Saturday, February 28, 2015

Feeling kinda low

Some days you just feel like things will never turn around.  I'm not at that point, but it has been a tough few days (or weeks really).  The weather just will not turn, and I'm starting to develop a bad cough.  I think even just a few days above freezing here and there would have helped.  Or if the rec. centre had a sauna or hot tub.  I'm really not sure there is one anywhere near me.  I do appreciate the fact that there isn't a ton of competition for the swimming lanes (even if the actual days/times it is open are too limited) compared to Vancouver, but those pools were a lot fancier and all the ones I visited had some kind of heated area for after swimming.  I guess it's something I'll have to look into.

What really gets me is how the cold has really sunk into the basement.  Even with a space heater running, it is just cold, cold, cold.  And at the moment, it is the only place I can write the blog, so it feels like I am trading off these updates against my health.  Not a good feeling.

I'm probably most bummed out about Leonard Nimoy's passing.  Spock was by far my favorite character on Star Trek.  It's always hard letting go of part of your childhood and realizing that time is ticking.


I was really disappointed in As I Lay Dying.  I really can't explain why the recent Faulkner post was so popular, but it kind of feels like I built everyone up and then there is this anti-climatic climb-down.  (SPOILERS) I thought Anse's quest to bury his wife was absurd and quite frankly disgusting by the end (not simply because the corpse was rotting and attracting buzzards but the willingness of Anse to repeatedly endanger his family on this fool's errand), but I think what I so disliked about the writing itself was that over half the characters had completely disorganized thoughts to the point I often couldn't tell what had really happened.  I still don't know if the brother who was blamed for setting the fire was actually the one that did it.  In contrast, there is only one "feeble-minded" character in The Sound and the Fury, so more of the time, the action can be followed.

I guess in general, I just thought it was too much.  Too many characters whose thoughts were totally disorganized, too many characters I outright despised, too many enablers that allowed Anse to get away with being monstrous.  I could basically relate to the neighbor's wives, who hated Anse, though Cora then revealed herself to be a fanatical Christian, and the doctor and maybe Vernon Tull (though he was far too much of an enabler).  I didn't take a shine to anybody else in the novel, and generally felt the world would be a much better place without folks like Anse and his family living in it (and yet they seem to be fruitful and multiplying even to this day).  While I expect for most of Faulkner's novels, I will loop back around and read them a second time (perhaps in that internal chronological order) I just can't see reading As I Lay Dying again.  I was actually angry at the book or at least the characters in the book pretty much the whole way through.  I don't need that much aggravation in my life, particularly now.

Well, let me end on a more upbeat note.  I did hear back that my short story was successfully entered into the Toronto Star contest.  I had to work late most of this week, but I did manage to write a scene (and one that I think reasonably highly of) for Sing-for-Your-Supper.  I'll probably hear late tonight or tomorrow if it is going to be staged on Monday.  It won't be too difficult to turn this back into a chapter of the novel.  I've found what may be a local writing group and will see about joining, so it looks like I am actually over the psychological hump and that I am finally ready to write this thing (after toying with it for close to 15 years!).  Here I discuss a few cultural events I have planned for this weekend which should be fun, and I am hoping to squeeze in swimming and/or sledding with the kids.  And maybe the weather will finally turn.  It appears as though we may break freezing on Wed.  Something to look forward to for sure.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Late Feb. arts update

I suppose there really are just a few days left to go in Feb, but I have so much to report on.  But let me comment on upcoming events and then on-going plays (there is less urgency in reporting on plays that have already closed).

Yesterday (Wed) I managed to grab my dry cleaning, go to see the Basquiat exhibit at AGO (thankfully the crowds have started dying down to a reasonable level) and even swim a few laps at the rec centre.  It felt like a productive evening.

I've basically decided to try to see the George Walker play over at Red Sandcastle tonight (Thurs), assuming there are still a few tickets at the door.  I've been meaning to check out Red Sandcastle, and now seems as good a time as any.  I generally I like Walker's work, even when he goes into dark places.  Actually I had a chance to see a few of the plays in Walker's Suburban Motel series (I can no longer remember if this was in Chicago or Vancouver) but passed at the time.  This play (Problem Child) is from that series, so it is a way of correcting my past mistake in skipping these plays.

Then Saturday, there is a performance of contemporary classical music at TSO.  The centerpiece (at least for me) is the Wallace Stevens' poem A Mind of Winter set to music.  However, there is also the Canadian première of Dai Fujikura's Tocar y Luchar and the world première of Vivian Fung's Violin Concerto No. 2 "Of Snow and Ice."  So it all sounds very topical (sadly not tropical).  The ticket prices for the concert are only $20, so I would urge folks in Toronto to give it a shot.

The Dining Room at Soulpepper has about slightly over one more week to run, though tickets will be scarce.  I enjoyed this a lot, though it is fair to say that the stakes are fairly low, as none of the scenes are interconnected and they don't lead up to any particular climax.  It basically is a series of snapshots of WASP culture (and one of the more successful scenes is watching an anthropology student trying to make the case that the dining room was the locus of power for upper-crust WASPs).  But it was still fun.

I also liked The Object Lesson quite a bit, though its run has already concluded.

I did not care for Speaking in Tongues over at East Side Players where it has one more weekend to go.  I thought the actors did a good job, but I didn't care for the play, which starts off with an annoying gimmick and relies far too much on coincidence and people encountering other people with whom they have some unusual connection.  I may go into this more next week when I have more time.

I guess this weekend wraps around and is technically March, but I am planning on seeing Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo over at TIFF.  And I'll see if I can also get to an Amici concert this weekend, though I never got around to ordering tickets.  If I can manage to get my scene completed (clock's ticking!), I will send that off and see if I am going to Sing for Your Supper Monday evening.

Finally, next Wed. we are supposed to go see Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, which should be a great performance, assuming the TTC can keep running despite the cold weather and no one catches a terrible cold and can't go on.  Fingers crossed.

Edit to add: I am just back from seeing Problem Child.  It was a very well done performance, with my main beef being that they started 10 (or more) minutes late.  This matters, primarily because the seats in Red Sandcastle are pretty uncomfortable.  It's a very small theatre, but I could see making it work for one or two of the plays I am working on.  Actually given the general slope of the seats, I think The Study Group would not work there, however.  I think that would work better at The Storefront.  Well, one thing at a time.

I don't want to give any twists away, but it is a dark comedy indeed.  If one is a George Walker fan (and I am becoming one), then it is worth investigating this production.  They have two more shows through the weekend and apparently are considering adding a Sunday show. 

8th Canadian Challenge - 13th Review - Morning in the Burned House

Somewhat curiously, I've been reading quite a few collections by senior poets, that is to say poetry collections by poets who have reached retirement age.  I've just started working through quite a few of Philip Levine's later volumes, and I've also read (though not yet reviewed) Jane Munro's last two collections.  I decided that it might be best to officially close out the challenge with Margaret Atwood, but I am reviewing her poetry and not one of her novels.

As it happens, Morning in the Burned House is not even her latest collection, which is The Door (from 2007).  I'll be reviewing The Door next month.  As I was working my way through Morning in the Burned House, I had a sense that I had read at least a few of these before.  Indeed, it turns out that the entire collection is published as the last section of Eating Fire (which also contains two volumes of selected poems, so it is an incredible bargain, or at least my copy was -- though I kind of prefer the newer edition's cover, even if it is a bit too literal).


I wouldn't say I prefer Atwood's poetry to her novels, as she has many pleasures that only become apparent when she is writing layered fiction.  However, she can be quite good when forced to be concise.  Or at least reasonably concise.  Many of these poems are two or three pages in length, so they are not short, pithy poems.

The collection is broken into 5 sections.  The first is made up of primarily autobiographical poems (where the authorial voice does seem to square with what we know of Margaret Atwood).  The second section is mostly comprised of poems about women from history, particularly those that got a raw deal.  I wonder if The Penelopiad (first a novella from 2005 and then turned into an effective play) stemmed from the work she did researching and writing these poems.  The third is a bit of a mix, a bit more personal but still some political poems, particularly "Half-Hanged Mary," a long sequence of poems about a "witch" from Massachusetts.  She almost seems to be channeling Adrienne Rich in this particular section.  The fourth section is primarily about her (quite) elderly father and is vaguely reminiscent of Sharon Olds or indeed Jane Munro writing about their fathers, but with far less conflicted feelings.  (Atwood seemed to have a much happier childhood than either of them.) The final section is, like the third, hard to categorize, though the poems seem to be drawn from dreams and/or have a mythic quality to them.  I would say my favourite sections were the 1st and 4th, though there are good poems, or at least interesting stanzas and lines, throughout the collection.

