Friday, July 31, 2015

The Conversation

It has already been close to two weeks since the Stratford trip.

I was a bit nervous about missing the bus and left a bit early.  I actually had close to half an hour to spare, so I stopped off at work first.

I wasn't terribly surprised that the bus was full, but I was secretly glad when this pair of women, who had planned to chat the whole time (and would have been sitting near me) split up.  The woman who sat next to me tried to get some work done on her smartphone but the display was too small.  I offered to lend her a few sections of the paper that I still had with me.  I was planning on reading Coover's Pricksongs and Descants.

I can't quite remember what set it off, but perhaps it was exasperation at the delay and then the seemingly endless video display before the driver finally took off, but we started talking about the relative merits of the art scene in Vancouver vs. Toronto.  I said it was quite sad that opera was not thriving in Vancouver, and it seems that it is likely to be extinguished soon (they are trying just a short festival season and no programming the rest of the year, which seems destined to fail).  I think we talked a bit about how the TSO was slightly underwhelming for a city this side, and the VSO punches above its weight.  (Though I just read that Dale Barltrop is moving back to Australia permanently, which will be a huge loss.  I felt quite privileged to see a number of concerts where he was featured.)

We somehow got onto the fact that I was a transportation planner and then talked a fair bit about unrealistic expectations (both on the part of the public and the planners) and how almost everything in Toronto is complicated by the amalgamation and the low tax regime insisted on by the suburban voters.  But fundamentally, there is no easy fix, and Toronto traffic will always be bad unless the region gets very serious about rezoning and redeveloping a number of clusters outside the downtown core.

The conversation kept going into odd directions, and we dwelt several times on some of the downsides of US culture, particularly rise of religious fundamentalism in the US* but also the fascination with guns and the fact that the 2nd Amendment makes it impossible to do anything about it.  Then Chicago and its issues, both deep segregation and looming pension problems.  In some ways, the Illinois constitution is even more limiting, and has put the state into a really deep hole.  This ties in with ideas I have been kicking around about how inter-generational equity is essentially impossible when the current population (mixed with a slavish adherence to the primacy of contract law) can tie up future generations indefinitely.  Just look at Greece. Indeed, we did talk about the mess that is Greece and the fact that the EU is not willing to sponsor poorer countries for generations.  Also, just how helpful is it for the IMF to come around and lecture Europe about debt relief (when Greece's lenders already took a massive haircut) when the IMF turns around and says that its debts are sacrosanct.  At that point, I thought they lost the right to criticize others.

We actually ending up talking quite a bit about the huge problems with the structural transformation of economy, and how overall "society" benefitted from free trade.  Unfortunately (and probably predictably) the real benefits were not redistributed or used to prop up safety net for those who were net losers.  Robert Reich was a bit of an optimist in The Work of Nations (from around his time in the Clinton adminstration), but since then he has become quite pessimistic about the impacts of free trade on the working class.  Just in general, we in the west could not have nice things, like day trips to Stratford, if resources were spread out equally.  I know this intellectually of course, but when I really dwell on it, I start to feel guilty and it does put a damper on my mood...

We sort of ended with a darker prediction of how bad things will get, particularly in Europe, when global warming generates attempts at mass migration several times above what they see now, along with struggles over water (to say nothing of the impact of a sustained sea rise).  We both agreed that there will be a general global catastrophe unless we move away from carbon-based economy, and its probably already too late.  Ontario is probably better positioned than most of the rest of the world, but there will still be some terrible impacts here.  I suspect I feel this more than she does, simply because I am more of a pessimist and, being younger, I will have to deal with these messes for longer than she will.  The conversation was starting to peter out, but we talked a bit about China.  Unfortunately, I got the name wrong at that time, but the author of Concrete Dragon admits that what the Chinese are doing at the moment is incredibly environmentally destructive, but at the same time they seem to offer the only meaningful escape from the carbon economy, since they are probably the only country with the resources and will to actually make solar power panels cheap enough so it is truly competitive with oil and we can make the transition to a post-carbon economy.  That's a very slender reed on which to hang one's hopes, but I guess it is better than giving in completely to despair.

Since this woman was clearly into documentaries, I told her about a powerful one called Last Train Home, which is both about the terrible human impact on the rural villagers who move to the outskirts of the cities where they have almost no rights, but also about the fact that almost the entire country tries to go home at the same time at Chinese New Year and all transportation systems grind to a halt.  Unfortunately, I got the name of the documentation wrong as well, but I think she had enough clues to find it if she wants to look it up.

And that was how I spent the trip to Stratford, chatting with a complete stranger the whole way in (hopefully not disturbing others too much).  We only exchanged names at the very end of the ride!  It is definitely not like me at all, but it was actually fun and probably the most intellectually stimulating talk I've had in years, just due to the length and breadth of topics covered (of which I only touched on a few).  Maybe moving to Poucher, where people are generally more outgoing, has had a subtle influence on me.  Certainly my mother was very outgoing and could talk to strangers pretty much anywhere, which was always mortifying to a more closed-off teenager like myself.  In general, taking changes has led to good outcomes for me, so why I don't interact more with strangers is a bit peculiar, but it is a deeply ingrained habit for me now.

I did mention to her that she might want to check out the Hamlet in Withrow Park, since she said she loved the tragedies, but I didn't force it.  I thought this conversation was lightening in a bottle, and if you tried to recreate it, it wouldn't work.

As it turned out, I was still able to read the Coover book and finish Keane's Good Behaviour and even read Dürrenmatt's The Physicists during my short stay at Stratford, so I might actually have been bored on the way back had I stuck my nose in the book and read on the way there.  Just something to consider for the future.

* This actually led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion of what to do when one is a secular or secular-leaning person in a red-state, or more extreme case of Iran.  Democratically, it may be the case that a majority want religion imposed upon themselves (and everyone else) but there may not be much room for dissidents.  Minority rights are always so hard to square with the overall political process.  I'd say that even in the US and Canada, acceptance of the validity of different views is decreasing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hot hot hot

Nothing really more to add to that.  It is hot out, and while I do enjoy riding the bike (I'm basically up to 4 days a week, which is great) it would be better if it were 5 degrees cooler out.

My trip to Ottawa, which I will discuss more tonight (or more probably tomorrow), was also marked by heat.  It was fortunate that most of my walking was done inside the National Gallery or after 10 pm, by which time it cooled down a little bit.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The one(s) that got away -- novels that I should have read

I know this seems sort of crazy, since one can always get a book from the library or interlibrary loan on in extremis one can buy it on-line.  That is, if one remembers the particulars of the book, namely author and/or title.

I was just at BMV and I picked up a copy of Graham Greene's The Quiet American that I had been eyeing for a while, and there was a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex for $1.  Well, I've heard many good things about that novel, and even if I don't get to it for a while, that was a steal.

Back up all the way to 1992-3 when I was living in Newark and spending a fair bit of time at the Newark Public Library.  I honestly can't remember if they had local branches, but I always went to the main one right near the Newark Museum, since that had a pretty decent literature and poetry section.  During this period I read all the novels of Saul Bellow (except Ravelstein which hadn't come out), Barbara Pym and Graham Greene.  There may have been one other author involved, but if so, I am completely blanking on him or her.  It would have had to have been someone with 10-12 novels published as of 1992, and I can't think of any other novelist where I have read essentially their entire oeuvre.  (Though there will be a few more when I finally get to the end of the latest reading list.)

I did read other things, and in fact I read something like 100 books in 1992.  However, I remember thinking seriously about two books on those shelves and I kept passing them up.  I thought that one was Middlesex, but it was published in 2002, which is much, much too late.  With just a bit of prompting, I remembered that the other one was Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, which is one I should get to, but will put it off a bit longer.

That leads to another one of these literary puzzles.  I have a couple of posts where I discuss books that I read that I can no longer recall the title.  At least there you have some hope that you will recall a bit more and identify it.  (There are even people that specialize in this and charge a fee.  I used one to find The Great Alphabet Race, though honestly I have no idea why Google just didn't point me to the book in the first place, since I kept typing in alphabet race children's book.  Oh well...)  But if you never read the book at all beyond the book blurb in the back, well that is quite challenging.

