Monday, February 29, 2016

So many updates

I don't know if I can get through all the updates I need to make on this blog.  I have about 5 that are related to recent readings with perhaps the most important being my review of Alice Munro's The Moons of Jupiter.  I liked that book a lot and want to do it justice, so I'll probably have to skim certain stories when I do get to the review.  I'll aim for a bit later in the week.  I also have a double review of Canadian poetry books, but I can take more time with that, since I'm still thinking about these books and will probably read them both a second time.  Then there are a couple related to that huge theme of immigration-related books (I knew I was biting off too much).  Then I wanted to write at least a bit about Malamud's God's Grace and Vonnegut's Galapagos.  Finally, I had a few comments on how books based on pure reversals just aren't that interesting.  (I think I can sneak that last bit in at the end of this post.)

I also have a few that are tied to my recent outings in Toronto.  Those I'll try to get to very soon, maybe even tonight, since they have pictures that I want to get off my phone.  I'm sure I've written about how I feel that moving to Toronto was a great move for me and generally a good one for my family.  I'm hoping that this summer, I can take the family around to a few of the funky corners of the city (south of Bloor mostly) that I have been exploring.  For me, Toronto has the cool ethnic neighbourhoods that Chicago still has (but New York has largely lost, at least in Manhattan and Central Brooklyn).  I would say non-chain stores are hanging on in Toronto in most neighbourhoods (Queen St. somehow excepted unfortunately) in a way that they aren't even in Chicago.  Probably my biggest disappointment is that quite a few of my favorite bookstores have vanished, but there are still 4 that could take their place in my heart (if I went out more to browse books, which I just don't do much any more) as well as the slightly more corporate BMV books.

Probably the most important update is related to my own writing.  I mentioned just in passing that the Toronto Star is running a short story contest.  Last year I used this to kick-start work on my novel/play, and I was quite pleased with the outcome.  It was the first piece read at S-F-Y-S, and I mistakenly thought I had tapped into their aesthetic.  This year, I just had kept pushing it back and pushing it back until I had one weekend left.  (I also have a pretty good idea for a S-F-Y-S playlet based in the near future, but realized that I will be away so many evenings the first two weeks of March that it just wouldn't be fair to go out one more evening (March 7, assuming the piece was accepted), so I will hold off for one month and send it in some time around Easter.  That simplified things a bit and gave me enough mental space to start writing, focusing on just one piece.

I still had trouble coming up with any time, but I took advantage of a bus ride to St. Catherines to get some ideas on paper.  I'll write a bit more about the bus ride when I discuss the overall trip, but I was pleased that the characters started coming back (if not their names! -- I see that I have called the main character's co-worker Julien and Michel.  There's a small joke that works better with Michel, so I guess I'll use that.  Also, it is a tiny tribune to Michel Tremblay.  I can't recall at all what the girlfriend's name is, but I'm making her just a bit more flighty/flaky than before, so I decided to go with Mandy.)  I'm pretty happy with the way that things turned out, but I realized that there was simply no way that this would work as a stand-alone short story.  So while the contest deadline was a useful spur, I'm not going to send in anything after all.  That's kind of a shame, and had I know that in advance, I might have tried to write something else.  But you know what -- I have too many side projects, and I need to focus and bring to some to fruition, and not start new ones.  Having said that, I am willing to close out previous projects that I have started.  I asked my wife to help me find any publishers that would tackle this transportation anthology (where 95% of the work is done) and I think I may have found one.  I'll be emailing them a bit later in the week to see if they like the idea enough in the abstract that I send in a project outline.

Back to this opening scene.  As it happens, I wrote it out as prose (not in play format), but it was clearly more of a play, as there is almost no description or editorial comments.  It is entirely dialog and a few stage directions.  I might be able to salvage just a bit for the novel, but they would be in flashback mode (which I find often overused).  I have to say, I still like the opening I wrote (well over 10 years ago!) which has a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am quality to it.  Within a couple of pages, Jonathan and Shelly are married, there are hints of something being "off" about the marriage and they are honeymooning in San Francisco.  I kind of like the idea that the play and the novel are describing the same events, but there is a major difference that occasionally we see Shelly and April alone without Jonathan, whereas Jonathan is supposed to be in every scene in the novel, since I am trying to use third person limited.  I may be stretching it just a bit, since there are probably things that Jonathan doesn't really catch or understand, but would at least he would be witness to them.  Whether that really comes across is not that important to me.  In contrast, I've decided that the play should focus on Shelly and April's apartment (probably not a loft, though that is tempting in its own right).  The characters can certainly can and do discuss things that happened outside the apartment, but there should be a meaningful shift that makes it a bit more balanced in favour of April and particularly Shelly.

I won't quite move the progress bar just yet, since I need to rewrite this in the proper format, but that really should only take another evening (see the play outline and progress bar here), but I feel as if I am up to 3/8 and I probably can hammer out the ending this week (I just need to decide quite how far I want to take it).  I'm a bit stuck on the title of the piece.  Straying South is not bad, but doesn't quite live up to my intentions of spreading the focus beyond Jonathan.  At one point I was thinking of The Futon Moth, but that was just silly (it put way too much emphasis on a cat trying to catch a moth in the apartment) and was a somewhat bad pun on Foot-and-Mouth disease, but even more that April nearly put her foot in it (her mouth) when she came close to spilling the beans to the immigration officer. I'm actually quite taken with the idea of using "The Old Apartment," given that I often have The Barenaked Ladies' Gordon blasting while I write these scenes* (I didn't on the bus, however).  I'm also a bit partial to The American Neighbour or The American Downstairs (both of which ironically comment on Jonathan living in a separate apartment from his wife), but would make it a very tough sell in the States (and yanks the focus back to Jonathan, the Yankee).  And obviously Upstairs, Downstairs is already taken.  I'll probably think about it a bit more, but for the time being, I'll just stick with Straying South, which is fairly ambiguous, which I do like.  (If one has one's mind in the gutter, then it can even be imbued with naughty connotations.)

Ok, let me close out this post with one thought on novels with a gimmick, so I can cross that off my list as well.  Even though it was a flawed novel in some ways, at least Vonnegut's Galapagos got me thinking about what the world might look like if the Western nations all destroyed themselves.  There is definitely the seed of a good science fiction story in there (about how the kingdoms of the Middle East and perhaps finally Africa emerge as the remaining source of civilization).  I had thought that Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt would cover that, and I suppose to some extent it does, but the ridiculous use of reincarnation in what is ostensibly an alternative world novel undermines it fatally.  Anyway, I was certainly open to a pair of books that both write about what would it be like if African culture was dominant and White people were the victims of racism: Abdourahman Waberi's In the United States of Africa and John Litweiler's Snake Mojo Minuet.  But I was sorely disappointed in both.  I didn't really care that they didn't explain very well how this state of affairs could have come into effect.  Waberi sort of hints that Europe was totally disease ridden (dengue fever, malaria and AIDS), but honestly that's just stupid.  That is getting everything that Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) writes about and simply inverting it.  I could buy a story where the Black Death plague was never brought under control and the Middle East and Africa had far more vibrant economy, but the particular vectors of malaria and such are really quite limited to equatorial countries.  (In fact, they have been testing and finding that the zika virus is not likely to spread too widely in Canada, as the mosquitoes that carry it cannot really survive in the north.)

I was willing to overlook that (and Litweiler never bothers to explain why the big reversal, which was probably the better choice overall), but what both of them do is claim that the jazz stars of the 1950s and 60s would have been just as big (and I think even in the Ministry of Culture in Snake Mojo Minuet).  That completely misses the point that most of these musicians went into entertainment because they did not have the opportunities for equal advancement in politics and business.  The real jazz stars would almost entirely have been white in this reversed world.  Litweiler comes closer to realizing this, though he makes the underground culture about singing German peasant songs or even some hillbilly music.  But all the major cultural figures (Miles, Coltrane, Bob Marley and so on) are larger than life in both these books, and I think that is just silly and even lazy writing.  So I didn't care for either of them, though at least there was a hint of a plot in Snake Mojo Minuet. In the United States of Africa was just really bad.  It attempted to be provocative, but the gimmick was so poorly thought through it failed for me on every level.  And that's really enough on that.

