Thursday, June 25, 2009


Ordinarily this woman makes my skin crawl but she raises some interesting points about the Kindle DX electronic reader ... and the future of reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Exit Killer of Kings, Loudly

We rise at 8.30am hoping to have a leisurely breakfast before we leave for Stratford - cereal, fresh pastries, yogurt with fruit and granola, great coffee, fresh berries - an amazing repast at the best table in the house, the north eastern corner of the Dining Room by the window where we can see the pond and the terrace.
We spend the next hour and a half reading in the Wilks Conservatory -this is blissful. Being inherently lazy and loving to read, I am in heaven here.

We leave for Stratford at noon. We arrive early and search for a gift for the sprout (who returns from camp the next day). R finds a Manga version of Macbeth for her as well as a great blank book with an interesting cover for my notes and a pair of blue stone earrings.

I was excited about seeing Colm Feore as Macbeth - what a confusing mishmash of images and themes - it boggled the mind! Set in "contemporary mythic Africa" the male characters are dressed in combat gear with Scotland insignia or African dashikis. The women, notably Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth, sometimes appears in African garb, Jackie Kennedy like attire complete with pillbox hat and at other times appears to superficially resemble First Lady Michelle Obama with her beautiful, tailored clothes and straightened hair. Are they consciously trying to emulate Michelle Obama - but to what end - to suggest that the Obamas resemble the famed Macbeths?
Setting it in "mythic Africa" what does that mean - which Africa? The Africa of AIDS and poverty and civil war? The Africa of the north - Egypt or Morocco? The Africa of war-ravaged Darfur?

Feore seemed, and I hesitate to say it, too effete and fragile to portray the murderous, ambitious Scot who kills his own king. And Yanna McIntosh was underwhelming, tending to shout her lines to convey passion or anger. A slight lisp also mars her performance although R disagreed.
The effects (a jeep on stage, full military garb for the Scottish noblemen, grenades lobbed, bombs going off, rifles shot, men in SWAT team attire literally dropping from the ceiling on ropes, strobe lights, giant videos, MacDuff's son's throat graphically slit with blood gushing) were aggressive and gratuitous I thought. Who is the audience demographic here? Fourteen year old boys who play video games? R was particularly incensed by the production.
And the self-satisfied smirk on Feore's face at the end of the play during the applause! I couldn't understand the enthusiasm of the crowd. And the room was absolutely packed, it was.

Afterwards we met our friends Stan and Penny at Bentley's in Stratford for dinner (always a pleasure to see them). They said that the production has been getting awful reviews and many blame Des McAnuff, the artistic director for not trusting the text enough. Some interesting thoughts about what is happening in Stratford here.

As always, I was anxious to get home at the end of the trip. We made it home in record time (by 9.30pm). We were welcomed by two greedy little cats and a nice cozy house, happy in the expectation that J would be home on the morrow.

Rosse rose per te ho comprato stasera

Rosse rose per te ho comprato stasersa ...
Red roses I have bought for you tonight ...

A significant birthday looms ... my solution was to run away to a beautiful hotel for a few days and pretend it won't happen. J was at camp for four days with her school so it seemed a perfect time to get away. Mad dash to Cambridge to stay at Langdon Hall on June 16th and 17th and to see a play the next day at nearby Stratford Festival. This is our fourth visit to Langdon which is not inexpensive but I like to reserve our stays for special occasions. We arrived just after five after a snarl of traffic.

I requested a room in the main house which I don't believe we have stayed in before rather than the Cloister Rooms - an adjoining building to the south of the manor. We were in Lady Slipper 7 (gotta love these names!) which faces west and is just above the entrance. I was greeted by a dozen large beautiful red roses which R had ordered and a small package which contained three CDs with music from every year since my birth. He had put a photo of my mom and I when I was about a year old on the cover of the CDs. I was so touched! And grateful for such a sweet gesture.

