Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Marisol and Buffalo

I came across this interesting piece of news yesterday: the pop artist Marisol has left her entire estate to the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo.  (Another version of the news here.)  This will definitely make it an important research center for those interested in her work, and I assume that in the near future they will put on a big show centered on her donation.  (While it sounds like that would happen after the museum expansion is completed in 2021(!), I hope they put on a show sooner than that, so we aren't left hanging.)  Apparently, she was eternally grateful that the Albright-Knox was the first museum to collect her work (The Generals), and she has repaid them handsomely.  I'm don't think I've seen this work or the other sculpture they own (Baby Girl), though I suspect they'll try to find a way to put one of them on display in the very near term.

I would definitely travel down for a Marisol show.  I do try to make it to the Albright-Knox roughly once a year, though the upcoming exhibits aren't exactly calling to me.  I'll check again in the fall.  I did check on-line, and, as of yesterday, the Max Beckmann painting, Hotel Lobby, still hasn't been reinstalled.  (I'm really hankering to see it again.)  Maybe if they do double or triple their exhibition space, they can keep more of these masterworks on display. Here's hoping.

Ideal vs. Reality

I'll keep this brief.  I have finally gotten through my Canadian taxes.  Each year, I delve a bit deeper and understand the overall approach better.  This year, I realized that I can claim a small foreign tax credit on certain investments.  I hadn't caught that in previous years.  It looks like I probably need to file an amended return for last year anyway, so I might as well claim this.  Of course, it is possible I am misunderstanding.  (While the U.S. tax code is far more convoluted than Canada's, they do have more explicit and detailed instructions for how to treat investment income.)  Last year I realized that investment fees are called carrying charges here and directly reduce investment income (whereas in the U.S., you can only claim them if you itemize your deductions and then they usually get clawed back through the AMT anyway!).  That is a more substantial error on my part, and I probably will file amended taxes back to 2014, but not beyond that.

Anyway, while in principle I agree with progressive taxation, it does pinch at times.  There are a few things that I do find unfair about Canada's system, such as you can no longer get a deduction for dependent children (at least provincially) unless you are quite low income.  On the other hand, children's art/cultural expenses and fitness fees are deductible.  I really don't like Ontario's tax surcharge, which is a tax upon one's income tax!  I think it would be more honest to just change the marginal rates.

There are certainly bigger issues that worry me, such as double taxation on investment income, and if one is a particularly high earner, then double taxation on earnings in the U.S.  That hasn't been as much of a problem for people lately, given the weakness of the Canadian dollar, which is likely to remain low for the near term.  Anyway, I am glad to have wrapped up both sets of taxes for another year.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Two Quintets

I've been running around a bit too much this weekend, so I decided to skip Toronto Cold Reads in the end.

Saturday I needed to go get a new bathing suit for my daughter, and I wanted to get a new skillet as well, so we went off to the mall.  Then we went to work, though not for a very long time (and not as long as she hoped to be at the office).  Since there was such a long wait for the 72 bus at Pape, we ended up walking south and dropping in at the library along the way.  There was just enough time to go to Matty Eckler and put in 30 minutes in the pool.  I'm trying to get her more confident while being in the water, since both her current school and middle school have swimming as part of the phys ed requirements.

I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to leave the house in the evening, but I had donated to Scaramella's fund-raising campaign, so I set off for Victoria College.  They announced that between the fund raiser and the ticket sales, they were going to break even for the season, which is good, though it mostly shows how hand-to-mouth most arts organizations are these days.  The first half was quite good, though the highlights were in the second half when there was an interesting bass and cello duet by Rossini and Hummel's Quintet.  The orchestration is the same as Schubert's Trout Quintet.  I don't think I had heard the Hummel Quintet before, and it was played very well.  It turns out the library has a copy of the Melos Ensemble playing it, so I hope to borrow that soon.

Then today, I had a number of tasks, but in the afternoon, I set out for the Mooredale Concert with my son.  The highlight was Schubert's String Quintet.  I had seen this a few years back in Vancouver, but this time I had a better view of the ensemble and could really see when the second cello was doubling and when he was doing something else (like plucking his strings).  It's quite an amazing piece, and it is particularly remarkable that it wasn't publicly performed until many years after Schubert's death.

As it happens, the last time I went to a Mooredale Concert was just over a year ago to see the Afiara Quartet (plus Joel Quarrington on bass) doing Dvorak's String Quintet.  That was good, but not at the same level, since the Quintet was broken up and played movement by movement.  So I'll keep on the lookout for an opportunity to see the piece played again in full.

Anyway, it was an awful lot of music back to back, and next weekend might be more of the same (with a concert at the library and then Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time!) and then late May I am again going to concerts back to back.  Toronto's chamber music scene is very much alive and well, I am happy to report.

Krazy Post

I have to admit, I don't always get George Herriman's Krazy Kat, particularly the adulation over it.  It is droll at times, but in many ways exhausting to see Herriman returning to the same themes over and over and over.  (More often that not, the backgrounds of the Sunday comics are far more radical and interesting than the love triangle that is driving the plot.)  Nonetheless, to remain a member of the intelligensia in good standing, I have bought the entire run of the Sunday comics from Fantagraphics, though I've probably only read through about 25% of the books.  I don't know if I would get the dailies if they put them all in one place -- probably only if there was an on-line subscription somewhere.

That said, I do appreciate Herriman's art in small doses.  I really liked his art for Don Marquis's Archy and Mehitabel.  I keep hoping that Fantagraphics will go ahead and release Stumble Inn, which collected Herriman's strips about humans.  (It's going on 4 years overdue at this point.)  Here is a run-down of the main characters in Stumble Inn.

I'm bringing this up, since there was a recent piece about Florence Nightingale and her trip to Egypt.  While she didn't rate them all that highly, some of the amulets have turned out to have historic significance, while the seals that she liked so much were all forgeries.

This was my favorite of the amulets.

The stance reminded me just a bit of how Herriman drew his characters at least some of the time.  Herriman picked up a bit on the Egyptian craze and this portrait of Kleo Kat (one of Krazy's ancestors) came out in 1919.

Incidentally, Mehitabel claimed she was Cleopatra reincarnated as a cat (this is one of the first entries in archy and mehitabel).  It isn't entirely clear whether this was first published in the New York Sun prior to Kleo Kat's appearance or a bit later on, perhaps in the New York Herald-Tribune.  I suppose it doesn't really matter.  There was just something in the air at that time.

I don't have anything particularly profound to add, so I will give Mehitabel the closing lines:
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Sneak Peek at O'Keeffe (AGO)

I made it to the final night of the member's preview for the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the AGO.  I knew it was going to be crowded, and it was also later than I wanted to be there.  So I really zoomed through the exhibit in 15 minutes, just getting a sense of what paintings were there, and which ones I would want to check out in more detail on a second and third visit later in the run.  (Since I had some time to kill before I could slip in, I spent some time looking at the reinstalled paintings downstairs.  I also learned that they have put Kurelek's The Batchelor back up, which is my favorite of his works.)

The O'Keeffe show is representative of her entire career, starting with some early works and some skyscraper paintings (I liked these quite a bit).  Then there were many drawn on nature and an entire room of her oversized flower paintings.  (No jack-in-the-pulpit but some of the other famous ones, plus an eggplant painting that the AGO owns -- and which hopefully will end up prominently displayed on the AGO walls after the exhibition tour is over.)

