Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The January Cultural Roundup

January ... some look forward to the snow. Not me, you snow bunnies. I look forward to cuddling in front of a fire with a good book or a good film!

Pina (Germany, 2010) directed by Wim Wenders, 106 minutes
Tsunami: The Aftermath (U.K./U.S., 2006) directed by Bharat Nalluri, 186 minutes
The Misfits (U.S., 1961) directed by John Huston, 124 minutes
Niagara (U.S., 1953) directed by Henry Hathaway, 88 minutes
Ides of March (U.S., 2011) directed by George Clooney, 101 minutes
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (U.S., 2011) directed by David Fincher, 161 minutes
A Dangerous Method (Can., 2011) directed by David Cronenberg, 99 minutes
Beginners (U.S., 2011) directed by Mike Mills, 105 minutes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2010) 150 pages
This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman (2010) 222 pages
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (2000) 738 pages

American Idiot, Toronto Centre for the Arts, January 14, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010) 222 pages

I recently met a woman who is raising her teenage son on her own; he's a good looking, smart kid who gets a lot of female attention. Naively, I was a little bit surprised to hear that her concern as a mother was overly aggressive girls who send him provocative texts, images and messages. I have always worried about protecting my teenage daughter from various nefarious males (young and old) but never considered what teenage boys were up against. This book made me pause a bit - and think about the whole young female as the potential victim of males perspective.

Our story starts in New York and I am easily seduced by almost any story set in New York no matter which social strata it portrays.This is a weakness, admittedly, in choosing fiction. It sometimes leads me astray.

I often apply what I call my Holden Caulfield test to reading fiction (who is, by the way, my favourite fictional New York hero from Catcher in the Rye): my literary antennae starts vibrating uncontrollably when faced with phony characters - poorly executed, insincere sounding, paper thin mannequins ... thus my initial displeasure with this book. I felt deflated by the quality of the writing and my tepid dislike of the main characters. But that position was somewhat undermined by some surprising twists in the story.

Although attracted to the novel's premise as the Internet is a big bogeyman for parents of teens - Jake, a teenage boy gets embroiled in a huge scandal after forwarding a provocative video e-mail sent to him by a thirteen year old girl - I ended up disappointed with this novel. But ... I had to concede it did take me places I had not expected to go. There is also another intriguing subplot where Jake's mother Liz begins to surreptitiously cyber-stalk/follow an old flame on his blog that I wish had been expanded upon.

Liz is caught betwixt and between the wealthy WASPS and JAPS (her terms) who populate her kids' private schools and of whom she seems to have a growing fear, and her role as the adoring mother of the very young Coco and Jake, the hapless teenager who gets into this mess. I might be more sensitive to her plight if she did not seem so obviously ensnared in what some might callously call her "white girl problems" despite her working class roots.

Her main complaints before this genuinely serious family crisis seem to be a simmering resentment that her Ph.D. has not been fully utilized; the fact that her ambitious husband Richard, a senior official at a fictitious university, seems too alarmingly perfect even for her; and, although she adores her two kids, Jake and Coco, but seems bored and unfulfilled with her life choices.

She's bright, she's bored, she's affluent. She's also ... annoying. Her only affirmation as a person appears to be locking eyes with a raccoon during her daily run around Central Park whom she feels is telepathically transmitting the thought that: "We are a pair of outlaws living in an alien land."

The nasty video sent to Jake by thirteen year old Daisy, who was determined to get his attention, has gone viral but it has been traced back to Jake by school authorities. Liz's directive to Richard once Jake is called to the carpet for his offense at the private school he attends: "I want you to be an asshole." Was this, or was this not, a stupid act (albeit the boy is young and inexperienced) and who should be accountable for it? Should his life be destroyed for it? No, but he should be held accountable.

However, once I have my mind set about this and feel that Schulman is leaning too heavily in favor of the beleaguered boy and his family, I encounter this passage. Richard, Jake's father, is considering the aftermath of Jake's act. He ponders how his father would handle the situation, how his father handled Richard:
Richard and Lizzie and the girl's parents, all the other parents at school - they are both too close to their children and too far away from the ground. They are too accomplished. They have accumulated too much. They expect too much. They demand too much. They even love their kids too much. This love is crippling in its way.
This is the first hint you get as a reader that perhaps the lifestyle of this family is over-privileged and solipsistic, that their problems are self-inflicted wounds, as traumatic as they seem. Perhaps the author is as alarmed by their privileged lifestyle as we the readers are.

