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?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Demons of Aquilonia

The Demons of Aquilonia by Lina Medaglia (Ihanna Publications, 2009) 258 pages

Lina Medaglia weaves a rich tapestry of tales from the old country and the new, crisscrossing from Toronto to the town of Aquilonia in Calabria to a farm in Zimpoli, detailing the intersecting lives of the Giganteschi and Rondinella families.

Licia Giganteschi is born in Calabria, Italy in the 1950s and emigrates at a young age to Canada. We travel back and forth in time from her past in Italy to the present as she is poised to return to Calabria for the first time and very many places in between.

It begins with the revelation of a curse that the young Licia Giganteschi is taunted with by a mean spirited schoolmate in her native Aquilonia. She asks her mother Grazia about it and so the story begins. In 1950, a bride named Natalia dies mysteriously on the night of her engagement, shot by an intruder or a jealous lover during carnevale ... With the young girl's death, a series of unfortunate occurrences begin - the result of the curse or just the family's misfortune? Medaglia tempts us with the first of many mysteries and intriguing situations.

Licia is a sweet and intelligent, if under-confident, child who becomes a young woman easily cowed by stronger and more vicious forces. Once in Canada she says, "I wore so many different masks, I became unrecognizable even to myself."

The book painfully captures the travails of a young immigrant growing up in Canada in the 1970s: bright, awkward and psychologically oppressed by unrelenting hostility towards foreigners at that time, Licia struggles to find her identity separate from her independent but sometimes volatile mother and a father demoralized by his struggles to find worthwhile work and dignity in Canada.

In Italy a treasure trove of characters are revealed:
Licia's eccentric communist grandfather secretly hordes a cache of books and useless Italian currency in the attic. He rails against priests and ignorance yet requests the comforts of religion upon his death. Who owns these books and why are they hidden?

Suor Assunta, the abandoned young bride, becomes a nun and lives in a cave; she is brought food by Licia's mother who may or may not know how she came to be this way.

The young Federico’s fatal opposition to a vicious boss who tries to force his men to take on a dangerous task, eventually comes to reside in a tiny Jewish cemetery in Aquilonia that is inhabited by only two departed souls.

Who is the mother of the newborn boy abandoned in the olive grove? How did he come to be there?

Maddalena faces an uncertain fate when her husband leaves for America and disappears. He is imprisoned due to a misunderstanding and does not return for many years. The penniless Maddalena feels compelled to become the mistress of a wealthier man and bears him a child, Alarico, who becomes Licia's best friend. For this Maddalena is scorned and abused until the husband miraculously returns. His response surprises both the villagers and the reader.

In Toronto, a cuckolded husband takes a megaphone to a mass to denounce the priest who has been sleeping with his wife (and tormenting poor Licia and other teenagers in the parish).

Licia, married too soon, combats an oppressive husband and degraded existence on an isolated farm surrounded by inhospitable and vicious relations.

Marco, Licia's father, struggles to maintain his dignity though of poor health and despairing of being able to support his growing family properly.

Her prose brings to mind the poignancy of both Nino Ricci's The Lives of the Saints and the Sicilian writer Maria Messina’s short stories in Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily.

literally has enough material to write two books with the wealth of rich detail and imagery she covers here. The compassionate rendering of the characters' fates, the sensual detail and her flare for creating dramatic situations linger in the mind and in the heart.