O'Keeffe, The Eggplant, 1924

Then there were a handful of the animal skulls that she did, plus paintings from New Mexico, including some of the irregular churches that she often painted.  Then things get a bit more abstracted in the final room.  I'd say it is a good exhibit, but not quite as amazing as the major exhibit I saw in Chicago in 1988.  (In addition to missing out on jack-in-the-pulpit paintings, the AGO doesn't have any of the massive cloud paintings that O'Keeffe did in the mid 1960s.  The 1988 show also had more of her early water colors, which can be stunning.)

One thing that probably made sense to the curators, but probably will be an issue for visitors is that they have quite a few photos of O'Keeffe by Stieglitz.  Even if this made sense on an artistic level (and personally I think it needlessly distracts from O'Keeffe's achievements), it is going to force people to clump and cluster in this room, as the photos are on the small side and need to be seen close up.

In addition to the skyscraper paintings, these were my favorites (they have abstract elements but could still be viewed as broadly representational of stones, water, snow and mountains).

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Lake No. 1, 1924

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Place III, 1944

To my surprise, both of these had been in the 1988 exhibit I saw at the Art Institute of Chicago.  There was considerable overlap with some of the flower paintings and the New Mexico landscapes as well.  Both the Art Institute and AGO shows feature slightly over 100 works of art, but the AGO show counts quite a few photographs by Stieglitz towards the total, so I give the nod to the Chicago show, but, as I said, the AGO show is quite comprehensive and absolutely worth a look.  I'll be back several times. 

There was more divergence in her skyscraper paintings from the 1920s.  While I probably don't need any more books on Georgia O'Keeffe, if there was one that really focused on this period in her career where she was painting urban scenes and skyscrapers, I would probably pick it up.  As it happens, Georgia O'Keeffe: the New York Years looks like it fits the bill.  I will check it out of the library first and decide if it is worth ordering.

I've seen one other significant O'Keeffe exhibition, which paired her landscapes with Ansel Adams photographs.  I managed to see this in San Francisco in 2009.  It was a good show, particularly showing how what happened when the two artists faced similar landscapes, even the same adobe churches.  However, there were none of her urban scenes in this show.

Just to gather them into one place, I will throw in two skyscraper paintings that were not in the AGO show nor the 1988 Art Institute show.  The first I saw on a recent trip to Minneapolis.  I most likely saw the second at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, though I can't vouch for it with 100% confidence.  I suppose that just means I'll have to make an extra effort to get back to Spain one day...

Georgia O'Keeffe, City Night, 1926

Georgia O'Keeffe, New York with Moon, 1925

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fund raising options

I've been thinking about different ways to raise money for artistic productions.  I was not successful in getting into this theatre festival (at least in part because I didn't have the entire script ready nor had I gathered the entire cast, so I can understand that the pitch looked a bit on the flaky side).  That means I won't need to raise money for this project in the short term, though assuming I keep working at it, I might try to go in as a site-specific work in next year's Fringe.  If not this, then I will advance some other production, and in a non-festival or non-Fringe venue, I'll need to raise even more money.

It's interesting, and perhaps more than a little depressing, that even relatively well-known artistic units have registered as charities.  That's far too much work, though there are more options if you go that route, but also more administration, since it involves generating tax receipts for donors.  I think in the States it is somewhat easier to just register as a non-profit (rather than a full-blown charity) and then donors can treat part of their donations as a charity.

Anyway, this page has a useful run-down of whether Kickstarter or Indiegogo makes more sense with specific slant towards Canadian non-profits.  In general, I would lean towards Indiegogo, since it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing, but I didn't realize that you pay 9% administration fee if you don't meet the goal vs. 4% if you do.  (My wife has a friend who somehow made her Kickstarter campaign, but we suspect it was a family friend who swooped in at the last minute.  Most campaigns aren't so lucky.)  Another useful option open to charities is CanadaHelps, though it is restricted to charities.

It's an interesting game theory dilemma I am facing.  I plan on giving to Scaramella for their upcoming concert.  They have options to donate to support their upcoming concert this weekend, and they have an Indiegogo campaign and a CanadaHelps button.  If I give to CanadaHelps, then less is taken off the top.  However, they look like they might actually make their Indiegogo target, and thus my contribution would help them get that additional 5% of the entire goal.  But if they don't make the target, even with my help, then I will have "wasted" 6% of my contribution.  I think all things considered, in this case, I should contribute to the Indiegogo campaign, though in the future I would encourage them and other charities to just stick with CanadaHelps.

Feel free to weigh in with your own experiences, and remember to support the arts when you are able.  (I may indeed be soliciting donations to make some of my productions come to pass, but it is a bit premature now to speculate when that might happen and how much filthy lucre I will need to raise.)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Transgressive novels

One constant of life is that mores and morals change all the time, so novels that were racy and daring (such as Ulysses or even Howell's Indian Summer, where out-of-wedlock sexual relations do not automatically lead to the female's death, as in Sister Carrie, for instance) are now seen as fairly tame.  This is definitely the case for homosexual characters.  Whereas it was fairly daring to include homosexuals in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness or Molly Keane's Devoted Ladies, it really isn't any longer, at least not in Western fiction.

Novels that feature abortion are still on the rare side.  It was particularly ground-breaking for Molly Keane to tackle an attempted abortion in Taking Chances and for Tess Slessinger to write about an abortion that didn't kill off the woman in The Unpossessed.  Still, today they generally wouldn't be considered transgressive novels, with all that implies.

I'd say there are probably only four bright red lines that still mark a novel today as really transgressive: incest (between immediate family, not between cousins), corrupting of minors (i.e. statutory rape), bestiality and necrophilia.  Possibly some of the more extreme forms of S&M might still qualify, depending on the level of detail but also whether there was full consent or faked consent under duress.  Maybe a novel that featured cannibalism, with or without a sexual element.

Based on this classification, I am wondering how many transgressive novels I have read.  While there is a lot of sex in most of Bukowski's novels, especially Post Office, it probably doesn't count.  Perhaps Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers still is on the transgressive side of the line and probably Han Kang's The Vegetarian.  I actually dropped a novel fairly recently when it became clear it was about father-daughter incest, though I did finish Alice Denham's Secrets of San Miguel, which includes a short story partially told from the perspective of a child abuser, which makes for very uncomfortable reading.  I definitely couldn't finish an entire novel from that point of view, which is the same rationale for not even attempting to start Ellis's American Psycho.

I have to admit, I have never made it through Burroughs's Naked Lunch or any of Henry Miller's novels or de Sade's Justine or Juliette.  I'm fairly sure these would all still make the transgressive list.  I don't have any immediate plans to pick any of these up, though Naked Lunch will probably be the first I do actually read.

On the other hand, I finally read The Satiricon by Petronius and have launched into Apuleius's The Golden Ass, which are certainly pretty racy and would easily be classified as transgressive today.  It's kind of mind-boggling that they were written so long ago (and then weren't completely destroyed during the Middle Ages).  To round out the collection, I'll be rereading Marian Engel's Bear soon, which along with The Golden Ass and a small section of Kosinski's Steps (and perhaps an incident from Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries) are the only literary explorations of bestiality that come to mind.

I'm not sure I've actually read a book about necrophilia, though it is possible that some of the events in Kathy Acker's works qualify, even if some of them occur in dream states.  Boris Vian's Foam of the Daze (aka Froth on the Daydream) features a wife who sort of falls into a coma and this may be close enough for (dis)comfort.  It was certainly a quirky book.  There are probably at least a few short stories or even novels about old men whose hearts gave out during love-making, though none come to mind at the moment.  Since it is such a squicky topic, it is usually played for laughs when it comes up at all.

