Thursday, 25 December 2008
Tuesday, 23 December 2008
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
To recap briefly for my international readers (where Canada hardly makes front page news) - we've had an interesting few weeks to say the least.
In our recent federal election, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was re-elected with a minority government. His lacklustre proposals for dealing with the economic crisis have angered the three main opposition parties who threatened to form a coalition government and vote against his budget (effectively ousting the Conservatives from power). Canadians have been quite divided over their support for a coalition government (which would include members of the Bloc Quebecois - the separatist party) questioning whether it's really democratic or not. Harper then went to our Governor-General and invoking a rarely used constitutional clause (more heated debate), got her to suspend Parliament until January, thus avoiding a non-confidence vote and buying some time for his party. In the midst of this, and under severe pressure from his party, Stephane Dion, the Official Leader of the Opposition, resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, leaving two main candidates in a race to replace him - Bob Rae and deputy leader Michael Ignatieff (who were once college room-mates). Then this week, Rae dropped out of the race leaving Ignatieff as the new Leader of the Opposition. He has been cautious and cagey about his support for the coalition government, so when and if the budget vote goes against Harper at the end of January, either a new election will be called and of course if his party wins, Ignatieff becomes the new Prime Minister. Or this coalition government may be called upon to form the government and he would be the head of that. A lot can happen between now and then.
Still with me? And who is Michael Ignatieff? Well, he's an academic, historican, journalist and author of numerous books. His novel Scar Tissue was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 (losing to Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). I haven't read that novel, but I have read and enjoyed The Russian Album, his biography of four generations of his family. It won the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, one of our top literary prizes. He's also written a critically acclaimed biography of Isaiah Berlin. I met Ignatieff many years ago when I was still a bookseller and we hosted a reading for one of his books. I found him charming and very intelligent. He gave a fascinating talk and insisted on engaging with the audience and taking multiple questions even though his frantic publicist was trying to get him to stop, as he had a plane to catch. If Ignatieff becomes Prime Minister, he will almost certainly give Bob Rae a prime Cabinet position. Rae has also written several books and most recently was a judge for the prestigious Giller Prize (he had to read 90 plus novels this year). Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (one of the parties that would make up the coalition) is a staunch environmentalist and socialist, and has also penned a number of books, including one on homelessness.
What's going on here? We have prominent and powerful politicians who actually read! (As opposed to Harper who thinks the arts are just for elitists and has severely cut arts funding). And with world leaders (and ordinary citizens too) looking to emulate Barack Obama (another reader and author) this can only be a very, very good thing. I have to believe it's going to make a difference in terms of funding for libraries (particularly school libraries which are just absymal in terms of their collections and the lack of full-time librarians), literacy programs, and an overall heightened awareness and attention to the societal importance of books and reading.
I have this vision of Ignatieff and Obama meeting officially for the first time and exchanging gifts of signed first editions of their books. And then the conversation would go something like this:
"Mr. President, before we tackle the economy and NAFTA and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I really have to know - what are you currently reading?"
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
Monday, 8 December 2008
The AGO has also expanded their store which has a good selection of beautiful and unusual items that come in all price points. There's also a very nice cafe in the basement that has organic food and eco-friendly packaging. I had a very hearty chicken pot pie and they sell really delicious pastries. The expresso bar on the top floor wasn't yet open when I was there, but I'll definitely be checking it out when it is. I left completely inspired and feeling creative and most of all, very proud that Toronto truly has a world-class art gallery now. I'll be visiting many times, especially since every movie ticket I have from my Cinematique membership gets me in for free. Here are a few more photos of the front and side:
It now fits right in with the rest of the neighbourhood. The Ontario College of Art and Design's quirky and fun building designed by Will Alsop is just down the street.
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Coach House Press. Lots of great Canadian writers got their start with this press and I still discover new talent every year. One of my favourites is Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything, about a very unusual type of bookclub. The books always have a savvy design and they use beautiful paper.
Dalkey Archive Press. A publisher that keeps classics alive and introduces all sorts of interesting international literature and literary criticism. They publish one of my favourite contemporary novels of all time - Janice Galloway's Foreign Parts. This year on a trip to Seattle, I picked up one of their newer books that was calling out to me from the tables at the famous Elliot Bay Book Company - Olivier Rollin's Hotel Crystal. And started reading it (where else) but in my hotel room.
There's been a lot of doom and gloom about the publishing industry lately and the economic downturn is definitely going to affect the larger publishers and chain stores. But readers needn't feel depressed - there are still a lot of exciting new authors to discover. Buy lots of books this season for your loved ones and support your independent bookstores!
Thursday, 27 November 2008
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
The matinee was The Company Theatre's production of Festen, based on the 1998 dogme Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr. Hansen. It takes place during the celebration of Helge's 60th birthday and his friends and grown children (all except for his daughter who recently committed suicide) have gathered for a meal and many toasts. But the guests get more than they bargained for, and in the course of the evening, painful family secrets will be revealed. Despite excellent reviews and a stellar cast, the production I saw seemed a little flat. I think the set annoyed me. While there were some very clever uses of one bed to represent several different bedrooms, I kept getting distracted by these huge floodlights placed around the stage. One critic suggested these were a nod to the play's origins as a film, but since the houselights remained on the entire time and the floodlights were never actually used, they seemed completely superfluous and silly. I do want to check out the movie however.
