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...

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Three Sisters - closing soon!

It is quite a shame that there have been essentially no reviews of Wolf Manor's Three Sisters.  Even Mooney's which tries to review everything seems to have missed this.  The only review I have come across was this positive review, which I think is quite fair.

I'm not sure one can completely enjoy Chekhov, particularly Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, since the underlying message is sort of life stinks (and your heart will inevitably be broken and your relatives will probably steal from you) but keep persevering and particularly keep working away.  Also, sometimes the endings, particularly these two I mentioned, could probably use a bit more nuance, rather than the characters going on about how unhappy they are.  Some of the newer translations do try to soften this a bit.

All that said, this is probably the best version I have seen, particularly since I didn't catch Strawdog doing Three Sisters in 2005 (though I did catch their superb Uncle Vanya).  I saw a decent version in Vancouver at the Cultch, though I mostly remember just how much I hated the Natalya character (here named Natasha).

She is just as annoying here -- and interestingly the actor doubles and plays another unpleasant character, Solyony, who seems to feel that he has some claim to Irina's heart, though she certainly has never encouraged him.

The play is played with only a few modifications.  The district commander, Vershinin, is gender flipped, which amplifies Olga's disapproval when Masha insists on telling her that she (Masha) has fallen in love with Vershinin.  There also appear to be small additions to the text that the cast speak to each other, almost inaudibly, as they move between scenes.  I might be wrong about that, however.

It is a fairly heart-rending play about how most people's dreams are dashed.  Even when one does marry the girl of one's dreams (as Andrey marries Natasha), then the reality ends up so much poorer than one's dreams.  For me, this was the first time I really paid much attention to the Andrey character.  He was quite compelling in the first act, seeming particularly eager to please like a puppy, and it was such a disappointment later when he was ordering his sisters around, telling them not to cross Natasha.  I wouldn't say there was redemption later, but he did reveal just how unhappy he was, basically trying (but failing) to deceive himself about the truth about his wife.

Anyway, there is one more show tonight and then tomorrow (Sunday), both at 8 pm, and if you are interested in Chekhov, you should go see this particularly intimate performance. I should note that it is in the basement of Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market naturally).  This is also where I saw Paradise Comics.  I have basically decided that if I can launch "The Study Group" (after finishing up another few projects) then Kensington Hall is probably the perfect location for staging it.

Getting involved in the scene

I haven't quite decided to take the plunge, but I'll probably join the Writer's Group that is associated with Toronto Cold Reads.  I wouldn't go so far as to say Toronto Cold Reads is a closed shop where only the associated writers have their scripts read on Sunday, but it clearly helps to be in the in group, since they come up with interesting writer challenges, such as the Three-Fest where three writers collaborate on three scripts, which are then put up.  I would say that Toronto Cold Reads seems less open than Sing-for-your-supper, however, in terms of how decisions are made about what goes up.  (And looking back a couple of years, I was definitely feeling a bit alienated from SFYS, so my moods and attitudes towards these groups are definitely changeable...) All that said, given the number of projects I do want to bring to a conclusion, joining a writer's group is probably a smart thing to do.  I got a lot of benefit from writing groups in the past, and in general the one here seems to be a fairly active and talented group.

In any event, while I haven't quite been able to pull off a reading of my work here (aside from SFYS and that time I did 1000 Monkeys at Red Sandcastle), I am meeting more actors and even a director or two who have some interest in my plays, so I think this may be the year I break through.  But I also need to devote more time and a lot more effort to this if I want to make it happen.  Nothing just falls in your lap.  In terms of making that effort, I did submit a pitch to a theatre festival (in this case I submitted the first 1/3 of the "Final Exam" script, but I really ought to finish it soon) and I am going to be sending in a different pitch for a theatre company that wants to work with four writers throughout the season to develop their pet projects.  In the latter case, I would use the opportunity to wrap up the Straying South project, which I have outlined here.  I'm not really sure which of the two would excite me more, though probably Straying South would have better long-term prospects.  Anyway, I will definitely take time this weekend to work on both projects.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Literary triage

I mentioned in passing that I still don't cut and run with too many novels, though there were a few I bailed on in 2016 (Chaudhuri's The Immortals and Verjee's In Between Dreams in particular).  I suspect every 5 years, I will ratchet down my willingness to stick with novels that are boring me.

I have definitely started bailing on theatre more often now.  I left midway through Anouilh's version of Antigone and then The Suicide at George Brown last season.  I wish I had left during Tartuffe, though I probably wouldn't have convinced myself that leaving was the right thing to do without sitting through that totally lame ending.  Anyway, to add to this list, I found The Millennial Malcontent to be completely off-putting without a single character that I could bear to listen to.  If I could have left midway through the first act, I would have done so.  At least half of the people in my row left during intermission, and by the side door, making it clear they had no intention of returning.  I had already been primed to be disappointed, as the reviews were uniformly mediocre (here and here for a flavour), and I had been very flustered since I had to work until 7 sharp, and then ran up to Tarragon, worried that I would be late.  When I got there, I thought it was a very bad sign that they had closed off most of the upper deck seats, corralling the audience lower (which I didn't appreciate at all).  Based on the people I saw leaving at intermission, I would say roughly half the audience left at the break, which must be incredibly deflating for the actors.  It isn't really their fault they are in a flop of epic proportions.  In any case, I actively disliked the vast majority of characters, and, perhaps more damning, I really disliked the style of the play.

I am putting Erin Shields on my list of playwrights who are effectively quarantined -- I have to either read the play or see a positive review from a source I trust (basically down to the Globe and Mail and Slotkin Letter at this point unfortunately) before I see another of her plays.  She joins Norm Foster and Morris Panych.  Now it happens that I saw Hart House do a solid version of Panych's 7 Stories, and I also saw Tarragon do Sextet, which may well be his best play.  But I read through The Dishwashers and thought it was a terrible play (and generally reviews from stagings across Canada have not been kind), and I couldn't even bear to read more than a couple of pages of The Shoplifters.  (The ending was every bit as bad as I expected based on the beginning.)  Time and money are just too short to spend them on playwrights who have so deeply disappointed me.  That's why my default setting will be to skip them, and I will have to be convinced that this time around it is different.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 22nd Review - Family Matters

