with any remnants of ritualized transgression left.  There is not enough space to go into this in any detail, but the anthropologist Victor Turner is good on this (probably the most appropriate book is The Ritual Process) or my favorite in this particular line is The Politics and Poetics of Transgression by Stallybrass and White (this is simply a brilliant book that should not be overlooked).

Edit: I had a heck of a time getting home last night on the TTC, and the kids were climbing the walls, since I was later than I had promised.  Anyway, we started trick or treating around 6:30, and it was raining pretty heavily.  My daughter's umbrella was often getting in the way, and she would always overreact when somebody brushed against it.  I nearly stopped the whole exercise after 15 minutes but she promised to calm down.  We only went down 4 half-streets, but there were some very cool decorations around, which to me indicates this really is a neighbourhood.  Some people take Halloween very seriously indeed around here.

There were more kids coming by than we had been led to believe, but we still had plenty of candy.  My wife handled the biggest rush, but I took over when we got back in (and dried off).  I think the weather really dampened the overall numbers.  I had very few children come by after 7:30 and I think only two kids after 8.  I shut off the lights at 9, and there weren't any frustrated kids (or teenagers) knocking, at least that I was aware of.  I'll probably have to take most of the excess candy off to work (avoiding temptation and all that).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Never-ending stories

As was made clear in my post about drowning in books, there really is no end to the number of books one could read (or collect if one has a somewhat addictive personality as I do).  I deliberately cut myself off from a lot of genres of fiction, since I just don't have time to follow them, particularly westerns and horror novels (neither have any appeal for me) and detective/mystery novels (where I worry about trying to compulsively work my way through the main ones, so it is better not to start).  I used to read a lot of SF, but only rarely do I pick any contemporary SF up, pretty much sticking to authors who were big in the 80s or early 90s, on the rare occasions I do dip back into the pool.

Now occasionally, I am able to resist the siren pull of a new author.  For instance, I just read that Michel Faber has decided to not publish any more novels, and of course I had to go see why this would be a big enough deal that several (mostly British) critics were upset.  I can sort of see why some might rave about The Crimson Petal and the White, but it doesn't sound like my sort of thing at all.  Now The Book of Strange New Things is closer -- a bit of slumming in SF territory by an author more interested in philosophy and religion than SF proper.  However, the more I heard about it, the more that it sounded like it was cribbing (perhaps inadvertently) from James Blish's A Case of Conscience, which I found very disappointing.  So I think I am better off passing on his work entirely.

But someone recently was telling me about a former Booker winner, Stanley Middleton, and how he had fallen out of fashion and was so unjustly forgotten.  So I poked around and found that the man wrote 44 (or even 45 novels), but that they pretty much all plowed the same territory of the English middle class strivers, particularly teachers who had come from the ranks of the lower middle class and still felt somewhat insecure. While I think there is something of Barbara Pym in this (returning to the same fairly narrow English milieu), this strikes me as obsessive in the extreme. Nonetheless, my interest was somewhat piqued.

I decided that when I get around to Pym, I might read a handful of Middleton's novels. It seems the best is Holiday, the one that won the Booker Prize, and then possibly Harris's Requiem. To be honest, I already peaked into these books while at the UT library and I saw almost the same incident -- the protagonists remembering how their father mocked them for listening to classical music -- towards the start of both novels, and my heart sank a bit. (I still recall how Bellow so obsessively returned to the same emotional hurts, and while Philip Roth has a somewhat broader range, he too draws from the same well a bit too often.) Plus, the dialogue that I happened to read in Harris's Requiem was pretty dire, even risible. So I think it might be a struggle to just get through two Middleton novels.

However, if I persist, and they end up better than expected, and I want a few more to alternate with Pym, then these seem the ones to work from. The Daysman is probably the third most appealing. After that, in no particular order:
  • Against The Dark
  • The Golden Evening
  • A Place To Stand
  • Married Past Redemption
  • Necessary Ends
  • Brief Hours
  • Vacant Places
  • Cold Gradations
  • Ends and Means
  • Valley Of Decision 

Now as so many interesting things fall in 3s (or rather we construct patterns of 3s from otherwise random occurrences), it just so happens there is potentially more interesting news for fans of Modernist literature.  The University of Ottawa Press has just published a lost Malcolm Lowry novel called In Ballast to the White Sea.  (The main manuscript was lost in a terrible cabin fire, and Lowry actually risked his life to reclaim the manuscript of Under the Volcano.  Then decades after his death, Lowry's first wife revealed that she had a copy of In Ballast, without any final revisions Lowry was making of course.)  A year or so before this, the University of Ottawa Press published a novella called Swinging the Maelstrom along with two complete versions of The Last Address (sort of the bones of Swinging the Maelstrom).  And they are well underway on a critical edition of the 1940 version of Under the Volcano (apparently quite different from the published version from 1947).  Lowry himself had always considered the three works to be a kind of modern version of Dante's Divine Comedy.  Under the Volcano is obviously the Inferno, while Swinging the Maelstrom is the Purgatario, and finally In Ballast is the Paradiso.  I don't think I am enough of a Lowry fan to read all of these (and particularly not two versions of Under the Volcano!), but I will make sure to read the critical edition of Swinging the Maelstrom some day.

Mission accomplished

So it was a long day and night, but the main shelves are back in commission.  Now this is only one of many things that I needed to do or hope to do, but it was a big thing nonetheless.  (I also helped my daughter struggle through her homework, which was also important.)  As I was getting close to giving up, I opened up one of the boxes (near but fortunately not underneath the printer), and it held the missing Shapiros, DeLillo's White Noise and a couple of other poetry books (by far the most important being the LOA edition of Wallace Stevens, and I am a bit ashamed to say I hadn't really noticed its absence).

This is basically how things look now (a controlled chaos):

A few close-ups:

I think I'd need 4 or so additional full bookcases to get all or nearly all the books out of boxes, but this is a good core that I can work through -- and presumably bequeath.  I have found that trying to reduce my books to a core collection is a useful through frustrating exercise.  I've really refocused on getting a lot of fiction out, including most of the Victorian novels that have been boxed up for probably close to 10 years (they have taken over most of the space given over to philosophy and anthropology*). 

I went from 10 or even 11 shelves of urban books down to 3(!), and I had to cheat a fair bit by stacking a few sideways or even behind the main books.  But this is a solid core that I will try to read or at least skim, and is probably the first time I have really made any attempt to decide what is and is not essential (especially given that I am not going to be an urban studies professor -- that ship has sailed).  Nonetheless, as I was making these selections, I realized I am not quite ready to just dump out all the other urban books (particularly case studies of L.A., San Francisco, St. Louis, Detroit and so on).  In terms of what I left out on the shelves, it generally was restricted to case studies of Toronto, Chicago and New York.

The huge number of books stacked in the read then discard pile is really disheartening, and I have taken a few and added them to the proper TBR pile, so that some progress can be made.  I really need a month where I do nothing but read.  I am going to have to be pretty heartless though and not keep these books around after I read them.

So I now need to start working through the boxes with random papers in them and seeing what can be thrown out and what scanned.  I am hoping to come across a couple of notebooks: one has most of a science fiction story written out in longhand and another one has a bunch of the Maclean's notes.  (I recently came across the one with the original notes for the overall plot of the novel -- it is from 1995, which is unbelievably sad that I have just done nothing with this but somewhat amazing that I have it in my hands at all.  I think the only thing to be said is that the novel I write as a 40 year old will be more accomplished than whatever I would have written in my mid 20s -- at least one would hope so.)

