Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Baby love, my baby love

Baby love, my baby love. Why must we separate, my love?

I watch my neighbor S. across the street with a mixture of nostalgia and a twinge of envy when she is with her son, who is perhaps a year and a half. The way she looks at him. The way he looks at her. I remember those looks so well. Utter fascination and love ... I miss that. You don't really get that from a teenager, as good-natured as she may be.

Oh the affection of your teenage child has its rewards. I remember J almost reduced me to tears when she had asked me how my day went recently. I said, "Not great." J said "Do you want to talk about it? It's okay if you don't." with the just the right amount of sympathy and concern on her pretty face. When did you get so mature young lady? I thought.

Once she referred respectively to two people that I regarded as my nemeses as a "wuss" and a "snake". When I looked at her in surprise she said, "What? I know what those words mean Mummy! And they are ..."

And when those hugs and kisses come from J (while they may be a tad more infrequent now) they are wonderful because they are so genuinely given.


A recent magazine article noted that the ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed "that we instinctively want to nurture any creature that has a cute appearance. Lorenz suggested that infantile characteristics—big head, big eyes, the very round face—stimulate caretaking behavior."

Yes perhaps, but it's not just that ...

It is inconceivable to me that you can carry another being within you without sharing a special bond with her. My blood, my child, my love.

I miss my little chicken (so named because at birth she was a preemie and weighed the size of your average chicken - 3 lbs. 13 ounces) who soon grew to be a rosy, roly poly little thing with little sausage legs and arms. Her bright brown button eyes looking at me while she fed. Her feathery dark curls in my hand as I held her. Her sweet little face while she slept. The way she would run through the house calling my name when she came home until she found me and rushed into my arms.

The intensity of looking at her, loving her, is overwhelming, overshadowing every single emotion I have ever had. No passion, past or in the future, could match this feeling I think.
I never reached the stage that the hapless mother I met at a recent Christmas party has where she showed everyone at the table ten or fifteen shots consecutively of her newborn on her Iphone (okay I've never owned an Iphone but still ...) even when the conversation had moved on to other topics. However, I do understand the obsessiveness.
But like all things, we change ... J grows more mature, I age (gracefully or not). No longer the new mother, I am the mother of a teenager not a toddler. Now I understand why my mother-in-law was always telling me the same darn stories about my husband R as a child. She couldn't help herself. She could not contain her great love for her eldest child.

I have to restrain myself when reminiscing with J ... it must be so tedious for her as well meant as it is! Well, she will have many, many years to get used to it. I don't plan on stopping any time soon. So deal with that baby girl ...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Funny? Not so much ...

Funny Games (U.S., 2007) by Michael Haneke, 111 minutes
(Major Spoiler Alert)

I don't want to dwell on the plot of Funny Games so much as the issue of the depiction of violence in the film. The film is a shot by shot remake of the German film made by the same director in 1997.

Very briefly, an affluent family of three (father George, mother Ann and pre-teen son Georgie) vacationing at their cottage is psychologically and physically tortured and then systematically murdered by two psychotic preppie teenagers for no apparent reason. Two are shotgunned to death and the third is gagged and bound and thrown, while conscious, into a lake after witnessing the death of the two other family members.

I struggled to find meaning behind the depiction of such horror. I, as the viewer, had no understanding of the motivation of the two young boys effectively and sinisterly portrayed by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, impeccably attired in white, obviously well-educated, and in some instances displaying very proper manners.

The boys appear to be deliberately cartoonish, as if they are meant to represent an exaggeration of evil or buffoonery. They call each other Tom and Jerry or Beavis and Butthead. One calls the other Tubby. They wear ridiculously proper tennis attire and white gloves. They maim and kill with the toys of the middle and upper classes: golf clubs and old hunting rifles.

The boys innocuously insinuate themselves into the household by asking for four eggs for a recipe for a neighbor (later we learn that this is a trick they have used before). The chaos soon starts when George (Tim Roth), the husband, tries to defend his wife Ann (Naomi Watt) who has ordered the boys out of the house. The boys attack and physically immobilize him, effectively neutering him for the rest of the film. It is left to Ann to try and protect the family and the home.

With George symbolically emasculated, Ann is sexually humiliated in front of Georgie, their child (played astonishingly well by a very young Devon Gearhart), and the husband. The terror continues into the night.

When there is a brief respite from the violence, as the two boys appear to leave, and the family tries to escape they are plagued by a couple of convenient plot points. They have no land line in the house and their cell phones don't work for various reasons so they are unable to call for help. The electronically controlled beautiful white gate which the camera returns to so frequently is disabled so, in effect, they are trapped within their beautiful home and gorgeous grounds on an isolated point on a lake.

Each is eliminated in a shocking fashion (with the violence at times offscreen) and we see the boys move on to the next victim.

And the message is what ... here are the victims of materialism trapped and destroyed by one of their psychotic own? No one, not even the wealthy, is safe from chaos and evil?

I am not so willing to condemn this film out of hand but I was mystified. I'm sure that the director had intelligent reasons for creating such a well crafted, beautifully shot film with such good actors but his intention is obscure and I wonder can it be effective as a piece of art if it cannot communicate its intention? Is there art without comprehension? This is an idea that I have explored elsewhere.

A recent film review in cineuropa.org noted that:
The film’s real achievement, however, is the undermining of an audience’s customary complicity – in Haneke’s film, we are forced to identify not so much with the victims but rather with their all-powerful assailants. Peter and Paul are performing for us, a point underlined by the characters’ frequent questions direct to camera: they’re appeasing our blood-lust, our desire to witness the worst that can happen to other people. After all, why else would we want to see such a film?

Indeed, why did I watch it - I had more than a strong inkling of what kind of film it was. Am I complicit in the violence? In the voyeurism? I was frightened and disgusted but did I stop watching (like my more prudent husband who grew annoyed very quickly)? No. Is the director playing with my voyeuristic tendencies?

So perhaps there was a powerful point behind this film.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Perfect Night to Go to China

A Perfect Night to Go to China by David Gilmour (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2005) 179 pages

Roman, a well known broadcaster (strikingly similar to the real life David Gilmour who was a broadcaster on the CBC), and the father of a six year old child Simon, grapples with the disappearance of his son. He does something foolish leaving the boy momentarily alone one wintry night to slip into a bar down the street. For this small but not very sensible slip, Roman pays the ultimate price.

Gilmore taps into what is likely the greatest of fears that all parents face. What if something horrific happened to my child? What if I was responsible for his or her suffering or injury due to my negligence?

Roman's extreme emotional suffering unleashes impolitic behavior and accusations.

Roman becomes a suspect in the boy's disappearance. His wife M. orders him out of the house because, she says, she can't stand his scent in their home. He has become repulsive to her. He barges into strangers' homes on the slight suspicion that they might be responsible for the boy's disappearance. He haunts cemeteries and his old childhood home in Forest Hill. He roams the streets. He picks fights with strangers. He follows an instinct that tells him that Simon is still alive. Roman eventually loses his job and his capacity to get through the day doing what he no longer cares about. Nothing else matters but Simon's return.

Roman has odd but intriguing recurrent dreams where he sees his son in some unspecified but pleasant Caribbean town. He tries desperately to get Simon to leave the town but can find no way to do so. He implores his dead mother, who also is a resident of the phantom town, to assist him but to no avail. The mother seems to be the key to Simon's return in Roman's eyes - is it that she who had given Roman life, may now return the boy to life? It's like he is visiting the land of the dead trying to lure Simon back. He seems sure that he can do so.

