Friday, May 27, 2011

Goo goo over Gaga

Gaga letting her freak flag fly...
I admit that many new bizarre pop cultural phenomenon solicit a very east end of Hamilton response from me ... WTF? When I have a chance to be more circumspect, I will come around and admit that certain pop culture figures have appeal for me. I usually begin with a casual hate then succumb to a grudging desire and respect, confirming what my friend CP once claimed that "hate masks desire".

Exhibit A: Lady Gaga. This young woman, whose real name is Stefani Germanotta, is obviously intelligent and can be articulate when she chooses. She went to a private Catholic girls school and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She is interested in art and the history of music. She is immensely talented vocally and as a pianist. Influences include: Madonna, Queen and Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Elton John, glam rock ... yes I see them all.  I respect how she has synthesized and blended these influences into the weird and wonderful mish-mash that she is.

But I have to say I am often distracted (read annoyed) by the weird kabuki style makeup, the impossible clothes and heel-less shoes that she is literally unable to walk in. And what's with the no-pants thing? Would it kill you to cover your butt some days, I crankily wonder (obviously being the mother of a teen affects the way I see this).

I get hung up on but what does it mean? Should it have meaning? Isn't it just about freedom from conventionality and letting your freak flag fly? Am I too conservative to "get" it? More importantly, is there anything to get?

But I wonder ... how long can this artsy quirkiness last? It's hard to imagine Gaga at 35 - ten years from now. Or at 45, twenty years from now, in the same get-ups with the same self-absorbed, lame answers when interviewed. She sometimes reminds me of the worst side of Madonna in these instances with inane. bored responses, distracted-seeming, arrogant (see recent Letterman appearance on May 23, 2011).

I don't know. Sometimes I think it's more about a lonely, insecure girl trying to elicit love from a world she is fearful of. The girl who doesn't think she's pretty enough so she shows up at the party in a low cut blouse and a short skirt.

She talks about her insecurities constantly - about being bullied and ridiculed in high school, about being self-conscious of her "big" nose and her looks. She sometimes claims that she wakes up and still feels that she is a "loser". But what does that mean - someone who is not famous? Someone who is not pretty? Not talented? She wants her "little monsters" to be assured that they too are special and that they too can do great things.

This rah rah rah - look at us we're freaks and proud of it - thing  makes me uneasy at times. Constantly hiding behind a mask and bizarre couture. Is that about accepting oneself? Or is it hiding because you are afraid to show people what you are really like ... just an average looking Italo-American girl with a great deal of energy and talent?

That ain't so bad you know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi (Quercus, 2010) 242 pages

Let’s suppose I had a connection to a very famous person. Let’s say that I helped that famous person do something that was considered extraordinary for them. And then my grandson/daughter wrote a book about it decades later. What do you suppose the most interesting bits of that biography would be? I think it would be about my interaction with said famous person. It wouldn’t be about my trip to Italy last year, my domestic or personal financial issues, my relationship with my husband or my daughter. As fascinating as that may be to me and my dear ones, surely it would not fascinate you dear reader.

Hence, this is the dilemma for the writers of this biography and the main issue that I have with this book. Even though the relationship between Lionel Logue, an Australian born speech therapist, and King George VI was important to the success of that king’s reign (and was memorialized in the 2010 film The King’s Speech), everything else in Logue’s life is of little importance to the average reader.

The book is slight and feels sloppily put together, as if it was produced solely in response to the enormous popularity of the film (which I loved by the way).

If you are going to write about Wallis Simpson, the woman largely blamed for King Edward VIII’s abdication which precipitated King George VI’s ascension to the throne in 1937, at least spell her name right – not sometimes Wallis, sometimes Wallace.

If you are going to refer to the British poet Rudyard Kipling talk about his misguided “celebration” of British imperialism or his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 not merely that he is the author of The Jungle Book. Otherwise the authors appear ill informed and unaware of the historical importance of the people they are referring to.

As readers, we don’t need to know, every time Logue was present to prop up the King or how he congratulated him upon making a successful speech (let me let the cat out of the bag - it was often). We don’t really need to know that much about the techniques he used or how there were numerous quacks in the field. The authors have succeeded in making a slightly ridiculed figure in British history appear even more fragile and piteous – many times King George VI comes across as a very silly man or a frightened boy being more interested in a swarm of bees outside his window than what is happening in the room before him or the fact that he might miss his dinner if he engages in a particular speech at a given time.

It makes the monarchy look ludicrous - which isn’t so much bothersome to me because as a republican I don’t support the institution - but I don’t think that was the likely intention of the authors. I imagine that they wanted both Logue and the King to appear noble in a time of great historical importance.