Anyway, once I track down the last of the Maclean's notes and xeroxes, I will feel it is worth setting up an official time to write each day (maybe 10:30-11:30 or something).  I suspect that means the blog posts will drop off, at least for a while.  But maybe that is ok.  The actual nature of communication on the internet is starting to feel extremely sterile to me (and that is when it even rises above the really ugly tribalism that seems to have seeped into most aspects of on-line culture in the U.S and sadly in Canada as well).  So I will probably want to devote more of my time to getting published in more traditional venues at least for a while.

* While I really don't want to make another pass through the books, I am a little sorry that Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures is tucked away somewhere.  Well, I guess the reward for clearing out a bunch of the TBRD pile over the next 2-3 years is that I can dig through the boxes for the books that are calling to me, and many of the others that are more "inert" can be let go...

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Back on the shelves

I guess that is a bit misleading.  A great number of books have been on the downstairs shelves, as it was the only way to get enough boxes unpacked to even move around.  The shelves in the living room (filled with art books) have been in pretty good shape for a couple of months now, but the ones downstairs were a terrible jumble with quite a few books still in boxes.

And even now a large number are in boxes, but I have swapped out the urban books for most of the literature.  I think I'll see if I can get the majority of the literature, history and environmental writing on the shelves, with just a few core urban books (that I am actually somewhat likely to read).  I am trying to put the urban books about Africa or China in one place, so I can access them if I decide to actually write this academic piece.  Perhaps by the next move, the fact that I have lived for so long without cracking them open, will inspire me to part with the majority of boxed up urban books (again, after checking to see that they are in a library and that I can check them out if necessary).

That works for a lot of things, though I find there are still some fiction books that really call to me, and I have unburied a number of them.  For instance, I can't seem to find Fuentes' Terra Nostra, and I'll probably give up and order another copy.  There are a couple of other things that still haven't turned up, and it is quite annoying.  But I need to do a major purge of these boxes or something, as I just still have to move a box to look into another box and so forth.  I just don't have space to look through everything.  Getting the literature properly sorted out should help to some degree.

So last night I got much of the way through R-Z (I usually work backwards to see how much shelf space I need), but I realized I was missing a lot of Rilke.  This morning I found there were two main boxes left with literature, and I discovered Sexton was in there as well.  I am sure eventually I would have missed the Sexton (and for certain I would have missed the Borges) but for some reason it was the Rilke that was calling attention to itself by its absence.

I do need to start parting with more stuff.  I did sell off a few books already and donated a couple more.  I need to get back on track with the VHS and cassette tape transfer.  At the same time, I have to figure out just how I am going to back up stuff.  I seem to have suffered another catastrophic hard drive failure, though I don't have any idea what is on this drive.  Perhaps it is mostly music files and maybe the backups of the BBC radio shows that I was so diligently taping for 5 years or so.  Now that I have gone cold turkey, I don't listen to any of them.  That's probably the same with all the CDs and DVDs I own.  I want them around in case I suddenly want them, but then I never get around to watching or listening to them.  And if they vanished, I basically would hardly notice, aside from my super core collection of jazz CDs. That isn't the case with the books, however.  I notice their absence much more.

Anyway, this is as far as I have gotten today (still quite chaotic and many things out of place).

Hopefully, the next photo I take of the basement will show that I have finally turned the corner and made it a nice space in which to work.

Edit: So I am now finished with I-Z, so the Great Sort is coming to a close.  After G, things really speed up.  Unfortunately, I know there are some Shapiro's missing (Karl and Harvey) and at least one or two of Aaron Kramer's books.  I really don't want to dig through the boxes again, particularly the ones underneath the printer, but it is something that will bug me quite a bit.  I'll probably finish up what I am doing so there are no books on the floor at least and then look through the most convenient boxes.  If I can't find them, I may dig a bit deeper tomorrow.

Edit #2: So I have stopped at D-Z.  I am so close, but it looks like I am missing space for 3 largish books, maybe 8 inches total.  I could probably turn a couple of books sideways or move one to the TBRD pile.  However, I also know that DeLillo's White Noise is missing (and this is the extended version with the critical commentary).  I know since this is one I ordered quite recently hoping to get to it this year (or early in the new year).  So I think I have to turn this up before the final push.  And obviously a few other books must be missing, but I think I should be able to be more or less done with this tonight.

Edit #3: I tracked down the missing Aaron Kramer collections (even Indigo and Other Poems), but only one Karl Shapiro collection.  I think I'll probably look in two more boxes tomorrow and then basically just forget it.  Of course, I turned up another eight books that belong on the shelves (including the Complete Poems of Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg's Collected Poems and Susan Swann's The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, which I was thinking of just earlier today*) but still not White Noise.  I have a sense that that is someplace completely random.  I have to admit it wasn't the best copy (more underlining than I normally accept), so I may ultimately just replace the book with a cleaner copy if I haven't found it by next week.)  Anyway, I guess I should just push through as I am quite close now.

* I am still sort of trying to get the inspiration to get started on my creative writing, and I look for inspiration all over the place.  Certainly the highest priority is to cut down on the clutter in the basement, and today has seen some big improvement.  I have most of the research from Maclean's (and will probably blog about that fairly soon).  Anyway, one thing is that I find it helpful to name characters, so that they can start taking on more substance.  So just a day or two ago the papers were carrying the sordid details of a female RCMP officer who had sex in her car with her supervisor.  (This actually happened several years ago but she was back in the news as the last remaining charges against her were dropped.)  Her name was Susan Gastaldo, and somehow I thought of combining her with the giantess in Susan Swan's novel (as this character is a bit formidable and kind of manhandles the main character towards the end of the novel).  I briefly thought of Susan Eagle or Susan Hawk, as in 'I'm watching you like a hawk' but decided that was just too cliched. I've sort of narrowed it down to Susan Crane, Susan Sparrow, Susan Starling and Susan Swallow, with a slight preference for the last name.

8th Canadian Challenge - 6th review - Other People's Lives

Another very tardy review that I have finally come back around to.  I actually had to reread long sections of Chris Hutchinson's Other People's Lives to refresh my memory, but in some ways that is a good thing, since poetry often takes a few readings.

I find there is definitely some interesting stuff in this collection, which I found a bit stronger overall than Unfamiliar Weather.  There is a lot of intensive use of language, in the sense of a great deal of attention to unconventional words and words that may have been chosen as much for their sound as for their meaning, and towards the end of the collection, perhaps even Hutchinson is starting to drift into John Ashbery territory (which I don't like as meaning seems completely secondary or even tertiary in an Ashbery poem).

Other People's Lives is on the Brick Books imprint, which has put out quite a few strong collections over the past few years.  I was particularly taken by Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair, as well as the follow-up collection, Breaker.  I review both in this post.

Almost all the poems in Other People's Lives are free verse.  However, I was intrigued by the rhymes and near-rhymes in "Homeless" which is in sonnet form. Here are just the final words of each line: "streamed / mushrooms / believed / bloomed. / past, / bone / cans / moonstones. / withdrew / reopening. / knew / dwelling / sight, / light."  Rhyming mushrooms and bloomed is boss.  I was less impressed with reopening/dwelling.  I'm kind of on the fence with past and cans.  I don't think it entirely works, but I probably would have accepted past/canned or passed/cans.  Anyway, an interesting experiment.

"Entertaining*" is at one level a description of a party that is being thrown, but at the same time it is a bit of a mediation on the impossibility of communication.  It starts relatively innocuously: "Tonight, your friends will come / with masks of coloured smoke, / butter-tongued admonishments, / promises punctuated with the sucking of breath ...".  Despite the host's efforts "everything / you meant to say rushing into this vacuous pit faster / than your ability to lift your head...".  The evening ends in "ill health / and fashionable ruin."  Of course, that could describe many evenings where a great deal of alcohol is involved, but part of the tragedy seems to be in not being able to break through and explain oneself clearly, even to friends with whom one is presumably close.