Schulman does captures the anxieties of an aspiring Manhattanite who doesn't quite fit into her
Helen Schulman
exalted upper class environment. Liz and her family moved to New York from Ithaca - she goes from a quiet, contented life as an academic who teaches the occasional class and wife of a Cornell university official, to the slightly bored Manhattan housewife ferrying the kids to their sports activities, their exclusive schools and having private birthday parties at the historic Plaza for one of Coco's friends who is, by the way, under ten (okay, here I will admit that I am secretly jealous of the whole Plaza thing). Ithaca becomes a sort of golden era for the family - simpler, less complicated, more comforting than big bad Manhattan with all its temptations.

These are essentially good people - decent, thoughtful, intelligent - why am I indifferent to them? Why don't I believe in them and empathize with them? Their prosperity and personal problems repel me. Surely, I think, that can't be the author's intent? But there is a method to her madness ... eventually Liz can't tolerate this environment and its pressures either.

Jake is particularly weakly written, no boy would notice his beloved Audrey's nails or the beauty of the line of the jaw of one's rival. A woman might, a boy would not. No heterosexual teenage boy that I know of would call another boy "babe" even ironically. Jake seems weak and insipid. I am sure this was not the author's intent.

The plot goes into a wobbly direction for me when Richard finally surreptitiously views the video and feels not repulsion (or perhaps more disturbingly arousal) but a grudging sense that the girl has offered something frank and innocent and liberating to Jake. I can't quite wrap my head around this. I can't imagine a parent thinking this. A teenager, maybe, but an adult, no.

There is an awkwardness in the writing. The descriptions are odd. Eyes so blue it appears "almost as if there were holes in her head and he was seeing the sky behind her." Liz waits for Jake after therapy "Like he was a little pet goat."

But this novel also goes to surprising places ... mother Liz gets hooked on on-line porn? She shadows her former boyfriend/Teaching Assistant on-line, cataloguing his every move, surreptitiously surfing on-line at night and going to some unexpected and frightening sites. She impersonates a literary agent to entice the man, an aspiring writer, with a fake e-mail and effusive praise. That, I admit, I was not expecting. It lightly underscores how easily Jake, as a teenager, was taken in and falls afoul of the e-mail scandal. If it can happen to a responsible mother, of course it can happen to a teenager. I wish that Schulman had developed this subplot more.

This Internet incident speaks of a serious issue about youth, technology and privacy and Schulman attempts to be profound throwing in a few The Great Gatsby quotes (Jake happens to be reading this book at school at the time and it also features a rich, spoiled character named Daisy) and some semi-serious remarks about the the plight of the young teenage male in today's technologically invasive America. A character in the novel muses how all that is private has now become public and all girls may soon face Daisy's fate. But they are throwaway lines placed in the mouth of a despised egghead whom no one likes at school. These observations won't, I fear, save the book ... it's just not that well-written. Schulman tries hard to see it (and write it) from Jake's perspective.

When I am ready to throw the towel in on this book ... it surprises me again. The family is dissolving, husband and wife are going in different directions and must make important decisions about remaining together and supporting Jake. Jake will not necessarily weather this episode well and, perhaps, Daisy will. Who would have predicted that?

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Victorian Soul

Once, a dear friend told me I had a Victorian soul. I think it was her poetic way of saying I loved old things. I do ... very much so.

As you enter ...
Our Victorian era house in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the east end Toronto, was built in 1889 according to mpac.ca, a provincial government website that assesses the value of your home and tells you how old it is (contact me if you'd like to know how to use the website). Even though the configuration of the house is not the most convenient - it is long and narrow with three stories - but its shape appeals to me greatly.

In the tiny hallway ...
When our realtor first found this house in 1999 it was a near shambles ... the house had an unhappy history. The mother had abandoned the family (husband and young son) to run off with an Italian film producer. I'm really not making this up. I think the father had experienced a kind of breakdown. The house was dirty, literally flea ridden. The poor dog, a family pet, had obviously been locked in the kitchen for great lengths of time alone (the huge scratches on the back of the pretty French doors in the kitchen offered sufficient proof). The large, leafy yard was a rocky pit of weeds. The porch was in shambles, coloured a hideous peach, and needed a good coat of paint.
The best feature of the house ... the fireplace
The walls of all the rooms were a dirty beige (literally); the carpet was filthy. The son's room on the second floor was a dark, dank, messy hole with so many things on the floor - clothes, books, garbage - that you literally could not step into the room without stepping on his things. The poor kid had scribbled obscenities about his parents on the white ceiling that we had to paint over ... a few years later when J was learning to spell we realized that the print was now showing through and she was making out the letters ... ("Mommy, what does F ... U ... ?")

