27 March 2014

Hurricane Edna

Last week I finished reading East of Eden. A few hours later, I stalked my bookshelves to see what I should read next. I pulled a couple books out that I've been wanting to read/reread, but none of them seemed quite right. It was hard to imagine following up this American classic with a recently published Canadian novel--it didn't seem terribly fair to the newer book, but I also wasn't sure I was ready to dive into Dickens' Bleak House quite yet (but will I ever be, I wonder?) and while I am itching to reread Yates's Revolutionary Road, I didn't want to read two mid-century American novels in a row.

I've been reading Charlotte's Web to my boys. It's one of my favourite books of all-time. My friend Alexis recently posted this article about E.B. White's writing of Charlotte's Web and in it White's essay "Death of a Pig" is referenced. I pulled Essays of E.B. White off the shelf and began to read.

It won't be a revelation to anyone who knows his work, but I had merely read his Charlotte's Web and what a treat his essays are. I've only read the first six, but I am in love. He is a brilliant wordsmith and very, very funny. Already, I feel like I know him and that I like him very much.

"The Eye of Edna," about waiting for Hurricane Edna (but really about media-hysteria, which feels quite relevant today) to hit is a pure joy. I knew, thanks to previous essays, White farmed in Maine, but when he mentioned going to the shore to pull up his boat and that he lives to the east of Penobscot Bay, it reminded me of another book I adored. Once I finished the essay, I went to the kids' bookshelf and pulled out Robert McCloskey's Time of Wonder and read it to my youngest.

I've never been to New England or lived on an island or learned to sail or lived in the 1950s (shocking, I know), but Time of Wonder always leaves me feeling nostalgic. I discovered the book as an adult and love reading it to my kids (probably more than they like being read to).

In McCloskey's book, there is a hurricane and now I wonder if White's Hurricane Edna was also the inspiration for Time of Wonder. I did a cursory search on the internet, but found nothing. Perhaps it's better not to know, but now I wonder if I'll ever not think of the two hurricanes as the same one, both remembered in very different, but equally excellent ways.

26 March 2014

The M Word has arrived!

My copy of The M Word arrived earlier this week. I was getting pouty because according to social media, all the other contributors had received their copies the previous week. (Yes, Canada is a large country, but I'm fairly impatient when it comes to mail regardless.)

I've decided that I'm not going to read it cover-to-cover, but flip around and read what speaks to me. I'm reading another collection of essays right now, so I'm going to go back and forth between both books as not to burn myself out on motherhood. So far, I've read the essays of Heather Birrell and Carrie Snyder, both of which are excellent. I really wish our country was smaller, as I'd love to sit down with these two women over beers one night and talk about their essays. So much of what they wrote spoke to me, seemed similar to my own experiences. I hope their contributions are an indication to the quality of the rest of the anthology, because if so, it promises to be stellar.

If you're on GoodReads and would like to enter the draw for your own copy, follow the links.

20 March 2014

Helen Lawrence

Last Friday, I went to a preview of Helen Lawrence, the highly anticipated play created by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock.

This play has been in the works for years. Stan Douglas is a brilliant artist and I was very much looking forward to seeing his take on late 40s Vancouver, specifically Hogan's Alley. His co-creator is Chris Haddock, whose work I don't know very well. I've never seen Boardwalk Empire and I've only watched a handful of episodes of DaVinci's Inquest. He has a strong reputation. Both men do, but neither have worked in theatre before.

As stated earlier, I saw a preview (which, criminally, was full-price) and there were technical difficulties. This show is tech-heavy. Tech-dependant, really as it wouldn't even be a show without the tech. Because it was a preview, I forgave those problems.

It's visually stunning. The actors are live onstage, but behind a scrim. They are being shot live, and the images are projected on the scrim, but thanks to some spectacular blue-screen technology, it looks like they are in Hogan's Alley or the second Hotel Vancouver. It's gorgeous.


This is supposed to be theatre. I have not been able to figure out why they didn't just do a movie. There is no play or tension happening between the live action (which you can sometimes see thanks to the lighting) and what is projected. What does this staging choice say thematically? Disappointingly, nothing.

I have seen a lot of theatre, and much that plays with technology and pushes boundaries. It can be exciting, but if it doesn't do anything to support the story, it leaves me cold and impatient.

The main problem with Helen Lawrence is it's foundation: the script. It is weak. It's overloaded with dialogue that sounds good (perhaps authentic to the time, perhaps what we've been trained by the movies to think as authentic), but doesn't really say anything. There is one plot line (of four) that goes nowhere and really shouldn't be in the play at all. Take that one out and give the other plot lines space to breathe a bit, expand, and perhaps have the space to tell the story they want told.

