Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December Cultural Roundup

Alistair Sim from A Christmas Carol
The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon (review)
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

Brian Regan at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, CNE, December 5, 2013

A Christmas Carol (U.K., 1951)
Meet Me in St. Louis (U.S., 1944)
When Harry Met Sally (U.S., 1989)
The Conjuring (U.S., 2013)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sweet Girl

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon (Random House Canada), 256 pages
This book may be read as a companion piece to Lyon's prior novel The Golden Mean, a well received and loved precursor. You may read a review of it here. It follows the imagined life of Aristotle's daughter Pythias before, and after, the death of her father in the latter part of the 4th c. B.C.

The relationship is gentle, affectionate and charmingly evoked. He is proud of her keen intellect and curiosity; she is protective of, and solicitous towards, her father. Lyon achieves this easily by employing a very natural style of dialogue that flows beautifully and resembles modern speech.

There are no arcane or awkwardly worded passages that prevent enjoyment of the narrative or are overly hampered with historical references. Her descriptions are beautiful, clearly worded, and invite the reader into an easy understanding of the mores of the time.

Historical information is subtly communicated such as the casual reference to Pythias being veiled in public. Of course, you think, as a young girl she would be veiled. Pythias' language towards the slaves is sometimes dismissive, sometimes harsh, while irksome, this too appears realistic for a young girl of her station. Aristotle's colleagues are pleasantly surprised by Pythias' intelligence, and slightly amused.

When Aristotle dies following an ill-advised icy swim from which he never recovers. She is "bequeathed" to Nicanor, a near relation, a soldier, who has been away at war for many years, in his will.

The teenage Pythias is then unhappily thrown into a precarious situation. Herpyllis, the woman who raised Pythias after her mother died, is a former slave elevated by her intimate relationship with Aristotle and has becoem his concubine. However, she has no rights within the household after his death although she is adequately provided for and soon departs. Pythias' prospective husband Nicanor is still at war. Pythias' brother (son of Aristotle and Herpyllis) is too young to assume leadership in the family home which, incidentally, has been loaned to them by an admirer when they are forced to flee from Athens after the death of Alexander the Great. The Macedonians were soon persecuted with the death of the king, who as a Macedonian, served as a protector of other Macedonians against the conquered Greeks in the empire.

She is a teenage girl in a house largely full of unruly servants and slaves.The second half of the book stumbles a bit (at the exact point at which Aristotle dies). Pythias' emotional journey after Aristotle's death is treacherous. She moves from her own home to self imposed homelessness, flirting with a role as a priestess, as a prostitute, as a midwife. She experiments sexually and flaunts convention. This is done in an emotionless manner, her intention is unclear (as is Lyon's). Is she shell-shocked by her father's death? Does she feel abandoned? Is her behavior, in a manner, joyful? Does she feel liberated from patriarchal restraints?

Is it Lyon's view that without the protection of a patriarch (Aristotle and/or her future husband) or a matriarch (Herpyllis), the unprotected female descends into these positions of dependency, exploitation or abuse? As if to underline Pythias' status being akin to slavery as a young, unmarried female, the last act that Pythias performs in the novel is to set her favoured slave Tychos free.

Pythias only regains her equilibrium when Nicanor returns from the wars to marry her, which appears a contradiction to Pythias' independent manner and life. Nicanor, meanwhile, is reluctant to engage with her sexually and this is never explained fully. She is merely puzzled, not dismayed, not concerned. Is it because she views their sexual relations as yet another obligation, as a female, she is not eager to engage in.

For me, the ending is flat, uneventful, with the empowering of Tychos as a freed slave and Pythias seemingly settling in as a wife to Nicanor. Despite Lyon's obvious great talents as a writer, the meaning of this resolution is obscure and unsatisfying. 

Annabel Lyon

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Life Class

Life Class by Pat Barker (Penguin Group, 2007) 249 pages

I came to this book after reading Barker's newest book about the WWI experience entitled Toby's Room. That book focused on the mysterious disappearance of the main character Elinor Brooke's brother Toby who does not return from WWI after serving as a doctor on the front line. The military does not reveal how he died and his friends are strangely reticent to reveal the truth. It's an excellent read - you may read the review here

This book, Life Class, written years ago, serves (for me) as a sort of prequel to Toby's Room and details the lives of three key characters found in the later novel - Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville - before, and during, WWI. 

