Thursday, 25 December 2008

Wholly gorgeous. . .


My nicest Xmas present (especially since I rarely get books as gifts). The Half by Simon Annand is a beautiful photography book of theatre stars, shot in the half hour before they go on stage. They've been taken over twenty-five years and so there are shots of a very young Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Jude Law among many. A really beautiful book. Thanks K! Hope everyone is enjoying a wonderful meal today with loved ones and everyone got a great book from Santa.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

All recent roads lead to Berlin. . .

I've been on a bit of a blogging break but I have a good excuse - I've been absorbed by several rather all consuming projects in addition to getting a lot of work done so that I can enjoy the holidays guilt-free. (And life after all, is for living first, and then blogging afterwards). But I'm now off for a couple of weeks and outside my cozy apartment the wind is raging and there's a lot of snow piled up. Time for cocooning, knitting, reading and watching movies.

My first big task over the last two weeks was to tackle Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. According to the blurb on the back of my copy, he was apparently the first German writer to write in the style of James Joyce although I found Döblin a much easier read. There are certainly a lot of similarities with Ulysses - the evocation of everyday, urban working class life and references to classical mythology and religious imagery - though not the sustained retelling of the Odyssey that is found in Joyce. And Döblin also plays with interior monologues, experimental language and different narrative techniques.

Essentially the story revolves around Franz Biberkopf who at the beginning of the novel has just been released from prison after serving four years for the killing of his girlfriend Ida. The story follows him over the next few years (we're in the late 1920s) as he tries to rejoin society, first by vowing to go straight and only work at honest jobs, then after subsequent betrayals by people he trusted, a return to a life of petty crime, pimping and alcoholism. We follow his relationships with several women, including Eva, a high class prostitute from his past who remains in love with him, and Mieze, a seemingly naive, young girl who comes to a horrific end. Franz also forms an unlikely friendship with the sinister Reinhold with tragic results, not once but several times. This is a world where everyone is just trying to survive and though politics does intrude (Franz at one point sells Nazi party newspapers and wears a swastika armband), it's not the heart of the novel, which essentially revolves around Franz accepting responsibility for his own actions instead of blaming an elusive "Fate". Though there is an eerie presentiment towards the end of the novel when Franz is watching a party parade out of his window and vows not to join in: But if I march along, I shall have to pay for it later on with my head, pay for the schemes of others. That's why I first figure out everything, and only if everything's quite O.K., and suits me, I'll take action. Reason is the gift of man, jackasses replace it with a clan. . . If war comes along and they conscript me, and I don't know why, and the war's started without me, well, then, it's my facult, it serve me right. Keep awake 'mid the strife, we're not alone in life.

I read this novel in preparation for watching Rainer Werner Fassbinder's fifteen hour plus 1980 adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Called the "Mount Everest of Cinema", I convinced my good friend K, to accompany me - we sherpas of celluloid - to Cinematheque Ontario's screening. Fortunately for our butts, the 13 parts plus epilogue were spread out over three days. Now that I have some distance in time from the experience, I can write about it more calmly, but I will admit to exiting the theatre raging with indignant irritation and cursing Fassbinder. Why? His bloody, bloody epilogue! There is much about the film that I really enjoyed - basically the first 13 parts. The acting was superb, in particular Günter Lamprecht as Franz and Hanna Schygulla as Eva. The sets, costumes, lighting, camera shots, musical score - all beautifully done. Then came the epilogue which is completely jarring in style, both visual and aural. After 14 hours of realism and attention to historic detail, all of a sudden we're hearing Elvis and Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack and visually we're being subjected to a messy melange of horror film, bad B movie melodrama and porn. And it goes on and on and on and on and on. Honestly it felt longer than the previous 13 parts put together. And this is where I got angry - because after enduring fourteen hours of a film - who is going to leave at this stage? It seemed like a completely self-indulgent insult to the audience who were now basically held hostage until the bitter end. I have no problem with Fassbinder acknowledging hindsight and showing glimpses of the future (the epilogue takes place mostly in the hallucinations of Franz while he is in an insane asylum) with references to the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and upon reflection I realized that he was probably paying tribute to one aspect of modernism which is to shock one out of complacency and narrative expectations (and he certainly succeeded in getting me all riled up) - but did it really have to be so incredibly cheesy? And so darn long? And now I can never think about the whole film without shuddering at the ending, whereas I certainly would like to watch some of the episodes over again. A very odd film-going experience to say the least.