Orphans' Home

I had read only a little bit about Dennis Kelly's Orphans, which is playing at Coal Mine, but from the description about how it was a savage piece about exposing liberal hypocrisies, I was pretty sure it was going to be a downbeat play.  There are certainly some moments where Danny has his liberal fantasies shattered (although he was previously attacked by teens, which comes up over and over again), but more than anything this play serves as a cautionary tale that in a declining U.K. one really shouldn't marry across class lines.  I didn't care much for the play for two reasons, well actually three.

Moderate SPOILERS ahead.

I'm generally tired of watching plays where the acting is great but the play itself weak.  That is certainly the case here, but in this case the fault lies with actor-centred companies that go after flashy, crunchy parts that don't add up to much.  Kelly's style seems very derivative of David Mamet, who likewise spends a lot of time not saying much of anything.  Perhaps people really do talk in these repetitive ways, not driving the plot forward very far forward, but I think it is an empty calorie style of theatre.

Second, I hated the way that the couple's unborn child becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Danny and his wife, Helen.  She starts saying that she is having second thoughts about keeping the child, mostly to drive home the point that Danny won't commit to loyalty to (her) family above all else.  Later she tries to smooth things over by saying that she is having warm feelings about them and this child, but Danny is completely alienated.  It's not so much that I couldn't believe Danny's transformation, but they already have a young son together, and unless the knife rattling that was heard offstage is meant to imply a Medea-like ending, Danny is thoroughly trapped already.

Third, just as Liam's story gets stranger and darker with each telling, the actions that Danny takes (offstage) are not really believable.  I guess Danny is a weaker person than he is made out to be at the beginning, so easily manipulated by taunts that he is a coward that he will cross the line which most audience members would stay well behind.  In general, I am not that interested in plays or movies about how far would you go for family.  There are already a few movies about mothers covering up their children's crimes: Meryl Streep in Before and After and Tilda Swanson in The Deep End.  (Neither of which interest me at all.)  I know for my part, I wouldn't cover up for any of my extended family, and, depending on the nature of the crime, I probably wouldn't even cover up for immediate family.  To some extent, this reflects a somewhat naive and somewhat cynical belief that because I have access to far more resources (i.e. good lawyers) than a working class family, it would be better to go through the system rather than expecting the crimes to go unnoticed and unpunished.  (In my actual interactions with the police, including after a break-in and after being mugged, they were pretty useless, so why I have any faith in "the system" is a very good question.  Liam and Helen know it is stacked against them.)  In some ways, I think that would make for a much better novel -- someone who believes he or she can get a fair shake out of "the system" (for something they have actually done -- none of this Fugitive-style innocent man claptrap) and finding things go very badly indeed once dropped down the rabbit hole of the justice system.

One thing's for certain.  This couple needs to get the heck out of Barnet.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter on the block

We had heard that our block goes a little gaga over Easter, but we had been away last year, so missed out.  This year we were in town and helped out with the preparations.  They actually are fairly elaborate.  One of the mothers enlists everyone to pack 100s of eggs.  Then on Sunday morning all the little kids are taken over to the school to play while the adults (and some of the older kids) hide the eggs, though given the huge number of eggs, scattering them on the lawns is a more appropriate description.

We had been worried about the weather, but actually the rain held off and it was a beautiful morning.  Some of the kids had apparently been up late the night before, putting rabbit tracks all over the neighbourhood.

Here are some of the lawns with eggs planted.

And here are the happy hunters.

The most intriguing aspect of the morning is that an adult in a rabbit costume turned up towards the end.  Last year, he (or she) was also there.  It apparently isn't one of the people living on the street, as the rabbit hopped into a taxi and took off.

Definitely an interesting mystery, and perhaps one I will explore in a short scene.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

McMichael at Easter

In addition to the AGO being open on Good Friday and Easter Monday, apparently the McMichael is also open on both days.  Who knew that these places would be among the few things open?  I already squeezed in a visit to the AGO.  My schedule is such that trying to make it to the McMichael on Sunday is just not feasible.  Monday is definitely touch and go, but I think I'll try to go.

The main exhibits (mostly focusing on Lawren Harris and his late abstract paintings) will be on view through Sept., so there would be plenty of time to drive up over the summer. However, I am somewhat intrigued by the exhibit Once Upon a Time, Deep in the Dark Forest, which closes Tuesday.  So this is the last weekend to go.  I probably would have been satisfied by a virtual exhibit or even a publication, but it seems like the only way to see this is to go in person.  At least if I do make it up, the Harris exhibit is already running, so it will feel like I got my money's worth.

It's finally stopped raining (I got completely soaked this morning), and we are all hoping that the rain holds off tomorrow at least until noon, so that the kids can hunt Easter eggs outside.

AGO updates

Yesterday was pretty full and eventful.  And indeed I was more than a little sore, so after helping my daughter pack up Easter eggs for a neighbourhood Easter egg hunt, I basically crashed for the rest of the evening.  I didn't even get the laundry done, so I'll have to do that first thing in the morning (the washing machine is far too loud, so I can't run it at night).

It was just going on 10 am when I rode past the Ferry Terminal.  The lines were so long they spilled well outside the terminal.  I suspect it was a combination of it being a really nice day and there being some sort of Easter program on the Islands.  Anyway, I was glad I wasn't trying to take my family there.

At the Power Plant, I saw the Hupfield exhibit.  It was interesting how she used grey felt (sort of like Joseph Beuys) to make all kinds of things, like boots, a camera, a canoe and this light bulb.

Maria Hupfield, Bright Idea with Instructions, 2016

However, only a short while into the visit, I realized that this wasn't the exhibit that I had really wanted to see.  That is the Ydessa Hendeles solo exhibit, which opens June 24, and I should be able to see that a couple of times this summer.

I put in 3 hours at the office and then headed over to the AGO.  I was curious to see how it had been reorganized, since they said they were rehanging some of the main collection.  Indeed, three rooms they have been using for smaller exhibits is now given over to early 20th Century art (mostly European).  Going back to my checklist of missing paintings, quite a few have been installed in this room, including the Vuillard, Miro, Tanguy and the Kline (see below).  The Chagall is off in Paris.  I do miss the Tissot, so I hope it reappears soon.

Of the paintings on my list, I think the most notable one that hasn't been reinstalled is the Rothko, but I do wonder if it will be back soon (since the room they use to rotate through late 20th Century art was closed off for reinstallation).  I definitely liked what they had done with the three rooms (though they probably should adjust the lighting, since there is too much glare on the paintings).  There were a few paintings that I don't recall seeing before.  In general, there are still too many rooms at the AGO that are just being wasted in terms of not containing enough art (given how much is in storage), but it is a good start.

Pablo Picasso, The Soup, 1902-3

Willi Baumeister, Painter with Points, 1932-33

Maria Da Silva, Nocturnal Space, 1954

There was a big sign advertising the O'Keeffe exhibit, which opens next weekend.  I booked a ticket for the members' preview next Friday, but the earliest slot that was left was 7:30!  I'll probably just hit the exhibit quickly to get a sense of what I really like and then try to come back in a month when the crowds may be a bit more reasonable (perhaps).  I did see the catalogue in the gift shop, but even with the members' discount, it was a bit rich for my blood.

Then I went over to Robarts and dropped off a couple of books.  I wanted to go up into the stacks, but they seem to be down to a single elevator.  I waited a while and then just gave up.  This is a real problem, and they don't seem to be able to maintain their elevators.  Other parts of the University seem spruced up, but Robarts feels a bit shabby these days.

Anyway, that was more than enough to try to fit into one day, but at least I spent time outside while the weather was so nice.  Today I need to do grocery shopping, since it is the only day all weekend the store is open, and get to the library (ditto).  I'd like to laze around a little bit, but that probably isn't in the cards, especially if I end up helping out with the egg hunt.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Two Long Days

The title of this post is a bit of a tribute to School of Fish and their song "Three Strange Days."  Today may end up fairly full, but as it is Good Friday and many things are closed, it naturally can't be quite as long.