Paul is a lad from northern England studying at the Slade School of Art. Dispirited, self-critical and intelligent, he considers leaving the school. Elinor piques his interest but so does, apparently, most other attractive females it seems including Elinor's friend Teresa, an alluring and troubled model at the school. 

Barker, a female writer, is adroit at depicting both male lust (Paul and Kit's) and female sexual reticence (Elinor's). Elinor is the object of affection for both Kit and Paul, all art students at Slade. Their professor Henry Tonks, a surgeon turned art professor at Slade, is a real historical personage who went on to document (for medical and historical purposes) the ravages of the war on the faces of the WWI soldiers who survived with extreme facial wounds.

When the war begins, Paul enlists as a Red Cross worker and is sent to the front in Ypres, France. Kit goes on to work with German internees. Elinor remains in the country painting for a time but is soon expected to join her mother at home. Sister Rachel is pregnant and indisposed, brother Toby has also enlisted and her doctor father is working (and possibly philandering) somewhere outside of the family home.

This book is as much about the perception of the value of art, and artists, during troubled times as it is about the war. Elinor's artistic ambition is seen as a lark, a frivolous frill - less important than Rachel's domesticity or Toby's involvement in the war. She is urged to take up nursing but wants to focus on her art, much to the disappointment of the people around her who are cosnumed by the war. 
Much of the book also deals with largely adolescent romantic fumbling - Kit and Paul vying for Elinor, Paul wooing Teresa, a pretty model with an abusive, violent husband, and Elinor trying on the various guises of femininity and womanhood. Kit courting Catherine, Elinor's friend. Paul's experience with a weary, if friendly, French prostitute. 

There is a slight digression when the novel shifts to Elinor's experience with the Bloomsbury group, specifically her encounters with Lady Ottoline Morrell. The author's intent is obscure - to demonstrate that privilege  and the love of art remain despite the war? 

Barker evocatively reminds one of under-examined aspects of the war - the sudden amatory passions that ignited amongst the British populace, the persecution and internment of the citizens of German descent, the many soldiers who returned with unspeakable wounds and injuries (catalogued by artists like Tonks), the uneasy calm and sense of normalcy that surrounds the town of Ypres, and other towns like it, just a short distance from the battleground; Elinor's surreptitious visit to Ypres where Kit is stationed, disguised as a nurse. I am certain many other soldiers engaged in these trysts then ...

What Kit witnesses as an ambulance driver revolts and shocks the reader - the slow death of the mutilated soldiers, the soldier trapped in a burning vehicle, the wounded children, the numbing of feeling and reaction for one exposed to so much horror. Kit's matter of fact observation, communicated by letter to Elinor, seem totally believable - never overstated in description - stark and straightforward without embellishments. 

The cliche of the "insanity of war" is pronounced and disturbing. An attempted suicide at the front line is studiously stitched back together so that he might be properly shot for desertion. 

My fascination with the First World War sometimes disturbs me ... why pine and moon over WWI soldiers and their suffering and not have a single thought for our own vets returning from Afghanistan here in Canada? My literary obsession with this war sometimes strikes me as silly and hypocritical. I shed no tears for these forgotten men but I often think of the soldiers who returned (or did not) from WWI. Why? Because it is romantic, it involves no real emotional or political commitment on my part ...
This romanticizing is easy and facile. Easy for me to attend a Remembrance Day ceremony and shed a tear while listening to a University of Toronto staff member recite In Flanders Fields before the Soldiers Tower (granted it is a very moving experience for those who have attended it). The ceremony lasts about 40 minutes and is quite elaborate with prayers said, wreathes laid, and hymns and poems read.

