Friday, October 23, 2009

Two or Three Things I Know about Him

Raymond and Hannah by Stephen Marche (Doubleday Canada, 2005) 207 pages

I know Stephen a little from having worked with him at a, to-be-unnamed and many ways unmentionable, legal publisher many years ago. I think he was fresh out of university and immediately stood out amongst the corporate drones.

Can I let you in on a little secret? The beautiful people do not work at legal publishers. Stephen was young, enthusiastic, passionate about literature and just generally very lovely to work with. Only professional jealousy kept me from reading this book earlier. He's talented, smart, cultured. and ... I can feel my self esteem as a writer shrinking as I write this.

The story is broken up into alternating sections or paragraphs from the p.o.v.'s of two young lovers: Raymond, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, meets Hannah, a young girl in search of her Jewish identity, at a party. They sleep together, they soon fall in love. There is food. There is sex (lots of it). There is melancholy. Three of my fave things to read about.

They are together for only a week. But Hannah is on the cusp of a potentially life altering nine month trip to Jerusalem to discover her "inner Jew" so to speak. Their brief time together is intensely romantic.

The lush and sensuous language is wonderful - the interaction between the lovers intense capturing the first flush of passion and attraction. Marche makes Toronto sexy and fun and the connection between these two somewhat rootless young people exciting. Jerusalem, through his eyes, is vibrant, rich in imagery and drama, and written with a true sympathy for a culture which many of us would find strange and often puzzling here in the West.

I fell in love with Toronto a little bit again when I read the book. Having lived here for more than thirty years, some days the city seems like a seedy old boyfriend whose presence gets on my nerves, but here, Toronto is fun and a cool place to be, a cool place to fall in love.

Raymond and Hannah's p.o.v.'s are indicated through charming notes in the margins which work in most instances. During their separation they communicate by e-mail. E-mail format in literature, despite the fact that this communication between the lovers makes the most sense in the 21st century (they are hardly going to whip out a quill and paper are they?), is not my favourite form of exposition however.

When Raymond falls into a liaison with the equally exotic Lara, a highschool student, in Hannah's absence, one senses a familiar pattern of male flight from responsibility and commitment. That he confesses all to Hannah before his trip to Jerusalem to join her confirms my theory about the male animal. Raymond is trying to sabotage what could be the most important emotional relationship in his life with this dalliance. It's not loneliness alone - why confide in Hannah if not to place a wedge between them that can't be removed and forestall a deeper relationship?

Raymond still does go to Israel where Hannah feels a mixture of lust, shame about Raymond's goyishness and love for the hapless Raymond who arrives abashed and penitent. But the course of true love was never smooth ... and this is definitely true love.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Drama in Riverdale

Every mother has known mommy rage ... you walk in the house and think, "How many times have I --?" or "I thought we agreed that you would --" Most mothers play roles as mini-dictators in the house. We are anal, we are organized, we are Time Nazis. We expect the trains to run on time. When they do not we ... freak.

Yesterday, I had an episode of mommy rage of volcanic proportions. We had a busy day planned. We needed to be in Markham for a special birthday lunch by 12.30p. J had her first babysitting gig that night and she was a bit nervous. I had another commitment with friends to celebrate a birthday so R was going to act as reinforcement for J who was to go to a neighbor's house to sit few doors away.

I left the house early to run some errands and attend to some girl stuff because I am vain and selfish. Yeah I said it. I wanted "me" time after a brutal week.

This is what I saw in my mommy rage when I returned: as I strolled in the door at noon, I quickly realized that things might have gone awry. J was not feeling well and was sitting on the floor of her room (not dressed, thick pretty hair uncombed) quietly weeping because she could not find her other dress shoe. Her dad had placed it near the door but she didn't see it.

R was not dressed and was annoyed that I was having a Time Nazi fit about leaving for Markham. Yelling ensued. I yelled, he yelled. Then I shamelessly cried. For no apparent reason. R dressed in silence in our bedroom and refused to speak to me. He looked great, I felt I had to upgrade because he looked so nice in his black shirt and vintage tie. I went to change too.

We marched to the car in single file. R fuming, J sniffling - not feeling well, resentful that she had to go to this family event - me sulking and weepy. I felt my mommy rage begin to subside a little bit.