Rohinton Mistry is a bit of a puzzle to me.  He writes extremely well and develops characters that engage the reader, but then he leaves them in terrible straits.  I may be wrong, but I assume that is his way of working through the vast injustices that he sees in India, where fate is generally quite cruel to his characters.  (Indeed, A Fine Balance was one of the bleakest novels I have ever read.  I can't really imagine reading it a second time, though I might possibly reread Such a Long Journey some day.)  Mistry migrated to Canada in 1975 as a young adult, though all his novels are set in India, so he has been mining the territory of his youth, though Family Matters is set in India in the 1990s, i.e. after his immigration.  One of the families in Family Matters had dreamed of moving to Canada, at a time when the immigration procedures were changing and it was more difficult to immigrate legally if one didn't have a technical background (to satisfy the point-based system) and their dream was dashed.  (I'm blanking on any other specific references to Canada, which is more of a dream of a better future than a real place in Mistry's fiction.)  It isn't clear what he has been working on since Family Matters (2002).  He did publish The Scream in 2008, though it seems more like a minor variation of the main character, Nariman Vakeel, who is slightly more vocal about his perceived ill-treatment by his family.

In some ways, this is his least bleak novel, though there are still plenty of major and minor tragedies that befall several of the characters; also there is a somewhat disturbing turn of events at the end, which I'll get to in short order.  There is more of an expressed moral order to the universe in this novel (than the others) in the sense that characters who are particularly spiteful and/or who cannot forgive others suffer for it.  That said, there are still quite a few random tragedies that occur, and Mistry seems to be saying that one must learn to go with the flow and generally keep one's head down to survive in Mumbai.  In particular, Mistry seems to be indicting the religious prejudices that are very much alive in India, while at the same time suggesting that the depth of sectarianism is so strong in India that dating across religious lines inevitably leads to tragedy.  The only escape is to leave India altogether, though this is an avenue not open to most.

SPOILERS ahead

As I mentioned somewhat briefly in this post, the set-up for the novel is that Nariman Vakeel, a former professor of English, is suffering generally from the infirmities of old age and specifically from Parkinson's disease.  He lives with his step-son, Jal, and step-daughter, Coomy, in a large flat.  His daughter, Roxana, lives with her family in a two bedroom apartment in a different part of Mumbai.  Despite considerable tension in the household (due to Coomy blaming her step-father for the death of their mother), life goes on until right after Nariman's 79th birthday.  Shortly after this event, he goes out for a walk and breaks his ankle.  The strains of having to care for him while he is confined to bed basically causes Coomy to snap and she dumps Nariman off at Roxana's apartment, despite her family's cramped living arrangements.  The first hundred pages or so really go deep into the difficulties of caring for an aged parent, and I felt considerable relief when the book's focus shifted to the expense of Nariman's care and less about his infirmities (not that this ever completely was eliminated as a theme -- one turning point is when Roxana's husband, Yezad, finally comes around and helps with the bedpan).

Anyway, relief is a relative term.  Yezad and Roxana really struggle to make ends meet with the additional expenses, even after Coomy turns over Nariman's pension to them.  Yezad is tempted into gambling, which doesn't turn out well.  He is also frustrated at work when his boss more or less promises him a promotion and then changes his mind.  One of the children ends up corrupted at school, taking bribe money to help laggards cheat on their homework, just because he wants to help out with these expenses.  As a bit of a counter to these events, Mistry shows that the family really does care for each other and that the children basically do have good values but are under extreme pressure.  (This is sort of the same theme as Achebe's No Longer at Ease, though fortunately the teacher is much more forgiving or understanding and the child's future is not ruined, which it easily could have been been.)

Mistry is almost Victorian in the way that scheming always leads to unhappy outcomes and -- perhaps because there is so much free-floating misery in India -- others get swept up in it.

Again, SPOILERS...

Coomy intentionally has their ceilings ruined to make it look like there is a major structural damage to the flat (to keep from having to bring Nariman back), but eventually is forced to bring in an incompetent handyman to fix them.  She and the handyman both die in an accident.  Yezad tries to spook his boss back into running for an election, so he will be promoted in the meantime, so he hires two actors to pretend to be Shiv Sena (an ultra-nationalist, Hindu-first party) and demand the name of the store be changed (from Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium to Mumbai Sporting Goods Emporium*).  But then the real Shiv Sena show up and his boss is killed in a clash in the store, which quickly leads to Yezad losing his job after the store is sold.  After all this unhappiness, Jal finds a way to reunite the families and bring in enough money to keep everyone afloat.  Unfortunately, Nariman's ankle never heals well enough for him to walk again and he declines fairly quickly, but still he is surrounded by family when he dies.

This would almost make for a Hallmark-special type ending, but Mistry has a few tricks up his sleeve.  Yezad has gradually been going to temple and becoming more religious.  This seems to accelerate quickly after he loses his job and isn't able to find another one.  It's also quite likely that his guilt over his role in his boss's death leads him into religious mania, not completely dissimilar to Lady Macbeth's outbursts.  In the short term, this makes him much more appreciative of his family and more willing to help take care of his father-in-law.  He also more or less stops trying to find work, which then allows him to spend even more time at temple.  In the long term, he becomes deeply religiously conservative, to the point that he tries to forbid his son from talking to, let alone dating, any girls of a different religious background.  Thus, we come full circle back to the tragedy of Nariman's young adulthood when his parents (and indeed the community at large) forced him to give up the love of his life, Lucy, and marry his wife.  While he did find some happiness with her (and both loved Roxana), it seems fairly clear that everyone would have had a happier (and longer!) life had religious prejudice not kept the two apart.  Thus, Mistry seems to be saying that for the most part no one in India has learned anything from Gandhi and that religious sectarianism still is blighting the country.  What is left unsaid is that the only way out seems to be escaping the country completely.  (Perhaps Yezad would have not have fallen back into fanaticism had he been in a more secular society, such as Canada.)

Thus, the novel is quite depressing though in a different way from Such a Long Journey or A Fine Balance.  (It actually has a number of humorous passages, but the overall impact is still fairly grim.)  It is definitely not a novel one would want to read if trying to escape from today's poisoned political climate, for example.  It is also not a novel that one should read when "feeling old," since it offers a pretty grim picture of what life may well be like for the elderly after they reach Shakespeare's 7th Age of Man.  The number one lesson from Family Matters seems to be to do one's best not to die poor, while the second lesson is not to alienate one's children or step-children, since one will need them again late in life.  Do with that what you will...

