Friday, October 31, 2008

A Fairy Tale with Extras

A year ago ten or twelve little girls gathered at our house for a Halloween party ... it was their last year in my daughter's grade school (grade six) and many of them would head out to different schools: public, private or alternative. The next year they would be in middle school. The little band would soon be broken up.

It was a very emotional year especially for our daughter J's very emotional mother who was already feeling nostalgic.

The house was decorated with cobwebs and realistic looking, small, plastic black rats on the table and fireplace mantle. The Halloween lights, pumpkins and skeletons, were set up glowing orange and white. Candles were lit throughout the house and an ivory coloured skull was lit up with a tea candle within. The lights were dimmed.

The girls, delighted to be going to a Halloween party at night, decided amongst themselves that many of them would go as fairies. Each would have their own colour theme - blue, yellow, pink, black, green, etc ...

They swooped in in their tutus and tiaras that night gripping glittering wands and shod in ballet slippers, some wearing lip gloss and other sparkly makeup. Not everyone was a fairy, one was a gypsy, one was a vampire. But most were fairies.

Our offspring, ever the maverick, came as ... a "dead punk rocker". Oy. Does she have to be dead? I asked the husband. Apparently so. She did.

They gobbled up the chips, candy and the popcorn and gathered around the monitor in the living room to sing karaoke sounding like pint size versions of drunken sailors as they stumbled through the songs and slurred through the lyrics with much giggling and screeching. But they had such fun. Our neighbor, who could hear their hoots of laughter, said that she had never heard girls have such a good time.

Initially J shrank back, uneasy about singing, not joining in. Unsure of herself. I urged her to join in ... she demurred. Okay, I said, if you don't start singing in five minutes, I AM going to do the karaoke. You never saw a kid jump up so fast in her short life. She sang alright ... The kid sang like there was no tomorrow.

And at the end of the night, the brightly coloured fairies and the gypsy, and the vampire, all went home, drunk on candy and soda pop and bad karaoke music ... I blew out the candles and turned off the lights knowing it would all be different next year. And it was.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xialong (Soho Press, 2000) 464 pp.

China. Murder Mystery. Communism. These four words do not usually appear together.

Set in 1990, just one year after Tianemen Square, Mr. Xialong, now living in the U.S., presents an intriguing picture of Communist China, written from the insider's viewpoint.

Shanghai born, Xialong came to the U.S. on a Ford Foundation fellowship in 1988 and stayed after Tianemen Square in 1989.

There is a good description of the book here. I approached the book reluctantly (it was a fellow book club member's choice) but I did find the Communist Chinese insider's POV intriguing. The political manipulations, the disastrous repercussions of the Cultural Revolution, the paranoia and Big Brother atmosphere of 1990s China, the dreariness of Communist life ... oh boy, I'm starting to sound like a neo-con.

Comrade Chief Inspector Chen, a 30 something police official, uncovers the murder of Guan Hongying, a young "National Model Worker", a worker celebrated for her dedication to Party principles and socialist ideals. A national celebrity featured many times in the media as a shining example of womanhood, she ends up in a canal with a belly full of caviar. Her murky double life is slowly discovered by the committed Chen.

The Chinese poetry spouting Chen, who has translated T.S. Eliot, is also a published poet, and is conflicted between a life of art and poetry and a professional life dedicated to eradicating crime. His path to solving the crime is blocked by senior party officials who seek to subvert the investigation for political reasons. The main suspect is a HCC (one of the High Cadre's Children) and thus very well protected.

The language is stilted sometimes, the phrasing awkward. I don't know if the writer is translating his work from the original Chinese or trying to replicate the rhythms of Chinese language in English. It feels very formal and does not flow to my ears.

Published in 2000, already it feels a bit dated. Or is it that life in Shanghai is so much more conservative in nature than ours? The murdered woman's sexual life is described as "perverted" (we would say perhaps kinky here - it ain't nice but it would not be considered extremely unusual here nor "perverted"). A man found babbling on the street is casually referred to as an "idiot".

Women are saintly paragons of virtue like Chen's love interest, the ambitious reporter Wang Feng, or Chen's assistant Detective Yu's wife Peiqin or ... whores (literally). There are a few of those in this book. Really - is this still where we are regarding the depiction of women? Even in 1990s China?

