Monday, September 1, 2014

Florence Gordon

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) 308 pages
Release date: September 23, 2014

The character of Florence Gordon, as created by Morton, fascinates ... she is old, she is difficult, cerebral and ... she's a feminist. When is the last time you saw a male writer try and sympathetically flesh out a character such as this? I will tell you. Never.

Gordon is an old school left-wing feminist who came to the forefront in the 1960s (possibly modeled on feminist icon Vivian Gornick one wonders?) who has recently garnered some high profile critical attention from the New York Times. Suddenly, Florence has the attention that she never received in her long life of activism and writing.

Does Florence respond well? Not particularly. She is still arrogant, abrasive, condescending and yet oddly likable. Morton creates a complex, intriguing character surrounded by well-rounded ancillary characters - her cerebral police officer son Daniel visiting from Seattle, her adoring daughter-in-law Janine, her bright and challenging grand-daughter Emily and her flailing, bitter ex-husband Saul (father to Daniel).

It is fascinating to watch Florence navigate her new fame and her growing emotional relationship with Emily, whom she hires as a research assistant. Here is Florence wading into a crowd of protesters with her cane hoping that her presence, as a somewhat fragile old lady, will dissuade the riot cops  from attacking (it does not). Here is Florence being emotionally bullied by her less successful former husband who tries to pressure her into using her influence to get him a job. Florence thwarting her doctor's attempts at gently managing her ailments. Florence coming to realize how much she likes Emily despite her gruff and unfriendly handling of the young girl.

Morton, author of Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You, knows his literary facts; he also has a straightforward understanding of the major players, the history, the factions, of the modern women's movement.

Morton is also adept at portraying the modern female in various stages of  life: the innocent with a burgeoning awakening (Emily); the seasoned married woman on the cusp of adultery (Janine); the mature older woman (Florence).

However, I feel that he falters a bit with the characterization of Janine. Why would Janine be attracted to the paternal, schlubby Lev, her co-worker, rather than Daniel? This mystifies the reader. Daniel is intelligent, sensitive, politically aware. Lev is what ... available? Attentive? I think he misses an opportunity in the possible confrontation between Daniel and Janine. The denouement about the adultery fizzles rather than pops.

Florence rides into the proverbial sunset the way she comes into the novel ... with no regrets, no apologies, but leaving in her wake a mightily impressed assemblage of admiring family members and readers.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

August Cultural Roundup

The Crucible at soulpepper
Magic in the Moonlight (U.S., 2014)
The Hundred-Foot Journey (India/UAE/USA, 2014)
The Trip (UK, 2010) 
The Trip to Italy (UK, 2014)
Frozen (U.S., 2013) 

11/22/1963 by Stephen King
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta 
Prison Noir ed. by Joyce Carol Oates

Inaugural Launch of Untethered, Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton St., August 20, 2014

The Crucible at Soulpepper, August 30, 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Rapture or Something like it

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Random House, 2011) 355 pages
The Leftovers, HBO series, Sundays 10pm

On a certain October 14th, roughly three years before the novel begins, 2% of population completely disappears from the planet. Those who remain are mystified and demoralized by their disappearance. Was it The Rapture? If so, why were the good, the bad and the indifferent all taken together indiscriminately? The ascension of Pope Benedict makes some sense but Jennfier Lopez? Gary Busey? Conveniently, some of the planet's most annoying inhabitants have disappeared. This is an instance where Perrotta's sly wit peeks through the misery depicted here.

This, my dear heathens, is an explanation of the Rapture:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord." Thessalonians 4:16–17

I don't think it's too much of stretch to say that the aftermath of the Sudden Departure depicted in this book (akin to some like the biblical prophesy of the coming Rapture) serves as a sort of metaphor for the events following 9-11.

It is a traumatized populace that remains and their actions evoke the hysteria, confusion and extremism that arose in America in the wake of 9-11: maudlin memorialization of the event and of the departed, religious extremism, acts of violent retribution. "Have you see ...?" posters litter the landscape, religious cults thrive, families are driven apart. People are anxious, depressed, suicidal, confused.