In the middle of "Nineteenth-Century Loner" comes the following passage, which is largely opaque to me.  The words flow well, but they strain against meaning:
Let's picture the suburbs at night
conspiring against the ornamental opulence
of the dream-state, and him whispering to
and from the death of sleep recurrently
as waves breaking upon the glassy moonlit sands
where no one goes unless alone and
prone to ludicrous imaginings.

Does this simply mean that this loner is drifting in and out of sleep (from his suburban home)?  The passage is so over-written (overwrought) if that is the plain meaning, but that seems to be the point.  Certainly a fair number of the late Victorian poets were prone to such florid passages.  As I said, this strikes me as moving close to Ashbery, and I think Hutchinson's next collection takes him still a bit further in this direction.

In "Game" Hutchinson seems to directly address what he is up to in some of his poems: "Is it a game, this semantic shuffle, or that / which gets you to the breakfast table--the goal / not the centre, but life's ironic fringes-- / obsessed not with words, but with their hinges?"

I think I will end (for now at least) with "As It Was" which seems to be describing a fairly typical day in the city for this incipient Language poet: "The city was a beautiful day. / Out on the grid, the open grid, vehicles / multiplied a certain domestic resonance. / Signs stopped. Whatever it was they were / thinking moved us...".

So I hope this gives you a taste of what Hutchinson is up to with these poems.  They are not nearly as straight-forward as many of the other collections I have reviewed, but Hutchinson is clearly someone who cares about words and their impact, even if clarity is a secondary consideration at times.

* Perhaps a minor rift** on Henry Green's Party Going?

** I just noticed that I should have written riff, but this is good too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thoughts on the Russians, pt. 1

Last night I finally got through Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox, the long essay on Tolstoy and the theory of history internal to his greatest works.  Some of this is of course Berlin drawing on War and Peace (including the differences between early and late drafts) and constructing some themes on intellectual history that he wants to discuss, but Tolstoy was often reasonably clear about what he was up to as a writer and what he considered to be valid for a writer to be writing about.  (Apparently, this philosophizing is what was always getting him in trouble with other writers.  Turgenev had great craft but wrote about unserious people for example, as the bourgeoisie were not worthy of expending any ink upon.  Leaving aside the fact that Tolstoy probably largely missed the point of Fathers and Sons, this is quite a priggish attitude.)  I understand that others have a different take on Tolstoy and even Turgenev (I may be wrong, but I think Turgenev is Berlin's favourite Russian novelist, while Herzen is his favourite essay writer) and consider Berlin's literary criticism to be off somehow.  However, what Berlin has extracted and commented upon is very interesting on its own terms.  I definitely wouldn't go so far as Berlin does to consider Tolstoy this tragic, almost Lear-like figure (the ending of The Hedgehog and the Fox), but there are still some really deep and troubling themes that apply to my own mental processes, and which I am still processing.  I'll have to return to these later (probably after I wrap up the review of Demons, whenever that happens).

Now when I started this detour through Russian literature back in August, The Hedgehog and the Fox was fairly close to the halfway mark at one point, but I added a few more novels and now it is more like the 1/3 marker.  I guess that's neither good or bad, it's just what it is.  I've learned to kind of go with the flow when it comes to my literary obsessions.  Indeed, sometimes I find it is easier for me to remember books longer when I pair them up or group them together in various ways or according to some internal scheme I have devised. Anyway, I'll give a general overview of some of these works, though I won't really get into the Berlin essays at this point.

I have to admit, I just wasn't that interested in The Double.  I have a longer discussion at the tail-end of this post, but I think the bottom line is that the main character seems a bit unhinged (and of very weak character) even at the beginning of the story, whereas it would have been far more effective for a very grounded character to have to face up to his doppelganger trying to replace him.
Dostoevsky's The Gambler is somewhat more interesting, though I really have trouble empathizing with characters who are willing to risk all on a single roll of the dice or particularly a spin of the roulette wheel.  Compared to many, I do take fairly significant risks, uprooting my family even, but these are much more thought through decisions.  And I simply never go into debt for a chance to gamble.  Obviously some people do, but it's hard for me to find too much interest in them, since they seem so easy to figure out.  Everything can be explained in terms of their addiction to gambling, and as casino gambling is of no interest to me, I grow very bored with the story.  I was somewhat more interested in the overall impact on the general and his hangers-on when the grandmother turned up and had a bad couple of nights at the casino (perhaps this is an understatement).  I thought the family might end up constantly on the road, sort of fleeing from creditors and trying to crash with other family members as a way of maintaining their respectability.  This seems to be the pattern followed by all the family relations in William Alexander Gerhardie's Futility, which I touch on in the last half of this very long post on rootlessness.  (As a total aside, I am so glad to come from a small family and to not have any deadbeat relatives, so then I read a book like Futility and think how differently and probably how coldly I would deal with people trying to put "the touch" on me.)

In some ways, the back story of The Gambler is more interesting than the novel itself.  Dostoevsky desperately needed money and found a publisher who would advance him funds, but on the condition that he write a completely new novel within a few months.  Otherwise, all the rights to several other novels would revert to this publisher.  Being a sporting man, Dostoevsky took on the challenge.  However, he was deeply obsessed over completing Crime and Punishment (it was being published in serial form and several parts had already come out), and the clock ticked away.  Finally, a friend convinced him to hire a secretary, Anna Snitkina, to help with the task.  Dostoevsky continued to work on Crime and Punishment during the day, but in the evenings would dictate The Gambler.  With Anna's assistance, he just pulled off the task, completing it in under a month.  Indeed, there is a scene where the publisher was out and his assistant would not accept the manuscript, and Dostoevsky had to leave it with the police or some official to prove that he had delivered it on the agreed date.  It sounds like something out of Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, but apparently this is all true.  Dostoevsky married Anna, but the incredible story doesn't stop there.  He was still largely fleeing creditors and they went abroad and he lost all his money (and Anna's wedding ring) gambling in Baden.  After hitting rock bottom, she basically took charge of his finances and within 3 or 4 years finally got him out of debt and convinced him to give up gambling for good.  One can never know exactly what would have happened without her stabilizing influence on Fyodor, but I think it unlikely that he would have been able to write Demons to say nothing of The Brothers Karamazov had he still been deeply in debt or possibly even in debtors' prison.  

Turning to Tolstoy's short novels, I thought Family Happiness had a few minor echoes of Anna Karenina, where this grotesque Italian count manages to kiss the wife, but the difference is she is not at all interested.  (The wife had done a bit of harmless flirting with a more charming prince, however, which might have turned out differently had she not decided to go back to the country with her husband.)  However, it strikes me that there are stronger parallels to Fontane's Irretrievable, which is about a very pleasant couple who find themselves drifting apart and then don't really know how to bridge the rift between them.  This happens to be another NYRB book, so it sort of caught my attention, though I won't be able to read it for a while (a bit of an understatement).

It seems that Theodor Fontane is actually quite a significant German literary figure, though I had only vaguely heard of Effi Briest, which has some strong parallels with Madame Bovary and of course a few with Anna Karenina. I'm sure the biggest problem is that even today only about half of his works have been translated into English.  I don't want to get too far afield here, but to tie this back to Tolstoy one more time, Fontane's Before the Storm is a historical novel that has been favourably compared (by those who have actually read it) to War and Peace.  So possibly a pairing to consider far, far down the road.

I really, really, really didn't like The Kruetzer Sonata at all.  This was almost certainly my first time reading it, certainly in this format which was unbelievably annoying in having to switch back and forth between versions (the printed one and then the lithograph variant).