And so back to reading and tackling the 900 page novel that has made so many Top 10 lists of Best Books of 2008 - Roberto Bolaño's 2666. This is the first novel I've read of his but I will definitely be seeking more of his work, especially as so many of the excellent reviews it's received from critics and bloggers alike, point out recurring themes and preoccupations from previous work. I loved the scope and ambition of the novel - told in five parts - each concentrating on a different narrator/subject and each told in a different style. If I had all the time in the world, I would have immediately started re-reading the book moments after turning the final page to absorb all the connections and allusions I had missed the first time around. For a novel that deals with some very serious issues - the murders of over 200 women in Mexico, the horrors of fighting on the Eastern front in WWII - there is also a surprising amount of wry humour. I particularly loved the first section, The Part About the Critics, which follows four academics who become complicated friends through their mutual obssession over an allusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi. It is very, very funny. And then, lo and behold, when I get to the final part - The Part About Archimboldi - should I be surprised that Archimboldi comes across a notebook that proves greatly influential, and in this notebook the writer expresses a great admiration for Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz? Which come to think about it makes sense, as society's indifference to the fate of murdered women is also prevalent in 1928 Berlin. I can't recommend 2666 enough - it's definitely worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Where Literature and Politics mix. . .

Canadian politics is getting very interesting (yes, really). Our next Prime Minister may just be a Booker short-listed author!

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

New on my shelves. . .

Here are a bunch of mostly new, mostly non-fiction books I've recently acquired for the "era shelves" and that I hope to dip into over the holidays.

Survivors' Songs: From Maldon to the Somme by Jon Stallworthy. I like the premise of this book - setting WWI poetry in the context of historical war poetry and I think this will prompt some new thinking about Owen, Sassoon, Brooke etc.

Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After by Vera Brittain, edited by Mark Bostridge. I once had high hopes of doing a PhD on Vera Brittain, but alas, I had a reality rent check/cheque. I still try to read everything I can on her and while I've never thought her poetry particularly strong, this volume has some excellent essays and a lot of photographs that I'd never come across before. And because the Stallworthy doesn't discuss women poets at all.

West End Women: Women and the London Stage 1918-1962 by Maggie Gale. I first got interested in female playwrights during the early part of the 20th century when I was studying the suffrage movement and the work of writers such as Cicely Hamilton. Clemence Dane is another playwright whose work I enjoy and whose play Wild December I encountered while writing a paper on how plays about the Bronte sisters' lives was all the vogue in the 1920s. Dane was also a good friend of Noel Coward and is said to have inspired Madame Arcati, in his play Blithe Spirit (I love it when all my various interests come together). So I definitely need to know more about this time and I'm sure this book will have me scurrying to find copies of plays now relegated to dusty obscurity.

Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. This is a contemporary play about British suffragists imprisoned in Holloway in 1913. The play got mixed reviews when it was running in London but I still want to read it. It will be interesting to compare it with the text of a play that I did see in Toronto - Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal - loosely based on George Gissing's The Odd Women.













And finally, keeping with the theatre theme, I've also got a copy of Michael Holroyd's A Strange Eventful History - his new biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their various troubled offspring. I love Holroyd's writing; his biography of Lytton Strachey really made an impact on me about fifteen years ago when I read it. I'm particularly interested in learning more about Terry's daughter Edy Craig who was a member of the Actresses' Franchise League along with Cicely Hamilton and who founded the feminist Pioneer Players theatre company.
One book leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. . .

Monday, 8 December 2008

Awed at the AGO. . .