Then it was on to the Great Dane himself and a world sneak preview, courtesy of Necessary Angel Theatre Company, of Hamlet, directed by Graham McLaren, co-founder of Scotland's Theatre Babel. I saw his excellent production of Medea a few years ago that had the actors speaking in heavy Scottish brogues. His modern two hour version of Hamlet is still a work in progress; the full production will be touring next year and I can't wait. It's hard to do something new and exciting with such a well-known play, but the bits I saw were truly thrilling. The entire piece takes place in a dining room, with a banquet table showing the ravages of a previous feast with lots of empty beer cans. In the programme notes, McLaren writes, "the question I ask is, 'If Seneca were the dramaturge and Shakespeare the playwright, what might the result be?'" Well, a very violent and visceral version that also had some very clever moments of humour and modern satire. We first see Gertrude and Claudius as they come into the darkened room from a costume party - Gertrude dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Claudius wearing a gorilla mask. He gets her up on the table and hikes her skirt up and then Hamlet switches on the lights, literally catching Claudius with his pants down. Instead of spying behind a curtain, McLaren has Polonius hiding under the table and when Hamlet kills him, it's by pulling him and the tablecloth at the same time and bashing in his head repeatedly, leaving heavy bloodstains, not only on the cloth but on the floor; Claudius then subsequently rubs Hamlet's naked body into Polonius's blood. Yes - it was shocking, but the violence didn't seem gratuitous, although I will admit to a bit of anxious queasiness when Laertes and Hamlet started duelling with knives instead of swords. I don't know if McLaren's pared down version (the play starts with Hamlet's 'O that this too too sullied flesh would melt' soliloquy and two characters have wittily merged into one Guildencrantz) will be his final one or if it was just for this preview, but it's clear he is having lots of fun playing around with the text to induce new meanings from the language. Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' speech for example, comes after he has killed Polonius. This was an original, energetic and enthralling piece and it will be interesting to see how it evolves into the final production. Definitely one to keep an eye out for!
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Saturday, 15 November 2008
Sunday, 9 November 2008
Each night saw four to six of these short plays performed; some were French translations, but many were commissioned from British playwrights. Levy also managed to engage excellent actors - such as Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson - who revelled in the variety of plays and their dramatic potential. The book contains chapters thoroughly outlining the history of this company and the plays it produced, its continual struggles with the censors, its critical reception and legacy, and wonderfully describes the type of acting and staging required of this unusual genre. There are also detailed introductions to each of the ten plays.
And the plays themselves are incredibly interesting to read even if the more comic ones have dated somewhat. Such as The Better Half, one of Noel Coward's earliest plays about a wife no longer in love with her husband who sacrifices her marital status, so that he can be with a woman who is. Not very shocking by today's standards, or indeed by the subsequent plays that Coward wrote. However, many of the horror plays are just marvellous in their gruesomeness. In H.F. Maltby's The Person Unknown, a WW1 soldier with bandages covering his "face all blown to hell", comes back to exact the promise sung by Daisy in a popular recruiting song: "We will love you, hug you, kiss you, when you come back home again. . . " She naturally recoils with deadly results. Christopher Holland's The Old Women is a creepy play set in a lunatic asylum and features a particularly graphic ending. My favourite is Eliot Crawshay-Williams' The Nutcracker Suite. In this innovative play, a husband plots revenge on his adulterous wife by contriving to lock her and her lover in a room that he has rigged up as a giant nutcracker with a ceiling that will gradually lower itself until the offending pair are crushed between it and the floor. I would love to see a production of this - the curtain becomes the ceiling with the actors having to react to their shrinking space as it lowers. There's a photograph included from the original performance and just looking at it gives me the shivers.
There are a number of pictures of the great Sybil Thorndike in this anthology and it made me itch to see her act. So I turned to the one DVD movie that I own with her in it - Alfred Hitchcock's 1950 film Stage Fright where she has a small but very funny supporting role opposite Alistair Sim as half of a disdainful, estranged couple. The movie is not one of Hitchcock's best, but is worth watching if only for the luminous shots of Marlene Dietrich and its sneaky ending. And I had forgotten about the opening credits which also imaginatively plays with a theatrical curtain - one that "rises" on the city of London. Had Thorndike been reminiscing with Hitchcock about her Guignol days?
Thursday, 6 November 2008
Monday, 3 November 2008
And I love that one of the books that originally got me interested in women's writing between the wars, was also inspired by Brief Encounter. Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession, originally published in 1983 by Virago and recently reprinted by Beauman's own successful publishing house, Persephone Books, is such a terrific introduction to women's writing of this period. Beauman writes in her introduction that the idea for the book came after seeing the movie on television:
In it the heroine, Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a café lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O'Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels [she] had been reading during her life. . .
I kept the picture in my mind of Laura Jesson taking elevenses in the refreshment room of Milford Junction and returning home with her Boots library book. It seemed so strange that an enormous body of fiction should influence and delight a whole generation and then be ignored or dismissed.
Organized into subject headings reflecting the preoccupations of the times such as "War", "Surplus Women", "Feminism", and "Domesticity" and making clear distinctions between "Romance", "Love" and "Sex", the book not only introduces dozens of writers but clearly places them in historical and literary contexts. I have discovered so many great and enjoyable books, both from this critical study and from Persephone Books which I collect. Do take a look at their website and sign up for their lovely newsletter which is free with annual purchases of their books. They are beautifully designed with endpaper reproductions of fabrics from the period in which the book was written or set, and each comes with its own bookmark. I treasure the one from A Very Great Profession which is the photo of Laura with her shopping basket that graced the cover of the Virago edition. In my fantasy bookstore, there would definitely be a whole section devoted just to Persephone Books - I've never read one that I didn't enjoy. My favourites are: William - An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, Manja by Anna Gmeyner and The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby. They've even reprinted a Canadian classic - Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval. I just received their latest catalogue and newsletter in the mail and am really looking forward to the spring publication of Nicola Beauman's new book, The Other Elizabeth Taylor - a biography of yet another terrific and unjustly neglected writer.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
Monday, 27 October 2008
But these are either ghastly or just wrong, wrong, wrong . . .