I'm pretty sure this one one of those trendy books from the late 1980s or very early 1990s.  I am also convinced that the main character either was a hermaphrodite or changed sex during the course of the novel (again according to the blurb).  I know for a fact this isn't Woolf's Orlando, or Winterson's Sexing the Cherry, or even Carter's Nights at the Circus.  And it can't be Middlesex either.  (On the other hand, even the Library of Congress seems to suggest there are only 13 or so novels about intersex characters, and none of those looked familiar.  So this is becoming a real challenge.)

So far Goodreads is looking like the most promising resource to find literary fiction books that would have been trendy at that time.  As long as I am taking the trouble, I will go ahead and list a few other books that look like I might like them (in 2020 or so!):
Julian Barnes - Metroland
Neel Mukherjee - The Lives of Others
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland  (probably will order this when the price drops low enough)
W.G. Sebald - The Rings of Saturn  (might actually have this in deep storage)
Richard Powers - The Gold Bug Variations
Jeanette Winterson - Written on the Body
Téa Obreh - The Tiger's Wife
Herta Müller - The Appointment
Cees Nooteboom - All Souls' Day
Cees Nooteboom - Rituals

These are not necessarily from the proper time period, but are books that do seem to be up my alley.

Well, despite a couple of hours of deep thinking about this, I haven't been able to trigger anything more.  It's kind of interesting how a fair bit of the 1980s and even the early 1990s is pre-web and thus not easily searchable, so it might as well not even have happened for the Millennials.  In any case, if this does sound vaguely familiar, please leave a note in the comments.  Thanks.

Art crawl in Toronto

I don't get out to the art galleries nearly often enough.  I think a large part of the problem is that they don't advertise particularly well, the listings in the Toronto Star and Now are kind of sporadic, but mostly the shows only last a very short period of time (sometimes as short as 2-3 weeks, though more frequently they will be up for a month or so).

Unfortunately, I did miss André Kertész at Stephen Bulger Gallery.  What's unbelievably frustrating is that I was looking into photography at that time, but somehow this wasn't listed with all the Scotiabank photography material.  So I don't know who dropped the ball, but it should have been included in the listings somewhere rather than being treated as a completely stand alone exhibit.  In any case, there is another Kertész exhibition at the Corkin Gallery, so I should manage to get there on the way back home this afternoon.

There was some gallery way to the north, almost at the 401, with a few Botero paintings.  I wasn't crazy about the idea of going, but decided I might make the trip (more time to read Bruno Schulz).  It turns out that it is only open Mon-Fri 10-5.  How totally ridiculous.  It sounds more like a tax dodge than an actual museum/gallery.  I am so personally offended by this that I am going to scrub this place from my consciousness (and obviously not link to it).

What I will do is make a stop off at MOCCA to see the last exhibit there before it relocates to a new location (perhaps opening in early 2017 if all goes well).

I don't have any major plans other than that.  I may stop off at the Eaton Centre and possibly the AGO, and I'll probably stop off at work as well, though I mostly need to get some rest, as Sunday will be a fairly hectic day.  I am off to Ottawa to see the Chagall exhibit at the National Gallery and then see Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World.  I'm hoping to get some work done on the train,* as well as to write a short playlet (to get in training, since I've signed up for the 1000 Monkeys event at Red Sandcastle where you write an entire play in 24 hours).  While I will probably be completely wiped out that weekend if I happen to be completely inspired and wrap up my play a few hours early, I might just head back west on Queen St. to shower at work and go see La Dolce Vita at TIFF.  That's probably completely insane, however.  I'm still not entirely sure if Sing-for-your-Supper has settled back into a groove and it will be on Aug. 3 or not.  It would probably be better for me if it shifted to Aug. 10.  Anyway, I definitely have not done any of the creative writing I swore I would do this summer, so starting tomorrow, I need to get back in the saddle.

* I suspect this is a case where if the wireless craps out after an hour, like it did on the way to Montreal, I will actually get more work done, not less.

Dueling Hamlets pt. 2

I am running very late this morning, so I will try to be brief.  While the main selling point of the Driftwood production of Hamlet is that it starts from the First Quarto and then splices this together with the more refined language of the First Folio, the Stratford version seems to have been edited in a similar fashion.  I did recognize a few changes, such as some lines that seemed new and definitely some better jokes between the gravediggers.  But even though I just saw the plays back to back, I missed a few key aspects.  This page lays out a few of them, most notably that the To be or not to be speech is moved around from its normal spot and, probably even more significantly, that Gertrude becomes aware of Claudius's villainy and accepts it as truth.  Thus, towards the very end of the play when she is still declaiming Hamlet to be mad, she is actually part of a conspiracy of 2 (or 3 if you could Horatio).

I will say that due to the various cuts, even the longer Stratford version doesn't feel much like a traditional Hamlet where he is just a moody and slightly mad procrastinator.  Yes, there is the moment where he tries to determine if the ghost is telling him the truth or not, and in both versions he refrains from killing Claudius in the chapel.  But he simply does not have that many (or any other) opportunities to attack Claudius when he is not heavily guarded.  I actually am more troubled by how overly mad he is made in many productions.  I liked the Stratford approach where it was more obvious that Hamlet was just playing at being mad, though I did think that the madcap foolery after Polonius's death was misplayed.  Driftwood took a very different approach where the gloves came off after this death, and in fact Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern laid hands on the prince and roughly hauled him back in from of Claudius.  Even beating him at one point.  That was an interesting, if slightly over-the-top, direction, but it then made absolutely no sense for the king to essentially welcome Hamlet back into the fold after his return from England and wager on his duel with Laertes.  It doesn't make that much sense in the traditional version either, but at least in Stratford's production, Claudius's anger at Hamlet is kept a bit more in check and fewer people appear to be aware that Hamlet was banished.  (Thus, it is easier to appear things are not completely overturned when Hamlet shows up at Ophelia's grave.)

The 2nd most interesting decision by Driftwood is that Ophelia is deeply angry at Hamlet after he throws her letters back in her face.  She has not forgiven him at all by the time of the Player's performance, and glowers at him throughout.  He does not get to lay his head in her lap, as is far more traditional (including the Stratford production).  I don't know if it is something in the air, but both productions really emphasized the complete unhinged nature of Ophelia by having her emphasize the "country nature" of the song she sings and in both cases, she gives a kind of lap dance to Claudius.  (I checked and the text does not appear to have any such stage directions...)  However, it makes a bit more sense in the Stratford production where Ophelia seems to be dealing with a double death -- the death of her father and the death of Hamlet's love for her.  The Driftwood Ophelia doesn't seem nearly so fussed about Hamlet abandoning her (the Now reviewer agrees with me on this point).  I thought the Stratford Ophelia was a somewhat more internally consistent figure, though I remember thinking the mad scene was just a bit too coarse (it actually seems like she might try to feel up her brother at one point).

I thought both were quite interesting and worth seeing (2 days left for Driftwood at Withrow Park), but would give the nod to the longer and more polished Stratford version.  While there generally wasn't anything that was genuinely new, I did think Hamlet's monologues were conveyed more strikingly, whereas in Driftwood they were more like the typical set pieces and you could almost see them unfold in the dual column text of a Riverside or Oxford Shakespeare.  I may have mentioned that aside from the ghost, they did their best to play the opening scenes like a comedy, which gave it some additional frisson.  (So many of the comedies could decline into tragedies if not for some happy accident.  I'm not entirely sure any of the tragedies could have ended as a comedy, though perhaps Lear.  Lear certainly could have ended more like one of the romances, with bloodshed but still an overall happy conclusion.)