We snapped at each other a few times as we made our way up the DVP until J wailed in a fit of despair, "Please stop fighting!" That knocked it out of us. Even though R kept saying very formally, "Michelle, could you please hand me the cell phone?" or "Michelle, could you please put this in the back seat?" He was trying to provoke me a bit. (FYI - he never calls me Michelle in private, he always calls me Li, my family name. It's a Sicilian thing which I will explain another time).

We reached the country inn where the lunch was being held. There were lovely place settings and assigned seating by family. I switched name tags so that R was not sitting beside me.

My s-i-l said, "Why are you doing that?" I said, "I don't like R and he doesn't like me." I looked over at him; he had a beatific smile and looked gorgeous. She laughed, "But you are always so lovey dovey?!"

We all started laughing. Ha! Don't make me Kathie Lee Gifford the world sister. I don't want to keep yapping about how great my husband is. We have our days too. I don't want to pretend that everything is perfect. Look where that leads you: public humiliation when things go wrong.

Flash forward to the other birthday celebration at the end of the night: myself and three female friends are sitting in a quiet bar in Kensington Market. We are talking about men, of course, the perfidy of men, the dopiness of men, the inherent annoying masculine maleness of men. I had not told tell them my story about the fight because I realized in retrospect how unreasonable I was being earlier.

One friend turned to me and said, "But you hit the husband jackpot didn't you with R?" I guess my look was startled because we had had a difficult start to the day. She then said, 'Well ... didn't you?" But then I gathered myself and said, "Yes ... I think I did."

And I continued to think that all the way home.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Last Rite

On Tuesday I went the premiere of a wonderful film produced for OMNI-TV by my friend the filmmaker Gina Valle. I met Gina many years ago and have not spent as much time with her as I would have liked. We met last winter and I was intrigued by her description of the proposed film following the death of her father.

This is Gina's description of the film:
The Last Rite illustrates how Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists ritualize death. In this documentary we spend time in mosques, Buddhist temples, and ashrams to gain knowledge into the meaning of death and life. By weaving reflections of my father’s death into discussions with spiritual leaders, practitioners and palliative care workers, The Last Rite explores why we fear death and why in the modern world we try everything possible to prolong life, and hide the reality of death.

There were so many beautiful images here and I found myself getting emotional as it touched on so many issues close to my heart. A lovely, lovely work and the moving culmination of much loving attention and detail.

The English version will be shown on OMNI-TV on Sunday October 18, 2009 9.00pm and the Italian version will be shown on Saturday October 24, 2009 10.00pm.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Karen Mulhallen's Acquainted with Absence

Launch of Karen Mulhallen's book of poetry

Acquainted with Absence
selected and introduced by Douglas Glover
published by Blaurock Press.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009
875 Queen Street West

For more information

Monday, October 12, 2009


Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (Faber & Faber Ltd., 1988) 512 pages

"You do not fit ..." Oscar is told by a friend, not unkindly, early in the book. It is true, neither Oscar nor Lucinda fit anywhere which is probably what brings them together. They are the proverbial square pegs in round holes in Australia in the 1860s. But, oh, how Carey makes us wait - until about page 200 or so until our two protagonists finally meet on a boat.

Carey is a wonderful writer of historical fiction (see my review of True History of the Kelly Gang) but my concern is the layer upon layer of historical detail that, while creating a rich and believable back story for the characters, makes for a challenging read and delays progression of the plot and, ultimately, reader satisfaction. His style is described as "Dickensian". As the husband once snorted about the esteemed Dickens himself, "They paid him by the word for his work and it shows."

I felt this excess in detail to be the same with the Ned Kelly book as well. I wanted to read about the bandit's exploits but got a great deal of well constructed, realistic back story for hundreds of pages when I was itching to get to the most interesting part of the story (i.e. his banditry). That's why I nearly tossed the book aside in frustration.

Yet there is something magical and subversive in Peter Carey's work: the stockinged feet of a Victorian gentleman under the table in the folds of a gown of proper lady that he is playing cards with; the widow who shows her potential suitors risque photos found on her husband's slain body and determines who might be a fit lover on the basis of this; Lucinda's unladylike obsession with gambling, with being around working people; barely glimpsed carnal relations between two craftsmen which is never mentioned again ... just the odd little detail which unsettles the reader a bit and then the narrative carries on. It's that odd combination of convincing historical detail spiced lightly with something naughty that keeps propelling you forward as a reader.

