Saturday, August 28, 2010

And the Rage has it ...

Non ti curar di lor ma guarda e passa ...
Take no notice of them but look and pass.
Inferno, Dante Alighieri

The Rage and the Pride by Oriana Fallaci (Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2001) 187 pages

Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist who died in 2006, is a personal hero of mine. She was as valiant in print as she was in action. During World War II, as a teenager, she joined the resistance against the Nazis carrying explosives and delivering messages. In the 1960s and 70s she worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam, the Middle East and South America. She was once shot three times, dumped in a morgue and left for dead.

She interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeini and disrobed from the hated chador she was forced to wear in his presence calling it a "stupid, medieval rag" and forcing him to flee during the interview. She got Kissinger to admit that Vietnam was a "useless war". She has challenged everyone from Silvio Berlusconi to Yassir Arafat to Qaddafi to the Shah of Iran and the Pope on various issues. God, did this woman have parts. She was absolutely ferocious.

I can't do justice to her career here but there is an excellent article published in The New Yorker just prior to her death in 2006 which gives a great overview of her journalistic life.

Fallaci, the brave, the intelligent, the Cassandra of our time, descends into a howl of rage and ugly racism in this post 9-11 screed, the first of three books she published on the Islamic "threat" in 2002. Living in New York during the 9-11 attacks, she had a very passionate and somewhat understandable response to the event. If only, if only ... she had not let her passion and anger totally distort her considerable intellect in writing this "sermon" as she describes it. As Margaret Talbot's New Yorker article points out, where she fails so disastrously is in describing the worst practices of Islamic fundamentalists (which are undemocratic, violent, dangerous) as representing all of Islam.

This book was written in a complete fury in the unsettled days following 9-11 and, seemingly, it is unedited by anyone other than herself. She herself translated the work from the Italian which was, in my estimation, an enormous mistake. Had a competent English speaking editor been able to do so, they would have eliminated not only the many grammatical errors and adjust the syntax but perhaps challenge factual exaggerations and distortions that she so brazenly spouts.

It devolves from a shocked, angry response to 9-11 (she vividly recalls the smell of "death" in the air just after the attacks) into an ugly diatribe against all Muslims ("the sons of Allah" as she refers to them) and Islam. She moves from the obvious criticisms (religious intolerance, the abrogation of the rights of women and non-Muslims, the undemocratic nature of virtually all Islamic countries) to ugly stereotypes.

Oriana Fallaci before the Twin Towers

She complains how Muslims have turned the "exquisite" cities of Italy into "filthy kasbahs" with their mosques, businesses, food and culture. I shudder to think of people leveling that ridiculous accusation against the Italian-Canadian immigrants of St. Clair Avenue in Toronto or James Street in Hamilton, where many of us have built businesses and created homes for ourselves.

She accuses the Muslims of everything from overbreeding to spreading AIDS to prostitution to drug dealing to general criminality on the streets of Italian cities. It is truly disturbing to read. Capitalizing on the anti-Muslim mood it was a tremendous success in Italy. She warns that Europe will soon “end up with minarets in place of the bell-towers, with the burka in place of the mini-skirt.” She complains that Italy "cannot bear a migratory wave of people who have nothing to do with us . . . who, on the contrary, aim to absorb us.” She complains about Somali Muslims leaving “yellow streaks of urine that profaned the millenary marbles of the Baptistery” in Florence and urine streaks in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

The linguistic errors are too numerous to recount but here are some:  "I don't swim into an ocean of good health"; "Let me stress you why."; "Everyday an attack or a smear reminds me the Salem trial"; the word "teached" rather than "taught"; a reference to the historic ship she names "Mayfair" rather than the "Mayflower".

However, on one point I adamantly agree: we should vociferously decry practices which violate human rights, deprive women of equality, practice barbaric acts of retribution against those who violate Islamic law, force women to don burkas and chadors. She is in correct that a perverse sense of political correctness compels Western liberals and leftists to defend certain practices. We should condemn the repressive aspects of sharia law and all instances where people are deprived of their rights but we shy away from this because we don't want to be perceived as racist.

Fallaci said in this book that she refused to read her detractors, of which there were many, because she did not want to engage in "futile discussions" and because they were "invariably persons without ideas and without qualities". She cites a quote from Dante's Inferno: Non ti curar di lor ma guarda e passa ... A little less rage Ms. Oriana and a little more pride would have been in order because with this missive you damaged the reputation of an amazing journalistic career.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Night of Humour with the (Not So) Nice Italian Girls & Friends

Michelle Alfano is a co-organizer of the (Not So) Nice Italian Girls & Friends Reading Series and a Co-Editor with Descant. Her short story “Opera”, on which her novella Made Up Of Arias (Blaurock Press) is based, was a finalist for a Journey Prize anthology. Her fiction and non-fiction work has been widely published in major literary publications. She will be featured in a forthcoming documentary on the passengers, and the children of the passengers, of the Saturnia ship which will be featured on OMNI-TV. She is currently at work at a new novel entitled Vita’s Prospects.