It's a lot like reading Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho with all the oxygen in the novel taken up by this crazed, misogynistic man who got away with murder because of the backwards state of the law (it was quite legitimate to kill an unfaithful wife at the time).  The narrator who is being told this tale only very rarely pushes back to say something like -- hmm, how would humanity survive if none were allowed to get married.  (The killer is perhaps even more obsessed about sex and purity than General Ripper in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.)  I'm not saying that Tolstoy doesn't have the right to write about deranged characters or even that it is irresponsible to not have an effective counter-balance, but I'm not interested in reading a long rant by a pathetic character trying to justify his actions.  I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've read this, as I would have had an even stronger reaction 10-15 years ago and probably abandoned the tale in disgust.

I should get around to The Cossacks and The Death of Ivan Ilych a bit later in the week.  At least I have read Ivan Ilych before and know what I am getting into.  And with that, I am running quite late, so I had better jet off (or more accurately bike off) to work.

Toronto leaves changing

It's not like Toronto is that much further south than Kleinburg, but the leaves do seem to change a bit slower.  Sunday was actually a fairly clear day and I ended up walking from Bloor to Queen, mostly along Spadina.  I generally consider this The Annex or an extension of The Annex, but the folks in charge of naming neighbourhoods claim that The Annex is solely north of Bloor.  I was walking through Harbord Village, which was news to me.

I was somewhat curious to see that Harbord Convenience is still going strong, though they had far more pumpkins than flowers outside.  They were one place I could count on having flowers and being open reasonably late.  I bought flowers there for at least one and possibly two dinner parties (not that this was a common occurrence for grad students in my day!).

Anyway, it's a neighbourhood that I have some connections to, as I knew a couple of grad students living there when I went to UT in the early 90s.  We took a quick look there when deciding on where to live, but I decided, given what was actually available for rent, it might not be for us.  Almost always the units were divided with the basement unit being rented to a grad student.  It's one of those great what-ifs -- what if I had figured out a way to stick around in Toronto and had gotten on the property ladder in the 90s.  That's sort of still the driving force behind the novel I think about writing, though in fact the main character will only last an additional year in Toronto and will still be somewhat tormented by a different series of what-if questions.

In any case, here are a few shots of the leaves changing in Harbord Village.


Monday, October 20, 2014

The one(s) that got away

Every serious book collector has a few stories about books that slipped out of their hands while they dithered.  In many respects it is even worse with the rise of the internet, as now you are competing with hundreds, potentially thousands, of others.  In my case, it is not so bad, as I am not looking for signed first editions or anything like that.  I only made a special effort to get a signed copy of am Adrienne Rich collection to make up for one that had been stolen from me.  I am really only interested in the content of the book and getting a good to very good reading copy.  The rest is extraneous to me.

That said, there are still times I didn't pull the trigger and then I regretted it later.  One reason is that I am making a real effort not to buy as many books as I used to, but there are still those books I just want in the house.  Second, Canadian shipping prices are high enough that I do take them into consideration (and I virtually never buy anything from and have it shipped to Canada).  So then it becomes a question of how do the prices compare to the trouble (and imposition on others) of shipping to a friend in the States.

I heard very recently about the passing of Carolyn Kizer on October 9.  She was a feminist poet whom I had sort of heard of but hadn't read.  It seems that she had a really great collection called Yin, but then virtually all of her work (including Yin) was in Cool, Calm and Collected.  I had two decent options: a quite inexpensive copy of Yin (on or a cheap copy of the Collected Poems that I would have to ship to my father.  Then I decided I really ought to at least read a bit of her work, but that added some delay, since the Toronto Library didn't have circulating copies and I had to wait to get to Robarts to check one out.  I find that I enjoy her work, but am not completely in love with it.  Still, I probably would have gotten the Collected Poems at the low price.  But others were reading the same news that I did, and all the cheap copies have gone.  So now I might as well read the entire volume (which I did check out) and see if I really do need it (it's not that expensive on  Maybe the answer will be no.  (I'm about 1/4 through it and still not sure, but I often find poets improve considerably as they mature.)  That's certainly the responsible answer (not buying another book), but I will probably be "haunted" at least for a while by not jumping sooner, especially as the copy of Yin was so cheap...

I'm sure there are many other cases of this, but I am blanking on them at the moment.  Oh wait, there is one painful memory.  I was at a Sarah Sze exhibit at MCA in Chicago and they had a special book (for not too much) based on her site-specific artwork.  I was never able to track down a copy after leaving the museum (and of course it was sold out on my next trip there).

There are other cases as well, but in many of those, the book was just a bit more than I wanted to pay, and I kept thinking the price would come down, but it never did.  Normally, I just hold out and see if other copies pop up (this happened for several books) but sometimes it doesn't.  I usually just try to live without the book if the price just keeps going up, and eventually my attention wanes and I move onto something else I think I need.  As I mostly am just going after reading copies, the library is often an effective substitute as well, though not as good for art books where I really do like looking at them in the moment (or when I am seeking inspiration).

Edit: In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that at the end of October, I saw an autographed copy of Yin for not too much, and I ordered it, though it took a while to get into my hands, as I had i shipped to the States.  So sometimes if one is patient (and willing to shell out a bit), you can get a second chance.  Actually, it is good to let some time pass to make sure that you really wanted that book that got away or if it was more of an impulse purchase.  In this case, it was worth going after the book.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Leaves changing

It seemed to me the leaves took a particularly long time to change this fall.  They have only slowly been changing in Toronto itself.  I decided to speed things along by renting a car and driving up to Kleinburg and viewing the McMichael.  It wasn't the best of days -- it had gotten quite chilly and it was grey and overcast most of the day, but on the whole I think the trip was a success.

Probably the best view of all was coming up the Don Valley Parkway.  Unfortunately, as I was driving I was not able to take any photos.  My daughter was feeling kind of car sick, so I had to stop a bit earlier than planned in Richmond Hill.  After a bit of walking around, we continued on to Party City and got them costumes.  (I really have not seen any pop-up costume places in downtown Toronto this year nor were they in Chicago.  Thus, the drive to the suburbs.)  We ate lunch at a giant T & T Supermarket nearby.  I had no idea that they had stores in metro Toronto.  And it turns out there is one sort of down the street from us at Commissioners St.  I should be able to get there on the 72 bus, though I am not entirely sure it is worth it just to get their sushi...

So we set off for Kleinburg.  The trip there was fairly uneventful.  It was bizarre seeing so many candidate signs everywhere, so it looks like there are some hard fought races even out in the burbs this election.

Here are a few shots of the trees outside (and from the inside) of the McMichael Collection.


While in general, my favourite single painting in the collection is Varley's Night Ferry, Vancouver, it didn't "pop" the way it sometimes does, and that may have been because the outside light was so grey and dim and the inside lights also seemed dimmed.

I think my son's favourite was one of the Tom Thomson's -- Woodland Waterfall.  (But he thought the poster wasn't big enough given the price.)

I had to pick my daughter up to see most of the paintings, which got to be a little much.  I am starting to rethink this whole idea of taking her to see the museums in New York.  It might have to wait until she is another six inches or a foot taller.

I thought the exhibit Morrice & Lyman in the Company of Matisse was ok, but I was expecting a lot more Matisse.  I think in the end there were only 5 oils by Matisse and maybe another 4 pencil sketches.  I really did like one of the images at the end of the exhibit (Rainy Day, Paris by Morrice) but not enough to get the catalog.  I'm still holding out to see if it gets picked up by the library, but so far there are only reference copies that do not circulate, which is not helpful at all (to me at least).

