Friday, November 30, 2012

November Cultural Roundup

Garbo and Freddie Bartholomew in Anna Karenina (1935)
The Master (U.S., 2012) directed by P.T. Anderson (review here)
Anna Karenina (U.S., 1935) directed by Clarence Brown

How did you get this number by Sloane Crosley (review here)
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion 
The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son by David Gilmour (review here)
Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf 

Reading at Word Stage, QSpace, November 14, 2012
Now Hear This CD Launch party, Revival, November 22, 2012
(Not So) Nice Italian Girls & Friends celebrate the New Releases of 2012, Q Space, November 29, 2012

Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting exhibit at the AGO, November 25, 2012
Twelve Trees of Christmas at Gardiner Museum, November 29, 2012

Friday, November 23, 2012


Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Random House Inc., 2008) 256 pages

Joseph O'Neill , a writer of Irish descent, raised in the Netherlands, is a devoted cricketer and proselytizer for the sport and does his best to introduce his beloved sport into this novel. My heart sank a bit. A novel about ... cricket? But no, it's much more than that.  

Hans, an equities analyst in the financial sector, is also of Dutch descent and living in New York, a post-9-11 New York. It starts with the news that Hans' friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian and fellow cricketer, has been found murdered after being missing for two years. 

"Netherland" comes to have multiple meanings for the reader: the most obvious one is Hans' birthplace: the Netherlands. Secondly, New York and its environs (encompassing New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut) was once referred to as "New Netherland". And lastly, "netherland" is also a good description of where Hans has ended up ... cast adrift by his estrangement with his wife on the strange, if fascinating, island of Manhattan.

The novel is a good encapsulation of the fear and paranoia that accompanied that 9-11 period. Symbolically, NYC could also be perceived as brave new terrain for Hans, a world that has driven his wife out of the city and back to her parents' home in the U.K. Hans is now living in the infamous Chelsea Hotel pending some work being done in his Tribeca apartment. It's a curious choice considering the hotel's notorious history and the fact that he works in one of the most famously conservative fields in New York. It is traditionally the habitue of writers, musicians, artists, and actors and the scene of not a few deaths by overdose or murder (Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon immediately come to mind). 

So it doesn't seem all that unusual when a Turkish man dressed as a bedraggled, dirty angel (replete with feathery wings) appears at Hans' door searching for his lost cat. They become an oddly matched pair of friends with Hans even going to the trouble of buying new wings for the angel. 

But then again, Hans seems to be magnet for all sorts of interesting people ... he meets the multi-tasking entrepreneur Chuck Ramkissoon in a restaurant frequented by cabbies looking for authentic South Asian home cooking; he has a one night encounter with a sultry Jamaican who claims she knew him very slightly in London, engages the bewildered Hans in some light bondage and then disappears from his life; the perfectly coiffed and costumed Avalon at a cricket dinner whom we immediately suspect (perhaps wrongly?) is a transvestite; the attendees of the "dog party" in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel ... it is indeed a brave new world for Hans.

His take on New York is that of a fascinated, captivated alien trying to decipher the magnificent strangeness of the most exciting city in the world. There is a weird symmetry in the Dutch born Hans surveying what has become of the land his forbears founded in the early 16th c.

I am always wary of writers' own particular passions and the way they integrate them into works of fiction - in this case I begin to suspect that O'Neill created this subplot revolving Ramkissoon, the cricketing entrepreneur, specifically so that he might talk endlessly about the sport ... and the bats, and the quality of the cricket grounds, and the rules, and the fanaticism of the fans ... it's tedious even just listing these items much less reading about the sport.

One thing that this book captures very well is the disintegration of a marriage - death by a thousand small, emotional cuts. Here is a small portion of a long sentence covering almost two pages in O'Neill's rambling, Jamesian, eloquent, multi-claused sentences that is used to good effect:

... our fading marriage, the two New York years in which she withheld from me all kisses on the mouth, withheld these quietly and steadily and without complaint, averting even her eyes whenever mine south them out in emotion, all the while cultivating a dutiful domesticity and maternal ethic that armored her in blamelessness, leaving me with no way to reproach her, no way to find fault or feelings, waiting for me to lose heart, to put away my most human wants and expectations ... far better to get on with the chores, with the baby, with the work, far better to leave me to my own devices, as they say, to leave me to resign myself to certain motifs, to leave me to disappear guiltily into a hole of my own digging.
O'Neill is a wonderful writer but he has a bit of distracting flaw in his writing, he loves the sound of his own poetic voice much like Julian Barnes or Christopher Hitchens or sometimes Ian McEwan or my personal favourite Martin Amis (all of whom I enjoy). 