* Yes, I do realize "The Old Apartment" is not on Gordon.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Phantom Productions

One of my hobbies is looking far in advance to see what rights have been negotiated for future theatrical productions.  (DPS is by far the easier site to negotiate, but sometimes I look at Samuel French as well.)  It is always interesting and sometimes a bit frustrating to stumble across something and then have it vaporize.  (Clearly this is a first-world problem.)  This really shouldn't be that much of a surprise, as it doesn't cost that much to lock up the rights for a couple of weeks (certainly compared to renting rehearsal space and paying the stage manager and technicians and just possibly paying the actors something...).  Then if the fund-raising doesn't quite take off, you can either let the rights lapse or potentially renegotiate for a future date.

I learned of several potential productions that never quite took off in Vancouver, which somehow didn't surprise me, as Vancouver is just not that supportive of live theatre (or perhaps everything is just too expensive relative to the potential audience).  I mentioned that "The Company" is supposed to be putting on Annie Baker's The Aliens in March, but this has vanished without a ripple.  I'm somewhat hopeful that it will be resurrected next year.  In any case, I will keep my eyes peeled for any news.

There was another one that vanished on me, but I can't even remember the details at the moment.

While looking up whether there would be any Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams playing nearby to cross off my list (nothing aside from Incident at Vichy at the moment), I saw that this September, Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs is supposed to be playing here in Toronto (out on Bloor West).  This is too funny since I needn't have driven to Peterborough, though my initial take on it is that this company isn't quite as professional as the Motley Collective -- and that there is a pretty decent chance that this will not come off and become another phantom production.  So I don't have any regrets on seeing that production, but if the reviews of this Toronto production are positive, I'll go again.  It is a play worth seeing twice.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mending the gap(s)

It should go without saying that no one can read everything.  Even within a fairly narrow field such as Irish literature, there must be many hundreds if not thousands of novels to choose from.  That's why there is a canon in the first place, as experts from academia, publishing and even newer branches of "taste-making" such as literary bloggers and Amazon reviewers try to winnow the field down to a relatively small handful of names that may make the cut and pass the "test of time."

While I don't claim that everything I read will pass this test, particularly books on my TBRD pile, I do skew towards literary fiction that generally will pass this higher threshold.  I've indicated that there are a few key gaps in my reading, particularly the fiction one would read in American lit. in high school (as discussed here) and some gaps in 20th Century literature written in English here.

I have done a fairly good job of filling in the gaps in Russian literature, including essentially all of Dostoevsky and quite a few 20th Century Soviet novelists.  The single most notable missing book is Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I have pencilled in for 2018 or so.  I also plan to read Turgenev's Smoke and Chekhov's Seven Short Novels, but these probably wouldn't be considered canonical.

I've made some progress in Italian lit. by reading most of Italo Calvino, Goffredo Parise (though I only own and have not read Cesare Pavese) and more recently Gadda's That Awful Mess.  I recently picked up Privo Levi's The Periodic Table and hope to read it reasonably soon, and at some point I'll try to get to The Leopard by di Lampedusa.

Probably the most shocking gap is how little French literature I have read.  I'm somewhat haphazardly reading Emmanuel Bove and Patrick Modiano (and Némirovsky intermittently), though I am well aware how perverse that is, given what a narrow corner of the French literary establishment they inhabit.  I have to admit it wasn't until 2013 that I finally read Madame Bovary, and I finished Proust in 2014, and that was a major accomplishment for me, given how resistant I was to Proust's style and preoccupations.  While it is a bit perverse, I will read from the 20th Century on backwards, so Perec and then Camus and Gide and probably Celine and just possibly Sartre and then finally Balzac.  I am not sure about Dumas or Hugo.  At the moment, I don't intend to get to them, but I may change my mind at some point. So there's a lot of heavy lifting there, but also a lot to look forward to.

I'm also not at all up on German literature, and I probably never will be.  I have read a fair bit of Rilke and some key texts by Goethe and Grass's The Tin Drum and Mann's Death in Venice (and pretty much everything by Kafka, though one would hardly consider him a "German" author).  That's really all I can recall.  I will eventually try to get to Mann's Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain (but not Joseph and His Brothers) and Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but I doubt I'll get much further than that.  I don't know that I would really consider Fontane canonical any longer, as he seems forgotten (at least to the English-speaking world) but I have a few of his novels including Effi Briest.  I'm also slowly working my way through Gregor von Rezzori's work with Memoirs of An Anti-Semite coming up later this year and The Death of My Brother Abel probably the following year.

I expect the core of my reading will remain grounded in English and American novels, from the 1800s onwards.  I won't repeat all the books from those other lists here, but some of the top ones I am going to try to read (many of which are already on my main reading list) are here:
Austen Mansfield Park
Austen Emma
Thackeray Vanity Fair (probably the single most notable omission now that I have gotten through Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch)
Bronte Jane Eyre (probably the second most notable omission -- at least I don't recall reading this)
Dickens Oliver Twist
Dickens David Copperfield
Dickens Great Expectations
Gaskell Wives and Daughters
Gaskell North and South
Trollope He Knew He Was Right
Trollope The Way We Live Now
Hawthorne The House of Seven Gables
Thoreau Walden (the entire thing -- I've read several key sections)
Bennett The Old Wives' Tales
Hardy The Mayor of Casterbridge
Hardy The Return of the Native
Hardy Jude the Obscure
Butler The Way of All Flesh
James The Wings of the Dove
James Portrait of a Lady
Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
Lawrence Sons and Lovers
Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Willa Cather My Antonia
Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop
Wharton The House of Mirth
Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise
Fitzgerald Tender is the Night
Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls
Conrad The Secret Agent
Sinclair Lewis Babbitt
Sinclair Lewis Main Street
Steinbeck Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck East of Eden
Maugham The Razor's Edge
Koestler Darkness at Noon
Kingley Amis Lucky Jim
Waugh Brideshead Revisited
Lowry Under the Volcano

I'll never be completely satisfied or feel I have read everything that deserves to be read, but getting through my main list -- as well as the ones above and those on the secondary lists scattered throughout this blog -- will be a significant achievement.  It's probably doable in the next 10-15 years...  In fact, I should get to 8 or so books in the next 12 months, including knocking off the Thackeray.  When I get through that, I may well rearrange the list and bring Jane Eyre up next (and its companion Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea) depending on my mood at the time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making my way through the theatre canon

I'm not even sure that there is a functioning literary canon for theatre these days.  Going to and/or reading plays seems like a fairly fringe preoccupation outside of New York, Chicago, Toronto and arguably San Francisco and perhaps L.A.  (There are tons of underemployed actors putting up shows, but I don't know if people outside the industry are going.)  I would say that Chicago definitely has the best scene in terms of average people just deciding to go see a play -- not quite as popular as going to see improv or sketch comedy but pretty close.  However, I think Toronto is closing that gap.  I truly have been pleasantly surprised at how many small productions are popping up here and there.  I am seeing just about as many shows as I used to in Chicago.

Anyway, there's a pretty good piece with a handful of stats here.  Most theatre companies are producing contemporary plays (10 years old or less) and only 13% of produced plays are from before 1960 (and 40% of that is Shakespeare and probably another 20% of so is Chekhov -- that last stat is not official, but I was talking with someone who had run the numbers).  So beyond Shakespeare and Chekhov, there is a huge gap.  My guess (from looking at the DPS website) is that Arthur Miller is next and then probably Tennessee Williams.  A few decades back, G.B. Shaw would be in the running, but I just don't think he is anymore (the Shaw Festival notwithstanding).

I don't even know what a global theatre canon would look like, but this is how I would probably make the list:

Ben Jonson (the Alchemist only)
Moliere (Tartuffe and The Misanthrope)
Goethe (Faust)
G.B. Shaw (by his fingernails)
Noel Coward (is he even still in? - comic plays seem to have less staying power and Neil Simon is definitely out now)
Samuel Beckett
Bertold Brecht
Eugene O'Neill
Arthur Miller
Tennessee Williams
August Wilson
Edward Albee
Harold Pinter
David Mamet
Caryl Churchill (in the UK)
Alan Bennett (also only in the UK)
Tom Stoppard
Tony Kushner

Not sure if I would add anyone after Kushner, though Sarah Ruhl is edging up there, and Jez Butterworth in the U.K.