My single biggest fault with Stratford was the stupid replacement of shooting Polonius rather than stabbing him (going so far as to have Gertrude talk about Hamlet's rifle).  So unnecessary.  Driftwood was slightly better in the gravedigger scene (though not the Poor Yorick speech that follows) and it was interesting to see a different Hamlet-Gertrude bed scene (even if I didn't fully recognize the significance at the time!).  I'm still sorting through what I think of having Horatio played by a woman.  The Now reviewer claims that she {Horatio} had unresolved romantic feelings for Hamlet which deepened the ending.  I'm not sure I picked that up or even if I was willing to entertain that notion.  Certainly Hamlet never seemed to have any inkling of this.  As I said, that would have been quite the twist if Claudius did send Hamlet back to Wittenberg (as he requested) and then Hamlet found out that his true love was right under his nose (cue Survivor's "The Search is Over").  Actually, that isn't a bad idea for Sing-for-Your-Supper, though I don't know if I could boil it down to 10 pages.  I'll see about that on the train, and now I really have to go.

P.S. Yes, I did write it.  In the end, it was a combination of Hamlet with the sensibility of Oscar Wilde.  I only wrote out the first act, so I don't know if I really could sustain this and find a suitable ending.  I'd have to work the ghost in there somehow and most likely Claudius and Gertrude, though it would be awfully hard to keep the tone light if they were around.  I won't know for a little while if it got picked for Sing-for-Your-Supper, but you can read it here and provide comments below.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Dueling Hamlets

I am going to have to expand this blog post considerably, or perhaps just follow up with part 2 tonight, but I wanted to say that both the Stratford and Driftwood productions of Hamlet are quite good.  If I could only see one, I would probably lean towards Stratford, but if I wanted to take the family (particularly teenagers), then Driftwood is the better choice.  It has been trimmed down to 2 hours (more on that later) and does not feel like a long-drawn out production.  There were a few really interesting choices in Driftwood's version, particularly in the treatment of Ophelia.  Not all of it worked or worked entirely, but it is so rare to find anyone doing anything that different with Hamlet that it is worth seeing for that reason alone.  (I thought this was a fair review, and I agree with most points.)

Driftwood is putting on 3 more shows in Toronto's Withrow Park (and hopefully they will have the sound board problems ironed out -- that was a bit distracting to the point they probably should have just cut the mikes).  Then they move on.  For close to a month they have shows throughout Ontario.  More details here.

The Driftwood bus

Pre-show talk in Withrow Park

Stratford is Stratford.  (Actually, I had a pretty amazing idea for a web-series based on the town-gown conflicts at Stratford, but I can't imagine ever finding the time to write it.  Still I should commit some of it to paper (and to the blog).  Perhaps there is a collaborator out there who could help make it happen.)

I don't have any photos from the Stratford productions, but here is the Stratford Direct bus in the background. (Actually I have a whole blog post about the bus trip in, but that will have to wait for the weekend.)

And an actual chair owned by Shakespeare!  That's pretty cool.

More anon...

Thursday, July 23, 2015


There are so many posts I would like to get to, but I'll settle for a relatively short one.  Unlike the Luminato Festival, where I had reasonably high hopes but then didn't go see anything related to Luminato, I had quite low hopes regarding the Pan Am Games and Panamania in general.

I have come to really detest the spending associated with these events, particularly when it comes to the Olympics, but even more so the contempt for locals that is expressed on the part of the international committee and then the organizers.  Many cities and states go so far as to write laws giving away the store as it were to the games organizers sometimes up to a couple of years before the games.  This is particularly true of the Olympics.

The disruptions on a daily level are certainly lower (for me) for Pan Am than they would have been for the Olympics, though I was unhappy that they blocked off the road and even the bike lane just north of the UT Athletic Field.  I guess they finally sold most of the tickets, but it is not clear who is actually going.  Certainly the number of outside visitors seems lower than predicted.  While this has generally been better for traffic, I really wonder about the economic benefits of Pan Am.  It is hard to imagine they materialized, and the chances of getting a truly impartial accounting seems unlikely.

Nonetheless, I have benefited a bit on the arts side.  I happened to be dropping off some books at the City Hall library and saw a strange spectacle on Nathan Phillips Square.  There was this huge ring on wheels that had 3 seats for musicians and then two seats on the side for the handlers to peddle and put this thing in motion.

It kind of has to be seen in motion to be believed.  I will see if I can actually embed this video and get it to work.


(It works!  Sweet.)

I actually did see one of the official Panamania events.  I saw that there was a new piece on memory by Robert LePage called 887, which is actually the street number of an apartment building where he lived growing up in Quebec City (some details here).  So I got a ticket for Friday.  I did not realize until I turned up that LePage himself would be performing the piece, so this makes twice I've seen him.  The poem basically is set off when LePage finds it difficult to memorize the poem "Speak White" by Michèle Lalonde.  He decides to try the Greek technique of building a memory palace, which in this case turns out to be 887 Murray Ave. where he grew up.  This is a case where LePage mixes the personal (stories of his father driving a cab mixed with some of the other apartment residents) and the political, mostly about the rise of the FLQ in Quebec and how it was relatively muted in Quebec City compared to Montreal.  (I was definitely glad to have some of this background already from having seen Trudeau and the FLQ.)  While it is a relatively minor thread, there are some pieces on LePage's grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer's.  I do understand where he was coming from with the public memory (how cultural figures in Quebec have relatively minor obits), I found the contemporary story of LePage trying to track down his pre-written obituary to be extremely self-indulgent.  The set and overall spectacle was terrific.  It may actually be the best LePage production I've seen yet, but this event desperately needs trimming (and I would start with all the interactions with Fred and pretty much anything set in the present not directly tied to the "Speak White" poem).  It was 2 hours without an intermission, which is just punishing, no matter how much you like the narrator.  As expected, the piece ends with a very rousing edition of "Speak White," showing that LePage still has a few brain cells left after all.

I decided that I would make an attempt to see a free concert Sunday (this was after the bus ride back from Stratford), so I hung around the office for a bit, ate and then wandered over to City Hall.  The Flaming Lips were performing and Wayne seemed appropriately appreciative of the trippy nature of the setting.  Maybe he will write a song about a spaceship that crashes in the middle of a city.  (I will say that the glowing letters of the Toronto sign do look pretty cool at night, so something good came of Pan Am...)

It was a good concert, 4 or so songs off of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, "She Don't Use Jelly," the Yeah Yeah Yeah song, plus all the beach balls, confetti and inflatable mushrooms one would ever need.  Wayne even did the thing where he gets in a human-sized hamster ball and goes crowd surfing.  The night was topped off by fireworks launched from the roof of City Hall.  What more can you ask (particularly for free)?  So as I said, I have enjoyed myself more than I expected at the Pan Am Games, though I still don't want to see the Olympics coming here.  That is non-negotiable in my mind. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 1st review - The Cashier

Gabrielle Roy's novel The Cashier begins in one direction, exploring the life of a relatively minor man, who works as a bank cashier in Montreal, and then moves in quite different directions.  I'd actually paired it in my reading list with Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket, thinking that the cashier worked in a supermarket.  (Cashier is more of a British usage; in the US and anglo-Canada, as far as I can tell, his job title would be called bank teller.)  As it happens, The Restless Supermarket is only incidentally about supermarkets; it certainly is a bit of misdirection as to what the bulk of that book is about.  In contrast, we do see the cashier, Alexandre Chenevert, at his job in several scenes in The Cashier, though almost exclusively in the first section of the book.  Chenevert is not at his post in the second and third sections for a variety of reasons, good and bad. While even the blurb on the back of the book makes it pretty clear what is going to happen, I want to make sure there are sufficient SPOILER warnings before I proceed.

SPOILERS throughout the rest of this review.

Roy establishes Chenevert as a unassuming man, never expecting much out of life for himself, but one who is a bit prickly.  He cares a great deal about things that he cannot control, such as world politics, and because he cares so much about these issues, he is more than a little quarrelsome to his (very) few friends.  He comes very close to being a crank, and for a while I considered him very similar to Aubrey Teale from The Restless Supermarket.  The motivating force is a bit different, however.  Teale is thoroughly conservative and wants nothing more than the Johannesburg and Hillbrow he grew up in to be frozen in amber, Chenevert seems to have some longings for world peace and social justice more generally.  (He is completely gutted on the death of Gandhi for example and actually briefly tries fasting, only to find out that he cannot focus on his job.)  Nonetheless, in his personal behaviour, he is correct, measured and a bit narrow-minded.  He is also very cheap, though this seems to stem more from his limited prospects at work than anything else.  It was a bit of a shock to find out that he was living in Quebec in an era before universal health care, and he only took out medical insurance on himself, since his wife wasn't contributing to the household budget.  In the end, she needs some procedures done related to "female troubles" and they have to save up for that.  On the other hand, he does scrimp and save and manages to contribute to a life insurance policy so that his wife and daughter have something to live on in the event of his death or disability.  (Again, Roy mentions that old age pensions are just slowly coming into the picture in Quebec and Canada more generally in the late 1940s.  It took quite a while to build up the safety net, and it looks like it may take only another generation to dismantle it, though this is certainly eroding faster in the U.S. than Canada.)