The ending is unexpected and strange and oddly compelling because there is no firm resolution and may or may not be a fantasy.

I enjoyed the book but it is disturbing to think that this beat out Joseph Boyden's vastly superior Three Day Road for the Governor General's Award for Fiction (English) in 2005. Perhaps it was the simplicity and painful honesty of the plot which persuaded the judges; it is compelling but not a story that should have beat out Boyden.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

They say at 50 you get the face you deserve ...

... if that is true - you must have been a very, very good boy my darling because you are beautiful.

Happy Birthday Rob!

Tanti baci e amore oggi e sempre,

La tua

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown & Co., 2007) 629 pages
Lady, do you never tire of teenage vampires you may ask? Apparently not. Admittedly, I am late to the game ... many femmes d'une certaine age have long devoured these weighty tomes. I am only just now reading the third of the four books.

What is it about the teenage Bella and her blood that is so attractive to these creatures of the netherworld? That makes her so compelling to us the readers? I am convinced that it means something other than what is on the page. It symbolizes something ... this has been percolating in my mind for the entire time that I have read these books over several months.

And then it hit me ... the virginal Bella's blood is the concrete manifestation of her virginity - this is why is it so precious, so valued, so sought after. A view that is perhaps not inconsistent with Meyer's Mormon beliefs. Meyer has been described as the master of "the erotics of abstinence."

Here in Eclipse, werewolves and (good) vampires literally fight to the death against (bad) vampires to protect Bella and her blood. The novel opens with the news that a serial killer is stalking nearby Seattle. Slowly it becomes evident to Bella and the Cullen clan that the mysterious deaths are the result of a group of "newborn" vampires trying to establish control of this main urban centre of readily available blood supply. They are newly minted, vicious and uncontrollable - hence all the bloodshed which is explained away as the work of a serial killer in the media.

When it is determined that some fanged intruder has been in Bella's house and taken some of her possessions, Edward, ever the doting, controlling lover, tries to ensure that Bella is never alone and initially tries to prevent her from spending time with Bella's best friend and Edward's nemesis Jacob or has her babysat by his "sister" Alice. This sneaky streak of paternalism in the novel hits a crescendo when Edward informs Jacob (after Bella throws a punch at Jacob for kissing her) that: "if you ever bring her back damaged [my emphasis] again ..." he would have to answer to Edward.

Despite this fiestiness, Bella is still transported like chattel from one caregiver to the next for her own protection. She requires constant supervision lest the "bad" vampires locate her. Really ... is this where we are at in the early 21st c. - that we still see young girls as a sort of prized possession to be protected by more dominant male partners even if they are in danger?

In the big climactic confrontation between good and evil, Bella must literally beg for a seat at the grown ups' table ... Why is Bella not respected as the mistress of her own destiny? Is this an accurate reflection of female teenage infatuation and dependency on male approval or a sexist reinforcement of stereotypes?

Cleverly, on Meyer's part, we miss the main action between the "bad" vampires versus the "good" vampires and werewolves and only get a blow by blow description through Edward's telepathic powers off screen. But this particular book strains to include both romance novel quality descriptions of the gropings of virginal Edward and Bella and horror inspired fight scenes between Edward and the ever present evil vampire Victoria who finally meets a well deserved gory end in the forest - it's the last that we will see of that flaming red mop!

We think it's over - the bad vampires are bloodily vanquished by the Cullens and the werewolves. Edward has dispatched Victoria and her newest consort Riley before Bella's horrified eyes. But, uh oh, it ain't over kids till the fat lady sings ...

There is one more scenario featuring the creepily articulate and pint size Jane of the Volturi clan featured in Book 2 (aptly cast in the New Moon film as Dakota Fanning). The Volturi have come by to clean up the mess caused by the Newborns and are vaguely disappointed to see that the Cullens and the werewolves have done an adequate job of this. Jane dispatches the lone newborn saved from the carnage who is literally baying at the moon. Bella also learns then that Jacob has been seriously hurt in the struggles (also off screen).

In the final scenes she rushes to comfort the injured Jacob, with Edward's permission of course. The boys have been sniping at each other and threatening each other during the course of the novel. But Bella has made her choice and by the end of book 3 she is grudgingly looking at wedding gowns.

Male volatility (Jacob) and male dominance over females (Edward) are major chords that waft uneasily through the conflicted Bella's life. But Bella remains untouched, literally, at the end of book 3 and will remain so until she marries in book 4. What should this signify for the teenage reader - reinforcing a fear of/fascination with male sexuality?

And what is up with Meyer and the persistent rape or near rape scenarios? Bella is almost raped in book 1 but saved by Edward. In book 2 she is drawn to a group of unsavoury characters which suggest that they might do similar harm to her. In book 3 we learn of the real life rape of Rosalie Cullen and how she turned from human into her present otherworldly form. Jacob makes a few unpleasant moves on Bella which are disturbing to her and us, the readers (consciously so on Meyer's part?).

The teenager in me relishes the emotional drama that Bella experiences ... the book opens with Bella trying to decide whether to marry Edward. She is beset by a number of fairly normal anxieties: the uneasy truce between boyfriend (vampire) and best friend (werewolf); nervousness about where her post-highschool life will take her - college or marriage or neither; worry for her parents should she embrace the life that she says she wants - being turned into a vampire to live forever with Edward. As silly as these supernatural scenarios may be, at their core, they do strike a familiar chord for young girls.

Sexuality, as represented here by Meyer is potent and possibly destructive … the two lead characters, Edward and Bella, are both virgins. Edward’s fear of relations with Bella which she has pushed for since book 1 and which accelerate in book 3 have to do with the fear that he will literally kill her if they have a sexual relationship due to his supernatural strength.

He counsels abstinence and self-control until marriage which he pushes for and she resists …

Meyer is able to have her abstinence cake laced with sexual fervor and eat it too … she ramps up the sexual tension, making a teenage girl (the primary reader of this series) the sexual aggressor and the boy, unrealistically I believe, the one who applies the brakes to the relationship and insists on marriage.

The adult in me cringes at all the vampire history lore we suffer through in order to understand what the "newborns" are (a major plot element here) and why they are trying to take over Seattle. The long and tedious fake werewolf history of the Quileute Indians rankles ... so too the bloody fight scenes - decapitations, creatures being torn to shreds etc...

Meyer is at her best when she communicates how teenagers deal with everyday issues of love and desire and belonging. Where she falters, for me, is when she tries to exercise her writing muscles and goes into these elaborate, poorly realized back stories for the vampires (such as the exposition of Rosalie's or Jasper's personal history).

She is a truly awful writer sometimes with repetitive descriptions which travel from book to book [see my rant in the New Moon blog entry] and nonsensical descriptions such as this: "His face was as empty as a stone" or describing Jasper as Carlisle's "most recent son".

