Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #6

Almost there.

Remember when I was writing about Novel and I mentioned how sometimes a book doesn't live up to what it should have been? If you don't remember, you can check it out here. Well, I've another to add to that list: Zorgamazoo by Canadian writer Robert Paul Weston. Where to begin? Okay, how about with the basics of the book? It's a light little fantasy romp about a girl (being pursued by nasties who want to give her a lobotomy) who winds up having an adventure involving mythic and fanciful creatures including the Zorgles from -- where else? -- Zorgamazoo. It's written in rhyming verse. That's important.

So what's the problem, you ask. What's not to like about rhyming verse, you ask. Don't you like Dr. Seuss, you ask. Don't you enjoy adventures, you ask. Do you not thrill at the magical worlds of fanciful creatures, you ask. Well, I answer, stop asking so many questions so I can explain.

First off, the verse. I indeed DO love Dr. Seuss! The verse here, however, becomes so tedious, as it goes on page after page after page after page! And even worse, I often felt like I was reading an early draft of Weston's work. If I could stomach re-reading the book, I'd take a count of how many times he filled in syllables with one of his pet phrases: "you see" and "in fact", as I recall, appeared with alarming frequency. Ug.

I'll barely say anything about the title, apart from mentioning that almost none of the story takes place in Zorgamazoo, and to clarify that it's of minimal importance to the plot at all.

Finally, the story is just underdeveloped. So much time has been spent on trying to force the rhyme and rhythm that Weston seems to have neglected to notice that he doesn't have the character or plot development to justify a novel at all. The whole thing would have been better served as a picture book. The book is divided into rather short chapters, and I'm not being facetious when I say I seldom read more than one chapter in a sitting.

In fairness, I should point out that the book has been given several honours, including the E.B. White Read Aloud Award and the Silver Birch Award (which is selected by children). I can only assume that the givers of this award were distracted by the rhyming verse and ended up giving an award for the book's writing structure rather than for its actual literary merit and content. I'm sure kids will enjoy it, but I'm finished with it.

On a better note, July also found me reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I'm not entirely sure why the title claims the content will be a diary, because it doesn't particularly read that way, but I suppose it's due to the inclusion of cartoons and drawings "by the narrator". In any case, I had a much more positive response to this book than to a certain other recent read (whose title rhymes with "Borgamazoo").

The book is written in the voice of Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.), a Native American teenager who makes the difficult and unpopular choice to attend an all-white school off the reserve. The book deals quite frankly with several issues including poverty, abuse of various types, and racism and, as a result, has been the focus of both praise and controversy. It's apparently been banned in a few US school boards. Alexie has mixed a fair bit of autobiographical material into his novel and, perhaps in view of this, it becomes difficult to see the inclusion of some coarse language, mature themes, and sexual references as simply being salacious.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was awarded the National Book Award.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The 2011 Summer Stage Review (Part III)

I guess it’s time to look back a few weeks and catch up on some of my live theatre viewing, as well.

Camelot at the Festival Theatre (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

The shortest way to discuss Camelot at Stratford is to say that it’s a good production of a bad show. I know that certain people out there (and one who might actually be reading this, in particular) will disagree with me on the latter half of that statement, but the fact remains that if one really looks at the show’s structure, major difficulties become evident. Be that as it may, giving credit where credit is due, the production at Stratford is decent. The cast is the show’s saving grace, with Geraint Wyn Davies bringing a rather modern humour to the text (though his vocals sometimes seemed a bit unenergized in the lackluster music numbers he’s burdened with) and Brent Carver pretty much saving the day every time he’s on stage as Pelinore (probably the best written role in the show, period). Unfortunately, Jonathan Winsby as Lancelot seems to have a French accent that comes and goes with the tide twice daily, and Lucy Peacock is pretty much wasted in the terribly written part of Morgan le Fey, but still the production looks and sounds good and they do their best to keep things moving along. That said, they were still unable to convince me to like Camelot, the show; I still think it’s a hack job of writing. (The original production had many challenges – the first show in Toronto went until nearly one in the morning and major cuts came afterwards, and one can only wonder if at some point they should have said, “Wipe the slate clean. Let’s start from scratch.” – and Loewe didn’t even want to write the music in the first place. Hmmm.)

