Thursday, May 31, 2007

Go Sens Go (no really please just go ...)

My sister and I were bemoaning the ongoing television coverage of the Stanley Cup finals because in the late spring the CBC always preempts a certain British soap that she and I have been accustomed to watching for decades now in the evenings. And we get very ornery about not seeing it regularly. We are fairly bitter about it and still have not become accustomed to this.

"What is this sports hysteria about?!?" my sister exclaimed. It was a very dramatic outburst as we were both lying on her couch like two recumbent Scarlett O'Haras perspiring in the heat. We were recovering from a celebratory brunch (my sister has a new job) and a heat wave that was just starting in Hamilton that weekend. We were both overdressed for the weather and extremely grumpy. "I totally don't get it," she fumed.

We launched excitedly into this discussion: neither of us are sports enthusiasts and never have been, being more in the culture vulture/bookworm category; hence, our ongoing puzzlement regarding the Canadian passion for hockey or anything vaguely athletic. She started talking about an Iranian film called Offside in which a number of young Iranian girls are so desperate to play soccer that they disguise themselves as boys. That didn't puzzle my sister so much as the fanatical devotion to the Iranian soccer team and the country which has oppressed these girls. That was mystifying ... their devotion to the sport of soccer trumped their justified anger and resentment at the restrictions that their country had imposed on them.

What is at the root this emotion? I'm convinced that it (fanatical devotion to anything) is just another conduit for religious fervor. How else to explain the rabid devotion of some to vegetarianism, cycling, Madonna (the singer not the Virgin), the Toronto Maple Leafs, personal fitness, fashion, golf, science, music, blogging? As human beings I think we have this inherent need to powerfully believe in something, anything, and devote ourselves to it, sometimes in a cult-like, slavish fashion.

I remember when I witheringly commented on the fact that an acquaintance of my partner's had a painting, not a photograph but a painting, of the hockey player Frank Mahovlich at his home. "A painting of Frank Mahovolich? What is he a saint or something?" I snickered. I fully expected him to agree with me.

"Well why not?" he argued. "How is that so different than that photograph of Virginia Woolf you have above your writing desk?"

"Yes but - yes but -" I sputtered. Come on, Frank Mahovlich?

But really is it so different? What is that weird fixation I have on British writers which I mentioned in my blog on May 28th? Is it better than thinking about the Leafs 24/7 or wholeheartedly buying into Amway or holistic medicine?

And as a lapsed Catholic I know that some things stay with you forever.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Mrs. Dalloway's Hot Dog Stand

And so external reality clashes with the internal realm as I am walking up Yonge St. north towards College St. …

I was wondering why I have developed into such a devoted Anglophile who admires and enjoys English writers and Anglo culture, particularly writers such as Virginia Woolf, when I have been raised so explicitly to dislike and avoid same (have I just answered my own question?). And as I am thinking this I look up and see Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand just a few feet before me on Yonge St. south of College. Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand? Okay, I will take this as a sign that I need to explore this further.

Then this Saturday (May 26, 2006), Brianna Goldberg wrote a brief article on the hot dog stand for the National Post which reminded me that this blog had been simmering in my mind for some time … It is odd, inexplicable even. I think it may be a “forbidden fruit” scenario (i.e. my obsessive interest in this) although forbidden by who is still a question in my mind. Why revere Virgina Woolf, Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury group, Jane Austen’s heroines, William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp? What does it have to do with you? as my mother would have said (in Sicilian that is).

There is a framed photograph of Virginia Woolf above my writing desk. Young, beautiful, she appears almost unseeing and is half turned away from me in that famous b&w portrait as if to say What? I’m busy thinking! Get on with your work! and she is emblazoned on a special cup I bought many years ago. I have numerous bios on the Bloomsbury set (even the somewhat forgotten Leonard Woolf - come on that’s just weird even for me).

Even better, or odder, the various Anglophiles captivated by the British: the American Henry James and the Dominican Jean Rhys (transplanted from the West Indies to live out her days in London). Do I even have to go back that far in literary history … what about my early infatuation with the African born Doris Lessing in the 1970s and my brief 1990s romantic interlude with Martin Amis that even pushed me into the arms, so to speak, of his father Kingsley Amis and some of his novels?