You do get a sense that Chenevert is kind of a small, cramped man, who may be perfectly correct in dealing with customers, but he just doesn't have that assertiveness and a real touch with others that would have propelled him to become assistant bank manager for example.  There is an interesting passage where the bank manager has to assure Chenevert that he won't be fired for losing $100 from his till, but that he will have to pay it back in installments over the next few months!  This manager is very much of the school of Dale Carnegie and believes that if people do the right thing, they will be rewarded.  He actually finds Chenevert very threatening to his world view, since this is a man who will clearly not naturally rise to the top, even though on the surface he has done the right thing.  (Again, I find quite a few parallels with Teale, who apparently was a good proofreader, but never was able to achieve his dream of proofreading a dictionary!)

At any rate, a customer returns from vacation and discovers the extra $100 in his account and notifies the bank.  Faced with this windfall, Chenevert saves much of it, but it able to go on vacation himself.  Interestingly, his wife goes to stay with her family, and he rents a small cabin in the countryside.  Section two of the novel takes place during this vacation.  He is very much the city boy quite out of place in the country.  He is not dressed appropriately, and starts off being quite stand-offish to the farmer from whom he rented the cabin.  It is not clear if Chenvert has ever even been outside the city.  Within a few days he finds himself enjoying the bounty of nature and open to life in a way that he has never before experienced.  He spends time with the farmer and his wife, and even asks in a very hesitant way if one, like himself inexperienced in country life, could learn to live off of the land.  The farmer assures him that between fruits, vegetables and plentiful fish, one can easily life in high style.  While Chenevert does seem to seriously consider making this move (one can only imagine his wife's reaction...), at some deeper level, he realizes this is just a fantasy, not only because he could not actually make a go of becoming a gentleman farmer but that the rural world is ultimately too alien for someone raised in the city.  Nonetheless, he experiences a full day of bliss and is quite grateful for it, even thinking in his own mind that this is a memory that will help sustain him for the rest of his life and in his decline (which happens far more quickly than he could have anticipated).  He even tries to write some aspects of this epiphany down but gets it all scrambled.  This section, particularly the idea that one amazing day can sustain the soul, is very reminiscent of the film After Life (the Japanese near masterpiece (Ebert's review) and not the schlocky horror film). Every so often I wonder what my best day would be, and it is nearly impossible, since I generally think back to a day when my mother visited me in New York City or in Toronto, but then that excludes any time with my children, who were born long after she died.  I think it is quite a conundrum for people who have had very eventful lives...

The third section sees Chenevert to Montreal and to his post behind his cashier's window in the bank.  He is somewhat more generous in spirit after this trip.  Roy could have gone in two directions, I think.  Either the epiphany truly changed him (an optimistic view) or that, like most people, his good spirits and intentions did not last (a more jaded yet realistic view).  She actually goes in a third direction, which is that Chenevert gets quite ill very quickly.  The doctor is a bit annoyed that men like Chenevert don't seek out medical attention while there is still hope, though in this particular case Chenevert has an aggressive form of cancer and there really is not much that could be done.  Chenevert is extremely reluctant to have a colostomy but he is reassured that he could live for 10 or more years with it and still work at the bank, so he goes ahead with the procedure.  Unfortunately, this makes little difference, and he is back in the hospital in a very short time.  While he starts off as a bit difficult, he becomes a model patient.  There is a priest who finds himself affected by Chenevert's suffering and attempts to become a better priest, realizing that a priest who has never suffered from ill health may not be in the right posting.  This is a very minor subplot, but it did remind me a bit of Power's Morte d'Urban where a priest gains a more thorough understanding of faith from his parishioners. Personally I am not that interested in characters who gain nobility through suffering, so I was less interested in this section than the first two, but it is still generally well-drawn.  I thought there were a few parallels with Dostoevesky's The Idiot, though most of his suffering was essentially self-inflicted.

It's a little hard to rate the book, since the three parts are so different, but it did make me think quite a bit for such a short novel (just over 200 pages), so on the whole I would recommend it to readers who have a bit of a philosophical outlook (and are not expecting a lot of action).  It does require an openness to a book about an underdog who does not triumph, so if one requires a happy ending (aside from the bit about achieving nobility through suffering) then this might be a book to avoid.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pompeii (and other museum news)

I guess I will start off with the museum news.  There is quite a bit going on in Ottawa at the moment, though not quite enough to justify a trip (unless there is something work-related that comes up).  The Magna Carta is currently touring Canada.  There are only two more weeks at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa and then it goes to Winnipeg, then to Fort York in Toronto (where I expect to see it) and finally Edmonton.  General tour details here.

Of more general interest is the fact that the big Greek exhibit (that we just missed in Montreal) will also be at the Canadian Museum of History through mid Oct.  I think we can manage to make it there in time.  I believe the exhibit moves on to the Field Museum in Chicago and then to a DC museum in 2016, but I'd rather try to catch this in Ottawa in the fall.  I'll try to make sure it isn't so last minute this time around.

I wouldn't see there are any must see exhibits at the National Gallery (the Alex Colville is a good exhibit but I saw it several times at the AGO).  I will try to make it to the Chagall Daphnis and Chloe exhibit, but that would mean we have to go by the first two weekends in September.  That might not work out.

In any case, I mostly want to focus on the Pompeii exhibit at the ROM, which we saw two weeks ago.  This exhibit runs through the first week of January, so there is plenty of time to go see it.  My daughter basically did not want to go, as she was somewhat worried about seeing skeletons or the "insides" of bodies.  Nonetheless, I convinced her that it wouldn't be too bad.  I wasn't sure whether there would be the body casts or not (due to the somewhat mature content), but there are in fact 5 groups of casts, and about 10 bodies in total.

The focus of the exhibit is in fact on everyday life in Pompeii, as reconstructed from the very detailed artifacts left behind.  They had quite impressive mosaics and paintings in the villas.  (The second one below is thought to represent the 3 Graces: Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance).)

There is even a small marketplace for kids to pretend that they are buying and selling goods.  That was probably their favorite part of the exhibit, though there was also another interactive area where you could put together tiles in a sort of mosaic.

Towards the end of the exhibit they focused more on the devastation, including the eerie beauty of these melted bottles (even my daughter liked these).

And of course some representative casts.  I suppose it would simply be too disappointing for most people seeing an exhibit about Pompeii not to feel that human connection.

It's definitely an interesting exhibit for anyone interested in ancient Italy, though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone with very small and/or sensitive children.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Quick Summer Shakespeare follow-up: 1 more Twelfe Night

This really will be quite the Shakespearean season, or season and a half for me.  If you stretch back to late spring I saw or will soon see:
Much Ado About Nothing (Tarragon)
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Comedy of Errors
Twelfth Night
Julius Caesar
Love's Labour's Lost
The Taming of the Shrew

Given that most of the histories bore me and I am not that keen on the minor tragedies, I believe I truly have seen all his plays that interest me at least once, and I am closing in on 2 times around the cycle.

Anyway, the breaking news is that there will be one more showing of the Fringe production of Twelfe Night at St. Vlad's (620 Spadina) on Thurs. July 16 at 8 pm.  Alehouse Theatre Company (ATC) are doing it as pay-what-you-wish, so you might see it for free or nearly free, though this event is certainly worth at least $15 or $20.

mid-July weekend update

This was the last weekend I have with the kids until late August.  I find I am still a bit cranky, particularly when I am busy with the remaining tasks -- and when I am then asked about things that they should be able to take care of on their own.  Nonetheless, it is not good to be so crabby all the time.  I do hope that taking some special time with them and doing some fun things gives them some positive memories of this summer, and not just recalling the stress of the move.  (To be honest, they didn't have to do too much during the move, and they both seem to have picked up some friends on the block, so I think they'll be fine...)

