Wednesday, July 31, 2013

July Cultural Roundup

Is it weird that I find both Douglas AND Damon sexy in this?
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Astray by Emma Donoghue (review here)
Saturday Nights by Susan Orlean

World War Z (U.S., 2013) by Marc Forster
Behind the Candelabra (U.S., 2013) by Steven Soderberg 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Say my name, say my name

J...named for a Sicilian bandit and an imperial Roman
I must say I felt a sense of dismay when J, our offspring, came to me and said that she wanted to legally shorten her name ... it is a mouthful certainly. Her full name - consisting of the first, middle and surname - has twelve syllables. A big name for a little gal a friend once said when J was a baby.

I chose her first and middle name very carefully; I love traditional or historical Italian names. J's first name hearkens back to Giuliano, a Sicilian bandit/revolutionary from the 1950s who serves as a sort of secular saint to this day for Sicilians - emblematic of a romantic and impossible goal: the secession of Sicily from the Italian mainland that he perceived was oppressing and tyrannizing Sicily. I've written about him here and here. He obsesses me still.

J's middle name is the same as my mother's first name - Antonia - as well as being rooted in imperial Roman history. Antonia Augusta was the daughter of Mark Anthony, mother of Claudius (yes that Claudius, the emperor, the scribe, the inspiration for the book).

I think now, subconsciously, they reveal my twin obsessions: bandits and, um ... imperial Rome. I am not one to have mystical experiences with geography or landscapes but I have had two and they were both in Italy, in Rome and Taormina respectively, in 2010. This is what I wrote about Rome that day:
The Tiber at dawn (photo courtesy of photographer Debi Lander)
There was one especially magical moment as we passed the Tiber River to get to Vatican city at about 7.30a ... the air was misty and silvery and I thought of all the great Romans who had passed over this river: the emperors and empresses, the slaves and warriors, the great leaders of the Roman empire, the ambassadors from other states. When J did not want to do one of the tours I had to give her a pep talk. I said, this is the history of your people. You should know what great things the Romans accomplished, the art they produced, the inventions, the lands they conquered ... oh yeah, and remember, that they had to enslave half the world to do it. 
When we ventured south to Taormina, Sicily a few days later, I had as similar epiphany gazing into my ancestors' homeland - easily the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I could picture bandits and outlaws hiding in the mountainous terrain of the island that had foiled many a carabinieri. I felt I belonged there in a way I had never felt before.
Despite my pretty little speech to J in Rome, I feel that the Romans are not truly my people, not my true ancestors … my people came from land like this: rugged, wild, dangerous, difficult to navigate, full of secrets like the hidden crags in the mountains.

The names mean a great deal to me. But I understand the need for simplicity for the young, for having a sense of agency about your name and choosing your own name. Who has the right to control it, if not you? She has that right.

At approximately the same age as J, I decided to go by the much simpler name Michelle before entering high school after enduring a number of excruciating years having people mispronounce, butcher or mock my birth name - Michela. The name rhymed with something disagreeable and I was taunted with it. No, I will not reveal what that was as I wish to banish that memory forever.

Another not so funny story about my name ... when I was ten years old I had a particularly obstreperous grade school teacher of Scottish descent (don't get me wrong, I love the Scottish, some of my favourite relatives and best friends are of Scottish descent). She kept insisting that I was mispronouncing my own name. Let us not speak her name, let us call her Miss M ...

I was informed that I should have pronounced it Mi-CAY-la not MEE-ke-la. I was also informed that I was spelling it incorrectly. It should have been spelled Michaela. My goodness, she must have been thinking, her dumb immigrant parents! ... not even knowing how to spell their child's own name!

Could you imagine the furor today in the TDSB if a teacher dared to do that to a ten year old?

Well, I was never a fan of my first name (although I retain it on all legal documentation to this day and flirt with the idea of restoring it) but I knew that it had a special significance in the family. It was my paternal grandmother's name - a woman widowed at 34 who had raised five children on her own after her husband's death. The first or second daughters in the family of  her five offspring held that name.Yes, there are at least five Michela Alfanos who share the same blood running around on this planet, you lucky people. 

My reaction was swift and tearful when Miss Crankypants tried to change it that day. It provoked a firestorm of tears and resistance that day. I never complied with her thoughtful suggestion. I may not have particularly liked it but it was mine to keep or discard ...

My parents didn't blink an eye when I started to go by Michelle at 14 but then, they never called me Michela either, they called me another pet name that was reserved for family members. 

So, say my name, say my name ... say it the way I want it said. It's my right. And it's J's right too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Last Post

The Last Post by Ford Madox Ford (Originally published 1928) 175 pages

Having finished the last book in the Parade’s End tetralogy, I now understand a little better why the writer Graham Greene chose to omit the last book from an omnibus that he edited in the 1950s - as screenwriter Tom Stoppard largely did when he wrote the screenplay for the BBC series that came out last year. Greene was greatly disappointed with it. He described it as "more than a mistake - it was a disaster, a disaster which has delayed a full critical appreciation of ‘Parade’s End.’” Ford himself referred to it as an “afterthought”.