* While certainly on a different scale, I couldn't help but think of some of the Quebec laws around signage during this part of the novel.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Whims of a Reader

I suppose the freeing thing about reading primarily for pleasure (rather than a school assignment) is that you can choose any reading plan you like.  I am really only constrained by my general lack of time and potential eye-strain, as well as occasionally feeling I would be better off writing rather than reading.  While I am unlikely to ever read every book I own, I probably can finish off my main reading list, then the rest of the novels, poetry and plays on the bookshelves upstairs.


I'm not nearly as certain about the non-fiction books, but I am starting to make some progress on them.  Whether I will get through the books downstairs is definitely a mystery.  At some point, I will probably pull a few more out of the stacks and then elevate them to the top of the reading list just to clear them out.

The main problem, when I browse the list, is that I see something that I really want to read, but basically everything on there is something that I feel at least some urgency to read.  So if I promoted all the books, then I would be back exactly where I started!

That said, I do make adjustments from time to time, and it is very clear looking over the list that I am not reading through it precisely in order.  When library books become available, they generally jump to the top of the queue.

More recently, I decided that I really ought to squeeze in a few classical texts, like The Golden Ass and The Satyricon .  (It does help a bit in deciding to move some book up if it is on the short side.)  And I have yanked Jane Eyre out of its place and expect to start that at some point in April (rather than 2019 or so at my current rate).  I decided it was just not silly not to have read this book when it is regarded as one of the key texts of the nineteenth century.

I'll get in these moods where I end up dropping everything and reading some particular author.  I'm feeling close to doing this with Adrienne Rich, but I may stave it off a bit longer.  (I just learned that she has a Collected Poems published, covering 1950-2012, but I have almost all of her individual collections, and that isn't actually tempting, though I may check it out of the library for the final uncollected poems she wrote between 2010 and 2012.)

The siren's call

In terms of other whims, I've already moved Updike's Rabbit novels up quite a bit, though not really to the top.  It looks like at my current rate, I'll probably hit them in early 2019.  I don't think I'll move them further up, at least not right now.

I don't really know what mood will overtake me later in the year.  Books that happen to be calling to me to take them out of sequence are:
Gide The Vatican Cellars
Álvaro Mutis Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
Jane Urquhart The Stone Carvers
Chatterjee English, August: An Indian Story 
Will Clarke Lord Vishnu's Love Handles A Spy Novel  
Amit Chaudhuri Odysseus Abroad
Faulkner The Sound and the Fury
Stewart O'Nan Last Night at the Lobster
Guillermo Arriaga Jordán The Night Buffalo  
DeLillo White Noise

Aside from the DeLillo, which I sort of feel needs to stay where it is to anchor the Updike (and the Mutis which is a bit on the long side to move), it wouldn't be that bad to take all of these between now and the summer, though I am sure other books will then crop up, asking for the same special treatment (or authors like Mahfouz and Narayan, who were completely knocked out of my reading program for years).  Of all of these above, I would say The Stone Carvers will most likely be read by June, since I do want to review it for the 10th Canadian Challenge.  

I'm not sure about the rest, though odds are that I will probably try to read The Sound and the Fury while Absalom, Absalom! is still reasonably fresh in my memory.  I have a strong suspicion that The Vatican Cellars will also jump the queue, though who knows what kind of chain reaction that would set off.  On the positive side, however, I never feel that I am just bored, since I have a near endless supply of books to get through, rearranging all the while.

East Side Theatre

At one point there really wasn't much going on, theatre-wise, on the East Side of Toronto.  Basically, the East Side Players would put on 3 shows a year and that was pretty much it.  While they are still going strong, I usually am only interested in one production per season.  This season I'll be going to Norm Foster's Office Hours in a couple of months.  (Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a funny show as well, though I saw Seven Siblings do it not that long ago, so I'll pass.)

I'm not quite sure how long Red Sandcastle has been open, but it is a classic scrappy, storefront theatre.  (Maybe it is the only one of its type on the East Side.)  I've seen quite a lot of good theatre there, and as I've mentioned previously there are still two days left in the run of Proof by Theatre UnBlocked, and I would encourage people to go see this fine show.  I'm definitely thinking very seriously of putting on one production of my own there just to see how it goes.

Not that long ago, Coal Mine set up shop and have become a must-see phenomenon for those that follow the arts scene.  I've generally made it to one or two shows per season, though this season I think I will only make it to Dennis Kelly's Orphans.

Crow's Theatre has just opened their theatre at Carlaw and Dundas.  It is a very nice theatre, and generally it is generating quite a bit of buzz.  I missed the first couple of shows, but I went to The Orange Dot.


At least part of the reason I went was to check out the inside of the theatre.  It is quite nice, with risers that actually give everyone decent sight lines to the stage.  (I suppose the flip side is that there are a lot of stairs to climb.)  Even the lobby is quite nice. 


While there are probably not enough benches (there never are), it isn't all cramped like so many theatres (even Tarragon) where you just don't know where to go before the doors open.  So someone has really thought through all these details.

Since I am in easy walking distance, I will definitely look forward to seeing what they put on in the next few seasons.

I thought the acting in The Orange Dot was good, but I wasn't sold on the script.  A lot of it sort of felt like an acting exercise, with a lot of ramped up energy towards the end that seemed more like what actors want to do rather than actual human interaction.  And the ending was waaay over the top.

I did like the bookmarks that they produced, however.

 
If I ever do produce my own show, I will probably go with bookmarks rather than postcards, since they are more useful and, consequently, people hold onto them longer, so they are more useful as advertising.  (I learned that from Halcyon.)

Withrow Park usually hosts the Driftwood Shakespeare Tour, as well as Dusk Dances and other cool events to look forward to each summer.

While it isn't quite the same thing, Toronto Cold Reads meets at The Social Capital most Sundays (I think I will go tomorrow), so we even have our own cold reading series to complement the Storefront Theatre.

In short, the theatre scene on the East Side has come a long way and it seems to be expanding.  It's exciting to be in the middle of it.  This may be the perfect time for me to try to get my own little foothold in it.  I will certainly come back and post if there is any news on that front.

Getting Old (in literature)

I think it is fair to say that on the whole literature is more interested in exploring the climb into middle adulthood (and whether the core characters "put away childish things" and gain maturity and self-awareness) or even late adulthood and generally avoid looking too closely at the 7th age or rather a second childhood "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."  I broadly assume that it is just too depressing to face this decline head on, as well as the fact that it just takes a lot of energy to write a novel, and most novelists hang up their spurs somewhere in the 6th age.

