Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Last Hip Post

This will most likely be the last posting I make about The Tragically Hip, but I wanted a bit of a round-up.

I got home from our trip (still not documented - alas) and found that for whatever reason the PVR had not recorded the Aug. 20th Kingston show (the one watched by 11.7 million Canadians!).  I wondered if it had been some blackout on recording, but others had mentioned it worked, though it cut off the end of the concert, since they hadn't added an hour to the end of the official broadcast time.  We had planned ahead for that, but the recording never started in the first place.  Very frustrating.  One possibility is that we do get 2-3 minute power blackouts at least once a week, and that might have thrown things off.  (I grant you this is less serious than others dealing with daily brown-outs, but it still feels pretty unacceptable given the rates we pay Hydro.  Maybe too many squirrels and raccoons chewing on wires in Riverdale?)

I had said I would buy a DVD of the concert, and I still expect to do so, but in the meantime it wasn't all that hard to track down someone who had put the whole thing up on Youtube.  And with a bit of additional searching, I tracked down the August 12 and 14 concerts in Toronto.  I did like the 12th (featuring Fully Completely) just a bit more than the 14th, which went a bit deeper into Road Apples, but also featured Now for Plan A.  The second half of the Hamilton concert on the 16th featured World Container, so that was also worth streaming.  The final concert is a bit of a masterpiece, and the only thing I would have wanted to see was So Hard Done By, perhaps in place of Toronto #4.  I just don't see how they can top that, and almost any concert after this would be an anti-climax, though I am sure people would be understanding if Gord's cancer goes into remission and they do tour again.

I'm fairly sure at some point I owned Day for Night (which features So Hard Done By and several other classic cuts), but I couldn't locate it, and I gave in and ordered another copy.  It arrived last night, and I played it through.  I don't believe I've ever listened to the entire CD in order, which is kind of strange, so maybe I didn't own it after all.  Anyway, it will take quite a while for it to sink in, and I don't think it will ever replace Fully Completely, which is basically burned into my brain from repeated listening over the years.

I was talking with my friend about the Hip and this half celebration/half wake tour, and we agreed that it was the right way to go out.  In a way, it gives the fans more closure (again assuming that the band really does break up) certainly than they got for Prince or Michael Jackson.  David Bowie did manage to get out his last album (a dark mini-masterpiece that I'll probably always mentally pair with Man Machine Poem), so that helps a bit.  It's never easy to let one's musical heroes go, since it just reminds us of the "Inevitability of death," which is yet another song off Day for Night...

P.S. (9/3) I don't know a lot about Gord Downie's background, but he strikes me as a bit of a working-class poet in a guitar band.  His lyrics really are quite interesting, even though it may take many, many listens for them to actually sink in.  After going to the hipmuseum site, I learned that the song Courage features a significant chunk of Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night.  I read the book many years ago, though I wouldn't have recognized a passage out of it (I don't have that kind of memory).  I suspect the link will inspire me to move the novel a bit higher on my reading list.  Downie has quite a few references like this, to something he had been reading, like Blaise Pascal, Tess Gallagher (Raymond Carver's wife and a writer herself), and quite a few others.  Downie himself lists several other writers that influenced him: Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Sam Shepard and Raymond Carver.  While it is just my opinion, I find his lyrics the most interesting and often profound for a Canadian musician, second only to Leonard Cohen, but the difference is they are played in the context of an always rocking, raucous guitar band (hence the interesting dissonance) whereas Cohen's lyrics are generally more front and center, though some versions he does are quite rocking as well.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 4th Review - The Book of Negroes

I wasn't sure I would actually get to Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes during the challenge this year, but I brought it on the trip to New York and Chicago, and I managed to read it in 3 or so days (aided by layovers in airports and so forth).  It is well-written and the plot moves along at a rapid pace.  I don't know if it was a mistake or not to start with the narrator, Aminata (or Meena as she is generally called), appearing before Parliament as an old woman, testifying against the slave trade.  It is somewhat difficult to remain in a state of suspense throughout the whole novel, when you know the main character survives all kinds of suffering.  I think that might have been a mistake, but that was the way Hill wanted it.

To cut to the chase, I thought this was an entertaining and solid book.  I don't think it is a great book for a variety of reasons.  Most fundamentally, while Aminata was somebody that you would root for throughout, she felt a lot to me like a person from our era thrown into the late eighteenth century.  She had a sense of her own worth and willingness to fight for her rights that frankly seemed very out of place for that time and era.  Interestingly, Hill sort of hints that she would have ultimately been very out of kilter in her village where societal pressures would have been unrelenting for her to conform and marry the local chief as his second or third wife.  While she is somewhat tempered in her thinking by the end of the book, she expects far too much out of people, particularly Lindo Abraham, and she generally refuses to accept compromises.  (It must be nice to live a life where one does not make compromises.  Perhaps ironically, the last time she spurns a chance to hash things out with Lindo* and perhaps see things from his perspective, she has been working for several months with the British, writing down the names of the free Blacks in the Book of Negroes, along with slaves and indentured servants that were going to Canada along with their British masters.  If she was going to be so self-righteous with Lindo, she should have looked in the mirror right about then, since she was just as much an enabler of the slave trade at that particular moment.  She does gain a bit more perspective after her return to Africa.)

More than anything, Aminata is basically a Mary Jane, that is a character that is so astoundingly perfect and exceptional in every way that it gradually gets a bit boring.  She can pick up languages amazingly quickly, by the age of 10 or so, she is an experienced midwife, she learns herbal medicine on a plantation in South Carolina (where she is also taught to read English -- she already knew a bit about reading the Qur'an, possibly in the original Arabic), and after she is sold to Lindo Abraham, he teaches her bookkeeping.  There is almost nothing she can't do, although as I already said she basically does not accept the complicity of average Southerners in the slave trade.  I'm not entirely sure what point Hill is trying to make when he focuses several times on the fact that slavery existed in Aminata's home village (and the chieftain's wife is actually most horrified that they are enslaving proper Muslims rather than that slavery exists at all).  This is actually a fairly daring subplot, as well as spending quite a bit of time late in the novel examining the actions of Africans who sold other Africans into slavery.  But it does make me question why Aminate is so particularly unforgiving towards Lindo when she was exposed to many of her kinsmen who engaged in slavery of one sort or another and that she herself facilitated the British bringing slaves to Canada.  The single weakness or flaw in her character comes when, despite having been warned several times, works out a deal to go with African slave traders in search of her home village (which she had even been told had been completely wiped off the map!).  Not too surprisingly, they eventually plan to sell her off as a slave yet again (quelle ironie!), but she figures out their plot (due to knowing yet another African language) and she miraculously escapes.  On the one hand, Hill may be trying to humanize her a bit and give her a flaw, but it just seemed a bit too unlikely that she would ever have trusted the slavers in the first place.  Of course, had I been in her place, I would never have thought it worth going back to Africa at all.

