Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mordecai Richler: On Snooker

Much to the disappointment of my father, I was never into watching hockey. This came to a sad zenith when I'd noticed one night, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, that in his need to share his enthusiasm with someone, he'd dragged the budgie cage into the living room. (I realized from my bedroom what was going on when I heard my dad cheer, followed almost immediately by a startled squawk. Poor bird.) I wouldn't add insult to injury by letting him know this, but I hadn't actually shunned all TV sport watching. As a teenager I went through a phase of watching snooker on TSN. It was a short lived phase, but long enough so that even today if someone was to ask me (and you know how often this comes up) to name a snooker pro, I could have delivered the name Stephen Hendry.

It was that phase and my love of Richler's writing that led me to On Snooker, his last and somewhat obscure full-length publication from 2001. (According to Wikipedia, an essay entitled "Dispatches from the Sporting Life" followed in 2002.)

On Snooker, predictably, is not the most exciting book I'll ever read. However, I do think that Richler's enthusiasm and wit, combined with anecdotes of the sometimes colourful and notable characters in the snooker world, is enough to salvage the book for even those completely green to the world of snooker. (For the record, Richler concedes that while falling into the notable category, Stephen Hendry is definitely not one of the colourful.) While non-snooker aficionados will no doubt pick up some jargon, Richler wisely assumes that most of his readers will have some familiarity with the game or are there simply because his name is on the cover. He does not get into the rules (it's not a how-to book) or even how snooker differs from pool— though I admit stopping to look some of that stuff up online. (I remembered that the table was remarkably bigger but that's about it.) By and large On Snooker is part memoir, part love letter to the sport. I doubt anyone, Richler included, ever expected it to become a bestseller or one of Richler's more memorable works, but it's a pleasant diversion nonetheless. Like snooker.

There were a couple of missteps along the way. A few chapters deal solely with non-snooker topics: for instance Jews in sports. I thought at the time that such diversions would serve as some sort of metaphor: a snooker player setting up a future shot that spectators do not yet foresee, a complicated set-up that appears to be a mistake at first. Alas, the future shots never came. Richler didn't, for example, later reveal that Stephen Hendry was Jewish all along. It's as if he'd gone looking for examples of famous Jewish snooker players, but couldn't find any. Looked for instances of discrimination of Jewish snooker players, couldn't find any. But since he'd found examples of both in other sports, threw in that research anyway and in doing so managed to write enough pages to comprise a book.

Still, there were enough interesting snooker related research that for the most part, Richler stayed on topic. The plight of women snooker players, for example, provided relevant and fascinating reading. The angle I found most compelling was that of drug-testing in snooker. At first it seemed rather silly. I know they want to be recognized as a sport and all, but come on, drug testing?  It's not like steroids are going to help. I envisioned a muscle bound Van Damme guy, in a bowtie but missing his sleeves, shooting his cue and sending a ball into his opponent's face. But then, it was perhaps in Richler's own mocking of the practice that I began to see at least some logic. While some of the players mentioned in Richler's book, including a Canadian, have tested positive for cocaine, Richler balks at the drug testing. That scorn seemed justified when Canadian Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was disqualified after testing positive for THC, but I think there's a case to be made for some drugs being banned in snooker. After all, even according to some of the snooker players quoted in Richler's book, a lot of the game of snooker is mental, not, for instance, choking under the pressure of a championship. Richler himself, after just declaring that "pot is most-certainly not a performance enhancing drug," goes on to ask, "why should they be deprived of this relaxant during the tense days of play?" Then in snooker, marijuana would be a performance enhancer, wouldn't it? And should those who players who don't wish to partake in an illegal substance feel pressured to use it in order to compete with those that do?

Who would have thought that a book on snooker would yield such a fascinating debate? I'm guessing that Richler did.

William Shakespeare: Pericles, the Prince of Tyre

Pericles was the last of Shakespeare's play for me to read, leaving me with just his sonnets and other poems to go.