The attic (the master bedroom on the renovated third floor) was actually the most habitable room in the house - even if the carpet was a bit threadbare.

R has a great eye for the potential of houses. My first reaction was no, absolutely not. It smelt horribly; it looked disastrous; there were fleas in the house but he said, "Look, really look at it, look past the messiness and the lack of paint, it's a beautiful house. It has great bones!" I did. It does.

The stained glass in the front door

The stained glass above the window in the main room

Here are some of the traits to be found in a traditional Victorian: patterns in the brickwork; decorative wooden panels (bargeboards) on the front of the house; stained glass in doorways and windows; roofs made of slate; glass transoms. Our house has many of these features ...

The French doors into the dining room
There is pretty stained glass in royal blue and poppy red in the uppermost section of the front door with a transom. The house has a beautiful fireplace on the right as you enter and stained glass in the large window on your right facing the street. There is a glass transom of white and silver design as you enter the dining room and wooden French doors. The glass in the doors looks like the original glass - it is yellowed and brittle looking - and has tiny imprints of the fleur-di-lis on the glass. The ceilings are 11 foot in the main room. The kitchen faces a meager but pretty garden now.

A thing about sparrows ...
So many tiny, very pretty details that I entirely missed when I first entered the house. All I saw was the dirt and the chaos and, of course, the smell knocked me out!

A number of years ago I went to the the Toronto Reference Library and accessed the Toronto Directories. These listed addresses, names and occupations of those houses that existed starting from 1890 onward in Toronto until about 1915. I checked out the address of our house to determine who lived there.
  • 1890: listed as vacant
  • 1891: George D. Waddell, traveler, P. McIntosh & Sons
  • 1892: no listing
  • 1893: no listing
  • 1894: Frederick H. Ross (no occupation listed)
  • 1895-98: Thomas A. Bryant, pressman, Hough & Harris Company
  • 1899: William J. Gill, proofreader, Warwick Bros. & Rutter
  • 1900 - 1914: William Roberts (no occupation listed)
  • 1915: John M. (Marchant) Whyte (no occupation listed)
The glass transom above the dining room
The thing that I found interesting was that the occupants were sometimes either involved in the printing (my husband's related occupation as a graphic designer and as the son of a printer) or publishing (my sometime occupation as a writer). 

VW above my writing desk ...
My work space
I love this heap of bricks with its sometime leaky basement, periodically leaking roof, ludicrous tax bill, difficult to garden, sunless garden. I love it, old Victorian bones and all. 

The Buddha of Riverdale

A cozy pocket of the house ...

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Random House Canada, 2011) 150 pages  ** SPOILER ALERT **

“A man’s closest-held beliefs about a friend, former lover and himself are undone in a subtly devastating novella from Barnes.” Kirkus review of The Sense of an Ending, November 1, 2010

To which I reply meh … This book recently won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I’ll tell you honestly the first thing that a writer of modest or great publishing success thinks (usually with a smirk) when reading a prize-winning novel: is s/he really a better writer than I am? Yes, you dare to think this even with the literary greats. That's how large the insecure writer's ego is. So take everything I say with a grain of salt from a writer of very very modest publishing success.

The novel’s narrator, Anthony Webster, who is late into middle age, soulfully examines two key relationships from his past – Adrian, a former schoolmate and friend, and, Veronica, an ex-girlfriend, who eventually ends up dating Adrian after she dates Tony. I will have to reveal some of the plot in order to speak intelligently about this book.

Adrian is a “brilliant but gloomy” public school mate who routinely challenged his friends and teachers with insightful and sometimes cryptic remarks about history. Veronica is described as a “harridan” in the Kirkus review. I find this extremely odd. She's certainly prickly but let me fill you in …

Veronica’s biggest crime is not sleeping with Tony, breaking up with him and then sleeping with him on a chance encounter afterwards. This is in the Sixties but as Barnes explains it ... not quite the "Sixties". It is more like the "Fifties" in terms of sexual mores for the main character.