What I particularly liked about the novel was that it exposed me to a very under-reported aspect of history, namely that there was a small colony of free Blacks in Nova Scotia that was established in the aftermath of the American Revolution.  The Book of Negroes is an actual historical document, which kind of blew my mind.  (And there was a back to Africa movement many decades before Marcus Garvey.)  I also thought it was interesting how the British tried to stir up trouble by basically promising American slaves their freedom if they served on the British side.  (I wonder if Abe Lincoln knew about this aspect of history when he read out the Emancipation Proclamation, about which I will write more in my review of Father Comes Home from the Wars.  Abe was slightly better on the follow-through than the British, though at least some slaves got their freedom that way during the American Revolution.)  There were some very interesting debates in the novel about what it meant to stick up for the Americans and their "freedom," when it very quickly became obvious that this didn't apply to slaves.

There were quite a few characters that I relished reading about, whereas I was just sort of meant to admire Aminata on a pedestal as it were.  While Rosa Lindo is almost too good to be true herself, I still enjoyed the passages where she introduced Aminata to their home and far more genteel way of life.  If I recall, she actually had a bit of impishness about her and might have been the only white person that made Aminata laugh.  Certainly she and John Clarkson were about the only two whites she ever trusted or around whom she let down her guard.  I liked the passages with Daddy Moses and his ministering to his congregation in New York.  Finally, my favorite character was Georgia, who essentially becomes a second mother to Aminata when she is brought to the indigo plantation in South Carolina.  She struck me as someone who belonged in her own book, something along the lines of a Zora Neale Hurston novel.

I should add one final note of appreciation.  I thought it was rather profound how Hill discussed map making of that time and how the maps of Africa mostly showed a blank or a Terra incognita.  This frustrates Aminata to no end, since she hoped to learn a way back to her home village from these maps, but they are useless.   Towards the end of her time back in Africa, she decides that it isn't entirely the Europeans' fault but that Africans were also engaging in strategic withholding of information.  I particularly liked Aminata encountering this passage from Jonathan Swift's On Poetry, which seems particularly apt:

So geographers, in Afric maps, 
With savage pictures fill their gaps, 
And o'er unhabitable downs 
Place elephants for want of towns.

The entire poem can be found here.

On the whole this is an interesting and even important novel covering an obscured historical moment when Africans (free and enslaved) came to Canada.  It is a bit difficult to fully relate to the main character, who is a bit too perfect throughout, but there are several secondary characters that I enjoyed encountering.  It will certainly end up on my notable book list for 2016, though I am not expecting it to land in the top 5.

* I was checking out some other reviews, and it "triggered" my memory that the novel does entirely strain plausibility when Lindo shows up in the nick of time to prevent Aminata from being returned to her evil first master.  Not only does he just happen to be in New York and find out about the case, but he happened to be travelling around with her bill of sale.  Come on now...  And yet after this miraculous deliverance, she still can't bring herself to talk with him for more than a minute or two.

Missing paintings at the AGO - a poll

I decided that the last post was just too much of a downer and I wanted to put up something else, though it could be taken as a passive-aggressive attack on the AGO, which isn't precisely my point.

Most people realize that museums don't put all their paintings on display, but what isn't as commonly known is that it generally is only 5-10% of the collection that is actually on display.  Some museums are a bit more conservative in terms of what is on view and what is in storage.  The public basically expects to see key paintings and is going to be fairly disappointed if they are no longer on view.  Other museums rotate a bit more frequently.  My interpretation of the way the AGO works is that they have a few galleries that hardly ever change, esp. the one with all the paintings crammed together on the 2nd floor.  Since the remodeling, they seem to be pretty much stuck in leaving the model ships in the basement, as well as rotating within the Thomson collection on the 2nd floor.  Given that the 4th and 5th floors are given over to contemporary art, this leaves them with only a tiny area to actually change things up.  This article goes into the storage aspect and discusses the dilemma of taking popular works out of circulation.  I'm probably not quite as sympathetic as I should be, or I find what they have chosen to put on view doesn't really measure up (in some cases) to what is in storage.

Here are some paintings that I feel ought to be put back in circulation.  Most, but not all, are in the recent Highlights of the AGO book, and to my way of thinking, people will be somewhat disappointed if they can't see the paintings that the AGO itself claims are its highlights.  It is of course possible that one or two of these are actually on view, but I don't believe so, since I have visited only last weekend.  (Also, the AGO has perhaps the worst digital presence of any major museum I've come across.  You cannot search their collection on-line at least not in a straight-forward way, and obviously there is no way to tell which paintings are on view, which is increasingly common on museum websites.  I can only hope this is something they are working on, since it is a very major failing on their part.)

If I can manage it, I will put a poll in this post and at the end of summer, I will supply the results to the AGO management.

Here are the entries: 

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, 1885

Paul Cezanne, Interior of a Forest, 1885

Edouard Vuillard, The Widow's Visit, 1898

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1914

Wassily Kandinsky, Grey Circle, 1923

Joan Miro, Untitled, 1926

Yves Tanguy, The Satin Pillow, 1929

Lawren Harris, Grounded Icebergs, ca. 1931

Henri Matisse, Ivy Branch, 1941

Franz Kline, Cupola, 1960

Mark Rothko, No. 1, White and Red, 1962

Mary Pratt, The Service Station, 1978

Jeff Wall, The Goat, 1989

Ta-daa the poll.  Please vote for your favorite (only one vote per visitor).  Or if it isn't actually your favorite, the painting (or photograph) you feel most ought to come out of storage and be displayed.

Some quick house-keeping.  The poll will only work in the web-version of the blog, not a mobile version, so you may have to switch over (if that is an option) if reading on your phone (sorry!).  Also, it takes a minute or so for the votes to be recorded, and then you have to refresh the page to see your vote.

Please note that I plan to close this poll down on August 29.

(Unfortunately, in order to pin this post and the poll, I have to monkey around with the post date.  It was actually posted July 14.  Sorry about that.)

Here are the final results.  While this post got an unbelievable number of views, essentially no one voted on it, probably because the poll didn't work on mobile phones.  Certainly something to keep in mind for the future.  As mentioned elsewhere, the AGO has rehung The Widow's Visit, and Grounded Icebergs was actually part of The Idea of North exhibit (only in Toronto).

Edit (4/10/2017): I read an interesting article in the Star today about how the permanent collection will be shaken up and more art from the vaults will be brought up.  (I definitely hope that they will be using a few rooms, particularly the corner galleries, better.)  It sounds like the Kline will be back on view.  The Chagall became part of the Mystical Landscapes exhibit, so it is probably off to the Musee d'Orsay now.  Anyway, I should head over to see the rehung paintings soon, but also to check out the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit.  Depending on the weather, I might be able to bike over this Friday, and then plan to take the kids on April 22.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Theatre in Toronto (early Sept) and beyond

Just a short notice that Father Comes Home From the Wars has 4 shows added this week - Mon - Thurs (Sept. 1).  Tickets available here.  They may bring this back next season, but there is certainly no guarantee, so this is your last chance to see a moving exploration of how slavery distorted family bonds and other relationships.  I probably won't be able to get around to my extended review (which will be spoiler-heavy anyway) until the weekend, but I would recommend this for anyone interested in the African-American experience and how it is portrayed on stage.

I would recommend passing on High Park this year (All's Well That Ends Well and Hamlet), though if interested, it runs another week or so.

I just found out that Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie will be opening this week at the Theatre Centre and running for about two weeks (details here).  I expect I'll go, as I haven't seen this in years.  Maybe I can combine the show with a trip to the Stephen Bulger Gallery to see the Vivian Maier exhibit, which runs through Sept 10.  I've seen several exhibits of her work, and it is definitely worth checking out - and indeed, the unofficial pairing with The Glass Menagerie and its unfulfilled longings seems quite appropriate.