Last weekend, we went to the ROM and the Pompeii exhibit.  I'll be writing a bit about that fairly soon.  The next day we saw Inside Out, which was quite good.  Not good enough that I am going to run out and pay to see it again, but I'll probably order the DVD when it comes out.

This weekend we went to see Minions.  It wasn't quite as bad as I had feared, but it wasn't great.  It was roughly 6/10.  The original Despicable Me was more like 8 or even 8.5, and Despicable Me 2 was about a 7 (I would have probably gone higher but frankly thought the evil purple Minions were a bad idea).  Personally I don't find the Minions particularly interesting, we had to hear far too much of their boring babble-talk and there were almost no inventions at all in the movie.  I also don't think very highly of slapstick as a genre.  Give me the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello over the Three Stooges (or the Keystone Kops) any day.

After I dropped them off, I ran off to see another Fringe show, this one called Waiting for Alonzo, which was an odd mix of outer space comedy (reminiscent of Red Dwarf even if not directly inspired by it), feminist parable and Beckett's Waiting for Godot.  It had its moments and was a pretty typical Fringe show.

Today we did manage to get a relatively early start and took the bus up to the Ontario Science Centre.  We got there just a bit before 11 and got tickets for the Mythbusters exhibit.  That was pretty fun, as they tried to distill 11 or so episodes and have the museum patrons replicate them.  So for instance, there was the one about the toast machine to test whether toast really does tend to land butter-side down.  And a walk/run through the rain exhibit.  That was my daughter's favourite.  She also liked the blind driving test, though I have to say she didn't do all that well at it.  My son and I both managed to yank the tablecloth off the table without the plates falling on the ground.  Neither of us were able to leave the vase standing upright, though I think it was simply too light.  At least it stayed on the table.  I was a bit nonplussed by how hard the crew were trying to get volunteers to dodge a paintball.  That didn't seem at all fun for me, either watching or being the dodgee.  I did buy a special commemorative DVD that had all the episodes that were referenced in the exhibit.  I may watch just a bit tonight if I keep the volume low.

We had lunch (any lunch out is a good lunch according to my son) and we spent about another hour at the Science Centre.  My daughter definitely wanted to stay longer.  She actually is thinking seriously about trying to work there when she is older, and that sounds something that I should encourage (compared to most of her career choices, which are a bit fanciful, like supermodel or famous singer).  I don't think we will go quite often enough to justify a membership, but if she continues to take an interest in science going into middle school, then I'll consider it more seriously.

The bus back was crowded, but we did manage to get seats in the back, and fortunately she didn't get sick (from the gas, as she explains).  I dropped them off and headed out again.  This time I wanted to get to Robarts, which was pretty close to St. Vlad's, which was where Twelfe Night was playing.  I decided after all to go, though on my own.  One of the books I was looking for had been returned but was not on the shelves or in the sorting area, though I ended up getting a book of Robert Coover short stories from the sorting shelves.  Well, I should be going back in a week or two and will look again.  I also picked up Albert Cossery's Proud Beggars, which is mislaid somewhere downstairs, and it is just easier to get it out of the library than to go through all those boxes again.

I had to hustle but I made it to Twelfe Night with just 10 minutes to spare.  For all that, I had a good seat anyway.  This is definitely a case where if you don't want the actors in your space, occasionally even sitting in your lap, you probably want to avoid the front row!  I thought it was well done, though they obviously had to cut quite a bit out to get it down to 90 minutes (no intermission).  They are actually going to have one more show this Thurs., and I'll mention that specifically in another post.  So all in all, I did 3 Fringe shows.  I thought seriously about sticking around and catching Skunkweed by Eric Bogosian,* but I really needed to get a few things done at home, mostly gathering up all the construction material they are supposed to be picking up on Monday.**  I did drop by work and got a little bit done, though nothing substantial, mostly it was scanning papers so the originals could be recycled.  So it was a reasonably well balanced weekend, though, as ever, I think I should have gotten a bit more actual work done.  Ciao.

*  I am kind of sorry I missed this production by Triple ByPass.  They look like a company that is right up my alley. I can't blame myself too much for missing their John Patrick Shanley show, as I was just settling in in Toronto, but I don't know why I didn't hear more about (and go to see) their George Walker show this past April.  Well, I will bookmark their page and see if they manage to pull together a remount of Skunkweed or do something else this next season.

** They didn't get the construction trash until late Tuesday, but it is all gone now (even that bookcase) and the place looks so much better now.  I think the worst is definitely over, and we can start enjoying being in our own house now.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Shakespeare summer (2015)

Basically, everywhere I've lived goes a little crazy over Shakespeare in the summer.  New York has Shakespeare in the Park (I managed to go to 4 shows in 2 years back under the old rules where you waited around all morning for tickets and couldn't really buy your way in).  Vancouver has Bard on the Beach.  In Cambridge, UK, the colleges all put on outdoor productions of Shakespeare in their yards and gardens.  I managed to see half a production of Hamlet before we gave up due to the pouring rain.  In fact, it wasn't until several years later that I managed to see a live performance (at Bard on the Beach incidentally).  Interestingly, Chicago has Chicago Shakespeare, which is year-round, and a bit of Shakespeare in the parks, but far less of an institutional commitment.  Often Oak Park puts on some Shakespeare in their park, but it isn't guaranteed.

In some ways, Toronto has the most guaranteed Shakespeare in the summer.  First, there is Shakespeare in High Park, which means two plays in repertoire.  Next, Driftwood Theatre plans a stop in Toronto on their bus-tour of a Shakespeare production (this year being Hamlet).  I don't know if they've done this in the past, but this year they are making two stops in Toronto -- Todmorden Mills (which are already past) and Withrow Park from July 21-26.  Withrow Park is much more convenient for me, so I'll book for an early date in the run in case they have a rain date, and I have to come back.  There are usually a couple of Toronto Fringe productions of Shakespeare (it being royalty-free and a natural draw and all).  I saw Merry Wives of Windsor (one of the lesser plays) but it was quite well-done.  I think there is one show left tonight and one tomorrow.  Tickets here.  I'm going back and forth about the Twelfe Night (i.e. Twelfth Night), which is tomorrow.  It sounds like it is quite a good performance, and Fringe rules mean they squeeze it down to 90 minutes (same for Merry Wives), which is a lot more audience-friendly than Chicago Shakespeare or the Globe or Stratford, where plays typically run 2.5 to 3 hours.  And even with the service charge, the tickets are quite reasonable ($12 or so for advance tickets and $10 at the door).  But would it be at all fair to take my son and not my daughter, who is simply not ready?  Or would I be better off taking him to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which is probably more his speed.  I think he is probably still another year or two away from really understanding what happens in Twelfth Night.

On top of everything else happening in Toronto, the Stratford Festival is just out of town (but with a very handy shuttle bus from downtown).  You can count on 4-6 Shakespeare plays each season, mixed in with plays by his contemporaries, some Restoration comedies and then whatever else fills out the theme of the season (plus a couple of musicals).  It's almost too much summer Shakespeare here in Toronto, but of course no one is forced to go.

I'll just close with a short review of The Comedy of Errors in High Park.  I knew I was cutting it a bit close, but I had to go home first and pick up my son.  Then we just missed the bus and walked over the bridge to try to catch the 506 streetcar (I kind of wanted to show him the stop in the middle of the park).  As we reached street level, another streetcar passed.  I absolutely hate it when they bunch up so much, as it means a long wait until the next one.  It this case it was 10 minutes until the next one, and we would have missed the end of the reservation period.  So I actually had to shell out for a cab to take us up to the subway station.  (I know that they have boosted bus service on the Pape bus a little, but it doesn't really feel like it to me.  I still end up waiting quite a while and walking uphill to the subway is a bit of a chore -- downhill from the subway isn't so bad.  At any rate, if I can bike to work, it is so much better...)