I somehow missed the turn to get onto Highway 427, so we went down Islington the whole way to the Gardiner.  The Gardiner was pretty bad all the way to Spadina when it finally opened up.  My daughter was feeling woozy and I was sure she was going to throw up on the way back, but somehow she kept it together until we got home.  So I think we are just going to have to be really cautious and not plan on a lot of car trips for another year or so.  Maybe it is just as well that we didn't buy a car as one of the first things we did after moving to Toronto!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mid Oct. updates

I don't have the energy to make a very thorough post, but I'll provide a few highlights of the last week or so.  We were in Chicago visiting relatives last weekend.  I had the kids for much of Saturday.  I almost turned around when my daughter said she was woozy on the train to downtown.  This is becoming a real issue, and we might not make it to New York (where getting from the airports is not easy and pretty much everything involves long train rides).  I think we have to see where she is at in another year, but this is a total drag.

Anyway, we did make it to the Art Institute of Chicago for the final weekend of their René Magritte exhibit.  My daughter was not all that cooperative when she saw the line, so, to keep the peace, we went and did some drawing in the children's wing first.  She was still balking but I said that I would carry her if there were too many people for her to see the art.  We actually got in when the wait was a bit under 15 minutes.  By the time we were done, the line was more like a 45 minute wait, and it was getting worse with every passing minute.  I might have just given up had we gotten there later, which would have been an incredible shame.  It was a good exhibit, but one marred by very thoughtless considerations of spacing and crowd control, like forcing everyone to go around a tight corner into a small room.  I'm sure it was ok during the week and most weekends, but on opening and closing weekends it was really hard to maneuver around the crowds.  (Quite possibly the worst laid out exhibit I have seen there.)  Needless to say, I had to pick my daughter up constantly.  The most amusing moment was when we saw one of the famous paintings that read "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."  I told her it said This is not a pipe.  But it is a pipe, she said.  And everyone around us laughed...  The second half of the exhibit was better spaced and more fun.  We saw a bit of the Modern Wing after that, and I made sure to see Seurat's La Grande Jatte and Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day.  (They have many great paintings in their collection, but the Caillebotte is probably my favorite.)  My daughter's favorite was the Renoir with the two girl acrobats (below).

Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando, 1879

They were getting a bit tired after that, but we did walk next door to Millennium Park and saw the Bean and took some photos.  Maybe I can post one tomorrow.

Then we made a super quick trip to a Subway, but they looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if they had yogurt parfaits (which they carry in nearly all their Canadian outlets).  Then we looked at some modern art at the Cultural Center.  Interestingly, my daughter liked this odd exhibit on the second floor the best of everything she had seen that day.  (The exhibit was called "here and there pink melon joy" and was by Chicago/Oak Park artist Sabina Ott.)  Her favorite was the words moving about on the walls (the last photo below).


Then I handed off the kids to my wife (who had been checking out the David Bowie exhibit at the MCA).

And I was free!  I went off to see two plays -- one at Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre and then Caryl Churchill's Owners at Athenaeum.  They were both enjoyable, though I found the cast of Owners to be projecting just a bit too much for the space they were in.  Also, the AC was really cranked up.

The trip back to Toronto was generally less stressful, though we didn't find everything we had hoped to find downtown (running shoes, flu shots, Halloween costumes, etc.). It was nice to have Monday off (Canadian Thanksgiving), though I ultimately ended up working a fair bit.  Given all the horrible headlines lately (ebola and some potential hurricanes and even Calgary losing power downtown for several days), I really ought to donate to the Red Cross, given that we are so fortunate.  On the other hand, the United Way Campaign just kicked off at work, and I may be too stretched to contribute to both.  But I will make some donation shortly.

At work this week I feel I have been playing catch up the whole time, even after going in on Monday.  I guess it was just writing one more darn proposal on top of two projects with extremely demanding deadlines (and clients).  (It definitely didn't help my mood to get so wet coming home on Thurs.  I actually was biking but was out of the rain (at the library) for the worst of it.  Could have been worse -- being on the subway when they had to suspend service due to flooding!)

Today, I ended up working close to midnight to get something out, as did one of the juniors, though I must admit that while he was making some changes to the spreadsheets, I went off to my concert at Roy Thompson Hall.  Still, I had to come back after the concert, check his work, make some changes and send it off.

But enough about that, the concert itself was quite enjoyable.  It was actually the London Philharmonic in town, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.  They are doing a North American tour, mostly playing Russian pieces, and tonight was no exception.  They did a rousing version of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto #3 and Shostakovich's Symphony 8.  I liked a lot of what they did with the uptempo sections of the Shostakovich, and they were quite magical in this section where the winds kept trading off (this was probably the 3rd or 4th movement).  But the symphony as a whole dragged on too long, and I really thought Jurowski slowed it down too much in the 5th movement.  Still I was not at all inspired by the ending and would have preferred something else.  Those endings that just peter out can sometimes work for symphonic poems or string quartets, but not really for symphonies.  And while this is a very minor point, I just strongly dislike how European conductors come back for curtain call after curtain call.  I think he was up to 5 when I finally got up and left.  There is much more of a tradition of getting the entire symphony to do an encore in Europe which is basically non-existent in North America, so this certainly leads to some misunderstandings. 

It seemed appropriate that I was listing to this Russian program while wrapping up Tolstoy's Family Happiness, though I guess it might have even been better had I been reading Platonov at the time (though that is probably a couple months away still).  I have a few things to note down about Tolstoy, but I think that can wait for another day.  We are supposed to drive up to see the McMichael Collection tomorrow, so I had better get at least some rest tonight. Ciao.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Literary frenemies

There are quite a few literary pairings where two authors were constantly competing with each other and trying to outdo the other.  Sometimes the competition was relatively good-natured and/or one author took the other as a mentor (which tended to smooth ruffled feathers, at least until one became more successful than the other).  I guess in general, I would find the Ezra Pound/T.S. Eliot relationship to be fairly balanced.  While I am not that aware of the particulars, John A. Williams, in The Man Who Cried I Am, asserts that James Baldwin was trying to kill off (metaphorically) and supplant Richard Wright, who was a kind of father figure to African-American writers, particularly those living in exile in Paris.

But far more frequently there is a lot of ill-natured competition between equals or near equals.  I'm honestly not aware if Dostoevsky and Tolstoy ever had it out (though readers today certainly take sides), but Dostoevsky definitely disliked Turgenev at least most of the time.*  I would still take Dostoevsky over Tolstoy (if forced) and probably over Turgenev, but it would be an extremely difficult choice.  In fact, after I reread Fathers and Sons and get through A Sportsman's Sketches, I may well re-evaluate and find that Turgenev is a bit slier and more cosmopolitan than Dostoevsky and my allegiances may shift.

Now there is no question that between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I would choose Fitzgerald, though I suppose I would ultimately choose Faulkner over both.  Nonetheless, it is the fierce friendship and rivalry between Hemingway and Fitzgerald that really was a bit remarkable.  To be honest, I don't think I would have wanted to be friends with either of them, though I had a friend who was definitely more in the Hemingway line (and perhaps I am a bit snooty like Fitzgerald, though I think on the whole I am better to waiters and taxi drivers...).

As far as I can tell, Hemingway never did smack Fitzgerald in the nose, though he came close on a few occasions.  My last pair of frenemies were once close friends and yet Julio Vargas Llosa indeed did sucker punch Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1976 and they never spoke again, though there were some rumours of a bit of thaw towards the end of Garcia Marquez's life.  While this feud was sometimes ascribed to a gradual misalignment in their political philosophies, it seems to have been far more personal than political (apparently after Garcia Marquez got too close to Vargas Llosa's wife).

In this case, I am more closely aligned with Garcia Marquez, not only because I read several of his key works at an earlier stage in my literary development (early 20s) but because he seems to generally write better female characters and to have slightly lower levels of machismo running through his works.  In some sense, this is still a matter of degree, as he dwells on prostitutes and soldiers (both major themes of Vargas Llosa) but just seems slightly more rounded.