Now that the crowds have died down somewhat, I recently went and spent a few hours exploring our newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario. What a transformation! With a new design by Frank Gehry, the space seems enormous and the building is so airy with twisting staircases like this one, and hidden nooks and so much more wall space for its art. I wandered through the rooms, got lost, and found myself entering rooms I'd already been in, but from a different entrance, which somehow made the art look fresh again. It was really nice to see some extra space devoted to their large photography collection - there were some display cases that had German family albums of WWI photos that I'd never seen before - and I loved the many themed rooms where contemporary art hung side by side with older pieces to create many interesting dialogues. And it was fun to greet old friends, now hanging in new places. In particular, I was happy to see my favourite painting - Florence Carlyle's 1902 The Tiff - back in the burgundy salon, although now on a different wall. This painting has always seemed to sum up male/female relationships for me. What have they argued about? Is the young woman bored, tapping her fingers on the table, waiting for him to stop gazing out at the window/world? Or is she pissed off, all dressed up with nowhere to go? And I love that tiny, little bit of her skirt's underside peeping out - all fiery red, pointing to deeper passions lurking under her apparent demure nonchalance. I can gaze at this beautiful painting for a very long time; to me, there's a whole novel in it. I wish I could get a poster, but as with the work of so many lesser known female artists, obviously no one has thought a reproduction is worth selling.

Back to the building - one of the striking features is this jutting staircase pictured below (that silvery bit that looks like an eye sticking out of the back) which offers a wonderful view of downtown Toronto which I can't show you as I couldn't take pictures from within the gallery.


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

Celebrating My Favourite Publishers of 2008. . .

The internet and blogworld are buzzing with year end lists of top books and favourite reads - all of which I enjoy browsing as I inevitably end up noting down a new title or two. I've kept a reading journal for years and will blog about my top 10 favourite reads of 2008, but not until January 1st. I get a lot of reading done over the holidays - to pick now would just be premature.

So instead, to inspire all those shoppers planning to give books as gifts, I'm going to list my 10 favourite publishers of 2008. I've bought and read books from all of them this year but they get my vote not only for their interesting and unique lists, but also the care and attention they take in terms of covers and design, editing, websites and blogs - they all have a distinctive and eye-catching look. Not surprisingly they are small and independent presses. Do spend some time exploring their websites - there is some amazing publishing going on here. In my fantasy store, they'd all be well represented. In my private library, they are.


My Top 10 Favourite Publishers of 2008 (in alphabetical order)

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.

Europa Editions. I love the bold covers and French flaps of these trade paperbacks and they have a quirky selection of interesting European crime novels sprinkled among their literature. They had a big hit this year with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson. It's on my to-be-read pile.


Gaspereau Press. This tiny press in Kentville, Nova Scotia designs the most beautiful books. They are works of art. Their mission statement says it all:

At the core of our philosophy is a commitment to making books that reinstate the importance of the book as a physical object, reuniting publishing and the book arts. Many of our covers are letterpress-printed, feature original artwork by artists like Wesley Bates and George Walker, and are printed on fine paper, in some cases even handmade. Most of our books are smyth-sewn & bound into card covers and are then enfolded in letterpress-printed jackets. Our house paper is Rolland’s Zephyr Antique Laid, a creamy, sensual book paper. Overall, the result is strong, flexible, attractive books that are comfortable, attractive and durable.

My favourite Gaspereau book is The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton. And I'm definitely going to pick up one of their newest - Eva's Threepenny Theatre by Andrew Steinmetz.

Melville House Publishing. A small press that combines all the best of what I love - literature in translation, the classics and interesting, current non-fiction. They have a wonderful Art of the Novella series that republishes classic shorter works, sometimes for the first time in English as with this fall's The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated by Charlotte Mandell. A companion series is The Contemporary Art of the Novella which celebrates current international writers. I recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteurtre as a prime example. And the book I am most excited about is coming out next spring - Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, which Primo Levi called, "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis. " It'll be part of a Fallada revival as his previous work, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? will also be reissued. Their famous blog MobyLives was also resurrected this year after quite a hiatus.

New Directions. I'm always excited to see what is coming next from this publisher. They consistently discover new and long-forgotten innovative writers from around the world and their book jackets are always edgy and cool - especially their black and white covers. This year I bought The Way It Wasn't - an autobiography (of sorts) by the founder James Laughlin. I also have many books by Javier Marias sitting on my shelves that I just haven't found the time to read yet. I do have one tiny beef with them - they have a great website for alerting readers to new books and events, but their online backlist catalogue gives no descriptions of the books and since many of their authors are not recognizable names, I think they are losing a lot of potential sales here.