It will be interesting to see how the film (due June 2010) will treat this book. I had read that the new director will feature more action oriented scenes. They figure they have captured the young female demographic, now they want the male one as well. A great article here in The American Prospect about how Twilight is somewhat denigrated by the media and critics because it involves mostly young females' interest.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ever good

"My world sometimes feels like a world of loss."
Will Bird

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden (Viking Canada, 2008) 360 pages

In Boyden's phenomenal first novel, which I completely adored, Xavier Bird, a famed Cree sniper, is a returning soldier from WWI who is damaged psychologically and physically. Upon his return from the war, he is cared for by his Auntie Niska, his lone surviving relation, who is travelling through the bush back to their home. Niska shares her personal stories with the silent Xavier and Xavier remembers the traumatic events of the war. The narrative technique in Joseph Boyden's Giller Prize winning second novel follows the style that he adopted in Three Day Road.

This new novel is set near Moosonee in the present day and the dual narrative flows smoothly between the voice of Will Bird (the son of Three Day Road's Xavier Bird), an elderly ex-bush pilot, who lies in a coma for some undisclosed reason, and the voice of his niece Annie who has her own sorrows to relate to her uncle by his bedside.

Annie is visiting her uncle Will in a hospital up north near Moosonee and is encouraged to speak to him to try and heal him so she begins her story with the search for her missing sister Suzanne, a pretty model who disappeared two years before. We hear Will’s narrative as he lies in the coma; he speaks to his nieces Suzanne and Annie about the series of violent events which lead to his coma. Will had been mistakenly targeted to be a snitch by local drug dealers, a notorious family of badass Indians called the Netmakers who were dealing drugs in the reservations.

The dealers and their minions, lead by their ringleader Marius Netmaker, wage a game of terror and intimidation against Will in which they try to burn down Will's cabin, kneecap him with a baseball bat and brutally kill a beloved blind and ailing she-bear that Will has befriended in his loneliness (Boyden writes chillingly that her cut throat was like a "dark smile on her neck").

When Will finally acts to protect himself and avenge the death of the bear he is forced to leave and hide in the bush for fear of retribution. I love the evocative imagery here: the fragile but tough "bird" preyed upon by the "netmakers" who try and ensnare him.

Will has his troubles – both old and new. Will is old enough that he was forced into a residential school against his will and that of his family. His father Xavier, the war hero, is too broken and too old, to fight it. In his dreams, Will climbs the walls of the residential school, “like Ahepik, our own Cree Spider-Man” to rescue the native children. Will is now utterly alone - his wife and two children are dead; he has removed himself from his remaining family (a sister and his two nieces), and the bear he befriended has been tortured and killed. His friends Joe and Gregor are loyal but too vulnerable and old to help him.

Some of the most affecting scenes in the book are of Will speaking to the bear and to his father Xavier’s WWI rifle. Will is not so far gone that he doesn’t recognize the inexplicable weirdness of both of those things. In the bush, where he escapes after his attempt at revenge against the Netmakers, alone on the island of Akimiski, Will finds a kind of peace, a kind of sanctuary, which is short-lived.

He meets an elderly Indian man and woman on this lonely island. They soon realize who he is and what he has likely done and because the old woman has encroaching dementia, there is no guarantee that Will's secret will be safe. He must leave the sanctuary soon. On the island we learn the fate of Will's wife and sons, their horrible demise, and the reason why he gave up flying his plane.

He flees to Ghost River and the strain of life there with winter approaching as well as dwindling supplies seem to rattle an already emotionally shaky Will. He returns home but his past actions against the Netmakers are not forgotten nor forgiven.

Flash forward to the future ... In her conversations with her uncle, Annie tells of her search for her sister who fled Moosonee with Gus Netmaker, the troubled youngest member of the Netmaker clan. This further enmeshes the Bird family with the Netmakers who, it turns out, share a not so distant ancestor.

Annie’s search takes her south to Toronto. She undertakes the journey with some fear saying that her people never fared very well down south in the big city. She comes across a group of homeless Indians on the corner of Bathurst and Queen Sts. who share a sordid corner of an abandoned bank and live under the Gardiner Expressway where the “Old Man”, an Indian elder, cooks goose for Annie and offers advice on how to find her sister Suzanne.

I wonder how much of a fictional construct this is because there is a sizable group of Indian men and women who do hang out there on that very corner – did he just use these people to frame the Annie story in Toronto or does he know them? One character jokes that all the Indians in Toronto know each other (I think the same might be true of Sicilians from Racalmuto in Hamilton).

Annie searches for Suzanne amongst the homeless of Toronto. Attacked and nearly raped on the streets of Toronto by a thief, Annie is saved by Gordon, a handsome but homeless mute man who becomes her “protector” and goes by the name “Painted Tongue”. He follows her to Montreal and New York where she searches for Suzanne's old acquaintances in the modeling world. There she is persuaded to try to be a model herself and here we veer off the tracks a bit in the novel.

Annie slips in easily, and quite unrealistically, into Suzanne's former world of the glitterati of Montreal and New York, a world of drugs and models and clubbing. This is the least interesting, and least believable, part of the story I'm afraid. Annie seems too tough, too tomboyish, too smart, to be seduced by these phonies and flakes in this shallow world. I just don’t buy into it. Annie is enmeshed in a world that is the antithesis of her world up north.

Annie's New York denouement reads like a bad TV movie involving wannabe models, bikers and drugs ... Boyden's writing is sooo much better than this.

When Boyden vividly depicts Annie in her old world near James Bay, after her adventures south, on her skidoo, preparing for cold weather, fishing, slouching into town for supplies, checking out the local townspeople at a dance – she comes alive for us. She is fully formed - slightly cynical, tough, extremely likable. But this more cosmopolitan, urban world seems utterly fake and stereotypical. The too thin models who drink too much and take too many drugs are boring and pretentious – this stuff belongs on episodes of Gossip Girl or the now (thankfully) defunct The OC – not in a book by Boyden who has demonstrated a rare and magical talent in showing us how Indian people live and feel today.

I don’t want Boyden to limit his imagination to issues involving only Indian people (that would be a ridiculous and unfair expectation) but we very much need his voice and other aboriginal voices like it. How much literary exposure do we have to Indian life that is not relegated to history books and tragedies of colonization? We need strong native voices, we need Boyden’s vision.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Boat You Came On

In 1956, my father traveled on the Saturnia from Italy to Halifax, Nova Scotia. A number of years ago, someone approached my brother and said he had a photograph that he wanted to share with him. His family had voyaged on the Saturnia on the same trip in 1956 and he had a b&w photograph of my father with this man's family on the deck of the ship which clearly reveals its name on a lifesaver in the forefront of the frame. Later I incorporated a scene on the Saturnia into a novel that I had written about Salvatore Giuliano and a fictional character very loosely based on my father Francesco (also named Francesco or Ciccio) called We Were Like You.

This year I had the good fortune to encounter two young filmmakers, Ferdinando Dell'Omo from Italy and Lilia Topouzova, who wanted to make a documentary film about the passengers of the Saturnia and were searching for subjects. My father passed away many years ago and we never spoke of this voyage but I did have this great photo and I wanted to share it with them.

I met with Ferdinando firstly. Ferdie, as he is affectionately known, is from Pisa, Italy. He has a great face, one where all his goodness and kindness is imprinted upon it. We talked over lunch at Bar Mercurio about my dad and the other newly arrived immigrants who traveled on that ship. I was fascinated by his enthusiasm and knowledge of the ship. Please see below for a short history of the ship.

In the course of our discussion I mentioned to Ferdie how so many things were leading me back to memories of my father. I had just published my book Made Up of Arias a few months before and the father figure was a key character for me, bringing up a great deal of emotion from the past - some good, some sad. The Saturnia project brought back many memories for me.