It isn’t that the writing is not fine nor the stream of consciousness style that Ford called "Impressionism"*, and that he perfected in the first three books, is not effective and engaging but when we leave Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop in A Man Could Stand Up, Book Three of the four book series, it is Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) and they seem to be facing a happy, if uncertain, future. 

There is a sense of resolution after great conflict: the couple has been united after the First World War; Christopher's wife Sylvia has been thwarted in her attempts to destroy Christopher and his reputation; the couple decides to persevere without financial assistance from the Teitjens fortune; and, Christopher has made it through the war largely unharmed physically.

At the end of A Man Could Stand Up, the “pals” from the front have gathered at Teitjens’ new home to celebrate the end of the war. Valentine has decided to live with Teitjens with or without society’s sanction. In The Last Post, the subsequent novel, we hear that Teitjens has resolutely committed to his promise to forsake the fortunes from the vastly wealthy Groby estate and try to work as a purveyor of antiques. Valentine is pregnant with her first child and Mark Tietjens, Christopher’s brother, has had a stroke and is tended to by his former mistress, now wife, Marie Leonie at Groby. The Groby estate is swarming with Americans, who, as Teitjens had foreseen during the war, have scoured England like locusts seeking, with their new wealth, to purchase everything of value in England.

The story is largely told through the perspective of Mark, Marie Leonie and, much later, Christopher's wife Sylvia Teitjens and Valentine. Christopher does not appear until the very end, literally the last three pages or so. This, I think, was a fatal error because, surely, it is Christopher and Valentine that we care about the most as readers. When we finally see them together Valentine is uncharacteristically bemoaning their financial future and Christopher’s ineptitude as a provider for their unborn child. The fairy tale is seemingly sputtering out in a dreary, commonplace manner that no amount of romantic desire can sustain or prevent.

We are also in dire need of more of the deliciously evil Sylvia who is dearly missed in this book. However, the last book does elucidate some of the darker elements of Sylvia’s personality. It goes into some detail about a childhood episode where she was prevented from exerting some cruelty on a kitten by one of her father’s servants and how she thrilled at the thought of being thrashed by the man for her misconduct – it gave her some sort of sexual thrill that seemed to have stayed with her for all of her life.

Sylvia was so desperate to retain Christopher's affections that she faked cancer and threw herself down a set of stairs before her husband and Valentine at the end of the war, to no avail. We see Sylvia’s anguish (which is real even if the cancer is not), also in short supply in the previous books, when she ventures that if she had had more children she might have been able to retain Teitjens. But Sylvia, despite these moments of weakness, is still perverse enough to put in motion the cutting of the great tree at Groby by some ridiculous interloper posing on her behalf. The tree has great symbolic value for Teitjens, a symbol of the family and the preservation of conservative values that he has clung to.

However, Mark is not so judgmental about Sylvia's manipulations and deception despite her treachery. He reasons:
It is obvious that women must be allowed what means they can make use of to maintain - to arouse - their sex-attraction for their men. 

For Mark, although he is outraged there is a sense of relief, that perhaps the Groby curse, as he sees it, will die with the elimination of the tree.

Sex, that wreaker of havoc, rears it ugly head again when Mark ponders if Christopher has inadvertently coupled with his half-sister (is Valentine the result of a liaison by his father and Mrs. Wannop and is that why the old man killed himself?).

We, as readers, feel not relief but a sense of dread at the end with the destruction of the tree and the fraught fortune of the couple. We can't but think that it is an ominous sign that we can't afford to ignore. We anticipate the future with trepidation. Sylvia has been defeated, finally conceding that she will divorce Teitjens (and is trying to persuade Teitjens' godfather, and her former protector, General Campion to marry her). But we foresee no happy ending for our heroes, rather the long dreary descent into domesticity and financial hardship. And Ford does nothing to dissuade us from that assumption in the final pages of the book. 

The Parade's End novels include: Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926) and The Last Post (1928).

*Ford described his brand of Impressionism in this manner: "... a piece of Impressionism should give a sense of two, of three, of as many as you will, places, persons, emotions, all going on simultaneously in the emotions of the writer ..." 

From the BBC series ... Valentine 
 and Teitjens on Armistice Day

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

99 Problems

Recently I went to dinner with two black friends (their race will be relevant, just give me a moment here). We ate at a chain restaurant in Mississauga. The youngest of the group - a pretty teenager with a medium sized afro, dressed casually in short shorts and tank top appropriate for the steamy summer weather - elicited a sharp look from the beady-eyed manager at the front. The manager  then walked into the dining room where we were seated. The room was recessed from the rest of the restaurant, with no other exit point except the entrance to the room (i.e. there was no reason for her to pass through it except to observe who was in it and depart). 

