Wednesday, June 24, 2015

St John's Night

   In Austria, a large fire was kindled on St John's Night. People ran and jumped through the flames. Some couples did so, too, I think it was supposed to confirm their union and make it last forever. Many years ago, I wrote a poem about it. I've posted it on the Stories page.

August Derleth. The Memoirs of Solar Pons

     August Derleth. The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1951) Solar Pons is one of the best Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Derleth has managed to emulate Doyle’s style better than most, with the occasional Americanisms (eg, a locomotive engineer instead of driver, a house in good shape instead of condition). He also writes what Doyle never wrote, “Elementary, my dear Parker”. But the plotting is very, very good, and the characterisations as good as Doyle’s. Sherlock Holmes is carefully constructed original stereotype. Every subsequent fictional detective, private or official, is a variation on or a development of that stereotype. One can point to precursors, but Doyle fixed the template.
     Pons is almost Holmes. His cases  resemble Holmes’s cases, too. Parker is almost Watson. The pleasure in reading these tales is precisely that they are such beautifully crafted variations on the Doyle’s characters and stories. A reread, and if anything more enjoyable the second time round. ***½

Two Austrian picture books

     Eduard Widmoser & Karl Waggerl, Österreich (1952). Franz Nabl, Österreich (1957). Large format photo-album books intended to feed nostalgia and attract visitors. The photos are very well composed, reproduced in first-class half-tone. The 1952 book emphasises winter sports, the 1957 one the beauty of mountains, forests, and lakes. Neither one presents Austrian city and town life. Both have photos of historical buildings, mostly baroque. Both create the impression of a mostly rural country, although Austria is one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world.
     The texts sketch the history and culture of the country. Both take us up to the breakup of the Hapsburg empire, and stop there.
     Karl Waggerl offers  an impression of the Austrian character, a mix of acute observation and romantic-sentimental claims. He says that Austrians feel that something bad is lurking round the corner, but there’s nothing to be done about it. He claims that Austrians are better able to empathise with and imagine other people’s experience. The essay as a whole has a vagueness, like a horoscope, what he says can be interpreted to apply to anyone. Including people who have not had the fortune of being born and raised Austrian. Widmoser’s overview of Austria’s “situation, history and culture” is workmanlike, sounding like a tourist brochure.
     The Nabl book is one of a series of Blaue Bücher, intended to satisfy popular desire for instruction and entertainment. Nabl yearns for Austria’s past greatness; a large part of his essay is a eulogy to the Hapsburg empire, a federation in which diverse peoples lived in harmony and peace. Like Widmoser, he carefully avoids discussion of what happened after 1918, and there is no hint of 1938 and the Second World War.
     Both these books are fascinating as documents. They show that in the immediate post-war period, Austria was trying to reinvent itself, to bury the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, which prepared for the Anschluss. They show a kind of amnesia; the immediate past is simply not there. A careful look at the pictures suggests that many of them are pre-war. The focus on landscape implies a flight from the city and its commerce and finance, its political and cultural strife, its constant change. The remoter past safe; the immediate past is dangerous. The village and small town imply tradition, and confirm a desire for unchanging values.
     I was taught that Austria was a victim of historical circumstances over which it had little or no control, and specifically, that the Anschluss was an invasion that could not be resisted. These two books express the same stance, as much by what they omit as by what they include. **½

Monday, June 15, 2015

Liza Cody et al., editors. 3rd Culprit (1994)

     Liza Cody et al., editors. 3rd Culprit (1994) Collection of short stories by members of the Crime Writers’ Association. Most of them are plot-twist tales, such as “Good Interments”, in which an older maiden lady discovers that marrying and murdering elderly gentlemen of means is a good method to enrich herself, until she marries an elderly gentleman with the same aims. Most of the writers have sunken back into relative obscurity, but a few (Paretsky, Westlake, Rankin) have increased in popularity and output.
     Genre writing is a cruel trade; one has to catch the reading public’s taste at just the right time, and a TV or movie deal or two will also please. There are far more skillful and entertaining mystery writers out there than one can possibly read or even know of. The occasional anthology like this one will present the lesser known ones. The CWA has done its members proud. For the reader, this is a fine collection of above average crime writing. I won’t keep this ex-library used copy, so if you luck into one of our local yard sales, you may find it worth a dollar or two. I did. ***

Sunday, June 07, 2015

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Art Gallery of Ontario, to 15 August 2015)
     We’ve always liked Emily Carr’s pictures, but we’ve seen very few of them. So it was a treat to see so many of her paintings and drawings in one place. We went through the show once, then had lunch with Sowtons, then went through the show a second time. That hour or so of percolation through the subconscious helped: I was more sure of what I liked and why.
     Like many artists, Carr was always trying to define her vision, to find ways of expressing and sharing her experience. Every one of her rare meetings with other artists in Canada and Europe prompted her to experiment with composition, brushwork, and colour. She saw movement or life everywhere. It’s hard to realise that the totems and houses that she painted in her early years were in fact derelict and rotting away. In her last paintings she overlays the nearly abstract arrangements of sky, earth, sea, and trees with swirling strokes that express her sense of movement, of intense interaction between these elements. The most effective paintings show trees and earth rising into a blazing whirlpool of light. Lawren Harris gave her the confidence to move towards abstraction. She knew her energetic brushwork looked like van Gogh’s; her comment that van Gogh was crazy but knew about “go” or life shows I think that she was proud of the implied compliment, but characteristically played it down.
     The show also includes drawings and sketchbooks. Carr was trained in water colours, like many young women of her class and time. She clearly had superior talent; her watercolours of totem poles and villages show great technical skill and are more than mere documentation. She made up a lovely little book narrating a tour to Alaska that she took with her sister. Her later sketchbooks show that she tested her visual ideas obsessively, returning again and again to trees, sketching them as flowing forms that become gestures as much as pictures.
     The show included vitrines displaying artworks, masks, and other objects made by West Coat First Nations. These give us a context for Carr’s fascination with First Nations art, but also remind us that for many Europeans their beauty must have been an uncomfortable revelation.
     A good show. Go see it. ****

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Mitford Snowmen (2001) & Esther’s Gift (2002)

     Jan Karon. The Mitford Snowmen (2001) & Esther’s Gift (2002) Two Christmas cards disguised as books. The Snowmen even includes a note from Hallmark offering “products” related to the story. It’s pleasant little squib: one of the merchants starts building a snowman, the others join in, and the mayor appoints herself as judge, giving everyone doughnuts and cocoa as a prize. The Gift is an orange-marmalade cake, which Esther’s husband computes costs $43. But Esther decides to give seven of them, as she always has. Recipe included, and it looks good.
     Nicely made objects, essential for anyone collecting Karon’s Mitford series, but of merely passing interest to anyone else. I’d like a sample of that cake, though. **