Next to Normal at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (Dancap)

More than a show about a family dealing with mental health, Next to Normal is about a family dealing with each other on many levels: dealing with grief, with marriage, with parenthood and childhood, and with the struggles that come when things (and people) don’t live up to expectations. The music serves the story well, though I can’t say one leaves the theatre singing anything in particular – I couldn’t for the life of me hum anything from the show right now – and the writing keeps things moving along without feeling rushed. Though some of the … ahem … people of a certain generation around me expressed some confusion regarding some of the story, I didn’t find it that difficult to follow (and neither did my theatre-viewing companion, who doesn’t even read long books). If I have one complaint about the production, and I do, it’s that Alice Ripley in her Tony-winning role sang horribly. Not just “not that well”, but horribly. Her acting was top-notch, but that singing! Yikes! Her voice was being held somewhere back in her throat, her vowels were all over the place as she created diphthongs where none were to be found, and the result was that it was difficult, at times, to even understand her. Wondering how this could be a Tony-winning performance, I looked up some clips of her on YouTube and something was immediately evident: she had vocal coaches who helped her solve those problems. Evidence of bad habits was to be found in those earlier performances, but there were strategies being applied to overcome them. I can only conclude that, as the tour neared its conclusion, the quality control and vocal coaching had been abandoned. I would have liked to have seen her at her best. Still, at the end of the day, Next to Normal was a show worth seeing.

(It also reminded me of the television show The United States of Tara. There just didn't seem to be a good place to mention it above.)

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #5

Getting there.

I read the second book in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy in July, as well. The Girl Who Played With Fire took a little bit to get the momentum rolling, but once going, it was another quick and easily-motivated read. I normally spread out the reading of books by the same author (particularly those in a series), but I picked up all three of these movies (the Swedish films, obviously, as the North American versions haven’t yet come out) and won’t watch each until I’ve read its book. There are odd little things about the series (I don’t understand why so many characters need to have such colourful sex lives, for one thing, as they're minimally relevant to the plot), but the stories themselves are fun, well-crafted and full of enough interesting turns of plot to keep me reading. It’s not particularly high-brow literature, but hey, who says it has to be? Now I have to wait forever for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest to come out in a paperback edition that matches the two I’ve already got. [Insert dramatic sigh here]

Speaking of not high-brow literature …

Onto some relatively trashy reading, I whipped through The Missing by Sarah Langan, an author I’ve come to enjoy in the past year or so. I don’t normally profess to be a rabid fan of the horror genre (in books or in movies), but I enjoy a good creepy-weird read now and then (and Betsy and I do enjoy watching awful “scary” movies together and laughing). The Missing blends elements of zombie, killer-viruses, and cannibalism together into a decent tale, complete with graphically unpleasant images to spare. Not entirely unlike The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, but preceding it by two years, it moves along between story threads that necessarily become linked, and dives headlong into gore, moving quickly and inexorably toward unpleasantness at nearly every turn. I unwittingly bought this book twice, once under its UK title, Virus, and also under its less-sensical title, The Missing. It was this edition that I read, because it was smaller for carrying around.

Towards the end of July, I also read Promise Not to Tell. I discovered Jennifer McMahon in the same way I discovered Sarah Langan – at a big sale at The Book Depot. (Book Depot, have I told you lately that I love you?) I read another of McMahon’s novels, Dismantled, a year or two ago and enjoyed it immensely. Unlike many suspense/mystery/thriller/whatever this genre really should be called, in which you essentially know the outcome but you’re just seeing how we get there, I found myself having to continually modify my expectations as I moved through Dismantled’s pages.

In some ways, Promise Not to Tell is more straightforward than Dismantled (perhaps this was due to its being a debut novel), but McMahon makes the reader walk the line between supernatural and earthly explanations for what’s happening quite nicely even as she jumps between the story’s present day (2002) and the past (1971), in search of the connection between a recent killing and the unsolved murder of an outcast girl those many years ago.

A curious sidenote is that Promise Not to Tell was released in Germany as Das M├Ądchen im Wald (The Girl in the Woods). Dismantled was released in the UK under the title Girl in the Woods. How’s that for needless confusion?

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #4

Still catching up.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, is way up on my recommended list. If you were told, “It’s a book about a woman whose cancer cells were harvested in the 50s and ended up being used in innumerable medical studies and breakthroughs since then,” and your response was, “That doesn’t sound so fantastic,” I would understand where you were coming from, but you’d be very, very wrong. This book is pretty amazing.

It’s partly a book about the ethics and principles surrounding cell cultures as commodities. It’s partly the story of an impoverished black woman and her family. It’s entirely readable, entirely fascinating, and entirely a page-turner. I know – who would have thought?

That Rebecca Skloot somehow manages to cover all of this ground and more – the story of her own struggle to convince members of Henrietta Lacks’s family to even talk to her is quite a thread – while time-jumping between the 1950s, the 2000s, and several places in between, is quite remarkable, even more so since she manages to keep the material logical, followable (imagine that is a word), and quickly paced. The little timelines that head each chapter certainly assist in this.
A seriously good read.

I also read The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire, which collects three interconnected full-length stories with two mini-comic stories into one graphic novel. All set in a fictionalized version of Essex County, Ontario (the author’s hometown), the book captures grief, secrets, and hope over several generations in the community. Not really for kids, the graphic novel has gained quite a following as a piece of contemporary Canadian literature. The first story in the trilogy, "Tales from the Farm", is apparently in development as a movie (under the unfortunate name “Super Zero”).