I'm not sure English Canada has a canonical playwright -- possibly David French.  (I really like George F. Walker's work, but think he is a bit too much of an iconoclast.)  In French Canada, Michel Tremblay is pretty canonical.

I haven't decided if I want to list all the plays by these authors I have seen (for my own amusement) but that seems a bit too obnoxious.  What might be a bit more acceptable is to mostly just list the plays I have not seen but feel I should.  Several of them are taken from this list, but the focus here is on older canonical plays, whereas that list was a bit of a grab-all and skewed towards contemporary plays.

My progress to date:

I've seen almost all the non-History plays at least once (as detailed in this post), though I am not 100% sure about Two Gentlemen of Verona and Troilus and Cressida, so I suppose I am most interested in trying to catch them the next time they come around.

Ben Jonson:
I'd be up for seeing The Alchemist again, though I've seen it twice.  I am most interested in trying to catch Bartholomew Fair.  I figure there is a reasonable chance George Brown will put it on one of these days.  I'm also hoping they will do some Thomas Middleton.

The less said about Tartuffe the better, but I might go see The Misanthrope again some day.

I don't believe I have actually seen Faust, or at least not a full production.  I figure one of the university drama departments will do it one of these days.  Still, it isn't that high on my list.

Honestly, I wasn't that gripped by Miss Julie.  I should probably see A Dream Play again, since I don't remember anything about the performance.  I expect I'll catch The Ghost Sonata one of these days.  I am still sort of toying with the idea of catching The Dance of Death at Shaw this summer, but haven't really decided either way.

I've seen a fair bit of Ibsen.  I thought The Wild Duck held up better than Hedda Gabler or A Doll's House.  Actually I think I have seen Ghosts (perhaps up in Rogers Park in 2010), but I haven't come across the program that would prove it.  In any case, I still hope to catch The Master Builder one of these days, and this summer, I will go down to Stratford to see John Gabriel Borkman (this is looking like the only Stratford show I catch this summer).

I've seen all the major plays at least once (even Ivanov).  I probably won't see The Sea Gull again, but I'd be up for Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters again if the reviews were stellar (I saw so-so productions in Vancouver).  I perhaps should have gone to see The Cherry Orchard, but it wasn't the best time for me.

G.B. Shaw:
I saw a fair number of productions a long time back, but really haven't been following him lately.  That's not that likely to change, to be honest.  I'm trying to keep an open mind towards Mrs. Warren's Profession this summer at Shaw, but I'm certainly leaning against going.

I don't think I've seen that much of Coward's work.  I did see Private Lives way back when.  I think I had a chance to catch Hay Fever, but passed.  I might try to see that on its next go around and perhaps Design for Living.

I've seen pretty much all the major plays, several of them twice, and quite a few of the one-acts and short pieces.  I believe the only one I've missed out on is Happy Days, so I will make a major effort to see that the next time it comes round.

I've been really fortunate to catch a lot of Brecht, starting in Ann Arbor and then in Chicago.  Also, I saw a powerful Mother Courage in Cambridge (with Diana Quick in the title role).  I certainly wouldn't mind seeing The Threepenny Opera again.  I think of the major plays, I have only missed out on seeing The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Galileo.  As it happens, Galileo is playing in Chicago at the end of March and it is on my "to do" list.  I did make it and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I've seen a lot of O'Neill, but by no means all the major plays.  I did see an impressive Long Day's Journey into Night in Chicago.  I saw an abridged version of Mourning Becomes Electra (and that was sufficient).  I was supposed to see The Iceman Cometh at BAM last year but I got so sick and had to cancel.  At this point, I won't plan on going to see the play if there are no cuts made at all.  I simply don't have patience for a 5 hour play.  I might be willing to sit through Strange Interlude, though that is pretty experimental.  I think the only remaining play I really am hoping to catch one of these days is A Moon for the Misbegotten.

I've seen quite a bit of Miller, including some of his more obscure plays like After the Fall and The Creation of the World.  What kind of pains me is that he really was a good playwright, as least early on, but his most famous play (The Crucible) is really so bad.  I'm sure I'll have to take the kids some day (or see them in a production of it more likely), but one more time is my absolute limit...

I'm going to be seeing Incident at Vichy at Soulpepper fairly soon, which will leave just A View from the Bridge as the last major Miller play for me to watch.

Tennessee Williams
I've also seen quite a bit of Williams, though it seems like there are quite a few late plays I have yet to see.  I did manage to see A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur at Shaw two summers ago and I just saw The Two-Character Play last weekend.  I had hoped to see Camino Real at Goodman a few years back but couldn't really justify flying in, just for that.  Of all the Williams plays I've seen, I think Night of the Iguna is my favorite (and I hope to see another production some day), followed by The Glass Menagerie, and then Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  I also saw a very good production of Sweet Bird of Youth in Chicago.

Of the plays to cross off my list, they are Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Vieux Carré, Orpheus Descending, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Small Craft Warnings, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Something Cloudy, Something Clear.  I guess that is actually quite a few.

August Wilson:
I've really seen very little by Wilson, despite having more than a few chances.  I saw a staged reading of The Piano Lesson that was quite good, however.  My problem with August Wilson is that I am not going to want to get just a bit into his cycle and then never see the remaining plays.  I don't think any company in Toronto is going to commit to putting on all the plays, even if this stretched out over many seasons.  So that makes it a bit of a non-starter for me.

I've seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf twice (including the powerful production that was my introduction to RedOne here), The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (which I didn't like at all) and Three Tall Women, which was pretty good.  I thought about seeing The Play About the Baby, but honestly, it just seemed like a total retread of Virginia Woolf that I couldn't see the point.

I haven't see a lot of Pinter.  I did see Old Times, The Dumbwaiter, and Being Harold Pinter by the Belarus Free Theatre (this included Mountain Language and other Pinter texts).  I may have seen The Birthday Party at one time or another.  I probably should make sure to see The Birthday Party some day, as well as The Caretaker and The Homecoming.

I've seen all the Mamet I really care to see at the moment.  I did enjoy Boston Marriage quite a bit.

I've seen many of her plays, including Top Girls twice, and I do hope to catch Cloud 9 again.  I'm wondering if her latest one -- Love and Information -- will make it to Toronto soon.  It does seem like an ideal fit for Canadian Stage.

I haven't see a lot of Bennett, other than The History Boys in Chicago, The Habit of Art in Vancouver and 6 of the Talking Heads monologues here in Toronto.  I don't think I'll ever see all of his work, but I wouldn't mind seeing  Office Suite and The Insurance Man if they are revived here.

I've made the most effort to catch Stoppard's work, particularly traveling to see Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia and Travesties, although I did pass on a chance to see Rock and Roll in Chicago.  It just didn't grab me, though many critics enjoyed it very much.  I'll definitely see Arcadia on the next opportunity, and I'd probably go see The Real Thing again, as I don't recall much about that.  I'm also hoping to see if his early work is revived, including Jumpers (for the first time) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (that would be the second time round).

I've seen all the major Kushner plays at least once, and Angels in America twice.  I believe I've even seen Homebody/Kabul twice, but I can't verify that.

I almost forgot Tremblay:
I've managed to see Les Belles-Soeurs, which was great, as was Albertine in Five Times.  I've seen two other productions that were ok, but not up to that level.  If I have the chance, I will try to catch Hello, There, Hello; Remember Me; The Real World? and Past Perfect (a prequel to Albertine in Five Times).  The last one generally got poor reviews (particularly bad for an English language production at Tarragon about ten years ago), so maybe I'll just stick to reading that one...

Ok, that is more than enough rambling for now.  While this isn't a very clean list, there are at least a dozen plays in here that I will try to catch over the next 15 years or so.  I guess I'll check them off or put a strike through when I succeed.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Winter of Discontent

Truthfully, it really hasn't been that bad this winter.  We had one cold spell so far.  Then some snow that stuck around for 4 days but it's starting to melt today.  We're not out of the woods yet of course.

In any case, I have a couple of photos of how austerely beautiful winter can be.  The first is looking out over our back porch.  The second is the small park next to Metro Hall.