At that time, I also recently had contacted one of the executives of the Trinacria Club, a men only social club in the downtown core of Hamilton that my father co-founded in Hamilton in 1957. I was to pay a visit to the club in February. I was intrigued because I had only been there once when I was very young, perhaps less than ten years old. I was both excited and little wary of the whole enterprise.

Then I became aware of the Saturnia project. I told Lily and Ferdie about my planned trip to the club and they became very excited. They wanted to shift the focus of the doc a bit to include a section on the children of the original passengers of the Saturnia.

So in February of this year, I went to the club with a documentary film crew lead by Ferdie and Lily. I detailed this trip in an essay I wrote called “At the Trinacria Club” which was to be published in Italian Canadiana the next year. So I won't go into all the details now but I will say that the misty halo of nostalgia I had created around my father and this trip was somewhat dimmed by my trip. Although, in retrospect, it was not surprising at all.

I was told that the club members were very excited to see me (hmm realllly? I thought how odd). They had planned a lunch and had many things to show me.

As I entered the interior of the club, with the filmmaker's camera trained on me to the left, the President of the Trinacria Club (who shall remain unnamed to protect the guilty) approached me and demanded to know why we were so late in a very irritated tone. We were, in fact, two hours late and he was upset despite the fact that the director had called while we were on the road mentioning the delay.

Il Presidente spoke to me in rapid fire Sicilian and because he was literally the first person I encountered in the club, I was tongue-tied and confused and I could not formulate a response quickly enough and certainly not in Sicilian which I rarely use nowadays. My dumbfounded silence caused him to throw his hands up in the air and he exclaimed, “Oh, and I guess you can’t speak Sicilian either!” Then he walked away in a petulant manner.

I surveyed the assembly of 70-something aged men arranged at card tables before me staring at me blankly during this exchange. Their expression was not unfriendly, not unkind, but it was more like, "Who the hell is this?" Suddenly, my cheery red beret and bright lipstick seemed inappropriate on this bleak February day before this somber assembly and my desire to see the club seemed an ill-conceived idea.

My novella Arias (guest starring a fictional version of my father named Turi and published three months before the trip to the club) had kickstarted a whole lot of hurting for me. I have learned to avoid reading passages regarding the father Turi before an audience as it, literally, will end in tears. Still he is always there, sometimes a daily presence, thirty or more years on ... The king is dead ... the king must die.

The club that I remembered my father brought me to was more like visiting the home of a friend or paesan - it had a comfortable feel with its battered, well worn furnishings and natural light which streamed in from the windows. It had a breakfast bar at the back which served drinks and had comfortable chairs as well as the requisite card tables and chairs. Not fancy but cozy. It was empty at the time when my father brought me, early morning on a Sunday I think. Just my dad, myself and my brother C. were in the club at the time.

This same space now had a brick exterior facade at the front of the house and the windows were removed which shut out all natural light. It felt like a bunker (to protect whom, I wondered, the men from the outside world that had changed so drastically since 1957?) and because of all the modest mementos that were placed on the walls, it reminded me a bit of a small museum I had been to in Holguin, Cuba, more than twenty years ago commemorating the revolution or praising some long dead revolutionary hero. Whose hero? My hero from long ago?

The walls had bits and pieces of bric-a-brac illustrating the full glory of Sicilian culture: Grecian ruins at Agrigento, our own literary hero from Racalmuto Leonardo Sciascia, soccer team regalia, crests representing each province in Sicily, the image of the Trinacria, and the requisite pictures of prickly pears, called fic d'India, in Sicily.

The President's sharp-tongued response had saddened me but it angered me even more. Of everyone in the group assembled there, he had wisely selected me, the daughter of an old friend (now long deceased) to chastise because I was the most appropriate target for his anger. And there I stood, on the wrong side of forty (as a friend of mine would say tongue in cheek), standing like a gob struck teenager who had been caught out doing something shameful.

Why did he not focus his wrath on Ferdie the handsome director with the Northern Italian accent and the charming manners or Lily the pretty Bulgarian with the dark eyes and the impeccable Italian accent who served as the producer? And of course he would not approach the non-Italian speaking film crew.

I am Sicilian, a fellow Racalmutese, and a younger woman, and therefore very low on the totem pole in his eyes – I should have been more respectful, more deferential about our lateness even though it had nothing to do with me and I had never met this man before.

So this coloured my whole visit to the club and as I mulled this over while traipsing amongst the sentimental bric-a-brac. I realized that his response might not be unlike my own father’s if he was in a similar situation.

My father, too, was paternalistic, a little rough edged, and not particularly patient with perceived fools or people who rubbed him the wrong way. I started to imagine my father here, in this room, sitting with this group of tired old men, playing cards, immersed in this hermetic capsule of ethnicity in this bunker-like enclave. A little bored, cranky, and perhaps happy to escape the domestic sphere for awhile. What would his response have been to some little pop tart in a cherry beret showing up at the door two hours late?

I understand what a confusing disappointment I would represent for my father today. Everything about my life would have confounded him: leaving home at eighteen to go to university in Toronto, living outside of Hamilton away from my mother, marrying my wonderful but non-Italian spouse, my lone child (where are all the others he might ask??), my writing and blogging – everything about my life. The king is dead ... the king must die. In order for me to live my life, the king had to die.

Reluctantly, I admit that all of my musings surrounding the creation of the Francesco character in my novel We Were Like You, the documentary about the Saturnia trip, even my own personal history is largely a romantic fabrication smothered in nostalgia and selective memories. But then that’s how Italian families so famously endure isn't it? We are known for our strong emotional bonds that no one can rip apart. Amnesia is the glue that holds us together and sometimes ... it is even stronger than love.
A Short History of the Saturnia
According to my new friend Ferdie and the Pier 21 website, the Saturnia was built in 1935 and was used as a luxury liner. That year it was also used as a troop transport for the Italian government to Eritrea. During WWII, it was chartered for the International Red Cross for evacuation voyages from East Africa. In 1943, after Italy's capitulation to the Allies it was renamed the Francis Y. Slanger and became a hospital ship. Returned to the Italian Line in 1946, the original name was restored. It resumed transatlantic sailing until 1965, when it was withdrawn from service and scrapped the next year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Toronto Women's Bookstore Reading

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Readings with

Michelle Alfano, author of Made Up of Arias
Lina Medaglia, author of The Demons of Aquilonia
Salimah Valiani, author of Letter Out: Letter In

Toronto Women's Bookstore
73 Harbord Street, Toronto
Readings start at 7.00pm

Free Admission

For more information please go to: http://alitchick.blogspot.com/

Saturday, November 21, 2009

New Moon ... old tropes?

Nothing could withstand the hype surrounding the first film Twilight, but I guess the thing that stands out the most for me regarding the new filmed version of New Moon, the second book in the series, is that the sensibility of the new director Chris Weitz seems so much more overtly action-oriented than the first film in the Twilight saga. Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Twilight, created a beautiful, romantic material world which definitely revealed a feminine sensibility sensitive to the issues faced by many teenage girls.

I've written about the book, here at last is the film.

In New Moon, perhaps because much of the story has to do with Bella's best friend Jacob Black (the bulked up Taylor Lautner) and his transformation into a werewolf (yes, I know you adults are laughing already) the emphasis is on the physical struggles that the Quileute Indian boys undergo, their efforts to track down any errant Vampires who wander into their territory as per a treaty enacted between the two groups.