I'll just touch on a few that worked for me.

While she comes across just a bit heavy-handed in "In the Secular Night" (she is well-known as a humanist and fierce agnostic*), the last lines work:
Several hundred years ago
this could have been mysticism
or heresy.  It isn't now.
Outside there are sirens.
Someone's been run over.
The century grinds on.

Perhaps it is fitting that my favourite poem was "February," which features her cat:
...  In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps on the bed and tries
to get onto my head.  It's his
way of telling whether or not I'm dead.
...
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You're the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here. ...

This has indeed been a particularly brutal February (one of the coldest on record though not all that much snow), and I am also thinking dark and dire thoughts.  As it happens, I am starting to think about pets now that we will own our own place soon, and the kids are just about old enough to help take care of them.  We'll see how that works out.

Of the poems in the second section, I think I am most attuned to "Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing," where the somewhat incongruous nature of a Greek legend brought into the modern world reminds me more than a little of Steven Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.
The world is full of women
who'd tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance.  Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
...
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous...

From the third section, "Half-Hanged Mary" is apparently about a women accused of witchcraft who was hung from a tree but survived.  It is a bit too long, but I thought the very final stanza was well crafted and a bit eerie:
The words boil out of me,
coil after coil of sinuous possibility.
The cosmos unravels from my mouth,
all fullness, all vacancy.

The final poem from this section "A Pink Hotel in California" features Atwood remembering her father chopping wood while they were staying in the woods in 1943 (this seems to be basically the parts of her past that fed into Cat's Eye).  Now (in 1994) she is in a pink hotel in California (perhaps on a book tour?) and her past comes flooding back to her.

This nicely sets up the fourth section where the poems discuss caring for an aging father, who is at times a bit cranky and unpredictable and even a bit Lear-like ("King Lear in Respite Care").  Perhaps not surprisingly, Atwood's poems evince a powerful desire to rewind time and to restore her father to his glory days, even if that means she has to return to childhood.

She is honest enough to admit she was bored a great deal in her youth ("Bored") and that "I could hardly wait to get / the hell out of there to / anywhere else."  But knowing what she knows now, she would gladly go back to that time when her father was still a youngish, vigorous man and appreciate it for what it was.  I guess this is a fairly standard trope coming from poets past their own middle age, but it is still a useful reminder.

It's hard to pick any particular poem out from the last section as they all have a bit of the spectre of doom hanging over them, as so many dreams do.  Even when the dreams start out reasonably upbeat, there is always the chance that things will quickly take a turn for the worse.

I did like this section in the middle of "Shapechangers in Winter":
                                 Every cell
in our bodies has renewed itself
so many times since then, there's
not much left, my love,
of the originals.  We're footprints
becoming limestone, or think of it
as coal becoming diamond. Less
flexible, but more condensed...

I think this is a solid collection with "February" being a stand-out poem.  Given that there are a few days left in February (and early March looks to be just as cold), it is worth reading this and trying to take some solace in the fact that others are suffering just as much.  As it happens, the entire poem is on-line here for your reading pleasure.

* I find myself in basic agreement with Atwood here.  She is too polite (most of the time) to come right out and say it, but she considers the idea of a personal God that pays attention to the human race (or specific tribes or favoured individuals) as arrant nonsense.  At the same time, to claim with absolute certainty that there is no possible way that an impersonal force or prime mover might have kick-started the universe is dogmatic and close-minded in its own right.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Back to Faulkner

It's been sort of interesting to be back in a part of the reading list where I actually can get through a book in a couple of days and make some significant progress.  I should be able to make quite a bit of headway into the list (and even clear out some books from the shelves) over the next month or so.  There are two roadblocks in the way, however.  Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and the massive Modernist masterpiece that is Dos Passo's USA Trilogy.  I don't mean to complain about this.  These are books I've wanted to or planned to read for a very long time, and I've finally come to them.  But it will take a while to go through them.

After a quick glance, it looks as though As I Lay Dying will be slightly easier going than The Sound and the Fury (not that that is saying much) but nowhere near the easy-going romp that was The Reivers.  It's possible that in the end The Reivers will be my favorite Faulkner.

When I am done with As I Lay Dying (probably by the weekend), I will have read all the novels in the Summer of Faulkner boxset that Oprah promoted back in 2005.  (Given that there were many copies of the set floating around afterwards, I picked one up for about $5 in 2011 -- one of the last purchases I made before the transition from Amazon.com to Amazon.ca.)  For all the flak Oprah often got for her bookclub, she did promote some incredible literature, and, while I probably won't use the archived resources, some people did find it very helpful to go through key early Faulkner with Oprah's support group.  After all, I had professors to help guide me through Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury.

I'm actually sort of gearing up for a second run through those two novels and I've tentatively slated late 2016 for an attempt at his Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion).  After this, I will have a few novels left to go and a huge stack of stories.  (Indeed, at one point I owned The Collected Stories of William Faulkner and probably The Uncollected Stories as well.  I may purchase them again, but only if I actually free up enough space on the shelves.)

Curiously enough, it looks as though if one wanted to follow the Yoknapatawpha County saga from start to finish, one should read them in a dramatically different order (than publication order).  Wikipedia suggests the best way through here.  I have to say, this looks like an interesting challenge, but one I would defer for many years.  I think I'll stick to the somewhat random order I am using.

However, it is probably worth tracking my progress through Faulkner.  I'll be over 25% done with his novels by next week.  That's not too shabby, though not nearly as accomplished as I would like.  After I get through my Toronto reading list, I will be over 80%, which is more like it.

Anyway, here is the official list (which only includes novels and short stories published in stand-alone volumes by Faulker).

Soldiers' Pay (1926)
Mosquitoes (1927)
Sartoris/Flags in the Dust (1929/1973)
R2O The Sound and the Fury (1929)
RO As I Lay Dying (1930)
Sanctuary (1931)
RO Light in August (1932)
Pylon (1935)
R2O Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
O The Unvanquished (1938)
O The Wild Palms (aka If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) (1939)
O The Hamlet (1940)
RO Go Down, Moses (1942)
RO Intruder in the Dust (1948)
O Requiem for a Nun (1951)
O A Fable (1954)
O The Town (1957)
O The Mansion (1959)
RO The Reivers (1962)


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Philip Levine, RIP

While not quite as flashy as other poets, Philip Levine carved out quite a career for himself in a fairly unassuming way.  He considered himself a Detroiter, despite having left the city years ago.  He also portrayed himself as a working-class poet and generally a political progressive, though much of his life was spent as visiting professor of poetry at various top tier universities. (He was actually Poet Laureate from 2011-2012.)  This isn't meant to tear him down, but simply point out the contradictions inherent in artists who keep playing up their working-class roots, as they inevitably stray from them.

Here is a nice obituary from the Detroit Free Press (Levine died on Valentine's Day 2015 at age 87).  I can't guarantee the video will always play, but at the moment it is set on Levine reading his poem "The Last Shift," which apparently has never been collected in book form (it is in Michigan Quarterly Review from 1986).  There is also a nice piece in remembrance from The Paris Review and the probably uncollected "She's Not Gone" published in The Paris Review in 1980.

Here is a list of his published collections (not counting Selected volumes):
On the Edge (1963)
Not This Pig (1968)
Pili's Wall (1971) (more of a very short chapbook)
Red Dust (1971)
They Feed They Lion (1972)
1933 (1974)
The Names of the Lost (1976)
Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979)
7 Years From Somewhere (1979)
One for the Rose (1981)
Sweet Will (1985)
A Walk With Tom Jefferson (1988)
What Work Is (1991)
The Simple Truth (1994)
Unselected Poems (1997)
The Mercy (1999)
Breath (2004)
News of the World (2009)

There is a fairly long gap from News of the World to the present, and we know Levine was still writing (as he has a couple of poems in the Winter 2014-15 edition of Ploughshares, which I will have to try to track down soon).  I suspect his editor could pull together one final posthumous volume, which would probably be worth peeking into.