I wasn't too familiar with how to reach the performance area from the subway, but it was quite easy.  Unfortunately, they took away our tickets, which had the map of the park, which proved troublesome later on.

I like the concept of Shakespeare in High Park a lot, but the seats are so uncomfortable -- basically just concrete slabs with a very thin cushion.  My legs fell asleep in one position, and I struggled to find anything that was remotely comfortable.  The bathrooms are pretty primitive as well (just port-o-potties, which come to think of it is the same at Bard on the Beach).  On the positive side of the ledger, they know this is an issue, and all the shows I have seen have been 90 minutes with no intermission. (I think they also know that an intermission in that space with insufficient facilities would be a real problem.)

While The Comedy of Errors isn't seen as quite problematic as The Taming of the Shrew, there is still a lot of overt violence in it, with both Dromios being beaten for almost any offense.  Still, they did their best to play this off as slapstick violence.  I thought the two Dromios did look a fair bit like each other, though the two masters (Antipholus I and II) really didn't.  It took my son quite a while to figure out there were two sets of twins.  While this was not officially part of the production, there was one scene where the mustache of one of the Dromios kept coming loose, and the actor had to keep pushing it back in place while going through the lines.  It was quite hilarious and definitely earned a round of applause at the end of the scene.

My son's favorite part was when the out-of-town Dromio talked about the horribly fat cook who claimed she was his wife.  I thought that was ok, but a bit overdone.  I liked the part right before the big reveal where the in-town Antipholus complained to the Duke about his very terrible day.  I also liked the slightly more serious scenes, particularly the out-of-town Antipholus wooing his supposed wife's sister Luciana and then the coming together of the long-lost husband and wife.  That was not played for laughs and was quite touching.  All in all, very well done, and I look forward to seeing how they handle Julius Caesar, most likely in early August.  (To make reservations for either play, you can go here.)  While things are a bit topsy-turvy at TransLink, I may still be going out there in September and then might catch Bard on the Beach's take on The Comedy of Errors.

My son even enjoyed the walk in the park and hoped we would come more often, though it is more than halfway across the city for us.  Things are generally not well marked in the park (and indeed there are essentially no streetlamps) and we missed the turn-off to get to the streetcar stop (in fact there is a second switchback which makes it even trickier to get to).  By the time I realized this, we were almost out of the park on its southern boundary.  As it turns out, there are streetcar stops down on the Queensway, so we just waited down there.  It still felt suitably abandoned.  Eventually a Queen streetcar (the 501) turned up and we took that all the way to Carlaw and then caught the Pape bus north.  We still got home more or less when I expected to arrive, so it definitely could have been worse.  Still, I will have to make more of an effort to learn the ins and outs of this park.  I recall that I used to have problems cutting through Central Park as well.  I could always find my way going east to west, but often got misled going west to east.  Odd that.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Down in the basement

So the upper floors are actually in pretty good shape, and it is time to turn to fixing up the basement.  I think the handyman did quite a nice job on the railing downstairs, and we'll probably bring him back in the fall to install an upstairs railing.  He also thought I was being overly cautious, but he built another layer of walls under the study to prop up the bookcases.

I did tie up a bunch of boxes so at least I can get around to the furnace and the fuse box if necessary.  I don't know how long we'll hang onto the boxes, but for a while at any rate.

I've unpacked five or so boxes of books downstairs.  I probably need to unload 4 more before I can clear out enough space to get to the wardrobe and make it a reasonably functional space.  Of course, despite my best intentions, I don't have space on the bookcases for that many books.  Still, I'll have to figure out something.  In terms of the books I want to uncover, there are some key Greek texts, such as Herodotus and Thucydides; a bunch of SF, with the collected short stories of Roger Zelazny as my prime objective; several Eric Kraft novels; and a box set from Virago Press.  If I can locate all that, I'll be satisfied.  And perhaps I'll be able to move around a bit better down there.

It will take some time, but clearly I have to come up with a plan to declutter (probably mostly by scanning material and discarding it), and to organize what remains.  I think it is more of a long-term goal, and I'll just have to accept that I won't see immediate progress in the next few months.

Update: I've spent a couple of hours trying to rearrange boxes and combine the half-full ones.  I have tried to bring a few urban books upstairs, though I have probably at least a full bookcase of urban books that have now gone into deep storage.  At some point I will face up to the fact I will never read them and start trying to offload them.  It took quite a while, but I found the ones listed above (including the Kraft books just as I was about ready to give up).  There is at least one more box of books that held my TBRD pile, including Cossery's Proud Beggars, which is coming up right away in my reading list.  I think I will have to hold to my resolution to stop fussing in the basement for a while after I found those missing books, so I will have to see if Robarts has it in or if I have to request it through ILL.  Kind of crazy, but these books could be mixed in with anything, including the data DVDs, and I just have to take care of other business for a while.  Still, I will be able to move around a bit better down there now that I have gotten a few more boxes disposed of.

When things don't come together

I don't know what it is, but even when 95% or even 90% of things do come together and work out, even if not perfectly, I can't help but dwell on the negative and where things went wrong.  We've managed to get the move completed and we've even set up quite a bit in the new house.  I should be able to bask in the glory of a job well-done.  Instead, I am fretting because I can't give away this file cabinet fast enough, and because a bookcase I was trying to give away has gotten damaged and probably is now headed for the junkyard.

The bookcase is such an odd case of the universe conspired against the "reuse" principle that it almost seems fated.  Maybe in a few months I will even find it droll, though right now I am simply annoyed.  I probably should have tried a bit harder to give it away sooner, but no one that I knew wanted it.  Not even the struggling actors of Red One (though there is was a general lack of access to a van or truck that was the stumbling block).  So I listed it on Craigslist (for free) and got two "offers."  I definitely should have gone with my gut and taken the second one, but instead I went strictly chronologically.  To avoid having to explain to a bunch of people it was already taken, I removed the listing from Craigslist.  I get very stressed out having to disappoint people, which is probably what is actually at the root of my current discontent (well, mostly that but also not being able to bend the universe to my will).

After some back and forth, the first person decided that he couldn't fit the bookcase into his apartment after all, so I emailed the second person and told her that 7:30-9 would be suitable.  I never heard back, and in fact checked email several times while I was taking care of some other tasks, most notably trying to put up more tarp under the deck.  I finally sent her another email, and she replied that she had emailed me back but I hadn't responded and she thought I had changed my mind.  Apparently, she had sent this, but it was routed through Craigslist or something and when I pulled the listing, it wouldn't forward the email.  That seems kind of crazy.  Also, if I had repeated my number or given my address right away, we probably would have connected.  She said she would come over the next morning, but then her friend flaked out, and I had to start all over again!

As it turns out, the handyman cancelled on us Monday, but showed up eager to get everything done on Tuesday.  So we had to move everything out of that storage space, and there was nowhere to put the bookcase (and the file cabinet) except under the deck and the tarp.  Of course, Tuesday was the one day it rained all week...

The tarp works reasonably well for keeping water off bikes and deck chairs, but is not completely waterproof.  So now there is some water damage to the bookcase, mostly to the backing.  It is not clear just how well it will dry and whether mold might accumulate at some point.  I think I will just have to tell the two new people still interested that there is some damage, and they'll have to decide for themselves.  But I think it is most likely that the bookcase will not be salvaged.  It just was such a frustrating case of things not coming together, when I was so close to getting it to work out.

For that matter, the shed is a similar story, where the ending isn't written.  I told this woman at work that she would need a truck and 3 or 4 people to move the shed as an entire piece, but she came out and tried to disassemble it.  That didn't work, so now I have to wait another week or so, and see if the next tenants are interested in purchasing the shed or I might be stuck in having to remove this shed (and at my own expense).  I will definitely be irked in that case, though the woman who said she would buy my shed will end up having to pay me anyway, which should mostly cover the removal costs.  Anyway, fingers crossed that the shed will come together in the end, unlike this bookcase.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Being reasonable (again)

Even though my main goal is wrapping up the common areas of the house and making them presentable, I also want to spend some time with the kids before they head off to a long sojourn in Chicago this summer. I took the kids to the ROM, since it was a free weekend for AGO members (I guess they do this once or twice a year), and after a bit of arm-twisting, I got my daughter to agree to see the Pompeii exhibit.  I'll write more about that separately.  I had thought pretty seriously about taking them to the Science Centre and Inside Out, but frankly I have been overdoing it and slept in a bit later than I expected.  So we just went to the movies.  I enjoyed Inside Out quite a bit, though it is quite emotionally manipulative.  I wouldn't say it is the best Pixar film ever (like quite a few critics have), but it's probably in my top 5.

