Monday, September 19, 2016

How to spoil a good story (Matilda)

      Matilda [D: Matthew Warchus. Book by Dennis Kelly, Music by Tim Minchin, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. With Hannah Levinson, Dan Chameroy, Paula Brancati, et al.] A good play spoiled by flashing lights and sudden noise, and extremely average music played very loudly. The acting ranged from competent to very good, the dance sets were cliched but well done, the set designs and lighting were created to maximise the wow-factor. Overall the production was less concerned with telling a good story than with astonishing the audience. I have no idea whether it succeeded with the other patrons, it did not succeed with me.
     In short, impressive, but not in a good way. Pity, since Matilda is one of Dahl’s better stories. It shows how the imagination and a couple of engaged adults can foster the resilience of a neglected child. Dahl knows that a happy ending is unlikely, but he gives us one anyhow. *½

Early Allingham

Margery Allingham. Mystery Mile (1930) A very early Campion story, quite melodramatic, with disappearances, a Moriarty-type criminal master-mind, multiple deceptions, fisticuffs, night-time excursions, and limited characterisation. The evil guy suffers poetically just drowning while stuck in the mud. There’s a fire, too, but it’s mostly stink-bomb and smoke-screen. Love and justice triumph. What more could you want? Well, a fully realised Campion, for a start. The later Allinghams are much better than this one. The title refers to a village on a mist-shrouded peninsula, barely connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and surrounded by tidal flats and mud.*½

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why does the US seem so small?

Just heard the phrase “the vastness of our land” applied to Canada. Which made me wonder, Why does the USA seem so small?

Short answer: The USA is a patchwork of different cultures. Driving though the USA feels like driving through different countries. Michigan just doesn’t feel the same as Arkansas. Texas is its own place, and then some (they are the politest drivers anywhere, by the way). But driving across Canada, at least from Ontario west, I feel that every place is Canada. One reason, I think, is that the language varies very little from east to west, while in the USA the language varies in all directions. So we don’t hear the differences that a traveller across the USA hears.

Why are the regions of the USA so different, while those of Canada are not? Short answer: settlement patterns, and political and economic history. But to expand on that would take more space (and more detailed knowledge) than I have.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Home is for Homicide (book review)

    Joan Hess, ed. Malice Domestic 9 (2000) A pleasant series of short stories illustrating the dictum that the bosom of the family is a nest of vipers. This one pays homage to Agatha Christie, with always affectionate and sometimes quite funny pastiches or allusions. There are a few touches of Ruth Rendell, too, as in The Murder at the Vicarage, whose narrator falls for the new vicar, who hasn’t married because he hasn’t met the right woman yet. This raises the hopes of several other swoony, broody females. The narrator expects that their discovery that they were all handmaidens who would never achieve their dreams would cause them to abandon the man, but instead they kill him.
     All the plots are fair, the characters just off-kilter enough that we accept them as plausible victims and murderers, and the writing competently adapted to the writer’s intentions. A good book for a plane ride. **½