And it was of great importance – imagine if the Nazi-sympathizing King Edward and his consort Mrs. Simpson who was rumored to have relationships with high-ranking Nazis had remained in power while the German army was encroaching on Europe and England in the late1930s, how events might have transpired. It's an ugly, possibly brutal scenario so the perceived competence and status of the King was important to the English people of that time.

Logue is a kind of hero and seemed an admirable man. He deserves a more fitting (and less boring) tribute from his grandson.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Lately my feminist side is a bit at war with a burgeoning civil libertarian side about the use of the veil amongst Muslim women.

In principle, I don't agree that women should be veiled or hidden behind chadors and burqas in any way unless it is an adult woman's choice (which I admit completely flummoxes me - I can't quite understand why a woman would make that choice). And I don't mean the "choice" made by an eleven or twelve year old - I mean a decision made by an adult without coercion from other adults.

According to a recent NPR article, "There are about 1 million Muslim women in America; 43 percent of them wear headscarves all the time, according to the Pew Research Center. About 48 percent — or half a million women — don't cover their hair, the survey found."

My bias will be obvious ... I think the insistence on the veiling of women by men reveals a fundamental fear of women and the power of female sexuality. The demand that a woman cover one’s hair, one’s form, one’s beauty … what greater indication is there of male anxiety and insecurity?

A small, very personal illustration of how difficult these choices maybe albeit in a different instance ...

When my father died I had just turned sixteen a few months before. It is an old Sicilian tradition (which had been carried over to Canada by some) that the female relations of the deceased wear black for a certain amount of time. My mother, widowed since the age of forty, wore black for number of years. My paternal grandmother, widowed at thirty four, wore black until she died - she lived to be 96.

As the elder daughter (my sister was only seven then), I was expected to wear black for a year. Imagine that … expecting a sixteen year old to wear black in all instances except when I wore my school uniform or wore jeans to work in our family business. I was resentful towards this dictate but didn't dare voice my opposition. This is ironic now in light of the fact that my entire wardrobe is almost exclusively black.

I never had the sense that I had the option to say no.

My sentence was commuted to six months into the bereavement process and I can't remember why this was so. I only know that I did not protest the change.

I remember other rules: if a guest should arrive to offer condolences one must snap off the T.V. as if watching one indicated that one was not sufficiently absorbed by one’s grief. You were not allowed to go out for a period of time … you certainly couldn’t entertain the idea of dating or interacting with boys … you did not display happy behavior in public lest someone think that you were happy that your father died. You did not entertain the idea of leaving home at any age because now your mother was a widow – the only escape was marriage or death.

I did not resist, I complied with these bizarre requests except for the proviso that I remain with my mother until she (or I) died. That much I could not do.

I had no one in my life to tell me that I did not need to comply to these barbaric rules but a whole host of others who might tell me how disrespectful and rude I was if I did not comply.

So, to me, the idea that a very young Muslim girl has the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to resist the idea of veiling herself in a hijab or chador or burqa leaves me very skeptical and suspicious of who is making the decisions.

However, despite my strong feelings on this issue, I find this new legislation regarding veiling in France extremely disturbing. France's actions have become increasingly hostile to Islam and Islamic traditions: from denying citizenship to a Muslim woman from Morocco ruling that "her practice of 'radical' Islam is not compatible with French values" (2008); to setting up a commission "to study the extent of burqa-wearing" in France (2009); to French President Nicolas Sarkozy saying that the full burka is "not welcome" in France and, now, finally, to a French parliamentary committee recommending "a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils" (2010) to a full out banning of the burqa (2011).

These actions are distressing and counter-productive. Please do not attempt to argue that the wearing of these garments are oppressive to women when you then strip them of the right to decide how they should dress and observe their own religion.

I do not attach morality (or allegiance to one’s country) to clothing and neither should the state.

As much as I abhor the wearing of these garments, I don't think it is the right of the state to decide what to wear: be it a bikini or burqa.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Draft 6.6 Reading

May 15, 2011 3:00 p.m.

The Merchants of Green Cafe
2 Matilda Street
(just north of Queen and West of Broadview)

with new work by:
Michelle Alfano
Baila Ellenbogen
Catherine Graham
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Nicholas Power

With the $5 admission fee comes a copy of Draft, a
limited-edition publication available only at these readings.