Great room (pictured above) - with a small anteroom containing a large armoire and tea things set on a chest of drawers, working fireplace, walk-in shower, chaise longue and miniscule TV, unbelievably small, a gorgeous bed in beautiful crisp white linens and russet coloured pillows with drapes to match. We flaked out, tired and cozy on the bed, to wait for dinner in the Dining Room at 7.30.

I love to dress up for dinner, how civilized and fun! The Dining Room has east facing windows all along one side and faces the lily pond and a pretty patio terrace. Fresh flowers, candles, beautifully simple white china - magical and elegant.

The food is wonderful - fresh ingredients from the garden on the grounds, beautifully presented, original recipes, gorgeous venue - a foodie paradise. We ordered lobster ragout and pickerel ceviche for appetizers; beef tenderloin and guinea hen for the mains; and, chocolate torte and citrus pave (a layered cookie tart) for dessert.

We walked the length of the grounds after dinner just after sunset - along the edge of the pond, through the entranceway to the Cloister Rooms, across the croquet lawn, and sat for a while on the back porch.

We saw the stone again that was laid for Catherine Wilks' husband Garth Thomson. Catherine's father, Eugene Langdon Wilks (1855-1934), was the great grandson of John Jacob Astor (on the maternal side). Catherine owned the property until 1982. The history of the property and the family alone is intriguing. The present owners purchased it in 1989 and refurbished it as Langdon Hall.

And were we glad they did!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Storie della Sicilia

Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily by Maria Messina (Feminist Press, CUNY, 2007) 196 pages

Maria Messina (1887-1944) is a revelation for me ... a Sicilian writer from the turn of the last century rediscovered by internationally renowned Racalmutese author Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989). A new friend and fellow Racalmutese from Hamilton, Calogero Milazzo, gave me this book of short stories a few months ago as a gift.

Despite her literary success in Italy and writing under the tutelage of the legendary Giovanni Verga, a master of the verisimo style, Messina seemed to live a stunted life for most of it under the thumb of strict parents, deprived of an education except what she could glean from her older brother whom she revered, and living in a small provincial town in rural Sicily for most of her life. But interestingly, this cloistered, claustrophobic life lead to a careful, sensitive cataloguing of the deprivations of women of her time.

More touchingly for me, the introduction written by the translator touches upon those cultural elements in Sicilian society from the late 19th c. and early 20th c. which are immediately recognizable, which explain to me the actions and thoughts of my parents raised in a small western Sicilian village in the 30s and 40s .... and trying to inculcate these values (sometimes futilely) into their children in the 60s and 70s.

The preoccupations of a "proper" Sicilian woman at the turn of the century were not so different than my mother's expectations for me seventy years later. When my father died I was compelled, not asked, to wear black for six months, as if we were in the old country. A badge of respect for the dead. There was a fierce and, I feel, unhealthy obsession in protecting the chastity of all young females in the family which meant rigidly observed rules of conduct and close watch when we ventured out. My mother seemed very concerned with preparing a trousseau for me before I married (which I did not want nor ever asked for) with linens and bedsheets and towels - all the accouterments of domesticity for when I married!

My parents, indeed all of my relations, were very fastidious in dress regardless of our station in life - it didn't matter if my parents' generation laboured in factories or steel mills or fixing roads - when we went out my mother's rule was strictly enforced: "always look your best" no matter where you were going or what you were doing. Now, it makes more sense, how was one to marry off one's daughter if she did not care for herself, make herself presentable, fashionably dressed and illustrating how well the family was doing?

I remember my hair elaborately curled with a little bun that sat on my head protected by a matching hair net (oh the abuse I took for that hairnet) and coming to school in bright yellow or pink dresses with frills and which sparkled with sequins along the fringes while other girls cavorted in levi jeans and beat up sneakers. How mortified my mother was when I wore my faded jeans with a single patch sewn on to them as a teenager ("You look like a hippie!" she shrieked). And how I loathe those colours now ...