One of his more obscure plays, possibly co-written with another, it was still an enjoyable play to end on. It starts off dark enough, though. Pericles tries to win the hand of Anthioch's daughter by answering the king's riddle, even though getting it wrong would mean death. When Pericles hints that he has solved it— that Antioch is having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter— Pericles is unsure of how to answer. He'd also surely be killed for revealing the truth. Being left with no other option, he flees the country.

It is on this journey that he meets Dionyza who offers what is now one of my favourite Shakespeare lines:
For who digs hills because they do aspire
Throws down one mountain to cast up a higher.
I love this cynical image.

It's about this time that Pericles is set up with a new bride and daughter, only it's all short-lived. His wife appears to die during labour aboard a ship during a storm. Her body is placed in a coffin and cast into the ocean, and later Pericles decides to hand his motherless daughter Marina over to his friends Dionyza and her husband Cleon to raise. However, Dionyza has a daughter of her own and because she is jealous, assuming that Marina'll steal all her daughters' potential suitors away, she sells her into a brothel.

But then the story takes a strange turn in terms of tone. What was first a depressing epic, takes a turn for the... better? It's wanders into soap opera territory, with Pericles finding his daughter again (and even with her "virtue" still in tact) and then even his presumed dead wife, who had been revived by a physician shortly after she had washed up on shore. It's one of Shakespeare's more "they lived happily ever after" moments.

It's a departure from a man who often wrote the opposite; have a couple fall in love, then have a violent bloodbath. With Pericles, it was like Shakespeare got halfway and decided, "yes, yes, life can suck, but you know what? A play doesn't need to be about the reality of all that crap, it can be over the top happy if I want to make it over the top happy." Sometimes we need that or we'd all be out of hope forever.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Douglas Coupland: Shampoo Planet

Grunge: the angst-ridden rock music named after dirt. This from the decade that brought us Jennifer Aniston's hair.

Written in 1993, it at first appeared that this schizophrenic time would be the focus of Douglas Coupland's Shampoo Planet. Tyler, the protagonist, is obsessed with brand names and shampoo. His mother is an aging political hippie. Plastic versus weed.

And then Coupland introduces another dichotomy. It was an increasingly global village, yet with Tyler leaving California and heading off to France the differences between the historical-minded Europeans and the ambitious, future-oriented Americans takes the forefront.

But what was Coupland's point in all this? Was it to state that people should overcome their differences? To show them how? No, it would seem the point would simply be that such differences existed. Well, duh.

Even the oozing cynicism that opened the first half of the book, which ran the risk of polarizing Coupland's readers but at least would have risked something, stalled. With almost nothing to add beyond questioning whether or not "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" or the other way around, Coupland seemed to fall back of self-indulgent gimmicks (ex. always adding a ® after brand names) and weak, under-developed plots (ex. a love triangle and an abusive relationship).

I'm not surprised this is one of his lesser known works.

(Cross-referenced at the Book Mine Set.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

William Shakespeare: Cymbeline

It took Charlotte's post over at Inklings about independent bookstores and her thoughts on eReader sales to remind me that I haven't reviewed Shakespeare's Cymbeline yet, though I finished it over a month ago.

First, the eBook connection. For the most part I prefer reading real books. But when I'm traveling I'd rather go with a bunch loaded up on my Reader. (Though the first time I heard the flight attendant say "Can you please turn of your book? We're getting ready to descend?" I found it a little jarring.) Also, when my hard copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare weighs and takes up as much space as a couple of bricks, it's much easier to read it on the eReader. Though a word of advice to publishers, if it's in the public domain why not offer it as a free download? You might lose a small profit by having to pay someone to format it, but you don't have to pay an author. Give that away for free and you'll entice people like me to your site, I'll get that one and probably buy another book or two while I'm there, meaning you'll make money in the long run. My entire eVersion of the Complete Works of Sheakespeare by project Gutenberg is free. At the Sony eReader store they have a copy of the complete works for $7.99. Not bad, but why pay at all when I can get it for free? It's not it comes in a fine leather bound edition that'll look all fancy on my book shelf. It gets even worse when you buy the separate plays-- averaging about $4 each, or $148 dollars for the complete set. Again, it's not like a real book where you don't want the entire volume cramping your hand when you just want to read the Tempest. With the eVersion of the Complete Works doesn't make your eReader any heavier than a single play, and again, it's free. What idiots would pay for electronic Shakespeare books? What idiots would expect you to?

