Tuesday, April 24, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 19th review - Vi

I'm sure that the critical consensus is that Kim Thúy's Vi is a raging success, the work of a master miniaturist perhaps, but I am left wondering where's the there there.  And at the risk of being completely unfair, I believe that the law of diminishing returns has struck hard in this case.  Thúy's first novel, Ru, was about Vietnamese immigrants coming to Montreal and was sort of a typical affair, mixing tragedy and hope.  Her second novel, Mãn, focused far more on the culinary adventures of a Vietnamese immigrant trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage.  Vi borrows heavily from these two, but somehow seems much slighter.  There is some tragedy along the way, as they escape from Vietnam, but it doesn't directly impact anyone in Vi's family but rather her extended family and a family friend.  There is quite the focus on food throughout Vi, particularly when discussing the meals that Vi's mother made for her father (that basically brought him to marry her in the first place) and then Vi's sister-in-law's meals for her husband.  No question there are the seeds of feminist critique of Vietnamese patriarchal society, but it doesn't go very far.


While Vi is technically a first generation immigrant, she shows just a bit of the resistance to the older order.  She ends up sort of following an impractical career path (she initially wants to be a translator, perhaps at the UN) but becomes a lawyer instead of a doctor or engineer, which disappoints her mother.  From time to time, we see Vi's mother dropping by to say how she (Vi) has caused her (the mother) to lose face, but this just doesn't have much impact.  We don't see the earlier conflict, or even the moments when Vi goes down some alternative path than what she ought to be doing.  The upshot is that it appears Vi is just floating through life, not really taking charge of any of her own decisions.  Maybe that was the point, but I found it disappointing.  Anyway, I might have been more accepting of that stylistic decision, but I found the ending incredibly disappointing, since the novel draws to a close leaving two important lose ends completely unresolved.  So not a novel (really a novella) that worked for me.  I'll probably circle back and read Ru, but I'm not expecting to read any of her other books unless they are a clear departure from her work to date.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Weekend Reprieve

It was so nice out on the weekend, especially Sunday.  The garden gnome agrees.

I actually kind of resented staying inside Sat. for George Brown doing Brecht's Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.  It was of course such a downer and so dreadfully didactic.  Usually the Brecht I like succeeds despite Brecht's best intentions, i.e. you care about the characters even though he just wants to unsettle the audience and going on and on about politics or the human condition.  Anyway, this was a really tough slog.  I was relieved it was only a shade over 2 hours.  Also, I rode my bike to and from the theatre (quite a contrast from the previous weekend's ice storm!).

I was a little miffed later in the evening when I found that the Home Depot has cut its weekend hours.  I'm sure at one point it went to 10 pm on Saturday, but I guess it got cut back to 9 pm.  Now it is only 8 pm!  I wasn't the only one stopping by trying to get something.  Anyway, I had to come back early on Sunday to get some material to fix the gate.

This was the main activity of the day.  I was a little worried that the rest of the wood on the gate was so old that it would just splinter as I removed the crossbar, but it held up ok.  It was a bit dicey at the end, as I was fiddling with the latch to make sure it opened and closed smoothly, but I finally got it!

Now I'll have to put some weather proofing on it, though unfortunately it will be raining most of the week, so no point in doing that now.  I guess the bigger question is if I stain the whole fence or not, and whether I pre-treat it.  It's kind of a big job, and I am not really eager to tackle that.

There is another gate I worked on.  I would say it is nearly fixed, but I got the wrong screws.  So I used a different kind of screw and it is holding on, but not nearly tight enough (and the screws are starting to strip).  So I think I'll buy the correct screws and plan to replace the other ones by next weekend.

I wrapped up just in time for the actors (well 4 of the 6 anyway) to turn up and do a full read through.  It went well.  I have a few minor tweaks to make to the script.  I was surprised at how well my son read the alien part (he was filling in).

I wasn't sure if I was going to go to Toronto Cold Reads, but the musical guest was Skye Wallace, so in the end I went.  It was a good time, and they were so short of male actors that I read a small part.  I just wish I had been a bit more productive over the weekend, but that is a common refrain around these parts.  At least the weather was quite nice.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Trying for the Bright Side

To be honest, I've completely given up on seeing the bright side in terms of the future.  Despite the many, many warnings, people have just decided to dig in and not change their behavior at all, pointing out the most irrelevant things that environmentalists do or have said in the past in an effort to undermine our collective ability to face up to these challenges.  (As if nature cared about the "gotchas" from the political classes.)  One of the small ironies is that I think the only hope we have is when China turns to full scale production of solar panels and prices this so cheap that there really is no alternative to switching to more renewable sources.