This gives the young buff Indian actors an excuse to run around the entire film without shirts on provoking yelps of delight behind me in the cinema.

Cleverly, when Meyer constructed the series she took her cue from the classics. Meyer is not the most accomplished writer; however, she cannily taps into tropes that hit at the core of young romantic love. In Twilight, she called on the familiar dynamic of tension between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. She is biased against her future lover thinking him too proud; he, vain, aristocratic and beautiful, secretly adores her. In the second installment Meyer turns to fragments of the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an appropriate plot line.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), our teenage heroine, is seemingly abandoned by Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) after a disturbing accident in the Cullen family home. He has determined that, for Bella’s well being, it is unsafe for them to be together. He disappears from Forks, Washington with his family to unknown parts.

The ever accident prone and depressed Bella soon realizes that every time she puts herself in an unsafe situation she summons up the spirit of Edward admonishing her so she does so with increasing frequency. In the book, the period of her depression is actually much more prolonged and painful but I’m sure this would bore the teenagers right out of the theatre. Here in the film we are reduced to intermittent bouts of screaming during her nightmares to signify how much Bella is suffering. This sent a titter of screeching and laughing from the row of teenage girls behind us.

She asks Jacob, her now best friend, to rebuild a motorcycle that she thinks will provide the adrenaline rush and fear and will make Edward a constant psychological presence in her life.

Jacob does so happily but Bella witnesses a change in him that is frightening and inexplicable to Bella. Some members of the Quileute tribe have the ability to transform into werewolves. Their role is to patrol the reserve and keep it free of vampires. Whatever antipathy that Jacob might feel towards Edward because he is in love Bella is now intensified because he has secretly taken on this role.

Bella’s daredevil antics have more serious repercussions than she can foresee. After recklessly cliff diving after she watches the Quileute boys doing so, Edward’s sister Alice rushes to her side because her telepathic powers have told her that Bella has tried to kill herself.

Miscommunication between the Cullen family members and a misunderstood telephone call convince Edward that Bella is dead so he decides to commit virtual suicide by having himself killed by the Volturi – an elite band of vampires living in Italy who kill other vampires when they threaten the reveal the existence of their secret life.

Romeo (Edward) banished from Verona thinks Juliet (Bella) is dead and decides to kills himself - get it kids? Bella and Alice race to Italy to save Edward (flying on Virgin Airlines and driving in a flashy sports car no less).

Edward has been dragged before the Volturi for almost exposing himself to the Italian populace, all donning blood red cloaks, who coincidentally are celebrating the anniversary of the expulsion of vampires from their town. It's the silliest part of a silly pot line.

The Volturi are a band of cartoonish characters led by Aro (Michael Sheen, a wonderful actor camping it up here and ill used by the director). Is there a reason why the Volturi have to come across as 18th c. fops in bad wigs with too much white makeup and pseudo English accents? Camp doesn't even begin to describe it. The director resorts to the same silly cinematic clichés about vampires that were boring twenty years ago.

Of course, the assembled vampires are incensed by Bella’s presence - her blood always provokes an intense, almost erotic reaction in this crew. Although the fight scene is intriguing to watch in its Matrix-like, slow-mo beauty it is an unsatisfying denouement. Edward and Bella are spared.

They return to Forks, Washington and make nice. Bella resumes her old complaint with which the film starts and begs to be turned into a vampire so that she might live forever with Edward and never age but he agrees only if she will marry him. Fade to black.

Horrors! A fate as a vampire or as a wife? I find it amusing how resistant Bella is to the idea of being married, a theme which is carried through to the third book Eclipse.

I had put the book aside in the summer but now I am curious as to how this horrible dilemma will be resolved.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

And then Pandora opened the box ...

Inside Out: Reflections on a Life So Far by Evelyn Lau (Doubleday Canada, 2001) 238 pages

Now 38, Lau's relatively short life has been quite tumultuous and well documented primarily by herself. These disturbing but engrossing essays were published eight years ago and the personal history that it offers is an intense array of daunting topics. She has always demonstrated herself to be prolific, brilliant and troubled.

She is a modern day Pandora opening a box of unrelieved misery at times. There are so many areas that might cause discomfort or sorrow here for herself and for the reader: teenage prostitution; her self-admitted father fixation; an early history of bulimia; a troubled family past, and, a messy libel suit pressed by former lover W.P. Kinsella, which raises ethical issues about the writer's right to tell all, among others.

Cliched as it sounds, she did have a devastating early youth. She is perhaps most famous for running away at fourteen, becoming a prostitute on the streets of Vancouver then writing an amazing account of her experiences in her book Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, published at the age of 18. She displayed an astounding talent at a very young age.

Sadly, and obviously, I think the experiences which she writes of in "The Shadow of Prostitution" colour everything in her life from her familial relations to her sexual experiences as an adult to her writing and friendships.

She understandably resents intrusive questions or speculation about her past life on the streets but the truth is people always seem to remember the worst thing that's ever happened to us: whether it is the loss of a loved one, a tragic illness, a philandering partner or, in Lau's case, her history as a prostitute. As she says, "For me the past bleeds into the present." So it does for all of us, but this is a history that she will never wholly leave behind.

Her self loathing as a young girl was like a loaded gun she kept in her pocket at all time. At any moment it might be the trigger that could destroy her; it nearly did many times over. One wonders what prompted such desperate acts: the seeming withdrawal of her adored father's affection as she reached puberty? Her mother's intrusive and abusive emotional behavior? Her own disgust with her changing body? Here is a bright, sensitive, talented girl who implodes with grief and self-hate and drops into a frightening underworld of johns, drug use and self-abuse. It's utterly horrifying to contemplate.

"The Country of Depression" tries to map out her inner turmoil from an early age. The bouts of depression began at twelve or thirteen. It appears to me that it coincided, or was triggered by, what she perceived as her father's seeming rejection of her and a perceived favoring of her younger sister. It seems to be the first of many emotional losses.

So many factors may have contributed to this state: her strained relationship with her conservative parents, a sense of self loathing regarding her appearance as she approached teenagehood, her sense of otherness as a young girl of Chinese descent growing up in Vancouver in the 1970s.

There is a sort of narcissism attached to the state of depression which she rightly pinpoints: the desire to demonstrate how much one suffers. She honestly professes her own displeasure with friends who seem wholly absorbed and arrested by their own bouts of depression.

The essay "The Dream of the Purple Dresser", which concludes the book, reiterates a theme she often writes of: how an early tumultuous family life, epitomized by a lavender coloured dresser which her parents rescued from a neighbor's refuse, has pursued her in every aspect of her life. The dresser, which she still owned when she wrote the essay, in its ugliness and her inability to give it away, is the concrete symbol of a past she cannot escape.

"Distance, for me, kindles desire." she begins in"Father Figures". Her father fixation is something that she has talked about openly for many years. It spills over into one's sexual relationships of course. I admire her bravery in speaking of this - but is it bravery I sometimes wonder or an inability to keep one's thoughts to oneself, to control one's impulses which may embarrass or compromise others? Is everything open to examination and public disclosure for a writer? The quotes from other writers is telling: writers always betray those closest to them and Graham Greene observation that “every writer needs a sliver of ice in their heart”.