New York Review of Books. Just a perennial favourite. I've enjoyed several of their new books this year, most notably Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. I can honestly say that I've never picked up an NYRB classic and regretted the time I spent reading it. Impeccable editorial eye. Plus they also re-released one of the funniest children's books ever - The 13 Clocks by James Thurber.

Open Letter. This is a fairly new publisher out of the University of Rochester devoted to literature in translation and I love that their books are boldly designed hardcovers with no dust jackets. One of their unique marketing ideas is to offer a monthly subscription so that you can receive a new book in the mail each month. You can choose between a six or twelve month subscription and start with any book you like. The website only allows for U.S. orders, but if you e-mail them directly, they will set up an account for you to ship anywhere in the world (they will re-calculate shipping costs). A great idea and I'm rooting for this press big-time. One of their new releases this month is Marguerite Duras's The Sailor From Gibraltar, translated by Barbara Bray. Do also check out their terrific blog Three Percent.

Other Press. This press is great at publishing contemporary international fiction and two of my favourite reads of 2008 came courtesy of their editorial eye. The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire is a fictional account of the life of bestselling American author Constance Fenimore Woolson, including an interesting take on her relationship with Henry James that becomes more fascinating if you've also read (as I have), Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author. I was also introduced this year to Chilean writer Elizabeth Subercaseaux with her moving novel A Week In October.

Persephone Books. Another favourite and a press that I collect . I'm always intrigued by what gem they will discover next. And they publish the most beautiful catalogues and newsletters - collectibles on their own. I feel my bookcases straightening their spines and holding themselves just a little more proudly whenever I add a new Persephone to their shelves. This year I was thrilled that they republished The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby and A Very Great Profession by founder Nicola Beauman.

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

An early little xmas gift - for me. . .

I've been searching for quite some time for a slim console table with a shelf to place alongside my sofa arm and I've finally found the perfect one at Pier 1 Imports. I love the style which reminds me of summer days browsing sidewalk stands outside of used bookstores. The colour works perfectly with my decor and it fits the space to the millimetre! The clincher was its "name" - The Bookseller. It was obviously meant to be and so I splurged; it looks absolutely terrific in my apartment. The middle trough I'm using for books on the go or those I'm most anxious to tackle and the bottom shelf will house magazines and a few oversized art books. My mug of tea - on a coaster of course - will sit very nicely on the top, along with a few dictionaries and key reference books.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

A literary hunkering down for the winter. . .

Is it because the first cold snap has hit Toronto - it feels like January out there - or is it worries about the world economic crisis that has me predicting that I'll be cocooning at home a lot in the next few months? I've been stockpiling future reads and am finding myself irresistably attracted to long and challenging (not just in length but style and subject) books that will keep me happily engaged for days and days of intense reading. Here's what's on my-to-be-read-sooner-than-later, pile.

Starting with Alfred Döblin's monumental 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz about a small-time criminal in the 1920s Berlin underworld, with a narrative style reminiscient of Joyce. This is the one I'll probably start first in preparation for Cinematique's December showing of all fifteen hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film adaptation. Yes, most of my friends think I'm nuts, but it's going to be shown over three days, so hardly unbearable, and it so rarely comes to the theatre that I can't miss the opportunity to see it on the big screen. I'm up for the marathon challenge and I have a few weeks to finish the 600 plus page novel first.

Then there's the hottest book being reviewed in blogworld right now - Roberto Bolano's novel 2666 (900 pages), available for the first time in English translation. The publishers have simulataneously and sensibly issued it as a hardcover and as a three volume paperback edition in a slipcase. This latter version is the one I bought and since the reviews have been stellar - it's definitely one I'm anxious to dive into.