Okay enough of the bold tace names … let’s figure this out. Where I grew up in a predominantly Anglo/Scottish/Irish Heinz 57 kind of working class neighborhood in the east end of Hamilton with a smattering of paesani and other Europeans, I remember that my parents had absolutely no sense of feeling inferior to the Inglese or anyone else. None whatsoever. Whatever we, as Italians, felt we excelled in as a culture: family, cuisine, art, opera, music, film, even the average cleanliness of the Italo-Canadian home … there was no way, seemed to be the going sentiment in my world, that we could be deemed inferior. Yes, I saw and heard all that, absorbed all that.

We were, I think, disdainful of the Anglos around us, even a bit fearful perhaps. As if we could be tainted by their ways, their unseemly habits and lax customs.

Perhaps then, as a young adult, settling in a new city like Toronto as a university student, away from family and friends and this sort of xenophobic sense of superiority I could finally venture out into a new world, primarily in books and film, and explore the lives of the Bennett sisters in the time of Napoleon or Mrs. Dalloway as she prepared for her party on the pages of Woolf’s book (one of my absolute favourite books).

I could pursue unfettered interests that would have seemed odd at home and amongst my circle of girlfriends, all non-readers, mostly all Italo-Canadians, few destined for university. Perhaps my isolation - I remember whole days returning from classes at university and never having even opened my mouth - forced me to inhabit new worlds, worlds I didn’t belong to, nor ever would.

A brief note on the origins of Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand according to Ms. Goldberg’s article: “the proud moniker isn’t an accident and, no, the surname of its proprietor isn’t Dalloway. ‘The name reflects my dedication, love and respect for English literature,’ says Yahya, the cart’s owner. ’I actually wanted to name it after T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland,‘ he says, adding that he reconsidered after realizing the associations people might make between the cart’s name and contents of the hot dogs. With a degree in English literature, another in linguistics, a diploma to teach English and plans for a PhD on the horizon, Yahya says he sees learning as a lifelong experience. That means surrounding himself with the literary - even at the hot dog stand.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

These Six of the Six Million

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (HarperCollins, 2006)

For years, the only thing that Daniel Mendelsohn knew of his great uncle Schmiel Jager was an inscription written on the back of a photograph: killed by the Nazis. Mendelsohn literally navigates the world (Australia, Israel, Poland, Sweden) searching for clues as to the fate of his great uncle, Schmiel's wife Ester and their four daughters who all lost their lives during the Holocaust. He is particularly drawn to this man because, somewhat disconcertingly, he is said to resemble him closely. The family lived in the town of Bolechow, claimed by the Poles, then the Russians and then the Ukrainians at various historical times (now known as Bolekhiv, in the Ukraine).

Each anecdote, rumor and family tale communicated to him through family members, friends, Jewish genealogical and Holocaust websites, e-mails and letters from relations and near relations, add another piece to the puzzle. He affirms many things that we know about the annihilation of a great number of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe - the degradations and slaughter are now disturbingly well known - but he also learns unpleasant things about the level of aid that family members may or may not have given to this one branch of the family that did not emigrate to America or Israel in time to escape the Holocaust.

Uncle Schmiel, pictured here in the book with his delicate, refined face in his jaunty fedora and fur lined coat, begs his younger siblings for loans, for assistance and guidance in letters written to America. The letters that responded to these pleas are lost or perhaps as yet undiscovered, lost in the Holocaust, the ruin of what followed. Daniel can see through Schmiel's pleading tone that assistance, whatever was offered, if any, was perhaps too little, too late, or did not arrive at all.

As a writer Mendelsohn must wrestle with the possibility that the grandfather that he adored, the younger brother of the doomed Schmiel, did not do enough from the safe haven of America to save his eldest brother. Are the tears expressed by family members tinged with regret and guilt he begins to wonder as he begins his journey?

Cousin Ruchele vanished in 1941 during the first Bolechow Aktion. Uncle Schmiel, Aunt Ester and the youngest daughter Bronia disappeared in the second Aktion in 1942. Cousins Frydka and Lorca were said to have become partisans and were eventually killed too for their involvement.

Perhaps this is a situation I will never fully understand because I am not a Jew nor have I lost family members in such a horrific, unspeakable manner. I find Mendelsohn’s conjectures about the fate of his mother’s cousins particularly difficult to read. For instance, he conjectures about the death of Ruchele, presumably killed in an Aktion in October 1941 in Bolechow when she disappeared.