I am certainly somewhat discontented over a variety of things.  I'm just a bit too hard on myself for not getting done with all the little tasks I want to accomplish.  I am running very far behind on the blog with at least 5 significant posts I want to write.  I need to finish this short story by the end of the month, and I also probably ought to submit something for Sing-for-your-Supper (it looks like I could still write that next weekend and get it in).  Maybe I am more anxious than discontent, but it is hard to tell the difference sometimes.

It might be that this general anxiety spilled over into my harsh take on The Suicide, but on the other hand, I enjoyed Dalton and Co. (perhaps I was even a bit more forgiving than the Now reviewer and in this particular case I think Slotkin's objections to the play are completely off base).  I could definitely remember myself in those various roles (brash newcomer, slightly besotted co-worker, brittle worker unfairly passed over, and even selfless assistant, though that role I never stayed in for very long -- I pretty much always got some recognition for my work).  I certainly would recommend this play, which runs for two more weeks at the Theatre Centre.

I am off to see the Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams at Tarragon.  I'm expecting to enjoy it, though this is definitely not populist entertainment.  I'll report back later.*

Exciting news on the contemporary music front is that there are super cheap tickets to the TSO's New Creation Festival.  If you buy the pass, you can see all three concerts for $30!  I can't make the final show, but I can probably make the other two.  (And to think I came fairly close to paying $45 just for a single ticket...)

Another bit of breaking news is that Steven Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile is playing for one more week (tickets here).  I've seen this before in Chicago, and I think I'll go again, despite it being a poor man's version of Stoppard's Travesties.  The reviewer from Mooney's points out that there are a lot of laughs, but not a lot of plot (one could say the same thing about Travesties) but then also goes and spoils a reveal towards the end, so I don't want to link to that review.  While I generally think dramas are the more serious and important plays to try to see, I am a bit more apt to see comedies a second time around, perhaps not getting so caught up in the fact that I know the ending.

Finally, I'm pretty excited about Richard III by Wolf Manor also up at Tarragon the first two weeks of March.  (Thus, the title of today's post.)  I've only seen the play once before, so this will be a good chance to see a quite different take on this insidious king.

* It was good but not great.  It's pretty experimental (two actors who sort of go in and out of character -- it's supposed to be difficult to tell where the characters' neuroses and the actors' neuroses overlap).  It's certainly not my favorite Tennessee Williams play.  (That would probably be Night of the Iguana, followed by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then Glass Menagerie.  I don't actually like Streetcar all that much.)  Still it would be nice if there was a bit more support for companies taking a risk.  There were 6 paying customers and two ushers and then the two actors (and someone running the sound/light board).  I know it was such a nice day out but you aren't going to have too many opportunities to see this, so come on out next weekend...

Space Age Posters

There were many, many posters inspired by the Space Age in the 1950s and even into the 60s.  NASA has come up with some new posters that are about space exploration, but more akin to the tourist posters common on subway and train platforms in New York, Chicago and London.  They are pretty cool.  I'll post a few below, with the rest at this link.

Mars is my favorite so far, but the whole series is pretty neat.  If you go to the site, you can find out a bit more about these various planets and moons.  (And so much does indeed depend upon water.  While I tend to think settling the other planets will never make sense from a financial point of view, the presence of water makes it far more feasible than trying to carry water along with everything else.)

Friday, February 19, 2016

What Makes a Bad Play Bad

Last night I walked out on a play at intermission.  I really so rarely do this -- this might be the second time ever, with the other time also being here in Toronto.  I think part of it is just finally valuing my time more, and no longer feeling obligated to stick things out if I think a production is fundamentally misguided and/or the acting is bad or grates on my nerves.  Anyway, I left George Brown's production of The Suicide, and I thought I would take just a few minutes to write down where I think they went wrong.

I actually didn't feel all that invested in the play.  I only wanted to see two plays at George Brown (Lady Windermere's Fan, which was quite good) and the upcoming The Beaux' Stratagem.  But you needed to pick a third show to make a subscription, so I picked Nicholai Erdman's The Suicide, which is a black comedy personally banned by Stalin.  So it certainly has the same credentials and a bit of the same sensibilities as Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog.  It also had a bit of the same manic energy (and episodic quality) of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

There were some really great aspects to this show, but they couldn't overcome the fact that it is simply too long.  I generally do feel three hours is too long, but if all scenes are essential, that is different story and I will stick it out (though somewhat grudgingly).  In this case, the intermission actually didn't even arrive until 1 hour 45 minutes into the play, so I felt like I had seen a full play (and certainly gotten my money's worth), which was another factor in leaving.  I just wasn't interested enough in the ending to stick it out, but I should be able to borrow a copy of the play and see how many more twists and turns there were before the final curtain.

Here, there were too many scenes focusing on Semyon Semyonovitch and his disappointing home life and the chaotic Moscow apartment he lives in. Erdman really should have cut out several episodes early on that just distracted from the main theme of the worn-out man's suicide (or the director should have negotiated further cuts from the translated version).

Instead, the director blew everything up, making everything a big farce, with little to no variation in tone (or volume).  That's a big mistake.  Then there was some ridiculousness of moving a door around on casters, so that each person knocking on the apartment door entered in from a different part of the stage.  But it was the same apartment.  It could have been just as effective to have a clown car effect with a fixed door.  I think close to 10 minutes were wasted just on moving the door around and later spinning the room so that the bed was oriented 90 degrees differently.  And for what reason?  It wasn't that the bedroom scenes were handled any differently from this perspective.  (Just pointless wankery from a director who focuses too much on the set.  One thing I have never quite understood is that actors and directors never quite get that just because they get a kick out of doing something on stage, their infectious enthusiasm doesn't automatically translate into a good time for the audience.  If something is pointless, like moving a door around on stage, then it will just bore the audience regardless of how fun it is for the actors.  If it doesn't serve the story or actually illuminate something about the play, then don't do it.)

I had actually been willing to give a student director a bit of slack, but it turns out that George Brown brings in these wunderkind directors to give the students the experience of working with a professional.  That's great, but in my mind, that means that the director then should be judged as a professional, even if allowances are still made for the students doing the acting.  It's interesting that the director (Mitchell Cushman) cares a great deal about "space" and sets, but to me, this is largely a distraction from telling the story well.  I realize I am not in step with the prevailing received wisdom, but, on the basis of this production, I think Cushman is overrated and frankly not a very good director.  I'll think twice or thrice before seeing anything else directed by him.

As an aside, I have been reading Tess Slessinger's The Unpossessed (which clearly merits its own review when I can carve out the time...) and I was thinking that a manic scene inspired by the delivery of a file cabinet (in this book) might go over well at SFYS.  I had something in mind like the inspired lunacy of the Marx Brothers.  Maybe that was what Cushman was going for here as well, but this production points out how hard it is to sustain and that you need truly amazing performers to pull it off.  Also, if one thinks back to the Marx Brothers films, they still have down time.  And they didn't try to make domestic violence funny, as Cushman does here.  He clearly lost some of the audience at this point.  The person next to me left about 10 minutes into the play (a pretty stunning departure from protocol), and throughout, I could see a lot of people looking at their programs and not at the action on stage.  While most of the audience may have returned after the intermission, they just were not engaged a lot of the time.

This is definitely a shame, since there were some really great set pieces, including the representative of the Russian intelligentsia wanting to use the suicide to promote his agenda and the debate between the butcher and the artist.  (But even here, the bitter feud between the two women was boring and could easily have been cut to improve the flow of the play.)  I generally thought the big banquet scene at the end of Act I went over well.  But I really disliked the main character, Semyon Semyonovitch.  The actor had him put on this weird hysterical laugh/nervous tic.  He was generally an unpleasant sort, and almost all his scenes had too much clowning that just dragged.  All of this could have been cut back and streamlined, and it would have made the play so much better.  When you can hardly bear to stick around to watch the main character of a play, and you are only interested in the side characters, that to me is the sign of a badly directed play.  It's a shame, as The Suicide certainly had a lot of potential, but it was just wasted.  So definitely a thumbs down from me.