Wednesday started off as a fairly normal day, but I did have to stay longer at work on this major presentation coming in about two weeks.  I've been cracking the whip on the consultants as well, but there are many smaller, random things I am called upon to do.  I finally got away at about 7:15, which was the absolute latest I could stay, since I had a concert to get to!  I quickly walked up to Massey Hall, just stopping briefly for a sandwich at Subway, which I ate along the way.  I was quite worried about being late, but I make it there with a bit of time to spare.  I was really there to see Tinariwen, but the opening act was Dengue Fever, and I thought it was worth checking them out as well.

Dengue Fever is an interesting band.  They were formed in California by a group that wanted to combine psychedelic rock with Cambodian/Vietnamese elements.  They quickly recruited a singer who could sing in Khmer.  (Lately they've added a few songs in English into the mix, but the majority of their music is in Khmer.)  The bass player is a giant!  I just read that the singer ran into major visa issues and was nearly deported, though they seem to have straightened them out for now.  What was interesting was that the touring line-up had a different musician on keyboards (who also played saxophone in places that were flute on the recordings).  I enjoyed them, but some of the people around me thought they were a bit of a novelty act.  They played a tight set: 7 songs in about 45 minutes.  I believe they played Cannibal Courtship and Uxu off of the album Cannibal Courtship, but I am not certain.

Anyway, Tinariwen came on right after 9 and played an amazing set, though I wasn't as familiar with much of the material, so I suspect it is mostly off Elwan (the latest album) and Emmaar, neither of which I have really listened to as much as their older albums.  This actually makes the third time I've seen them - twice in Chicago (once in Millennium Park for a free concert).  I'm reasonably sure that the founder, Ibrahim, was at both the Chicago concerts (at one point he was sidelined by illness and then by family issues).  Everyone except Ibrahim wears elaborate head scarves, which just seem so exotic.  (I may be wrong, but I think at the Chicago concert, there were female back-up singers, but this was a stripped down unit.)  Ibrahim was on stage maybe 40% of the concert last night, but it was memorable when he was there.  It was a very solid concert.  On the way out, I heard one guy laughing to another about how it was a "Toronto thing" that older, middle class white folk (like his professor) would come out in droves to support world music.  Maybe Toronto has that in common with London, though at a smaller scale.  Anyway, it was a pretty exhilarating concert and helped make up for some of the stresses of the last few weeks.  I'll get Tinariwen back into my listening rotation and definitely listen more to the last couple of albums.

Because I knew the seats in Massey Hall were extremely narrow and tight, I left my laptop bag and everything at work (a good call).  This meant that I had to get up even earlier and get to the office by 7:30, in order to get the laptop and meet up with a group travelling out to a regional meeting.  I decided I ought to bike it, since I wanted the bike later in the day.  So I was out biking the city streets at about 6:45!  That is the earliest I have ever biked to work, and while it was nice that the traffic was light, it isn't something I plan to do again.

Unfortunately, I was about 5 minutes late (having to print out something for the meeting), and then we ran into two accidents on the highways, so in the end we were about 15 minutes late.  It was a strained meeting (not because we were late), but we got through it.  Back at central HQ, I managed to make a back-up copy of all the pages in my U.S. tax return and mailed that off.  (I'll try to finish the Canadian taxes over the weekend at some point.)

Then we had a meeting at Toronto City Hall.  It ran from 2:30-4:30; it was kind of strange planning a meeting that late right before a long weekend, but at least the core people showed up.  Everyone else split after that, but I had to go back to the office to help my manager on the presentation.  I had thought I would stop off at Robarts on the way to the Toronto Reference Library, but I just didn't have time.  In the end, I just biked straight over to TRL.  I was actually a minute or two late, but the reading hadn't started.

I was there to see Kelly Clare read from Mitzi Bytes.  She did read, but only a very short section.  The time was largely spent on an interview and then a Q & A session.  I enjoyed it.  I'm glad that I heard her defend her book.  She explicitly wanted a female character who refuses to apologize (or try to change) even when some of her actions have hurt others' feelings (which indeed upsets quite a few readers).  At the same time, she was pretty thrilled to have written a beach novel that was actually being sold in Loblaws and other grocery stores.  It will take a while for me to get around to reading and reviewing this novel, but I think I shall, and now I have a better understanding of what she is going for.  I have enjoyed poking around on her blog (hoping to make note of the two or three authors besides Virginia Woolf by whom she was inspired).  She has a good sense of humor and is very enthusiastic about so many things.  I particularly liked this post, not only because she picked up on something I noted in my review of Unless by Carol Shields.  It also will prompt me to try to move Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway up a bit in my reading list (they would make good summer reading, n'est-ce pas?).

I stayed through all the questions but skipped the book signing.  I had just enough time to request Rosenquist's Time Dust, since the copy I borrowed from Robarts has two pages torn out!  So it was a productive evening after all, even though I had to ride home in the dusk.

Today, I think I will try to ride my bike again, as it is the last nice day for a while.  I'll probably be fairly sore tonight...  My plan is to start off at the Power Plant (which should be open) to see the Maria Hupfield exhibit, which closes in about a month.  Then I'll put in 2-3 hours at work, trying to catch up on a few things.  Then swing by the AGO (and see if I can pre-book tickets to the O'Keeffe exhibit, which opens next week).  Then up to Robarts to return a couple of books.  Robarts is open, but Pratt is not unfortunately.  And that should be plenty to do for what ought to be my day off.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Stories of the internet age

There are many, many novels in which email has taken over the role of phone calls, though of course increasingly people use Skype (and fiction reflects that as well).  In the end, it may end up being a fairly short period where we have email used as a proxy for epistolary novels (never that common to begin with), and characters in more conventional novels use Skype.  (Here's a list of recent novels with email used in an epistolary way, though I must admit most are not up my alley.  The wikipedia list includes more books that interest me, though only a handful are conducted entirely through email.  Matt Beaumont's e might be one that I add to my reading list, though I am less sure about David Llewellyn's Eleven.)

I'm not sure how many books there are featuring blogging (or that excerpt the best bits of a fictional blog, as opposed to books that have been stitched together from actual blog posts*).  I'm sure there are quite a few, though the only two that I can think of at the moment are Sarra Manning's teen-lit Adorkable and Kerry Clare's Mitzi Bytes.  The second one is marginally more literary, with the first part being devoted to whether "the public" will uncover who is writing the Mitzi Bytes blog, and then the second half dealing with the aftermath of the reveal.  There are not a lot of reviews, but mostly the reviewers don't like the second act where the blog author won't own up to any responsibility for what she wrote in the blog.  It is an interesting premise, and it could be taken in interesting directions.  As it happens Kerry Clare will be reading from and talking about her novel at the Toronto Reference Library on the 13th (this Thurs.) and I will try to make it to the event (it helps there is something else I want to do at the Reference Library).  I still haven't decided if I will read the novel, but I will at least consider it.

Speaking of reviewers, there is one novel I am aware of that is built up from fictional reviews of hotels (and a few motels) -- Rick Moody's Hotels of North America.  The somewhat absurd premise is that one of the top reviewers of Rate Your Lodging started adding in more and more personal information into his reviews (quite the over-sharer) and then the reviews accumulated together become a cri du coeur about his condition as a failed husband and father, at least in part because of his poor prospects as a breadwinner.  The novel (or rather series of faux reviews) is amusing and tragic, and I'll probably write more about it later.  Curiously, it was an actual reviewer who said read Rick Moody, it is better than X.  Oddly I cannot recall (or reconstruct) if X was Mitzi Bytes or some other cautionary tale of revealing too much online.