It's too easy isn't it to betray others with our confessions, our need to tell our own stories. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. Lau would say yes, this is true (as would I), as is likely proven by the long essay she wrote about her legal troubles with Kinsella.

Disappointingly for me, Lau devotes a 62 page long essay ("Anatomy of Libel Lawsuit") to the libel suit that W.P. Kinsella launched against her for an article she wrote entitled "W.P.and Me" in Vancouver magazine based on their two year relationship. Kinsella, who is close to forty years older than Lau, felt belittled by her personal comments and therefore sued soon after the publication of the article.

Lau wastes a good deal of energy for herself and the reader trying to prove that she should be able to say whatever she likes as long as it is true, quoting law texts, other writers who have written about ex-lovers, etc ... She describes her sense of rage and frustration that she was now being penalized for the quality that makes her a writer, unflinching honesty and the desire to tear the veil of hypocrisy away from human relations. She likens her rage to the time her father struck her violently on the hands with a ruler, exasperated by her stubbornness regarding the importance of her writing. The rage and frustration she felt then, she felt again with the libel suit.
She says of that episode:

I seemed fundamentally unable to understand ... that to expose another's intimate self to the world would cause that person to wish to hurt me in whatever ways they were capable. I till expected everyone, including myself, to give that up for the writing, which was a higher purpose.

As much as I admire her work, I sometimes suspect that there is something lacking in her perception of herself and her world view. I don't know if it is narcissism or lack of common sense. I almost wrote sociopathy (now known as the more politically correct psychopathy) but that is an unfair and unqualified assessment to make of another human being on my part.

She expresses a naive astonishment that telling the truth, as she sees it, should be forbidden or curtailed and likely this is at the root of her problems with Kinsella who vehemently objected to the personal observations she made about him. I don't know if it is brave or foolhardy to expect that everyone will agree with this point of view.

But I also think it was this phenomenal self-absorption and regard for her own writing that pulled her through the various crisis. Hence, the mystified resentment and rage that she should curtail her observations in writing. It's as if we are asking to to deny the very core of her own being.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Remember Something ...

As your thirteenth birthday approaches I am reminded of all your wacky little quirks my darling girl J (most are endearing) that I see slipping away with the advent of teenagehood.

A story retold many times: When you were about a year and half I was teaching you to say your name (four syllables - a beautiful Italian name but quite a mouthful for a little tiny gal!). I would point to you and say your name, then I would point to myself and say "Mama". I repeated this several times: "Juliana" then "Mama", "Juliana" then "Mama". (Important Ed. Note: J sometimes referred to breasts as "milk" - hmm don't ask!)

"Okay you try sweetie," I said encouragingly. " I pointed to her."Juliana!" she chirped. Excellent, good girl! I pointed to myself (I placed a hand on my chest) waiting eagerly for her response. "Two milks!" she blurted. Mortification, joy, laughter - all these things passed through me.

Every mother thinks her child exceptionally smart. I know I did. When you were two your grandmother Sue took care of you at her house in Don Mills which was close to where Mama worked at the time. Each night during dinner I would ask you what you did that day - did you have good time? Yes. Was it fun today? Yes, you would say. Yes. Yes, to every question. "What a smart kid," I said to R, "She understands everything!" Every night the same positive response.

Then I got suspicious, every answer was yes, every response was agreeable. So I started asking J different questions: did you go to the moon today with Bachan (Japanese for grandmother)? Yes. Was it fun on the moon? Yes. Did you eat bananas on the moon? Yeees. So much for that Mensa membership.

You were mischievous, you were naughty too. At three years old we had an episode which proved as much. Someone stole some candy from the candy tin under the island in the kitchen and then fibbed about it. When daddy noticed it missing, he asked you and you cried and swore that you had not done it. Later you crept up to me. "Don't tell Daddy, but it was me who took the candy!" you cried piteously. For some reason, she's always been a little more afraid of her sweet tempered dad's displeasure, maybe because he is less susceptible to tears and drama than her mother.

"Promise you won't tell!" she begged. I said, "I won't, but I really think you should tell him." Later that day she approached her dad and confessed amongst many tears of contrition and kisses.

At around that time, you also had a way of saying "C'mon babeeee!" which sounded alot like Elvis.

All kids perform for their parents. You were no exception. We'd say, "J, do a happy face, J do a sad face, an angry face ..." You obliged accordingly. The best was the "thinking face". You became pensive, tapped a little finger against the side of your face and said slowly, "I remember something ..."

But do you remember when you were four or five and were completely captivated by the animated movie Pocahontas. I was teasing you the other day about this. We had a song book with all the songs from the film. Every night you asked me to sing each song, every night, before you fell asleep. EVERY SONG.

Sometimes, your dad would sing along with us and then he and I would inevitably get misty when we got to "The Colours of the Wind". Some nights I was tired and resentful. Some nights you were a tad unruly. But we sang the whole songbook together. For months.

Another bedtime ritual from a few years later: when it was time to brush your teeth, you would casually slip into my bedroom when I was in there, slip on my black three inch heels and parade up and down the hallway brushing your teeth and tottering around as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Not a word spoken, you just slipped on the heels and wiggled about until I burst out laughing. It was so uncharacteristic of my un-girly girl!

What about the time you ran through the house when we had a few playmates of yours over to cool off with the garden hose on the front lawn. Your dad had set up a little blue and yellow tent which resembled a tiny house that you three ran in and out of, getting wet from the sprinkler, slipping on the grass, screeching. Everyone got wet and then they were changing into dry clothes in the living room. You ran through the house naked yelling, "Don't look at my privacy! Don't look at my privacy!" clutching only a towel and your, ahem, modesty.

Like me, you love holidays and were excited about holiday preparations. Together we would bake cookies for Valentines Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas: adorned with hearts and bunnies, pumpkins and ornaments. We trimmed the tree together. You helped Mama prepare special Xmas baskets with home baked goods for friends and family. Like your nonna, you had a special flair for arranging and organizing things in a pretty way. You set the table with special decorations and a great deal of love when we had guests.

Those days are gone I'm afraid. Now when we trim the tree you are more likely to be texting friends on the couch or be on the computer. Alas, you have little interest in baking cookies with pumpkins on them or cute Easter bunnies. The baskets are only mildly interesting to you now.

But you still have the sweet quirkiness of a child and a great joyful laugh. You still love to dance your goofy dances and you are a vicious mimic of adult behavior which amuses you (and us). But now the goofiness is coupled with big sighs of irritation, eye rolling and alarming proclamations about how one day you just might like to have a small tattoo - utterances that petrify your poor old mother. You play ice hockey, you play guitar, you text and e-mail and are far more tech savvy than I am.

One thing still remains from that time that seems so long ago now. Once, when you were three you mispronounced the endearment "lovey" when you addressed us and the name stuck. You are still my "lubby" even today.

You are 13 today. What a great age you are! I wouldn't turn back the hands of time despite my nostalgia because each day you delight me more and more tesoro.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Boy in the Moon

Walker Brown, the author's son and the subject of
Ian Brown's memoir
The Boy in the Moon

The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown (Random House Canada, 2009) 295 pages

This was a heart wrenching, difficult read. Not because the writing is not good (it is, exceptionally so) but because the topic is so disturbing to me as a mother.