For further information call 416-433-4170

The Draft Readings Series is grateful to the Canada Council through The Writers' Union of Canada, as well as to the League of Canadian Poets and the Toronto Arts Council for their support of this reading. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Felled by folly or foe

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (originally published by Macmillan, 1880-81; reprinted 2003 by Penguin Books) 656 pages

Henry James' oeuvre is filled with hapless men who watch the women in their lives be destroyed either by their own ambitions and weaknesses (The Wings of the Dove, Daisy Miller) or by the insidious, evil people around them (The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Golden Bowl) many of whom are, unfortunately, men. The girls and women are often superior creatures felled by folly or foe.

Here, the consumptive and gravely ill American Ralph Touchett watches helplessly as his beautiful cousin Isabel Archer is seduced and nearly destroyed by Europeanized Americans intent on sucking every last material benefit out of her. Isabel has been plucked from her staid American life in Albany, NY (where James himself was raised in his early years) to live in England with her aunt's family who admires her independence of mind. The Touchetts are greatly  enamored of Isabel and determined to have her forge her own path:
Most women did with themselves nothing at all: they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. 
It is significant that Isabel's last name is Archer - she brings to mind the Roman goddess Diana the goddess of hunting, in physical description and action. Diana was a virgin goddess who also protected virgins (this will signify later) and who swore never to marry.

Isabel is determined to live life on her own terms - rejecting the advances of a handsome, if overpowering, American industrialist named Caspar Goodwood who pursues her to England and then Italy, warding off the gentle advances and offer of marriage from Lord Warburton, Ralph's friend, and even the gentle solicitude of her cousin Ralph. None of the candidates seem suitable to Isabel.

Goodwood (such names Mr. James!) "seemed to deprive her of the sense of freedom". He represented "a kind of grim fate" and "the idea of a diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to her at present." Goodwood is often imagined as a sort of warrior, armored, helmeted, a valiant knight of sorts. He is also associated with "hardness", with immovability and intractability - it is the thing which both repels and attracts Isabel. Goodwood presses her for a reason as to why she chooses not to marry either of them:
I'm not in my first youth - I can do what I choose - I belong quite to the independent class. I've neither father nor mother; I'm poor and of a serious disposition; I'm not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can't afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.
With Lord Warburton Isabel reasoned that, "If she wouldn't do such a thing as that [marry Warburton] then she must do great things, she must do something greater."
The rejection of Goodwood exasperates her close friend, the American journalist Henrietta Stackpole, who connives to throw the two together in England although her plot fails:
"Do you know where you're drifting?" Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.
"No, I haven't the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see - that's my idea of happiness."
"Mr. Goodwood certainly didn't teach you to say such things as that -like the heroine of an immoral novel," said Miss Stackpole."You're drifting to some great mistake."
Isabel presages the "New Woman" of the late 19th c. She is intelligent, admirable, independent. She is certainly sympathetically portrayed by James and beloved by all around her. The journalist Henrietta Stackpole represents a more shrill example of the same type - shockingly traveling through Europe alone, having a career (unusual for a woman at that time), speaking her mind regardless of how it will be received by her American friends. Henrietta is sometimes presented as slightly disagreeable and not quite proper. Where Isabel inspires love and admiration, Henrietta's presence and pronouncements are greeted like the sound of nails upon a chalkboard. Does James admire the new, modern woman? What then does it mean when Isabel allows herself to be ensnared by the treachery of Gilbert Osmond if she is the vastly superior creature that we, the readers, perceive her to be?

Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film with her  
nemeses John Malkovich (Gilbert Osmond) 
and Barbara Hershey (Serena Merle) ...

Enter Madame Serena Merle (her name hearkens back to the devious Marquise de Merteuil from the 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses and her role is not dissimilar here). Madame Merle is a close friend of Isabel's aunt, Lydia Touchett, who joins the household while the elder Mr. Touchett lies dying in his country estate at Gardencourt. When Serena Merle learns of the bequest that Isabel receives from her uncle she throws the impressionable girl in the path of slithery Gilbert Osmond.

The reader observes Osmond's overbearing solicitude towards his daughter, the sweet Pansy (an apt name for such a flower - sweet, vulnerable and easily trampled), with mounting trepidation. Osmond values the submissiveness of the convent educated Pansy and it makes us shudder anticipating the meeting between Isabel and Osmond orchestrated by Madame Merle. What will he make of Isabel? What does Serena Merle gain from the encounter - mere amusement or a more sinister satisfaction?

When the Countess Gemini, Osmond's sister, observes Isabel being courted by Merle and Osmond she immediately senses that Isabel is in jeopardy: "... together you are dangerous - like some chemical combination." How close to the mark this observation is!