I was sort of shocked to see these great big letters right next to a TTC yard, since that it how I refer to this blog in shorthand.  I actually made sure we walked past on the way back, so I could get some better photos.  That actually paid off, as the next streetcar going west came out of the yard, and if we had been waiting back by the movie theatre, it would have been quite a long wait.

Next weekend, there is a moderate chance that I will take the kids to see Minions, and I'll probably take them to the Science Centre on Sunday.  That is much better pacing than trying to get everything all done at once.

In terms of me being a bit more reasonable for myself.  I had a chance to sign up to be a reviewer for the Toronto Fringe.  It was quite tempting, but I would have had to go to quite a few shows last week, and I just don't think I could actually have fit them in.  Maybe it's something I can consider next year, but that will depend a great deal on how work is going.  Summers are generally extra busy for some reason.

I'm just not really feeling the Fringe this year.  I decided to go see The Merry Wives of Windsor, though I kind of goofed a bit.  I settled on Tuesday, since it is the evening most likely to rain, and I won't be losing out on a day to bike to work (finally I have my bike back!).  But that is also the day I was going to get the van to get any lumber the handyman needed for the mini-construction project.  I thought about trying to shuffle things around, but really I think it makes the most sense for him to buy what he thinks he needs, and I'll just pay the excess charges.  Again, trying to be a bit more reasonable.  Still, thinking ahead to all this work down in the basement, tomorrow evening I have to hang up the tarp under the deck, tired or not.  Otherwise, there won't be anywhere to put the bikes and this spare file cabinet.  (I really have to lean on these folks to come by and pick it up.  I can't have it in my basement for much longer.  And I guess I have no option but to put this bookcase up on Craigslist to see if I can get someone to take it away.  If no one bites, it is going out with the construction waste at the end of the week.)

To add to all the Shakespeare, I'll be taking my son to Comedy of Errors in High Park this Friday (the weather looks decent).  I think my daughter is still another year or two away from being able to appreciate something like this.

Now there is also a promising looking Twelfth Night (at the Fringe) as a late matinee this Sunday, but I've seen that quite a few times.  I might see if my son responded well to Comedy of Errors and potentially take him (so we'd really have to make sure we had an early start to get to the Science Centre!).  However, I think I will probably pass unless this happens to be one of the Pick of the Fringe shows, and then I'll catch it a bit later, though I will have to travel up north a fair bit.  So I guess that is being somewhat reasonable, but it's a bit of a stretch.

Progress (books back on shelves!)

We've actually made far more progress than just putting the books back on the shelves, though that makes a big difference, since it clears out a lot of boxes.  I just finished with the main 3 bookcases that hold fiction, drama and poetry.  I suspect that I will be able to keep the area in front of them clear (with all overflow delegated to the basement) in a way that I haven't succeed in doing for years.  This makes me quite excited.  I do need to try to squeeze in a few more paperbacks and I know I will uncover a small cache of Pym that will now have to find a place on the main shelves, as I can't just stash them on top of the bookcases.  I've also pulled a few books to go into the basement.

In general, these past few days have been quite productive.  I finished building a replacement wardrobe, I hung all the paintings and posters (aside from two that will go into the basement -- sense a recurring theme here?).

I'm perhaps most proud that I put up a shelf in the office.  I think it looks pretty good and it is completely level.  However, given that everything slants and slopes in this house (the downside of living in a house roughly 100 years old), I perhaps should have accepted just a slight decline to make it appear more in line with the rest of the room.  It certainly isn't a big issue, however, and I certainly am not planning on trying to rehang the shelf.  Once was enough!

What I am not proud of is that, even with the shelf, I have too many box sets.  It's simply absurd.  I have been making decent progress on listening to them at least once and then deciding which ones to part with. (Obviously anything I haven't listened to at all in the past year is a strong candidate for being culled.)  I have a few leads on where to try to sell them off, and I'll probably start doing that more seriously later in the summer.

I'll just list the main things left to do before this place feels done:
  • put the last of the urban books on the shelves in the office
  • find hardware for bookcase that we are giving away on Craigslist**
  • turn part of old wardrobe into additional bookcase shelf for my son
  • get Sauder to send replacement part for the desk and install it
  • unpack books downstairs and get them on the shelves (that will help a lot, but the downstairs is a serious no-go zone at the moment)
  • tighten up tarp so that space under deck stays relatively dry
  • fix up rocking chair (missing washer/screw is somewhere in my son's room)
  • find the refrigerator magnets, since they will actually stick to this fridge
  • put up deck furniture 
  • tie up boxes and/or recycle them
  • ensure handyman does 1st phase of work (shore up basement & install downstairs railing)
  • install new ceiling fan/light (leaning towards doing this myself with some help from a friend)
  • paint downstairs bathroom (I decided I just didn't like the color)
  • sand down door on upstairs bathroom (it's sticking like crazy)
  • hire handyman for 2nd phase of work (install upstairs railing)
  • sand and stain deck again (probably next year)
  • have roofer come out and work on flat portion of roof (current work is supposed to have 2 more years of life)
  • slowly go through other stuff in basement and clear out a lot 
  • double up and sew together curtains for middle portion of sliding glass door in office (I have the sewing machine at least)
  • work on rug in office (this is sort of a longer-term project alluded to here, but I must do something as it is treacherous at the moment)

That's not really too bad.  I am finally starting to feel like I deserve a break -- or rather than I can let up a bit and relax.  This place could be quite nice by the fall.

Update: So I've turned up an awful lot of the missing books and am trying to squeeze them in one way or another.  Once again, the Complete Poems of Anne Sexton was one that was misplaced, and I didn't realize until I saw it in a box with a bunch of urban books.  (A bit unfortunate as she is one of my favorite poets, but I'm sure I would have eventually noticed.)  I do know I am missing a Faye Kicknosway poetry collection.*  I also have somewhat inadvertently demoted a box of history books to the basement (I just hope there isn't too much fiction mixed in, as the shelves are now full).  Still there isn't much point in getting too hung up over this until I have unpacked the boxes downstairs (or decided they are destined for long-term storage).  In terms of the CDs, I am hoping to turn up a Giulini in Chicago set.  I also am missing a nice box set of Claudio Abbado on Sony, though that might still be at work. But really I need to part with at least a linear foot of CDs.  I probably can't do it all in one go, but if I set that as a goal for the next year (along with finding a place to take them off my hands!) I think I can make it.

* Actually, based on this post, I may have sold off All These Voices (the missing book), when it was superseded by Mixed Plate.  I don't remember doing so, however.  Maybe this means there are no more major surprises lurking in the basement, at least in terms of what I need to try to fit into the office, which would be nice.

** I guess this one "solved" itself because no one wanted the bookcase after it sustained water damage, as discussed here.  I feel badly about it going to the dump, but I really tried to give it away.  In general, aside from sanding the bathroom door down a bit and straightening the basement up a bit more and painting the downstairs bathroom, which I'll do when the rest of the family is in Chicago, I think the immediate tasks are all done.  It is a pretty sweet feeling.

In the end I had to hire electricians, since the box wasn't quite grounded properly.  As frustrating as that was, I was dreading them having to punch a hole in the wall or ceiling, but it turns out the ground wire was there but just tucked away (and not long enough).  I was so pleased that they didn't have to run any wires to the main switch that I didn't mind (too much) the extra cost.  The fan looks good though, and they also fixed up a broken light in the front hall closet.