I've already written a bit about Tafelmusik, Tarragon and Soulpepper, which will kind of fill out the main artistic season for me.  I'll start getting tickets fairly soon.  I'm still debating Hart House where I really want to see Mouawad's Tideline and perhaps 7 Stories by Morris Panych, but I think I'd skip the rest of the season.

Anyway, let me jump to next summer, since both Stratford and Shaw have posted their upcoming seasons!  Stratford is here, and Shaw is here.  Per usual, Stratford interests me more, and I am just more likely to go out that way, since I hate trying to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake.  (I read that the outgoing director didn't like thinking about traffic and how to get out-of-towners to turn up, but it seems like a no brainer to me to try a shuttle bus, since it has been so successful for Stratford.)

At Stratford, I will definitely see Middleton's The Changeling (finally, though I did have the opportunity to see a modern take on it at the Storefront Theatre*) and Sheridan's School for Scandal.  I will probably pass on Twelfth Night, just because I've seen it several times and I can't really justify Stratford prices for that.  I am sort of torn on Murphy's The Breathing Hole, which sounds sort of interesting, but at the same time might be a real incoherent mess.  I guess it depends just how much they are charging for it, and if I can come up with one weekend to see everything.  I very much doubt I would travel to Stratford just to see The Breathing Hole.  That pretty much covers it.  They did Romeo and Juliet just a few years back, so I won't go to that, and I clearly won't go to Tartuffe, since I hate the play so much.

Shaw is less interesting from the get-go.  There is a small chance I would see Saint Joan.  I don't really care for Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa.  I actually saw Eno's Middletown at Steppenwolf several years back and didn't think it was all that great.  I certainly wouldn't go a second time. Michael Healey's 1979 is a bit of a wild card.  It could be fairly clever, and no question if Video Cabaret was doing it, I would go.  But I would rather see it in Toronto (or even Ottawa in April 2017) rather than going down to Shaw, so I am leaning against.  That is kind of the way I feel about An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.  I'm pretty sure this is a play that would sort of enrage me (for good and bad reasons very much like The Shipment by Young Jean Lee) and I'd probably go if it gets transferred to Toronto, but I am not going to travel down there and then sort of stew about the play the whole drive home.  So I might go to Saint Joan, but even that is fairly questionable.  It is interesting that they appear to have cut things back to just one musical (no question that the musicals from the past two seasons were critically panned), but Shaw still isn't really my cup of tea.

* It also means I'll probably pass on Shakespeare Bash'd's staged reading the play (currently slotted in for Nov. 13 at the Imperial Pub).  I'd rather go into the Stratford not knowing much about the play (aside from there are lots of bloody betrayals) and let the plot unfold.  However, I am fairly likely to try to see Shakespeare Bash'd's full production of Twelfth Night this winter (and possibly take my son) rather than pay Stratford prices for a play I've seen many times.  Not saying that I won't ultimately go to Stratford for this, but I generally like smaller, more intimate productions of Shakespeare's comedies.

What am I looking for (fiction edition)?

I've been struggling with my reading choices for a while.  Quite a few of them seem to end up as books that I should be reading (or I tell myself that I should be reading) rather than books I enjoy.  I think I am getting a bit more out of the non-fiction books, or at least the proportion of books that I feel actually merited my time is higher, and maybe I will just continue along that track.  Still, I have piles of unread books in the basement, and I would like to get through most of them by 2020...  I guess the one positive is that I am much less likely to hold onto marginal books than I used to be.  If I know I am not going to reread it and it isn't a stone-cold classic that the kids might need, then I have been donating the books as I go through them.  Six of the last 10 books I read have been donated.

In general, I am also trying to convince myself to give up on books sooner.  It is still a bit of a challenge for me, since I would rather read through to the end and then never bother with the book again, especially if the critical consensus is generally positive, than to wonder if I should give the book another go somewhere down the line.  However, for Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival and Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, the impressions I had of each book by about the 1/3 mark never changed by the end, and in both cases, I probably would have been better off just stopping midstream and turn to something that I enjoyed more.  (I actually do have some thoughts on the Roth book, but I'll blog about that later in the week.)

I have taken that to heart with Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go.  It was certainly blown up in certain quarters, but in my opinion, it doesn't live up to the hype.  I thought pretty seriously about pushing on, but two things happened to change my mind.  First, she just started piling one thing after another onto this family (and she kind of over-egged the pudding with how the father lost his job to the point I found it unbelievable).  I get really weary of this sort of thing (and I probably should just discard my copy of Mistry's A Fine Balance, since I remember even at the time thinking when will this misery end, though it is a brilliantly-written book...).  Second, the folks at Goodreads have hinted that there is sort of a happy ending in sight but only when this non-traditional family bonds back in Africa, which feels both unbelievable given the circumstances and too much like a Lifetime special.  Maybe more to the point, I am just so sick of Ivy league MFA-types getting so much hype for these under-baked first novels.  (I found the exact same thing with Iman Verjee's In Between Dreams, which I also didn't finish.)  One minor advantage of the Toronto Star over the NY Times is that the focus of the book section is on Canadian authors and not these not quite ready for prime time Ivy league authors.

Anyway, it is probably not possible to completely distill what I am looking for in a novel or novella, but I am starting to come up with some main themes.  I want interesting characters, not ciphers.  I am willing to make some exceptions for very short stories or extremely clever postmodern fiction.  In particular, I want characters who are at least of average intelligence rather than silly moppets who make bad choices purely out of ignorance.  I prefer characters who have some common sense, though they can certainly be led astray (by their emotions typically) or can be placed in very unusual situations (Malamud's God's Grace or the Scorsese movie After Hours).  There are some rare cases where strong secondary characters can make up for dull or insipid or silly or simply unbelievable main characters.  The secondary characters are the only reason I have hung onto Bowen's The Death of the Heart and Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek.

Most of all, I am one of those boring throwback readers who still wants plot.  Bad things can happen to the characters, but just piling on one thing after another is alienating and eventually boring. Maybe the single most important criterion is whether the characters have internal integrity.  If we think we know a character, then they can't all of a sudden act in a completely contrary manner, just to serve the plot.  That doesn't mean that they can't have hidden depths, but if they have these multiple layers, then they have to be earned, rather than just sprung on the reader.  It doesn't really seem that much to ask, does it?  But quite a few books I've read have not really passed this test, or I just wasn't interested for some other reason.  Perhaps I'll come back around to this at a later date.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chicago theatre previews - Sept. 2016

On my recent whirlwind trip to Chicago, I managed to catch two plays that were in final previews.  Both should be opening this weekend and running for 3 or so weeks.  I enjoyed both, though they were quite different plays.

The first one I caught was Sister Cities by Colette Freedman.  It will run through Sept. 18.  It was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this is its Chicago premiere.  Some details here.  Apparently, it has also been filmed for the Lifetime channel, though it seems like some of the dialog was cut and it is a more visual piece.  The play is set entirely in the living room, whereas in the movie version, most of the rooms of the house are explored.