Aunt Lydia's opposition to, and assessment of, the match is correct - Isabel just might marry Osmond for his exquisite taste and impoverished circumstances because it would be the thing for a wealthy, beautiful young heiress not to do. Neither aunt nor friend (Henrietta or Goodwood) nor cousin dissuade her (Ralph thinks Osmond a "sterile dilettante" and a "villain" at heart yet lacks the proof he says). Aunt Lydia breaks her relations with Serena, feeling that she and Isabel have been duped.

Unfortunately nothing dissuades Isabel - all the arguments against him strengthen her resolve. Osmond's lack of wealth, connections, his ultra-refined, some might argue effete, tastes prove irresistible to Isabel. I wonder at the paralysis that the male characters in James' works exhibit. Ralph sets a plan in motion to have Isabel inherit a substantial sum from his father and yet when she falters with Osmond he fails to forcefully intervene - like a deistic god who has set a clock in motion but will not alter the course of events - is it because he is ill, because he loves her too much, knows that his words or actions will have no effect upon the strong-willed Isabel?

Fast forward a few years ... without specific details except for the information that Isabel has borne and lost a child at the age of six months and has not conceived since, we know that the marriage has not been a success. We know this through Madame Merle's speech to a young suitor, Edward Rosier, who has his eye on Pansy, now nineteen. His suit is not likely to be successful - he is moderately well off but not fabulously wealthy which is what Osmond desires for his daughter. We see how the tables have turned. Isabel is shown as defenseless against Osmond's wishes.

Henry James in his relative youth
The Osmonds live in an enormous palazzo called Palazzo Roccanera (literally translated in Italian as "black rock") near the Palazzo Farnese in Rome which sounds much like a mausoleum, crammed with Osmond's objets d'art and about as inviting as its host. Isabel is still beautiful, elegant and much admired, hosting evenings on Thursdays for their friends. Madame Merle comes more to the forefront, clearly managing Pansy's affairs as much as Osmond. Isabel does not enter into their consideration at all. Although she loves the young girl, she is powerless to protect her or forward her interests and realizes this clearly.

Isabel has a revelation - a presentiment - one day she sees Madame Merle and Osmond together. They are not being intimate, not even touching; however, there is something she senses in their relationship to each other. Something disturbing.

At one of her evenings, Isabel is surprised to see Lord Warburton who comes bearing the news that Ralph, now gravely ill, is back in Rome. The Lord has also become smitten with Pansy. Isabel hurries to see Ralph the next day. Ralph sees enormous changes ... not in her beauty but in her very being:
Her light step drew a mass of drapery behind it; her intelligent head sustained a majesty of ornament. The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond.
Isabel realizes that Osmond feels that she has failed him: "Her mind was to be his - attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching."

But Isabel does not comply to his ideal of a submissive wife and he soon suspects that Isabel is attempting to thwart his plans to have Lord Warburton marry Pansy and not Edward Rosier. Osmond wishes her to use her influence over Warburton to push the plan forward.

I always lose heart when I reach this particular section ... why has Isabel become so passive, so reluctant to challenge Osmond? Where is the free spirited girl who turned down marriage offers from industrial magnates and lords? Where is the girl who defied family and friend to marry a penniless man? Her spirit appears broken, her confidence shaken. Was it the loss of her child? The realization of what a profound error she has made?
She knew of no wrong he had done; he was not violent, he was not cruel: she simply believed he hated her.
If you don't know the ending I will not spoil it for you ... suffice it to say Mr. Rosier is defeated and we soon learn why Madame Merle is interested in Pansy's fate. Isabel makes fateful decisions: to remain Pansy's protector, to be with Ralph at the last when he is conquered by his consumption. Isabel is complicated and perverse at times. Her fidelity is heart-rending. Her turning away from possible escapes from Gilbert is maddening.

The final appearance of Goodwood in the last pages still intrigues me - Isabel's rejection of Goodwood seems inexplicable at times. And yet it is consistent with Isabel's nature. She has made her proverbial bed and is adamant that she will lie in it. That is her tragedy and beauty.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Of Shiny, Pretty Things

Nothing incites my sweet, even-tempered husband R like a discussion about the royal wedding of William and Kate. He practically spits fire if I should turn the channel to a biopic about the couple or express any interest in their doings - so inflamed is he by his intense dislike of the British monarchy. The media coverage of the wedding has been particularly repulsive to him. Should I, with trepidation, defend the public’s interest in this event he launches into a vitriolic attack on all things royal. 

R sent me a link which summed up his feelings and I posted it on facebook. But underneath I had to comment that I was still curious to see the dress to which he replied, "Exactly!"