In the HBO series, Kevin Garvey (a compellingly intense Justin Theroux) is the beleaguered Chief of Police of Mapleton, NY (rather than its mild-mannered Mayor as depicted in the book). His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnants. 

They wear white, have taken a vow of silence and smoke cigarettes incessantly. They are not a cult they say but a lifestyle. They also annoy the hell out of the general populace by posting themselves in front of people's houses and places of work and watch them. This is just as creepy and disturbing as it sounds when shot in the series. Why do they watch? "It was supposed to remind you that God was watching, keeping track of your smallest actions ..." It also provokes violent assaults on the members of the Guilty Remnants.

Kevin's son Tom, a college drop out who has the misfortune of entering college a month before the Sudden Departure, has joined a different cult lead by a charismatic huckster self-named Holy Wayne who transfers his acolytes' pain from them to himself by way of a hug. He also has a penchant for impregnating a traveling harem of teenage Asian girls who are zealously guarded by young college-age men such as Tom.

Kevin's daughter Jill, a punky sort of free spirit with a shaved head, continues to live with her father but secretly mourns her mother's flight and exhibits the usual bitchy teenage behavior, reluctantly getting high with her new friend Aimee who has ensconced herself in the Garvey household after she claims that her stepfather is making moves on her. She, it seems, has her beady eye on Kevin.

Justin Theroux, more than just Aniston's boy toy
The Rev. Matt Jamison is angered by the Sudden Departure claiming that it could not be the Rapture as he would have been the "the first in line" to leave. He devotes himself to publishing salacious and unpleasant details about the departed persons' lives in order to prove that they were not more godly than him. His revelatory posters incite both hatred and the occasional beating from affronted relatives.

Nora Durst (soon to be, we learn, Kevin's love interest) is a "grief celebrity" in Mapleton, a nationally recognized figure  - someone who has "lost more than anyone" - a husband and two children. She lectures on the Sudden Departure but in the series has a more nuanced role and complex personality. She interviews relatives of the departed to determine how, and if, they should receive compensation from the government by answering precisely 150 questions. Her behavior is somewhat odd but understandable. In the novel, Perrotta has her watching an endless loop of Spongebob cartoons favoured by her son. In the series, she more poignantly purchases the favourite foods of her family, then replenishes them when they go stale presumably in the event of their return.

But the series is darker than the book ... much darker. Kevin leads an alternate life where much of his anger and frustration about what has happened is vent. Nora (Carrie Coon) releases her grief in dangerous and unexpected ways. Laurie is harsher, more controlling and judgmental in the series. Jill's (Sarah Margaret Qualley) behaviour is wanton and confused but she is less the stereotype of the alienated teenager, more a sensitive, emotional young adult with real concerns. 

There is a disturbing minor character Dean (played with terrifying menace by Michael Gaston) who has taken it upon himself to kill all the dogs in Mapleton and he appears to serve as Kevin's more violent doppelganger in the series.

Perrotta, author of the equally commercially successful books Election and Little Children, is not a beautiful writer but he is extremely engaging - tapping into the inner workings of the male and female sensibility with equal finesse. I have the say the premise is brilliant and the characters well fleshed out.

As I said, I find the series to be more exceptional. Two episodes to go in the series .. cannot wait to see how this all ends.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

July Cultural Roundup

A scene from Boyhood
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
What Maisie Knew by Henry James

What Maisie Knew (U.S., 2014)
The Double (U.K., 2014)
Boyhood (U.S., 2014)
Ida (Poland, 2014)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (U.S., 1989) 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"To live happily, live hidden"

Pour vivre heureux, vivons cahes, 
To live happily, live hidden.
French fable by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Newell Clark Jr. (Random House, 2013) 470 pages

W.A. Clark was as rich (or richer) than the Rockafellers, Vanderbilts, Astors or Carnegies of the Gilded Age. Yet we know very little about him and even less about his daughter Huguette Clark, the subject of this book and the sole heir to his vast fortune. 