I don't know what to make of the ending where Chen concludes that "... a son's return for his mother's love is always inadequate, and so is one's responsibility to the country". It's almost as if he has a government censor sitting on his shoulder. Chen the maverick, Chen the one who challenges the system, appears to buckle and accept the somewhat unsatisfactory ending to the story.

The thing that always disturbed me too about conventional murder mysteries is the loving detail lavished on the female corpses. A little too detailed, a little too graphic, almost as if the writer is relishing these details. If you are looking for these deets you've come to the right place (oh and extensive details of Guan's extra-curricular activities which got her into this mess).

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Launch for Made Up Of Arias

How odd and exciting to be writing these words!

A small press called Blaurock Press in Kitchener-Waterloo has accepted a novella that I wrote sometime ago entitled Made Up Of Arias. The novella is based on a short story called "Opera" which I wrote and which was nominated for the Journey Prize eons ago and printed in a Journey Prize Anthology.

Blaurock Press is an independent literary imprint committed to "publishing good writing in well-designed and enduring books". The books are quite beautiful and lovingly done with a great deal of craftmanshuip.

Arias will be published in late November and will be edited by the esteemed, the adorable Stan Johannesen, author of Luggas Wood: A Novel and many other works. Many thanks Stan and Penny Winspur, Blaurock's publicist and supreme reader, for all your hard work. Both Penny and Stan may be seen on the Blaurock blog.

A special thanks to Christian Snyder, the founder and publisher of the Blaurock Press, for making this all possible.

A joint book launch with Coach House Press will be held on December 1st , 2008 at:

Starlight Social Club
47A King Street
North Waterloo
Tel. (519) 885-4970
The doors will be open at 7 pm, with book readings to start at 7.30 pm.

Till then!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Culture Chick

Between November 14-16, 2008, I will be attending a conference entitled "Envisioning Culture: Evolving Writing & Community" hosted by the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW). It will be held at the Frank Iacobucci Centre at the University of Toronto (my alma mater).

This conference will "focus on identifying or defining the impact that this writing might have had on both its immediate Italian Canadian community and on the more general Canadian literary landscape".

I will be reading from my forthcoming novel Made Up of Arias. Paesani, hope to see you there!

For general information about the Association of Italian Canadian Writers please refer to:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Drowning in cool

Rachel Getting Married (U.S., 2008) directed Jonathan Demme, 114 min.

"It's drowning in cool!" my exasperated spouse said after we viewed the film trying to explain his dissatisfaction with the film. We didn't dislike it - we both thought Anne Hathaway and Rosemary DeWitt were terrific as the troubled, warring sisters in this dysfunctional Connecticut family - it's just that this family circle which the talented director Jonathan Demme tries so hard to convince us is real, is so boho, so alternative, that we were both literally cringing by the end of it especially at the wedding party itself.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it comes off as a first rate student film with its hand held camera, unrehearsed scenes, multi-cultural cast with unpretty (read normal) faces, excepting of course Hathaway herself, and so-so production values. It's like a step back into a style of film making that perhaps Demme might have employed early on in his long career.

Kim (Anne Hathaway) is the junkie fuck-up younger sibling who inadvertently harms a family member during a drug induced spree when she was a teen. She has been in and out of rehab ever since. Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) is the older, more responsible sibling obtaining her Ph.D. in psychology and poised to marry. Kim gets out of rehab a few days before the wedding which is to be held at their father's home in Stamford, CT.

Where to begin with the white, liberal stereotypes? Who knows, maybe this is the way some upper middle class people really live ... The pre-wedding house is a haven for eccentric musicians with odd looking instruments, people of various colours and inclinations (the bride is Jewish, the groom black). The bridesmaids are to marry in saris. Uh - please.

Kim, whom we can tell is a bad girl by her edgy, dark hairstyle, pasty skin, dark circles under her eyes, and smudged eyeliner, wreaks havoc (she refers to herself as "Shiva the Destroyer" at a pre-wedding party for family and friends). She is selfish, narcissistic, irresponsible. She insists on being the maid of honour even though Rachel wants someon else. She crashes her car on the eve of the wedding in a toxic rage of guilt and anger at her mother. She sleeps with the best man, also a recovering alcoholic, fights with her sister, fights with her weak, ineffectual father and the bitchy maid of honour, culminating with a heated, face-slapping argument with her mother.