Another explicit rule was that one was never to reveal one's troubles within the family for this was how those who wished you ill gained the upper hand. All of these social conventions feature in the stories here ...

The stories, written in the verismo style, touch on many issues rarely mentioned in Italian literature heretofore. The style is not elegant or particularly artful but should be seen for what it is: a punch in the solar plexus of Sicilian patriarchy merely by daring to utter the simplest of truths. In an effort to preserve la famiglia, Sicilian culture and the sanctity of the home, much was sacrificed by the women (and parents left behind) when the men emigrated.

There is a kind of despair in the plots which I recognize in the writing of the female writers of Southern Italy, not just in Sicily but it seems more pronounced in Sicilian writers. This is disheartening at times (there's a bleak similarity between the short stories) but completely understandable - in these small towns, within these narrowly prescribed worlds, the women had no choice but to comply or risk complete isolation from family and neighbors. And yet, I fear, we, as women, make a virtue of this sacrifice to convention and allegiance to conservative values which I have referred to in other blogs as the "Violetta Complex".

Yet Messina astounds, revealing a level of resentment and anger in her characters which percolates through some of the stories with the characters threatening to destroy themselves, or the family, rivals in love, virtually all familial ties. This, I feel, is revolutionary for a woman and writer of her era.

In "Grace", a widow with a child, who feels herself to be plain and unattractive, faces the unfaithfulness of an abusive lover, a shepherd who beats her, takes her meager earnings and deceives her. Grace lives in terror lest her man leave her for her beautiful neighbor Elena only to find that she has been deceived by the pious, plain housewife Basila.

"America, 1911" tells of the effects of mass emigration prompted by poverty from Sicily. I had not thought of this clearly before ... what of those left behind, the elderly parents? the wives? sometimes the children? The economic, social and emotional toll of emigration is recounted here. The hopes of those left behind dashed by La Merica, which is described alternately as a seductress and wormwood. A wife is left behind because her eyesight is poor, left on the dock, frightened and embittered as her husband sails away. His parents remain as well as they are elderly. The wife slowly loses her eyesight and her mind due to her despair.

Things fare as poorly for Nonna Lidda in "Grandmother Lidda" who loses both her son and then her grandson to La Merica and therefore loses the will to live.

Vanni almost loses hope of a bride when he returns to Sicily from America after two years to learn that his once intended is engaged to another but the dainty shoes (in "Le Scarpette") that he has bought and set aside for his future bride remain pristine ... awaiting some other woman that will eventually take her place.

The shabbily genteel lawyer Scialabba in "Ti-nesciu" must keep up appearances at all costs so that his daughter might marry and marry well so he takes her out each night for display in the piazza.

"Her Father's House" is the most poignant. A young woman watches her youth fade waiting for permission to marry that her sisters-in-law and family will not allow - mocking her for her desires for a home and husband of her own.

"Ciancianedda", a deaf mute beauty, leaves the sheltered life she leads with her father and brother to marry a handsome suitor only to have him stolen by a siren with a beautiful voice who sings to him each night. And in "Caterina's Loom", Caterina rejects a suitor whom her family has coaxed her to accept because of the way she feels she has been put on display - choosing to be alone rather than auctioned off like a prize hen.

Messina remains defiant - her life may have been circumscribed, her options limited as a woman but she was well aware of the injustices and her clear sighted vision could not be curbed or ignored.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

My First Review

Oooooh, so much rests upon the opinion of others when you write. How sad we are ... how little makes us happy! Today I saw my first review of Made Up of Arias in a journal called Partners which is directed towards the Italo-Canadian business community in Toronto but always includes a section on arts and culture.

A very nice review ... written by fiction writer Julie Booker which took up a whole page with a picture of the book cover. It's an intelligent review - not just because she liked the book but because she knows a bit about opera herself and understands that it is a metaphor for the Pentangelis' life.