Another real problem is the tendency of people to get more insular and to vote for right-wing politicians as things get tough, which is basically the trend we see everywhere, even in Europe, with only a few exceptions.  I share with Freud a deep distrust (if not to say dislike) of human nature and its ugliness.  After I really thought about it, I decided Marx was a raging optimist.

All that said, it is too exhausting to carry that around into my personal life, which is certainly a privileged one and a relatively untroubled one.  However, I've just received a mighty blow that may well undermine the Fringe show, but I am going to work through the alternatives and see what can be done.  No question that in the past, I was too willing to drop everything and move onto other projects when the going got tough, so I do hope to change that.  (I wouldn't say that it ever had anything to do with fear of hard work or wanting to avoid conflict, but I just had so many things that I wanted to do, that I could always switch to something else when I got bogged down in something.  Still, it means I have a large number of half-finished projects, and I would like to change that.)  Probably the single proudest moment of the weekend (so far) is that I didn't just give up and binge eat or something, but I went to the gym (twice) to try to work off the stress.  Too bad they don't have a punching bag there...  I think I'll leave this post fairly cryptic for now, as I just want to check a few things before I outline my next steps.

11th Canadian Challenge - 18th review - Hetty Dorval

While Ethel Wilson had published a few short stories previously, her first novel (really a novella) Hetty Dorval was published in 1947, when she was 59!  Definitely some comfort there for late bloomers, as it were.

The novel's plot is fairly thin, and the narrator (Frankie Burnaby) announces fairly early on that she isn't going to unveil all the secrets of the mysterious Hetty Dorval, but only what she learned about her through a handful of meetings, as well as the rumours she heard about Hetty.  In addition, she skips over her own personal history fairly lightly, except when it relates to Hetty.  This is sort of a strange limitation, particularly if one isn't all that gripped by Hetty.  While we hear she has sort of a magnetic personality that easily brought others under her spell, it is hard to convey this second-hand as it were.  One thing that is somewhat different is that while Frankie encounters Hetty for the first time as a child (and doesn't fully understand all that she sees and hears), this isn't just limited to a child's perspective (as in Green's The Fallen Idol for instance).  Frankie is a young woman, boarding in England with relatives, when she encountered Hetty again.  She senses to some extent she is falling under Hetty's sway, having been "infected" at an early age, though is able to resist in the end.  In this sense, Frankie grows up in a way that the narrator of William Trevor's Nights at the Alexandra doesn't (which is why it is so unsatisfying a novella).  Having said that, there is a particularly unbelievable intervention by a third party, which forces Hetty to back down from her plans and to stop interfering with Frankie's.  Thus, I wasn't really satisfied with this novella either.  Frankie doesn't have quite enough spunk and is generally a bit too self-sacrificing.  The earlier scenes where Frankie is torn between fascination with Hetty and a fear of getting caught (and upsetting her parents) are generally the stronger ones.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Fringe progress

Several positive steps over the last few days.  I have settled on the casting.  One actor pulled out due to conflicts over the summer, but I was able to find a suitable replacement very quickly.  I'm really looking forward to getting the whole cast together and see what they can do.

I also went over to the school (Danforth Tech) and saw the classroom.  It was quite large, so it should easily hold 25 patrons, the 4 students (plus a volunteer or two), both teachers, the stage manager and myself.  I could probably even go to 27 patrons, but that might just be pushing my luck, since I will need to bring the extra chairs and desks in each time.

I now need to work through the permitting process and find out how much it costs.  I'll try to add at least a couple of extra days so the final rehearsals can be in the space, and then the one day prior to the show for a tech rehearsal, not that I am expecting to have to do too much since there are no lighting effects to speak of.  I'll know more fairly soon.

I'm quite close to having the poster ready, but I have to move quickly, since it is all due this Friday.

I'm thinking of one of these two variants, but with the show name a bit more prominent.  I haven't decided if the cast names are on this version or just the post card version.  I'll look at some past Fringe materials for guidance.  The #2 pencil shading glares in a lot of places and just isn't quite dark enough, so I will just fill in with black ink instead.  I tried an alien face as well, but it just didn't come out because of where the spaces are between the columns.  Anyway, I had better wrap up tonight due to the deadline.