Sandra Battaglini is a dynamic, high-energy comedic actor, stand-up comedienne, clown and cabaret performer. Her mix of song, opera, contemporary pop, originally choreographed dance and theatrical clown has distinguished her as an innovative artist on the Toronto scene.

Bruna Di Giuseppe-Bertoni immigrated with her family to Canada in 1964. Some of her poetry has received awards and been published in various magazines and anthology in both Italian and English. She has had short stories published in Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme and Wordscape, an anthology of mystery and suspense. Her work has been selected to be part of the new revised literary anthology, Italian Canadian Voice. Published by Mosaic Press 2006 As an artist, she has painted on porcelain. Currently Her most recent collection of poetry, Sentieri D'Italia, was published in Italian by Lyricalmyrical (Toronto, 2004). She is currently working on a novel, My Mother, My Legacy. In her profession as a Social worker she is involved within the Italian community with seniors, disabled and mental health patients.

Terri Favro’s writing springs from her identity as a first-generation Italian-Canadian who grew up consuming Catholic dogma, British fairytales, American game shows, Jell-O butterscotch pudding, her father’s grappa, her mother’s polenta, and the neighbours’ homemade vodka. Terri’s humour articles and fiction have been published in Prism, Riddle Fence, Geist, Accenti, Toro,; and More magazines, among others, and her work has been short listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. She was recently selected as an emerging Toronto writer by Diaspora Dialogues and is currently working on a novel and collaborating on a series of online graphic stories.

Michael Mirolla's latest novel, a speculative fiction saga titled The Facility, is due out in late 2010. In a moment of temporary insanity, the Montreal-Toronto corridor writer, author of a half-dozen books of poetry and fiction, decided he needed his own publishing house and thus, along with another insanity plea partner, bought Guernica Editions. Their motto: "It's fun as long as the madness continues."

David Silverberg has been involved in Canada’s spoken word community since 2001. He founded Suburban Spoken Word in North York and then helped start Toronto Poetry Slam, where he currently serves as host and artistic director. He is part of the Toronto poetry troupe Last Call Poets (, and his most recent book of poetry is Bags of Wires (LyricalMyrical). He has performed across Canada, including Calgary, Halifax, Vancouver, Ottawa, London and Montreal. He is the editor of Canada’s first spoken word anthology, Mic Check (Quattro Press). His favourite band, yet his most hated food, are Red Hot Chili Peppers.

And as emcee ...
Giovanna Riccio was born in Calabria, Italy and grew up in Toronto where she studied philosophy at the University of Toronto. Her poems have appeared in journals, magazines and newspapers, including the Eyetalian, Poetry Canada Review, CV2, Tickleace, and Italian-Canadiana. Giovanna completed her first manuscript, Strong Bread, earlier this year and is in the process of getting it published. Her dramatic monologue, Vittorio, was published by LyricalMyrical Press in the summer of 2010. She has recently retired from teaching and is working on a new book of poetry.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The ultimate wound

As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever.
War by Sebastian Junger (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2010) 287 pages

The construction of the mask of masculinity is thought provoking. My theory is that we all wear masks regarding our gender which are built from our personal histories, cultural and social environment and genetics. My interest in this book wasn't so much about the Americans' involvement in the war in Afghanistan where this book is set but how men behave in war and how they use the war to define their masculinity (which I believe the author was also trying to determine).

I urge you to pick up the book. I won't get into too many of the specific instances that Junger cites because I can't recount them as well as he can and my interest in the lives of these men lies elsewhere - not in the specifics of war but why men behave how they behave in these circumstances.

Personally, I don't believe that men have more personal courage than women in these situations - I do believe that men have a larger reservoir of personal shame at being perceived as cowardly or unmanly. When I am about to do something risky or dangerous I always ask myself - what would happen to my kid if I mess this up - if I was killed or incapacitated? Or even...would these actions shame her? I think that is the leash that reins in women not fear.

Men's visions appear both larger and more magnificent but also more foolish - as in I will climb that mountain to save my comrade (even though it is likely I will end up dead on the hillside because I have failed as many others have failed). Perhaps that is why they are predominantly, but not exclusively, the inventors, the explorers, the thrill seekers and the ones that end up killed.