That certainly doesn't mean that there may not be portraits of adults taking care of their aging parents, but there are not that many novels where the central characters are quite old and generally in decline.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few exceptions: Bellow's Ravelstein, Heller's Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, many of Alice Munro's characters, Molly Keane's Time after Time, Fuentes's The Old Gringo, Oscar Cesares's Amigoland and Garcia Marquez contributes Memories of My Melancholy Whores and The General in his Labyrinth.  Of the poets, Adrienne Rich, Charles Reznikoff, Earle Birney, George Bowering and arguably Sharon Olds come to mind.  Here are a few more, though I am not sure I would really count Spark's Memento Mori, since she was only about 40 when she wrote this, so it is very much a theoretical exploration of growing old (and death).

The General in his Labyrinth may actually fall into the category of someone in the 6th age (who can still largely take care of him- or herself) peeking over the edge into terminal decline.  This may actually be the most upsetting stage of all, and it isn't that surprising that is largely met with psychic displacement or outright avoidance.  Another few works that follow this pattern are Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, Philip Roth's The Humbling and the play The Dresser by Ronald Harwood.  Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan puts on a positive spin on this stage, and the priest who narrates Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has also made his peace with growing old and knocking on heaven's door.  I'm not sure whether Harry Angstrom from Updike's Rabbit at Rest would count.  My understanding (I haven't yet* found the time to tackle the Rabbit series) is that Harry is more on the edge between 5th and 6th stage, worried about being on the downward slope -- and indeed he didn't last all that long once decline set in.

While a few authors play up the infirmities of age for laughs (I'm thinking primarily of Molly Keane), this is a subject that is quite depressing and makes for tough reading.  In a way it will be interesting to see what happens as a large wave of American writers from the Baby Boomer generation keep writing well past retirement age.  The confessional urge that drives many of them will likely run up against the wall of indifference (and avoidance) of a culture that worships "youth."

I'm not thinking of these issues so much because of my own infirmities (though probably in 10 years' time I will be hating my current self for not doing more to stay in shape and stave off decline) but because I have been reading Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters.  The first 100 pages are grim indeed, as Mistry introduces the retired professor Nariman, who is suffering from Parkinson's, and shows how his step-children (themselves nearly of retirement age) cannot cope with caring for him.  While the novel does lighten up a bit after this opening, I am still struggling with it and can't imagine reading it a second time.  I guess I'm not quite ready to meditate on the 6th and 7th ages of man right now.  More escapism, please...

* Indeed, I feel I really need to read these, so moved them up quite a bit on the list, though I still might not get to them until 2019!  Then I slipped some John O'Hara into the slot that had been occupied by the Updike. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Long shots (in theatre)

I've mentioned on a few occasions that I keep an eye out on future performances by looking at DPS and Samuel French.  Normally I just look at Toronto to see what will be playing (and I am still baffled that DPS says someone has snatched up the rights for Annie Baker's The Aliens in April, but no one seems to be about to put it on).

Occasionally, I will look up specific plays to see if it is running anywhere near me.  That's how I found out about A View from the Bridge in Buffalo, though I ultimately decided to pass.  I still think that Yankee Tavern has to land in Toronto one of these days, and probably Tanya Barfield's Bright Half Life (it is about to open in Chicago, but then will close too soon for me to catch it, but maybe Buddies will put it on).

I'm sort of interested in Nell Benjamin's The Explorers, and it will be playing in Ann Arbor in Jan. 2018.  It's quite unlikely I would make that trip in the winter, though one of these days I want to take the kids to Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Beckett's Happy Days apparently only has a single upcoming performance in the next year or so, and that is in Vancouver (at UBC) this Sept.  I don't think I can wangle a trip out there, but you never know.

Speaking of Beckett, there are two evenings left to catch The Beckett Shorts at UToronto.  They are doing 5 of the short plays: Not I, Act Without Words 2, That Time, Come And Go and A Piece Of Monologue.  Not I and Act Without Words 2 were probably the best.  A Piece of Monologue had some really powerful lines, but it did feel like it dragged a bit, or maybe I was simply too tired by that point.  A while back I was completely unimpressed by this actress who wanted to run through Not I at breakneck speed.  In this case, it is still taken at a pretty good clip, but 10 actresses perform this in unison!  That's pretty mind-blowing (and perhaps only students have the time to keep performing until they get it right).  It's worth going just for this alone.  It is interesting to me that the most profound stagings of Beckett's short works have usually been in university settings.  (Tickets for the last two nights are here, but there will probably still be some at the door.)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Proof Positive

I should have gotten this up an hour or so ago, but I was struggling with my phone-computer connection and finally got that fixed.

I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Proof at Red Sandcastle.  The cast did a really great job, and the producer, Carina Cojeen, has done an incredible job with her very first production here in Toronto.  Here are the first reviews -- here and here.  (Note that the second review, from Mooney's, is a bit spoilery.)  I actually saw the show on Broadway with the original cast (featuring Mary Louise Parker).  This is a different show, more intimate and more stripped down.  But it worked just as well, and in some ways the ending feels just a bit more optimistic (there were a few tweaks to the script later).  Another area that stood out a bit more this time around was when Katie is reading her father's notebooks.  Either the script is a bit fuller here, or I just wasn't paying as much attention back then.

Anyway, the show sold out and a few people were turned away.  Tonight may well be sold out as well, but there are three more performances next weekend, and I would strongly encourage people to take the time to go (perhaps reserving tickets would be wise). 

In line

Math books in the window


I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for the next Theatre unBlocked show.

Never Enough Kronos Quartet

Last night was the last night of the TSO's New Creations Festival.  I wasn't able to go to most of the nights, like I did last year, but the concert I went to was very interesting and actually enjoyable (one can definitely not say that about most evenings of contemporary music).  I had sort of assumed that it would be a Kronos Quartet concert, occasionally supported by the TSO musicians, but in fact it was completely the opposite.  The Kronos Quartet only came on-stage for the final number, and they didn't do an encore.  Too bad.  It's almost the complete reverse of last year's Toronto concert, which I reviewed here.  I can't complain too much, since we did get a world premiere of Nicole Lizée's Black Midi, but I suppose I would say that, after tonight, I've seen them 4.5 times rather than 5 times.  (I might point out that they'll be doing a full show in Calgary in about 10 days but no premieres.)  I'll certainly keep my eyes open to see when they will be back around.