He pieces together a likely scenario based on the memoirs of fellow Bolechowers who did not actually witness the Aktion but heard from other survivors. He also notes other recorded memoirs of that day. He tries to imagine what Ruchele suffered, emotionally, physically. I find this unnerving and fruitless, almost tasteless. Does it aid the memoir and our appreciation of the significance of this historical event to imagine that it was perhaps Ruchele who was the unfortunate young girl forced to dance naked with the humiliated rabbi by the Nazis before her death? This was only one account of what happened during the Aktion. He dwells a beat too long on this and other similarly unsavoury details. It strikes an unnecessary prurient tone in this context.

The book is graced with photographs taken by the author's brother Matt Mendelsohn and some well preserved family photographs. Interspersed between passages about his search, Mendelsohn includes rather long expositions about passages from the Torah and how those passages relate to his search: stories about the Creation, the Flood, the killing of Abel by Cain. I find these quite dense and sometimes overly elaborated.

The book opens with an inscription by Proust and clearly Mendelsohn takes him as his model as the writing replicates the meandering, sometimes beautiful, sometimes pedantic and annoying, style of Proust in his descriptions.

But there is an emotional pay off to his labours as Mendelsohn, on his last trip to his grandfather's homeland, comes to stand in the very spot in Bolechow that saw the demise of some of his relations. It comes at time when he, as the writer of this history, and we, as the readers, think that the entire story has been revealed.

It is melancholy and full of surprises. And true to my melancholic Sicilian nature, yet again, I find myself beginning a book about the Holocaust during the onset of gorgeous weather. 'Cause that's just what I do.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Dream of the Beta Immigrant

I credit my partner for steering me towards Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, belated as my introduction was. Mostly I was intrigued by his laugh out loud responses to the book and his repeated, "Okay, just listen to this one part ..." exhortations. The book came out in 2002 and deservedly received an avalanche of critical praise and literary awards.

In The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Shteyngart's anti-hero Vladimir Girshkin (think little, think insignificant - Shteyngart has a real talent in the creation of his characters' names), is a Soviet Jewish immigrant living in New York in the 1990s. He describes himself as a beta immigrant, as opposed to his mother Yelena, who has the supreme confidence of an ancient Greek deity, and is what he calls an ultra successful alpha immigrant. He is a self-described "stinky Russian bear" and toils quietly and desperately as an immigration clerk, much to his mother's disappointment.

Vladimir is unkempt, lonely, underconfident, scrawny and overpowered by his successful entrepreneurial mother who advises him, somewhat sorrowfully, that he "walks like a Yid" and counsels him how to do otherwise. All the beneficial effects of a progressive Midwestern college education and his parents' nouveau riche status cannot confer a sense of confidence on poor Vladimir.

In a bid to make some quick cash and perhaps to disavow the status he has acquired as his mother's "little failure", Vladimir (also known by his diminutive Volodya) engages in a series of unfortunate episodes in Florida involving a predatory drug dealer and he narrowly escapes to the fictitious Prava, which, in its descriptions, sounds suspiciously like Prague, into the waiting arms of a Russian mafioso nicknamed the Groundhog who develops a profound affection for Vladimir. The Groundhog is the son of the mildly insane Mr. Rybakov, an immigration client who Vladimir assisted and whose best friend is a fan (yes literally an electric fan). Mr. Rybakov is rewarding Vladimir for helping him obtain (false) American citizenship with a new proposal to escape to Prava.

Vladimir reinvents himself in Prava with a newly acquired (and false) patina of American entrepreneurial success in the trendy European city known as the "Eastern European Paris of the 90s". He becomes a wannabe mobster creating an absurd pyramid scheme to dupe all the trendy ex-pats and frustrated potential Hemingways who populate Prava with too much money and time on their hands. Here I think the plot falters a bit with the ease by which the mafiosi and the ex-pats agree to his nonsensical schemes.

In Prava he is counselled that in dealing with his fellow Russians that he remember "cruelty, anger, vindictiveness, humiliation" are the "four cornerstones of Soviet society". Softhearted, selfish and weak, he tries his best to comply.

As is Vladimir's luck, things do not fare as well as hoped despite his enormous ill gotten gains and the pretty new girlfriend he finds in Prava. Whether duping honest but gullible Canadians out of their trust funds to start a non-existent literary magazine, being attacked by rabid skinheads or defending his girlfriend against a fleet of angry babushka-clad elderly ladies at the very "foot" of a destroyed statute of Stalin in the heart of downtown Prava, Shteyngart has a genius in deflating both 1990s American hipster conceits and the seedier East European stereotypes. He attacks all with a sharp, literate tongue and lusty humour.