Coda: I was able to check out a copy of the play from Robarts.  First, I was a bit surprised that there is no hint at all of the mute boy looking a bit like Semyon Semyonovitch.  That is something that the director must have taken from Dostoevsky's The Double, which then allowed him to engage in more self-indulgent theatrics -- one of those mirror exercises that work a lot better as a warm up exercise than as something to put up on stage.  (This is why I think Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is really aimed at theatre insiders and is not that interesting to a general audience.  Well, at least not interesting to me.)  I will say, however, that it was already obvious that Semyon Semyonovitch was trying to weasle his way out of fulfilling his end of the bargain (committing suicide) and the doubling made me wonder if he was going to try to pull the old switcheroo, but that would have been too much a departure from the text.  Reading over the last two acts, I am a little sorry I missed out on the mute boy seeing Semyon Semyonovitch in the coffin, as they might have been interesting, though I personally think that the director undercut the effectiveness of this scene due to the doubling.  Again, I'm not quite sure what he did do, though it was probably over the top.  The remaining two scenes have lots more hysterics and overacting for the character playing Semyon Semyonovitch, and I am glad I missed that.  The ending is nicely ironic, but I kind of doubt it really landed as well as it should have, given how big everything was played throughout the play.  In my case, leaving early was definitely the right decision, since I already saw the most interesting scenes up to and including the banquet, and I was spared another hour of over-acting and poor directing.  Again, what a shame.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Missing work

I find perhaps the single most demoralizing thing having to repeat work that was already done.  (This slightly edges out having my advice ignored, particularly when it leads to avoidable problems (and more work for me) down the road.)  Fortunately, this doesn't happen all that often, but not long after our move here, I lost an external hard drive that wasn't that well backed up, and in fairly short order after that, a desktop computer died, as well as a laptop.  All these failures in short order led to a significant loss of files.  I actually think a few files were on a USB drive and I'll keep my eyes open for that.  I am finally ready to start digging around in the basement to see if I can find the data DVDs from around that time.  But in a lot of cases, I will simply have to try to check the various books out of the library again and take the notes all over again.

There were quite a few notes on Jean Anouilh's (in French and English), but I will hold off the longest on those, since I am the most convinced I backed this up somewhere else.

Of the other items, there was Gillespie's history of the Twin Towers.
Gottdiener's The City and the Sign
David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity
Elizabeth Smart By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
Zach Mason Lost Books of the Odyssey
Turgenev A Month in the Country
A couple of monographs on Mark Tobey (while the library here has a slightly different selection than Vancouver, they actually have quite a few for an artist from the Pacific Northwest)
The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora (this cannot be found in either the Toronto Public Library or Robarts, but I shall attempt ILL since it is in the Vancouver library system -- apparently the big fees only accrue for books borrowed from US libraries).

While extremely annoying, this is not the end of the world, particularly given just how bad the failures were.  (I did lose many shows recorded off BBC Radio 3, but those were gone forever and it didn't really bother me as much as I thought when I lost them.)  I'll cross these off the list after I feel I have sufficiently recreated my notes from the first time around.  I'll definitely feel better after I have gotten through the list, particularly if I am able to get that Flora book through ILL.

This actually reminds me of another catastrophic failure I had back in college when I lost all my creative writing (probably another computer died on me, but I can't remember the details).  However, I was working with a poetry professor who actually had all my submitted poems from two semesters in a big folder, and I was able to borrow that from him and make copies.  That was an interesting time when people were moving from analog modes (writing in notebooks and then typing into a computer and printing everything out on dot matrix printers) to the early floppy disks that were pretty vulnerable to going bad.  Today's USBs and portable hard drives are a lot more durable, but not infallible.  I guess there is something to be said for putting everything up in the cloud, but I'm not quite ready yet.  I'm generally better about backing things up than I used to be, particularly anything that I consider creative writing.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Colder than Yellowknife

Yesterday Toronto (and Peterborough) was colder than Yellowknife.  That is the case this morning as well, though by the afternoon Toronto should warm up a bit to -10 C or so.  Not sure about Peterborough or Ottawa, though Ottawa is almost always colder than Toronto.  Later in the week, Yellowknife returns to its normal bone-chilling cold and Toronto is relatively balmy, even breaking 0 C a couple of times.  I guess last February was colder, but I don't recall any days that felt just as intensely cold as yesterday.  (I've probably just blocked them from memory, however.)

I don't think I actually reviewed Robert Kroetch's The Snowbird Poems, but I am starting to understand the appeal of heading south for the winter, which is definitely something a lot of older Canadians do.  While this won't be a proper review, I will quote a few sections from Kroetch's Excerpts from the Real World:
Caribou, for instance, know how to paw with their hoofs through snow and find silken clumps of lichen.  All the flights to Hawaii, from now until Ash Wednesday, are booked by polar bears.  Don't forget to bring your guitar.

The streets of Winnipeg, in winter, become intention.  One learns to breathe cold iron.  Testicles migrate, along with snow geese and other birds of questionable courage, to bayous and estuaries.  Nipples eat frozen red berries off the mountain ask and various bushes.  This is a prophecy.

Anyway, it's darn cold out there. 

I don't really want to go out, but I have to get more groceries (especially as the stores will be closed for Family Day tomorrow.)  I may run out to see a play this afternoon, since it received a favorable review from Mooney's.  While the set-up is pretty similar to Seminar (the Mirvish production that I skipped last fall), my understanding is that the big-shot creative writing professor never appears on-stage in this production, so we just see all the politicking that happens backstage as it were.  That actually sounds a bit intriguing, though I may be conflating Dalton and Company with Bartleby and Co. (a novel by Enrique Vila-Matas).  And while Bartleby was never entirely off-screen, he is sort of an absence at the center of Melville's story.  (I have to admit that I have not read Vila-Matas's book, though it looks intriguing, and I have put it on hold at the library.  I was tipped off from the comments on this story about a civil servant who was paid for many years without turning up for once even once.)  I think many of us dream of being Bartleby's, simply refusing to do that which we wish not to do.

I'm actually a bit upset over not being able to track down some computer files I wanted to work on today.  I think an awful lot of stuff was lost between March and August 2014 when one of my portable hard drives was damaged beyond repair.  Probably some of this was burned to backup DVD, but I don't have any easy way to sort through this.  I guess I really do need to finally go downstairs and dig through those boxes of data DVDs and put them in some kind of order.  I am obviously really dreading this.

Well, before I do that (or go out into the cold for groceries), I'll give a quick breakdown of the trip.  I got a bit of a late start, since it took longer than I hoped to get the car warmed up.  It was quite a pain, having to switch between keeping the inside of the car warmer vs. blowing air onto the windshield to keep it from fogging up.  It wasn't until I was most of the way down the Don Valley Parkway to the 401 that it got remotely comfortable to drive.

I was a bit worried about missing the turn-off, but in the end it wasn't all that bad.  I made pretty decent time and ended up coming into Peterborough at about 11:15.  I pulled into the big parking lot near the art gallery.  It was free parking all weekend, which was very welcome.  I did have some change but didn't really want to have to take off my gloves to feed the meter.  I did bring my bag of driving supplies inside, as I didn't want it to freeze.

The gallery was nice, but definitely on the small side.  There was basically one big room at the bottom, and then some artwork from the permanent collection hung on the walls of the ramps to and from the main floor.

They actually had three prints by Andy Warhol, including this one of Wayne Gretzky.  I had no idea Warhol even knew about hockey, but anyway, how quintessentially Canadian (and garishly 80s)...

Andy Warhol, Wayne Gretzky, 1984

I also thought these two were interesting.

Kenneth Lochhead, Germination, 1961

Moira Clark, Salon, 1982

While it is perhaps a bit of a stretch, I saw just a bit of Utermohler's messing about with perspective in Salon.  It was a quick visit (maybe 20 minutes). There is no question that there is more to see (about 4 times as much) at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa.  I also took a quick look at the gift shop and came close to picking up a print by Lisa Martini-Dunk but I truly don't have anywhere I could hang it in the house, so I guess my art collecting days are over.

I then had a very bad moment with the car when I thought it wouldn't start, but apparently with these new cars, you press the brake and turn the ignition (rather than giving it some gas).  I find this very counter-intuitive.  Anyway, I moseyed on down a bit in downtown Peterborough and parked fairly close to Market Square.  I grabbed my ticket and a very quick lunch, then went in to see Les Belles Soeurs.  At the box office, they said it would be done close to 2:30, so I started pondering making a short trip to Oshawa on the way back.