Hey - I'm not saying the film is not immensely moving nor that Hathaway doesn't do a good job in this role but why is Kim like this? Why does Kim do this? She has done this horrible thing to her family and feels that she has never been forgiven (likely she has not, nor ever will be). But it all seems to come down to her icy, unemotional mother who is played to chilling perfection by Debra Winger and possibly her loving but overly indulgent father.

But you don't become a junkie merely because mommy didn't pay attention to you as a child and daddy was too liberal. Isn't it a bit more complicated than that?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Our Town: A Play in Three Acts

Our Town: A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder (1938; republished by Longman, Green & Co. , 1956) 129 pp.

I picked up an old volume of this play at the Victoria College Book Sale, an annual event that I have come to enjoy since having started working at the university. The university has four annual sales at four different colleges: Victoria, University, Trinity and St. Michael's Colleges - Trinity being the best I think.

I love this volume published in 1956: faded green cloth hard bound covers and yellowed, slightly brittle pages with that old book smell.

I didn't know much about the play aside from the fact that it is the American play most often produced (for the first time in 1938) and I really didn't know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised by the modernist structure of the play.

The audience is directly addressed by the "Stage Manager" who serves almost as a Greek chorus to the events that take place effectively smashing the fourth wall. The stage is minimal, the scenery almost non-existent - one must imagine all that is described to you. The Stage Manager is akin to a "homespun philosopher" or perhaps one of Shakespeare's fools - commenting on the plot's development.

Each of the three acts describes different phases in the life of the Wells and the Gibbs families, in 1901 in the sleepy little town of Grover's Corners in New Hampshire. It briefly chronicles the lives of Emily Wells and George Gibbs from youth until the death of one of the partners: youth, marriage, death, in three acts.

The play appears to have been written by Wilder in response to over elaborate stagings of drama produced in the 1930s according to the introduction of the play. Let the characters and the story tell you what the story is about not the costumes and the set ... Wilder rejects the "picture frame" stage as the introduction describes it.

Act One opens in a small town in New Hampshire at the turn of the 19th c. The town is comprised of simple folk: WASPy, down home, simple, in the best sense of the word. Milk is delivered by horse and cart, the town drunkard whom no one chastises plays the organ at the Congregationalist church, doors are left unlocked, everyone knows everyone else including all their flaws and problems. Sometimes the small town witticisms rankle this city girl's cynical ears but we are meant to see these people as uncomplicated and disarming.

The Stage Manager introduces the Gibbs and the Wells families. George Gibbs and Emily Wells are very young and you see the sparks of their future relationship here. She is the brightest girl in her class; he wants to work on his uncle's farm after attending agricultural college.

The sets are exceedingly simple: two ladders represent George and Emily in their respective rooms doing homework, a row of chairs representing the church sequence, etc ...

In Act Two, the two young people fall in love and marry. The scenes are honestly portrayed. The parents have misgivings as do the bride and groom who have cold feet at the altar. Emily wears only a veil as a symbol of the wedding ceremony. There are frequent flashbacks which provide a back story for the characters' growing attachment prior to their engagement.

In Act Three, the action takes a dramatic and unusual turn away from the realistic. Nine years later, Emily has died in childbirth after the birth of her second child. As the scene opens we are confronted with a row of chairs holding the dead who survey and comment on Emily's funeral. And they are vocal. And dismissive about the living and their "blindness" to the afterlife.

George's mother is there as is Simon Stimson, the town drunkard, and Mrs. Soames, a lady who attended Emily and George's funeral. Emily soon joins this group, somewhat dazed, as if she has not quite navigated the trip from the living to the dead. She watches her husband and family at the ceremony and begs to return for one more day.

The dead discourage her by telling her that she will regret it because she will always carry the knowledge of her death with her into the past life. Despite their warnings, Emily insists and returns for a day - for a specific moment - the morning of her 12th birthday, a day of great joy for her. But it is too painful. It is painful for the reader as well as.

Emily retreats to the world of the dead, consoled by the others and now accepting her new existence. It is an intriguing mix of realsitic drama with the fantastic and an utter surprise for me, a novice to this genre.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Me and Robert Kaplow and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles by Robert Kaplow (Published by MacAdams Cage, 2003; republished by Penguin Group, 2005) 260 pp.