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The 2011 Summer Screen Review (Part II)

Okay, it will likely come as no surprise that I haven't watched all that much this summer, though TV series on DVD have been my mainstays of home electronic entertainment.

I finished up 30 Rock: Season Four last week and I continue to find this show endlessly entertaining. There are so many quotable little lines and running amusements. With viewing on DVD, you also get enjoyable commentaries on several episodes, some of which are comprised mainly of people laughing as they amuse themselves (particularly if it's Jack McBrayer and Jane Krakowski), and the occasional fake fact. Highly entertaining.

I also watched that new classic of western cinema, Paranormal Activity. What can I say? It was what it was, and it wasn't bad for what it was. That husband was pretty obnoxious, though. I guess it was only time before someone said, "Hey, remember how that faux home-video documentary The Blair Witch Project really took off? We should try something like that." (I think I prefer this to TBWP, simply because ... you know ... something actually happened during the 90 minutes.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The 2011 Summer Stage Review (Part II)

July was very busy theatre-wise for me. In all, I saw eleven shows, so I’ve got a lot to cover. Here’s the next installment on my way to recovering from my dreadful lapse in posting.

The Railway Children at the Roundhouse Theatre (Mirvish)

First off, let me say that the big whoop-de-doo about the real train in this production is silly. Yes, there’s a real train, but they certainly could have skipped it. They do an excellent job for most of the show using lighting and sound design (and the sound design is excellent, I assure you) to let us all believe in trains we can’t see, that to introduce the actual train a couple of times seems a bit needless. Be that as it may, on to my comments.

On the day we attended, we had an understudy for one of the three main children. She, and the actress who played the youngest sister, were quite good at playing children in that they just played characters who happened to be children and allowed the text to drive their performances. (The youngest sister certainly is written with the most fun, and is the most entertaining as a result.) The man playing the brother, however, is – to be blunt – dreadful. Unlike the others, he has tried to paste “childishness” on top of his performance, leading to an obnoxious, over-drawn caricature of children that should leave actual, living breathing children insulted. Yikes. The story suffers, at times, from too much telling and not enough showing, but the staging, based upon railroad tracks that run the length of the theatre space, is quite brilliant in its simplicity. Train platforms on either side, along with a bridge over top at one end, provide the permanent set of the production, but moving stages provide the real genius of the production. These platforms glide on and off without a sound or bump, thanks to the skilled stage hands (who, thankfully, take part in the final curtain call). Sometimes they disappear and reappear with a new arrangement of props or furniture, providing a new locale or setting, but when they are at their best, they contribute directly to the storytelling. When the children’s father is taken away from them, he hugs his wife, takes a step backwards, and then simply glides away from them, the distance between him and his family growing while they look helplessly at one another. Smashing. Another wise staging choice occurs during a scene in a train tunnel, when scrims are pulled across the stage area, alongside the tracks, creating the dark tunnel into which we, the audience seated on either side, can watch the goings on. Again, simple and effective. Is it a ragingly brilliant piece of theatre? No, it’s got its flaws in spades, but it still provided an entertaining (though very, very hot) afternoon and it was nice to watch the elements that worked work.

Moving from a mediocre script with good staging, we move to a good script with poor staging:

Titus Andronicus at the Tom Patterson Theatre (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

I was greatly anticipating Titus Andronicus, as one of Shakespeare’s plays which I know only by reputation, its story known to me only in generalizations.
The story, while lacking the emotional colouring and layering of plot found in others of Shakespeare’s tragedies, certainly has the potential to be a relentless exercise in grief and revenge, an emotional pummeling of the audience. I left the production interested in seeing another production, or the critically-acclaimed film by Julie Taymor with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, but ultimately left the theatre dissatisfied, having been distracted by what I take to be self-indulgent direction by Darko Tresnjak.

Rather than being drawn in by the story and characters, I found myself conscious of the actors setting up a number of “pictures”, detached from character- or plot-driven motivations, and noticing several structural gimmicks in the storytelling that I can only imagine began with the phrase, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if…”

In the moments leading up to Lavinia’s abduction, the two brothers – Chiron and Demetrius – very disturbingly and convincingly degraded her with their actions, fondling her in the most grotesque and heartless of ways, foretelling of the rape and maiming she will receive at their hands and then … and then they picked her up in a very artful and “stagey” way, tossing her over a shoulder and, in the most absurd moment of the scene, Chiron suddenly crouched down, making way for her to reach out pleadingly to the Queen and to speak her lines without a brother in her sightlines. Quite a shift there.