As it happens, I have New Selected Poems, which came out in 1991, and covered -- reasonably well -- basically all of his individual volumes through A Walk With Tom Jefferson.  There were no poems from What Work Is, which personally I thought (at the time) was trying a bit too hard.  I suspect I would be more open to the poems in it now (and I did like a few from that collection).

I kind of let the other collections pass me by, though in 2011 I picked up News of the World from Powells (the one in Chicago), presumably around the same time that I was trying to sell off quite a few of my books.  After I heard of Levine's passing, I decided to order Unselected Poems, and get the rest out of the library.  I am still somewhat surprised that there is almost no Levine at all in the Toronto Public Library, but virtually all of his poetry collections are in the UT library.

I came pretty close to going on Saturday (adding even more stress to a day in which I always seemed to be running late), and I went today (Monday).  I really thought some enterprising English grad. student would have beat me to the punch, but no, they were all on the shelves, and I checked out everything from Sweet Will to Breath.  So this week I will have a chance to really dive into his work.

I know there was a poem or two I was strongly considering for my transportation poetry anthology, and I'll try to dig that out shortly, and I am sure I'll find another one or two that really catch my eye as I work my way through his later collections.

So I have found my list of transportation-related poems by Levine.  In the bus category, I selected "Coming Home from the Post Office" from What Work Is.  In the car category, I choose "Coming Home, Detroit 1968," which is in They Feed They Lion.  If you scroll about halfway down, the poem is reprinted here.  Finally, in the airplane/air travel section, I was hoping to anthologize "Salt."  This was published in Poetry Magazine, all the way back in 1979.  It turns out that it turns up in Unselected Poems and it may well have been published in One for the Rose.  In any case, it can be read here.  I think of these three "moving" poems, "Salt" is probably my favorite.

At the moment, I don't really have anything profound to say about his work, other than I enjoyed reading it when I remembered to make the time.  He had a long, productive and seemingly happy life. RIP.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Non-professional theatre

I was thinking of calling this amateur theatricals or something, but that doesn't quite capture what I am after.

I am specifically thinking through whether I should apply my critical apparatus (which can be highly critical indeed at times) to non-professional theatre.  This is sort of tangentially related to the (fairly boring debate) in progressive circles about whether satire can ever punch down or only punch up.  I really dislike these debates, as it reminds me far too much of the ultimately oppressive P.C. culture that dominated my early 20s and ultimately comes down to one group of people trying to shut down others (with the best intentions in the world, of course).  I find the number of people claiming victimhood to have multiplied to the point where one can hardly say anything without offending some tiny or not so tiny interest group (with aggrieved white Christian men some of the most offended these days).  So I pretty much ignore all those people who say that this or that is off-limits.

To the extent that I have rules for reviewing, they basically break down to 1) kids are off-limits, 2) it's probably better not to review a friend's work (covering writing and/or acting) and 3) if it truly is an amateur performance, I might go a little easy on reviewing the individual performances (but not the script).  I feel, so long as I was expected to pay (or pay over $5), then the play can be reviewed without kid gloves.

What I think is actually insulting is that some non-professional companies being patted on the head for just showing up and putting on a show.  Or worse, the play is being valued for its political context (extremely common among reviewers in Now for instance) or building community (the overly friendly reviews of work at Buddies in Bad Times for instance, or this blog (Mooney's*) that generally does not publish negative reviews at all) or focuses on a back story that is interesting (and not on the play that is actually being put on).  This last category is certainly what is most important to many of the reviewers of AOHDDS.  Here is a typical review from the Globe and Mail.  As it might be behind a paywall, this is the money quote (to my mind): "The meta-narrative surrounding All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is what made the production work – and it’s tamped down this time around. But the story behind the story cannot be forgotten."  What doesn't really seem to matter is the craft or professionalism of the actors.  Of course, this assumes that the play is reviewed at all.  I believe The Star still tries to hold the line and only review Equity shows (with an exception made to the various Fringe shows, which has become an institution that can no longer be ignored).  I tend to have to go to Now to find out what is really going on, though I still find the reviews themselves a bit slanted.

What happens is that then people get kind of misled or sidetracked by an overly generous review and go spend their money and feel they didn't have the right kind of information going in.  Or what might even be worse, the play gets moved from a Fringe venue (or even incredibly enough transfers to the big league, i.e. New York) and it gets slaughtered because what it had going for it (aside from local good will) was some kind of magic that just couldn't scale up.  I have seen or heard of this several times.  I wasn't terribly surprised that the New York Times was not overly impressed with All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, giving only 2.5 stars and the reviewer (Ben Brantley) essentially coming out and saying that the actors embarrassed themselves on stage.  What he actually says is that it starts to feel painful watching these unprepared performers "who use a motley mix of mismatched and undercooked techniques."  That very much squares with my impressions of the play.

Now the actors probably had the time of their lives in New York, and certainly some people enjoyed the play (or convinced themselves that they hadn't wasted their money, which is nearly the same thing).  But I think it would have been worth everyone's while to sit back and reflect if perhaps a more polished style (and a coherent approach above all) wouldn't have been more rewarding to the cast and the audience.  

Am I getting too hung up over this?  Isn't the main point to have a good time?  Ultimately, there is no play that will satisfy everyone.  And that is true, though I feel (or I wouldn't go on at such length) that plays with some organic unity (and that don't rely on digital tricks and flashy graphics) will more often than not, bring pleasure to the majority of theatre goers.  Plays that break all the rules will occasionally hit it out of the park, but will more often strike out swinging.  For some artists, that is fine (an acceptable trade-off), and I don't begrudge them that, but my general preference is for the more carefully constructed play with a well-trained cast.  Perhaps ironically, The Object Lesson, which does break almost all the rules but does it extremely well, worked for me, but I overheard a couple on the streetcar home saying that they didn't feel it was worth their time because it wasn't a coherent piece.  I'll try to get to a review of this in a day or two, though given the extremely short run (it closed today), this will be more valuable (to the extent it is of any value) as a reflection on art and theatre than as a guide to what to see in Toronto.

* I will say that the reviews are generally informative (and I may even have seen one or two that were not all sweetness and light) and they may even be slightly more comprehensive than Now in listing very small theatre companies, so I will probably end up bookmarking this site after all.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Short Takes #4 (& Hip show at ACC)

It is bloody cold out.  Tuesday and Wednesday were cold but not completely out of character for winter.  Today (Thurs) was so terrible.  I had to walk down to Spadina and back (got some boots on sale!) and my face just hurt for a while.  Apparently, it will stay cold for two more weeks but gradually let up in early March.

I wonder if the frozen pipe syndrome hit our local recreation centre.  (City Hall suffered a burst pipe!)  I didn't really want to, but I dragged myself over there (to the rec centre not City Hall) to go swimming, and they had no hot water and the pool was closed.  You'd think I would rejoice that I had a legit excuse to go back home and veg out, but you would be wrong.  I actually did make the effort and following through would have felt much better.  This was especially annoying as this centre was not one of the ones open on Monday (Family Day) so there will be no evening lap swimming at all for the week.  (I am not at all impressed with the schedule over there, but I'm not close enough to a Y to really take my business over there.)  I guess it was more important that they had things fixed today, so that my daughter could have her swimming lessons.

I managed to send off my short story (based on the short play that was red at RedOne a couple of weeks ago).  It is a fairly early chapter in my novel.  Now I have in my head what the next chapter will be, and I think I'll get at least a few pages down tonight (after I wrap up this blog post).  I don't really expect to win the contest (though that would be ultra cool) but using this as a way to really get me going was very helpful.  I probably ought to join a writers' group in Toronto -- or even start one (after we have moved and I can have guests at the new place).  Though I can see my wife not being too keen on that, particularly if the writers have to censor themselves because of the presence of children.  It's probably more hassle than it is worth, though I wouldn't say I am completely abandoning the idea.  (Actually, I found a writing group that might be my speed, though it actually meets twice a month on Thursdays, and there are no fees to join!  However, because it is not a poetry workshop, only two people get to read each time, so it is about two months between actual critiques of one's work -- that could be good and bad.  Well, I will think about it a bit more before I see if I should join.)