The narrator spends an inordinate amount of time repeatedly mulling over how insulted Tony felt during the one visit he made to Veronica’s family in Chislehurst, a suburban district in SE London. Father and brother Jack were perceived to be condescending – Tony felt the class differences sharply. Particularly irksome was a remark that Veronica made to her brother asking, “He’ll do won’t he?” and the brother impertinently winking at Tony. So huffed was he that Tony did not wink back. This is galling to Tony as well as the fact that Veronica lets him sleep in the day after they arrive telling the family that Tony “likes a good lie-in” and then brother, sister and father go for a long walk without him.This is a blatant untruth that annoys him. Exceedingly.

Really? Nothing of these scenarios suggests that Veronica is quite the bitch that Tony makes her out to be to us, the readers, and to his ex-wife Margaret to whom he relays the whole story years later. They label her "The Fruitcake". The very worst of it, in my eyes, is that after Veronica and Tony break up she takes up with Adrian. There is one brief scene where Veronica meets Tony’s friends and she is mildly flirtatious with Adrian, a harbinger of what is to come. She is clearly attracted to him and Tony can see that.

After Adrian and Veronica start dating and Adrian lets Tony know by letter, Tony responds with an angry, histrionic letter to the two basically cursing their union and any progeny to come. He implies to the reader and to Adrian that Veronica has suffered some sort of sexual abuse and is therefore “damaged” – we are meant to infer at the hands of her brother or father. Not long after Adrian kills himself without explanation. His school friends, now long dispersed, write it off to a sensitive, depressive nature.

But there is a red herring here that Tony keeps bringing up. When they were all in school together, a boy named Robson also killed himself presumably because he had got a girl pregnant. This lingers on in Tony's mind and in the reader's mind - was Robson's suicide in any way similar to Adrian's? If so, how?

Fast forward a number of years … Tony marries Margaret, has a child, divorces Margaret. Yet the spouses remain close friends. He is mildly unhappy as many middle-aged people are but is not desperately unhappy. Margaret, as a character, is paper thin as are almost all the characters – except she seems to inhabit one of two types that Tony is attracted to: the plain-speaking, perfectly straightforward woman (Margaret) vs. the mysterious, difficult woman (Veronica).

Forty years after Adrian's suicide Tony receives a note from a barrister. Veronica’s mother has died and she has bequeathed Adrian’s diary to Tony. The mother of the girl that both boys dated has Adrian’s diary? Why? How?

With her mother gone, Veronica holds on to the diary and she will not relinquish it to Tony. Apparently she still loathes Tony, presumably for the nasty letter he sent while she was dating Adrian or is it more problematic than that? She won't say exactly why she hates him. In any event, she will not hand it over and takes drastic measures to ensure that Tony does not receive it except to send a cryptically phrased page torn from the diary that is incomplete.

I don’t want to divulge any more (there is a big reveal towards the very end) except to say by the end of the novella we understand why Veronica is still bearing a tremendous grudge against Tony even after forty years.

Still ... it all rings completely false to me. Veronica is a brittle, condescending jerk but she is not the harridan that she is made out to be by Tony, the narrator, or the Kirkus reviewer.

Barnes, too clever for his own good?
Tony’s animosity towards Veronica’s family is also inexplicable to me. These slights against Tony (if they can be perceived as slights) seem insignificant and petty. Why does Tony infer that Veronica has been sexually abused – what cue in this meager plot would suggest that? Why is Tony so insulted by his interaction with Veronica’s family? 

Veronica’s fury, and it is fury, is understandable once you learn of the true extent of Adrian’s involvement with Veronica’s family. But why does she not tell Tony explicitly why she is angry? She continues to agree to meetings, sends e-mails, but reveals nothing substantial. She is curt, she is rude, she somehow blames Tony for what transpires which in no way can he can be held accountable for except in that he petulantly wished them all ill. Veronica even takes him on a silently furious, wordless, mystery ride to another part of town to observe a group of people that is somehow meant to open his eyes as to why she is being so intolerable to him. His eyes are opened but … very .. very … slowly.