The set-up is that the four sisters (all with different fathers and named for the place of their birth) rush home to deal with the sudden death of their mother, who was clearly a bit of a free spirit.  I'd rather not reveal too much of the plot, but it isn't going to be too much of a surprise to find out that various family secrets get aired now that the four sisters are reunited.  The play moves along at a rapid clip, clocking in just under 90 minutes.  As I said, I did enjoy it, but it is worth knowing that it seems to draw a bit on TV tropes in the way that humor is frequently used to mask emotion (there is more witty repartee than one would expect given the circumstances), there are a few sudden reversals that are a bit too convenient and the ending is implausible to say the least.

However, I was pretty excited to find out that at the preview I attended, Freedman was in the audience and actually engaged in a talk back with the audience, and it was one of the more enlightening ones I've seen in a very long while.  She mentioned that writing for a specific group of actors can deepen parts (and even speed up the writing process a bit, since you are drawing on an actual person), though that can make it somewhat difficult when the role then goes to someone else in a remount.  She wrote the part of Austin for herself and she considers it the juiciest role, though I tended to relate the most to Carolina, the type A personality.  I asked about Dallas, who strives to be the perfect wife, but seems to be the only one who really had ambivalent feelings about their mother.  Freedman said that that was intentional -- she is the only one who really saw through to the selfishness of the mother (who always put her own needs first ahead of her children, though she wasn't a total monster).  In some ways, I think this could have been a deeper, more profound play, but it's certainly entertaining.

The other preview was a more esoteric play -- Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés.  This is rarely performed, and people interested in seeing a fine production of the play should make tracks to see Halcyon's production (running through Oct. 8 - details and tickets here).  It is really hard to summarize the play, particularly as there are 8 cast members and the audience gets a chance to listen in on different discussions they are having throughout the play.  (This piece talks in general terms about the play.)  In the second half of the first act, the audience actually gets split into 4 groups and goes to 4 different settings (the kitchen, the lawn, etc.) to see smaller groupings of the actors.  It's actually a bit clever how the conversations can be overheard from different settings, which is likely how things would play out in a real house.  Rest assured, the audience will eventually see all 4 scenes, so no essential information is withheld.  It's really too difficult to describe what happens in the play, but Fefu is a bit of a free spirit who has a certain magnetism.  She converts one new acquaintance from being appalled to being inspired by her philosophy of life.  But perhaps all is not well in this idyllic setting?  You'll have to watch to find out more.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

High Park - All's Well That Ends Well

I'm back from All's Well That Ends Well in High Park.  I guess my main feeling was they did an ok job of it, but overall they were trying to hard to be hip.  I definitely do not agree with the 4 star reviews that some people gave.  I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist, and I thought they did a bit too much genre bending.  Some of the choices were baffling.  Personally, I didn't see nearly as much homosexual bashing in the way that Parolles was "tortured," as several other reviewers did, though what did stand out (and was really an unnecessary and unpleasant twist) was to thrust a gay porno magazine at him (as revealing his true character?) and then when he accepts his role as a fool (rather than as a soldier full of braggadocio) he is given a dress to wear.  Pretty uncool if you ask me.

Unfortunately, we were not able to reserve seats for the evening, and got there just a bit late.  We ended up on the hill on the far left of the stage.  The sight lines were ok, though some of the blocking that was done made it hard to see what was going on when the entire ensemble was on stage.  I could hear reasonably well, though my companion felt she missed a lot of the dialogue, so she didn't enjoy the production at all.  My problem was the hill had an incredible slant to it, so I spent a lot of time sliding down the hill and pushing myself back up on the blanket.  My hip is still a bit sore, and I have a lot of dirt ground into my new shoes.

I knew I would be bothered by the 3 little speeches written by the director to move things along, and I certainly was, especially as they got an unbelievable amount of attention.  The clownish character, Lavatch, is a female in this production (and while she keeps talking about how she wants to be rewarded for her service to the Countess by being married off, this must have been one of the subplots that was completely cut).  She ends up speaking the new lines (by the director Ted Witzel) as a kind of torch song, just giving them so much undue prominence.

But this is a hard play to like.  It relies too much on the bed trick (though maybe it isn't quite as contrived as in Measure for Measure (another problematic play) as Helena (or Helen in this production) at least is officially married to her unwitting partner).  It features a smart woman falling hopelessly in love with an unworthy man, is abandoned by him, and tricks him into returning to her side.  In this production, Bertram is completely unmoved when he hears of her death (at least in some productions one sees a bit of remorse creep in at this point) and yet seems to have genuine emotions for her once all the machinations are revealed.  I didn't feel this was earned at all (by the production), and I didn't believe it for a second.  The only thing I could plausibly believe is that Bertram remembered how good she was in the sack back in Florence.  I would have had more respect for this production if it had been more honest about the problematic ending instead of trying to make it an upbeat ending. In fact, I much preferred the Much Ado About Nothing production that added some ambiguity and melancholy to what is generally not seen as a problem play to this one trying to somehow smooth out the ending and pretend that Bertram is going to grow into a worthy partner for Helen and thus they live happily ever after.

There were two moments that I did enjoy, both of them having more to do with movement and staging than acting!  First, to set the scene for the Florence exploits, the men in their soldiers' garb, push these two large structures towards the middle of the stage, forcing all these chairs ahead of them like a snowplow pushes snow.  The chairs end up piled up a bit like the blockade that is a highlight of Les Mis.  They also come to a halt just a few feet away from Helen, who is discussing her plans to follow Bertram to Florence, adding just a hint of danger to the proceedings.

Then at the end, when Julia is slowly (far too slowly for my taste) revealing the traps that Helen has laid for Bertram, she and Bertram are circling the front of the stage, and the rest of the ensemble moves in block formation, following their discussion.  All of a sudden, the block opens up and Helen is there, back in her wedding dress, to confront Bertram.  That was fairly impressive.

Do two very elevated moments and a few sparks of interest here and there justify this production?  Probably not.  However, I will say it is hard to get anyone to pay any attention to this play (or Measure for Measure).  Still, I will be very wary of Witzel in the future, since I think he takes too many liberties with Shakespeare.  I can tell from this production and the reviews, that I would have absolutely hated his take on Hamlet, and I am definitely skipping it. So if you are on the fence, I would probably advise skipping Shakespeare in High Park this year.  I'm hoping that they come back a bit stronger next year, just as last year was fairly solid. 

(I'm still sort of on the fence about the gender bending that happens in Romeo and Juliet over in Withrow Park (reviews here and here), but I'm leaning against going.  I was going to take my son to see one of Shakespeare's best-known tragedies, but I just don't want his first experience to be one that is so non-traditional and frankly a bit confused and confusing (and Slotkin confirms this).  It would require more explanation than I really feel like going into at this point.  Will I go by myself, perhaps on the night they roast marshmallows?  Not likely, but perhaps if I feel I have caught up with everything else in my life...)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Father Comes Back from the War (Soulpepper)

Tues. evening I saw Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars,at Soulpepper.  It was very good, though I had a few issues, particularly with the third part.  I would still recommend people to go.  Since it is only running through August 27, there are only a few more dates to catch it, though it might get extended or come back next year.  I will just link to some reviews now, and then over the weekend or next week I will write a more detailed analysis of the trilogy:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 3rd Review - Whale Music

I've managed to read  Paul Quarrington's Whale Music in only two days.  It's a short novel (just over 200 pages) and a fairly compelling one.  I will say that for a novel by a Canadian author (winner of the Governor General's Award no less) it has only a very tenuous connection with Canada in the form of a young groupie from Toronto who becomes a bit of a muse to the narrator, Desmond Howell, but otherwise this is a story about American-style rock and roll and particularly its excesses.