I don’t disagree per se with him on this but I do understand the interest that this couple elicits. I feel no affinity for the Queen. The devotion she excites in some puzzles me. I am not a monarchist but a staunch republican - small "r" people, small "r". I am a serious literary Anglophile but a monarchist … no.
Husband, how can you say she is not lovely?
I will admit that before I married I was fascinated by another royal bride – Princess Diana – but I attribute this fascination to an attraction to her youth and beauty and a little bit of a princess fixation.

As time passed, I sympathized with her marital troubles and Camilla woes. I admired her obvious adoration of her two boys. She had wonderful style and a lovely, generous aura. I remember her death struck me quite forcibly but I’m not sure that it didn’t have more than a little to do with the fact that her death coincided exactly with the anniversary of my father’s death – August 31st – or if it wasn’t perhaps mixed with the remnants of a post-natal depression after the birth of my daughter. Perhaps it was both. I remember at the time my husband’s disdain towards those who publicly grieved for Diana and how it triggered a teary tirade from me about his insensitivity - much to his surprise.

I really don't buy into the accusations that Diana was manipulative, that she was not the victim she was perceived to be by the public, that she used the media to malign the royal family. Likely that was so. She was alone, up against a very powerful machine, "the firm" as the royal family refers to itself. I believe that she used anything, and everything, in her arsenal to protect herself as she rightly should have.

But back to Will and Kate … what is the attraction of the wedding for (as a friend recently argued) a constituency that is primarily made up of women?

The couple are young, attractive, seemingly nice (the husband always snorts derisively at this last assertion on my part). I have always been attracted to shiny, pretty things ... I think Will and Kate pretty much qualify as such.

R is appalled by the media coverage (excessive). True. He is disgusted by the expense (truly alarming especially in light of austerity measures in Britain). Quite right. He thinks both Kate and Will to be both unattractive and uninteresting - that, I admit, I don't understand except to say that, sadly, as Will ages, he seems to resemble more the House of Windsor rather than the House of Spencer.

But I do admire beauty. I do appreciate youth. I still cling somewhat to the fairy tale of the princess who has been elevated from the "common" people. Perhaps I am long in the tooth for such fancies ... perhaps.

The disdain about the wedding puzzles me a little bit too. Men, in particular, seem irritated by the focus on the wedding. I do detect an undercurrent of sexism here.

I must say that traditional male preoccupations sometimes mystify me ... Why is perfectly sensible to watch the Leafs lose every season for the last 34 years, tirelessly keep one's faith in them and follow their every move and success or failure? Or to sit in the Toronto FC stands, get roaring drunk, and cheer on your team to the point of starting an altercation with the supporters of a rival team? Or to sit at a NASCAR rally watching a bunch of cars go roaring around the track in a circle (repeatedly)? Or to observe the rituals surrounding the Stanley Cup or the Grey Cup ... Or, the mother of all male sporting obsessions: UFC which recently sold out all 55,000 seats at the Air Canada Centre. These obsessions are not silly or a waste of time?

And here is the reason why: I think that things that purportedly have to do with women's preoccupations or interests: weddings, fashion, romance, food, children, etc ... are seen as frivolous, overly self-involved, emotional, silly. Male pursuits/obsessions are understandable, noteworthy, important, serious ... I, clearly, don't believe that to be true and I don't think we should allow men to dictate what is important or interesting to us frivolous as they may seem to others.

But let's face it: the odds for marital happiness for this young couple are not great. There are more bad marriages and divorces in the royal family than good sets of teeth.

He, William, certainly appears different - kind, attentive, gentle, deemed boring and conventional by some. However, the priority of the royal family is the preservation of the rights and privileges of the royal family not the personal happiness of its individual members. It will do whatever it takes to preserve it.

Let's stick to the historical realities of "bad romances" in this century alone...

The royals forbid "unsuitable" matches (Princess Margaret and her first love RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend; Charles and the then married Camilla Parker-Bowles). They turn their backs on undesirable candidates (King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson but not because of her Nazi sympathies, because she was divorced and American). They demeaningly try to ensure the bride's virginity before marriage (Princess Diana). They denigrate and shun those whom the royals have divorced (again Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson).

The royals safely may be perceived as the Corleones of the British aristocracy and the art of social exclusion. They are immensely powerful, ruthless and they rarely take sides against "the family". Maintaining their power is just business (“It's not personal, Sonny; it's just business.").

Will William be different? Can he be different? Perhaps. I hope so. Not for the sake of the royal family but for the sake of the Duchess of Cambridge.