Much harder to acknowledge and put pressure on Harper's government to treat these returning vets fairly. I will end with this disturbing note:
The Harper government says it intends to appeal a B.C. court ruling that cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit involving veterans of Canada's war in Afghanistan. A group of ex-soldiers is taking Ottawa to court, alleging that the federal government's new system of compensating veterans violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government's new veterans charter eliminated the lifetime disability pension for disabled soldiers and replaced it with lump-sum payments. The veterans say the new disability payments are paltry compared to awards given to those who fought in previous wars, and don't keep up with worker's compensation claims — or even civil settlements in personal injury cases. Canadian Press, October 2, 2013
Respect for the military indeed. Let's put our money where our mouth is ... if we value their contribution, let's prove it. Or do we reserve that respect and concern only for those who died years ago and are no longer our concern or problem? 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Cultural Roundup

external image soldier_1.jpg
The Delware Literary Salon featuring Koom Kankesan, Cathy Petch, Bocelli (aka Paul Salvatori) and Andre Prefontaine, November 3, 2013

Launch of Italian-Canadians at the Table: A Narrative Feast in Five Courses (Guernica Editions) edited by Loretta Gatto-White & Delia De Santis at Columbus Centre, November 10, 2013

UofT Book Club with Linda Spalding and Who Named the Knife?, November 22, 2013

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder (please see review here)
Life Class by Pat Barker (please see review here)
T.S. Eliot by Northrop Frye

The Dallas Buyers Club (U.S., 2013)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gone to flowers, every one

And where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, every one!
When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

Where Have All the Flowers Gone ~ Peter, Paul and Mary

The Juliet Stories
by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012) 324 pages

This is a sometimes disturbing look into a familial situation where the political and personal goals of the adults trump the personal desires and happiness of the entire family, particularly the children. This may not have been the author's intent but this is what we take away from it as readers.

It begins with the young Juliet Friesen's family landing in Nicaragua in the early 1980s during the reign of the Sandinistas, whom the Friesens support against the Contras. Three children ranging in age from a toddler (Emmanuel) to a pre-pubescent boy (Keith) to a near teenager (Juliet) accompany their parents, Bram and Gloria Friesen, social activists involved in a group known as the Roots of Justice.

Rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s fomented the Nicaraguan Revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which attempted to oust the dictatorship in 1978-79. The FSLN then governed Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990. The Contra War was waged between the FSLN and the Contras (supported by the American government) from the early 1980s to 1990. The Friesens arrive in the midst of this chaos. 

Would it shock you to learn that the Friesens live in impoverished, difficult circumstances where the children face a sometimes hostile environment, squalor, and a sense of alienation from the general (and much poorer) Nicaraguan populace?

Through Juliet's eyes - bright, inquisitive, sensitive Juliet - she bears witness to all. Snyder doesn't shy away from presenting the Nicaraguans as flawed human beings rather than as a victimized, near saintly group striving towards noble revolutionary goals against the Contras. The maid steals, Juliet's playmates torment or ignore her, her parents' Latin American colleagues are sometimes disdainful, hostile even.

We also see that the imminently human Bram and Gloria have had their trysts, their dalliances, with like-minded activists. Bram, a respected leader in their district, attracts every young thing with a political motivation and a lonely heart; Gloria too becomes smitten with a Dutch Red Cross worker who pays her courteous, almost courtly, attention but who returns dutifully to his wife after the families nearly drown during a boat ride in a sudden storm.

Life is random, suddenly frightening or exhilarating:
Life is nothing like Choose Your Own Adventure [a children's book Juliet is reading]. Except for when it is, in its randomness: a cancer cell splitting and and spreading ruthlessly within the bloodstream; a storm rising on a deadly lake. Except for when it is, in the way the ending changes - in memory, in meaning, rather than substance.
A rally that the family attends serves as an apt metaphor. As Gloria surges forward with the crowd trying to touch the sleeve of Daniel Ortega, then President of Nicaragua, as if he is a Messiah, a god, Juliet is swallowed up by the crowd and almost trampled and Keith is lost amongst the rallyers. It is some time before Gloria realizes what has happened and then she dissolves in hysterics.

The parents lurch from one disastrous situation to another - some might call them brave but I find them to be fools who jeopardize the health and happiness of their children. 

Eventually, due to a medical crisis in the family, the Friesens, temporarily sans father Bram, return to Canada with Gloria dissolving into a nervous breakdown before the plane even lands. But the narrative tension shifts with the move to Canada perhaps in a manner that does not aid the novel. 