The performance was well done, though one does have to wonder about the wisdom of getting all the neighborhood women to help out with pasting in the million stamps, particularly when the winner wouldn't stop gloating about all the nice things she would buy with the stamps.  It predictably ends in disaster.  (I've heard that the musical version features a someone more uplifting ending, which seems like such a bizarre and unworthy rewriting of the script.  I still can't believe that Tremblay agreed to this, but perhaps the money was too good to pass up.)  The main plot is hardly the point as we explore these women and their complaints about family and their unthinking adherence to a particularly narrow and misogynistic version of Catholicism.  About the only thing they have going for them, is that they love playing bingo, and the showstopper was when they all stop what they are doing and do a routine about how they love bingo.  Several of them appear to be on the edge of orgasm (even the old woman in the wheelchair).  I thought it was a particularly nice touch that the uptight sister reveals her red stockings, which are hidden throughout the show, in what is a clear parallel to her fallen sister's flame red stockings.  You can see the fallen sister on the far right in the second picture below, though the red stockings on the repressed sister cannot be seen.  This one scene could well have been turned into a full-on dance routine, but the rest was generally more realistic and downbeat.

It was worth the trip.  I hope that the cast considered it worth doing, after it was cut back from two weekends to one (and without even a Sunday matinee).  I'll try to catch it again if a production comes through Toronto.  While I still think Albertine in Five Times is a slightly more original play, Les Belles Soeurs was very good.

However, the play ended at 3:15, not 2:30, so Oshawa was definitely out.  I also had trouble getting out of Peterborough, as the signage was fairly poor.  To say nothing of almost freezing my hands off filling up the car.  Driving back wasn't too bad after that, but I just don't have the stamina I used to for long drives.  If I go out to Brock in a couple of weeks for another play, I am definitely taking the bus.

So that was my trip.  I guess I have no more excuses, so I have to head out now...

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Emmanuel Bove in French and English

I can never tell exactly why certain authors grab a hold of my attention.  Lately I have gotten quite interested in Emmanuel Bove.  He was actually quite a prolific writer, particularly given the challenging circumstances (he fled Occupied France for Algeria in 1942 but returned in 1944 after the Germans were repelled from France).  He died in Paris in 1945.  My general impression is that he, like Joseph Roth, was somewhat dissolute and would never have lived to a ripe old age, but that the stresses of war as well as the difficult economic times between the wars accelerated his decline.  There is a good overview of his career here (this is also the introduction to the recent NYRB volume, Henri Duchemin and His Shadows).

Perhaps what fascinates me the most is that he was somewhat of a literary darling, but he became fairly obscure by the 1960s.  Bove is slowly being rediscovered, but only a small number of his books are available in English.  I personally consider him the "real deal," since he lived through all the troubles that Patrick Modiano obsessively relates second-hand.  He is known for a somewhat flat, direct style, and he was generally preoccupied with quasi-indigent men who had aspirations to move out of the working class.  I don't know if others see it, but his middle style reminds me of Sartre's existential fiction.  Bove's last three completed novels have the additional frisson that comes from refugees unsure of whom they can trust during war time.  It is perhaps not surprising that these three are all available in English translation (Quicksand, Night Departure and No Place), though generally Le Piège (Quicksand) is considered the best of the three.

It appears that three novels from the 1930s were published posthumously, and I have kept them a bit separate from the others in the bibliography below.  Curiously, two of them have been translated into English.  Again, what makes Bove a bit different from other French authors of his stature is that several of his major works have not been translated into English, including La Coalition, Coeurs et Visages and arguably Le Pressentiment.  I've started collecting a few of his books in French and will see how far I can get with them.  It does help that he doesn't have a very elaborate style.

Anyway, there is an incredibly detailed bibliography here, which seems to have everything covered aside from two relatively recent English translations.  To avoid confusion, I will note if there is an English translation by an "E," so O or R in the first list will refer only to the French version of Bove's works, whereas a note in the second list will refer to the English version.

There is no question that tracking down Bove's stories will be the hardest (if I get completely obsessed and try to read them all).  It is actually fairly difficult to find out much information about the French volumes republished recently.  My understanding is that it is only the 1939 edition of La Dernière Nuit that contains the extra stories and that the more recent printing omits them.  (If I understand this correctly, La Dernière Nuit is the same work as Un suicide, but that Histoire d'un suicide is a second work (sometimes titled La Coalition).) However, it appears that the recent printing of Monsieur Thorpe contains the stories that were included with La Dernière Nuit, as well as Petits Contes, so I may try to pick that up.

It definitely seems more difficult (and expensive) to do inter-library loan in Toronto, though a lot of this has to do with the increased postage costs across the border.  I currently gave up on getting the recent translation of A Raskolnikoff and will just read (or attempt to read) the French version at Robarts.  I also decided to order a copy of A Man Who Knows and will donate that to Robarts at some point in the late summer or fall.  I'm waiting to see if SUNY-Buffalo will send over their version of The Stepson or if they charge an arm and a leg for it, in which case I'll eventually order it myself.*  If that does come through, however, it seems that they have the 1939 version of La Dernière Nuit, and I'd see if that can be requested.  Otherwise, I'll just buy the newer edition of Monsieur Thorpe.  Interestingly, at least a few of these titles are now available on the Kindle, so I'll probably try that for one or two titles.

It is curious that Flammarion published a book called Romans in 1999, which covered 9 of Bove's major works (some technically stories and not novels), comprising just under half of his fiction.  It would be ideal if at some point they put out Romans 2 to cover the rest, though I am certainly not holding my breath.  Anyway, just writing things out this way helps relieve the pressure, and after reading a few more of his novels in translation and attempting one or two in the original, I can probably let go of this particular obsession.

Bove in French:
EO     Mes amis, roman, 1924.
EO     Armand, roman,1927.
O     Bécon-les-Bruyères, nouvelle, 1927.
O     Un soir chez Blutel, roman, 1927.
UT.     Un père et sa fille, nouvelle, 1928.
O     La Coalition, roman, 1928.
     La Mort de Dinah, roman, 1928.
O     Coeurs et Visages, roman, 1928.
EO     Henri Duchemin et ses ombres, 1928 (comprend: "le Crime d'une nuit", "Un autre ami", "Visite d'un soir", "Ce que j'ai vu", "l'Histoire d'un fou", "le Retour de l'enfant", "Est-ce un mensonge?").
O     L'Amour de Pierre Neuhart, roman, 1928.
UT.     Une Fugue, nouvelle, 1929.
UT     Petits Contes, 1929 (comprend: "l'Enfant surpris", "Une journée à Chantilly", "Conversation", "le Trac", "les Pâques de Konazi").
UT     Monsieur Thorpe, nouvelle, 1929.
     Une illusion, nouvelle, 1929.
     Un malentendu, nouvelle, 1930.
EO     Journal écrit en hiver, roman, 1931.
EUT.     Un Raskolnikoff, nouvelle, 1932.
     Un célibataire, roman, 1932.
     La Toque de Breitschwanz, roman policier (sous le pseudonyme de Pierre Dugast), 1933.
     Le Meurtre de Suzy Pommier, roman policier, 1933.
E     Le Beau-Fils, roman, 1934.
     Histoire d'un suicide (la Coalition), roman, 1934.
O     Le Pressentiment, roman, 1935.
     L'Impossible Amour, roman, 1935.
     Adieu Fombonne, roman, 1937.
     La Dernière Nuit (comprend: la Dernière Nuit (autre titre d'Un suicide) et les nouvelles intitulées: "une illusion", "Rencontre", "le Retour", "la Garantie", "le Secret", "Elle est morte"), Gallimard, 1939.
EO     Le Piège, roman, 1945.
     Une Offense, nouvelle, 1945.
EUT     Départ dans la nuit, roman, 1945.
EUT     Non-Lieu, roman, 1946 (édition posthume).
Other posthumous works
EUT     Un homme qui savait, roman, 1986.
EUT     Mémoires d'un homme singulier, roman, 1987.
     Un caractère de femme, roman, 1999.