"Manly valor" needn't be dirty words. The thing is we need individuals of this type, both male and female - to dare going into a burning building to save someone, to protect someone who is weaker and more vulnerable than you are, to risk it all to achieve something great. And chances are, as society stands today, these individuals will be men.

I have admired the modest Junger trying to explain during interviews for the book that these men were not merely "adrenaline junkies" seeking highs - (although one solider does describe combat as being akin to crack) - these are boys and men who are trying to define who they are through their actions in the military and their relationships with the other men.

War begins with a thirty man platoon, the 2nd battalion of the U.S. Army, stationed in the Korengal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains where Junger is serving as an embedded journalist in two cycles during June 2007 and June 2008. Life at Restrepo where he is based (and which he chronicled in a documentary made at the same time):

The men sleep as late as they can and come shuffling out of their fly-infested hooches scratching and farting. By midmorning it's over a hundred degrees and the heat has a kind of buzzing slowness to it that alone almost feels capable of overrunning Restrepo. It's a miraculous kind of antiparadise up here: heat and dust and tarantulas and flies and no women and no running water and no cooked food and nothing to do but kill and wait. It's so hot that the men wander around in flip flops and underwear, unshaved and foul.

For Junger, the soldier Brendan O'Byrne seems to epitomize the troop that he is stationed with. Just an average kid, albeit from a troubled, violent background in Pennsylvania, who casually mentions in conversation that he was once shot by his father and doesn't blame him as he (O'Byrne) was such a badass. His personal story is interwoven throughout the narrative. O'Byrne seems typical of the average soldier there: not wealthy, somewhat rootless, sometimes with a troubled history, eager to break the boredom of everyday life, fearful of returning to normalcy when his tour is over.

While reading the book, I kept picturing the character of Sergeant First Class William James in the film The Hurt Locker aimlessly examining the supermarket goods when he returns from a tour in Iraq and then almost immediately afterward we see that he has re-enlisted for another tour (done so with a big happy grin on his face).

The overwhelming sense of what the experience of war is appears to be mind numbing boredom broken with terrific firefights (as many as four or five a day for these particular men). This area saw one fifth of all the combat in Afghanistan at the time. The men are often so bored they would pray for combat or invoke weird rituals which were said to bring on combat (such as eating a certain kind of candy). At rest, they play guitar, beat on each other just for fun, read Harry Potter and surfing magazines, listen to music on their laptops.

The biggest motivator to behaving bravely in this situation appears to be not letting your fellow soldiers down through your own personal cowardice which is epitomized by the statement that one soldier named Jones makes that, "There ain't no bitch in me." This fear that one will make an error resulting in casualties is overwhelmingly important and, I think, tied to an innate sense of what is masculinity. This means mastering one's fear. There appears to be no shame in fear but it cannot, must not, affect the soldiers' ability to act in a crisis. 

O'Byrne tells Junger, "There are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other. But they would also die for each other." Clearly, they must possess the "X factor" to surmount their fear - a factor so labeled by the British and American militaries during WWII which was trying to determine what made men conquer their fear.

Junger mentions the unspoken agreement among the men that the men stick together no matter what. It is the "reassurance that you will never be abandoned [which] seems to help men in ways that serve the whole unit rather than just themselves." But sometimes this might just result in a suicide pact.

I think that there is something else at the heart of this commitment to each other. I would venture to say it is also the fear of being perceived a "bitch" if one disappoints his comrades. It appears that to be a man, most distinctly means not behaving like a "woman", being cowardly, not putting the whole of the unit before your own needs.

Junger seems most disturbed as a journalist when he learns of an enemy combatant, an Afghani man who, firstly, loses a leg while struck by firepower on a hillside, then gets blown to smithereens as he scrambles for cover. This elicits cheers from the Americans in the troop and from Junger horror. He struggles to understand. Relief he can comprehend from the soldiers but cheers? A soldier explains: this means there is one less man out there trying to kill you - hence the "happiness" the kill elicits.

Periodically, the men have what Junger describes as a "pisstube moment", this from O'Byrne:
I went out to use the pisstubes one night ... and I was like 'What am I doing in Afghanistan?' I mean literally, 'What am I doing here?' I'm trying to kill people and they're trying to kill me. It's crazy..."

Whether the sacrifices made, the lives lost, psyches destroyed during this war are worthwhile I leave to finer minds than mine. I found it difficult to understand the purpose of the mission, the purpose of this war. I guess that would be my "pisstube moment" in contemplating the war in Afghanistan.

When you learn of O'Byrne's troubled fate once he is released from duty (many of his psychological wounds are self-inflicted) you wonder if Junger is not right when he states: Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

There will be much blood ...

