Sunday, February 28, 2010

Schrödinger's cat or ... a serious man

A Serious Man (U.S., 2009) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 1 hour, 42 minutes

Nominated for Best Motion Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

I have to admit that, sometimes, the artistry of the Coens eludes me. I see that there is intelligence and craft in the creation of the films but they don’t always work for me. I read a review once that offered a theory that they produced great films only alternately. For example, the critic offered the following examples: Blood Simple (yes), Hudsucker Proxy (no), Fargo (yes), Intolerable Cruelty (no), No Country for Old Men (yes), Burn After Reading (no)... you get the picture.

They do have an unerring instinct for selecting faces and characters that fit seamlessly in a particular and very specific world that they create. Here Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), is a sweet-tempered, slightly melancholic professor of physics beset by a host of maladies that would rival the plagues of Egypt in the midwest America of 1967.

I like the following description by Rotten Tomatoes. The film explores “questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism - and intersections thereof”.

The film starts with Larry presenting the following problem to his physics students which is often referred to as “the paradox of Schrödinger's cat”:
Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment, often described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. The thought experiment presents a cat that might be alive or dead, depending on an earlier random event … This means that there can be two different universes depending on the action taken which in this case is opening the box to see if the cat is dead or not. You cannot say the cat is alive or dead until you open the box.
Hmm … so …

A student is trying to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade; his wife is leaving him for a pretentious friend and is pushing him to obtain a “get” so they can divorce (there is an on-going joke that most of the liberal Jews he mentions this to have no idea what he’s talking about); his children, self-absorbed teenagers with nasty tongues, are more concerned with stealing money from Larry to save up for a nose job (daughter Sarah) or having Larry fix the aerial so he can watch F-Troop (son Danny); his brother Arthur has a gambling problem and has been accused of displaying homosexual behavior in public; his attractive neighbor torments him by sunbathing nude in her backyard; someone is sending malicious letters to the university undermining Larry who is up for tenure. And … someone from the Columbia Record Club is harassing him over the telephone for unpaid bills.

So in the context of the film using the framework of the paradox Schrödinger's cat are we meant to think that, perhaps, there is an up side to Larry’s dilemmas?

Larry is puzzled and alarmed by events and seems at a loss as to how to respond (as are we the viewers). There is a sly, mocking tone to the film as if the filmmakers find the elements of modern liberal Jewish life laughable: young Danny practicing parts of the Torah for his bar mitzvah while listening to an l.p. record, the getting of the illusive "get"; the cliche of the Jewish girl saving up for a nose job; nonsensical advice from three different rabbis – each more bizarre than the last.

But it is only during Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he shows up stoned and barely able to communicate or recite the Torah as is required) that we have a sense that Larry has reached a state of inner peace. I think the message is that as absurd as the old traditions seem, they give us a sense of continuity and of belonging to something bigger than ourselves and that’s how we persevere.

Despite the absurdity of the Coen brothers’ cinematic scenarios, the intent is not frivolous – how to be a serious man, a mensch, in an absurd world? I don’t know if they succeed in providing an answer … the ending is cryptic and odd as you might expect from the Coens. The film almost requires that you understand these concepts (basic physics and concepts of masculinity in the Jewish faith) before one can begin to comprehend the film. Should I need to run to a dictionary or the Internet to understand what they are talking about here… then again, what’s so bad about that?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Birthday Bash

Rob and Michelle celebrated their joint birthdays on 
February 27th, 2010 with friends and family at the Pilot Tavern.

Michelle and Rob - her birthday is in June, his is in December 
so they decided to celebrate in February. It's a very long story ... 


I don't care what they say ... 
friends Val Crawford and Paul Wong always photograph beautifully.  

Two of our best buds and neighbors Alex Sosa & Chris Wright.

Friends Mike D'Orsay and Louise Barton


R's sister Tami Fujimoto and our s-i-l Julie Rae.

Our b-i-l Terry Nolan shaking it like a Polaroid
with (left to right) Marty Prangley, Tami & Masha.

Rob with Vistek friend Pam Westoby

Friend and agent provocateur Al Maggi

I cugini, Cal Matteliano and Silvia Cino, M's first cousins

R's rockstar bro Todd

 The love birds Tami, R's sister and our b-i-l Terry


Rob, being Rob, with sister Tami.

Michael & Kathy Yamashita, R's cousin.

B-i-l Terry with the ladies (as usual).
From left to right: Julie, Brenda Prangley and Tami

Cousin Shane Takaki looking a little alarmed (told ya to smile Shane!).

Party girls Jenn and Tami

Friend Jenn Gedala and our cousin-law Sudha Takaki

M & R, up close and personal.


S-i-l Julie and M

Tony Kilgannon and cousin-in-law David Maude.

 Debbie and cousin Cal.

Tami, Terry and a captive Michelle

The wild Descant gals:
Tina Francisco, Mary Newberry and Karen Mulhallen.

Friend from Vistek Chris Wilkie

Friends Stephanie Maxwell & Rishi Vasudeva

Rishi and Pam

Rishi, Brian and Chris

Friend Teo Salgado and his fiancee Masha Solorzano

M with friend Eric S.