I finished Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris, but really didn't care that much for it.  The structure is quite similar to Three Days of Rain (the play) where the action starts in the present moves to the past to clear up some key misunderstandings about what actually took place, then returns to the present.  The first section wasn't bad, but I didn't care for it after that.  It's hard to pinpoint exactly the problem, but really it is much ado about a fairly pedestrian affair and a number of high-strung characters that didn't seem particularly believable.  I also cringe inside when I read about men in their mid to late 30s marrying 18 and 19 year old girls which was apparently "a thing" back in Britain in the 30s and 40s.  It not only appears in Bowen but one or two of Elizabeth Taylor's novels.

Anyway, the big news of the night is that I went to the Tragically Hip concert.  I wondered if the cold would keep some people away, but it didn't seem so.  Gord was slightly more restrained, particularly on some of the Fully Completely material, but he is still a bit much.  I kind of preferred focusing on the amazing guitar players.  So I saw them in Chicago ages ago, not long after Fully Completely came out, and they played a lot of that, and material on their first two albums.  Gord was only slightly over-the-top back then.  I did see them do a few songs during their free event at Dundas & Yonge, though it was starting to rain so I basically took off after Fifty Mission Cap.  While I did enjoy the concert, I suspect this will be the last time I go and see them live.

The main focus was the album Fully Completely.  They played the entire thing in the middle of the show.  That was pretty awesome.  I've listened to it so many times that I know it essentially by heart.  I really barely know Hip material not on that CD, though I own quite a few others (or did at one point) and do occasionally listen to them.  I don't even know with certainty if I picked Fully Completely up while living in Toronto (though that is the most likely scenario) or elsewhere.  Each show opens with 5 songs not on the album, and they have really been mixing them up.  I will wait for a full set-list to material before I commit, but I do know that they did Ahead by a Century, Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin' Man and My Music at Work before the "main event."  During Fifty-Mission Cap, people yelled and pointed to the Stanley Cup banners.  How cool is that (even if the games were played at the old Maple Leafs Gardens and not in the ACC)?  Apparently, in Vancouver, the fans actually booed at those lines!

Then after the Fully Completely run-through, they came back on to do five songs in the encore.  I know they ended on Blow at High Dough but wasn't sure about the others.*  I think they skipped New Orleans is Sinking, but I could be wrong.  It is clear they are really mixing these up during the different shows, and if they had started a bit sooner (not an hour after the doors opened) they could have played a couple more fan favourites.  Anyway, it was a good show, and I have no serious complaints (other than the cold).

Ok, I should go and get at least a page or two of my next dramatic scene done.

* Setlist is here.  It looks like they did Bobcaygeon and Nautical Disaster during the extended encore.  So really close to an ideal set.  Probably the only thing that would have been better is if they had substituted New Orleans is Sinking for My Music at Work.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mid Feb arts update

It's really hard for me to organize my thoughts into coherent posts and then not cannibalize the surrounding posts.  I guess I'll just discuss some things I've been to lately (trying to keep up the tradition of keeping cultured even when the weather outside is brutally cold) and then move on tomorrow to some posts about what I have been reading lately.

I already discussed how I wasn't crazy about All Our Happy Days are Stupid.  I may even write a bit of a follow-up post, not taking back what I wrote, but clarifying a few points around the main review.  I came reasonably close to going to The Cardinals this weekend, which has an interesting set-up: these 3 Cardinals are going to put on a puppet show but the puppets are lost (but none of the rest of the sets!) and they make it live action -- with the help of a female Muslim stage manager.  It sounds like it would have been quite incredible (if a bit muddled) at 90 minutes or better yet 75 minutes, but at 2 hours it really overstays its welcome.  While I think this reviewer from the New York Times overthinks his (negative) response, I often do the same thing and have a very cerebral reaction to theatre (as has probably become quite evident).  Some of these same points would also have bothered me, particularly that they would be celebrating the Crusades (in the second half of the piece).  But I think what would bother me more is that they shoehorned this piece into an almost entirely non-verbal framework to get it into puppet festivals and mime festivals, when it probably would have been somewhat funnier and made slightly more sense if it hadn't been forced into such a narrow niche.  Anyway, it was brutally cold out, and I am sure even worse near the waterfront, so I decided to pass (and both plays have closed now).  I'll be trekking out to Harbourfront for The Object Lesson next week. This seems like a much more polished piece, and I am sort of feeling down on amateurism right now (but I'll discuss that in more detail in another post).

On Thurs. I went to the TSO and saw a quite good performance of Brahms' Haydn Variations (where I thought the two piano version just slightly edged out the orchestral version) and then Ravel's Le Valse, where really both versions were incredible.  This was a last minute substitution, but I'm glad I went.

Saturday (Valentine's Day) I saw Congreve's Love for Love.  This was in the Young Centre in the Distillery District.  It's also where Soulpepper puts on its shows, though they also rent space to George Brown Theatre School.  I'll be going out there again this Saturday to see The Dining Room.  Unlike all these other theatre events I have discussed, there are still a few performances to go, though I imagine tickets are hard to come by.  George Brown kind of represents the things the Fringe author (who really riled me up so) doesn't like -- emphasis on professional training and adherence to classical texts.  They put on Middleton's Women Beware Women a few years ago (which I saw in Vancouver, so I don't have to feel too left out).  I think in general they try to put on a Restoration comedy each season, as the casts are huge (and they do them without doubling).  I'll definitely keep an eye out for what they are up to next season.  Maybe I'll luck out and they'll do another Middleton or Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem or Congreve's The Way of the World  (though both of those played Toronto relatively recently).  I'm also keeping my eyes open for a student production of Jonson's The Alchemist, though I would guess that is more likely to be at UT or Ryerson.

Despite the bitter cold, I dragged myself to Ryerson's Image Centre to see a couple of shows on glamour and anti-glamour.  A couple of the better photos I had seen already, though I am having trouble remembering where.  I'm thinking perhaps it was the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Qusuquzah, 2008

Well, I definitely saw Mickalene Thomas's photo Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires in Baltimore, and I think the one above was on view as well, but maybe I saw it elsewhere. 

Mickalene Thomas, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010

Her recreation of a certain 70s style is so distinctive that it becomes easy to identify her work (at least as long as she mines this vein).

After this, I got on the streetcar and headed over to AGO.  I was stunned at how crowded the Basquiat exhibit was, but I got a ticket and went through it extremely quickly.  I'll start going again in late February and perhaps will manage to bring my wife along in early March.  If one is a big Basquiat fan, then one must see this show.  I'm not a deeply committed fan, though I am always interested in the dealings of the New York artworld, so I am more of a second-hand fan of Basquiat.  I would say there are 3 or 4 really excellent pieces, and even the lesser pieces gain something by seeing how large they are in real life.  They come across much better in real life than in reproductions.  Speaking of reproductions, I was pleasantly surprised that they produced a slimmed down catalog of the exhibit with (apparently) all the paintings but none of the scholarly apparatus.  This sold for $10 (members $9), and I picked one up.  It isn't quite as good a deal as the Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn, but still very reasonable.

I debated strongly whether to just come home, due to the extreme cold, or to do some work and then go to Red One's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  Finally, I opted for the latter course.  I'm glad I did.  The show was still on, and roughly half the seats were sold (I do wonder if Chicagoans are just a bit tougher than Torontonians when it comes to going out in terrible weather).  But I expect that next weekend (when it closes) word of mouth will make it tough to get tickets.  It was well done.  It's certainly a cynical yet sexy play (or cynically sexy?) and I didn't understand one scene towards the very end, as it just seemed so out of character for Valmont to get himself so embroiled.  Given that it was late and cold, I didn't stick around to talk to the actors afterwards, but I'll probably see some of them in a couple of weeks at the Sing-for-Your-Supper (which reminds me I have to actually get my material down on paper before it is too late).