Another 1920s modernist novel I've long had my eye on is Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter about a Scandavian woman's life during the Middle Ages. It's also part of my ongoing project to read at least one work by every Nobel Prize winner (she won it in 1928). My edition is over 1000 pages. And then there's Hermann Broch's trilogy The Sleepwalkers, which The Complete Review calls, "one of the towering achievements of 20th century literature." It follows characters from 1880 to the end of the First World War using a variety of styles and pastiches of styles. It clocks in at 648 pages.

Other books I'm dying to read:
Summer in Termuren by Louis Paul Boon (one of Belgium's greatest novelists)
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (this isn't out in Canada until March, but I've gotten hold of an early galley)
New Lives by Ingo Schulze (about East Germany after falling of the Berlin Wall)
And maybe it's finally the perfect time to get around to Robert Burton's 1400 page Anatomy of Melancholy. Or the other classics I've always been meaning to read - Dante, Paradise Lost, The Decameron, etc. Recession, what recession? My bookshelves at least are rich.

There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark. . .

I didn't think about it at the time when I was booking the tickets, but this past Saturday, I ended up seeing two plays that both had a connection to Denmark, and that both contained a set dominated by a large rectangular banquet table. Oh how I love delicious coincidences and unexpected connections.
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

I listened to a simply marvellous ballet. . .

This weekend I went to see the National Ballet of Canada's production of The Seagull, choreographed by John Neumeier. Chekhov's play lends itself very well to a balletic adaptation - here Kostya and Trigorin are choreographers instead of playwrights with Arkadina a celebrated dancer and Nina ultimately becoming a chorus girl. This allows Neumeier to have fun with very different styles of dance and costumes, particularly for Kostya's experimental numbers. The set was absolutely stunning, but ultimately I found a good chunk of the production fairly dull. This may have been because I was up in the fifth balcony where it was unbelievably stuffy, but mostly I think the choice of music, particularly in the first act (Shostakovich's Sympony No. 15 for the most part), was too slow and plodding and just didn't do justice to all the tensions between the characters. As usual, Masha stole the show.
Still, I'm glad I went, if only to be introduced to an absolutely lovely piece of music (Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 F-Major, op. 102), which was used for the first "innocent" dance between Nina and Kostya even though, dressed all in white, they could have just stepped out from a Calvin Klein ad. Ah, but what a lovely piece - I'm listening to it now on my iPod as I write this. Because of course - I had to go out and buy the CD. And as luck would have it, as I was browsing the racks I found another completely charming ballet CD to add to, of all things, my Noel Coward collection. Called The Grand Tour: The Ballet Music of Noel Coward, it contains the music from two ballets - The Grand Tour and London Morning. Now, these I would like to see!

The Grand Tour was created by choreographer Joe Layton and premiered in 1971. Set on the deck of a luxury 1930s cruiseliner, the ballet features solos and duets with the passengers who are none other than George Bernard Shaw, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (wouldn't that be fascinating to see?) and Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself. According to the liner notes, Lawrence and Coward dance to "I'll See You Again" where they, "interlink cigarette holders in a most moving way!". Oh, how fabulous. The music is of course all based on famous Coward tunes and it's wonderful to have them given the full orchestra treatment on this CD.

London Morning was commissioned by the English National Ballet in 1959 and the plot is very simple. It's set in front of Buckingham Palace where a series of people pass by the gates and watch the changing of the Guard. There's a suburban family, business men in bowler hats, school girls, a sailor and a young American girl that he falls in love with - Coward has written music for them all. A lovely Pas de Deux for the lovers and even a bit of rain music at the end that segues straight into his song "London Pride" complete with chimes. And if I was just hearing this music (save for the last song) without knowing the composer, I would never have guessed it was Coward; one is simply not used to hearing allegros and preludes attributed to him. But I'm delighted to have discovered this additional musical side to him.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Music for November, or what happened when a violin began to play. . .

It's been one of those weeks when I've serendipitously been led up so many wonderful musical paths touching on so many of my current and expanding interests, that it's left me awed and humbled by the emotional power of so many amazing artists.