Who happened to Chuck Ramkisson? If you have the stamina to wade through the cricket lore and these elegantly constructed sentences, you might just find out.
The author Mr. O'Neill devoted cricketeer

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fighting on the Side of the Angels

Italo-Canadian internees at Camp Petawawa
An unpleasant thought often sneaks into my consciousness when I think about radical elements in the Islamic community who have engaged in extreme violence abroad ... where are the moderate voices within the Islamic community who are condemning these acts? Where are those who are brave enough to fight on the side of the angels?

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist, has been very diligent in highlighting where those voices are in the Middle East and abroad ... Imad al-Din Hussein, a columnist for Al Shorouk, Cairo’s best daily newspaper; Mohammad Taqi, the liberal Pakistani columnist; Khaled al-Hroub, a professor at Cambridge University; and, Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, which you may read about here.

What is preventing more moderate elements from speaking out here in Canada and the U.S.? Are we merely not aware of these voices? Is the media failing to highlight them? Or is it fear of retribution? Is it a worry that they are exposing already vulnerable kinsmen to potential abuse and violence?

Another thought disturbs me - how would the Italo-Canadian community fair in comparable circumstances? Based on past historical evidence, we would not do so well. During the 1930s and 1940s when the specter of Fascism loomed and threatened democratic values in Europe, the community of recently arrived immigrants  from Italy often flocked to defend Mussolini, his methods and his imperialist ambitions.

The Toronto Fascio Principe Umberto, a fascist club, attracted the elite of the business and cultural community with a compulsory oath: "I swear to execute without discussion the order of the Duce [Benito Mussolini] and to serve with all my strength and if necessary my blood the cause of the Fascist Revolution."(1)

When Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson condemned Fascism and Italy's imperialistic foray into Ethiopia, he was helpfully sent a bottle of castor oil. For those who don't know the historical significance of such an action: castor oil was often administered by Italian Fascists to dissidents. It caused severe diarrhea, dehydration and sometimes lead to death.

Emilio Goggio, Chair of the department of Italian and Spanish at the University of Toronto from 1946 to 1956, was "briefly jailed in Toronto for having expressed an early, mistaken sympathy for Benito Mussolini, though he was soon released through the efforts of the university."(2)

Liborio Lattoni, poet and Methodist pastor based in Montreal, who held a prestigious position within the Sons of Italy permitted both the "Roman salute" (here read Fascist) and the playing of the Fascist anthem Giovinezza during its meetings.(3)

Vancouver's Fiorvante (Frank) Tenisci promoted Fascism through his articles, speeches and letters to newspapers as well as organizing conferences promulgating Fascism.(4)

UofT Student Frank Molinaro accused the Toronto Star of racism in not supporting Italy's foray into Ethiopia in a letter to the newspaper. He claimed that the British in particular were hypocritical due to their historical colonial conquests.(5) He also defended anti-Semitic screeds prepared by Fascist university professors in Italy leading up to the war.(6)

We did not tread carefully and made a a terrible errors in judgment. We responded to old loyalties, some of them twisted and evil. A regard for the homeland came to represent a loyalty to the murderous thug who controlled Italy at the time. We paid a price for it ... 700 Italo-Canadians were interned at Camp Petawawa for real or alleged sympathy with Fascism during WWII. But ... contrast this with the internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadian, most of whom were born here - including my mother-in-law and father-in-law who were children at the time. Their crime? Being of Japanese descent and therefore suspected of treason.

I honestly hope that the sensible people of the Muslim faith will step forward and condemn the escalation of violence - it's not just about preserving peace for those who do not embrace the Muslim faith, it's about preserving peace for those that do. 

Further Reading
Some new books that might interest you about the internment:  
Behind Barbed Wire: Creative Works on the Internment of Italian Canadians (Guernica Editions, 2012) edited by Licia Canton, Domenic Cusmano, Michael Mirolla, Jim Zucchero

Beyond Barbed Wire: Essays on the Internment of Italian Canadians (Guernica Editions, 2012) edited by Licia Canton, Domenic Cusmano, Michael Mirolla, Jim Zucchero

(1) Enemies Within: Italian and Other Internees in Canada and Abroad by Franca Iacovetta, Roberto Perin, Angelo Principe  (UofT Press Inc., 2000)

(2) "Helping Hands", UofT Magazine, Spring 2004
(3) The Darkest Side of the Fascist Years: The Italian-Canadian Press, 1920-1942 by Angelo Principe (Guernica Editions, 1999)
(4) ibid
(5) ibid
(6) It's All About War: Canadian Opinion and the Canadian Approach to International Relations, 1935-1939” by Heather Metcalfe, Ph.D. Thesis, Department of History, University of Toronto, 2009 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rules of Civility

... Manhattan was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise - that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving. 

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011) 335 pages

This novel is sexy and smart and literate and perfectly encapsulates my fantasies of a sort of Manhattan lifestyle in the 1930s - at least the kind of illusory dream of New York society that is well-heeled, sharply dressed and well-read.