Because I don't know what the story is they want told. The story touches on Vancouver police corruption, gambling, prostitution, the shutting down of Hogan's Alley, the closing of the second Hotel Vancouver, lack of support for GIs, a dead husband, a spurned lover, bother-issues, race-relations, and I'm sure there's even more. All this in 90 minutes, but the story? The heart of the piece? I don't think I could tell you.

(And, despite having four women in the cast, I don't think this would pass the Bechdel Test. Every conversation between the women were about men. I hope I'm misremembering, but I don't think I am. Shameful.)

The draw of Helen Lawrence is the visuals. And people will and should go for this, but it's not enough. Perhaps this should have remained an art installation, perhaps they should have invited a playwright to co-create? I don't know. But it was disappointing and feels like a missed opportunity. It really could have been phenomenal.

14 March 2014

On rereading: East of Eden

I'm rereading Steinbeck's East of Eden right now. I've read it twice before, but the last time was about half my life ago, so I won't go on about how much I have forgotten.

It's a long and meandering novel. I know this is popular to say about books, but I really don't think it would be published now. Actually, maybe more to the point, I don't think it would be written like this now. The narrator is a very minor character in the book (Steinbeck himself as a child) but is also clearly omniscient. Are novels written this way anymore? I don't think so, though if I'm wrong, please let me know.

I'm only about 2/3 through (only! I'm on page 524!) and while I am loving so much about it--the vividness of his descriptions, his language--I am getting tired of the how the women are portrayed in this world. They are either saintly suffering women who cook and clean all the time, or they are devilish manipulators. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground, and I'm not sure this would even pass the Bechdel Test.

The novel does feel like a throwback, something from and for another time. It's interesting, to me, that it was published in the early 1950s and my beloved Gloria took place about a decade later. I wonder if Gloria ever read East of Eden?

13 March 2014

Olive Grey Frost

A million years ago, I taught a course at University of Alberta's Women Words. I can't remember the title, but it was about creating your own chapbook. We looked at how to consider the body of one's work and we paid close attention to how to order one's work while considering narrative, style, and them. There was more to it than that, but this was the essence of the class.

One of the students was a really good poet. She was young and oozed with potential. We now follow each other on social media and I've enjoyed watching how she's coming into her own.

Relatively recently, she posted these and ever since, I've been itching to make some of my own. Here's my first one, and I'm quite certain it won't be my last. (You can see it better if you link through to here.)

5 March 2014

"recite rosaries of our failures"

"I do not know many people who think they have succeed as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to 'raise' the child, to let the child go. If a child wanted to try out his or her new bicycle on the steepest hill in the neighbourhood, there may have been a pro forma reminder that the steepest hill in the neighbourhood descended into a four-way intersection, but such a reminder, because independence was still seen as the desired end of the day, stopped short of nagging. If a child elected to indulge in activity that could end badly, such negative possibilities may have gotten mentioned once, but not twice."

from Joan Didion's Blue Nights

1 March 2014

On Reading: Blue Nights by Joan Didion

I read Blue Nights by Joan Didion over the last two days. A deceptively slim book, it is rich and heavy. Last summer I read her The Year of Magical Thinking when I was devouring grief narratives. I had bought Blue Nights at the same time, but The Year of Magical Thinking was so devastating, I didn't think I could handle this one as well so soon.

The Year of Magical Thinking is considered a memoir about the death of Didion's husband, while Blue Nights is considered a memoir about the death of her daughter, but I don't think this is true. Yes, Quintana's death is an important part of the narrative, but Blue Nights is a meditation on mortality and Quintana's is used as a lens through which Didion views her own.

Didion's realization that her own death is coming, that her body is failing her, that she is becoming frail is beautifully revealed. A slow dawning, and perhaps an acceptance, to a degree, in light of her daughter's death.

There is much circling in the prose, returning to phrases and images, that makes Blue Nights feel almost like a long poem. I felt very much like I was privy to Didion's thought process, they way her mind now works, something that she's figuring out now.

The Year of Magical Thinking was so clearly about death and grief, while Blue Nights is more elusive. It's about mortality and mourning, which Didion clearly shows, is not the same ad death and grief--it's a fine line between them, but it is a line.

It's also about parenthood, while YOMT was about a marriage. The former messy and rich with loss, the later idealized. Perhaps it's not fair to compare the two books this way as they are much more different than they appear on the surface, but it also seems impossible not to. Blue Nights is an incredibly intimate book, but I didn't find it devastating. I had expected to, and am thankful that I didn't, but I'm also not sure why. Is it because Didion's revelations are my own? Or they are so removed from my own? I'm not sure, but I know I'll return to Blue Nights, probably sooner rather than later.