There were four pieces on the program.  Nicole Lizée's Zeiss After Dark, which was a very short (2 minute) piece commission for Canada's 150 birthday.  It was ok but very staccato.

Cassandra Miller's Round was an intentionally drone-like piece but with actual melody.  It was quite soothing.  Also, this was another world premiere, so that's pretty cool.  Apparently the entire concert was recorded for on-line release, so I'll probably try to acquire it if the price is right.

Then we had Daniel Bjarnason's Emergence.  While not a true premiere (it's been performed in Iceland), the composer had made some last minute tweaks and additions to the final movement).  There were aspects that reminded me a bit of Mahler (with the banging of pipes).  It was decent for contemporary classical music, but I liked Round better.

Then Kronos appeared.  In addition to being backed by the TSO, there was video going on at the same time, as Lizée was explaining/exploring the phenomenon of Black Midi where people programmed thousands of notes into their Midi synthesizers to get it to crash.  The videos were intentionally jokey (like a metronome going out-of control) and many of them involved a man sticking a piece of score (like this one below) on his tongue like it was an acid tab.


It was hard to decide whether to watch the videos or Kronos.  In addition to foot stomping and hand clapping, the Quartet had electronic gadgets they played with, they had mini noodles (like the swimming pool flotation noodles) to twirl around their heads and at one point they were tearing up paper very loudly.  Pretty typical for Kronos these days actually.  I liked it quite a bit, and I'll definitely keep my eyes open to see if they put out a disc of Lizée's compositions.  I'd probably buy that, but only if it came with the video.

All in all, a very interesting night at Roy Thompson Hall, and it certainly didn't hurt that the concert started early and ended at 9 sharp (there was no intermission).

I haven't bought my tickets yet, but there are a couple of other interesting concerts coming up that are along the same lines -- April 1 (U of T Wind Ensemble and TorQ Percussion Ensemble) and April 2 (Esprit Orchestra's Overdrive concert).  See you there!

Too Much Freud?

Almost 80 years after his death, Freud seems (to me) to remain a controversial character.  Entire careers still revolve around championing him (or at least a portion of his theories) or debunking him.  I'm not qualified to say whether Freudian analysis or the theories it rests upon makes any sense, though I would generally go along with the idea that we do have subconscious desires (not everyone would go this far or would say that Freud got them entirely wrong).  I also feel that therapy that involves talking things out and some elements of self-discovery is probably more useful than the pharmaceutical approach, which seems to be dominating the profession now (if for no other reason that it is seen as faster than the analysis approach and we all know that time=money now).

I'm generally more interested in how Freudian ideas have permeated Western culture.  Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Roth's Portnoy's Complaint focus on one of the more notable and/or notorious aspects of Freud's theories -- the Oedipus complex.  One could certainly argue that the shift towards stream-of-consciousness writing that permeates many Modernist masterpieces (Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway in particular) was somewhat launched by Freud, allowing writers to try to tackle what lies somewhat below the surface thoughts.  I don't want this to become an essay on Freud's influence, however, as I don't have all day to write.  I will note that in the middle of Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats, Max has fled Nazi Germany and added up in rural Brazil where he encounters a priest who has carved three wooden statues -- Id, Ego and Superego -- which he uses to tell stories to the natives while trying to convert them to Christianity.  Quite a tangle!

Anyway, I was about to launch into D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel, when his introduction said that the novel was deeply immersed in Freudian thought and that a reader might potentially be interested in first reading volumes 3, 8 and 9 from the Pelican Freud Library.  I went and looked up the sequence here:

O 1     Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
O 2     New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
   3     Studies on Hysteria
O 4     The Interpretation of Dreams
RO 5     The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
   6     Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious
   7     On Sexuality
RO 8     Case Histories I (Dora and Little Hans)
RO 9     Case Histories II (Wolf Man, Rat Man and Doctor Schreber)
  10     On Psychopathology
  11     Metapsychology
  12     Civilisation, Society and Religion
  13     The Origins of Religion (including Totem and Taboo)
  14     Art and Literature
  15     Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis

I decided at the very least I should read the case studies (though I'll have to check Little Hans out of the library, since I only have a copy of Dora, rather than Case Histories I).

In addition, I have Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Norton), though I don't know exactly where it fits in the above scheme.  I'm pretty sure I read Five Lectures and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  At one point I owned and definitely read Civilization and Its Discontents (which is included in #12 above) but I can't turn it up at the moment.  It is also possible I have read The Interpretation of Dreams (during university) and simply don't remember it (I'm not repressing it, I swear). 

Regardless, over the next couple of months, I'll read the case studies and possibly #3 Studies on Hysteria, and then I'll finally read The White Hotel.  I think I'll catch up on a lot of other reading, but maybe in a couple of years I'll tackle #1, 2 and 4 (and supplement with "On Dreams").  I might further supplement this with Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and the Id.  I suppose I should read Art and Literature (#14) one of these days, and I'd probably end with the two works on religion (#12 and 13), though Totem and Taboo is much shorter, so I'd probably read that as a stand-alone work first.  That's probably enough Freud for one life time... 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

To Bridge It or Not

I am really torn on whether to travel to Buffalo to catch Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge next weekend.  This review seems pretty specific about how the director has made some very questionable choices (only partly updating the play to make it sort of seem like it is happening today, which I think is usually a pretty weak sop to make it "relevant," when it is basically as relevant as any of the Greek tragedies).  On the other hand, the cast largely overcomes the bad concept that they inherited from the director.

But I think I would be fairly annoyed at the missteps, and it is really quite a ways out of my way* to go to Buffalo for a production about which I will surely have mixed feelings.  (It doesn't help my decision-making process that I expect to be totally swamped by work these next two weeks.)  On the flip side, A View from the Bridge isn't put on all that often, certainly anywhere near me.  It will be probably at least 2-3 years before I have another reasonable opportunity, and maybe 5+ years before it comes back to Toronto.  All things considered, I think I am going to pass and try not to have too many regrets.  I still have a few more days to reconsider, particularly if I manage to get a lot of work accomplished in the meantime.

So with that, I'm off...