Rant over.

Anyway, Cymbeline isn't one of Shakespeare's better known plays but I can't see any reason for that. For fans of Shakespeare, it's a very Shakespearean play. Love, betrayal, jealousy, disguises, royalty, a thirst for power. You know, the typical stuff. Based on legends of Celtic British royalty, it's a tough plot to summarize. For now, the Wikipedia synopsis will suffice. (It also helped me keep everyone straight.) One small annoyance: when Cymbeline's daughter runs away, disguises herself in drag and comes across her step-brothers, also in exile, and neither knows the other. We, the audience, are quite aware of the set-up and the scene could be rife with humour, awkwardness, anything. Unfortunately the situation is milked for all it's worth and comes across as silly and phony more than anything else. They bond right away and refer to one another as brothers, men, and so on. It should work, but it's run into the ground.

But it's Shakespeare and at his worst, he's still entertaining. And Cymbeline is not is his worst. The fidelity bet alone is worth the price of admission. It's a soap opera moment, yes, but when it's surrounded by Shakespearean wit, that kind of stuff is not only tolerated, it's welcomed.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mordecai Richler: The Incomparable Atuk

I'd be hard pressed to name a Canadian author I look forward to reading more than Mordecai Richler. I guess it wouldn't be difficult to just read them all through one after the other, but I want to pace myself with him, just so I know there's more left to read.

The Incomparable Atuk is, like most Richler loves, a satirical comedy, mostly humorous but with ample doses of cynicism thrown in for good measure.

Summarizing The Incomparable Atuk is not as easy task. To say it's about an Inuk who finds himself the toast of the town in Toronto as the poet du jour is to skim over all the intricate plot details, ignore all those other eccentric characters, and miss those poisonous satirical barbs.

And yet it took me almost up to the halfway point to appreciate all the other stuff. Too many characters to keep track of, confused at what was going on, and what was Richler's beef anyway? Canadian celebrity? Canadian identity?

No, I don't think The Incomparable Atuk is as streamlined as Barney's Version, but certainly the seeds for that magnum opus were there. Here's one of my favourite moments when Atuk is speaking to his father who insists on being called "Old One" since being featured in a National Film Board short,
'Speak no more. Atuk, my son, I remember when your eyes were deep and true as the blue spring sea. I recall when your soul was pure and white as the noon iceberg. This is no more. Today--'

'For Christ's sake, will you cut out that crazy talk. You sound like you were auditioning for Disney again or something.'
And the proof that it's a brilliant piece of satire? Despite some of the dated language, most of the themes are still applicable to Canadian society today. At the end of my version, notes from Peter Gzowski reveal who many of the characters were supposedly based on. I knew none of the them (as the book was first published in '63), and yet I could still find similarities with modern day Canadians. Here's a scene involving a female newspaper columnist named Jean-Paul McEwen. She's stumped for an idea:
She could do a column on how glad she is to be a Canadian and out of the U.S. style rat-race. Naw. Old hat. McEwen felt wretched because she was not a woman to waste time. A quarrel with her mother ended up as a thought-piece on parenthood and the letters she got about the column made for a humorous minutorial on Letters I Get. Everywhere Jean-Paul McEwen went she took her tape recorder. You never knew who might say something useful or where you might come up with a honey of an idea. Even McEwen's vacations were not a costly waste. The funny things that happened to her were worth at least three columns.
If only she whined about the decreasing quality of shopping in Toronto or men who wear sandals instead of flip flops, she'd be Leah McLaren.