So with just a few disappointments, there has already been quite a lot of amazing art and theatre.  I'm always worrying about how to fit everything in.  Actually March looks even tougher than February!  I have tickets for Blithe Spirit (oh, please don't get sick before our show Ms. Lansbury!) and Spoon River, but then there is Inge's Picnic and a world premiere of a John Patrick Shanley play and Blood Wedding at Buddies in Bad Times.  And I will be making a quick trip to Brooklyn and perhaps a driving trip to Detroit and perhaps one to Saskatoon (though I am trying to get out of that).  I think I'll have to pass on going to the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies (though I'll remember to check it out next year).  I am very tempted by the New Ideas Festival at Alumnae, but I don't think I can do that and everything else (and still see my family from time to time).  I guess we'll see how it all pans out in a few more weeks.  And will that, I am quite late in taking care of some other business, so adieu...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Stupid Happy Play

I thought I would report back on All Our Happy Days Are Stupid by Sheila Heti and put on by Suburban Beast over at Harbourfront.  It runs through the weekend basically (with an extra evening show) and then moves to New York.  Not sure if any of the cast is making the move, though it appears it will be a complete transfer for a short run at the Kitchen.  Basically, I really didn't like it (and kind of don't trust anyone who does like it).  Not as much as I hated Tartuffe by any means, but I felt that the acting was intentionally flat and unrealistic.  The actors basically intoned various lines without a lot of inflection (almost like how a middle school kid might think a play would go) and frequently looking straight out into the audience and rarely directly interacting with each other while speaking.  There are certainly some exceptions to this -- the twelve year old schoolmates who end up meeting each other in Paris, for example.  And the lecherous Frenchman in the polar bear costume certainly sidled up to the ladies.

I realize this was a stylistic choice, but I do not like things that are intentionally inept.  Theatre is too fricking hard to make it look like some throw-away show that you just happened to stage in your backyard.  The characters acted in peculiar ways that didn't seem believable, and then there were random set-pieces like some prince descending upon a Parisian hotel for no good reason at all.  I suppose this review has two minor SPOILERS, but really the plot was so secondary or rather so superfluous to the play that it hardly counts (and anyone should be able to see the second spoiler a mile away).  Anyway, after their son vanishes in Paris, the mother (Mrs. Sing -- not Singh as I thought) decamps to Cannes in a vain effort to befriend Mrs. Oddi, who has also abandoned her family. 

I disliked the sets (made to look like everything was made from white cardboard).  I wasn't crazy about the costumes, other than the white and black outfits of Mrs. Oddi, which were somewhat chic. I really disliked Suburban Beast's ethos of encouraging people to live-tweet their shows.  I know there are a few companies that think they will reel in the Millennials using this strategy, but I find it rude and counter-productive, and if this in fact is their approach, I won't be going to any more of their productions.  Actually having taking a closer look at their website, I don't think I will ever go back to see another Suburban Beast show.  It's just so not what I am interested in.

I actually came pretty close to leaving at intermission, but there were two moments that were in the second half that were pretty good.  First, there was this old man who talked about how he used to dance when he was happy and yet he didn't like being observed while dancing, so his friends gradually drifted away.  This was truly funny.  I also thought that -- SPOILER -- when the lost boy turns up he has an interesting monologue.  It didn't make up for the overall negative feelings I have about this play, but I guess I might as well focus on the few things that I did find tolerable.  Had I known how it played itself out, I think I would have sat this one out, but at least I gave it a shot.  (I do expect to enjoy The Object Lesson next week much, much more.)

Also, I did appreciate the tea & conversation they had before the show where Matthew Sergi and a couple of other Toronto theatre types discussed the different between mainstream and alternative theatre.  I found it interesting that this Fringe author really felt that the alternative theatre was just too text-bound and that they didn't do enough interdisciplinary work with video or perhaps puppets.  This sounds a lot like the argument from the guy who just took over at Canadian Stage, but I didn't really buy it from him either.  This is a tradition that goes back 2000 years, and we are supposed to ditch it all in favour of flavour-of-the-month quasi-theatre?  I realize this is an exaggeration of the position, but I find it absurd to argue that classically organized, text-based theatre (with actual plots and organically-whole characters with believable dialogue) is somehow passé.   I don't accept this premise (and not simply because I write plays that are classically constructed).  But basically I don't particularly want to support companies moving in this direction, though I may see their productions from time to time if they are doing something that catches my attention (and they haven't completely abandoned narrative).  That's probably all I really have to say on this topic.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Short Takes #3B

A few items that are somewhat of a continuation of Short Takes #3.

First, in a somewhat odd coincidence, the play I am seeing tomorrow at Harbourfront is actually going to New York.  Given that it was considered unstageable, that's quite a coup. I suppose it won't be all that long before it turns up in Chicago.  I will have to remember to keep my eyes open for the other things that Suburban Beast is doing, though they may be a bit too freeform for my taste.

I am holding off getting my tickets for TSO's 2015-16 season a bit longer.  My kids decided the Beethoven 5 concert was too long, so I am going on my own.  Probably for the best.  They'll probably start going a bit more routinely as they get into middle school.

However, I realized why I couldn't find my May 13 ticket, and that is because I had half-expected to be in Austin around then, and I hadn't pre-ordered one.  Given that I am going to start moving in around then, I probably shouldn't have gotten the ticket after all, but I will just try to have most of the painting done by then and it will be a bit of a reward.  I won't be able to paint and move stuff every single night in May or I will be far too worn out to get anything else done.

While I was over at Roy Thompson Hall, I went to the lost and found, but they didn't have my scarf.  I lost it there Saturday evening.  It's sort of frustrating.  It had been a particularly wet snowy evening and my scarf was quite wet.  Thus, I couldn't put it in my bag, as it would have gotten the book in there all wet.  I just left it on the seat, and I even looked around a bit as I was leaving the concert.  However, it must have slid under the seat or something.  I realized it was gone the minute I had left the hall, but the crowds were so bad to get into and out of the building, I thought I would just go back later.  While I have already replaced it, I am still a bit miffed.

I find some of the Toronto library decisions so odd.  They know there is too much demand for many items, particularly DVDs (now that Redbox is pulling out of Canada and Netflix never shipped DVDs here in the first place).  So it becomes a bit like a lottery for the first 6 months of release where you can't place any holds on them.  I don't really see the logic in that, but ok.  However, you can't build up queues of things that are of interest but not technically "holdable" like you can in Vancouver or Burnaby.  Overall, those two libraries have a better on-line interface.  I actually sent over some suggestions to the Toronto library to see if they could improve.

I don't think they have quite as long a "no hold" period on CDs and I don't think they have any "no hold" period on books (though they used to).  I managed to get a hold placed on the Beck CD that just won the Grammys and am high in the queue (should get a copy within a week or two), whereas there are already nearly 50 people behind me in the queue.  I guess that's where insomnia pays off...

But seriously, I am thinking of proposing a panel that would look at the everyday life in cities, but a comparative study that would look at things like garbage collection, applying for building permits, responsiveness of alderman, crime, transit access, etc. with a considerable focus on how much it is possible to "game the system," particularly around issues like access to magnet/charter schools and so forth.  Here there are quite a few free museum passes at the libraries, but the popular ones go right away, to the point that some libraries have instituted a lottery system.  While it doesn't exactly track with income, finding out about these things requires social capital, which is closely tied to social class.

Anyway, if Canada only had Spotify or another of those streaming services, then waiting at the library wouldn't even be an issue.  I definitely wish that the main content providers could negotiate deals that would include the US + Toronto and Vancouver and perhaps Montreal.  It is kind of sucky realizing just how badly Canada loses out on a lot of services compared to our neighbours to the south, though Amazon.ca has gotten somewhat better over the years.

The last thing (promise) is more amusing than anything.  I had read a short column in The Star by Manu Joseph, who is an Indian author.  I decided to put one of his books on hold at the library (The Illicit Happiness of Other People) and then it turned out I actually own this book.  I'm sure that's why it sounded so familiar in the first place.  I must have picked this up at a book sale recently, most likely at the book store on University Avenue.  Well, no harm, no foul, and I deleted my hold.  What I haven't decided is where to fit this into my long reading list, but I'll figure out a place for it eventually.  It's not a big deal, but I'll probably slightly refresh and repost this list in the spring, maybe right after the official move -- and report on how I did in just under a year. (A more challenging problem is deciding how to arrange books in the new house, though I think the art books will stay in the living room and 4 of the book cases will fit into the room off the kitchen, which is going to become (by default) the study.  Then perhaps the shorter bookcase will go into the basement, and if it fits reasonably well, I might get one or two just like it.  That would go a really long way towards clearing out these boxes of books.  I might actually be able to have the vast majority of books open for casual browsing, which would be pretty great.)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Short Takes #3

This really will be (slightly) shorter than the others.