I do have to run now, but if there are novels about blogging or other forms of electronic communication that would like to feature, please add them in the comments.  Thanks!

Edit (4/11): I could easily write an entire post about comments in the internet age, but I'll try to refrain from doing so.  I don't know about Mitzi Bytes, but in Hotels of North America, the ostensible author of the reviews refers to the people who leave comments on his reviews.  These unseen missives from various commentators do sort of typify behavior that is pervasive on the internet.  There are some fawning responses, but more often you get people who seem mortally offended that anyone can hold an opposing view.  In addition, as the reviewer was at one point a "top reviewer" on the site (though quickly faded into obscurity), he seems to attract some particularly disturbed commentators, including someone who starts cyber-stalking him and trying to ruin his credit rating(!).  This last strand is particularly sad, and, while fictional, certainly has its roots in documented internet stalking, reminding us once again of how the internet could have been a democratizing and positive thing, but has so rarely lived up to its promise and in many ways has just magnified human failings.

I think in particular about comments on media websites, where the comments about almost any news story quickly break down into tribalism (internet commenting wasn't really "a thing" in the Clinton era, but from W. through Obama and now Trump, it is completely tribal).  In particular, there are some very dogmatic law and order types, who see no problem with doctors being pulled off planes due to "overbooking" for example.  I'm just sad that there are so many authoritarian types out there, and it is a shame I have to share a country with you...  Reading these comments is definitely a bad habit that I need to break myself of (i.e. reading any comments on any news story whatsoever), though I have to say it will probably only be another couple of years before all "respectable" media websites throw in the towel and decide that they are more trouble than they are worth, particularly in the U.K., with its particularly stringent libel laws.  Of course, it is probably only another few years beyond that that we will even have mid-level newspapers (and most of them already are not much more than outlets for pushing out press releases side by side with click-bait articles).  I don't really think the next phase beyond this looks at all appealing unfortunately.  But don't let that stop you from leaving a comment on the blog if you feel so inclined...

* There certainly are an increasing number of books that have their origins in blogs (and I still think at some point I will gather up the best reviews and essays from this blog and put it out as an e-book -- at this point I might as well wait until I have reviewed all of Alice Munro's short story collections).  One collection I have just come across looks somewhat interesting -- Userlands : new fiction from the blogging underground edited by Dennis Cooper.  The story of how this book came to be is itself sort of interesting, as they were aspiring writers that found themselves drawn to Cooper's blog and exchanged information in the comments and became a quasi-community (but definitely a very male one).

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Daily Grind (better in spring)

I've been thinking quite a bit about the seeming endless cycle of tasks that make up modern life -- off to work 5 or 6 days a week, trash and recycling every week (or alternating weeks in some cities), and of course the annual tasks like cleaning up gardens and dealing with taxes...  I've actually gotten the U.S. taxes figured out roughly a week early, but I still need to go through the Canadian taxes, at least to get a good estimate if I owe anything probably tonight.

Nonetheless, I would agree that all these tasks seem slightly easier now that we have finally eased into spring.  I saw nearly all the neighbours out in their front yards over the weekend.  I probably should have done more yard work, but I'll save that for next week.  I was a bit disappointed that the lower deck looks horrible: all the stain I put on is coming up, so I'll probably look for something that is more purely a stain and less of a stain/paint hybrid.  At least the upper part of the deck looks acceptable after the winter.

Anyway, I've been biking to work roughly twice a week (and dealing with the accompanying soreness).  Usually by May I can get up to 3 or 4 times a week, though that doesn't really seem like enough exercise to undo the damage of the winter.  I am somewhat hopeful that this year I will be able to add in another form of exercise (like swimming or even jogging).  I've bought some proper shoes.  My blood sugars seem slightly more in check, since I've given up the Diet Coke.  I am going to try hard to stick to my next resolution, which is to give up crackers and rely more on gum and rice cakes (and fruit obviously).  At this point, it is probably going to require a better work-life balance as well as the willingness to go to bed when I am really hungry (in the middle of the night) rather than staying up and snacking.  I guess we all need these dreams that "this year things will be different" or we couldn't get through the grind.  And sometimes it is true.  I do think this year I'll make more progress on writing and actually getting something published or staged.  I've found even in the past few weeks that when I am more focused, I am able to crank out some good material, so I'm off to do that for a while (before the working grind catches up to me tomorrow).

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The return of the ten-dollar word

I've been coming across quite a few odd words lately, especially in Freud's write-up of Dora.  In his case, he often used medical terminology in a way that is no longer current, so I am hesitant to include any of his words in this follow-up to this post.  However, two words from Dora's case history did stand out, and I will add them to my ten-dollar list.

Ratiocination is a noun referring to the process of logical reasoning, which builds off the verb ratiocinate - to reason methodically and logically.  I have to admit, even after knowing the definition, I don't like these words, which seem unnecessary, since we already have the verbs to think and to reason; it would make more sense to modify those to indicate situations where someone is using faulty reasoning or thinking emotionally rather than rationally.
Another word that keeps coming up in Dora is reticule, which means a small purse or handbag. Given Freud's constant conflation of reticule and (external) female sex organs, I thought he was referring to a change purse, but it larger than that. I don't think anyone today still uses the term reticule to mean purse, just as most people don't believe in the old wives' tales that underpin Freud's analysis of Dora, including that bed-wedding is a sure sign that someone has been masturbating.  (The wheat to chaff ratio with Freud is surprisingly low, I must say.)

Pressing on, it is quite odd is that one dictionary says that reticule is just a variant spelling of reticle, which is a network of tiny lines that make up a sighting scope for a telescope or microscope. More generally, we would use the phrase lining up something in the crosshairs. Even stranger is that in the U.K., graticule is used in place of reticle.

Rick Moody's Hotels of North America offers up the word haphephobia, which is the fear of being touched.  Some information about this phobia here.  I suspect as with most phobias, there is a wide gradation in how impacted people are by haphephobia.  I wouldn't say I fear being touched by others, but I certainly don't like being touched by others, particularly people outside my immediate family.  Moody's use of the term falls into this broader sense of the word.

Superannuated appears periodically in books I read, most recently in Durrenmatt's A Dangerous Game.  I find this an interesting case, since it originally referred to someone who was allowed (or forced) to retire due to old age and then was on a pension, i.e. an annuity.  However, over time the annuity aspect has faded away (as have pensions in the real world) and the meaning of the word has broadened a bit to refer to a person or thing (or even an idea) that has become obsolete, outmoded or old-fashioned.  In some rare cases, it seems to refer to something being old, but it is probably better to try to keep some precision in the term and to retain that aspect of obsolescence.

I'll end with enervating, which can either mean a kind of wasting away associated with a disease (i.e. literally debilitating) or more colloquially to be tiring or exhausting.  In context: even reading about the long party at Trimalchio's house in The Satyricon was enervating and I had to take a nap after finishing that chapter.

One final note is that this blog has surpassed 150,000 views (technically not Likes).  It took something on the order of 4 years to reach 100,000 views, but then only four more months to reach 150,000!  So thanks for stopping by and feel free to leave a comment now and again.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Construction Time Again

Many cities in North America are undergoing redevelopment, but there are few that seem to be growing quite as much as Toronto.

Roughly two years ago, I posted this shot of a building being torn down at Dundas and River.  I think the shot came out well, and I particularly liked the somewhat random colours that some of the tenants had used on their walls.  It did look a bit like a doll house with the cover off.