The book starts off well with this bloated, former rock god finding the groupie, Claire, in his house.  He has a fairly tenuous grip on reality due to the epic amount of drugs and booze that he has consumed over his career, with the intake increasing to dangerous proportions after his brother Danny died in an auto accident.  (The running joke is that while Des is a hermit living in a L.A. compound, all these people keep turning up at his door and getting inside the house.  It must be said, however, that Quarrington does have a shaky grasp of L.A. geography, since he claims that Des lives across from Henry Mancini, and it is only a short walk to some scuzzy neighbourhood, whereas Mancini lived in Bel-Air, which is part of Beverly Hills, which is quite isolated from the rougher parts of L.A.  Even more importantly, Bel-Air doesn't overlook the ocean, so perhaps he really meant a neighbourhood more like Pacific Palisades.)  While the narrator has a slightly more frazzled and sometimes bewildered tone, the narrator does remind me a fair bit of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Conspiracy of Dunces at the start of this novel.  The main difference is rather than railing against the modern world, Desmond has decided to retreat from it and spends his time working on an experimental record called Whale Music.

I have to admit, I would have preferred if Quarrington had left it all set in the present, since it was already a strange enough story.  However, the novel takes many flashbacks to go into the back story of the Howl Brothers (Dan and Des Howell and the rest of the band).  It wasn't enough that the Howl Brothers had a story a lot like the Beach Boys, Quarrington has generated a parallel universe where the Howl Brothers have replaced the Beach Boys, so it is the Howl Brothers and the Beatles that are duking it out for top position on the charts (and even both going to India at the same time and dropping acid at about the same time, etc.), although the Howl Brothers seemed a bit more open to collaborating with Sun Studio artists than the real world Beach Boys did.  I think this alternative history got to be a bit much for me on two occasions.  First, when the Beatles and the Howl Brothers get into an actual brawl over who gets the larger dressing room during a concert where they shared the bill.  (This might have been vaguely believable in their Berlin days but not by 1964-65 when they were extremely polished.)  Second, by naming one of Des's albums Grin, it is just a bit too close to Smile (the fabled album that sort of broke up the Beach Boys when Brian Wilson sort of went off the deep edge).  How was Quarrington to know (in 1989) that Brian Wilson would finally emerge from seclusion and record a new version of Smile (released in 2004).  Anyway, I guess my feeling is that if Quarrington wanted to write about Brian Wilson, he should have had the guts to do so, rather than create a fictional boy band that operates in exactly the same space as the Beach Boys did.  Also, I thought he want to an awful lot of trouble for a bad pun when he revealed that Des's ex-wife still called herself Fay Ginzburg-Howl (not even Ginzburg-Howell).

I could have done with a lot less tripping down memory lane and more watching Desmond slowly reconnecting with the world and all his crazy family members, former band mates and other hangers on.  Certainly, the most memorable sections of the book are when Quarrington tries to describe the creative process and we see Des struggling to create a new kind of music, music aimed more at whales than at the dance charts.  I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if Des ultimately succeeds on his own terms and whether he will remain out of his shell more or less permanently or retreat.  The real world Brian Wilson seems to have survived and is fully functioning these days, so it is not out of the question for the surviving Howl Brother to do the same.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Hip Memories

While not really of any interest to anyone aside from me, I want to gather up my thoughts on The Tragically Hip.  I had heard of them by 1992 or so, though mostly as a band with an odd name.  I don't think they got any radio play in the States.

I was in Toronto from 1993-94 and I heard them from time to time on the radio. (I mostly listened to CFNY 102.1 The Edge, and while this was more of a pure alternative station at that time, they must have played The Hip once in a while.)  Anyway, I must have picked up Fully Completely then (I have a CD manufactured in Canada), along with Gordon by the Barenaked Ladies.

I was visiting a friend in Chicago in spring of 1995, and I happened to see in the paper that The Tragically Hip was playing Metro.  I couldn't convince him to go, and he missed out on a great show (April 1, 1995).  I just looked over the set list, and it was pretty incredible (part of the Day for Night tour).  Incidentally, I have heard them do So Hard Done By live after all.  I really only knew the Fully Completely material, but the other songs were certainly strong.  Gordon was wearing a white cowboy hat and danced around but wasn't completely eccentric at this point.  This was back when they still were thinking they might crack the U.S. market, and in fact the show was the week after the famed (or infamous) SNL broadcast...

While I occasionally picked up Tragically Hip albums from time to time, the one that I play the most often remains Fully Completely, though last year I started running through Yer Favourites on a routine basis, so that I have gotten to know most of the bigger hits off the other albums.

Anyway, I saw them play a mini-set at Yonge-Dundas Square, leaving after they finished Fifty Mission Cap, and then I saw the Fully and Completely tour last year.  And then of course, last night I saw what is probably their last show in Toronto (hopefully not, of course).  It's fair to say that while I like the band quite a bit, I wasn't truly shaped by them growing up.  I don't have those memories of blasting the Hip while camping out in the woods, though I have been known to play Fully Completely on road trips.  That's ok.  We all come to music we like on different paths, and there really is no single way to appreciate music. 

I actually just stumbled across this story about a man who has build a website that explores all the lyrics of all the songs from The Tragically Hip.  I don't have time to explore now, but it is something I will check out later.  He also says something to the effect that we all approach this band and the music and the weirdness that is Gord Downie in different ways and that is ok.  It is a Canadian band worth celebrating, even if no one in the U.S. really cares (obviously a slight exaggeration).

The Tragically Hip 2016 (last tour)

I hardly have to tell anyone in Canada that this summer is almost certainly the last tour The Tragically Hip will do.  I am sure we are all hoping for a miracle and that Gord's cancer goes into remission, but that seems unlikely.  (Of course, if he does beat the odds, like Stephen Hawking, I can't imagine anyone complaining about the fuss that was made this year.)

Since I was a bit concerned that my ticket had been sold twice (yes, I broke down and bought a ticket from StubHub), I wanted to get there as early as possible and be the first one through the gate.  Perhaps I was a bit paranoid, but there are quite a few scammers out there.

It wasn't a great seat (the very last row) but it did have some advantages, namely that because it was so close to the standing room only section (apparently Air Canada Centre still sells some standing room tickets) several people next to me (who also had been a bit worried about the legitimacy of their tickets!) went and stood up behind row 18, so I wasn't cramped at all.  And most importantly, it had a forward view of the stage, whereas most of the cheaper tickets on StubHub were behind the stage.  I couldn't see the band that well from the cheap seats, but at least I could see Gord doing his various dance routines, though he was far more restrained than usual in terms of his between song patter.  On the flip side, being up in the cheap seats meant a lot of leather-lunged fans were bellowing in my ears periodically.  Also, there was a lot of weed being smoked around me.  And some of the older fans chatted amongst themselves loudly during the newer material.