Bove in English:
R    My Friends (Mes amis)
R    Armand
UT   A Winter's Journal (Journal écrit en hiver)
O   The Stepson (Le Beau-Fils)
O   Quicksand (Le Piège)
O   Night Departure; and No Place (Départ dans la nuit/Non-Lieu)
UT.   A Singular Man (Mémoires d'un homme singulier)
R   A Man Who Knows (Un homme qui savait) (sadly not good at all)
      A Raskolnikoff
R   Henri Duchemin and His Shadows (Henri Duchemin et ses ombres)

* Just after I finished typing this, I found that there was an inexpensive copy of The Stepson from Betterworld Book (with only moderately expensive shipping to Canada).  So I jumped on that, and after I read it, I will donate it to Robarts.  I'll still leave the ILL request in place, however, just to see what happens.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Road tripping (to Peterborough)

I certainly could have picked a better weekend to travel out to Peterborough, but I guess as long as I stay in the car, I should be ok.  I am off to see Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs tomorrow.  There is a matinee and an evening performance left.  Tickets are available here.  I was going to go anyway, but this review was very positive, so I am really looking forward to it now.  (Well, maybe not the cold or the tedium of driving, but it shouldn't be too bad.)

If the trip goes well, I shall go ahead and get a ticket to the play down at Brock in St. Catherines.  This time I can take the bus and get some reading done. I probably should have gotten my Megabus ticket already, but I don't think the fare will have jumped up too much on me.  This is very much the off-season for travelling.

Doing the (Gravity) Wave

My understanding of higher-order physics is very limited, but the news that the LIGO experiment has uncovered evidence of gravity waves emanating from two black holes is quite exciting.  I do wonder how often such an event will occur in order for the scientists to really use this to peer back into the first moments of the Big Bang, according to the ever-excitable Stephen Hawking.  On the other hand, if there truly are massive black holes at the centre of all galaxies, then it might not be such a rare event after all.  While this has made the news everywhere, this article goes a bit deeper into the mechanics of the experiment -- and has some droll comments BTL.

Congratulations to all, and particularly to Albert Einstein whose theories have been borne out (yet again).

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Immigration in literature

This is one of those huge topics that can easily derail a post, but I've been reading quite a few (fictional) books on the topic of immigration and/or the status of new immigrants to the U.S. or Canada.  As it happens, nearly all of these have been set post 1965, around the time immigration to the U.S. and Canada opened back up after several decades of being quite exclusionary, particularly to non-Europeans.  However, in the past I had read more about new immigrants closer to the turn of the century and I've added Transit by Anna Seghers to my TBR pile (true towards the very bottom), and this tackles the issue of Jewish emigrants trying to leave Germany and Europe more broadly in the run-up to and during WWII.  (It sounds like I should pair it with W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants.)  Thus, the stakes are raised in a way that wasn't the case for the novels covering immigration and immigrants around the turn-of-the-20th-century.  One could certainly claim that the Irish potato famine, which launched huge waves of Irish immigration was a life or death struggle, but it still wasn't the same as hiding away from the Nazis to avoid concentration camps.  Thus, Segher's Transit has more in common with the last novels that Bove wrote or Némirovsky's Suite Française.  As it happens, neither the U.S. nor Canada was particularly open to accepting Jewish refugees, and some historians have made a strong case that Canada was in fact the worst First World nation (not part of the Axis) in terms of accepting Jewish refugees.  I will circle back to this mismatch between the way Canada is viewed today and its historical legacy.

Obviously, I haven't read Transit yet, but it certainly seems relevant today when Europe appears to be on the brink of a crisis (or at least about to lose one of the defining features of European unity -- the freedom of movement within the Schengen Area) due to the pressure of immigration from Syria and other failed states in the Middle East and North Africa. These are confusing times, and it will be interesting to see how Europe reacts to this intermingling. I have to say historical trends are not particularly encouraging. I would not say either the U.S. or Canada ever thoroughly integrated its recent (i.e. post 1965) migrant communities, but North America has done a much better job than France with its immigrants from North Africa (many living in the slums outside Paris and perhaps slightly better integrated in Marseilles) to say nothing of Germany with its generations of Turkish immigrants who still are not eligible for full citizenship.*

I'm going to hive off all the novels set after 1965 into a second post.  Even that post may spawn one or two secondary posts, simply because the topic is still so huge.

There seem to be two general approaches to dealing with immigration in literature.  Either one follows a special character who is highly self-aware and is able to enter a new country (legally or illegally) and who then comments upon what he or she finds, or one writes as a "native" observing the huddled masses in the city.  The first stance is quite common among writers from South Asian diasporic writers, such as Mukherjee, Lahiri and Rushdie, though since all their novels fall after 1965, I will hold off discussing them until the folluw-up post.  The talented observer is also to be found in the writings of American Black authors who went into self-imposed exile into Europe either during the 1930s or after WWII, and this would include James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Richard Wright's The Outsider, and John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am.

The outsider looking in at the masses is basically the whole point of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and there are also relatively sympathetic portrayals of immigrant communities throughout John Steinbeck's work and John Dos Passos's early novels.  I know that William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes deals with immigrants interacting with most established Americans, but I haven't read it.  One day...

Of course, I'm quite sure there are a number of urban novels I have forgotten where the narrator is hostile to the teaming masses, but those haven't really stood the test of time. I've heard that Henry Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers is fairly ambivalent towards the immigrants of Chicago, but I have not read it.  I will try to one day.  I also have not gotten around to the Studs Lonigan trilogy by James T. Farrell, which is about life in Chicago in a neighborhood full of Irish immigrants.

This leads naturally to a third option, though certainly not as common, where the author is writing from the middle of the immigrant community.  At least in the U.S., this was usually tied in with proletarian literature, since it was generally only left-wing intellectuals (and presses) that would take on such novels.  So Mike Gold's Jews without Money and Henry Roth's Call It Spring are both written from authors in the midst of New York Jewish communities (before Jews became "white" in roughly the 1950s).  I have to admit, I seem to have lost my class notes from my course on Proletarian Novels taught by Alan Wald at UMichigan, but there were 3 or 4 other good examples.  If they turn up, I will add a few more.

In this same vein, but not as explicitly leftist, there is a whole series of novels on Swedish farmers moving to America and trying to make a go of it.  This is the basic plot of Vilhelm Moberg's The Emigrants.  This is certainly a really important part of the American melting pot (the Nordic folks that settled the upper Midwest and Plains States and to some extent the Canadian Prairie), which is generally not written about all that much.  I have not read it (and the following 3 books), and it is not on my TBR list at the moment, but I may add it some day.  I have to admit that my interests just lie so much closer to urban literature that reading about farmsteaders is not really my cup of tea.  I would probably tackle Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth first to see if I wanted to read more along these lines.

I'm getting further and further from books I've actually read and about which I can say anything meaningful.  I will close out this post with one of the first major post-colonial writers, George Lamming.  Lamming generally strikes me as someone who felt he was too clever and special to stay behind in his native Barbados and he took advantage of the implied promise of the Empire, i.e. that clever souls could move to London at the heart of the Empire.  And so he did.  And he found that the promise was a half-hearted one at best.  He was never to feel completely accepted in England, and yet, as far I can tell, he never left.  He definitely feels ambivalence about his adopted country, and in many ways strikes me as a forerunner of V.S. Naipaul.  (Indeed, there are a few articles and a monograph drawing out connections between the two.)  This is a bit different from Bharati Mukherjee who only has positive things to say about the U.S. at least in relation to Canada...  I remember thinking quite highly of Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, which I thought just a bit reminiscent of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Barbados (my memory may be failing me, however!).  I wasn't as taken with The Emigrants, which moves the setting to England and follows the tribulations of Caribbean immigrants.  Perhaps I would like it more now, and I am considering adding it to the tail end of my long reading list, and then I might follow up with the essays in The Pleasures of Exile and On the Canvas of the World.  As it happens, the Toronto Library does have all these books.  It isn't a particularly high priority, but it's something I will definitely consider.  I would recommend reading In the Castle of My Skin, even if one doesn't want to tackle all the other books.  To me it gives some insights into why a talented person would choose to emigrate to another country, which obviously has some resonance for my situation, though I would not consider myself an exile from the U.S. (at least just yet -- still waiting to see what happens with the 2016 election but things don't look good, particularly with Congress which is where the real problems lie).