Later, when she has returned with bloody stumps where her hands once were, a trail of blood streaming from her mouth to indicate her missing tongue, both her uncle and father in turn speak a multitude of poetic lines about her wretched state and their grief (a difficulty with the text, I acknowledge), but neither convincingly explain their physical distance from this poor, maimed girl they profess to love so dearly. If they do not rush to her side, trying in vain to somehow alleviate her pain, they must somehow communicate the tension that exists in that moment when they desperately WISH to rush to her side, but cannot for some reason, be it repulsion, helplessness, wrath, SOMETHING. The physical space between a father and his bloody, dismembered daughter cannot go unexplained as nothing more than “blocking”.

In perhaps the greatest example of misplaced direction, the final scene, for me, went so far off the rails as to negate any benefit of the doubt which I may have been holding in store for the director. By offering members of the theatre audience little tarts, the director invites us to join in the feast, making the viewers, in essence, characters in the play – guests at this most gruesome of feasts. If invited to participate in the feast, however, the audience cannot suddenly and inexplicably be left out of the ensuing bloodbath. We cannot be there as participants in one moment, only to be ignored in the next. The final nail in the proverbial coffin came in the director’s abysmal reworking of the play’s ending, placing the laurel wreath of authority on an audience member’s head and (ug) giving her a campy thumbs-up. Ridiculous and inappropriate.

(This, incidentally, is the short list of complaints about the direction in this piece. Yikes.)

Wishful Drinking at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (Mirvish)

I’ll keep this short. Wishful Drinking is Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical one-woman stage show.

It’s exactly what one expects: an evening with Carrie Fisher as she tells stories about her childhood, her parents (and their many marriages and romances, not necessarily with one another), her experiences with George Lucas and Princess Leia, her dark days of drugs and alcohol, and living with bipolar disorder. It’s candid, funny, and enjoyable. There were a few segments that seemed to move a little slowly, but still, it was fun to hear from the proverbial horse’s mouth some of the stories we’ve heard through the media. It’s worth it for “Hollywood Inbreeding 101” alone.

The Summer 2011 Reading Spectacular #3

Yes, I already find myself in the circumstance of playing catch-up. As someone was so kind to point out, I’m on vacation, but I’ve managed to spend most of the past month in places with intermittent internet access and, when at home, I found myself trying to cram in as much as possible.

In any case, here I am, and I plan on bringing everything here up-to-date over the course of the next few days.

Back in July, I managed to get a lot of reading done, mostly thanks for my amazing talent for procrastination. Homework? Peh! I’ve got some serious reading which demands my attention! (Fear not, concerned reader, I did my homework, too.)

I managed to at last read one of those books that it seems everyone read in highschool except for me: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It’s funny, because part of the appeal for me was that almost everyone I knew who had talked about reading it ended with, “I hated that book.” I suppose there was part of me that wanted to test those waters, to see what was so (seemingly) universally hateable about the book, but that was still meritful enough to be on everyone’s reading list. (Of course, Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel is also on the same list, it seems, and I did read that one.) Funnily enough, I went into the reading with very little knowledge of the book and therefore with almost no expectations story-wise. I knew it was about an angry young protagonist, but that’s about all I knew. Surprisingly enough, I did not hate it. Maybe it’s because I’m reading it as an adult, and not as an an angsty 15 year old, but I didn’t find Holden Caufield intolerable. (I even find him less of an icon of teenaged rebellion than I was told he would be.) What I found so interesting about the character was that he’s not simply disenfranchised; he’s disenfranchised, but desperately wants not to be. He wants to have heroes, he wants to connect, but somehow cannot get past being let down. Those he expresses admiration for are those who haven’t yet proven themselves to be “phonies” or, perhaps more accurately, fallible. He’s somehow reached the place where he’s confronted with the reality of the flawed nature of … well … everyone, but can’t quite resign himself to it. In any case, and without going on an enormous diatribe about the whole book, I enjoyed the character study quite a bit. (I also enjoyed finally reaching the point in the book where I understood the cover image.)

Next up, I read The Believer: Issue 80. As you may already be aware, this is one of my favourite magazines, and when people ask me what it’s about I usually find myself scrambling to explain, “It’s sort of a non-fiction magazine about … I don’t know, all sorts of things that I wouldn’t end up reading about anywhere else. And book reviews, too.” This issue featured such eclectic content as a humourous and fascinating article about the Barkley Marathons (look it up – it’s crazy), a discourse on Bulgarian street-obituaries, and an interesting interview with Darren O’Donnell who works with Toronto students in a curious theatre-based artist-in-residence program.

After having it on my shelf waiting for several months, I finally cracked Room by Emma Donoghue. I’ll not say much, for fear of ruining anything for future readers, but I will say that I was surprised to discover that only half of the book was what I expected it to be. I will also say that I certainly recommend it. Interestingly enough, a day after I finished the book, I happened to catch Donoghue on some CBC talk show discussing the book. How’s that for timing? She writes a good book AND gives a good interview.

More to come as the days go by!