I finally decided to get tickets for The Tragically Hip for a week from Thurs.  There are still a few seats left.  Even though reports at that Gord is behaving particularly erratically, the music is still great, and they are supposedly playing the entire Fully Completely CD, along with other songs.  Should be a good show, but probably the last one I go to.

In general, I am finding it harder to stay awake at concerts, particularly classical ones.  (Staying awake probably won't be a problem at the Hip show.)  There is just something about the darkened lights and everyone being extremely hushes and reverential, that unless the music particularly gripping, I start dozing off.  I'll have to take this into consideration and try to make more matinees or concerts with stirring music.  And also try to be somewhat more rested before these concerts.

While I had rested a bit on Saturday, I never did take an actual nap.  I ran off to check out the Target liquidation sale, then went over to the Harbourfront to get my tickets for a Wednesday evening show: All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. (I had pre-ordered but was worried that something was wrong with the order, as I never got a confirmation email.)  I also bought a ticket for The Object Lesson, which is a one-man show about going through the contents of an attic and recalling one's life based on these material leavings (or something along those lines).  Whether it will inspire me to clean out more (now that we have to start thinking of packing again!) or impede me is hard to say.

Here are a couple of photos of what is on at the Billy Bishop Artport.



The first is a Magritte-inspired wallpaper covering an entire interior wall.  The second was one that really inspired my daughter, but you have to see it in person to watch the butterflies take off or the rabbit skin shake.

After that, I put in about an hour at work before the concert.  I really did enjoy the Brahms Double Concerto, even though I came close to dozing off a couple of times.  Often for me, I finally am awake for the 2nd half of the concert, but even though Yefim Bronfman playing was fine and it opened with a fine horn solo, I found Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto to be a total snoozefest, metaphorically and literally.  I won't bother to see this again.  And that was pretty much it.  For the first time ever, I went straight over to the subway (rather than another pit stop at work) and it was so crowded.

I think those are the main highlights.  It looks like we are being spared another major snowstorm on its way to wallop Boston, and in general, we are only getting some light snow this week.  The real issue is that it will not warm up (no days above freezing for the next two weeks apparently!) and the snow isn't going anywhere.

Rezzori (take 2)

This is an unbelievably silly post.  I cannot find a usable book cover on-line to indicate that I am finally starting Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol, so I am pinning one up here.  Sorry about that.  If I have anything interesting to say about the book after this many month delay (while I was off reading Russians), I will update this post in a week or so -- and repost it so that it can be found.


Sharp-eyed viewers will note that the cover is an adaptation of the central painting in the Max Beckmann triptych, The Beginning.  This is perhaps the 2nd most famous of the triptychs, simply because it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and millions of people have seen it.  However, it does go into storage periodically or rather other paintings are rotated back on view.  It wasn't there on my last two trips.  I just checked and it is back on view now, so it should be there in mid March when I have a short trip to NYC planned.  That's a significant plus (not that I wouldn't have stopped by the Met anyway).

Ok, I am back, having finally read the novel, and I thought it was a fine novel indeed.

As I have hinted in a few posts, von Rezzori seems to be mourning the loss of a cosmopolitan city that was generally open to citizens of various nationalities (Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians among others) and religions (within limits).  Muslims did not seem to feature in this city, clearly based upon Czernowitz, an actual city that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Jews were largely left alone, though somewhat despised (including by the narrator's parents to his shame and regret).  And the anti-Jewish sentiments, so horrifyingly channeled by the Nazis, come to a head in a somewhat smaller-scale Kristallnacht in Czernopol.  After which point, the city loses its cosmopolitan character, and starts to become a backwater.

There are quite a number of much more thorough reviews of the book: here and here and here and here and here.  (Somewhat bizarrely the Guardian does not seem to have reviewed it when the new translation came out, when it would have seemed to have been very much up their alley.)

Mourning the loss of a one-great city puts von Rezzori in the same tradition as Joseph Roth (particularly his shorter non-fiction writings, but one could argue The Radetzky March sets up the Austro-Hungarian Empire as something to be mourned) and certainly Stefan Zweig (almost everything but in particular The World of Yesterday).  One connection not made by these other reviews (because it had not come out yet) is to the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.  (However, Wes Anderson freely admits to being heavily inspired by Zweig, so the linkage is quite legitimate.)  The same sense of urbaneness, even to the point of ridiculousness, is well represented in An Ermine in Czernopol.  The narrator says that one of the chief characteristics of the citizens of Czernopol is that they refuse to take life seriously and make jokes (both open, hearty ones and mean-spirited dark ones) about everything.  Even a man getting shot in the street becomes an uproarious joke to them.  (As one can see, there are pluses and minuses to such an approach to life.)  Curiously, the main character Gustave H., is most of the time witty and urbane like Herr Tarangolian, the prefect of Czernopol, but at the end of the movie, makes a noble gesture of self-sacrifice that is a bit more in line with Major Tildy (who is the "ermine" of the title).

Where this novel is a bit of a departure (and distinct from Roth and Zweig) is that the narrator, and particularly his parents, are a fairly central part of society, and the parents' open antisemitism (mixed with only occasional noble efforts to save particular Jewish children from danger) helped fuel the climate where the general population turns on the Jews of Czernopol.  Curiously, von Rezzori was somewhat closer to the centre in that he was not Jewish and he was actually from an aristocratic lineage (which he later played up), but he was not particularly well-off (his father was a civil servant in Czernowitz) and he had Romanian citizenship, which kept him from being drafted by the Nazis in WWII.  So he is not as complicit (in WWII) as a typical Austrian, to say nothing of the Germans themselves, say a German writer like Günter Grass (who ended up far more tied to the Nazis than he admitted after the war).  An Ermine in Czernopol actually has a number of similarities and a few outright parallels with Grass's The Tin Drum, though I liked An Ermine in Czernopol far more.

That really enough to say on the matter.  If one likes books from Mitteleuropa, then one must definitely explore von Rezzori's work.  It might be easier to ease into it, perhaps starting with The Snows Of Yesteryear.  After that, either Memoirs of an Anti-Semite or An Ermine in Czernopol.  I think one should leave what is often considered his magnum opus, The Death of My Brother Abel, for last.  And that's all I have to say on the subject (for now at any rate).

Edit: Actually I think I should add a bit of discussion around the final chapter, which stylistically seems such a change from the rest of the book.  First, it is a little hard to understand how the narrator would have found out some of the really salacious details.  Second, it is much more about a personal downfall, and the fate of Czernopol is hardly mentioned at all.  Third, the wildness of the events at this dive bar/bawdy house remind me more than a little of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and both feature streetcar accidents, though I shouldn't say anything more.  It seems impossible that von Rezzori would have read The Master and Margarita in the early 50s when he wrote An Ermine, as the censored Russian version didn't come out until 1967 with English and German translations coming out slightly after that.  But finally, and most surprisingly, the style of this particular chapter seems a complete throwback to von Rezzori's first novel, Oedipus at Stalingrad.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did surprise me.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Straying South #2 - In Search of a Better Title

This started out as a short comment in the last post about being just a bit sick, but it really took on a life of its own...

In addition to the other things I have been up to, I managed to tweak my short play Straying South and add back in just a bit more info that will be useful down the road, either in the novel or in another short play with the same characters.  The final version is available at the tail end of this post. I now need to take this slightly expanded version and turn it back into a short story in order to submit it to The Star short story contest.  But that shouldn't take too long.

What's a lot more interesting to me is that I have let it simmer in the back of my mind and I think I have come up with the March contribution to Sing-for-Your Supper.  It will indeed be a continuation of Straying South.

At first, I was sort of thinking of a separate series of short plays where we see the backstage antics of Shelly and April (a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) but decided that was far too meta-theatrical.  And it would only make sense if the novel was actually out and this play became bonus material.  (My intention, even though the novel will be a conventional third-person perspective novel, is for the action to follow Jonathan around and only cover those events where he is present.  So there won't be any omniscient viewpoint in this novel.  Anything that happens "offstage," Jonathan will only hear about second-hand.  At least that is the plan.  I can be a little more flexible in these short plays, as they aren't "canon.")  Obviously, that is getting way ahead of myself.