She talks about the plot in great detail and then concludes:
"Alfano is a keen observer, with an eye for detail and a gift for humour. ... This charming story is well worth reading."

Thank you Ms. Booker ... from your mouth to God's ears!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Gone but not really ...

Gone with the Wind (U.S., 1939) directed by Victor Fleming, 238 min.
Frankly, My Dear by Molly Haskell (Yale University Press, 2009) 244 pages

I just finished reading the wonderful non-fiction book Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell which made me want to watch Gone with the Wind again. The film has always been a guilty pleasure along the lines of enjoying The Sopranos (far superior artistically but evokes similar feelings of discomfort and guilty pleasure) or the milder guilt inducing West Side Story.

The whole premise of Margaret Mitchell's book and the 1939 film violates the liberal sensibility (or anyone with a conscience): the noble and beautiful Southern way of life destroyed by an uncomprehending and heartless Northern conqueror in the American Civil War. It's a nauseating fantasy when one contemplates what it must have cost in human blood to sustain the plantation system in the South. I am sure that life was an idyllic dream for the privileged white few but at whose expense was this lifestyle sustained?

And let me say upfront (which has been said many times before rightly) that the characterization of most of the black characters is evil and reprehensible - running the spectrum from squirm inducing to horrifying. It boggles the mind. What, therefore, redeems this film?

I must say, for me as it is for some other feminists, it is the characterization of Scarlett O'Hara by Vivien Leigh. And you are thinking ... but she is vain, selfish, manipulative, careless, hypocritical, at times heartless ... she is all of these things and she survives all that is thrown at her: the Civil War, the death of her beloved mother and the consequent mental deterioration of her father; burying two husbands; losing a child; famine, carpetbaggers; marauding Union solders; poverty; social ostracization and the heavy burden of sustaining a household of family and servants, black and white, who seem utterly lost at the end of the war.

In many respects she represents a steely feminist icon which flies in the face of the stereotypical, simpering Southern belle. If, on the surface, she preens and flirts and flatters, it belies a nature truer to the ruthless Yankees that she claims to despise. In her book Haskell compares the characters of the men in the book to Scarlett's ferocity:

Baby-faced Charles Hamilton woos (or is wooed by) Scarlett, and after one night with her, goes off to war to die of measles and pneumonia. Frank Kennedy, a little old maid, can’t collect from his customers and is outwitted by his wife. Ashley Wilkes gives loserdom a high poetic sheen. Gerald O’Hara, a reckless drunk, falls apart with the death of his wife. By contrast, Scarlett is a generalissima on the battlefield of courtship and marriage. Sherman has nothing on the deadly belle-then-widow as she cuts a swathe thought the rolls of Georgia’s most eligible bachelors.

From a mid 19th c. societal point of view as a Southern lady, Scarlett's transgressions range from the offensive (marrying Charles Hamilton, a man she did not love, to make Ashley Wilkes jealous; dancing in public while in mourning for one's husband and callously giving his wedding ring away under the guise of supporting the Confederate cause; sporadically necking with her lifelong love Ashley, a married man and an in-law to boot) to the fairly disreputable (marrying
sister Suellen's beau to save the family estate; traveling alone in a disreputable part of town to do business; trying to con Rhett Butler out of $300 to pay the taxes to save Tara, the family home) to the unconscionable (doing business with the hated carpetbaggers and those whom Southerners claim have destroyed the South; shooting a Union soldier in the face as he tries to rob you; using convicts as labour in her new business).

In the end, Scarlett gets what she wants - wealth and stability - even if she has to marry the once hated Rhett Butler to get it. And she eventually succumbs to his desire that she love him, truly love him, and drives the desire for that milquetoast Ashley Wilkes out of her head forever.

But it takes extraordinary things to happen before she comes to that point. Melanie must die and then Scarlett must see how much Ashley truly loved his wife. Scarlett has to lose virtually every person that she has loved: mother Ellen, father Gerald, Bonnie her first born, her unborn child which she miscarries, her love for Ashley, Rhett.