Monday, September 05, 2016

How to Play Hamlet

     Hamlet: Two introductions. Back in ye Olden Days of Gold, school and college text producers took literature seriously. They asked academics for introductions, intended to prepare scholars for the treats that awaited them, to prime them to have the conventional responses and ideas about the books. I recently read two intros to Hamlet, and both display the writer’s certainty that his interpretations are the right ones. Both include orotund exclamations about Shakespeare’s genius and Hamlet’s philosophical world-weariness and such. Sentences that I can see an industrious student quoting, and attributing in carefully constructed footnotes.
      I don’t have the name of the person who wrote the introduction to the Canadian edition of the Swan Shakespeare. (Published in the 1950s) It begins with a Life, goes on to consider the Elizabethan Stage, and Shakespeare and the Renaissance Spirit, which the writer claims is best seen in Hamlet. There is a brief discussion of Elizabethan language, a great help to the naive reader I think. The writer takes it for granted that Shakespeare is the greatest writer and Hamlet his greatest work. I suspect that the Renaissance was his field of study, for he says about Hamlet, his love of philosophy, his student’s mind, his melancholy, his trust in “capability and god-like reason” his frequent references to classical myth, his love of music... remind one irresistibly of Leonardo [da Vinci] at the court of Ludovico of Milan... show he was a Renaissance Man. Well, maybe so, but don’t expect a high school senior or a college freshman to get anything out of this encomium, apart from labels of Renaissance traits.
     G. S. Gordon of Magdalene College edits the Clarendon (Oxford) Shakespeare (1912). His introduction focuses on the text, which exists in a bad first quarto, a reasonably good second quarto (reprinted several times), and the Folio, which omits some quarto material, and adds new lines. It is Shakespeare’s longest play, which in itself raises puzzles about how to think about the extended text. Was it ever acted at this length in Shakespeare’s day? To what extent does it represent Shakespeare’s and his acting company’s intentions? Impossible to say.
     Gordon’s take on the text is that it developed as the Company played it over many years. He approaches it as a script. It was very popular in its day, which suggests that the Folio text represents the final version(s). He points out, for example, that the variations in the Queen’s speeches in her interview with Hamlet affect how we answer questions about her possible complicity in the murder of her husband. A good point, and Gordon refers to Shakespeare’s “remodelling” of several scenes of the play.
     It’s not always clear whether he’s thinking about how Shakespeare reworked the older version of the play, or how he reworked his own version. But his focus on the craft of script-writing is welcome: most school- and college-text criticism discusses the plays as a text to be read, not as scripts to be acted. Still, he doesn’t go all the way, and still betrays a prejudice in favour of reading over acting.
     I think the focus on reading the text has for several generations been a weakness in Shakespeare criticism. The question is not, “How do we interpret the characters?” but “How should we play them?” Instead of asking whether the Queen suspected her husband was murdered,  I would ask, “How would you act the Queen if you think of her as suspecting (or not suspecting)  that Claudius killed his brother?” The answer is not obvious. If we assume that the Queen suspected Claudius killed the old King, then the interpretation of the text and hence the acting will be different than if we assume she was utterly innocent of any such suspicion.
     Was she, though? We have to consider all her appearances in the play to decide which version is more plausible, but whichever one we settle on will affect how we decide to play her. But this conception itself depends on a larger sense of what the play is about, of the world in which Hamlet must accept that he cannot reject the options that face him, but must choose. “Ripeness is all”, he says as he finally accepts his fate.
     That, too, is a major thesis of Gordon’s introduction. Thematically, Gordon’s essay is richer than the Swan introduction. Its implicit acceptance of the text as a script could have been made explicit. As it is, Gordon comes close to saying that we should read the text as if we wanted to produce the play. The puzzles of plot and character then become problems of direction and acting.
     Swan: ** Gordon: ***

Monday, August 22, 2016

Photos of Cobalt and Sudbury (book reviews)

     Two Photo Album reprints: 1894 Souvenir of Sudbury & Cobalt the Silver City. (1981) Exactly what the titles promise, collections of photographs originally issued to boost the images of Sudbury and Cobalt, and attract settlers and investment. The original photographs show the care that went into making these expensive objects. A full plate (5"x7") photographic print cost about half a day’s typical pay. The photographers couldn’t afford to make technically poor negatives or unpleasing images.
     Composition is always workmanlike and often pleasing. Many of the photos show people lined up in front of buildings: an opportunity to have your picture taken for a low price was rare. Most of the pictures show banks and stores, and public buildings such as schools. The signage is sometimes overdone to our eyes: a wall was a great place to catalogue merchandise. There are a few interior shots. All pictures repay close study. One thing I noticed was unpaved roads bordered by wooden sidewalks. The pictures of mines include enough detail for a building models or dioramas.
     Exposure and development was calculated to provide a nice gradation from black to white, with the maximum of detail in the shadows and the highlights. Unfortunately, reprinting printed images always degrades the quality, and both albums suffer from the effects of making photographic copies of halftones. The Cobalt album is somewhat muddy, the Sudbury one somewhat pale. Both will join my modest collection local history books. **½