* To concentrate all the particularly controversial material, I will confine the rest of the commentary down here. I have a fair bit of experience navigating the immigration channels, as I applied for student visa to Canada and then for work visas to the U.K. and now Canada. I would say that in general I think immigration should be loosened, but not that border control should be completely eliminated. I certainly don't agree with groups like "No One is Illegal," who basically do not recognize the ability of states to set immigration policy. Basically all serious studies of immigration have found that higher levels of immigration have positive benefits in the short- and medium- term, and this is particularly the case in countries with low birth rates, like most of Europe and Canada (here are some relevant studies from RAND looking at immigration in California and the UK). That does not mean that there are no downsides to immigration, in particular the downward push on wages (some studies here and here) and the displacement of some lower "castes" even further down the occupational chain (see here and here -- probably behind paywalls unfortunately).  Even the RAND study of immigration in California cautions that the costs of immigration are increasing and starting to shift the balance in favor of more restrictive and certainly more selective immigration policy for it to still benefit the state.  Several scholars have made a strong case that African-Americans would have better life outcomes except for the fact that they were displaced by the new immigrants who quickly took up a better position in the racial hierarchy in the U.S.** What none of these studies has really focused on is whether there is an ideal number of new immigrants to a society, in particular these more homogeneous societies of Northern Europe that simply do not seem to have the ability to integrate the new immigrants into their society. Certainly my impression from the news reports is that there is a ticking time bomb at the heart of these Nordic societies and perhaps Germany as well. I'll leave aside the issue of the "Islamification of Europe" for another day, perhaps.

** I've been reacting fairly negatively to Mukherjee's Darkness for a few reasons, but the primary one is that she keeps dumping on Canada and claiming that the U.S. is/was so much more genuinely open to South Asian immigrants like herself. People might well have been polite in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it was clear that she was not part of the overwhelmingly white society. I can't deny that was her experience, and a bit of digging around into Canadian immigration history does suggest that Canada's immigration laws were actually even more exclusionary than those of the U.S. at least until 1947. Also, Canada has always received only a small fraction of the immigration that the U.S. has done, though it doesn't take as many immigrants to make Canadian cities feel multicultural. I would certainly argue that by the mid 1990s, the situation had reversed and post 9/11, it was better to be a non-white immigrant in Canada than the U.S. Mukherjee might still not agree, of course.  In any case, my take on the racial hierarchy in Canada is a bit more complex. It's not so much that visible minorities became white but that as new groups came in, the older groups did come closer to the centre and became "more Canadian." So for example, when large numbers of Chinese immigrants started arriving by say the late 1980s, South Asian groups were viewed more positively, since they had once been part of the British empire (and India and Pakistan are still Commonwealth countries) but more to the point, the vast majority of Indians and Pakistanis speak very good English (at least those living in Canada). Thus, the Chinese were the new "other," until they moved a bit closer to the centre with the arrival of Muslim immigrants and particularly this current wave of Syrian immigrants. At least the Chinese are Christian, according to those people holding nationalist tendencies. And so it goes. That doesn't mean there are no tensions, and particularly in Vancouver, mainland Chinese are largely blamed for the affordability crisis in their real estate market. I think there is probably some truth to that, but the affordability crisis is more of a symptom of Toronto and Vancouver finally having become world cities.

† However, it only has a reference copy of Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, so I will have to go to Robarts yet again.  (This seems to be the story of my life for delving into serious fiction; fortunately, I can get an alumni card.)  Amazon has seemed to notice that I am taking an interest in immigrant fiction, and has offered up this book on West Indians in London in the 1950s that seems like a most appropriate book to pair with Lamming's The Emigrants.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

At loose ends (this weekend)

One of the down sides of being just a bit manic in going out and doing arts and theatre almost every weekend is that when you suddenly have a "down" weekend, it feels strange.  What is even stranger, however, is when you plan on setting aside some time for an event, and then it doesn't come to pass.  I had expected to be driving to Peterborough on Sunday to catch Les Belles Soeurs, and it turns out they are only doing it next weekend, and I will have to go on Sat.  First off, I am a bit concerned that the weather may turn on me (this weekend is chilly but no meaningful snow).  If the forecast is correct, next Saturday will probably still be clear, but it is going to be very, very cold (-13 C), so I am definitely holding off for a bit to be sure I want to go under those conditions.

Anyway, that means that while I have plenty to do this weekend -- work, cooking, getting back to sewing the curtains, it doesn't look like there is any theatre that I want to see.  The Cherry Orchard is just not enough of a draw (and they seem determined not to offer any discounted tickets).  It really does seem that the main theatre critic at The Toronto Star has indeed retired, and I was sort of counting on him to indicate if there was any merit in this production, but I've pretty much decided to skip it.

Salt-Water Moon hasn't opened at Factory Theatre, and I have to say that the way they have decided to rework the play "through an intercultural lens" does not appeal to me.  I have complicated feelings about race-blind casting.  Many (but not all) of the characters in my plays really are written for a performer of a specific race or ethnicity.  That's a bit different from what they are up to here at Factory, where I think of this as somewhere between stunt casting and revising the play (without French's express permission, as he is dead).  If they just change the costumes and leave the lines alone, then how is this meaningful?  These Asian characters would never have been living in Newfoundland right after WWI.  So I just don't find this appealing at all.  I'll check the reviews, but at this point I plan to pass.

I briefly considered Chelsea Hotel over at Theatre Passe Muraille, but I just wasn't blown away by the singing in the video clip, and the tickets are not cheap.  So that's out.

I was hoping to check out the Two-Character Play over at Tarragon or Richard III also at Tarragon this weekend, but neither has opened.

It is odd knowing just how much is coming down the road, but just having to wait.  (I found that the Royal Conservatory has sort of put their season up though it is so vague that you basically just have to trust them that the concerts will be interesting.  I could only tell for certain that they were doing Mendelssohn's Octet and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.  Both chestnuts, but I'll probably go anyway.)

So I think this will be an event-less weekend for once, though as I said, I do have plenty to get done.  If I do have some time left over, I should work on my short story for the contest.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Death Comes for the Thespian - Brian Bedford RIP

There have been so many celebrity deaths lately that one simply cannot keep up.  I am quite abashed that I didn't learn of Brian Bedford's passing until two weeks later (and I am not posting until another week has gone by).  He died from cancer on Jan 13, basically right between Bowie and Rickman, so that squeezed out all other celebrity deaths for a while.   He was 80.  The Star had a nice obit.
I believe I only saw him twice in various Stratford productions, including a powerful Julius Caesar in an otherwise muddled production.  I also saw him in School for Scandal (with Steven Sutcliffe as well), which was excellent.

He had slowed down and more or less stopped performing by 2013, and I've only been able to start going to Stratford on a regular basis since 2014.  But he left a very strong legacy at Stratford -- and very limited work in films or TV, which unfortunately means he will not leave much of a trace in the general culture.  He did have a role in the movie Nixon and was the voice of Robin Hood in the Disney movie, which is probably the height of his fame.  There is a filmed version of The Importance of Being Ernest, which is probably quite good, and I may get it, but comparing Bedford in drag as Lady Bracknell to all the bigger roles he had over his career, it is a bit anti-climatic.

It is likely that Stratford has some other DVDs available, though probably not for the roles I'd be most interested in (School for Scandal being the tops).  But I'll check around this summer when I go down.

I've pretty much settled that I am only going down for John Gabriel Borkman.  Arthur Miller's All My Children is a fine play, and I am sure it is a good production, but I think this is a play that is fairly dependent on the twist at the end, so it isn't one that lends itself to seeing multiple times.  I would definitely go see Death of a Salesman again, even though I "know" the ending, but I just cannot summon up the same enthusiasm for All My Children.  Plus, I probably will have to be cutting back at least a bit on entertainment expenses.  I may change my mind if the reviews are stunning, but I doubt it.  I'd actually be more likely to go to a couple of the Shaw productions, depending upon reviews, but that isn't likely either.

I think I'll end this post before it gets even more off-track.  I did find an image of him in School for Scandal, looking just a bit forlorn.

And here's a better photo of Bedford as Lear, probably from 2007.  This is a production that I would very much like to have seen, but Chicago is just far enough from Stratford (and Chicago has so much going on) that it didn't cross my mind to make the trip.  As I said, I will see if Stratford puts together a DVD of Lear or even a greatest hits package of Bedford pacing the boards.  RIP