She walked by our table, flashed us a plastic smile and went out. Her off-putting attire - ("prison guard in a women's prison" chic perhaps?) coupled with stringy blonde hair, mannish, dun-coloured pants and a large set of keys at her side - reinforced a sense of unwelcome.

Well, that was weird we collectively noted. I wondered how often my friends, and specifically other people of colour, had these weird little moments - where they felt they were being observed or assessed merely for walking into a room, driving by, entering a store, or, walking in the "wrong" neighborhood, with the "wrong" colour skin. 

They have 99 problems that white people in the same situation have absolutely no understanding of. I'm not talking about the overt acts of racism such as racial profiling by the police and the phenomenon known as DWB (Driving While Black) which are obviously horrendously offensive and dangerous. It's the smaller things that are difficult to explain, to quantify. How do you assess, describe, that sense of not feeling welcome, of not feeling that you belong? That you are there on their sufferance?

I get a little bit of that as my racial identity has always appeared ambiguous to the outside observer. So labels tossed at me about being an "-ist" this, or a "-ic" that, tend to be met with subdued hilarity on my part.

The only people I have ever met who have aggressively accused me of blatant intolerance have inevitably been white, middle class or upper middle class liberals or "progressives" (usually male) who have their political correctness barometer on high and have been exposed to a heavy dose of liberal white guilt.

Labels affixed to me have included: racist, elitist, homophobic, anti-sex, unfeminist. Not that I, and approximately, oh, 100% of the population do not have elements of this in their psyche (we all do) but I do struggle fiercely every day with either combating my own stereotypical feelings about various groups or I am fending off the enormous number of idiots I encounter who just feel absolutely entitled to express their curious ideas to me about race, ethnicity, or, sexual orientation. 

I am dogged by issues of my race wherever I go ... and have been since a young age. It ain't so bad. In a way it has driven the most racist impulses that were embedded in me at an early age somewhat out of my system.

The environment I grew up in in Hamilton was unfriendly to the influx of Italian immigrants. There were a lot of unrepentantly told wop jokes and snarky comments about immigrants in our hood. Even our working poor/working class neighbours seemed to think they had more rights, or stature, than their Italian-born neighbours and their offspring. It was unpleasant, somewhat hostile, and likely why we tended to congregate together (as many immigrants do) in certain neighborhoods. 

But, on the other hand, immersed in a population of people of almost exclusively European and Anglo descent, there would also be the intrusive questions and interrogations from them about my background usually prefaced by "Are you Italian on both sides?" Note to the inquisitive: racially "ambiguous" people don't like to be quizzed about "where they are reaaallly from". 

The question, "Are you black?" usually seeped out in a restrained, apologetic tone or sometimes it was in a somewhat accusatory tone. So, so sorry to disappoint ... I guess you could blame it on the Carthaginians colonizing Sicily or Sicily's proximity to Africa, a scant 100 or miles or so across the Strait of Sicily.

Conversely ... my forays into the world of non-Italians usually was met with a menacing look, or worse, that signified, "Why can't you hang around with your own kind?"

Flash forward to my escape to Toronto the Good, Toronto the diverse, Toronto the tolerant, when I was 19 where I met my future husband who is of Japanese descent. I don't like to refer to him as just Japanese; I think because his people have been in this country for 100 years (since the First World War in the early part of the 20th c.) I think he, and his family, deserve the right to be called a Canadian. So there's all the silly bigotry that goes along with being a bi-racial couple which, admittedly, is very much less unusual now than when we started dating in university decades ago. 

Still, it's not a pleasant experience wandering into a small Ontario town where we are often met with quizzical glances, coldness, and, sometimes outright hostility. So much for the mosaic. I guess as long as you partner up with the same colour on the mosaic, that's cool.

On another night, not so long ago, I was at a house party, basically the only white person there, the guest of a friend in her home. My appearance caused some raised eyebrows I believe. At one point, my presence might have elicited a long tirade from a woman with a decidedly frosty air on how bi-racial people had to pick a side in terms of self-identification and as white people didn't see them as white ... they (the ambiguous looking bi-racial people) should, and must, declare that they are black, not bi-racial. As I glanced around the room, I was easily the person who might best be described in this manner to the unknowing.

Well ... this is awkward, I was thinking. Luckily my friend, the one who had invited me, launched into a spirited defense, unasked, about how her black friends were always asking her about who I was and what I was and how did we come to be friends.

I loved that girl so intensely at that moment. We had both been through a boatload of heartache because of this friendship over the years but we had never discussed it. I never told her the opposition I received from my family, the "friends" I had lost, or the ugly, racist remarks that white people had made to me about black people during, and because of, our friendship. She never told me that people were interrogating her about our friendship or giving her grief.

What can I say folks, idiocy comes in a rainbow of colours and hues.

I wish we'd all just leave the people of colour and the not so white people like me alone to supposedly ruin this wonderful country with our industry, our amazing cultural histories, our superior cuisine and exquisitely beautiful children. I really do.