It's been years since I've attended a concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but I went Wednesday night to hear a programme they were billing as a night of English music. The line-up was "Four Sea Interludes" from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Ralph Vaughan Williams' beautiful, beautiful Symphony No. 5 in D Major - both composed during the Second World War - and the North American premiere of Mark-Antony Turnage's violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantella. In honour of Remembrance Day week, I've been listening to Britten's War Requiem, based in part on the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, both on CD and in this interesting, newly released DVD of Derek Jarman's film adaptation, using archival footage and symbolic theatricality all set to Britten's music. The cast is wonderful - Laurence Olivier as an older veteran clutching the photo of a nurse to his chest; Nathanial Parker as Owen, and the luminous Tilda Swinton playing different generations of nurses.

Of the three concert pieces, my favourite was definitely the Vaughan Williams but while I found the Turnage a bit too jarring and not quite my cup of tea, I couldn't help but marvel at the technical artistry required and displayed by the violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Someday I would definitely like to see or hear a recording (is there one available out there?) of Turnage's opera based on Sean O'Casey's play, The Silver Tassie - one of my favourite First World War plays. His musical style would definitely suit the play's second act, set on the battlefield and in stark, expressionist contrast to the realism that permeates the rest of the play. His new piece definitely had me yearning to hear more of the violin - is there any better instrument to accompany the melancholy, dark and windy nights of November? I'd forgotten that Roy Thompson Hall has an extremely well-stocked Music Store with very knowledgeable staff and so off I went at intermission to browse. And found some wonderful discs. I'm still on a Weill and Cabaret high and so I picked up Speak Low: Songs by Kurt Weill sung by Anne Sofie Von Otter (which includes a recording of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" - a song I've been looking for since I first heard it during the Kurt Weill night at the Cabaret Festival) and Ute Lemper's Blood & Feathers: Live from the Cafe Carlyle which is absolutely FANTASTIC! Everything - the incredible singing, the flirtatious banter, the humour - I love, love, love this CD. It has the BEST version I've ever heard of the song "Cabaret" which Lemper turns into a medley infused with bits from Weill's "Mack the Knife", Edith Piaf songs, the odd line from Kander and Ebb's other big musical Chicago, and other songs from Cabaret. The CD also has a terrific Moon Medley where contemporary songs by Van Morrison, Sting, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits fit perfectly with Weill and Brecht's "Bilbao Song" and Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon". And speaking of Tom Waits - I just saw the Tarragon Theatre's incredible and inventive production of Black Rider - the crazy musical collaboration with Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. I must get the CD for this as well - loved the songs.

But back to the concert hall's music shop and in the racks, just a finger's tap away from Weill was William Walton. I found a great 1954 recording of Facade - Walton's musical accompaniment to the poems of Edith Sitwell. The poems are read - sometimes at incredible tongue-twisting speed - by Sitwell herself and Peter Pears and they are terrifically funny - a cross between Noel Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan. The CD also includes music from Walton's Henry V with Laurence Olivier doing the key speeches. I'm glad to have them, but for my money, I prefer Christopher Plummer's rendition - his voice is so much richer. And to go off on another tangent (sorry - it's just been one of those rich weeks!), I've recently finished Plummer's memoirs, In Spite of Myself and it's a terrific read - full of naughty stories from the theatre and film worlds, a magical, wistful portrait of a vanished Montreal, and a look at the early days of the Stratford Festival. Plummer is a great writer and very honest about his many vices and arrogant ego, but just as generous to the many people who have helped him in his career. One of the best books I've read all year.

But my ultimate goal was to find some violin music. And so Naxos to the rescue. My final purchase of the evening was a disc called Opera Fantasies for Violin. Just a violin played by Livia Sohn accompanied by Benjamin Loeb on the piano. A lovely CD, including a riff on Bizet's Carmen by Jeno Hubay and my favorite piece, "From My Window" from the opera Ainadamar by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. The story centers around the poet Federico Garcia Lorca who was executed during the Spanish Civil war and the music is haunting and melancholy. Oh, and was this a coincidence or delicious fate? On this CD is also an arrangement of songs from Weill's Threepenny Opera, the violin plucking away at Mack the Knife. I love it!
All my senses have been thrillingly challenged this week. Let the wind howl outside my window and the rain batter down on whatever leaves are still stubbornly clinging to almost barren trees. I shall crank up the Lemper or drown it out with piercing violins.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The horror, the horror. . .