Juliet's issues seem more mundane, less exotic in Canada: fitting into a new school, dealing with her brother's serious illness, discovering her sexuality and coping with how to present oneself as a female (makeup, clothes, attracting male attention), watching her parents' marriage dissolve and her mother remarrying, dealing with an increased attraction to her new stepbrother. 

Unsupervised, or nearly unsupervised, Juliet drifts into the usual predictable sort of trouble  a teenage girl drifts into. Juliet is brave, sometimes foolish, anxious for experience of all kinds, and Snyder paints a sensitive and poignant picture of the young adult Juliet: 
She thinks of what she is willing to sacrifice in order to burn, to feel her light burning. It is dangerous close to the fire, and she does not feel afraid.
But I feel the second half of the novel set in Canada does not hold together as well as the first half set in Nicaragua. It feels fragmented, snippets of Juliet's new life pieced together to form not quite a whole. Why include the grandmother's admission that she had a brief tryst with a married man during the war? Why include a longish chapter about Juliet's attraction to her stepbrother? There is a randomness that undermines the cohesiveness of the novel.

In her acknowledgments, Snyder notes with gratitude her own personal history and relation to the novel with her parents taking her to Nicaragua as a child and no doubt, in retrospect, it may have seemed an exciting adventure but as it is presented here, and I realize that it may be largely fictional, the adventures appear an exercise in chaos and poor choices in pursuit of a fantastic political ideal, if any, that few could realize.

I fluctuate between the desire to know what is autobiographical and what is not but then I realize it doesn't matter, Snyder has written a truth so beautifully and powerfully about this young girl that it overrides any reality. 

*Originally published on descant.ca/blog on November 14, 2013

Carrie Snyder 

Monday, November 18, 2013

What he left behind

I was angry with Lenny*. Very angry. He had left us with two months unpaid rent. Bouncing cheques. Delayed payments sometimes in cash if at all. Frequent protestations that he could still pay the rent after months of evidence that he could not. And a filthy apartment strewn with his left behind junk.

I was less sympathetic than R about Lenny staying in the unit. Yeah, Ms. I-volunteer-with-the-homeless. I was really irritated with and anxious about the overdue rent. It's a little different when it's your pocketbook and time that's affected I found. I didn't have a personal connection with Lenny. I barely knew him. But even I didn't have the heart to try and remove him when it was clear that things were heading south for him. The girlfriend left, leaving him alone to pay the rent. He seemed to have lost his job and whether he lost it, or was laid off, was unclear. He seemed to be having some mental health issues.

You may not think it, but it is difficult to remove a tenant, both physically and psychologically. And we didn't have the heart to proceed. 

R was the one who would talk to him when issues arose - he was sleeping during the day, unkempt and apathetic, with no apparent employment (he said he was working nights now - was he?), the house a mess, and no promise of future rent in sight.

What he left behind wasn't pretty either. An apartment full of garbage ... discarded clothes and shoes in the closet and in garbage bags lying around ... uneaten food in the fridge and the cupboards ... filthy, rusted, corroded appliances that had not been cleaned in years ... a closet full of used cat litter ... cupboards full of food that was rotting away ...

It was difficult to show the apartment in such a state. The little apartment had so many advantages. Nice street in a lovely Victorian-era house. Beautiful if unkempt garden. A newly renovated bathroom. Good neighbours. But not in this state ... nary a serious nibble from the many people who came to view the apartment. Nada.

It needed a extreme cleaning makeover. I didn't think even a cleaning service could tackle this without charging some exorbitant fee. R and I decided to roll up our sleeves and tackle it ourselves. The kitchen was the worst ... okay, starting with the kitchen it was.

We went through the cupboards first ... we emptied them of bags of old brown rice, numerous pouches and boxes of assorted herbal teas, mineral supplements, healthy pastas, likely purchased ages ago by the ex-girlfriend before his troubles seem to start. She had worked in a health food store and apparently brought home all this nutritious food for them - now largely unused it appeared.

About a year and a half ago, R had received a phone call from the girlfriend: she said if Lenny tried to cash a cheque and it had her name on it, that account was now defunct and we shouldn't cash it. Sure enough he did try and give us one. We asked for another. That went through but others sometimes did not. Then he started paying in cash. Sometimes not until mid month. Then not at all. Finally he said he would leave of his own volition and was moving in with a near relation to care for them and receive a government subsidy for doing so. We had no idea if this was true but I admit I was relieved.