Readers of this blog will remember my embarrassing faux pas at TIFF a few weeks ago regarding the author of this book ... hence the blog's title. I saw the film by Richard Linklater at TIFF and really enjoyed it.

I love stories of this type where you create a fictional character to co-exist with a real historical figure. The insertion of this young 17 year old boy, Richard Samuels from New Jersey, into this exciting situation - the first production of the revolutionary Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937 and his encounter with the great, the maniacal Orson Welles - what a charming idea. I like the mingling of historical fact with a little fantasy. It's a bittersweet New York fairy tale - my favourite kind.

Kaplow captures the innocence, the yearning for freedom and success and yes (I hate this word) the horniness of a boy like Richard.

Richard, dreamy, insecure, talented Richard, wanders into New York city - he loves the theatre, music, Broadway, New York. He is the embodiment of every small town kid who is ambitious and talented and a little naive. He wanders into the path of the opening of the Mercury Theatre in the heart of Broadway and lucks into a small role as Lucius in Caesar set in contemporary Fascist Italy with the assertion that he can indeed sing and play a ukulele (to be disguised as a lute in the play). The character of Richard seems to be very loosely based on Arthur Anderson (the boy who played the role in the original production). The book acknowledges the role of Anderson in researching the history of the production.

In the week preceding the opening of the production, Richard falls in love with Sonja Jones, an assistant of sorts, to Orson. He falls in love with the theatre. He falls in love with Orson himself it seems at times. That's what great talent does the novel asserts: the power of talent sucks you in, makes you fall in love with the artist himself/herself and to imagine that you are that person. It's empowering in a way for a young person with aspirations.

Kaplow creates a believable world: the arguments, the ego, the drama, the vindictiveness, the insecurities of the actors in that small, exciting, chaotic theatre world.

Welles, all devastating charm and monstrous ego, manipulates, cheats and bullies his way to this revolutionary first production. Extraordinary to think he was only 22.

The attention to detail, how the theatre office looked, what the stage looked like during the production, who played whom (the roguish Joseph Cotten, the talented but acerbic George Coulouris, the exasperated John Houseman's role as a house manager in the Mercury Theatre), the music that was used, the props, which critics were there opening night ... it creates a vivid, intriguing picture of what it might have been like.

Richard is betrayed and used by several people and grows up a little the process. It breaks your heart to see how casually he is thrown away because he dares to stand up to the controlling Welles and those around him are too intimidated to intercede in any real way. But it feels thoroughly believable too.

It's difficult to think about the book without thinking of the film and probably not fair to the writer - but, oh well, here goes!

I think it was wise to cut out the high school drama in the novel from the film. It's impossible to imagine the telegenic Zac Efron having trouble with girls. He is too good looking to be perceived as geeky, lacking confidence, losing the girl and being embroiled in the sorts of humiliating episodes that Richard experiences at school and with girls in general (as realistic as these scenarios are in a real high school). I think it was a sound decision not to include that aspect of the book in the script.

Likely a face like Efron's was not what Robert Kaplow imagined for Richard but it works in the film because you can easily believe that he is picked from a crowd to play the small role of Lucius, that he momentarily captures the attention of the older more sophisticated Sonja, that he can mill about and mix with these older theatre actors and hands. Perhaps the presence of Richard's "friends" - a group of annoying, bullying boys in the novel - appeals to the demographic (the book is listed as a "young adult" novel) but I think it takes away from the more intriguing aspects of the story (his encounter with Orson and the theatre world).

Sonja Jones, Richard's illusive object of desire, is much more layered in the book - she is a troubled, unhappy girl with huge mother issues but it seems so at odds with the sophisticated veneer of the character - her emotional meltdown about her mother and her sense of identity during her night with Richard feels tacked on, extraneous to the plot. It also doesn't ring true to me. I don't think girls really feel this kind of anger in this way (not that we don't all have our mother issues - ahem!). But I think over-protected boys with overbearing mothers feel this way.

Another small thing which I felt the book did not need was the insertion of two great historical characters attending the play on opening night - it was too much. One encounter with a bona fide genius suffices!