It was still an amazing performance and a real love-in.  I think the band decided that the Sunday show would be for the hard core fans, and they went even a bit deeper into their back catalogue.  The set list for the show is here, and you can poke around and see the Wednesday and Friday night sets as well.  Incredibly enough, they did not play a single song off of Fully Completely!  (Normally, they have been playing 4 and sometimes 3 songs off of it.)  There's no question I am a bit disappointed -- I would have wanted to hear Courage, At the Hundredth Meridian and probably Locked in the Trunk of the Car.  (All things considered, I probably would have liked the Friday show a bit better than Sunday's, though this was a solid show.)  But I did get to see New Orleans is Sinking live.  And of course, I went last year where they played the entire Fully Completely album straight through (such an amazing concert!), so putting the two shows together, I've probably seen virtually everything off of Yer Favorites except So Hard Done By (now I'm kind of glad that last year they did Nautical Disaster instead of New Orleans is Sinking).  I'm not a huge fan of bootlegs, but I might break down and get a few from this last tour, depending on the quality, though if an official DVD is released, I'll grab that of course.  (Which reminds me that I still haven't listened to Man Machine Poem all the way through, but it just hit hoopla, so I'll stream it later on today.)

I admit I broke up a couple of times (during Ahead by a Century and Bobcaygeon) just thinking that this would be the last go-around for the band.  I really don't know what I would do if I was facing a one-year death sentence.  There are a very few things at work that I would consider important enough to complete, but mostly I think I would want to try to complete the many, many open-ended creative writing projects I have going, and I would probably draw up a list of 30 or so cities I would want to visit once (or one last time).  I'd probably do one of those video things, where I would tell a lot of stories for my children.  I suppose all in all, I am not doing too badly in terms of living a fulfilled life, though it doesn't always seem that way from day to day.

It will be interesting to see what they do on the 20th.  While I won't be watching it live, I tried to set up the TV to record it off of the CBC.  If I were in town, I would either head over to the Distillery District for the outdoor feel, or more likely go watch it (for free) at Hot Docs.  A list of the authorized locations is here.  I can imagine them pulling out all the stops and playing for an eternity.

Anyway, thanks for all the music, guys, and we're all hoping for that miracle!

Summer productivity

I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on myself.  It has been an extremely hot week, and I am only just recovering.  Sat. I got a late start, but I did run out (and had quite a rough transit experience -- in addition to the Danforth Line being down for maintenance, the Gerrard/College streetcar is being replaced by buses due to heavy maintenance on Bathurst St., so transit has just been a total pain).

I got fairly soaked in the rain on my way to the AGO.  I hung out there for about an hour, taking a few photos of the early Lawren Harris paintings and then looking at the Theaster Gates exhibit (not quite as interesting as I had hoped).  I saw that they had the Henry Moore room open again, which is nice.  There will be one more mid-sized gallery to hang modernist (?) works that are in conversation with the Moore's whatever that means.  I did see that they have hung Vuillard's The Widow's Visit, but nothing else from my list of paintings that should be taken out of storage.  The Vuillard is smaller than I remembered.  I try not to let myself get too upset over it, but there are several corner rooms and a few other rooms towards the front of the museum that frankly have a huge amount of wasted space, and I just can't believe they can't put more art on the walls.  I don't think the museum is run as well as it could be, and I think I've mentioned that in terms of the way it displays its permanent collection, it doesn't make the top 25 in my list of the world's greatest museums, though I will say that it has generally had very impressive special exhibits.

Anyway, I went up to Hot Doc Cinema and watched the Werner Herzog movie about the internet.  I think that probably merits its own post, so I'll try to get to that soon.  After the movie, I walked by Robarts.  Unfortunately, the library was closed, but I was able to drop off a book in the return slot, so it wasn't overdue.  I went down to work and found the 2014 taxes, though apparently the problem is with the 2015 taxes.  For some reason, they sent all correspondence to my old address, and I will have to track down what the issue is.  That should be a lot of fun.

Sunday, I managed to do some laundry, mow the lawn, trim a tree in the front yard and repair the doorknob to the upstairs bathroom.  I also tracked down a notebook with the Straying South scene that I still need to type up.  I came across a handful of poetry scraps and some old journals in random notebooks.  I think I should just scan all this and start pitching it, particularly those things I have already transcribed.  I still can't find a science fiction story called No More Robinsons.  Presumably this is downstairs somewhere.  On the other hand, I did turn up several pages of the novel that I didn't even remember writing out.  I simply can't remember if this other scene was written out or not, but I think not.  I have to get a lot more organized.  Maybe this is something that the kids could help with, if I could rely on them to do the scanning.

On top of all this, I did manage to do the last of the sanding for the downstairs deck.  I had basically thought I was going to do the staining Monday while the workmen are here, but the weather is just not cooperating at all, since you need to have a day or two for the deck to dry out and then ideally 3 days without rain after the stain is put on.  Really only the 24th looks feasible, and even then I might only manage to get one coat down in time.  So I'm not entirely sure what I will do.

At any rate, I pretty much dropped everything at 6 and headed to Union Station for the Tragically Hip concert.  (In the end, I did give in and bought a ticket off of StubHub, but I didn't want to jinx it in case it turned out to be a fake ticket.  I also wanted to get there early, since sometimes unscrupulous people try to sell the same ticket 2 or even 3 times, and being first gives you the best chance of getting in.  The ticket worked fine, and I got into the show.  I'll follow up with a short review of the show in the next post.)

So I probably shouldn't be too tough on myself.  I got a fair bit done over the weekend, though as usual, there are still quite a few things left to be done.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

National Youth Orchestra (of Canada)

I have to say Friday was quite a disappointment.  The workmen showed up quite early (8 am) and they took measurements and actually came up with a decent plan that should involve less tearing out of walls and less mess and perhaps the whole thing can be done in a single day, which would be incredible.  However, they then took off for Home Depot and either got called away to another job or just put in the order for materials and figured they could split for the day.  I really was expecting to get the stairs to the basement fixed at the very least.  And even if they didn't do that, they could at least have had the work manager let me know, and I would have got in to work, since they have air conditioning.  Instead, I worked from home and suffered quite a bit.  It did rain (very late last night), but the outside temperature is still too high.  I don't think things actually improve until Monday.

I'm heading out very shortly (in part because I have to find some tax forms I think are at the office -- and this was another reason Friday was a disaster -- the tax authorities are trying to deny me my legitimate tax credits and currently say I owe them a lot of moolah).  While I may swing by the AGO, I really ought to look into seeing a movie just to get somewhere it is more comfortable.  (I had been kind of interested in seeing Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold and it is playing at Bloor Hot Doc at 4 pm.  That might work, though it will mean a bit of zigzagging on transit if I do that and everything else (and the subway to Pape is closed, so it means spending more time on the streetcars).

While I think it is mostly the weather that is bothering me, it is also true that I am in a particularly dry spell for books.  I didn't care for Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart (or rather the writing was good, but I was so uninterested in the core "couple" though the secondary characters were interesting, which is basically how I felt about Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek).  I really don't like Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, and I am on the point of abandoning it, for reasons I'll probably go into later.  And even NYRB is kind of letting me down -- I am just not that moved by either Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City or Sasha Sokolov's A School for Fools.  I think I'll have to rearrange my reading list and either reread a book I liked or choose one I am almost certain I will like.  Or of course, I could take more time for my own writing.