Some of the other parts of Regents Park have developed more quickly, particularly the Aquatics Centre.  They have made progress on the athletic fields, and now on the spot that this building was torn down, a new building is rising.

I was biking back from work (and fighting against the wind) when I decided I ought to capture some of these changes.

Looking north to site where previous building had been demolished

Looking west over athletic field towards downtown

At this rate, they may actually be ready for occupancy by the end of 2017.

Pop Has Eaten Itself

Ok, sort of a cheesy pun on the group Pop Will Eat Itself.  I do think there is a point of no return, launched in a general way by Pop Art, which the art world has reached today where it has become so self-referential and fairly shallow (think Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst).  However, this post really isn't about that.

Rather, I want to make a small shout out to James Rosenquist, who died on Saturday.  The Guardian obituary is reasonably comprehensive.  I assume the one in the NY Times is longer, but I try not to dip behind their paywall too often.

I managed to see two major Rosenquist exhibits over the years.  One was a bit of a surprise that I stumbled across at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and focused on his large print works (covered in Time Dust: Complete Graphics 1962-92) and then the major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2003, which also had a very comprehensive catalogue.

You really need to see a massive Rosenquist print or painting in person, but here are a few that I like, even in miniature.

James Rosenquist, Star Thief, 1980

James Rosenquist, Time Dust, 1992

James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964

Of course, to really get the impact of F-111, you not only need to see it in person, but you need to see it wrapped around a room of the proper dimensions.  It was set up that way at the Guggenheim exhibit and it was displayed "properly" at MoMA in 2012.  It is not currently on view at MoMA.

Rosenquist is probably my second favorite Pop artist, somewhat behind Jasper Johns.*  Roy Lichtenstein is probably third, though I generally prefer his much later work, not his work from the 60s.  Claes Oldenburg is probably fourth on the list, as his work always brings a smile to my face.

As I was deciding what to write, it struck me that nearly all of the Pop artists of the 60s have passed away.  Drawing on a list of Pop artists on Ranker, I believe only Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, Jim Dine, Peter Blake and Wayne Thiebaud are still alive.  Certainly not very many.

* These rankings definitely do shift for me  A couple of years ago I was ranking Rosenquist ahead of Johns, but I really do like Johns's Four Seasons (below), so right now he has pulled ahead.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April-May events

I suppose this is as good a place as any to update this list and focus it more on the immediate future.

In general, I am seeing more music than plays in April -- Esprit Orchestra tomorrow and probably Schubert's String Quintet at the Moredale Concerts and then Amici doing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at the end of April.  All quite exciting, though Amici is probably of most interest to me.  I actually just saw an amazing performance of Wijeratne's Invisible Cities featuring TorQ.  I hope it is recorded soon.  In the meantime, there is this.

TorQ has a spot at an upcoming concert May 27 where the main feature is Carmina Burana.  I'll probably go, even though I've got a ticket for that piece being done by TSO in June!  I still need to get my ticket for the TSO doing Beethoven's 7th (probably on May 26, which would be quite a bit of music back to back).

But of course I'll fit in theatre somehow.

In the next week or two, I need to decide when I will go to Ruhl's The Clean House at Alumnae Theatre.  Details here.

I also will be catching two George Brown productions: The Penelopiad and A Flea in Her Ear and squeezing them in in April.

I am probably going to see Dennis Kelly's Orphans at Coal Mine in April, though I'm pretty sure it will be quite depressing.

For those that missed it during Panamania, LePage's 887 is back for a couple of weeks in April.

I'm debating seeing It's All Tru at Buddies in May.  Mostly because I have seen almost no queer theatre at Buddies since I've moved back, and that sort of seems weird to me.

Another production that was just announced is Ntozake Shange's for colored girls, which will be at Soulpepper through most of May.

In terms of storefront theatre and what I am aware of, Wolf Manor will be remounting Julius Caesar and Seven Siblings will be doing Albee's The Play About the Baby (both in May).

Finally, at the very tail end of May, Norm Foster's Office Hours opens at East Side Players, though I suspect I'll actually catch it in June.

So that seems like more than enough culture to try to fit in during the next two months!

Actually, I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention that the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the AGO opens in April and runs through late July.  I'll try to go several times.  I wonder if it will be quite as crowded as the landscape exhibit, which never thinned out on any of the days I was there, whereas the Harris and Turner exhibits had slow days.

I had really hoped to get to Montreal next weekend to see the Chagall exhibit, but I am just not far enough along on taxes and work is going to be pressing for at least 3 more weeks.  I'll see if I can sneak it a visit to Montreal in May or possibly the first week of June, though that will likely be a busy weekend.

Friday, March 31, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 24th Review - Daddy Lenin

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a recent collection of short stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe, is a bit of an acquired taste.  Unfortunately, it wasn't really to my taste.  For a more sympathetic review, you should take a look at the one in the Star.  Most of the main characters seem to be trapped in a toxic form of masculinity and a few of them become obsessed with women when they can't control them.  This is not something that I really enjoy reading.

There will probably be SPOILERS below.

One thing that I am not sure about is whether I would have as much interest in the character, Ed, who is a bit obsessed over his ex-wife in Vanderhaeghe's My Present Age (his first story collection).  While Ed does have stalker-ish tendencies, mostly he causes problems for himself and not so much for his ex.  Nonetheless, I suspect I would not have as much patience with the character on a second read (at one point I considered My Present Age to be a companion to A Confederacy of Dunces).  I could be wrong, of course, and perhaps (hopefully?) I would still enjoy My Present Age.  I will report back if I do manage to reread it one of these days.

I will say that several of the stories took left turns that I wasn't expecting, and that was kind of intriguing.  "1957 Chevy Bel Air" had a young boy flip out when his jailbait girlfriend started going out with a much older man and he fled the farming life that had been laid out for him and made it big far away from home.  To me this seemed a bit of an over-reaction, but still one that I was not expecting.

I wasn't that thrilled with the narrator of "Live Large," since he made a number of bad decisions and kept doubling down on him.  Basically, I considered him a chump, and I really don't have the patience to read about chumps.*  People that make bad decisions in love -- those I can deal with (until they go into obsession territory).  But feckless and/or terrible businessmen, those stories just don't interest me.  And I have absolutely no interest in reading about men that beat women, which takes place in "Counsellor Sally Brings Me to the Tunnel."  I didn't care for this story at all, either the original abuse or the revenge fantasy that is acted out afterwards.

I did feel fairly sad for Bob, one of two brothers in "Where the Boys Were," since he just could not cope after his girlfriend is snatched away (basically abduction by father).  Bob becomes so obsessed with finding her and his (probably imaginary) unborn son that he drifts into homelessness.  His younger brother, Donny, ends up much better balanced in the end, trying to bring Bob back from the brink, but to no avail.

Of all the stories, the one that I enjoyed the most was “Anything,” which featured a retired actor who is hanging about Saskatoon.  He ends up bored and does some play-acting and stumbles into an affair with a married woman.  When she won’t leave her husband – and reveals that she knew all along he was a TV actor – he leaves town in a huff and moves back to Toronto.

I wanted to like the stories more than I actually did, particularly after reading about how Vanderhaeghe came to write them.  But I ultimately wasn't that interested in reading about vulnerable and/or wounded men who put up an aggressive front so that the world won't see their vulnerabilities.  It is unfortunate that such men are particularly poorly positioned to deal with where society is going in North America (especially fewer and fewer jobs for manual laborers and others at the bottom of the ladder), but I don't want to spend my time with or on them.