Unfortunately, that also means the production team should be named by tomorrow (if they are going on the website), but it doesn't look like that will be firmed up in time.  I have several good prospects, but I don't think we'll come to terms in time.  Well, there is always the program that I hand out for that.

Sunday will be a big step in that it will be the first read through.  Very excited to see how it works as a whole!


I've mostly gotten the material ready for the deadline (this afternoon).  I cleaned up the image, and it definitely looks better.  If I end up producing any postcards, then I'll want to go back to using a background with more contrast, but I think this is ok for the Fringe program.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Worst spring ever

Anyone living in Toronto will be forgiven for thinking this is basically the worst spring ever.  Easter was quite chilly, though at least dry, for our street-wide Easter egg hunt.  I've only managed to bike a few times between the cold and the rain.

The weekend has been a complete wipe out with freezing rain, accumulating a couple of inches everywhere.  I did force myself to go outside yesterday to go see a play at Soulpepper* and I picked up dry cleaning on the way home.  It was really not nice out with mini-hail everywhere.

This morning it was still coming down with the freezing rain, though it had lightened up a bit, so I went and bought groceries.  However, a few things were not in stock, so I guess I will force myself to go over the bridge to the mall.  I might as well go to the gym while I am there.  But the wind has really picked up, so I am going to wait an hour or so to see if it dies down before heading out again.**  I actually had free tickets to a show, but it is all the way across town, and I am just not willing to travel that far.  Too bad, as it will probably be very hard for them to attract much of an audience today.  (Not that I don't have plenty to do at home.)

I suspect all the flowers that were starting to come up in the yard will die off now.  I am just so sick of this.  While it will warm up towards evening, we have two more days of rain, before maybe catching a break on Wed.  So unpleasant.

* It was actually George Brown students putting on The Provoked Wife by John Vanbrugh.  I think only 20 or so people turned up, almost all of them with children or grandchildren in the show.  It was pretty good, though too long (~3 hours).

** If anything it actually got worse, especially on the way back from the mall.  I almost fell twice on the bridge.  Then shoveling this stuff was almost heart-attack inducing, it was so heavy and dense.  I can't imagine it will all be melted by the morning, so it looks like it will be boots yet again.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

11th Canadian Challenge - 17th review - A Complicated Kindness

One's reaction to Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness will largely hinge on three things -- how one feels about negative portrayals of religion, how one feels about a somewhat sarcastic narrative voice and how one feels about ambiguous endings. I certainly don't mind the first, but have mixed feelings about the second.  Usually too much of a good thing is still too much.  However, I can understand why readers are drawn to it.  Nomi, the main character, longs to get out of her small town, which is completely dominated by Mennonites.  She can't envision any way to do so, even though her mother and older sister both left, so she spends her last year of freedom (before the inevitable job at the chicken slaughterhouse) rebelling at school and generally being a slacker.  She does sound a fair bit like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye or even a bit like Daria from MTV (though I think Daria was written as a smarter character).  But again, this voice is the main thing the book has going for it, and when you really look at these refusniks, their basic answer to not giving in to The Man is to drop out of society and refuse to work, refuse to go to school, refuse to participate in social activities (other than partaking in drugs), etc.  My general feeling is that we are all implicated in society and bound to do things that we don't really want to do, but opting out is really an irresponsible, fairly selfish reaction to adult responsibilities.  Needless to say, I don't have a lot of patience for people who hold this view.  I didn't read Catcher in the Rye when I was younger, and I can pretty much guarantee I won't like it now.  That said, it's fairly short, and I'll probably try to squeeze it in one of these days.

In the case of this novel, my general impatience for and with drop outs (literary or otherwise) is tempered by the fact that the adults around her are more or less in a cult, to the point that the religious leader of the community (Nomi's uncle) can expel troublesome members and then have the whole town shun them.  Most people undergoing this treatment opt to leave town, but a few stuck it out, including the local drug dealer.*  Nomi makes several scathing comments along the way about Mennonites who are hypocritical, whereas she is fairly open about not buying into the tenets of the religion, though she does occasionally try to fit in to make things easier for her father, who is a true believer.  The novel basically hinges on Nomi's love for her father (and unwillingness to abandon him) and her longing for her mother, who left town a few years before the novel begins.