In any case, I wanted to talk about Thurs. evening when I went and saw the National Youth Orchestra of Canada.  One thing that is interesting is that they are playing quite a few different pieces on their summer tour, and for once Toronto had a more interesting program than Montreal.  For one thing, they played two newly commissioned pieces (not that I thought they were particularly brilliant) and second, the played a full concert (actually 2.5 hours) and it looks like the Montreal concert is just over one hour without intermission.  They played a very fine version of Wagner's Tannhauser Overture and perhaps the best version of Bloch's Schelomo for Solo Cello and Orchestra I've heard live (not that I've seen it too often).  They did a rousing version of Prokofiev's Symphony #5, though the one by the VSO a few years back edges them out. I was kind of hoping they would do John Adams's Short Ride on a Fast Machine as the encore, but instead they suddenly did a choir piece (perhaps a cantata by Bach).  It was beautiful and took the audience completely by surprise.  How incredible.

They apparently did the recording for their tour CD in Toronto over the previous 2 days, and I need to find out what they will put on it.  I'll probably get it if the Bloch piece is on there.  It appears that they recorded Prokofiev 5 a few years back, so I'm guessing it will be the Bernstein West Side Story suite in its place (this is what they will be performing in Montreal).  In any case, CBC recorded Thurs. night's concert (hopefully through the encores) and I will certainly try to circle back and post details about that when I find out.  (I usually have a bad record of keeping up with these things, particularly as I don't really listen to CBC radio.  My guess is it will be broadcast in September.)  They will also be announcing details of the 2017 sesquicentennial tour tomorrow, so I'll link to that news flash when it goes live.  Anyway, it was a very good concert, and I'm glad that I caught it (I don't think it got a lot of publicity, though I ran across the ad in the Whole Note).  Anyway, fall is almost around the corner and the TSO season is looking pretty good for once, and Tafelmusik is doing Handel's Water Music, which is something I really can't miss.  Ok.  I had better get going now that there is a break in the rain.

Update: So the news has arrived that the 2017 tour will visit several communities in the far north. News release here. That's interesting in a general sense, and I am sure totally thrilling for the orchestra members, though not all that interesting to me. I thought they might also talk about what would be performed on the tour, but no such luck. I guess I'll just keep my eyes open next summer.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Soulpepper's 2017 (half) season

Soulpepper is somewhat unique in that it kind of has rolling announcements of its upcoming season.  First you find out about the 2015-2016 season with some gaps in the 2016 half, then there will be a fairly comprehensive 2016 announcement, and now they have come up with the 2016-2017 season, though I was already aware of the first half of the bill.  Anyway, here is the current season.  Hopefully, it opens properly.

I have kind of mixed feelings.  I know that Soulpepper basically is an actor-oriented theatre company, not too dissimilar from Steppenwolf, but they are far less ambitious than Steppenwolf and they are much more likely to bring productions back.  It looks like this is the third go-around in 3 seasons for Spoon River.  This approach probably helps put butts in seats, but it means I am automatically not interested in 50% or so of their offerings.  This season, they are repeating the following (though to be fair, some of these are really short limited engagements around the holidays): Brimful of Asha, Kim's Convenience, Hocus Pocus, Alligator Pie, Spoon River, Of Human Bondage (I hated this so am particularly depressed to see it come back and take up a slot) and A Christmas Carol.  I'm not entirely sure how to categorize Chasse-Gallerie (which was Storefront's Christmas play last year), and Billy Bishop Goes to War, since they are essentially remounts but not specific to Soulpepper.  (And even The Last Wife moves a Stratford production (which I have no desire to see) over to Soulpepper.)  I suppose the production values will be higher for Chasse-Gallerie, but the price may be higher than I want to pay, but I may go.  I'll almost certainly go see Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War, which is one of the few things that really interests me at Soulpepper in 2017.

Last season Soulpepper did Jitters, which is sort of the Canadian version of Noises Off, and this season they are doing Noises Off.  They just love these backstage comedies (again, typical of an actor-oriented company).  I may go, but I am not particularly excited about it.

Aside from Billy Bishop, I am truly excited only by the two Video Cabaret shows (Confederation Parts I and II) and Hosanna by Michel Tremblay.  That's kind of slim pickings.  Actually Tarragon's season looks vastly more interesting than Soulpepper's though last year the reverse was true.  I suppose I'll just have to hope that when they reveal the remaining shows of 2017, I will find more of interest.  Actually, I have been meaning to write them to see if they will ever tackle Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, since I think they are basically the best positioned company in Toronto to take this on.  I'll try to remember to do that next week.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Summer winding down

I suppose there is almost all of August left, but it feels like the summer is essentially over.  I managed to stay on top of work, though not really get ahead.

I made a lot of progress on the deck, though I did not finish the lower deck last weekend.  Depending on the weather, the current plan is to stain it Monday (when I am taking the day to watch the workmen doing other critical construction) and then it will be done for 3+ years.  I'm debating getting a small charcoal grill and even a hammock, but this all depends on getting rid of the raccoons that have been hanging around the backyard.

I made my annual trip to Stratford, and that was a lot of fun, even though I'm not sure the play (Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman) has aged all that well.  This summer I added in the canoeing on the Humber, and that may become a tradition, though I would be a lot happier if it rains a bit more next spring and summer.

I watched the Driftwood tour in Withrow Park and also Dusk Dances, which were a lot of fun.  This year, I took my son to Dusk Dances.

In terms of what is left on the agenda, I have plans to see All's Well that Ends Well in High Park towards the end of August.  I'll probably see Shakespeare in the Ruff doing a puppet version of Romeo and Juliet in Withrow Park.  (This park is quite the happening place!)

I'm hoping to get to the Aga Khan Museum, probably next Wednesday (when it is pay what you like) and the AGO, though for that I'll wait to round up the family unit (currently getting ready to disperse to Chicago).  I probably am not going to watch any films at TIFF after all, even though there are many great movies on right now.

I do have tickets tomorrow to see the Youth Orchestra of Canada playing Prokofiev's Symphony #5.

Beyond that, I mostly have creative writing projects that I am quite behind on.  But I don't want to dwell on that, as I have to head off to work now.  Ciao.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Canoeing on the Humber

So I have managed to cross off another Toronto tradition on my to-do list.  (I didn't shepherd the family around Toronto neighbourhoods as much as I wanted this summer, but we might still do a bit in Sept. and Oct. (particularly if allergens are a bit lower in the fall).  I did take my son to Dusk Dances in Withrow Park this summer and then to Shakespeare in High Park last summer.  And we did the zoo and Casa Loma and even the CN Tower (all in 2014 right after we moved to Toronto).  I think the main remaining items are to check out the Scarborough Bluffs and to take them to Carabana, perhaps next summer.  And perhaps go back to the zoo one more time before the pandas leave in 2018 or so.)

Actually, I never canoed or kayaked on the Humber River before today, but it looked pretty fun and some others in my office had gone.  The Humber is a fairly slow-flowing river, though it runs into Lake Ontario, and the folks renting out the canoes were very clear that we couldn't go past the next bridge (the Queensway).