And Shteyngart says only 50% of what happened in the book happened to him.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Miss Havisham's House

The house definitely has a Miss Havisham feeling ... The heartbroken Miss Havisham in Dickens' Great Expectations had all the clocks stopped at the exact point at which she had learned of her betrayal by her fiancee. She remained in her decaying mansion and never removed her wedding dress.

I think of her when I pass this lovely but decrepit house each day on my way to and from work. It is at the end of a long side street in Riverdale and sits on the corner of Broadview Ave. facing Riverdale Park. A small coach house, only recently completely boarded up, sits like an orphaned child to the east of the house.

The presence of the coach house suggests to me that house is at least 100 years old, probably from the 1880s. When I was doing some research on our own house, a narrow brick Victorian which was built in 1889, a friendly source at the City of Toronto archives told me that the street we live on originally had a German name but it was changed to the last name of a prominent architect who had built some of the houses on the street after WWI due to anti-German sentiment.

No one lives at this house now, this house that piques my interest so. The windows are broken and dirty, the tattered floral curtains which peek out in the main room are reminiscent of long ago wartime stringency. They are the only "homey" touch I can see from the street. The lights are never on even in the dying winter light. Seasons pass and still the enormous wrap around porch that faces Broadview Ave. has broken, rotting wooden stairs and slabs of chipboard guard the battered door and the three bay windows in the front. The red brick of the house is blackened and dull.

Still, "she" has great bones as they say in the real estate business (as if she was a fading beauty who retains her terrific cheek bones and lovely eyes). Yes, I think of her as feminine, a large sprawling, ruined matron who is now almost forgotten. The peeling cream coloured paint that once covered her is like a decaying wedding dress. The exterior ornamentation and architectural detail dirty, laden with soot, like someone who has forgotten to remove her rouge long ago.

What did she do to be so forsaken? She sits like Miss Havisham awaiting her lover's return only to be disappointed for an eternity.

I've said that it is uninhabited and yet periodically someone (who could it be? the child(ren) of an elderly but ill parent who can no longer care for the house?) puts up another boarded window, closes up the coach house, installs a "no parking" sign in the long drive that leads to the coach house, throws out the odd bit of rubbish which, with some embarrassment, I peek at curiously. They, those that add these things to the house, haunt it unseen by neighbors. They seem to make the house more and more forbidding to those that pass it.

I imagine some children surreptitiously commandeering the coach house for a fort or a playhouse now only to be thwarted. Raccoons may nest there - as this was the fate of another abandoned house a few doors east - birds may fly into the broken windows and find temporary homes.

But I pass it each day and wish the old lady well.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Little Children and Their Children

I missed the premiere of Todd Field's film Little Children (New Line, 2006, R) at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. It appeared to have had a fairly short run when it was released last fall much to my disappointment. But it has now been released on DVD.

Little Children is a small, quiet but subversive film from the director who made In the Bedroom (2001). It explores the wounded psyches of two lonely married (but not to each other) lovers: Sarah (Kate Winslet), an educated but frustrated stay at home mother of the precocious Lucy, a lovely pre-school girl, and Brad (Patrick Wilson), the ex-high school football hero who continues to fail his Bar exams, the father of Aaron, a small boy the same age as Lucy.

Their first meeting is unsettling: Sarah is dared by a trio of beady eyed soccer moms to ask for Brad's telephone number in the playground that they all frequent. Brad is known, with a mixture of derision and barely concealed lust, as the "Prom King" by the women. Sarah takes the dare and takes it a step further by kissing Brad full on the lips as the three mothers scramble frantically to remove their respective children from this "disturbing" sight.

This brief but sweet encounter stirs in Sarah an overwhelming desire to seek out Brad at the local pool and the affair begins. Sarah, an obviously loving but awkward and scatter brained mother, is shown in contrast to the annoyingly ultra-organized suburban mothers in the neighborhood: she repeatedly forgets Lucy's snacks for the playground, advises Lucy to pee in the pool in order that she not miss the opportunity to talk to Brad, and, against common sense, never compels Lucy to use a car seat or a stroller because the child objects to them. Brad appears equally loving but lacking in direction: preferring to spend long summer days with son Aaron and his nights watching teenage skateboarders practice their technique while his wife Kathy (the frosty and convincing Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker, thinks he is in the local library studying for the Bar.

Sarah and Brad's spouses appear to be decent enough people (well maybe not Richard, Sarah's husband, who surfs for Internet porn with a thong wrapped around his face that was purchased from "Slutty Kay"'s porn site) but you understand the illicit couple's compulsion which is fueled by boredom, lust, a sense of dislocation in the stultifying suburbs and a not so subtle desire to wound their respective partners.