Character as ciphers or cranks

Inspired by (or more accurately sufficiently disgruntled by) Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, I had originally expected to write a whole post about fiction (perhaps exclusively contemporary fiction) where the main characters are little more than ciphers.  In other words, the reader has essentially no access to their inner thoughts or motivations.  The "why" behind their actions is occluded or simply doesn't seem to exist at all.  This is not terribly difficult to sustain for a short story, but is somewhat technically impressive extended to novel-length, though personally I find it makes for very boring reading.  I don't think this is a trend very likely to catch on, as readers generally do demand more than a blank slate walking about when they are primarily looking for recreational reading.

In any case, I struggled more than I thought I would to find other examples. I think one can argue that some of the postmodern novels of Italo Calvino might qualify, such as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, but his most famous work Invisible Cities, you have at least hints of what drives Marco Polo and the Emperor.  Douglas Coupland probably qualifies at least in some of his work, due to the flat affect that characterizes many of his novels, though there flashes of motivating forces at play.

I think Donald Barthelme's fiction would generally be considered postmodern and far more concerned with the game-like aspect of much of this writing and less interested in presenting characters that have internally coherent motivations.  Of course, he also largely confined himself to short stories.  If I am recalling correctly, The King, his book-length version of the King Arthur legend, had characters that were somewhat fleshed out.

Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal is probably another decent example, where the narrator is just outlining the details of each hotel he stayed at, with the action almost entirely implied through footnotes in the text.  It feels like he was mimicking Cortazar's Hopscotch or possibly Perec's Life: A User's Manual.  It has been a long time since I read Hopscotch, and I haven't yet attempted the Perec, though I suspect they don't feature characters who are quite so blank.  Perhaps I go too far, however.

There are a few intriguing novels where the main character's motivations are quite obscure because they are essentially hiding these motives from themselves and the reader discovers them along the way (as the characters are forced to face up to something ).  I'm thinking in particular of Walter Kirn's Up in the Air and Jess Walter's The Zero

The other type of fiction that may lead to extremely under-developed characters is fiction written in the 2nd person, where "you" the reader are led through various events, just like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books.  The reader would naturally fill in his or her personal details, so it might not feel like one is reading about a blank character.  However, this type of novel runs the risk of having the narrator do something that the reader would never do, somewhat spoiling the mood.  This is a relatively rare style, though there are a few examples.*  With some prompting from Wikipedia, I came up with Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, Georges Perec's A Man Asleep,  Albert Camus' The Fall, Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Nonetheless, I think there is no question that reading about ciphers runs an extremely high risk of being boring.  It's almost as if the author is daring the reader to pay attention to the clever games behind the novel, pulling the curtain back as it were, and most times, this is something we've seen before.

As it happened I read two novels back-to-back that featured fairly cranky characters -- Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket and Gabrielle Roy's The Cashier.  Alexandre Chenevert (the cashier) is in late middle age, whereas Aubrey Teale (from The Restless Supermarket) has been retired for a while, though still seems fairly mobile, so perhaps he is in his early 70s.  (Cranks are generally past the prime of life.)  Both are generally dismayed by the political changes happening around them, though Chenevert is responding more to the global upheavals of WWII and then the assassination of Gandhi, whereas Teale is basically horrified that whites are going to lose control in South Africa and specifically that the ANC is likely to take over Johannesburg.  Both men are relatively high on the "control freak" spectrum and are generally a bit short-tempered with friends (of which they have few) and acquaintances.  Money worries (which are often at the heart of matter of what drives cranks) seem far more pressing for Chenevert.  I don't see how Teale could have a comfortable retirement from a job as a proof-reader of telephone books (!), but his expenses are relatively low, aside from eating out most nights at a local cafe. 

Ultimately, The Cashier goes in a different direction, so a full-blown comparison of the two is probably not in order, but I think the fear of instability (and desire to go back to the way things were in the past) are defining characteristics of most cranks.  What is quite different between them is that Roy is definitely more sympathetic to her character and tries to make the reader more understanding of and sympathetic to Chenevert earlier in the novel compared to Vladislavic.  Teale actually starts out seeming just a bit cranky and misunderstood, but reveals himself to be more and more racist throughout the novel, though of course there is still some redemption to be had towards the end.  I found this a really interesting novel, and I think I'll write more about it later, but it was a little bit like imagining a slightly milder Archie Bunker in Johannesburg watching the rise of the ANC.

Now that I have switched topics, I actually am wondering how many main characters are "cranks," as it does take a certain discipline to keep writing about somewhat unpleasant characters.  There are plenty of minor characters who go on about the old days, particularly in British fiction set in India for example.  Unless of course, the author is using his novel (and it is almost always a male author) to point out where the world has gone off its rails.  I would generally nominate Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Saul Bellow and, to a lesser extent, Philip Roth.  Occasionally, an author will create a character much older than himself or herself, though in most cases, the reader is expected to come to appreciate the "old coot" fairly early in the narrative, despite outward crankiness.  This is partially what Gabrielle Roy seems to have in mind.  In this category, I would place Fuentes' The Old Gringo, Garcia Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and especially Oscar Casares' Amigoland.  

I'm sure I had more on my mind when I thought about combining these posts, but they have slipped away.  I guess my mental agility is not what it once was.  I'll probably update this post if I can think of any more good examples of ciphers or cranks.  And of course, suggestions in the comments are always welcome.  I think one advantage of reading about cranks is that it reminds us that it is generally not a good thing to be the elderly man shouting "Get off my lawn!".  Cranks don't have many friends, for good reason, as it is exhausting being in their presence.  I always tell myself to be more patient and less judgmental after reading a novel featuring a particularly outrageous and/or unsympathetic lead character. Nonetheless, I rarely succeed for long.  Indeed, rereading this post, which is an attack on the boring nature of Satin Island, I come off as fairly cranky myself.  Well, it is hard for the tiger to change his stripes for very long.

* An even rarer style is first person, plural where "we" do this or "we" do that.  The only example I am aware of is Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.  It's hard to even characterize what happens here, but it is mostly about office politics and trying to find who stole whose chair, though it certainly turns darker by the end.  Ironically, despite the hive-mind nature of most of the novel, it still offers more satisfying insight into personal motivation than Satin Island

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Being reasonable

One thing I have slowly gotten better at is realizing that trying to get everyone to march to my drumbeat doesn't always pay off.  If everyone is stressed out, then was it really worth going to X or Y?  So I had very, very seriously considered going to Detroit next weekend, but either it means driving slightly over 4 hours each way (and an unknown wait at the border) or taking the train, then a cab to the Tunnel Bus, then the Tunnel Bus (which at least has the advantage of being a fairly predictable 15 minute wait at the border), then probably picking up a ZipCar in Detroit (unfortunately, there are no ZipCar locations in Windsor).  My wife's family all live in the 'burbs of Detroit, and apparently they wouldn't even come into the city to see their niece and nephew.  Fairly lame, I have to say. 

The main reason I wanted to go was to see the Detroit Institute of Arts.  While it probably wouldn't have the kind of crowds you see in New York or Chicago, this would be the last weekend of their Rivera/Kahlo show, and my daughter is not particularly forgiving of me dragging her through crowded museums.  This is where being reasonable finally kicked in.  I said that I've see a small Kahlo show (I believe at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago) and a quite large one at the Tate Modern.  The Rivera murals aren't going anywhere, and we can try to make a more reasonable trip in the fall or early spring (particularly since the art at the DIA isn't going to be sold off due to Detroit's bankruptcy -- that was a small but non-zero threat I was factoring into my decision making). 

So I called the whole thing off, and the money I "saved" will probably go to getting a hotel room most nights I am in Chicago, since I do think I'll be seeing quite a few plays after all on my very short visit.  (I never said I was particularly reasonable if I was the only one being impacted.)

Then I was seriously considering getting tickets instead to the gymnastics competition at the Pan Am Games, but 1) the discount code couldn't actually be entered anywhere on the Ticketmaster site, 2) the times were awkward and 3) the venue is not easy for me to reach and I didn't want to stress out that my daughter would get motion sickness.  I think instead of this we will enroll her in gymnastics class in the fall.  There is a gym that is within walking distance.  If she proves she can listen to and follow instructions, I probably will sign her up for skating lessons in the winter, as they have classes just over at Withrow Park.

Ok, I still have a few things to try to tackle today (including potentially installing a shelf in the office), so I had better attend to them.  More later...