It's a little late for Hallowe'en, but I've just finished reading this fascinating anthology of horror plays from the early 1920's. London's Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror by Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, charts the two year history (1920-1922) of a company established by José Levy at the Little Theatre, that ran a series of programmes of short plays that aimed to thrill, chill and shock audiences. Inspired by the Parisian Grand-Guignol, these plays - ten out of the forty-three produced, are featured in this book - included comedies about sexual morals and horrific dramas both in subject matter and violent theatrical execution. As the authors write in their introduction, this type of theatre was perfect for a post war audience, "that was eager for thrills and excitement - the artificial, high theatricality of on-stage horror, rather than the devastating reality of the horror that had so recently taken place on the battlefields."

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

Passchendaele the film. . .


I saw this movie a week or two ago but wanted to let it sink in a bit before I posted my thoughts on it. I really, really wanted to like it more than I did because I admire Paul Gross's tenacity in getting the film made and what he accomplished on a mere $20 million budget (that's huge in Canadian movie-making terms) is fairly impressive. And it's an important part of Canadian history that deserves to be told and remembered.
Briefly (without giving too much away), the story centers around Michael Dunne, played by Gross, who is invalided out of the trenches suffering from shell shock, and in disgrace after going AWOL following his killing of a young German boy. Back in Calgary, now released from hospital, he is assigned to the recruitment office and he falls in love with his former nurse - the daughter of a German father who fought and died on the other side. When her brother enlists, even though he suffers from asthma, Dunne returns to the war to look after him and the movie ends with their experiences at the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the most horrific battles in terms of conditions and casualties.
So let me start with the good things. There are some incredible shots and beautiful cinematography. Again, given the small budget, the war scenes are some of the best I've ever seen in a WWI film - Gross really captured the mud, the rain, and the endless stretches of churned earth where, in one spectacular overhead shot, it's completely impossible to even see the demarcation of the two lines - it's just one horrific, grey stew of misery. And there's an ugly bit with a rat, but it was effective. I also admired how the script wasn't a one-dimensional story - it touched on a lot of different historical issues including anti-German sentiment on the homefront, the plight of boys not medically fit to fight, but recruited out of desperation as the war dragged on, the "myth" of the crucified Canadian soldier, and the complicated notions of atonement and duty. The acting is solid from the entire cast. The character of Sarah Mann, the nurse (played by Caroline Dhavernas), was wonderfully and sensitively drawn and not just a stereotypical love interest just randomly inserted. And there was one great line spoken by Michael in the trenches. It's pouring rain and mud and he turns to another soldier and says, "do you see any poets in this shit?" This is a good joke as Michael has re-enlisted under the pseudonym of McCrae - Canada's most famous war poet who penned "In Flanders Fields".
So why my reservations? Frustration mostly - because with so many good things going for it, Gross unfortunately resorted to so many cliches that they became extremely distracting. I don't mind a good love story in a war movie. I do object however, to a completely unrealistic and silly consummation scene that is just gratuitous. And the constantly repeated refrain of the film, "There's only one rule - don't die" was grating. I won't spoil the last half hour, but will only add that it's SO laden with over-the-top imagery that it's hard to tell which is the greater burden weighing on the soldiers - the symbolism or their heavy, mud-soaked uniforms and kits. Maybe the problem is that Gross is wearing too many hats - he wrote the script (based on stories from his own grandfather's experiences), directed, starred in, and produced the movie and some critical distance might have helped. Maybe the problem is that he had to do it all in order to get the film made.
Oh, it's worth seeing at least once. I just can't get my mind around how much better the film could have been. It'll be interesting to see if it gets any international releases. I can't see it showing in the U.S. even though the rest of the world has been bombarded with their military films. I can see that there might be some interest in England though. Canadian reviews have been mixed and while the movie isn't breaking any box office records, it seems to be doing respectably and was widely released across the country. I'll probably give it another viewing when it comes out on DVD.

Monday, 3 November 2008

On viewing Brief Encounter for the umpteenth time. . .