There is no question that I have read more of Garcia Marquez: just about 65% of the major works.  While this will mostly be of interest to myself, I will go ahead and list them below and my progress through them:

R Leaf Storm (1955)
RR No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
R In Evil Hour (1962)
R One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
O The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970)
R The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)
R Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981)
R Collected Stories (1984)
R Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
R The General in His Labyrinth (1989)
O Strange Pilgrims (1993)
O Of Love and Other Demons (1994)
News of a Kidnapping (1996)
O Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)

So I think there is a fairly good chance I will start working my way back through Garcia Marquez's works, starting in 2016 or so (maybe skipping The General in His Labyrinth as I read that so recently), and I'd only need to check two out of the library.  (It is an open question if We'll Meet Again in August will be published, but that might take away some of the sting of his last novel being somewhat unworthy, at least to my eyes.)

It's quite embarrassing when I do the same for Vargas Llosa because I simply cannot remember which I read or didn't read (many of these novels were read during my first year teaching in Newark where so much has become a blur).  I'm sure I've read 5 and perhaps as many as 8 of his novels (whereas I've definitely read 9 novels and novellas by Garcia Marquez).  I've gone ahead and listed the Spanish title and the English translation, though I've only read him in English:

R?  La ciudad y los perros - 1963 (The Time of the Hero, 1966)
R  La casa verde - 1966 (The Green House, 1968)
R  Conversación en la catedral - 1969 (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1975)
O Pantaleón y las visitadoras - 1973 (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, 1978)
La orgía perpetua: Flaubert y "Madame Bovary" - 1975 (The Perpetual Orgy)
R?  La tía Julia y el escribidor - 1977 (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1982)
R  La guerra del fin del mundo - 1981 (The War of the End of the World, 1984)
R? Historia de Mayta - 1984 (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1985)
R?  ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? - 1986 (Who Killed Palomino Molero?, 1987)
El hablador - 1987 (The Storyteller, 1989)
Elogio de la madrastra -1988 (In Praise of the Stepmother, 1990)
Lituma en los Andes - 1993 (Death in the Andes, 1996)
Cartas a un joven novelista - 1997 (Letters to a Young Novelist)
O  Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto - 1997 (Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, 1998)
La fiesta del chivo - 2000 (The Feast of the Goat, 2001)
El paraíso en la otra esquina - 2003 (The Way to Paradise, 2003)
R  Travesuras de la niña mala - 2006 (The Bad Girl, 2007)
El sueño del celta - 2010 (The Dream of the Celt, 2012)
El héroe discreto - 2013 (The Discrete Hero, 2015)

So this is a case where I probably ought to just go through the list (though skipping The Bad Girl, which I didn't like much at all).  Ideally, I would even alternate with Garcia Maquez, maybe trying to knock one off each list per month (maybe doubling up some of the shorter works).  So that sounds like a fairly reasonable plan.  I have to admit, I am not that interested in The Dream of the Celt, but what little I have heard of The Discrete Hero suggests it would be a worthy final novel (assuming he doesn't publish anything else in the meantime).

As far as I know Borges never got into any major literary spats, though I wouldn't be at all surprised if Pablo Neruda had several running feuds due to his (leftist) politics.  Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz ended up in a major feud essentially over whether Fuentes was Mexican enough.  That actually makes Fuentes a bit more interesting in my eyes.  I never have managed to tackle Terra Nostra (one day!), but I've read and enjoyed most of his other works, particularly Christopher Unborn, which I keep name checking.  Well, some day I'll try to get through his major novels as well, though it is hard to see where I will find the time.  Maybe I can find that elusive balance between work and life, or be like Mister X and do away with sleep altogether.

* While I was hoping to find more about the dust-up between Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa, this piece gives some brief highlights of other famous literary spats and reveals that Tolstoy once challenged Turgenev to a duel.  Those Russians really took their differences, political and literary, quite seriously!

8th Canadian Challenge - 5th review - A Jest of God

So the trip to Chicago went pretty well, though it was rushed and a bit more stressful than it absolutely needed to be.  I'll probably write a more general post on the trip, as well as the René Magritte exhibit I saw at the Art Institute and a couple of plays I managed to see a bit later in the week.

I did manage to get through 2 Canadian books -- More Joy in Heaven and Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God.  Somewhat sadly, I still needed to carry A Jest of God back on the plane, as that was where I wrapped it up, but I can donate it to the library this week.  Reading two (short) books over a long weekend is still pretty good.  (And I should finish up The Gambler today.)

While I believe I own all of Laurence's books this is the first time reading and reviewing any of them.  The entire novel is extremely interior and we are privy to the thoughts of Rachel Cameron, a 2nd grade teacher in a small town a couple of hours or so away from Winnipeg.  That's not to say we don't get dialogue from the other characters, but then there will be a short riff on what Rachel meant to say or how she is embarrassed about what she actually did say.  And she is a mousy woman who is always feeling out of sorts.  She even second and third guesses her interactions with the children, feeling that she is praising some too much and perhaps punishing another far too much (or rather standing aside and letting the principal unfairly punish a child).  There is actually a line in there at how beastly people from the future will view corporal punishment in schools (particularly public schools) and we reached that moment in Canada and the U.S. (at least most states) roughly 35 years ago.

The cast of characters is really quite small for a teacher who would be interacting with many children and a handful of teachers.  We only get full-fledged scenes with one other teacher friend (Calla) and the principal, one student and his mother, a high school teacher from Winnipeg, a funeral home director, a doctor and Rachel's mother.  Of course, I may be forgetting something but it is a very small mental space she inhabits apparently.  And it is also quite clear from the book's opening that Rachel fears she is cracking up.  I believe there are a fair number of parallels to Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell, such as this interest in the female perspective and even the idea that because women are just expected to deal with so much (mostly silently) while men are out doing the real work their mental health suffers.  Since this Lessing novel is fairly short, I will go ahead and try to squeeze it in fairly soon, just to see if this comparison actually holds up.  A Jest of God is ultimately quite restrained, since Laurence is Canadian after all, and I doubt Lessing's character is quite so circumscribed.

I have a very old copy of the book, so I don't know if it has the same introduction by G.D. Killam, but I would strongly urge readers to read this last, as it gives too much away.  I will say that Killam focuses a bit more on the religious aspects of the book, including the incoherent speaking in tongues at the Tabernacle (where Calla drags an unwilling Rachel), whereas I found that aspect of the book not terribly compelling.  Rachel has no real interest in Christianity (which I suppose is itself somewhat surprising) but is browbeat by her mother into appearing in church each Sunday for the sake of appearances.

It is not too revealing to let you know that Rachel is burdened with a semi-invalid mother.  They live in a room above a funeral home.  Rachel's father owned and operated the home until his death, and they reached an agreement with the new owner, Hector Jonas, to stay on upstairs until Rachel's mother's death.  Rachel actually half-hopes for this day to come quite frequently, scaring herself in the process.  Nietzsche has a recurring theme about the tyranny of the weak and how they use guilt to entrap others and to generally manipulate them into doing what they want.  This is seen throughout Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier where the woman's tricky heart prevents a couple from traveling back across the Atlantic.  Another prime example might be Cold Comfort Farm where everyone has to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting Aunt Ada Doom.  Or basically any Victorian novel where a young woman can't get married because she has to care for her mother.  (To descend to the ridiculous, Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son has cried wolf far too often on his bad heart and his relatives simply ignore him, though this tactic can be effective amongst strangers.)

Rachel spends quite a bit of time pointing out the slyness in her mother's behaviour and the way her mother attempts to manipulate her, almost always successfully.  Indeed, her mother is quite surprised when Rachel fights back, ever so politely.  And why would Rachel do this (suddenly showing a bit of backbone and carving out some time for herself)?  Because she is seeing Nick Kazlik, a local boy (with issues of his own with his aging father) who has grown up to become a high school teacher in Winnipeg.