It's 1966 ... an affluent middle-aged couple, Val and Katy, walk into a Manhattan art gallery and view a hitherto unseen Walker Evans photo exhibit from the late 1930s taken of unknown people riding the subway. Katy Kontent, the wife, spies two photographs of Theodore (Tinker) Grey a man she once knew almost thirty years before - one indicative of affluence, one of possible near destitution, only one year apart. 

The story is told from Katy's perspective ... she thinks back to her first encounter with Tinker when she and her best friend Eve Ross met Tinker
at The Hotspot on New Year's eve. The year is 1938. He is from the "upper crust"; they are a couple of particularly smart, well read and well spoken office girls. They remind me a great deal of Howard Hawks heroines, ala Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.

Katy and Eve are street smart and savvy. Tinker, oddly, seems formal and indistinct. Is it just his WASPY background and natural sense of self-restraint or is he hiding something? 

As the novel proceeds you feel that you might be on the cusp of a madcap Manhattan adventure with the threesome sneaking into cinemas, downing martinis at the 21 Club, viewing the city from the upper reaches of the Trinity Church on Wall Street and both girls vying for his attention ... but the narrative takes a dramatic turn when the three are involved in a horrific car accident in Tinker's car. 

Tinker cares for Eve, who suffered the worst injuries including devastating facial scars and a crippled leg, and helps to nurse her back to health in his luxurious Manhattan apartment. 

There are hints that Tinker's persona is somewhat fabricated. Katy notes that his apartment seems put together by someone else (a feminine hand Katy deduces). The apartment is exquisite, overlooking Central Park with a maid's quarters where Tinker sleeps, deferring his master bedroom to Eve. 

While caring for Eve one night, Katy finds Washington's Rules of Civility, which Towles helpfully includes at the end of the book in its entirety. The rules seem to epitomize Tinker, the perfect gentleman, perhaps too perfect ... and doubts linger in the reader's mind regarding his motivations. It's not that he's sinister but the arrangement with Eve seems odd. I would imagine that if an affluent young man of that time had injured an office girl in an accident, his family would send her home with a big cheque and a swift boot for her trouble, not ensconce her in his upscale apartment.

In the background is Tinker's wealthy godmother Anne Grandyn, an icy yet affable older woman, who periodically intrudes in his affairs adding an element of menace or tension to the scenario. 

Throughout the novel, Katy keeps referring to her copy of Dickens' Great Expectations. It's a totem of sorts and refers subtly to the ever-changing fortunes of Tinker that so resemble Pip's, the beleaguered hero of that Victorian novel. 

Eventually Eve and Tinker become lovers; Katy is oddly nonplussed or, perhaps, she pities Eve and is ready to concede Tinker's affections. She moves on ... rejecting a soul-crushingly boring promotion at her law firm where she types up depositions, quitting her job and then coming to work for an eccentric academic publisher who has taken a liking to her during a chance encounter. Then she is lured away for a position with a Condé Nast executive (natch this is New York) named Mason Tate.

As his assistant she is thrown in the path of very wealthy girls, who don't need the meager salaries they receive from publishing careers, and their brothers, like Dicky, who seems tempted by this outspoken, savvy girl who doesn't quite fit into their world and doesn't seem to want to either.

Dicky introduces her to the soon to be trust fund crowd ... a few more years, Katy says, and if they avoid being drowned or thrown in jail, they've got it made: membership in the
Racquet Club, opera boxes, lives of leisure. The class dynamic is interesting ... the rich invariably come off as shallow or slithery; Eve and Katy exude intelligence and spunk.

Katy re-encounters Wallace Wolcott, a friend of Tinker's, and their relationship takes an oddly aristocratic and courtly turn as he woos her by taking her shooting, having lunch at the club and touring the gun collection at the Metropolitan Museum. But Wallace has other plans, namely going to Spain to fight Franco. He also shares a bit of Tinker's history ... that is decidedly at odds with what Tinker had told Eve and Kate.
Towles' elegant prose 
flows and charms ...

When Katy hears a rumour that Tinker has proposed to Eve on a borrowed yacht, she likely imagines that she is the only one whose life is at a standstill. Until ... the police locate a drunken, shoeless Eve in a back alley in a seedy part of town and jail her thinking her a prostitute. Eve's story of what transpired between her and Tinker is not a predictable one ... one that is at odds with the gold-digger image that she had been cultivating amongst Tinker's set. 

Tinker is full of secrets, which Katy soon finds out. Our first instincts are right - something is afoot and it may not be pretty - he's not a villain but our instincts
are right, all is not what it seems.

Towles' elegant prose flows and charms, spiked with realistic dialogue between the women and striking descriptions such as this of the subway:
"It rattled into the station line like it was coming from another century." or Eve's engagement ring: "... it had a diamond you could skate on."

Tinker's life disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald's theory that there are no second acts for American lives ... you might say that, for modern Americans, the play never ends.