There'll Alway be an England, or at least a Giles Cartoon Collection

     Giles Cartoons 1991. In 1991, Giles stopped working for the Sunday Express, although he continued to select the cartoons for subsequent albums. I’ve always liked his cartoons, especially his Family. His compositions are wonderful, he uses shading and black to create a clear structure. His line is always confident, and his ability to create expressions with a squiggle here and a curve there is unsurpassed.
     The cartoons tell stories, with many incidental details, and always make or imply some comment on the events of the day. Some are mildly indulgent observations about the follies and quirks of the English, and I suspect had a great influence on their self-image, especially their stoic endurance of often horrible weather, the culture of the local pub, cricket, horse racing as a legitimate excuse for gambling, and so on. But more often his comment was satirical. I leafed through the album to select an example, and found it difficult going. At random: Grandma is mowing a great curved swath in the lawn, grass clippings flying all directions, newspaper readers shaken, drinks about to fall off the tray carried by her daughter, who says, “I told you not to trust her with the lawnmower after her horse refused at the first fence.”
     Wikipedia’s article is a good intro, and there’s a collection available at the British Cartoon Archive, hosted by the University of Kent. ****

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? (if you really want to know)

     David Feldman. How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? (1993) Feldman made a name for himself as a collector of much-puzzled-over trifles, publishing ten books and working on #11. His website lists all ten titles, all now available as e-books. This one (#6) is a typical collection, answering questions such as the title, and What did Barny Rubble do for a Living?, What’s the Difference between French and Italian Bread?, etc. His humour is too often arch, but insofar as we all come across puzzles we can’t solve, the books fill a need. Unlike many of the answer compilations that people circulate as emails, these are as well researched as possible.
     There’s a section on “frustables”, ie “frustrating imponderables”, in which Feldman not only fesses up about his ignorance, but provides overviews of what is and what is not known about questions such as Does anyone really like fruitcake? (Yes, I do, and I’m not alone, albeit in a minority, it seems. I think that fruitcake has to be soaked in brandy or rum, wrapped in foil and plastic, and allowed to ripen for a year or so.)
     The appetite for trivia will never be slaked. The number of click-bait sites featuring 10 Most Horrifying Worms and similar lists increases daily. Even New Scientist has Questions page, on which readers ask about odd stones or strange organic looking debris for other readers to asnwer.
     Good collection, a nice way to while away a few minutes when you’re too tired for productive work and pleasure, but not tired enough for sleep. ***

Friday, August 19, 2016

Photos that Tell a Story: The Picture Post Album

     Robert Kee. The Picture Post Album (1989) Kee’s history of the magazine, Britain’s version of LIFE, which preceded it, but learned from it. Picture Post’s founding owner (Hulton) and editors (Lorant and Hopkinson) wanted to use photography as the medium for telling stories, not as an adjunct to text. They succeeded brilliantly, in large part because Hulton was a social reformer, and expected the future to be one of progress in equality and social justice.
     The Second World War began when the Post was barely eleven months old, and it became a major factor in maintaining British morale. It published pictures of all social strata at work and play, of soldiers and civilians experience of the war, mixed with a bit of discreet cheesecake and sentiment, and in every issue dealt with some more serious topic such as the future of health care, or the conduct of the war. The photographs were brilliant, and their layout and captions told the story. The amount of text apparently varied, but the Post published articles and short fiction too, as well as leaders (editorials). The magazine could be sharply satirical, as when it published black rectangles instead of the pictures about the home front that the editors wished to print but which the censors forbade.
     But the focus was the pictures, and this book shows us the range of subject matter and style. Many of it images have become the ones that we think of when celebrities and artists of the mid-twentieth century are named.
The photographers were among those who shifted photography away from vaguely conceived imitation of fine art in other media into its own realm. We now take it for granted that photography can be anything the photographer wants it to be, but that it works best as the record of a moment whose significance isn’t understood until it’s captured in a photo, that photography can distill meaning as well as any painting, precisely because it fixes what would otherwise be a distorted memory of a glimpse.
     The magazine morphed into the owner’s mouth-piece when Hulton disagreed with the post-war politics of Labour. He also pioneered the advertorial, a dubious honour. That wasn’t what the readers wanted, and TV with its illusion of immediacy cut into the visual reporting of illustrated news magazine. It died in 1957, a parody of itself.
Hopkinson’s Foreword ends with a hopeful claim that a magazine of high-quality photo-reportage and writing could be viable. He had no inkling of what digital photography and the Web would do to new media.
     A nostalgia trip for anyone who knew the magazine or the times in which it thrived, and a necessary record for those who did not. ***