I think I am going to wrap up the review here and just not put in any spoilers at all.  The outcome of this somewhat late-in-life romance (Rachel is 35) is expected in some ways and unexpected in other ways (and this is probably why it is a divine Jest).  I found the denouement a bit fanciful but still hopeful.  I will reveal that Rachel has avoided a big crack up by the novel's end, and it will be interesting to see how Lessing resolves Briefing for a Descent into Hell.

Edit update: it is so tempting for me to discuss the ending and how it sort of ties together with some of Robert Kroetsch's work, but I will avoid the temptation.  Given that I read Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a short while back, I was wondering if there were any parallels.  In both cases, you only get very occasional glimpses of the teachers interacting with children in the classroom.  But A Jest of God is almost a complete inversion of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  In Spark's novel, the teacher is always seen from the outside and her inner life is a mystery, and almost all we get in A Jest of God is Rachel's inner thoughts.  Rachel is aware that she will have some minor and passing influence on her students, but does not feel obligated to leave a mark on them, which Miss Brodie  obsesses over this.  Actually, there are quite a few connections between Miss Brodie and her inappropriate on-going relations with her former students and the mentally fragile teacher, Hannah Schneider, from Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I discussed earlier in the year.  In general, Rachel is much more concerned about her relations with adults, though a goodly portion of them are teachers, whereas Miss Jean Brodie is far more fixated on influencing her students and is quite unconcerned about what her fellow female teachers think of her, though she does ultimately have a fling with a male colleague, which I suppose is one more parallel between the two books, though it seems to "matter" far more to Rachel.

Friday, October 10, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 4th review - More Joy in Heaven

So on this trip to Chicago, I left behind The Gambler (though I am so close to being done with it and should definitely wrap that up on Sunday upon our return) and brought some shorter Canadian books.  The extra bonus will be if I can finish them and leave them here, since it means knocking a few off of my TBRD pile (to be read and discarded pile).  It will mean so much for my mental health to make some headway there.

Now that is not at all to say that I think Morley Callaghan's More Joy in Heaven is a bad or unworthy book.  It is a fine but minor morality play.  In short, for me, it is not a book for the ages, which is what it is going to take from now on to be added to the groaning shelves once a book has been moved to the TBRD pile.  

If I am remembering correctly, I actually got this book fairly recently at the Toronto Library book sale (I had really been there to get a collection of Aristophanes' comic plays, which was still where I had left it -- yes!).  I have slowly collected a fair number of Callaghan novels, though this is only the second I have read and reviewed.  This one is one of his earlier works where he focuses on outcasts and criminals and people outside conventional morality.  He got so known for this that he even spoofs this a bit in A Fine and Private Place, which I reviewed back in 2012.

The basic set-up is that Kip Caley is an ex-convict (actually a bank robber) who has reformed in prison and is released on parole early, against the recommendation of Judge Ford.  Father Butler, the priest who ministered to Caley in prison, is the closest thing he has to a friend.  Father Butler despairs when he finds out that Caley intends to move back to Toronto, though this could be any city with a few rival newspapers and a washed up boxing promoter and a few large banks.  The main theme of the book is that Caley truly wants to be good, but he is extremely dependent upon other people accepting that he has changed to build him up.  So when people's interest in this prodigal son naturally wanes, he starts questioning everything.  (The New Testament parable of the prodigal is explicitly referenced half a dozen times or so.)

Caley gets very impatient with those whose motives seem a bit mixed (such as a boxing promoter who wants him to gets involved in staged fights but who also pays him to be a greeter at a hotel/night club).  Many people ultimately fail him in showing that they are quite shallow and not really all that interested in his transformation.  This is particularly true of the Senator and the Mayor who both take an interest in his case, at least for a while.  He struggles to determine if the love that is growing with this young woman, Julie Evans, is real or not, and whether he really can risk letting down his defenses.  What really seems to hurts him the most are these two other jailbirds who cynically assume that he has not changed and all, and they follow him around to try to rope him into "one last job."  While Callaghan doesn't dwell on this, the book is set during the Depression, which certainly didn't help the odds of a former convict making a living by playing it straight.

Given the speechifying and the insistence on worrying over the purity of people's motivations puts me very much in mind of a Capra film but mixed up with a film noir plot.  And that is probably more than enough to say about the book without totally spoiling it.  Apparently, the novel was based on a real case of a Canadian bank robber who was paroled and had trouble fitting into society after his release.  It was a quick read and I enjoyed it, despite the very real struggles that Caley faced.

George Walker and the East End

So to build on the last post where I was trash-talking the CTA, I am well aware that it is all not sweetness and light on the TTC either, particularly where the drivers are often a bit surly (as I have remarked a couple of times before). However, there was only one time at all that I really saw or felt any violence on the TTC, whereas I often feel anxious and wonder if violence is going to break out on the CTA. Apparently and incredibly the same day we were having such a good time on the Red Line, someone got on the Blue Line, then got off and shot at the train itself using an automatic rifle, though miraculously no one was seriously hurt.

Rational or not, I can’t escape the feeling that Chicago is going down the tubes (not at all helped by the absolute inability of the U.S. to come to grips with its gun mania – which even trickles a bit up into Toronto and Vancouver – thank goodness it is so much harder to get handguns here in Canada or it would be even worse*). But to get back to the TTC, Tuesday I was on the streetcar and two young guys snuck on around Broadview. They were travelling separately for most of the trip but then one came back to where the other one was sitting and they got into the most bizarre conversation about how the one didn't think he was dressed well and why didn't the other guy help him pick out better clothes, then they continued to pick at each other and squabble, including something about one taking a magic marker to the other with the rejoinder that he didn't know how to spell (with "I know how to spell A-hole" thrown back in his face), and then ultimately devolving into one arguing that he had definitely seen the other in a porn film. Nonetheless, even though I thought it was extremely childish to drag the entire bus into their little drama, I never felt personally threatened.

After they finally got off at Church, one man spoke up and said that he wanted to make it clear they didn't represent or define him, as a gay man. Another guy said it was like a comedy routine, and the gay man said, no it was all too real. But it did feel almost like a live-action Derek and Clive (though slightly less profane) or even Bottom, though the violence was more implied than overt.

What’s sort of interesting (and sad) is that leaving aside whether gay club kids are really acting out these sadomasochistic routines “for reals,” violence seems to have increased in Toronto’s poorer neighbourhoods. I was here in the 90s and visited a couple of them and things seemed so much safer relative to low-income neighbourhoods in the states. But I'm not as sure I would say the same thing today.

This is the long way around to George Walker’s Escape from Happiness, which I saw last weekend. It is set in Toronto’s East End (which is basically where we live, though I think the family might live just a bit further east) and features violence and a kidnapping and a bit of police corruption and mild brutality and a former cop claiming that there were unimaginable levels of vice in his own neighbourhood. It is just so hard for me to square that with the Toronto I knew in the early 90s (when the plays in the East End Trilogy were written), but Walker lived over that way (and was ultimately pushed out of Toronto by rising housing prices and gentrification). Maybe it is that when people look for something (vice and degradation) it is there, but it is just as easy to focus on more positive aspects of Toronto. (My mother often asked why I focused so exclusively on negative things. I don’t have any answer other than I want things to be better and thus look at what is “wrong.” Interestingly I actually do focus on the negatives slightly less in Toronto, certainly relative to my time in Chicago.)