She stands alone at the end and yet is unbroken. She will triumph. And in the end, feminist or not, you forgive her her transgressions and believe that she will carry on by any means necessary.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The White Tiger

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many ... A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9% ... to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hand and he will throw it back at you with a curse."
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Simon & Schuster, 2008) 276 pages

The really wonderful thing about my book club is that it compels me to read things I ordinarily wouldn't read - this book being one of these instances.

How to describe our hero Balram Halwai? Member of a "low" caste of sweetmakers in India. Servant. Chauffeur. Small business entrepreneur. Oh yes, and, murderer.

He starts life as a poor Indian boy born in "the Darkness" with a searing, subversive sense of humour and an acute sense of the injustices of caste society in India. Early on, as a young boy, Balram is described as a unique and intelligent boy, a once in a generation phenomenon - a white tiger.

He begins the novel as a fugitive, a man wanted for murder, sitting in office alone, transfixed below a chandelier in his small office, writing a letter to a Mr. Jiabao, a Chinese official whom he has read in the newspapers will be visiting Bangalore to "meet some Indian entrepreneurs and hear the story of their success". Balram is very anxious to speak of his success as an entrepreneur and we are anxious to hear his story because the first thing he tells Mr. Jiabao is that he has murdered someone and is on the run ...

This is an India, the publisher describes, composed of "the cockroaches and the call centers; the prostitutes and the worshippers; the ancient and Internet cultures; the water buffalo and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is (almost) impossible, the white tiger."

Balram's initial ambition is to become a driver primarily because he covets the pristine uniform. He succeeds in convincing a wealthy family of landlords to take him on even though his caste dictates that he should be a sweetmaker. But his position as a driver doesn't begin to encompass his domestic responsibilities: cook, masseur, cleaner, household servant, dog-washer and general dogsbody at the service of all in the household. He sleeps in the basement of the apartment in a hovel with the other servants who are summoned by a bell.

Alternately horrifying and grotesquely funny we experience Balram's vicissitudes. The patriarch, known as The Stork, is a vicious oaf whose feet Balram regularly massages. The eldest son, The Mongoose, is a chip off the old nasty block: bigoted, spoiled and cruel. The second son Ashok, whom Balram primarily serves, is somewhat less vicious and often has a guilty conscience about the inequitable relationship. Pinky Madam, Ashok's wife, is another story: perhaps an even uglier emblem of the new entrepreneurial India, greedy, selfish, spoiled, immodest and callous. Of all of them, Balram is most devoted to Ashok who seems to pay for all their transgressions.

Balram is forced by his masters to sign a confession to the accidental killing of a child when Pinky Madam runs over the child in a drunken spree. Balram assures the reader that this is a common fate for drivers in Delhi - to assume responsibility for their masters' crimes. And the boy's family colludes in this, proud of Balram, who has acted like "the perfect servant". At all costs, they wish the money that Balram sends home to continue no matter what degradations he suffers.

But Pinky Madame runs away after the accident, terrified by what she has done leaving thousands of rupees for Balram (out of shame? guilt? fear?) and Balram experiences a narrow escape because the crime is never reported.

How, Balram wonders, can a man break out of this trap - this roosters' coop where the poor are trapped and subservient and oblivious of this trap? Only "a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed - hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature. It would take a White Tiger." Because even if Balram rebels, the masters would then turn on the family in a horrific and violent way to gain their revenge. And this, Balram reasons, is why few refuse to rebel.

Ashok falls apart with Pinky gone. Inexplicably, Balram suffers too. He starts to rebel, tries to frequent a prostitute with humorous results, steals from his master, siphons gas out of the car, goes to a sleek upscale mall which he sees as a luscious, forbidden piece of fruit and plots his escape. And it will not be pretty. Definitely not pretty.

Many words come to mind to describe this book: amoral, hilarious, biting, frighteningly true to life. India.