Oscar is a religiously minded gambling addict. Lucinda is an orphaned heiress with unruly hair who owns a glass factory and has her own gambling "addiction". They meet aboard a ship. Oscar has come from England. Lucinda, a native Australian, is traveling to Sydney. They come together and break apart over an innocent game of cards because neither knows that the other is a gambling addict and fears the other's condemnation.

One hundred pages later (truly around page 300), Lucinda is disappointed in love, lonely and unhappy, and finds herself in the Chinese quarter of Sydney in some sort of betting salon, the lone woman amongst a number of men. And there is Oscar, once again, in the midst of things. The two are face to face with what they really are and they are not ... displeased.

Oscar serves as a minister within his own modest church in Sydney. Lucinda runs her glassworks. At night, they play cards in the parsonage, that is, until they are spotted by a prudish parishioner. Oscar's reputation is ruined; he is thrown out of the church and literally ends up on the street. Lucinda takes him in and he lives a chaste, humble life within her spacious home. She finds him a job. They care for her home together as no self-respecting maid will work for Lucinda as they assume that the couple are living together "in sin".

Round about page 400 they realize they love each other but Lucinda, out of fear of rejection, has pretended that she loves another so Oscar's hopes for love seem unrequited. Oscar imagines a fantastic plan to build a church out of glass which he hopes will please her and offers to supervise the whole venture. The church will be in the parish of the man that he thinks Lucinda is in love with.

I think around page 430 or so they have a physical relations (I am unsure - the language is obscure, poetic, there is mention of an engorged organ).

Oscar sets out into the bush with the materials to build this glass cathedral which everyone concurs is an insane idea. Does he succeed? I am at page 470 and have no idea ... forcing ... myself ... to ... finish ... last ... 40 pages.

If you truly want to know the ending, contact me!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Violetta in a flapper dress

The Plastic Age (U.S., 1925) directed by Wesley Ruggles, 73 minutes

We are so hypocritical and puritanical about women and overt sexuality in most films that the bad girl usually must possess that clichéd and overused organ - a "heart of gold" - and redeem herself in the end. Thus we have Clara Bow, as the sexy college girl Cynthia Day, who almost ruins her lover Hugh's athletic career in The Plastic Age.

Flaming Youth (1923) which featured Colleen Moore was likely the first film to capitalize on this new expression of modern youth in the 21st c. The new woman was a hedonistic flapper who smoked, drank, swore, flouted authority, flirted with men and had sex. Women who cut their hair short, wore bold and vampish makeup, bound their breasts to appear more flat chested and less voluptuous (perhaps less fertile?), flouted their parent's and society's rules, were then considered a new and dangerous breed.

But it was Clara Bow who epitomized the 20s flapper; it is Bow that we continue to remember, particularly as the "It" girl. The Plastic Age was the film that started it all for her even though Clara had made at least two dozen films before this one.

The Plastic Age (or the malleable age) has a pedestrian plot but it illustrates, in a sense, the beginning of the cinematic image of the modern college boy and girl. Ergo, enter the frat boy ...

Hugh Carver, played by an awkwardly wooden Henry B. Walthall, is a promising football player entering college in his first year. He is introduced to what we would now recognize as the rituals of college: hazing, forcing freshmen to dress as women, bursting into the girls' dorm, necking, wild parties and drinking. This is everything that Hugh's parents feared as he entered college.

He meets Cynthia Day (Clara Bow), the campus beauty and the "hotsy totsy" that all the boys lust after. Cynthia quickly becomes the cause of Hugh's declining athletic prowess and the source of an unpleasant love triangle between Hugh, Cynthia and his roommate Carl (the dishy Latino heartthrob Gilbert Roland who anglicized his name and with whom Clara later had a relationship).

After a particularly troublesome fight between the two boys, Cynthia decides to release Hugh so that he might be saved from corruption - a sort of 21st c. Violetta Valery in a flapper dress who gives up her beloved for his own good despite her love for him. Without her, he excels again in sport and begins to win again becoming a football hero and reconciling with roomate Carl. Cynthia is shown crying silently, and alone, in the stands after the big win.

By the last day of school, Cynthia has become so straight-laced that she refuses to kiss a boy goodbye who is departing the college. Hugh gets so incensed that he socks the boy. The couple are then happily reunited after this.