Huguette was an heiress to an enormous fortune created by her father, a copper baron. She was an artist intrigued by, some might say obsessed by, Japanese culture, dolls and doll houses. She was a true eccentric who lived to the age of 103 and was a generous friend and philanthropist. But she ended her days in a small room at the Beth Israel Hospital.

The book chronicles her father's rise from prospector to mine owner to copper baron who once built the most expensive house in NYC. 

Hugette experiences the loss of her teenage sister and father within a few years of each other in the 1920s. Already somewhat lonely and isolated, she lives with her mother until she marries in her early twenties, quickly divorces then returns to her mother's home. She lives withher mother until her mother's death in mid 20th c. 

Once her mother passes, her days are filled with obsessive collecting of vintage dolls, Japanese cultural artifacts and dollhouses as well as the meticulous supervision of the maintenance of numerous home that she never lives in. The building of these exquisitely made, highly detailed dollhouses run into the tens of thousands. She is fascinated by cartoons - The Flintstones and the Smurfs in particular. 

A recent news article intimated that Pearl Harbour and the subsequent questioning by the FBI about Hugette's connections to Japanese artisans may have forced Hugette into seclusion. Likely we will never know.

The mania for perfection, for order persisted into the continued maintenance of magnificent, opulent homes that she had not lived in for decades and refused to sell well into her nineties for some inexplicable reason.

Hugette in happier days ...

But it was not an entirely frivolous life even though the oddness of her preoccupations might suggest a retarded mental development or socialization. Her astute management of her estate well past her hundredth year belie that assessment. Ms. Clark was a generous philanthropist and friend to those causes that she supported and followed her mother's example in financially supporting a select group of friends, artists and persons connected to her employees and servants.

In the end, the descendents of W.A. Clark (he had a brood of five before his wife passed away and he remarried) fight ferociously with attorneys and accountants whom they felt had manipulated the heiress in the final years of her life.

Sadly, the biggest villain in the book appears to be the hospital where Hugette spent the last twenty years of her life. When it learns that likely Ms. Clark, their longest inhabiting hospital guest, would not be bequeathing a significant eight figure gift on the hospital, they move her into a much smaller, unsightly room with a view of the air conditioning units outside her window.  

The book is marred, I feel, by transcriptions of banal conversation between Hugette and her distant cousin Paul Newell Clark (cited as co-author of this biography) who did not stand to gain anything from her will. I feel these exchanges are disappointing but my book club colleagues felt that it was a way of illustrating Hugete's lucidity and clarity of mind.

Monday, June 30, 2014

June Cultural Roundup

 la clairvoyance, Magritte
Esperimenti: A Books & Biscotti event - Experimental Readings featuring Some Italo-Canadian Voices, Black Swan, 154 Danforth Ave., June 1, 2014
Delaware Literary Salon, June 8, 2014 
Descant's Summer Launch, Paupers Pub, June 17, 2014
A Yorkville Afternoon: Books & Biscotti Literary Series, Yorkville Library, June 21, 2014

The Ask by Sam Lypsite
The Complete Maus by Art Speigelman
Thirty Eight Witnesses by A.M. Rosenthal
Let's just say it wasn't pretty by Diane Keaton

Riverdale Art Walk, June 7, 2014 
Vivian Maiers: Out of the Shadows, Harold Washington Library, Chicago, June 23, 2014 
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, Art Institute of Chicago, June 24, 2014 
Unbound: Contemporary Art after Frida Kahlo, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, June 25, 2104
New Deal Utopias by Jason Reblando, Historic Water Tower, Chicago, June 26, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (U.S., 2014)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Day Four in Chicago 2014: Not Millionaire's Row

We have breakfast on the roof top lounge again ... what shall we do today? 

We decide to further explore the Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Ave. For some reason, I keep thinking of it as "Millionaire's Row" ... which makes no sense whatsoever. Before I came to Chicago I thought it was actually a neighborhood of Gilded Age mansions. Not so ... just a lot of very attractive retail for people who love to shop.