* It does seem as though I have narrowed the scope of fiction that I do enjoy without reservations.  I have a sinking feeling that I won't enjoy the Rabbitt novels as much as I would have had I read them 10 or 15 years ago, since my understanding is that, by some lights, Rabbitt could be considered a chump and often a self-pitying one.  Again, this is just an impression I've gotten from a high-level review or two.  I'll try to make sure I am in a more expansive frame of mind before I tackle Updike.

Writing goals

It has been a challenging week.  The weather is just not cooperating in my quest to begin cycling (or really doing any outdoor exercise) and that is putting me in a bad mood.  I only have limited will power to extend to exercise, and this is just knocking me out.  Next week should be better.

But on a positive note, I managed a couple of weeks ago to get one project ("Final Exam") entered into a competition, only 15 minutes before it closed.  I managed to get 1/3 of the script finished, and I really ought to get back to that.

Today, there was another deadline.  No time was specified, so I assume it closes tonight at midnight.  I decided that in many ways I want to get the "Straying South" project finished, so I entered it.  I went back to my outline and decided that it could stand to be a 2 act play, so I reformulated it a bit.  I also reformatted it, since apparently I have been writing everything in screenplay format, not play format.  While I had the opening scene written out (more in conventional story format), I still needed to type it up, and I also worked on the scene to follow, essentially doubling my progress.  By my current reckoning, I now have 4/10 of the script complete, which is pretty awesome.  I sure hope I can get it produced one of these days, but I also think it will serve as the spine for the novel that I started many, many years ago.  In some ways, the play is more of a highlight reel of the novel, since I would have much more on Jonathan's misadventures in Toronto trying to find another job.  What is nice is that the characters are starting to come to life again, after being somewhat inert.

I have to admit, both are extreme long shots, but I have a slightly better shot at having "Final Exam" accepted.

So my general thinking on this is to finish "Final Exam" first.

Then "Straying South."

Then "The Study Group."

All of these have somewhat compelling characters, though probably in terms of how attached I am to the characters it would be "Straying South," "The Study Group" and finally "Final Exam."

At some point in the near future, I think I'll join the TCR Writing Group and perhaps try to get back to edits on "Corporate Codes of Conduct" or "Dharma Donuts," but I don't really have the time at the moment.  Still, I feel I have made a lot more progress on the creative writing front in the first three months of 2017 than I did in all of 2016.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Bike follies

While it wasn't a particularly nice day out on Tuesday, at least it was reasonably warm, so I thought I would get my bike out and ride to work.  I know it will take quite a while before it is comfortable for me to ride in (after a layoff of basically four months), so I have to ease myself into it but I also just need to quit delaying and just start doing it.

So this morning I pumped up the back tire quite a bit and set off.  By the end of the block, it was flat again, so I tried again, pumping even more air in, and then two blocks away it was again completely flat.  This is particularly frustrating as I bought an extra thick back tire and a new innertube on the last tune-up and that was only in September.  No way should I have such a huge hole in the innertube.  But it's hard to argue with the facts on the ground, as it were.

This threw off my entire morning, as I had to change back into my work clothes.  I decided to wait until the nearest bike shop opened and drop it off, then head off to work, so I was even later than usual.  On the other hand, I was able to get a new tune-up and the tube replaced for a reasonable price -- and they were finished with it in a single day.  (This is the positive aspect of getting started a bit earlier than the rest of the biking crowds.)  So I will try to ride in today and perhaps tomorrow if I am not too sore.  Even if I grumble a bit about it, I will be very glad to finally be getting some more sustained exercise.

Edit: I made it to work and back with no major issues.  Drivers are slowly remembering how to deal with cyclists on the road and the bike lanes aren't completely jammed, like they will be in late April.  I'm pretty sore, but I'll try to push through and ride tomorrow, then rest Friday through the weekend (it's supposed to rain anyway).

Sunday, March 26, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 23rd Review - Natasha

Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis is a relatively short book of stories.  It is similar to Munro's Lives of Girls and Women in that it is essentially a novel told in short story form, here focusing on Mark Berman and his family.


In the first story "Tapka," Mark and his slightly older cousin, Jana, are quite young children.  They are adjusting to life in Canada, as their family of Russian Jews, has settled in Toronto in 1980, after a short transition period in Rome.  Incidentally, Bezmozgis has written a novel (The Free World) based on another Russian Jewish family, stuck in Rome, trying to decide whether to immigrate to Israel (with an easy path to immigration) but still holding out hope for the United States, with Canada seen as an acceptable alternative.  Mark's family spends some time with another Russian couple in their apartment, though Mark's mother disapproves of how much attention the other couple lavishes on their dog, Tapka.  The dog ultimately drives a wedge between the families, though it is likely that class considerations would have had the same effect over time, since Mark's parents are more driven to learn English and assimilate into Canadian life and would have left the other couple behind eventually.

In fact, in virtually every story, we find that Mark's family has moved, first into another apartment a few blocks away from the rest of the Russian Jews (paying an extra $10 for that privilege).  Then to a bigger apartment.  And eventually to a house in the suburbs (I assume this was probably North York, though it could have been the northern portion of Etobicoke).  In addition to his factory job, Mark's father has his own business as a massage therapist (he actually used to train weight-lifters in the U.S.S.R.).  The business is very slow to take off, as noted in "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist" and they are still struggling in "The Second Strongest Man."  I particularly liked the opening of that story: "In the winter of 1984, as my mother was recovering from a nervous breakdown and my father's business hovered precipitously between failure and near failure, the international weightlifting championships were held at the Toronto Convention Centre."

Eventually they reach a level of economic security by the time they buy this house (at the start of the story "Natasha").  As a complete aside, the housing prices in Toronto and the GTHA in general are now so high that immigrants that move here with just some moxy (but no cash reserves from the old country) are not likely to be able to eventually buy their way into the Canadian dream, like the Bermans did.  It's not necessarily the end of the world to be bound to the rental market, but it probably does feel like these newer immigrant families are kind of stuck in place in a way that is distinctly different from what immigrants faced prior to the late 1990s.  Of course, there are immigrants coming to Canada today with loads of cash, largely but not exclusively from Hong Kong and China; that is a very different story (one that hopefully will be explored in literature at some point).

The odd thing is that while each story has a somewhat downbeat feel to it (we see Mark humiliated on his father's behalf a couple of times and he suffers in other ways), as the stories progress, the family becomes more and more comfortable.  It seems that the move to Canada has definitely paid off, particularly when former friends from the U.S.S.R. turn up for a weight-lifting competition in "The Second Strongest Man."  As one of the judges, Mark's father gets to relive his glory days, but the focus of the story really is on one of the weight-lifters who is nearing the end of his career and will be put out to pasture back in the U.S.S.R.  The weight-lifter and all his minders are all more than a little jealous that the Bermans escaped, almost entirely because of their Jewish roots, so there is also quite a bit of tension in this story.

Mark's father is still alive through "Natasha," but a very shadowy character.  I am not sure whether the fact Mark is reading Kafka's Diaries is supposed to be a tip-off that he has suffered a kind of break with his father.  Unless I have completely missed it, the father doesn't turn up at all in the final two stories, even in passing, although Mark's mother and aunt do.  It is possible that he has passed away or it might be that Bezmozgis doesn't want to confuse the tone of the story by having to downplay the (presumable) success of the father.  Another thing that I found a bit confusing is that in "An Animal to the Memory," Mark's grandfather says he will go to Israel rather than Canada, but in the final two stories "Choynski" and "Minyan" Mark has grandparents living in Canada.  I'm fairly sure it is his paternal grandfather in the first case and his maternal grandparents in the second (and this partially explains why his father fades out of the picture), but it might have been better to be a bit more clear about it.