Last Christmas he asked us to change the locks on the apartment. Why? He was afraid that the girlfriend would come back and try and get in. To do what? He wouldn't say. He didn't push very hard and we weren't about to change the locks unless he had a good reason. He then suddenly dropped his request and said it was fine, that there was no need to do so.

He left behind a dozen pairs of shoes - some of them hers. Really ... what female leaves without her shoes? Was she forced out? Stormed out? Too anxious to leave and forgot them?

We continued looking through the cupboards. R found some packet samples of anti-depressants, some unused, deep in the cupboards. It looked to me like samples a sympathetic doctor might have given a patient who could not afford them or didn't have an insurance plan. But why unused? Did he give up on them? Did they not allay his symptoms? Did they not work?

Ugh, wizen-hearted landlady ... you feel horrid now don't you? Yes, I do.

Even though the car is on the fritz and I'm paying for an emergency root canal (luckily for me partially covered by insurance) and the house needs some work ... I am trying to forget Lenny's debt. My (our) troubles seem small, minuscule. As I scrubbed and wiped and poured cleanser over every possible surface, my anger ebbed away and I flushed it wholesale down the sink with the dirty water and all the uncharitable thoughts I'd been having. And that felt really good.

*Not his real name

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Delaware Literary Salon

My good friends hosted a literary salon today and asked me to select a few of my writing/poet colleagues ... I was happy to oblige and invited four artists to participate.

Koom Kankesan, author of The Rajapaksa Stories
reads from his new work 
The poet Cathy Petch
Cathy with her musical saw
Sinjay artist Paul Salvatori (aka Bocelli)
Slam Poet Andre Prefontaine
Our gracious hosts Fadi and Antonio
Guest Christine Hagan and emcee Michelle Alfano
Our photographer Rob Fujimoto
Our appreciative audience members

Thursday, October 31, 2013

October Cultural Roundup

Ai Weiwei: According to What? Exhibit at AGO
Nuit Blanche, October 5, 2013

Union Station: Stories of the New Toronto by Joe Fiorito
Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins
Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (please see review here)
Who Named the Knife: A Book of Murder and Memory by Linda Spalding

Escape from Tomorrow (U.S., 2013)
The Others (U.S., 2001)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kicking the Sky

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (Doubleday, 2013) 316 pages

It is difficult to read of the traditional slaughtering of the pig (matanca do porco
by the young Antonio's father and his neighbours - a not uncommon festivity in the Portuguese community - and not think of the horrific killing of Emanuel Jacques in the summer of 1977. 

I recall the murder vividly. I had been contemplating, and anxiously anticipating, the time when I would be moving to Toronto to attend university. The sexual assault, torture, and drowning of the 12 year old boy horrified me and reinforced all the fears of the big city that I had been harbouring.

The main character Antonio is very close to Jacques' age, is of Portuguese descent, and lives very close to the Yonge St. strip where the boy was lured, assaulted then drowned in a kitchen sink, his body buried under debris on the roof top of the Charlie's Angels body-rub parlour. F
or anyone of that age, so close in similarity to the murdered boy (and to the author) this would have had a lasting effect. The proof of this, is this novel.

Antonio occupies a strange and disturbing place in the novel. He is emotionally torn between his desire for James, an enigmatic outsider who is new to the Portuguese community and who befriends Antonio and his young friends, and, his distaste and horror for the men who killed Jacques.

For Antonio the boy's murder is transformative: " ... it seemed like the person I was now was not the person I would've been if Emanuel Jacques had not been murdered."

De Sa carefully balances a depiction of the homophobia that surfaces in the community when the boy is killed with the victimization of men in the neighbourhood who are now targeted because they are gay or male prostitutes. Despite his inner feelings Antonio can't help publicly condemning the "fags" who killed Jacques at school when discussing the events that transpired. In the boy's mind, contact with James and the sexual feeling it elicits, literally brings to mind Emanuel's fate and induces terror in the boy and sometimes even physical illness.  