I knew a bit about Toews's upbringing, and in fact she grew up in a small religious community (Steinbach, Manitoba), so in that sense she knows very much about these towns and their hypocrises.  I hadn't been aware that her father committed suicide and then her sister 12 years later (though several years after the publication of A Complicated Kindness).  While I probably won't be reading a lot more Toews, I do expect to eventually read her most recent novel (All My Puny Sorrows) which is inspired by the last years of her sister's life.  In any event, her personal experience makes it clear that some Mennonites do commit suicide, even though it is of course against the tenets of their faith (which to be fair, seem to focus almost entirely on how degraded the material world is (and that life is meant to be suffering) and how much better things will be in heaven).  In a roundabout way, this brings me to my issues with the book, and particularly the ending.  There seems to be a lot of emotional truth in the novel (powered by her feelings over her father's suicide) but key aspects of the plot itself doesn't make any sense to me.  Also, there is radical uncertainty as to what actually happened, which is something I generally don't like as a reader.  But to discuss this, I'll need to go into SPOILER mode.


It may be a bit of a stretch, but the way the mysteries were presented bit by bit (peeling away the onion layers) reminded me just a bit of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though there most of the details were revealed (and the "mystery" solved) by midway through that book, and the book's unsatisfactory ending had other causes.  While we find the main motivation behind her mother's disappearance, the book resolutely refuses to confirm whether she committed suicide (though it is strongly hinted that she did**) or has simply stayed away from the town to spare her husband the agony of choosing between her (since she has been excommunicated and must be shunned) and his faith.  What is harder to swallow is that the book sets up two more open-ended mysteries.  It is simply never settled what happened to Nomi's older sister.  She ran off with an older boyfriend and then never gets back in touch at all.  Are we to assume that he killed her?  That seems not just particularly morbid but somewhat undermines what we know about her character (she was level-headed enough to reject Mennonite teachings and wanted to get out of town but then picked up a psychopath for a boyfriend?).  

An even bigger problem I have is how Nomi's father disappears at the end of the novel, leaving her a long note that he knows the only way she will leave town is if he leaves first, but then in a few years down the road, he'll rejoin her.  At first glance, this seems at least sort of plausible (leading some critics to write about his "heroic sacrifice"), but falls apart fairly quickly.  She is the one that was ex-communicated, so the odds of her being able to wrap up his affairs, selling the house, etc., seem slim indeed.  Why wouldn't they just go somewhere else together?  That would be far more straight-forward.  Instead, the only explanation that makes sense is that he took the cowardly way out and, squeezed by his constricting, terrible faith that asked him to reject his daughters and his wife, killed himself.  So he is just one more adult who leaves Nomi in the lurch and compounds this by lying to her.  As if she won't be able to figure this out in a few years after he never turns up again.


Anyway, the big, big reveal at the end of the book is that Nomi uncovers evidence that her mother and her teacher, Mr. Quiring, had an affair.  He pressured her to continue and, when she declined, set in motion the rumours that she was unchaste, which in turn led to her ex-communication.  So in that context, with the heavy guilt and everything, it certainly makes it much more likely that Nomi's mother killed herself.  But it makes no kind of sense that Nomi's mother would cheat with Mr. Quiring in the first place, even if completely distraught over her older daughter leaving town.  At least based on Nomi's portrayal of her mother and how she adored her father, I can't make that piece fit.  Of course, Nomi may be wrong on that account, but then so much of the rest of the novel falls apart.  Thus, I wasn't very happy with the way the novel was constructed, since it all hinges on a terrible secret that makes no sense, as well as sacrifices that are counter-productive.  Everyone justifies their actions as helping her (though more likely they are simply lying about what they are up to before they go kill themselves) but in the end, Nomi is abandoned by everyone and is left to fend for herself, so she is amply justified in not trusting adults and feeling that her world is absurd and even the good moments were all built on lies.  So definitely a downer of a book when you really think about it.  A few too many funny moments to join my bleakest book list, but still not a feel-good story on any level.

* The scene of Nomi and her boyfriend trying to score dope from this drug dealer is quite hilarious and one of the few bits that really worked for me in this novel.

** Nomi mentions several times that she is worried that her mother didn't simply leave the town because she didn't take her passport with her, though of course one can still travel pretty far within Canada itself.