There is quite a gap between "Natasha" and "Choynski."  It is implied that Mark went to university (likely on some kind of a scholarship unless his parents' fortunes had really improved) and he is able to hold down solid jobs, though he is between jobs in "Minyan."  He is able to buy plane tickets to research obscure sports figures and make long-distance calls (back when they were still on the expensive side), so he has definitely moved up on the economic ladder; in that sense, moving to Canada definitely paid off for the Bermans.  While Mark was definitely starting to run a little wild in "An Animal to the Memory" where he became the toughest kid in Hebrew school (not exactly a compliment) and was smoking a lot of weed in "Natasha," he seems to have straightened out and become a mensch in "Choynski" and he actually enjoys spending time with his grandparents.  While I think a story about Mark in university or in his first job after university probably would have helped round out the collection, it is possible that Bezgozmis prefers that Mark's transformation (the one he vows to undertake at the end of "Natasha") is better kept off-screen, much like Jay Gatsby's.

"Natasha" is quite a remarkable story -- definitely my favorite from the collection.  Note that it does have a certain prurient aspect to it.  Maybe this is the equivalent of "Portnoy's Complaint" for Russian Canadian Jews...  Mark is lazing away at home for the summer.  He is starting to get flak from his parents, since he can't tell them he is actually running errands for the local dope dealer, Rufus, who is also a philosophy major at U of T.  His uncle has just married a Russian woman, who arrives with her 14 year-old daughter, Natasha, in tow.  It is decided that Mark will keep Natasha company (and out of the newlyweds' hair) by teaching her English.  It doesn't take long before Natasha lets Mark know she hates her mother, whom she considers a whore.  Natasha has quite a bit of sexual experience already, having been in a number of pornographic videos shot in Russia.  It doesn't take long for her and Mark to get busy, but she quickly realizes that he isn't going to be able to "rescue" her from her family, so she seduces a number of other men.  This reminded me a lot of the movie Bowfinger where one character starts by sleeping with the writer(!) and progresses through pretty much all the other men on set.  Mark had sort of considered himself wise and jaded before, but this episode really opened his eyes to life.  As I said, it is a fairly remarkable story.  The collection as a whole is worth reading, but "Natasha" is a must-read.

Epic dreams

I wonder if perhaps my overworked brain is trying to compensate for the fact that I have basically cut out television and movies (even though I assume one of these days I'll work my way through all the DVDs I hoarded all the way through my 30s).  Thus, I have been having these elaborate, baroque dreams where the point is just to show all kinds of elaborate dreamscape sets.  For instance, two weeks ago, I dreamed I was with a small group of people going through a contemporary art museum (quite a bit like LACMA incidentally), though the final exhibit was closed and we could just sort of peek to see what was going to be on display.  While the dream was mostly about some urgency I felt about getting out of the museum, the real goal (I assume) was for me to later marvel at how my mind could completely fill up the museum walls with art that was completely original.  Had I the ability to record dreams, I am sure the art would have been nothing particularly special and probably would not actually have that much definition (would be fuzzy if you looked too closely) and probably had gaps or white areas where the brain didn't bother to fill in the details, but it still felt fairly impressive at the time.

A few days after that, I was dreaming I was walking through an enormous jumble sale in the space of a warehouse.  The local library had box upon box of books (though most of the boxes were in fact still closed up), but I did flip through a large stack of comics (needless to say that do not exist in real life).  As I was leaving the sale, I ran into a small group of snarky teens, and rather than getting into an argument with them, I decided to gift them one of the comics to show that there still is some kindness in the world.

My general rule is that (other people's) dreams are boring, and I really feel relying on dreams in literature is a cop-out, with a very few exceptions, such as Lewis Carroll who sort of started the trend.  But contemporary books where entire chapters turn out to be dreams are a huge turn-off for me, and that goes double for plays, though I suppose there are some exceptions, such as Grote's 1001 where it worked fairly well.

All that said, last night's dream was a doozy with 3 or 4 movie plots all stitched together.  So here goes.

My role/position in the dream was actually a little hazy, though I think I was the sidekick to the main character who was a lot like Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movies, with a bit of 1970s era Captain Kirk thrown in, but who also had mad MacGyver skills.  Anyway, the dream kicked off with us uncovering some skullduggery at a big bank somewhere in Chicago.  It turned out that some wealthy client was having his accounts pilfered.  Jason (as I'll call him) actually chased the evil manager into the back of the bank, which didn't have a bank vault, but more of a men's health club/spa!  Anyway, the tables were turned on us, and we were ushered into a driver-less shuttle which dropped us off in a kind of crypt belonging to the bank, somewhere in the Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood, not far from Lake Michigan.  There were two or even more people stuck in the crypt with us.

We figured it was only a matter of time before they came back and killed us, so we had to escape the locked vault.  Of course, we had almost no tools, so we were trying to take screws and use them as saws, etc.  At some point, we managed to break into a fancy wall clock and behind it was an entire room with even more records of what the evil bankers had been up to, i.e. more records of clients who had died under mysterious circumstances.  The dream kept focusing on one batch of records and artifacts that seemed to imply this client had a secret love child who was a geisha-in-training in Japan.  I assumed that the dream was going in the direction of us breaking out of the vault and going to Japan to try to rescue her.  But no.

All of a sudden, I saw my father-in-law talking on a phone with lousy reception (sort of a parody of the "Can You Hear Me Now?" commercials).  He had stumbled upon the crypt (apparently it was easy to open from the outside but sealed tight from the inside).  Before I could blink, MTV decided to host a Rock the Vote party in the crypt (but turn it into a party that lasted the entire election), and the place was completely full of revelers and plenty of cameras.  We weren't entirely sure we could leave, but it seemed fairly safe inside, so we started plotting our next moves.

The people split into 6 or so groups, aligned with the remaining contenders (also stealing a bit from the Harry Potter houses I assume).  The evil bankers managed to sneak in a bomb in the shape of a small bird statue (unfortunately, MTV's idea of security was tragically lax).  This only impacted one of the "houses" and rather than showing the explosion, there was a jump cut outside the room so I only heard it.  Then the entrance to the room was immediately sealed off with small blue tiles, with the resulting wall looking like a subway wall.  The tiles might have been nanobots (like in Hero 6).

I do remember some older governor-type was thrilled about all government funding being turned into block grants by President Trump, and I didn't feel like getting in an argument over why this was a terrible idea.  He decided to set up a suggestion box that said "Hey, Millennials, what do you want government to do for you?" and they could stuff it with their thoughts. (Unfortunately, this isn't far off from the state of political discourse today, though obviously it should be a Twitter account and not anything that required writing an actual note...)

Then there was an outdoor shot -- we had apparently converted the crypt into more of a compound, still with tons of people running around.  I spent some time looking over the lake, and it had apparently been converted to a launching pad for zeppelins and other lighter-than-air vehicles.  Some of these were launched and they reached the upper atmosphere very quickly, and then went wherever they were supposed to go.  The sky was full of balloons.  One came down far too fast and crashed.  It was probably sabotage by the bankers, since it wiped out another one of the "houses."

We went back inside, and I was trying to find where one of the other groups had gone to.  It was getting kind of eerie, and I went deeper into the "house" and then went downstairs, past an cafeteria-sized kitchen, towards a large shower area.  I could feel that the water was blasting hot.  (Now we moved into HBO-style movie.)  Everyone had been turned into a statue of some sort and then left under the hot showers with the "camera" lingering on the dead women.  I guess the implication was that the paralysis may have only been temporary but then the extreme heat had done them in.  That's basically where the dream ended, with only 3 of the houses remaining, and Jason and myself still deciding on our next steps to avoid being picked off.  It was a lot to pack into one dream, that's for sure...