I might as well admit that I don't really want to write too much about the private lives of lesbians, simply because it probably wouldn't be believable, so it will nearly always be Jonathan soaking up a lot of information about their private lives but it will always be somewhat refracted by them interacting with him, even if in a space that feels like home to them, even if Jonathan wanders in from time to time. So instead I may just start off with a line or two where Shelly asks April if she ever feels like she is just a bystander in her own life waiting for "real life" to start, and April will say that while she used to feel that way, she never does now while she has all these children's eyes upon her.  That makes you the centre of your own private universe every day.  And then Jonathan enters the scene and things take off in whatever direction they go.

While it was a bit of a throw-away (in Straying South) for April to be a grade school teacher, probably 1st or 2nd grade, it actually will help set up Jonathan's teaching career in Newark if I ever wrap up the first novel and then write the sequel.  Talk about getting ahead of oneself!  However, it is encouraging to feel that the characters are starting to develop internal coherence.  I never really had a good angle on April, other than she was going to be the opposite of the real-life person (half of a lesbian couple) whom I knew back in the 90s.  Thus, she would be fairly surly and unpleasant to Jonathan.  I've decided I will walk that back a bit, mostly because it is difficult to maintain that tone.  On the other hand, it probably would work better in a stage environment where externally expressed conflict is practically a requirement.

So I can sort of see working on these moments where the three of them are interacting back home, and then these become interludes with the rest of the novel where Jonathan is out in Toronto in a series of increasingly bizarre jobs.  That is a fairly resilient and flexible structure I could use.  And who knows perhaps it will result in a decent stand-alone play,* even though the main goal is to use this to accumulate enough novel material to really kick it into that higher gear and finish.  I think I am at that point (ready to buckle down and finish).  Things have finally come together to the point where I can see it happening.  Would it have better to just have cranked this out 10 or 15 years ago?  No doubt, but then I would have given up something else that I really cared about at that time, most likely the dissertation.  And of course, if we hadn't moved every two or three years that would also have made it a lot more likely I would have had the free time to finish this up.  But I can't really regret too much.  I've made the most of the various situations I've found myself in (or forced myself into as the case may be).

As I indicated I really don't have a title yet, though maybe I'll just call it something like The Job Hunt.  This episode will be one where Jonathan has been fired from his first job and is shocked and looking for a bit of sympathy from Shelly.  April keeps trying to convince him to take up smuggling.  I think this is too early in the novel for Jonathan to get into that phone sex thing (and that perhaps does deserve to get staged -- I'll have to think about it).  I'm trying to remember what else there was.  Working for a somewhat kinky rich man as his personal assistant.  (That episode probably has to be rethought as there was just a bit too much gay panic involved.)  The phone sex thing.  Working at the ROM.  I definitely need one or two more odd jobs or the novel will be too short.  Let me go back through my notes and brain storm a bit more.  Whatever I come up with will be the job that Shelly pushes him into in this short piece.  Maybe something like working in a bookstore, though why that wouldn't work out (to set up the next chapter) is a mystery to me at present.  Clearly I have a bit more work to do, but some of the pieces are falling into place.

* Now things work pretty well as a triad in this play, but would I want some of the wackiness of the overall novel to spill over into the play?  The troubled archivist at the ROM -- probably not as she never comes to Jonathan's place.  The immigration officer?  Maybe, that would be a heck of an ending, though a lot of the set-up gets lot in not following him around to various bars or harassing him in the workplace(s).  But it might be worth trying to squeeze in that phone-sex scene where he actually works in an office setting all rigged up to receive such calls.  I'll just have to think about it some more.  Maybe it is better left to the imagination...

Slightly sick

I'm not at all surprised that I am feeling a bit under the weather.  I have had to keep pushing through, not only at work where we wrapped up a couple of key reports yesterday, but there there was all this tension related to buying the house (all worth it in the end! but still a lot of tension involved).  Whenever I let up, even a bit, I tend to get sick, particularly if it is winter.  To top it off, my daughter is definitely coming down with a cold, but probably a slight one.

Unfortunately, I can't just do nothing today, as I do need to get groceries and I have a concert in the evening.  But I think if I take a fairly long nap this afternoon, and get some cough syrup, I should be ok for the concert.  I'm glad that this is a relatively light weekend, all things considered.  The next two weekends, I have events (mostly plays) scheduled on Saturday and Sunday.  In fact, it will be difficult to keep my promise to take my daughter to the pool anytime soon unless we both make a recovery for Sunday.

I think my body is trying to go along with the brain, which is trying to convince it that all will be well.  I may look into heading up to the Target to see if the liquidation sales are at all worth it (so far the general consensus is no) but I could then go from there on to the office, and then in the evening, I will go see my concert at TSO.  It's a heck of a line-up tonight, so I will want to get some rest in the early afternoon to make sure I make it.  The first part is Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth in Brahms Double Concerto, and then Emanuel Ax is doing some talk or chat over intermission and then back to Brahms. Yefim Bronfman plays Piano Concerto #2.  That actually makes it a bit easier to skip out on seeing Bronfman doing Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto, as I already saw him doing it in Vancouver.  Perhaps I will relent and go (or exchange into it if something comes up and have to miss another concert).  As far as Ax goes, I've seen him a couple of times in Chicago.  I missed him doing this piano series all over Toronto this past week, and I have something to do this upcoming Wednesday when he is performing Carnival of the Animals (to be honest not among my favorite pieces).  There is the opportunity to see him performing a short piece next Thurs., but I'm leaning against it.  I just have so many other things I am doing these next few weeks, and it isn't fair to keep staying away from home.  I'll try to make up my mind Monday or Tuesday when I straighten out the rest of the TSO season.

The only other minor news is that I have 40 more pages to go on An Ermine in Czernopol.  It is quite an interesting work.  I would say there are clearly ties with Joseph Roth and Stephan Zweig, as all of them pretty much lament the rise of German Nationalism and how this swept away a cosmopolitan near-paradise.  Von Rezzori does have a slightly different take on how the worm was always in the apple, and it is a bit disheartening (though certainly honest) how he makes the parents of the main characters to be deeply antisemitic though still somewhat urbane.  In that sense, he is somewhat closer to Grass's The Tin Drum where Oskar was always surrounded by the "good Germans" who tacitly encouraged the rise of Hitler.  Roth and Zweig are writing almost entirely from an outsider's perspective, whereas von Rezzori and Grass are closer to the centre and thus are writing about those who bear much more responsibility for the horrors of WWII.  I will say that I definitely preferred An Ermine in Czernopol, which is a far better read than The Tin Drum, which just felt interminable.  The impending devastation of the city (or at least the destruction of its cosmopolitan character which resulted from the expulsion of the Jews) reminds me just a bit of the ending of Hav (as described in Morris's Last Letters from Hav).


I'm actually somewhat curious about the follow-up that Morris wrote many years later, after being prompted by NYRB.  Apparently, Hav has been remade into a neoliberal paradise. I own the edition where the two works are combined, but I just don't think I'll be able to read it anytime soon.

Ok, I've kind of strayed far from my original intent, but in a sense it was worth it because when I get really interested in something, even just making all these mental connections in my head, I forget about being sick.  My brain kicks into a higher gear and my body just sort of follows along, resigned.  Today will probably mostly be like that, though I will try to take a nap right after lunch.  Ciao.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Short Takes #2 (with street photos)

This may end up being slightly longer-form than Short Takes #1, but I'll try to stay focused and on point. On the other hand, there will be more photos, but I will try to keep the text shorter.

Last weekend, I went to the opening of the Douglas Coupland show at MOCCA, mostly to see what they had on view.  I reviewed the show pretty extensively here (with lots of photos), so I won't go into great detail now.

It turns out that roughly 2/5th of the exhibit is at MOCCA (where it is free to get in with $5 suggested donation) and the rest is at ROM.  If one saw the show in Vancouver, they have everything up through the Lego installation but reconfigured for a smaller space.  I think that's pretty cool (particularly the free part), particularly as the part I liked the best (Coupland's response to the Group of 7) was at MOCCA. So I will almost certainly go back another time or two, and perhaps once with the kids in tow.  My son did see the show in Vancouver, but my daughter did not.  I'm not terribly likely to pay ROM prices to see the rest of the show, but maybe I will score one of the free family passes from the library.  The next time I am likely to pay ROM prices is to see the Pompeii exhibit this summer.