I honestly wasn't sure how it was going to go, since I haven't been in a canoe since probably 1990, and the kids had never canoed at all.  I told them they would have to not fuss, and listen to directions, and in particular not flail about if they happened to get splashed with a bit of water.  Of course, it is one thing to promise beforehand, and another thing to live up to those promises over a 2 hour trip, but I am pleased to say that the trip went smoothly.  If anything, it went much more smoothly than I had any right to expect.

The trip sort of got off on the wrong foot, as we left 10 minutes later than I had planned (I had forgotten my phone, and I figured I really needed one in case there was an emergency.)  Also, the buses were a bit slower than normal due to Taste of the Danforth.  And of course, we didn't have any air conditioning in the subway car once we finally got onto the subway.  So it was a long, long, long ride out to Old Mill station.  I think the further west I've ever gone on the subway was High Park a couple of times.  (I did manage to get some batteries for my daughter's camera at the station, and I'm glad I did.  The first two photos are my photos, and all the rest are hers.  She did a fair bit of paddling, but we left it up to her to rest and take photos when she wanted to.  Many of her pictures came out really well, especially the ducks and the egret!)

We got there about 5 minutes late, and then walked over to the Old Mill to use "the facilities," since they didn't even have a Porto-potty at the canoe rental site.  I took the delays calmly (for once...), since there was no immediate goal in sight other than to enjoy a day of canoeing. The trip did get off to an awkward start as I had to instruct my son how to paddle, while trying to remember myself the basic mechanics of steering.  The current pushed us right back onto a really muddy shore, and it took several tries to get relaunched.  Then we hit a patch of unbelievably shallow water, where the canoe was literally dragging across the river bed and we had to push through the gravel with our paddles.  That was not fun at all, and I came fairly close to bailing on the trip.  Fortunately, this was only a few hundred metres and then the river opened up.  I think this affected the canoes a bit more than the kayaks, though others had noted it.  It just has not rained nearly enough this season, and the last big rain we had basically skipped the west end.

There were certainly a few times I thought we might tip, but we did not.  We got about 2/3 of the way down the river to the Queensway, when I decided we really ought to turn around.  We did not explore any of the side ponds or marshes, but we might do that next year, assuming the kids are a bit stronger paddlers and we get there on time.  We executed a pretty decent turn and came back.  We had one awkward moment where we were trying to avoid some goofy kayakers and the canoe started turning in the current, but we recovered.  It was still a hard slog back through the shallow section, but we landed safely.  (I don't think the kids even got their feet wet.)  We returned the canoe with 10 minutes to spare.  Both the kids enjoyed it, and I think we will try to go next summer as well.  Maybe I'll even see about signing them up for canoe camp, though probably the best lessons are out on the Toronto Islands, and I just can't see myself getting organized enough to do that, but maybe they can do one of the Harbourfront camps that integrates a bit of canoeing into the programming.

It was another long ride home, but at least the subway car was cooler, and it always seems to go faster when you are heading home for some reason.  I got them some outrageously expensive ice cream at Taste of the Danforth, we stopped off at the library and got a few more books for them to read, and then we walked the rest of the way home (since the Pape bus was still diverting down Jones).  We were all pretty exhausted from the day, but it was worth it...

Ok, enough chit chat, here are my daughter's photos of our trip down the Humber (starting from #3).

We rented the yellow canoe

Geese crossing

Geese and ducks chilling

The white egret

After "the turn," heading back

The unexplored inlet

What's up, duck?

Nearing "the finish line"

Friday, August 5, 2016

Books out of fashion

One nice thing about reading (and reviewing) for pleasure, rather than for a class, is that I can pick and choose what I want. And in extreme cases, I can stop reading a book midway through, though that remains fairly rare for me. There's no question that there is no objective best set of 100 or even 1000 books, but I am reasonably satisfied with the core books that are on my shelves, or rather the bookcases upstairs. While I haven't really kept this updated, these posts give a good indication of what has made the cut for my personal canon: A-D, E-J, K-O, and P-Z.  By the time I get through my current reading list, I'll probably have read 50% of these books (currently I am just a bit under 40%) and some are clearly ones I'll want to reread.

Most of these books or rather the authors come from one canonical list or another, and then when I agreed that the author had merit (or really I found his or her writing congenial to my tastes) then I often expand to get the core novels (or plays) by these writers.  I particularly do like stumbling across books or authors that have been rescued from obscurity.  NYRB does a good job, bringing slightly obscure books back to its readers, and Virago Press is focused on bringing more attention to female authors.

I'm currently on my fourth book by Elizabeth Bowen (The Death of the Heart) and I have to admit, there is just something that often rubs me the wrong way about her main characters, even though the writing is generally quite good (though she does seem to over-explain interior moods, which was something that I didn't like with George Eliot).  Now with Elizabeth Taylor, I think I am a bit more in tune with her writing, and I particularly liked The View of the Harbor, though I was a bit bored by A Game of Hide and Seek, since I thought the main characters to be drips.  (With both Bowen and Taylor, often the secondary characters are what makes their books rewarding, at least in my view.)

Anyway, while I was checking something related to Bowen's The Death of the Heart, I stumbled across Jonathan Yardley's Second Readings, which collects a number of columns from the Washington Post where he isn't just reviewing flavor of the day books, but goes back to some neglected books.  I only looked at a couple of essays, but I thought that he was right on the money with Faulkner's The Reivers and Powers' Morte D'Urban.  I even agreed with him on John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, though his review in the Washington Post was extremely laden with plot spoilers, so do be aware.  This blog post lists all the books that he reconsidered during the project (just shy of 100 books), though the links to the original on-line reviews took forever to load.  I think this is a case where checking Second Readings out of the library is probably the way to go.

Neglected Books is a blog all about relatively obscure books, and while I don't expect I will spend a lot of time there, I may occasionally pick up a title or two to add to my list.  I generally prefer books that have come back into print over ones that sank without a trace.

I've circled back around to list which of the books I keep upstairs are particularly obscure and/or out of fashion.  I'm not sure I should count any poets, since by definition they are no longer really part of the literary mainstream, but Aaron Kramer is particularly obscure, and yet I have 4 of his collections.

I have Waiting for Winter, which is a collection of short stories by John O'Hara, two slim story collections by Goffredo Parise (Abecedary and Solitudes), The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Durrell's The Black Book, and several books by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic (maybe not as obscure after these were reprinted, so they may no longer qualify).  Totally obscure (and not reprinted) but downstairs (and thus not really eligible), I have two books by Maritta Wolff: The Big Nickelodeon and Buttonwood.  So I guess those are my baby steps away from the received canon, as it were; while I like to think I have a fairly sweeping set of literary interests, I certainly don't spend an inordinate amount of time on OOP books.

Sadly, I don't have anything profound to say on this topic, but I would encourage people to read The Coast of Chicago and Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Summer blahs

I don't know if it is just a summer sickness (only slowly lifting) or having the weather play total havoc on my plans to finish the lower deck or just feeling I have too many deadlines, but I am not having a good weekend at all.  It's a shame, since today is actually a holiday here in Ontario, but I think I will just take the time to recover and not go to the Beaches after all.  If I am feeling up to it this evening (and I get my TRB paper submitted!), then I may go to Dusk Dances at Withrow Park and see if any of the kids are up for that. 

There's not really much point in writing any more today, when I am so down in the dumps...