I had gotten confused and thought that Escape from Happiness was somehow linked to Suburban Motel. I actually had this totally bizarre mental picture where we would see the unlikely cop pair in other settings in other plays (in Suburban Motel). So here they get a bit involved, but in another play they would just be listening to wiretaps or what have you. Anyway, it wasn't that way at all (although there are a pair of male cops that show up in two of the Suburban Motel plays). Escape from Happiness is part of an East End Trilogy, however. The main family members, esp. Junior and Gail and her sisters, turn up in each one. They are more strictly chronological, however, than the plays in Suburban Motel, which are all contemporaneous, that is happening at roughly the same time in the late 90s. Escape from Happiness is the last of the three. One of them (Criminals in Love), focusing on Junior and Gail, doesn’t sound so interesting, but Better Living where Tom (Gail’s father) has just left the family sounds promising. It would definitely have been better to watch the plays in order, but I might still watch it as a kind of prequel if it comes back through Toronto any time soon.  (As it happens, I had only seen one Walker play before -- Theatre Mir did Beautiful City in Chicago, though to be honest I thought it was kind of a silly play.)

I thought they (Alumnae) did a good job of Escape from Happiness, particularly the really loopy Mary Ann and the tough-as-nails eldest sister Elizabeth. I didn’t like the mother, Nora, very much (the character and her motivations – I thought the actress playing her was fine). As I said, there was a lot of somewhat cartoony violence and an awful lot of crime and corruption for one Toronto neighbourhood. (I would be much more willing to accept this happening in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side where the political leaders have been too much taken in by liberal ideology and liberal guilt and just let drug deals happen in plain sight along with the stolen merchandise being sold openly on the streets there.) There’s not a whole lot else I can say about the play that won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. To some extent, the plot feels drawn more from movies about corrupt cops and crime-ridden neighbourhoods than anything Walker would have actually seen (I suppose I don’t know this for a fact, but it is how it feels) and that has to do with how to sustain the plot and pacing of a play once violence it introduced (just before the intermission, though in fact Junior is coping with a bad beating he has received just prior to the curtain rising on Act I. I did find the junior cop (Diane) to be sort of sexy and this is reinforced at the end when she goes off the rails a bit. (I believe this actress was in the Hart House production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), again reminding myself what a drag it was to have just missed it.) I think it would be quite interesting to see the family in slightly less fraught circumstances or at least with less violence and fewer guns, so I will try to catch abc one of these days.

It certainly was a very creditable production by Alumnae Theatre Company, and I’ll try to see what else they do next season (the rest of this season isn’t as gripping). I believe they have done other Walker plays (though maybe it would just be too depressing to find out that they had done the rest in this East End cycle). The cycle taken as a whole reminds me a fair bit of this production I saw in Chicago. It was Curious Theatre doing Beau O’Reilly's The Madelyn Trilogy. As they so frequently do, Beau O'Reilly played one of the parts and may have directed.  I don't think Jenny Magnus was in this, but I may have been mistaken. It was super ambitious theatre on a shoestring, which I just love about Chicago off-Loop theatre. You have a bit of this in Toronto, but not as much. I saw all three parts on one weekend in the small studio at the Athenaeum Building.  I have seen so much cool stuff there and actually hope to go to a show there tomorrow.  It just so caters to my interest in small but ambitious (and perhaps a bit struggling?) theatre companies, though there are many other places I have seen great shoestring productions.

Still, I don’t know about these super ambitious trilogies. It’s awfully hard for the audience either way. How many people can really commit to seeing three plays in one weekend or at most over two? (Yes, I am glad that I was able to see Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia this way, and it was glorious, but it still shuts out a huge percentage of the audience. No one in my circles would commit to parting with that much of their time!) And if the company doesn't produce it all at once, and they stretch it out over a few years (which is what I will be forced to do with the Walker plays) then how can the audience remember the connections between characters and what transpired? I actually had thought that my play Corporate Codes of Conduct would function best as two separate plays, but I don’t have the pull of a Kushner or a Stoppard, and I will at best get one play produced, so I have to shave it down more and make it fit into the 2 act play framework. I think there is something to be said for letting it all hang out in two plays versus being forced to tighten up and wrestle the material down to one play.  Anyway, these thoughts are inspiring me to take another look at my own plays and try to commit to another rewrite and then see if there are any aspiring companies in Toronto that just might be interested...

* As before, just note that I am not interested in a debate on gun control here and will not be publishing pro-gun comments.

Update -- from Chicago

It is certainly a good thing that I can touch type, as many of the letters have simply washed off the keyboard at home. The reason I mention this is that I am typing in the dark, trying not to wake up anyone by turning on the lights.  (I'm not in the same room as them or the typing itself would keep them up.  Maybe I could have the lights on, but it doesn't really seem to affect my typing.)

What’s particularly interesting is that I never took any formal typing classes in high school for example, but I simply learned the keyboard in college when I was typing an enormous number of papers and journal entries. I actually remember the process where late at night I would be thinking of some sentence and basically watching it typed out on a keyboard in my head. This was pretty distracting for a while, though it obviously paid off.  (I think I also mentioned that I did pretty well as a temp for a few years.)  I also had this weird thing where I would be thinking of people in the dorm and then start thinking about them as the face cards in a deck of playing cards (I was playing a lot of cards at the time).

Well, it has been unbelievably stressful in terms of work and then cutting it close in getting to the airport. (I really didn’t want to pull the kids out early, since they are already missing a full day of school.)  The cabbie ran into very heavy traffic and it was not even 4 pm. The Gardiner was a total mess, though fortunately he didn’t insist on taking it. Then it turns out the stupid pedestrian bridge to the Island Airport is not open yet (it was supposed to be, but now they are saying it will open in the winter). That added another 15 minutes to the trip. (Thank goodness we had completely checked in on-line.) And for some crazy reason they only had one line open for the security screening for flights to the U.S. Now after we were through security we had close to 30 minutes to sit and relax (a tiny bit). That’s the main advantage – it only takes a few minutes to board a Porter flight, so you really can show up just an hour before and still make your flight.

The flight wasn’t too bad, though I think we ran into some headwinds and it was longer than our last trip. Hopefully going back will be a bit faster then.

It was super stressful trying to deal with the CTA, though I guess we’ve got it figured out, except if I take the kids on Sat. and my wife isn’t around for me to use her Ventra card. Hopefully we can coordinate and leave at the same time. Anyway it wasn’t so bad leaving on the Orange Line, but the Red Line we picked a bad car and to make it infinitely worse my wife sat next to some wino who proceeded to bug her the entire trip. (She has totally lost her street sense...) And whatever the CTA did to speed up the Red Line south of Cermak/Chinatown has failed. It was just interminably slow.

Towards the end of the trip, the wino starting trying to sell these nasty and yet clearly stolen hats. Then he light up a cigarillo and got a bunch of people yelling at him, and then he proceeded to get in a huge argument and claim he was going to pull a knife on this young man. It has been a not-so-gradual process, but now I thoroughly hate the south side of Chicago. I really do not want to stay here on our next visit and am actually thinking seriously of subletting an apartment instead.

Our fears were justified and our daughter threw up on the platform (just mercifully making it off the train). She says it is the long ride and not having the right kind of food in her stomach, though I suspect the stress of the crazy man (and then my stress in being around him) contributed. But it just makes it almost impossible to know whether we can safely travel with her. She throws up in cabs and she often throws up on the second leg of transit trips. But it isn’t all the time, and it frequently doesn’t happen when we are driving ourselves around. If that were the case, we would just not travel. Still, the places I want to try to go to over spring break all have terrible transit connections to the airport. I am so ready for her to be a couple of years older when she should finally be over this. I don’t like the small child phase at all and I certainly can’t conceive of why some people would constantly want babies and toddlers around.

So that was getting here.  I am hoping today goes a bit more smoothly.  The way back should be a little less stressful, since we don't have nearly as much time pressure.  And then I technically have Monday off (Canadian Thanksgiving), though I am sure I will have to do some work to catch up, and perhaps even try to get ahead of the curve with writing this next proposal so that doesn't end up quite so last minute.