We really need another Richler. (Megan, write a book already.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

William Shakespeare- Troilus and Cressida

While Troilus and Cressida is certainly not one of Shakespeare's better known plays, I learned a while ago not to presume that means it's not one of his best. I loved, for instance, the relatively obscure Coriolanus, but I'm not a big fan of the wildly popular King Lear.

Unfortunately, Troilus and Cressida is no Coriolanus.

The title characters are involved in a rather rushed and unimpressive love story while most of the play involves the other Trojans and the Greeks who, instead of an all out war, put all their energies into getting a couple of their guys to fight one another.

If it weren't for the quips and repartee that he does so well, it would have appeared Shakespeare didn't really care about this play. There are no standout characters, the plots struggle to find a foothold, but at least there are witty put downs. Shakespeare never fails at those.

But is that it? Did I miss something? Scouring the Internet for some insight, I came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, who would clearly say that yes, I missed something. According to her, I, as a modern reader, should consider this "a contemporary document-- [with] its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, [and] above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential." Uh. Sure. Or maybe Oates isn't ready to admit that Shakespeare wasn't infallible.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Katherine Paterson- The Master Puppeteer

(Though it did win awards when written in 1976, I think The Master Puppeteer is mostly overlooked nowadays. Paterson is better known for Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved.)

This is one of those rare cases where I take full responsibility for not having enjoyed a novel. While the writing was, I suppose, fine, there were a couple reasons I didn't appreciate it as well as I should have:

1. Poorly chosen as a read aloud to my daughter. Earlier this year I'd mistakenly followed the advice of my wife Debbie who suggested not to read Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia to our 6 year old. She didn't remember much about it except that she believed it may have been "dark" and that it's usually read in grade 5 or 6 classrooms. I went ahead and read it by myself but afterward I wished I had shared it with my daughter. It was somewhat on the slow side, but she's not usually put off by that, the story was pretty straightforward, and while there was a tragedy, it was nothing she couldn't have handled emotionally. Trying to make up for this past decision, I thought that reading her another Katherine Paterson book was in order. The fact that this one was set in Japan was just perfect. Since we were going there in a week or so, more exposure to the culture would be a perfect way to learn about where we were headed and would only help build our excitement. (That Paterson is not Japanese never bothered me or made me question its authenticity, as she did live there for some time and has written other books about the country.) But, it turned out that the Master Puppeteer was probably too advanced for a 6 year old. Not only was it darker than Bridge to Terabithia (while very loosely described as a Japanese version of Robin Hood, there's a lot of violence including maiming and murder) but it also has a more intricate plot and vocabulary that went way over her head. While she didn't want me to quit reading altogether, I could tell she'd lost interest or missed half of what was going on.

2. Poor timing. As I said before, we began this book about a week before heading off to Japan. At only a chapter per night, we'd hardly made a dent in the book by the time the big trip came. While the 10.5 hour flight from Vancouver to Tokyo sounds like a long time and a perfect chance to catch up with reading, we did little on the way there. For one, the novelty of "inflight entertainment" was too much for the kids and the AstroBoy movie was tough competition. Then there were the meals, and of course, sleep. While we were in Japan itself, most days were spent sight-seeing so by the time we got back to the hotels we were either too tired to read or our minds were still racing from all the excitement we'd had that day. The attention paid to the Master Puppeteer was minimal. While we did get to Osaka, where the Master Puppeteer was set, we didn't get to see any banraku (Japanese puppet theater) which probably would have directed our interest back into Paterson's book.

I won't say that the Master Puppeteer was boring, but it wasn't able to hold the attention of a 6 year old girl and her father while vacationing half way across the globe. But I doubt Katherine Paterson had that in mind.