* I guess this won't happen in the next week or two, but Trump is now threatening to implement biometric scans of every person crossing the U.S. border.  It's another completely crazy scheme that Congress will block, but FFS.  It means that crossing the border would take about 10 hours at all times of day.  Can you just get your shit together and impeach him already?  Nonetheless, the longer the craziness drags on, the less likely Canadians of all political stripes are to come down and visit.  While this will be a difficult discussion with the family, I'm really cooling on the idea of coming down to Chicago this summer, which is our own tradition.

Tradition

So many things are justified in the name of Tradition (you can pause here and go watch the tradition sequence from Fiddler on the Roof if you so desire).

Anyway, Daylight Savings Time is almost upon us, and each year the clamour grows louder that this is one tradition that should be scrapped.  Here is a recent article claiming that the evidence is even greater that this is a bad idea.  I don't have really strong feelings one way or the other, though I do find it fairly disruptive.  On the whole, I would prefer to stick to a single time and not keep shifting clocks.

While I don't really think they will get rid of Daylight Savings Time, I will say that in general Canada is marginally better at getting rid of traditional things that no longer make sense (like the penny) than the U.S.  I can vaguely believe Canada (or individual provinces*) will move off of Daylight Savings Time, but I don't believe that any U.S. state that currently has DST (there are still a few hold outs) will move off of it.

What I really would like to see, however, is that Spring Break be moved back by two weeks until it is at the end of March.  I've always thought it was ridiculous to be in mid March, since most people do not get to travel far south, and it is kind of miserable in mid March and late March is always nicer.  So that is one tradition I would gladly upend if it were up to me.**

Another Toronto tradition that I just hate is how they reroute the streetcars off King St. for the opening week of the TIFF festival.  I think it is completely unjustified (as is most of Toronto's pathetic handling of streetcar diversions due to construction).  Last year, the Queen streetcar was already shut down for most of the summer, though just past Spadina.  This summer, the central piece is being completely eliminated, and we'll just be on buses.  Add to that, they are supposed to be conducting a special pilot on King St. to make the streetcars move more efficiently.  If TIFF officials ask (and Tory agrees) to reroute the King streetcar this summer, I will boycott the TIFF festival for at least the next 10 years.  (I am drawing a distinction between the festival and the year-round films at TIFF Lightbox.)

* Sure enough, there is fairly strong support in Alberta to move away from the twice annual changing of the clocks, though in this case, they might stick with the D.S.T. time and move off Standard Time.  Though I'll suspend judgment until this bill actually makes it into law.

** I have a particular reason to be bitter this year (about the stupidness of a mid-March break) as the last snowstorm of the year has caused all kinds of havoc.  It doesn't look like we'll get all the snow that was forecast, but so many of the flights from Toronto were going through the path of the storm (or trying to transfer in New York) that my flight was cancelled a day in advance and the alternatives were simply ridiculous, so I pushed back and managed to get a complete refund, so we're not going anywhere at all.  Grrr.


Finding Fault with Faulkner

On the one hand, it is incredibly presumptuous to "find fault" with one of the preeminent novelists of the 20th Century.  On the other hand, I have found that I like some of Faulkner's writing quite a bit, but other material leaves me terribly cold.

I'm really struggling to get through Absalom, Absalom! a second time (though I should wrap this up by tomorrow).  I had originally read it in my first or second year of university.  I don't recall having nearly as much difficulty the first time around.  I suppose back then I simply read novels faster and didn't really dwell on them to the same extent, and I was probably a bit more open to experimental novels.  But also, I didn't value my time quite the same way.  Some people really like reading about tragedies (sort of literary rubber-necking), but I don't.  That doesn't mean that I only read comedies, but Absalom, Absalom! just piles on thing after another.  While it is probably more directly inspired by Greek tragedies, there is also something Lear-like about the novel.

In general I am finding less and less satisfaction in novels where it seems that everything happens within a tiny circle of people.  This is a bit more acceptable in the context of theatre where you don't want a cast of thousands, but really, of all the people that Henry Sutpen could have run across while at university, it is really going to be his disinherited half-brother?  Really?  (I haven't quite gotten to the end of the novel to see if Charles actually was the one that set the plot into motion, trying to revenge himself on his father, but I don't think so.  It was just Fate.*)  I know that this was a common thing in Greek tragedy (see Oedipus Rex and apparently the lost play Ulysses Wounded, which Aristotle mentioned in his Poetics), but it just strains credibility in the 20th Century (or even the late 19th Century, though I grant you that there were fewer people around at that time).  It isn't a fatal flaw in Mafouz's The Cairo Trilogy where the father and eldest son sort of fall in love (sequentially) with the same series of courtesans, but it was something that bugged me at the time.

Anyway, Absalom, Absalom! is sort of like an onion where you know the main tragic events, then you dig a bit deeper and find out what happened to Thomas Sutpen (the head of the clan) and then how he managed to alienate his sister-in-law, which led indirectly to his own demise, and then there is a deep dive into Thomas Sutpen's childhood and his motivations.  The problem is, I don't care.  I loathe Sutpen who on top of being incredibly racist (way above average even for Faulkner) is so sexist that he basically will only acknowledge his male offspring and doesn't rate females at all.  There isn't anything I could learn about his background that would make me the slightest bit more sympathetic to him (and I don't like doing the literary rubber-necking thing), so why should I spend the time?  Other than this is one of Faulkner's major novels...

But this is a case where I think Faulkner's obscurant tendencies go too far.  Far too many characters (Miss Coldfield, Charles, Quentin's roommate Shreve and Thomas Sutpen when we hear his words passed down) write or talk in extremely convoluted passages and/or use high-faluting words, so they all sound far too much alike.  To top it off, Faulkner writes a sentence that is almost 1300 words long!  (Incidentally, this is clearly the novel that Garcia Marquez used as the prototype for The Autumn of the Patriarch.) Just as with Proust, I find it improbable or even impossible that so much of Sutpen's campfire chatter could be conveyed across the generations to Quentin, though Faulker actually said (in an interview) that that was really the point -- that no one could ever know the truth about another.  I could probably live with a novel that is 2 or even 3 times as obscure as it had to be, but this is far over the top, and I definitely will not read it a third time.  I vastly prefer The Sound and the Fury, which has much more differentiation between the characters.