Maybe Tony’s mother is right all along as to why Adrian killed himself (and possibly why authors concoct silly plots) … sometimes people are too clever for their own good and think too much about everything. I’m fairly certain this author did.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Blue Nights

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (Alfred A Knopf/Random House, 2011) 190 pages

Unspeakable loss ... that's what Didion excels at articulating here and in her previous memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). To lose one's husband as Didion did in 2003, while still painful and life-altering, could not have compared to the loss of her child Quintana Roo Dunne a few short years after that. I faced this book with trepidation as it taps into almost primal fears I have about the loss of my own child.

Blue nights, described as "the long, light evening hours that signal the summer solstice" is the perfect description for this book. It evokes “the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning”. Life at it most intense, most pleasurable, and then it's quick waning - an apt summation of the effect on Didion of the loss of husband and child.

I saw Didion being interviewed by Margaret Macmillan at Habourfront this year at the IFOA. I wouldn't call it the most fruitful author interview I've witnessed. They showed a beautiful short film about Quintana Roo before the interview that was quite affecting. Ms. Didion seemed reticent to delve into the details of her daughter's death or her feelings regarding her death (understandably). Her answers were short, insubstantial, almost curt. Macmillan seemed intimidated by Didion. But then who wouldn't be?

The Year of Magical Thinking detailed the days following the loss of Didion's husband the writer John Gregory Dunne. In that book there was no mention of her daughter Quintana Roo's grave illness which I initially found odd. Quintana eventually died in 2005. Her illness began as a flu that had turned into a deadly strain of pneumonia. She recovered from that but eventually succumbed to acute pancreatitis. Her last years were very difficult, as were Didion's. Didion faced the medical crisis on her own as her husband had died of a heart attack shortly after Quintana became ill in 2003.

This book deals primarily with memories of Quintana - her adoption, her early years as a child and teenager growing up in California in and around the movie industry, her wedding in New York, her catastrophic illness. The New York Times book review called it solipsistic (necessarily so). I don't know how it could not be. I understand the meandering, sometimes repetitive tone of Didion's musings about her child. I find myself often prompting my daughter J's father with queries about the same episodes of J's young life, over and over. The memories are comforting, the repetition is soothing to me as a mother.

We (mother and father) often say to each other ... remember when J called us her "lubbies" (she meant to say "loveys")? Do you remember when she found out there was no Santa Claus? Do you remember how we used park her in front of the TV to comb her long curly hair into pony tails in the morning? Do you remember that first Halloween when she cried and cried in her little cat mask and we couldn't take her out because she was so distressed? These are the stories that parents tell each other especially as the child approaches adulthood. We don't want to let go of the curly-haired toddler who clung to the back of your leg when a stranger said hello to her.

The effect is the same here for me as a mother as I read of the past episodes in Quintana's life. The language is beautiful; the emotion is intense and simply expressed. Her red soled shoes at her wedding; the Hawaiian leis the little girls wore at her wedding; the way her hair was braided; the snippets of her short stories, poems and diary entries. Her telephone queries to a major studio as a child asking how she might become a star. The anecdotes of various trips and childhood relationships.

A young Didion with Quintana at 10 months
The context of Quintana's life is more glamorous of course - the clothes and hotels and vacations more fabulous than anything you or I have experienced. Both husband and wife were wildly successful journalists, novelists and screenwriters. John Gregory Dunne's brother was the writer/gossip hound Dominick Dunne (also now deceased), his nephew the actor Griffin Dunne.

I wonder if Didion has laid it on a little thick with the name-dropping (the Christian Louboutin shoes, the Donald Brooks linen dresses packed for the trip to Saigon, the cakes from Payard in NYC, the hotel stays at the Ritz, the Plaza Athénée in Paris and the Dorchester in London) because of the suggestion that Quintana lead a life of privilege (Didion says that she intensely disliked that description of Quintana's upbringing). She name drops brands and personalities quite rigorously, but then, this was her life, this was Quintana's life ... it was what it was. To pretend that the child was raised in conventional circumstances would be a falsehood.

The days that followed Quintana's hospitalization and eventual death are understandably painful, especially shocking to consider for anyone who has children. But it's not just about the loss of a loved one, it's about facing the prospect of one's own demise. Didion is 77 and has no other children. She seems in precarious health. Certainly in person she projected an image of physical fragility. She looked lost at the conclusion of the interview when signing books, even slightly afraid. It was difficult to observe her up close.

To face the mortality of the child alone when you have barely recovered (if at all) from the loss of one's spouse must have been terrifying. She communicates that loss with grace and beauty. May someone do the same for Ms. Didion