What can I say? I just adore this movie, which I've seen dozens of times on television and via DVD (one of the first I ever bought), but never until today on the big screen. What a treat, via Cinematheque's David Lean retrospective. It's just so beautifully filmed. My favourite scene now (it changes at every viewing) is when Laura is travelling back home by train after Alec has declared he loves her ( I have a major crush on Trevor Howard), and she's looking out the window and fantasizing about how their lives might be if they were younger and free. They are clichéd, romantic dreams of waltzing at parties, watching the moonlight on the deck of a ship, escaping to a tropical island etc, but her reflection in the mirror - as Lean films it - looks so beautifully young and hopeful - it's just mesmerizing. As Alec says to her, "you're only middle-aged once" (now my favourite line, perhaps my new mantra!)

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. . .

and

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

A Glamourous Night with Novello. . .

I'm feeling rather wistful this morning. Last night I attended a concert by the Toronto Operetta Society - an evening devoted to the songs of Ivor Novello, many of which I had never heard before. I absolutely adore the music from this period, and Novello's tunes (like Noel Coward's) are so beautiful and romantic and catchy too. Some of the selections such as "And Her Mother Came Too" or "I Can Give You the Starlight", I was familiar with from the soundtrack of the movie Gosford Park where the fetching Jeremy Northam plays Novello and does wonderful renditions of his songs. And on the whole, I think much of Novello's work sounds better sung by men rather than soprano women - the male vocal range seems to suit the style, and the articulation of the lyrics is often improved at a lower octave (although one of the best male singers from last night embarrassingly forgot the words to not one, but two songs and actually had to start one number over again from the beginning. He recovered well but one was worried about him every time he appeared on stage - I think he did a cramming session over the intermission; no flubs in the second act) Still, many of the selections were taken from Novello musicals (Glamourous Night, Perchance to Dream, The Dancing Years) and written specifically for a female soprano and certainly "A Violin Began to Play" or "Love is My Reason" works in that regard. And it doesn't matter who is singing "Keep the Home Fires Burning" or "We'll Gather Lilacs" - hearing those two songs always chokes me up. There were CDs available for sale in the lobby and I bought this compilation sung by soprano Marilyn Hill Smith. It's very enjoyable to listen to, but I'll also be searching out collections recorded in Novello's lifetime.

Novello was also a screen idol, and another of my weekend purchases was The Ultimate Hitchcock Collection - a 6 DVD set of twenty of Hitchcock's earlier works, including many of his silent movies. One of these is 1926's The Lodger - starring Ivor Novello -which I'm really looking forward to viewing as I've never seen any of his films (Novello that is, not Hitchcock). The set also includes the 1928 film of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue which will be fun to compare with the recent version I saw at the Toronto Film Festival. This was a fairly cheap set given how many movies are on it, and so I wasn't surprised to see that the prints are quite grainy and scratchy - Criterions these are not - though they are still easily watchable. And it's filled with tons of interesting stuff I've never seen and which doesn't appear to be available in better quality DVDs. There's a 1930 version of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock (he's one of my favourite Irish playwrights). And 1939's Jamaica Inn, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel is also included. Then there's Secret Agent (1936) based loosely on W. Somerset Maugham's spy novel Ashenden, starring John Gielgud and Peter Lorre. Not to be confused with Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent which is also included under its 1936 film title Sabotage. What a bargain at $25.00 - enough goodies to keep me occupied for weeks.

Monday, 27 October 2008

On this day. . .

Today is the 86th anniversary of the 1922 publication of Virginia Woolf's experimental novel Jacob's Room which is where the inspiration for the name of this blog came from. Julia Hedges is a minor but important character in the novel and as to the importance of her shoelaces to me, well, you'll have to read the book and come to your own conclusions (footwear was always very important to Woolf - she was an avid walker). It seems fitting that this book was published a few weeks before Armistice Day or Remembrance Day as we call it in Canada - that last sentence where all that is physically left of Jacob is his old shoes, always gets me.

Above is the original cover of the book, designed by Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell. There have been so many covers over the years. I'm rather fond of this one:

But these are either ghastly or just wrong, wrong, wrong . . .