The handsome James has a slightly sinister, if alluring, quality with a tortured familial past - why does he befriend Antonio and his friends, all young boys? Why does he take in the pregnant teenage Agnes who has been take advantage of by her step-father and thrown out of the house? 
How does he make his money? What is his true motivation with regards to the boys?

There is a defining and infinitely strange moment for Antonio when he thinks he sees the face of Jesus in the shell of a limpet. His father begins to promote the boy as some sort of religious figure and healer who reluctantly captivates the frightened members of the neighbourhood seeking protection and solace in a troubled time. His father sets up a pseudo shrine in the garage where Antonio can offer his "healing" powers for a small fee.
But De Sa confounds the stereotypes ... Edite, a near relation, is a rebellious and independent spirit who defies convention and feeds Antonio's desire for a freer life. She works in a newsroom and provides a great deal of the background on the killers, with De Sa smoothly integrating this information into the narrative. She is an outsider, married to an even greater outsider who is not accepted in the community. Adam, an older man in the neighborhood, has a strange malady and is by turn, pitied and feared. He floats through the narrative like a ghost.
Antonio is thoughtful, aware, ashamed of his ugly feelings and fears after the murder. One roots for his escape.

There is an ugly, implicit connection between the murder of Jacques and the boys of the neighborhood and what they are forced to do to survive in their own communities.

This murder precipitated the massive cleanup of Yonge St. that ensued in the late 1970s. It changed the face of Toronto. It changed the conception of Toronto the Good. Gone (mostly) were the massage and body parlours, gone the strip joints ... A new ferocity was apparent regarding sexual behaviour that was seen to be deviant, abhorrent.

One thing troubled me ... when Antonio rejects the advances of James, we have no clear sense if he is rejecting his latent homosexual feelings or merely the predatory advances of the manipulative James. The issue of what Antonio's true feeligns are, which he struggled with during the whole course of the novel, are unresolved at the end.

I wish that De Sa had spoken in greater length about the tensions between the Portuguese people from the Azores, the nine volcanic islands that exist almost 1,000 miles outside of mainland Portugal, and the Portuguese people from the mainland. It appears to be similar to the relationship that Sicilians have with mainland Italians - the disdain and condescension feels the same.

Small details such as the rituals of the matanca do porco or the description of the five tattoos on the knuckles of the Portuguese men who served in the military signifying a tour in Africa (symbols of the wounds of Christ) fascinate as does the image of Jesus encased in the the tub on the lawn  We need more of these details. We know very little about the Portuguese-Canadian community and its customs. Anthony De Sa is a welcome voice, a talented voice, one that has explored a frightening episode in Toronto history with compassion and sensitivity.

Originally published on descant.ca/blog on October 18, 2013.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

With nothing on her but her pearls ...

The Group by Mary McCarthy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963; republished Harcourt Inc., 1991) 487 pages

Fifty years since the publication of The Group, the reader still recognizes the power of its new "female" perspective on sex and womanhood. The Group depicts eight Vassar roommates (Class of '33) from the time they graduate to the cusp of America's involvement in WWII in 1940. 

You can imagine the literary sneering when the book came out in 1963 (timely, yes, it coincided with Betty Friedan's revolutionary The Feminine Mystique) - just a bunch of hapless, naive college girls fumbling their way through womanhood (mostly  ineptly). The critical reaction was not pretty. 

Norman Mailer wrote a now famous review in The New York Review of Books in which he described the work as a "lady-book" and various characters thus: "all-but-dyke", "more pig than tootsie", "duncey broad", "a young New Dealer who has no breasts". By all means Norman, describe the literary characters on the basis of their appeal to you as women ... please do not resist thinking with your second, much smaller head. He writes: "Her book fails as a novel by being good but not nearly good enough ..." And some think David Gilmour is a sexist jerk ...

What Mary McCarthy was trying to do, what she did, was beyond the scope of his limited understanding. It still is for some. For some readers and some critics, merely to investigate the issues that women deal with, talk about, think about, is frivolous, secondary: sexual experience, birth control, adultery, lesbianism, unsatisfactory marriages, childbirth, child rearing and the politics of breast feeding ... all valid areas of fictional exploration from the female perspective. 