I have to admit I had a vastly different impression of Ian Brown before I read excerpts of his account of life with a severely disabled son in the Globe and Mail: he seemed a bit of a scoundrel at times, a bit louche. I still remember him flirting with that twit Candace Bushnell in an interview during her 15 minutes of Sex and the City fame.

Our offices (the literary quarterly Descant's and Brown's) are in the same building south of the university where I work. Brown also frequents my favourite Japanese restaurant on Baldwin St. I often see him there alone and he looks to be ... what? At first he seemed peevish, arrogant, aloof. Now I think may be it's something else: sad, lonely, tired, perhaps? After I read the book, it made sense why.

I was also shocked to find out he was married to the writer Johanna Schneller (she's so smart, progressive, talented - what??).

I was even more disturbed to learn the severe nature of his son's disability. Walker has Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrome or CFC, described as "an extremely rare and serious genetic disorder". The condition is complex and very disturbing to contemplate - the difficulty of it, the suffering involved for the little boy, the things the family must have experienced while he lived with them - he now resides in a group home with other handicapped children.

That will learn me ... I had no idea how difficult this boy's life was and consequently what the family experienced. Yet another instance where I have leapt to a superficial assessment of a complicated human being.

Walker Brown was born a few months before my own daughter in 1996 and was five weeks premature (as was my daughter). That sent a shiver down my spine. I kept picturing myself as the mother, as the parent of this child. The somewhat selfish yet typical thoughts that Brown had about marriage, children and about disabled children fluttered through me too when I was young. You cannot imagine yourself dealing with these adult responsibilities and/or travails in a rational manner yet parents do, we all do.

The reader intensely experiences the range of emotions Brown feels: grief for his boy's suffering, guilt for the seeking of relief from this difficult situation, rage at one's fate and dashed hopes for the child, fear at what the future holds for him, for himself as a parent, anger at the lack of foreseeable change, anger at the lack of answers. One description of a sleepless night spent with Walker who is often in pain, or uncomfortable, or just restless, is gut wrenching, exhausting, just in the reading of it. Imagine living it, year after year. I simply cannot.

He captures the chaos of emergency rooms visited, the tenderness and joy of the most private moments with one's child, the brief illusion that everything will be normal, that medicine will help, that one day things will be "fixed" somehow, the parade of specialists with unsatisfying answers.

This sort of intense emotion and constant worry takes it toll between husband and wife:
Weeks go by without any real contact between us - and then we fight, perhaps to force some connection. The evidence of Walker's demanding presence never changes, the household stigmata of a disabled kid: the mangled window blinds ... the endless piles of laundry that self propagate like jungle plants ... the avalanche of potions and lotions and syringes ... all of it. With this chaos besetting us at every turn, would it be to much for him (for her) to put the fucking milk away?

There is a tender, slightly disturbing, moment where Brown observes his wife gently flirting with a man at an office Xmas party, whom he knows is attracted to her :
And how can I begrudge her that moment of friendship and freedom and even flirting, that other intimacy, after all she's been through; how can I begrudge her some elemental attention, the frankly adoring gaze of someone fresh and new ... I nurse a drink, and I wonder what she does when I am not around. I know she wonders the same about me. Mostly we forgive each other. Walker taught us how to do that.

Once Walker is placed in a group home (and how excruciating that decision is) Brown is determined to meet other CFC children in Canada and the U.S. The total of diagnosed cases of CFC in the world number in the mere hundreds.

But his assessment of the other parents he meets is refreshingly honest. They are not saints but he does admire many of them. Some he seems to imply are deluded in the belief that they have been sent special "angels", that they are following God's will in caring for their disabled children. A non-believer himself, still he understands why some may try and understand this twist of fate through that religious lens. And yet others he believes, with a slight air of annoyance, are unrealistic in their expectations of what the government and society may do to assist them:

On hellish days the mawkish sermonizing about angels and specialness felt like rank self-delusion, the work of anxious cheerleaders desperate to justify themselves to a cynical highschool ... It's hard to think of Walker as a gift from God, unless God was a sadist who bore a little boy a grudge.

Brown searches for a possible way of life for his son as they both age. He visits L'Arche, one of a series of homes for the disabled in France, founded by Jean Vanier. He is pleasantly surprised by the joy and warmth he finds there, not because the residents are different than the many disabled that he has encountered but the manner in which they are treated, the beauty of the home and the location.

He muses that perhaps the "purpose of the intellectually disabled like Walker might be to free us up from the stark emptiness of the survival of the fittest".

The most upsetting section was Brown's contemplation of suicide or the possible death of both himself and his child. The horrifying possibilities ... it is an almost unbearable admission of what we might be driven to do in such moments of intense suffering.

I appreciated that he does not shy away from the word "disabled", that he does not appear to be trying to change what is the reality of Walker's situation with a politically correct fabrication. This has always rankled me about the disability rights movement. Some thoughts (not my own) about the "correct" usage of words to describe people with disabilities here.

I wish that every parent could read this book and then thank their lucky stars that their biggest perceived problem is a kid who won't eat her vegetables or perhaps talks too much on her cell phone. I know I did when I finished the book.

I will leave the last word to the author: When Walker was an infant ... I spent part of every day furiously wishing that a test had been available ... Now that I know Walker, I am relieved there was no such test ... Because on his good days, Walker is proof of what the imperfect and the fragile have to offer; a reminder that there are many ways to be human ...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My Big Fat Greek-Inspired Giller-Nominated Novel

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (Random House Canada, 2009) 284 pages

Once, when I showed my fiction to the assistant of a major literary agent whom I hoped to impress he casually commented to me, "Well, it's better than the work we receive at Descant [the literary journal we both volunteered at] but not as good as Annabel Lyon." Lyon had just acquired said agent as her representative.

Hmm ... That put a nasty little bee in my bonnet and so I consciously avoided Lyon's work for some time after that. You didn't know that writers were that immature did you? Well, they are.

Historical fiction is a difficult genre to pull off in a realistic, non-academic way. I know because I have tried with mixed results. Since my initial foray into this area, I have tried to pull back on my overwhelming desire to "teach" the reader or show off my historical research which is a frequent obstacle in the enjoyment of historical fiction. In my writing, I try to include enough detail to create believable, fact-based scenarios but not so much that the reader is overwhelmed with that detail and bored. I think I stole this theory from that half-assed writer James Ellroy but he did have a good point.

The Golden Mean is about the relationship between the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) and his pupil Alexander (the future Alexander the Great). Insert biiig yawn here ... Okay, are you done? I know, I know. But the book is neither dry nor boring. It is unexpectedly funny and profane and smart. I enormously underestimated her talent which is huge.

"The Golden Mean", as a philosophical concept, is "the desirable middle between two extremes". Lyon simply but effectively re-creates a believable version of the fictional mind of Aristotle, portraying the philosopher as both intellectually intriguing and immensely human. As the story begins he has accepted the role of tutor to the son of his boyhood friend King Philip of Macedonia who, as a famous warrior, has lived a "life in meat".

So begins an extraordinary relationship between the beautiful, arrogant boy who would be king and Plato's favourite pupil. Alexander, I soon realized, was trying to strike the golden mean - a balance between the cerebral life of his tutor Aristotle and his warrior-king father Philip.