 

I'm having trouble recalling if this piece, (loosely) inspired by Thomson's Campfire was on view in Vancouver.  At first I thought not (so this would be a Toronto-only showing), but on reflection I think it probably was showing at the VAG.
 

This is a case where I didn't think Coupland's take was as successful, maybe precisely because it is so busy compared to the original, whereas the other ones are intentionally stripped down further.  In both versions of Campfire, the fire is somewhat bizarrely not the focal point but rather it is the tent opening that dominates.

Tom Thomson, Campfire, 1916

At MOCCA, the Coupland exhibit is paired with show on malls.  I thought the photos were ok, and the video (the Mall of America shot through red or blue filters) manipulative but still somewhat interesting.

In another call-back to Short Takes #1, my son was discussing why he would like to be able to plug directly into someone else's brain.  It's for showing pictures to others, he said.  I can make a picture of something but I can't put it into words.

I've now seen two films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien at TIFF as part of their retrospective.  It's a pretty neat achievement, but almost all these films only show a single time, so one really has to pay attention.  I didn't much care for A Time to Live and a Time to Die, but I liked City of Sadness.  I thought the latter film was a bit like a Taiwanese version of The Godfather, though a lot more political.  Most of the film is set in Taipei, though there are a few scenes when one or another of the characters is hiding out with rebels (who support the Communists!) in the foothills outside the city.  I'll be coming back for one last film (Millennium Mambo) in March.

I was just able to snap this photo of the poster for the series from a moving streetcar.  It isn't quite as clear as I would have liked, but you can also see the AGO Basquiat posters (appropriate given his start as a graffiti artist) and a series of posters for Soulpepper.  I actually have tickets for their production of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room (coming up soon) and am looking forward to that.
 

I've basically settled on what I will write (or try to write) for the March edition of Sing-for-Your-Supper.  It will be a direct follow-up to the scene I submitted for Feb.  Thus, it is also something that will end up in the novel in some form or another.  This may be the best way to finish up the novel, to write it in concrete chunks where there is a tangible deadline.  After all, that's basically the only way I finished up my dissertation.

I think I will wait for the increasingly ill-named Short Takes #3 to discuss my recent reading, including Platonov and von Rezzori.  I did promise another street photo, so I will end with a pretty incredible view of the inside of an apartment building (presumably social housing) that was being dismantled the old fashioned way (with wrecking ball and not dynamite) to put up housing for the Pan Am Games this summer.  I will say they are running a bit late if they think they are going to have the whole space cleared and the housing in place.  There is another part of the site that was cleared over the late fall (and indeed I rode my bike past the demolition site, so I got to see them take it down)  I may post a few shots of the earlier demolition, but this shot is special, as it is like looking into a dollhouse that has been opened up in the back.


To circle back around to Asian cities, I think there are at least some similarities here with Michael Wolf's work photographs of Hong Kong hyper-apartments, though the scale is totally different.  I saw a good show of Wolf's work in Chicago and ended up picking up his book Hong Kong Front Door Back Door.


Now that I have poked around a bit more, my photo looks even more like this one (Barcelona - Parallel n°1) by Stéphane Couturier from his Mutation exhibit.


Intriguingly the Couturier exhibit was at an art gallery in Hong Kong.  I imagine there is more than a little digital manipulation (whereas there isn't any in the first two), but it is still pretty cool.  And with this, I really will close this post.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Forecast for Feb.

We managed to get through a fairly tough phone call with a client yesterday, and now the way is cleared to get done with this project.  I have been extremely distracted worrying about closing out too many other projects, and now I can focus.  So that is definitely a positive outcome.

However, I am still working too late in the office and too frequently taking work home, i.e. virtually every night.  The laptop is my albatross.  I think even if I don't get much accomplished, my inner brain wants to punish my body and keep reminding it that the only way to lighten the literal load is to get through the work.

It would have been tight, but I could have just made it over to get in a few laps at the pool, but I couldn't find my gym pass.  After it was too late, it turned up and I have now attached it to my key ring, so this won't happen again (well, misplacing the pass -- I'll surely be working late again).  It's a shame, since I missed it and Monday I was at Sing-for-Your-Supper, and that's it for lap swimming for this week.  The hours really do suck when you look over the entire week.  I may or may not have more to say on this subject.

Anyway, today was spent scrambling to get this wire out and finding out that the funds wouldn't actually hit when they were supposed to because this is an international wire.  Obviously, this is frustrating, but it won't derail the deal.  I'll have to figure out a better way closer to closing time.  So this week and early next week, I'll sit down with my mortgage broker and lock something in, and discuss particulars with a lawyer.  On the whole, things look pretty good on the housing market front, compared to where I thought I would be.  So that is a major positive that I will have to hold onto when things are bringing me down, either at work or dealing with my children when they are getting on my nerves.  (Just not having to go off to open houses and keep talking to my realtor (as nice as she is) will be a major plus.)

I haven't really had enough sleep, but I should be able to recharge a bit this weekend (and I'll probably avoid the Basquiat exhibit at AGO as it will be a madhouse, whereas next weekend the crowds will be much lighter).  At that point, I'll decide on what I want to write for Sing-for-Your-Supper or if I concentrate on longer work that doesn't quite fit into their format.

The reading is coming along pretty well, but I haven't been able to read much when I am not on the subway or streetcar, if that makes sense.  Sometimes I do have the time to read in the evenings, but I wasn't able to over the past week or so.  Looking forward, I should be able to devote just a bit more time to things that I want to do, rather than things I have to do.

On the arts front things are definitely looking up with several great concerts and plays coming up.  In fact, because the house came in so much less than we expected, I will probably add one or two events in February, though nothing outrageously priced.  I'll probably go check out Les Liasons Dangereuses over at RedOne, not because I particularly like the play, but I'm trying to connect more with the ensemble and see if this is a place that might eventually stage one or more of my pieces.  My guess is this isn't quite the right place, but knowing them will lead to something/someplace else that might work.  I believe I already indicated how important it is for writers to get out and see how their work does among different kinds of audiences, since it is so easy to think your work is brilliant when you are the only one that ever sees it.  Some of those musings are here.

I guess the bottom line is that I am feeling guardedly optimistic about Feb. and March, and I will try to build on that (while the feeling lasts).

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Inching back up the property ladder

It's been nice to have quite a bit of good news in a row.  First, my piece was selected to be read for the Feb. Sing-for-Your-Supper, and that was a lot of fun.  I'm trying to decide if I really can write a new piece for March, but I'm leaning toward doing it.  It would be nice to try to build on these connections, as it is by far the most likely avenue to get my scripts produced in Toronto and eventually build a bit more momentum to the point it would be worth talking to an agent.

Second, I got my passport back in the mail, so I can travel again, particularly to the States.  (I have a fun trip to NYC planned for March and a boring trip to the States scheduled for late April and we'll see after that.)  I was starting to stress out about it, as they changed the photo requirements slightly, and I was worried that my application would be rejected on a technicality.

But most importantly, after a relatively short house hunting period -- 4 or so weeks of checking out open houses and, more importantly, the prices, we found a house we liked.  We put in our offer, and it turns out ours was the only bid.  We were fully expecting this to be a bidding war, as we were looking in a hot neighbourhood, with good local schools, and many houses here have gone $50-100K over asking (including a tear down!).  I think we really lucked out in that the seller listed in January but wanted to close in May.  They really would have been better off listing in early March.  Also, there is no parking, just permit parking on the street, but we don't have a car, at least at the moment.  While we could have gone on and haggled a bit more, I decided I had been prepared to pay considerably more, so we went ahead and gave the sellers their asking price (whereas I am pretty sure they expected to get over asking).  Had we decided to play hardball, they probably would have pulled the offer and relisted in March.  But who really knows...

I think I'll hold off on going into more details than that about the location and final price, but I am still quite excited and relieved that I don't have to go keep looking at houses, particularly when in so many cases it has been a multiple-offer situation that gets a bit heated.  I don't really function that well in those kind of arenas.