Todd Field, the director and co-screenwriter with the book's author Tom Perrotta, understands that it is the small inexorable things that sometimes drive husbands and wives apart: the imperceptible advance of middle age and the fading of our youthful powers, the lack of fulfilment in one's career, the sometime boredom of parenthood. These factors, added to the inhospitable inhabitants of their suburban community, seem to push them together almost not of their own volition. Like children themselves, they appear to have little self control, no sense of the inappropriateness of things and situations.

As if the underscore the lethal nature of suburbia, a subplot surrounding the presence of Ronnie J. McGorvey, a sex offender (played with convincing creepiness by Jackie Earle Haley) who has returned to this childhood home to live with his doting, over protective mother, seems to underline the unexpected failures of parenting even as one's child becomes a disturbed and frightening adult such as Ronnie. The film underscores the inability of the characters to, at times, control their sexual impulses, and, the deadly consequences of a blatantly aberrant individual confronting a seemingly homogeneous community.

An extended and over elaborated reference to Madame Bovary and its unfortunate heroine Emma in Sarah's book club augur that things will not end well. It's too pointed and clumsy a reference - of course, Sarah will identify with Emma, how is her situation any different? But the ending is eerie, unsettling and very much what you would expect from director Todd Field.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Barbara, Undine at last

I was mildly surprised to read in Barbara Amiel's April 30, 2007 Macleans column about her admiration for Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, particularly when she writes of the main character, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg and her various vicissitudes as a scheming social climber in the old money New York of the late 19th century. Amiel now writes her Macleans columns from Conrad Black's side in Chicago where he is on trial.

This is how Amiel describes the black haired Undine: "her startling good looks boost her up the social ladder with remarkable success, snaring a Park Avenue blueblood as her second husband [Ralph Marvell], next a French Marquis [Count Raymond de Chelles] ..."

Undine carefully marries up and up the slippery social ladder of old New York families and lets her purpose be known immediately exclaiming on the very first few pages of the novel that there will be "no more mistakes and no more follies now. She was going to know the right people at last - she was going to get what she wanted." Indeed ...

You have to wonder how much Barbara identifies with the determined Undine. Born in Britain, Barbara Amiel's father left the family for another woman when she was eight. Her mother remarried, emigrated to Canada and settled in Hamilton, Ontario. Her relationship with her stepfather was not happy, not the least of which was his inability to find employment, so at 14 she struck out on her own. A year later her biological father killed himself back in Britain. Her background is cited by some as the reason for her cool, if slightly hardened, image today. She has openly talked about having her clothes ridiculed by an early boyfriend's mother as the cause for her obsession with clothes and looks. Her struggle to establish herself as a writer is well known, perhaps even more than her awesome ability to seek out the wealthy and powerful in any realm she has dwelt in.

Her open admiration of Wharton's anti-heroine Undine almost trumpets "I know what you think of me, your estimations of my marriages and the successively richer men that I married until I "finally" settled on the biggest prize of all ..." That parade included the virtually anonymous Gary Smith in 1964 ; poet, broadcaster and author George Jonas in 1974 ; cable businessman David Graham in 1984; and, finally Conrad Black in 1992.

Amiel's advice in the same Macleans column to the wealthy Forest Hill types she reprimands (for some unknown reason she feels that they require reprimanding): "Today's sad people whose self worth depends on acceptance by local 'old families' could improve their standing - and their minds - by reading almost any one of Wharton's 40 books."

I feel that she is teasing us a little bit - is she saying don't do as I did, creating false idols of wealth and privilege because it all ends badly, oh say in a Chicago court with a beleaguered, rapidly impoverished tycoon husband? Is she saying that the "Forest Hill types" will never be fully accepted as she herself has never been fully accepted? Or does she separate herself from the Forest Hill nouveau riche with her admonitions?

Wharton's Undine Spragg is a frustrated, if wealthy, divorcee with a string of exes who never achieves her secret ambition - to be the wife of an ambassador.

Pretty, well bred but impoverished Lily Bart, another Wharton heroine in The House of Mirth, lies dying in a hovel because, some might say, she never found anyone good enough for her expensive or particular tastes, then couldn't marry when she desperately wanted to and no one would have her as her beauty and social status faded.

Yes Barbara, we would all do well to re-read Edith Wharton.