The ancient world pictured here is not sanitized or made pretty, like a BBC production, which makes the reading more engrossing if disturbing. Men cheerfully defecate on the streets; Greek men speak casually of their preferences for boys or girls; Aristotle, as a boy, unblinkingly procures teenage prostitutes for his tutor Illaeus; the mentally challenged such as Alexander's brother are disparaged and insulted (sometimes even by Aristotle and by their closest family members); and, as an adult Aristotle unabashedly holds slaves as many affluent Greeks did whom he says he considers to be "family".

It's not a pretty world at times but it feels authentic. The sentiments are not politically correct and they create an intensely vivid world which is thoroughly believable.

Aristotle's story moves smoothly from his experience as Alexander's tutor to Aristotle's life as a boy. He travels with his physician father and aids him. Although obviously bright, the father is puzzled by Aristotle's quirky cerebral personality as the boy will not fall neatly into any occupational slot that is planned for him. He is not a warrior (too gangly or delicate), not likely to be a physician like his father (he dislikes it), is not terribly athletic.

His father tries to mold him into a teacher or, possibly, a dramaturge. Nothing seems to satisfy his father so Aristotle's confidence ebbs and flows even as he displays tremendous talent in the areas of science and writing. When his father suddenly dies, Aristotle leaves for Athens and eventually becomes Plato's most famous pupil.

Aristotle's medical training, through his physician father, makes for some inspired passages of humour: how sperm is produced (hmm), if women can have orgasms (apparently they can't), what causes depression (an excess of black bile).

The small "witch" Athea, who comes to serve as a slave in the Aristotle household suspects, immediately and correctly, that all is not well between Aristotle and his wife Pythias and seeks to remedy that by helping Pythias become pregnant. Through potions? Incantations? In any event, Pythias soon bears a daughter, also named Pythias.

But Pythias sickens and dies replaced by the capable and much more warm-hearted servant Herpyllis ("She's not the green sprig Pythias was," observes Aristotle dryly) who bears him a son.

King Philip is eventually replaced by Alexander by the most unnatural of means - I won't reveal how or what happens to his youngest wife Cleopatra and their daughter but these were cruel and ruthless times.

Alexander must display his mettle now ... a leader of thoughtful men or a leader of men of action? He must prove himself and does so with such astounding results that we still speak of him today. Eventually Aristotle leaves his pupil and Alexander must find his own way.

Two worthy subjects, a beautiful book, a captivating writer.

Post-script: Just finished listening to Lyon on Michael Enright's The Sunday Edition on the CBC Radio One. What I hadn't really talked about was Alexander as a boy soldier and what Lyon describes as an ancient Greek form of post-traumatic stress (called "soldier's heart" here). The book is as much about this as about his relationship with Aristotle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Give it up Peter Pan

So, a new blog label begins ... I Vitelloni, stolen without remorse from Fellini's 1953 film about a group of hapless twenty something Italian males. A vitellone is a young calf (sometimes also used in Italian slang as a noun for a goofy male layabout).

How appropriate considering my conversation with two male friends recently over drinks about commitment to a partner and/or the obligations of marriage.

Strengthened by my two martinis at the College Street Bar, I was giving them a verbal once over about the reluctance to commit on the part of some men. One was engaged; the other, I think, will likely never marry.

We started discussing the film "Into the Wild" which I saw two years ago at TIFF and reviewed here. I really personally disliked the film but not on artistic grounds. It was not the quality of the acting by Emile Hirsch (wonderful) or the direction by Sean Penn (competent) or the beauty of the scenarios (stunning). It was the entire premise of the film based on a true story which irked me. It's difficult to be objective now when I see a film which involves parents and conflict with one's growing children.

I didn't think it was cool or brave or admirable for this young man, the real life Christopher Johnson McCandless , to go off on his own, literally burn his money, not tell his parents where he was living (or even if he was alive) and die alone on an abandoned bus in Alaska because he poisoned himself by accident. Not in the least. My male friends loved the film and seemed to find his actions brave, understandable, heroic.

I remain unconvinced of his bravery or even plain common sense. This segued into a discussion about commitment and the way men and women look at this issue. I asked them why marriage is seen by some men as a "ending" while women usually see it as a "beginning". For men it sometimes appears as the end of freedom or the end of "doing what you want to do". "Like what?" I asked. They both named things that they enjoyed but that they feared their partners would not like to do and so prohibit them from doing: serious hiking, cycling, ice fishing, camping etc ...

For women (not for every woman of course), it is the beginning of a new family (not necessarily a biological one), a time when you command your own fate, possibly have children, build a life together, try to be happy, healthy and prosper in your given field and community, form emotional bonds with someone other than your immediate family. Hopefully, when we find a partner or a husband we don't start thinking, shoot I can't go clubbing anymore. I can't see my girlfriends, now I will be boring, now I will be restricted in all of my actions.

"So," I said emboldened by vodka and sarcasm, "when you are eighty ... you want to have a woman that will accompany you ice fishing or, at least, let you go by yourself? Not someone who will be a good partner or reliable or true or a good listener? Someone that will go rock climbing? Or camping? That's the criteria?"

We were quiet for while after that. I came on too strong, I think, but this Peter Pan syndrome annoys the proverbial heck out of me. I'm pretty sure that when my father wanted to marry my mother it wasn't because he thought she would let him do what he wanted all the time. I think there was other criteria involved: loyalty, fidelity, being good to one's family, physical attraction, being loving, being a good mother, being smart and sensible ...

One friend had said to me that night, "I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it." Really? Well, that's not the definition of a marriage or a partnership. What, you want to be alone for the rest of your life? I don't believe that.

One time I was watching a high powered yenta on a reality series who hooked up very affluent people who claimed they were unable to find partners. When they balked at her choices for them, she would literally bellow at them: "Do you want to die alone??" It was harsh but I sometimes feel like saying (rather bellowing) this to some people in similar situations.

I believe that these guys may have a sincere disdain for traditional marriage or that they might have many serious partners over the course of their lives which, of course, is completely fine. But I don't believe anyone truly wants to be alone. I don't buy it. And I think that behavior is a prescription for loneliness.

Of course, it was different for my dad back in the day. Think of Mad Men's Don Draper's attitude toward women and their domestic role but not as suave or good looking. I am not saying that Don Draper is the ideal man by any means but he does serve as a sort of archetype that is disappearing (some might say good riddance).

I never heard my father whine about his responsibilities or duties. He held two jobs, worked six days a week, never had a vacation in his adult life and supported various family members in Canada once they emigrated until they got on their feet. I'm not saying this was a particularly nice guy or a saint (by no means) but he wasn't a whiner and he had very strong sense of responsibility towards family and his partner.

However, my mother did give him a very wide berth in terms of his social activities. Partially it was because he was not the kind of person you could tell what to do; as well, she truly believed that men were the head of the family (she still believes that); and, thirdly, I think she recognized that he worked very hard and needed time to himself.

I think the key to being together for a long time is respecting the other person's idiosyncrasies and interests. Nothing makes R happier than sitting in a ice rink watching J play or playing hockey himself.

I would rather sit with a book reading and writing more than anything else besides being with R and J. I can't imagine if I tried to limit R's playing or watching hockey - how miserable he would be! How frustrated! And if he pressured me to spend less time writing and reading this would create a great deal of conflict and anxiety for me as well.

I wanted to say to my male friends that night: grow up! Being an adult is taking on more of life, not fewer responsibilities. Not just doing what you want but doing what you have to do. And who wants to be with a woman that lets you do whatever you want? Who wants a pushover? How boring is that after five minutes?