But a puritanical strategy exists here in the plot: show the sexy excitement and energy of naughty collegial life but punish the bad girl until she reforms herself and demonstrates that she is worthy of the hero. Plastic indeed.

How to define Clara's considerable charms? Now I am not a Bow-ologist like my esteemed friend Chris Edwards who writes a fascianting blog on silent film called Silent Volume. But I think it's not just beauty or energy or style. In the 1920s she embodied a new lightheartedness towards men and sex, towards fun and enjoying life. Perhaps this is why her career suffered a decline during the depression. Perhaps this youthful joie de vivre appeared unseemly with so much tragedy and anxiety.

Her overtly sexual image would come to be her undoing later. I will reiterate an earlier thought from my review of the film "It":
As sex obsessed as we may appear in Western society, there’s a deeply puritanical streak as well, ready to destroy the woman (usually it’s a woman) who has gone too far in her adventurousness. Witness all the rumors swirling around Bow towards the end of her film career: newspaper reports of, variously, incest, orgies, lesbianism, bestiality, abuse, that ubiquitous entire football team she was rumored to have slept with. And this probably contributed to the host of mental health issues that obsessed her at that time and until the end of her life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Show Off

Gregory Kelly (Joe) with Louise Brooks (Clara)

The Show Off (U.S., 1926) directed by Malcolm St. Clair

Despite the crisp, clean print that I rented from, this a cinematic trifle which merely interests the filmgoer (well at least me) because Louise Brooks has a small role in it as the girl next door. Directed by the prolific director/actor/producer Malcolm St. Clair, one wishes the Louise had a more substantial role and more screen time. This was one of her first films and the sixth one she made in 1926 as her career in Hollywood was just beginning.

Finding Lulu on film has been a challenging task. It's difficult to find an American film that has the moral complexity of the Germans films Pandora's Box or The Diary of a Lost Girl.

The main character, Aubrey Piper (the unbearably boorish and untalented Ford Sterling), is a inveterate liar and braggart who works as a clerk yet convinces Amy Fisher (Lois Wilson) his fiancee that he is an up and comer at the Pennsylvania Railroad. He annoys the girl's family with his mooching, braying and bravado, including Amy's brother Joe's girlfriend Clara (Louise Brooks). Much of the film involves the Fisher family bailing Aubrey out of his various economic difficulties.

It does give you a tiny glimpse into urban life in the 1920s - witness Aubrey's driving of his new car in the city - it rattles your teeth just watching him navigate the traffic and other cars in his new jalopy.

I can't help gushing over Brooks, looking beautiful and impossibly glamorous as the working class girl next door in stunning dresses and her shining helmet of black hair. She's utterly wasted here merely presenting a sympathetic and pretty foil to the more central character of Joe Fisher (Gregory Kelly), the aspiring inventor with little luck. Her sweetness, as the good-hearted Clara, is communicated so simply and naturally that it is impossible to watch the other actors without shuddering.

Does Aubrey redeem himself? I will save you the rental fee and say, yes, he does. But it is not worth the effort of watching the film for its almost ninety minutes to see the resolution.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fear of a Wired Planet

I know I am a bad mother ... yeah I said it. I know it's wrong, just plain mean, to say to your daughter, "If you don't put away that cellphone I am going to throw it in the garbage." Actually it was more like, "IF YOU DON'T PUT AWAY THAT CELLPHONE I AM GOING TO THROW IT IN THE GARBAGE." And it was wrong to bark that out in front of her friend but I have reached a technological saturation point.

TIFF really highlighted for me how addicted we have become to technology. Which is the more probable scenario during the festival do you think?
a) People texting beside you / in front of you / rows ahead of you during a film?
b) A man sorting out his washer/dryer warranty problems on the phone beside you in the theatre?
c) A woman having a personal phone call while on the toilet in the next stall?
d) How about ... all of the above? All of these specimens could be found at TIFF this year.

The TIFF audiences were lousy with Blackberrys and Iphones this year, like glittering, poisonous jewels in the darkness of the theatre. The younger the audience (Jennifer's Body, Chris Rock) the more obtuse they seemed regarding textiquette (texting etiquette).

A la vecchaia
! (oh old age! - a new blog post category for me) ... how I am reduced to murderous impulses when I encounter these individuals. I cannot emphasize how intense my rage is but I fear (I know) that I am waging a lonely and losing battle.