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (U.S., 2010) directed by David Slade, 124 minutes

I haven't quite mastered my embarrassment at being taken in by the Twilight franchise. Thankfully, I am not an out and out Twilight Mom, but more an intrigued reader of the books and observer of this phenomenon. If you have nothing but scorn for the franchise best to move on, this blog entry won't interest you. But I have a theory that anything of such monumental cultural influence on young women and teens has touched a chord that we can't, nor should, ignore.

Having seen all three films in the Twilight Saga and read the three books (there is one more to go - Breaking Dawn) I have to say that the films work in a way that the books do not. Meyer is a notoriously long-winded and bad writer (hence the length and repetitiveness in all of the novels) but, as I have said before, she has an unerring eye for capturing the angst of a teenage girl's life and passionate teenage love. No small thing.

This film is tightly edited and the action scenes well constructed. It's beautiful to look at (not to mention there are alot of pretty pore-less people in it who are, for the most part, expertly cast). The music selected is hip and moody and interesting. The director David Slade hits the right notes for the film and the book's demographic - sensuous detail for the romantics and well coordinated action sequences for the male demographic. Lest you think I am being sexist I will mention that I read after the first Twilight film, the producers knew they had captured the teen female demographic with its success but they wanted to snag the male one too by adding more action.

But my interest in the film isn't about how well crafted it may or may not be.

I first became of aware of the books through my now teenage daughter - not a voracious reader prior to this - and I was wondering what had captured her attention so. I knew nothing of the plots or the series. Soon afterward, I attended a book club group at the invitation of a friend and was astonished to learn that all of the members - educated, intelligent, career women - had read all of the books, sometimes more than once. I was, as they say, gobsmacked by the range of girls and women whom the books appealed to.

The actress Kristen Stewart, who plays Bella Swan, perfectly embodies a certain teenage ideal - a beauty who has no idea how beautiful she is, aware, intelligent, sensitive, socially awkward and passionate about the people she cares about. She finds herself caught yet in another struggle between the "bad" vampires led by Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the good vampires which are comprised of the Cullen family, of which Edward Cullen (the Byronic British dreamboat Rob Pattison), Bella's love, is a member. (I know, I know you are laughing at me already!)

Victoria seeks retribution for the death of her mate James, killed by Edward during a ferocious battle in book one. She hopes to kill Bella to revenge James' death. She marshals an army of "newborns", humans who have recently been turned into vampires and have an insatiable thirst for blood. She finds a human, Riley Biers (Xavier Samuel), who is from Forks, WA, (where Bella and Edward live) as a mate and starts a murderous rampage against humans in Seattle which eventually attracts the attention of both the Cullens and the Quileute Indians of nearby LaPush who shapeshift into werewolves and who are the natural enemies of the vampires. Inevitably, they band together to defeat the "bad" vampires in various horrifically visual ways.

There is another significant subplot where Bella must decide between her love for Edward the vampire and her best friend Jacob the werewolf and in the book the author likens it to the choice that Catherine must make between Heathcliff and Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights but this is a feeble and silly comparison that is dropped in the film. This device of co-opting romantic duos from great literature for the Twilight series works in the first book (the Lizzie/Darcy tension between the two lead characters is borrowed from Pride and Prejudice) and the second book (a Romeo and Juliet theme of tragic love and misunderstanding set in Italy) but does not really work here in the third installment with the Wuthering Heights love triangle.

Needless to say much blood is spilled trying to save Bella from the vampires - the scent of her blood alone sends them all into a frenzy. But of greater interest, I still believe, as I have posted previously, is the hidden and unspoken of mystique of Bella's virginity symbolized by the manner with which her blood is exalted and fought over. Bella is anxious to rid herself of her virginity; Edward is determined to protect it. He will not sleep with her until they marry which she finally consents to at the end of book three. Her resistance to marriage does strike me as odd if Edward is, as she keeps proclaiming, the man whom she wants to spend the rest of her life with. It is better explained in the book - marrying early signifies giving up and settling for less than what you are or that you suddenly got pregnant which Bella hates the idea of.

Is this strict adherence to chastity on the couple's part in the novel/book consistent with the moral code of the 100 plus year old vampire born before the first world war or a not so hidden message from a practicing Mormon such as Meyer? Meyer plays it both ways...Edwards dutifully sleeps chastely with Bella every night in her room as her protector but she remains a virgin unto (at least) the end of book three.

Finally, I have to say that Edward's paternalism and control over Bella grates more and more as time goes on...what might seem romantic and passionate to a teenage girl in love for the first time is troubling and annoying to a woman my age. That's what I want my daughter J to take away from the books and the films - as much as she may enjoy the franchise, Edward's behavior should be seen through the prism of this fantasy and should not be a template for male/female behavior in her world no matter how attractive its proponents.