I didn't really care that much for Light in August either, since almost the entire novel is driven by a character essentially going mad because he has mixed blood -- white and "Negro."  Faulkner's obsession with miscegenation (certainly in these two novels, but elsewhere) is just not something that I find all that compelling.  I'm not going to pretend that the problem of race has been "solved" in North America, but few people will be so horrified by mixed-race individuals today and certainly not anyone with whom I would care to spend any amount of time.

I also don't like absurdly proud and/or stiff-necked characters, which typifies a lot of his characters, not only Sutpen but the poor farmer trying to bury his wife in As I Lay Dying.  And while I haven't read them, it's almost certainly to be the case with the Sartoris and Snopes patriarchs as well, though I will still read all of these novels (though probably only once).

Looking over what I have read of Faulkner, I'd say I had a reasonable level of enjoyment from reading The Sound and the Fury (which I'll likely reread) and Go Down, Moses and Intruder in the Dust (though I probably won't reread these).  My absolute favorite Faulkner remains his final novel, The Reivers, with its high-spirited hi-jinks, and I'll definitely read that again one of these days.  Over the next 18-24 months, I'm going to try to get around to reading another 6 of his novels, including the Snopes Trilogy.

* Actually, the last 50 pages appear to be written in a less contrived manner, but they are entirely speculation.  Quentin has a copy of a letter sent to Henry by a lawyer employed by Charles (or rather Charles's mother), and from this, he spins an elaborate tale that the lawyer sent Charles to the University of Mississippi specifically to run into Henry (but perhaps without Charles knowing the whole truth of his parentage).  I already am exhausted by the attempt to unpack Thomas Sutpen's motivations, and honestly, I think the novel should have ended with that.  Dredging even further into these completely made-up events to try to humanize a character that isn't worth a lick is just too much.  I really do wonder at those professors who think this is such a masterpiece compared to his other works...

Inspiration and Anti-Inspiration

I guess this is a bit of a grab-bag of a post.

I go to theatre (a bit obsessively?) for many reasons, but lately it has been to get inspiration, confirming that my ideas are potentially just as interesting as what else has made it on stage.  (This is not at all the same as saying I am borrowing specific ideas from other playwrights.)  Sometimes it is just as useful to come across a play where something doesn't work and try to learn from that as well.

I saw Hart House's production of Morris Panych's 7 Stories on Thurs.  While there was a lot that was quite amusing about the production, I also felt it tried to squeeze too much into a 90-minute one-act play (and the fake ending was annoying).  I guess in general, this is the new thing -- the 90 minute one-act play.  Many playwrights are feeling that the audience would prefer a more compact play, and it is also a bit less difficult coming up with two clear endings for a 2 act play.  And certainly I often do prefer one act plays.  But 90 minutes (or even a bit longer in the case of Radiant Vermin or quite a bit longer in the case of Aunt Lemon and Dan) can be just a bit too much.  In this case, I think trimming back to 75 minutes would have really served the play well.  I'll see if I feel the same way about The Humans, which is also supposed to be a 90 minute or so production.

Anyway, I will definitely try to keep that in mind and for Final Exam, I am definitely looking at bringing it in at around 60 to 70 minutes.  At one point, I had thought perhaps Straying South could have been compressed to 90 minutes, and that is still theoretically possible, but it has quite a few scene changes, and, honestly, if it is 90 or 100 minutes, it might be less exhausting for the audience in two acts with an intermission.  But that is not something I need to worry about today...

I definitely liked Posner's Stupid F**king Bird and Life Sucks.  But there is a lot of swearing in both.  I wasn't offended by it, but I would say that it shows a certain lack of imagination.  Swearing can certainly be a bit of a crutch.  I would agree with the stand-up comics who say it has gotten so easy to "play blue" and that keeping an act clean is actually a bit more challenging.

I'm not going to say I will always completely avoid swearing in the dialogue in my plays, but I will pay attention to it and keep it to a minimum.  I'd kind of like to be able to take my children to my plays if they are ever produced.  And since two of my plays are about high school students (and might just theoretically be performed by high schoolers one day), that would make things a lot easier.  In the case of Final Exam, there is an authority figure in the room who serves to check all swearing (though a couple of times some of the students come close).  It's a little less clear why no swearing would be the norm in The Study Group, but this is a group of upper middle class people supposedly drawn together to study for the ACT.  When necessary, I'll probably have them engage in near swears like frick or smeg (though I guess the setting is just a year or two ahead of Season 1 of Red Dwarf*).  Perhaps the most amusing situation (to me) is in Lester's Last Testament where the main character is completely profane, but he has a born-again Christian working in his barber shop, and she keeps cutting him off and not letting him swear in front of her.

I suppose the next issue isn't really a mistake precisely, but it has been a bit depressing how the economics of theatre have caused casts to contract pretty dramatically, except for certain musicals.  I remember there have even been some calls for scripts where the maximum number of actors involved is 4.  This seems a bit too prescriptive to me, since 5 or 6 offers quite a few more possibilities in terms of triangles and dyads forming and reforming over the course of the play.  And then you often want an extra person coming in and out (could be a messenger or a waiter or just a late-arriving guest).  Then you have to balance the fact that with 6 or particularly 7+ actors, you are not going to be able to balance the lines.  I'm certainly finding that with both Final Exam and The Study Group, and I've just accepted that some parts will be much smaller (whether the actors will is a totally different issue).  I actually found an excuse to get rid of 2 of the actors in The Study Group for a fairly large chunk of the play, just because the dynamics got too difficult.  One generally wouldn't expect a crowd of 7 to always be focused on one person speaking (and I've never liked plays that have overlapping dialogue**).  I think I've just about got in down in Final Exam, but that is a lot easier with one teacher, who is naturally the focal point, and 5 students.  I'm trying to increase the tensions between some of the students, though it would be unnatural to have too much out and out conflict in a classroom while the teacher was there.

I'm sure I can think of other things I have seen lately that inspired me or inspired me not to follow in their example (for instance the extensive offstage dialogue in the play John was annoying), but I think this is enough to make my point for the time being.  I actually have quite a bit of writing that I want to get done over the weekend, so I should probably get back to that. Ciao.



* I don't know that any of them would have been watching PBS or even if the Michigan PBS stations carried it in 1989 or 1990.  I was completely unaware of Red Dwarf until 2001 or so when I caught it on PBS in New York, though I had learned about Blackadder around 1994. 