In the middle of this district is the Historic Water Tower on North Michigan Ave. It's an odd faux castle-like structure that now sometimes features art exhibits. While we were there we saw a photographic exhibit entitled New Deal Utopias by Jason Reblando: 
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government built three planned communities of Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin. In photographing these "Greenbelt Towns", Reblando explores the New Deal vision to resettle displaced farmers and poor urban dwellers in model cities which unified the best elements of "town" and country."
On the Magnificent Mile

Two cool dudes on North Michigan
Then some serious shopping ...  All Saints and Zara for R and J, Garrett Popcorn Shops, 625 North Michigan Avenue, for that famous Chicago mix popcorn and on to Eataly for lunch. Ravioli, spaghetti and tagliatelle!

Eataly Chicago
Off to the airport in the late afternoon ... ciao ciao Chicago. Till we meet again.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day Three in Chicago 2014: Chasing the Little Goat

R at The Little Goat

My sister-in-law kept urging us to have breakfast at a place called The Little Goat, 820 W. Randolph St., in the West Loop, a place she visited when she was last in Chicago. We oblige. Delicious! The breakfast is awesome, plentiful and the locale is bright, cheerful and friendly. I embarrass the husband by asking our server if she is Italian as she has an Italian surname.

The Little Goat
I contemplate making a trip to Ernest Hemingway's boyhood home in Oak Park area of Chicago - west of the hotel. But it seems a cumbersome trip - involving buses, a subway and a short walk. Instead I watch a slide show of the house and decide I ain't missing much although I am totally enamored of Mr. Hemingway.

We visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago to see Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo. We tried to visit this museum last time but it was closed on the Monday we were there.

One of Kahlo's paintings on display
Untitled c. 1978 by Ana Mendieta
J has a hankering for Japanese food after some clothes shopping and we stumble on Friends Sushi, 710 N Rush St. and have a late lunch.

We end the night with a teary viewing of teenage angst film The Fault in Our Stars at J's request ... but, if I am honest, I shed more tears at the aquarium than I did at this film. 

On the way home we spy a relatively new eatery/Italian groceteria called Eataly, 43 East Ohio Street. We are all visibly salivating going through the rows of pasta, olive oil, gelato, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables ... we have found our lunch spot for the next day!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Day Two in Chicago 2014: This is not a pipe

Rooftop lounge at The Godfrey
Because we travel with a teenager we have to be prepared to eat alone; thus, when J was unable to rise at the ungodly hour of nine a.m. on our second day we retired to the rooftop lounge at the Godfrey for breakfast, sans fils. Excellent breakfast at moderate prices!

R and J at Shedd Aquarium
R had purchased tickets for the Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive, near Lake Michigan - it was quite expansive and busy. The building was overflowing with children and school groups bearing identical tees for identification. We did many wondrous things there ...  

Some touched sting-rays ...

J and Sting 
Some stared at the jelly fish in wonder ... 

Someone cried when they were told the story of Cruz, the rescued sea lion, who had been blinded by bullets when shot in the face ... (I won't say who). 

Cruz, the sea lion who was rescued
Some took photos, not of fish but of the beautiful art deco details of the aquarium ...

The aquarium has a beautiful outdoor patio that looks on to Lake Michigan where we had a very decent lunch. 

View from the Shedd Aquarium
Afterwards we scooted to the exhibit Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 at the Chicago Institute of Art. The lighting is very subdued in the gallery which lends it a somewhat funereal aspect but the work still shocks, still enthralls. It's a beautiful museum.

This is not a pipe

Monday, June 23, 2014

Day One in Chicago 2014: Helluva Town

The Godfrey Hotel, Chicago
Porter Airlines is awesome ... Love flying Porter. Anything to escape Pearson Airport - the expense, the distance from home, the security procedures, the lack of cookies and coffee at the gates. We leave at 12.30 and arrive 1.45 or so (we move forward an hour Chicago time). The flight is blessedly uneventful as I am a nervous flier, by far the most nervous of the three of us.