Essayist Katha Pollitt's take on the book in The Nation is precisely right; it was about "the way very smart, educated women get trapped in the lesser life they are compelled to lead.” 

McCarthy, famously, had a deadly accurate, if nasty, way of speaking truth to power.
A youthful McCarthy
It's not forty pages into the novel and Dottie, a self-described "Boston old maid", is being relieved of her virginity in a graphic, if not pornographic, manner on the page. (Gulp ... ) "Get yourself a plessary," the world weary Dick (how aptly named!) advises the recently deflowered Dottie. With nothing on her but her pearls, she contemplates the idea that she just might have a sex-filled but loveless relationship with this strangely attractive man who scorns commitment and materialism (and, alas, responsibility).

Kay, now a clerk at Macy's, is married to the insufferable bore Harald, an unsuccessful philandering playwright, who cheats on her with her fellow classmate Norine, has a chip on his shoulder due to the class differences between himself and his spouse, and says things like, "Go get me a coffee like a good girl" when irritated. I keep waiting for Kay to poison his coffee ... 

Libby, a reader of manuscripts in a publishing house is advised: Publishing is a man's business ... you find [women] on the fringes, in publicity and advertising, or you find them in copy editing or reading proofs. Old maids mostly... She later morphs into a somewhat predatory literary agent and marries well.  She seems to be the most successful and most disliked member of the group.

 Norine, paramour of the hapless Harald, has her own issues: an impotent husband, a slovenly house, little ambition and no plans for the future. 

Polly, a medical technician in a lab, who once dreamed of a medical degree, has no interest in being set up with eligible man. At the beginning we think we know what that means. But we don't. Flirting with Communism and with a Communist lover, Polly seems lost, unfocused, unfulfilled. Until she meets Mr. Right...

New mother Priss is dominated by her opinionated doctor husband who pressures Priss into accepting an unheated bedroom and no cuddling for their newborn son.

Lakey, icy, aloof, elegant Lakey ... she doesn't appear until the very end after a brief and mysterious appearance at the beginning. Lakey has moved up socially much to the shock and admiration of the group. They are still in awe of her.

But the men fare no better in McCarthy's sight lines. Which one of these non-entities should the women aspire to ensnare into matrimony or even merely sexual relations? Nils, the Norwegian "baron", who attempts to rape Libby then gets bored mid way by the prospect that she is a virgin? Blake, the impotent cuckold? Bitter, unsuccessful Dick who counsels Dottie to get birth control then never calls her back? Harald, the vaguely leftish, aspiring (not particularly successful) playwright living off his wife's store clerk wages who bullies his wife into an asylum and (spoiler alert) refuses to attend her burial after some disturbing conjecture about her sexuality? Gus, the gutless Communist, separated from his wife but still tied to her by their child and his psychoanalyst who can neither volunteer in the Spanish Civil War nor remain with his mistress whom he loves. Sloan, the overbearing, ambitious doctor who bullies his wife?

At times, it seems as if the eight Vassar women are thinly disguised slivers of the real McCarthy, significantly also a '33 Vassar graduate ... the philandering playwright Harald depicted here is not that different than McCarthy's first husband Harald Johnsrud. Polly's pro-Communist views were very much like McCarthy's until WWII. Like Libby, McCarthy worked as an editorial assistant for the publishing house. It was rumoured that the elegant beauty Lakey was a physical combination of McCarthy and her famous classmate Elizabeth Hardwick (who toyed with her own royal girl-toy in real life).

The casual and pervasive sexism, anti-Semitism and racism rankles - in the jokes made at the expense of the "coloured" maid, the Yiddish neighbours, or in the manner that the women are described and treated. McCarthy is writing of a  pre-WWII world and the book was published during the pre-feminist consciousness depicted in the era of Mad Men ... and don't it show. 

But McCarthy has a prescience that alarms and engages the modern reader. Women with education and many opportunities who persist in making poor choices? Anxiety about raising a child in a progressive manner? Conflicts between an educated female and a less successful spouse? These women are not failures. They are pioneers in the sexual revolution that was to come ... some failed, some succeeded. And McCarthy nailed their dilemma. Completely. 

Some of the ladies in the film of The Group (1966)