** I didn't care for it very much in Kushner's Intelligent Homosexual, and it turns out it is used in The Humans as well (so I'll need to make sure I am not too far back when it comes to Canadian Stage).  I don't want to use this technique (aside from maybe a word here or there that overlaps), though I might not go as far as to call it a mistake.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Local theatre updates (March 2017)

I mentioned this already, but Seven Siblings is doing a staged reading of Marisol.  It is tonight at 10 pm.  If they decide to do a full production next year, I'll see it.  I think this is a pretty incredible play, but I've seen it enough times (3) that I don't need to see a staged reading.  But I would encourage anyone interested to check it out.  More info here (and you can click through for tickets).

I see that in May, Seven Siblings will be doing Albee's The Play About the Baby.  While I still have my reservations about the play (seeing it as a recycling of themes from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), I think I'll go this time around.

I saw A Streetcar Named Desire (I guess at the tail end of Feb.) in The Box.  At first, I thought it was in the same space where I saw Pinter's Old Times, but it is actually around the corner and in the back.


This is truly indy theatre in its raw form.  I don't even know how people found out about the show (most seats were full) other than knowing the actors.  I only knew because I heard the actor playing Mitch pitch the show at Sing-for-Your-Supper.  I thought they did a fine job, though it is always hard to escape the shadow of the movie.  (I'm not sure why this is the case (for me) with Streetcar and not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  They also had knockout casts for Night of the Iguana and Sweet Bird of Youth, but I have to admit I haven't seen those films.)  I thought the ultra-intimate space made it possible for the actor playing Mitch to do a really restrained performance - his voice often not much above a whisper as he struggled with his desire for Blanche and his belief that she was unclean.  Usually when I go to these plays, I think, maybe I could put on this show or that show, but in this case, I didn't much care for The Box.  It felt so cramped that I don't really think I'll go back.  Never say never though.

I will also report back on Posner's Stupid F*cking Bird, which is heavily inspired by (or rather reworks) Chekhov's The Seagull.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I will say that Posner's particular mix of homage and parody works a bit better in his follow-up effort, Life Sucks, which does the same thing to Uncle Vanya.  I thought I had blogged about Life Sucks, but apparently not, perhaps because I saw it in the last week or two it ran at Lookingglass in Chicago.  In any case, Stupid F*cking Bird runs through March 19, so there is still quite a bit of time to catch it.


As upsetting as it is that the Storefront Theatre closed, perhaps for this particular play, this pop-up setting works better.  The play starts at the back of a closed golf store, and the audience sits in office chairs on astroturf and the walls are painted to look like a bucolic golf course, which is almost the perfect setting for the first part of play where Konstantin (here named Conrad) is putting on an experimental play on the outdoor stage that his mother (a famous actress) had built on her estate.  She doesn't like it naturally, which leads to his big outburst.

Then we moved our chairs to a side room for a round of intimate character studies in the kitchen.  (I don't know if this will be an issue every night, but there was a party of some sort on the floor above and the music leaked in.  It was a bit distracting, but not fatal, given the postmodern nature of the play.)  Finally, we moved the chairs one last time to the front of the store for the big finale.

Because this is an update of Chekhov's plays, Posner basically can cut to the chase with characters just saying upfront that they are unhappy about their entanglements and then sort of talk about what is subtext (in Chekhov) directly.  That allows more time to explore whether everyone is unhappy in the same way, or for the doctor to say that most of the time he doesn't "feel" anything but acts a certain way because it is expected.  The younger generation act much like younger Millennials are expected to (though only Nina spends much time on her phone).  There is a particularly amusing part where Posner takes Conrad chasing after Nina (who runs off after getting a text, probably from Trigorin) but then running away from Masha (who keeps scooting next to him).  Masha is in turn pursued by Medvedenko (here just called Dev).  They run through this physical comedy two or even three times, completely silently.  This was a really clever deconstruction of the original.  Another major highlight was just how well Masha could sing her songs about pain (one of the lines ran something like "Life is an apple, rotten down to the core."), but she just kept doing this hand-check thing and saying "Don't judge," trying to forestall any criticism (essentially having it both ways as some Millennials try to do). She was practically channeling Aubrey Plaza's Parks and Recreation character at this point.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, this is a modern update with Posner being very upfront about the artifice of the theatre, and several times Conrad riffs on the fact that we are just seeing a play (in a pop-up space no less), and that he wants a new form of theatre that will be life-changing, since the theatre as it exists today mostly serves seniors and homosexual men and a handful of people who were in a college play (harsh but true!).  There is some breaking of the fourth wall, particularly the bit where the actor playing Conrad asks the audience what he should do to win back Nina's heart (and the play won't go on until there is some feedback and his improvised response).  He was particularly amusing when someone said he needed to get a hat just like Trigorin's and Conrad said, yes, it made him look like he was so smart his brains were coming out the back of his head.  I contributed "tattoo" (like get a tattoo of her name or her face), and he liked that suggestion and played with it for a while.  The issue is that when the audience gets too comfortable with breaking the fourth wall, then it is hard to rein this back.  Interestingly, this was one of the few times that they really broke that wall, whereas there were several times it happened during Life Sucks.*  I do wonder if that may limit the appeal, since this is very much a play aimed at people who are deeply immersed in theatre.  So I think it works very well in Chicago and Toronto and New York and a few other places.  On the other hand, a lot of theatres are going to be doing Stupid F*cking Bird this season and next and a handful will be doing Life Sucks, so maybe Posner is really onto something.  I'm glad I managed to see it, and I think anyone who has sat through one too many productions of The Seagull will want to check it out.

I have to sit down and order a few more tickets for this month.  In addition to the Posner play, Wolf Manor is doing a somewhat experimental version of Three Sisters.  There is also Radiant Vermin (in Kensington Market), The Orange Dot (at Crow's Theatre), Morris Panych's 7 Stories (at Hart House) and Proof at Red Sandcastle.  (I also should try to squeeze in The Millennial Malcontent at Tarragon, though it does stretch into early April.)  What a great month for theatre in Toronto!


* I wonder if I wrote it in my journal, but Life Sucks ends with the Sonya character saying that she is so unhappy (because the doctor won't love her or really even consider her someone he would date) and then she asks the audience if Life Sucks.  Most people, particularly the seniors in the front row, say no, and she asked why.  The last answer was something like You go on, and there is always tomorrow with all its possibilities.  It was more poetic and moving than that though.  They ended the play right there, and I can't imagine anything more radical than giving an audience member the last word.  That really takes nerve.