We take a cab to The Godfrey Hotel, 127 West Huron St. This is a new hotel built beside the Felix Hotel (where we were almost a year ago this time) that R found on-line. A great hotel - a clean, spacious room, with a rooftop lounge restaurant, pleasant staff, ten or fifteen minutes from the Magnificent Mile - a popular shopping district. It feels like a spaceship inside (not an abducted-by-aliens-feeling, just a super-cool-and-sleek-feeling).

Vivian Maier exhibit, Harold Washington Library
Selfie at the exhibit
We take transit along the Red Line to see the Vivian Maiers: Out of the Shadows exhibit at Harold Washington Library, 400 South State Street. The exhibit is modest in number of photos displayed but tastefully done in one of the numerous exhibit spaces in this enormous library. They even have a station where you can take a selfie and post it in the exhibit room or take it with you. But what sticks in my mind is the sign I see in the doorway of this large, tasteful, beautifully appointed library:

Seen everywhere ... libraries, restaurants, even the Shedd Aquarium
Why the average American needs a reminder not to bring a gun to the library boggles the mind. And makes me fearful. 

We cast around for a nice place for dinner ... we find The Berghoff, 17 West Adams Street, a restaurant built in the 1890s which has an enormous retro sign from a different era. It serves traditional Germain and American cuisine. The signage, the interior, the food, make us (the parentals) ridiculously happy. Plus ... we are starving. Times are tough. Porter served us a chicken sandwich the size of a small teacup for lunch and not much more. I kept expecting some gangsters to sit down at the table behind ours. They, however, never appear. 

We have wiener schnitzel, perogies, salad. We scoot home to our temporary palace by transit ... satiated and expecting a great day tomorrow at the Shedd Aquarium.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Four Questions

My friend, the writer and blogger Terri Favro who is the author of The Proxy Bride, invited me to answer these four questions as a writer. I like the idea of it because it helped me focus on what I write,  why I write and why I love to do it.

1.           What am I working on? 

I have two projects I am concurrently working on. The first piece of work, that I am on the cusp of completing, is a sort of memoir/ day to day account of my daughter’s transition as a Transgender man (from female to male) entitled The Unfinished Dollhouse. This was originally begun as weekly blog posts but I think has evolved into a memoir.

 The second project is a novel (working title Her Enchanted Objects) is about an average middle class woman, Vita, with a complicated past, who keeps encountering a homeless man, Billy, on the streets of Toronto who reminds her of a former lover, Michael. It’s set in the course of one day in June and covers the back stories of all three – Vita, Billy and Michael.

2.      How does my work differ from others in the same genre? 

I think my work can be a bit rawer and make more people uncomfortable. I tend to delve into the darker side of human relations at times and I can be more explicit about the disconcerting aspects of life that might not be examined in commercial print – such as the inner life of someone living on  the streets, the sometimes tortuous sexual relations between the men and women, the experience of being a Trans teenager.

3.      Why do I write what I do? 

I enjoy stories about average people under difficult or unusual circumstances and how they navigate them – the Italian born housewife/factory worker obsessed with opera (my first novel Made Up of Arias) – the life of the Sicilian bandit Giuliano who was thrust into banditry to feed his family (my unpublished second novel We Were Like You) – the homeless Billy (current project Her Enchanted Objects) and in a future project the Trans young adult Julia who magically appears at her parents’ wedding (Julia at the Wedding). I don’t like to read, or write, fantasy or spec fiction or romance. I enjoy writing and reading stories about unexceptional people thrust into unexpected situations.

4.      How does my writing process work? 

I usually start with the end of the story/novel … think of the novel as an alphabet. I start with “Z” (the ending even if it’s only in my head) and then I fill in the rest of the alphabet. It might not  necessarily be A or B it could be F or Q or L in the story. 

When I am starting something new I force myself to write a minimum of 500 words each day – quality is good, bad or indifferent -  first thing in the morning, before I do anything else. This seems to get  the creative motor going.