Leacock, humourist and satirist

     Stephen Leacock. Literary Lapses and Winnowed Wisdom (1910 & 1926) Leacock suffers from his reputation as Our Great Canadian Humourist. He does write humorous pieces and some wonderfully bizarre fantasies, his sense of the absurd is exquisite, but his real strength I think is satire. His taught economics, the dismal science, which isn’t a science but is dismal, especially when its practitioners have a political or philosophical axe to grind. There’s only one law of economics: trading is an exchange of wealth. Everything else is ideology, psychology, and (mostly) superstition. Leacock understood this, and his savage attacks on the rich, their greed, indifference, and ignorance, are disguised by a veneer of absurdity, or surrealism, or a bonhomie that may trick you into thinking that a snarl is a grin.
     Leacock likes to use the naif as his narrator, as in How to Make a Million Dollars, not nearly as well known as My Financial Career, and not nearly as pleasant to read. It begins “I like millionaires”, and pretty soon we realise that the millionaires are venal, self-indulgent, greedy, and more or less corrupt. But the narrator sees only the fine clothes, fine food, fine houses, and fine drink, all which he would like to have more of himself. He can’t make a million dollars, but he can ingratiate himself into millionaire society: they will feed him well in exchange for his flatteries.
     Leacock knew his audience, and was careful to write the nonsense that elicits laughter rather than awareness. He was a complex man, who knew perfectly well that humans are a good deal less than they wish to be and persuade themselves they are. His need for approval often made him pull his punches and sheathe his claws. His best pieces are those in which he can indulge his sense of the absurdity of daily life without risking satire, such as The Men who have Shaved Me, or The Everlasting Angler (he was an avid fisher all his life). But his most powerful ones are the satires, see Summer Sorrows of the Super Rich.
     Reprinted in A Treasury of Stephen Leacock (1999), along with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I bought it for $1 at a yard sale, excellent value. Recommended. ****

Looking for Tiny Trains and Loving it: In Search of the Narrow Gauge (1996)

     Bob Wetham. In Search of the Narrow Gauge (1996) When Wetham’s father was posted to Peru in the 1970s he developed a love of trains and narrow gauge ones in particular. In this collection of reminiscences and photographs he tells of several of his journeys, most of them in South America. He really did go out of his way to see and ride the last narrow gauge trains. A few of the lines have become tourist lines, but most have long since gone.
     The book focuses on the journeys, not the technical details of the lines. Wetham spent a very cold night in Patagonia, and years later returned on a guided tour. He risked permanent disappearance in Africa, and endured surveillance by police and army in other parts of the world. He comes across as a nice guy who’s happy to share his passion for trains. Oddly, it’s a page turner, I think because he tells things as they happened. The photos are well printed, too, I wish there were more of them. But in the pre-digital photography and printing age, pictures and printing were more expensive than they are now, a bare quarter century later. Recommended for anyone who likes trains and travel. **½