Friends Mike Schuler and Daphne Loukidelis

Friends Wendy Gray and Bruce Morrison

Friends Sherry McEwen and Rod Muller

Michelle and Tina Francisco


Rob shaking it up with ... Bruce, Rod, Terry, Marty and Jenn.

Friends Brenda and Marty Prangley 


The Vistek gang

The boisterous UofT gang.

Marty and Brenda


Vistek friend Andrew Ross

Todd and Steve, Sixteen Handles

Steve, Leader singer of Sixteen Handles,
a band started by R's brother Todd

Todd, Mark, Steve

Pensive Rob ... taken by Pam Westoby


All comedies end in marriage ...

For war is a drug

The Hurt Locker (U.S., 2009) directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 131 minutes

Nominated for Nine Oscars: Actor in a Leading Role, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), Best Picture, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Writing (Original Screenplay)

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Kathryn Bigelow is an amazing director. I can't quite fathom her, she is such an anomaly in a male-dominated sphere and genre (big-time Hollywood directors and action films to be specific). Movie star good looks, brains and guts - a real triple threat.

The film is set in Iraq in 2004. We see an aspect of the war that I would vouch not many of us have exposure to or knowledge of.

Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is the team leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit replacing a Staff Sergeant very recently blown apart by a remote-controlled improvised explosive device (IED) in Baghdad. James is a bit of wild card with a fearless, unorthodox approach which rattles his team members Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Their jobs are to communicate with James via radio and provide him with cover while he examines the IEDs and disarms them. On his very first mission, he approaches a suspected IED without first sending in the bomb disposal robot.

Renner exhibits such a strange quality here as an actor ... I can't quite put my finger on it but it is very effective in this role. The self absorption of the mentally ill? Someone who is estranged from his true feelings? For some it might be construed as heroic, here it strikes the viewer as illness. It's as if he is not quite wholly with us.

Back at his home base, James befriends a local Iraqi boy nicknamed "Beckham" who sells bootlegged DVDs to James. The dynamic between the entrepreneurial boy with the cocky attitude and name and the lonely soldier is tender and believable. James, married and with a young child back home, seems to be lacking in human companionship and connection with his fellow officers. He is oddly disassociated from his team who must be thinking he is either insanely brave or has a death wish. Either way, he must be perceived as a dangerous liability for young soldiers just trying to finish their tour of duty without getting blown up. Subsequent missions with similar antics unnerve his team and the tension mounts between the three.

When Eldridge is subsequently hurt due to what is perceived as an error in judgment by James, the men accuse him of needing an "adrenaline fix" and putting them all in danger.

During one mission, James happens upon the corpse of a young boy who, though disfigured by the carnage, he suspects is Beckham but this is unclear. An unexploded bomb had been implanted in the boy. James furiously confronts the merchant that Beckham worked for demanding that the man drive him to Beckham's house so that he can confront whomever had done this. It is unclear if James has been deliberately mislead or tricked as he encounters an Iraqi professor in the house who may or may not know who Beckham is or what happened to him. Pathetically, James is chased out of the house by the man's wife, and he gets back into his home base with the aid of a sympathetic guard by lying and saying that he was at a bordello.

This encounter rings with meaning ... the good-hearted American, self righteous and brave, stumbling into a situation without information and then confronted with the complex and bizarre truth of being unable to hold anybody accountable in this strange and troubling environment. What a perfect metaphor for US involvement in Iraq. Who does he vent his fury on - an educated man who likely has nothing to do with the carnage and violence around him.

Sometime shortly afterwards, James is shocked to be approached by the very much alive Beckham. The boy tries to interact normally with James (having no idea that James thought him dead) but James appears furious and refuses to speak to the boy.

Mark Boal, the screenwriter and journalist, was embedded with the EOD in Iraq in 2004. The script is, as they say "inspired by real events". The pace of the film seems to reflect real life in war: long patches of boredom and loneliness punctuated by horrific circumstances and events. One can almost understand the desire to court danger if only to relieve the tedium of waiting for something to happen. Boal had also written an article called "Death and Dishonour", upon which the Paul Haggis film In the Valley of Elah was based (also reviewed here).

Shortly before the end of their tour of duty, James and Sanborn are called to intervene in a situation where an Iraqi has been forced to enter a military checkpoint wearing a time-bomb strapped to his chest. Despite his best efforts James can do nothing and the bomb explodes, nearly killing James as well. Sanborn soon breaks down and confesses that he can't take much more of this and is anxious to go home. James exhibits no such reservations.

When James returns home to his wife and child two days later, civilian life brings new challenges, new forms of tedium. Shopping for cereal, caring for one's son, living a life of normalcy. But apparently that is no longer enough. James soon tires of civilian life.

In the last scene, we see James back in Iraq, serving another year as part of an EOD team with Delta Company. And he looks mighty happy to be there too.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Singular Single Man

A Single Man (U.S., 2009) directed by Tom Ford, 101 minutes

Colin Firth was nominated for "Best Actor in a Leading Role".

Perhaps you recognize Tom Ford as the former head designer for Gucci or perhaps as the guest editor of a particularly heinous issue of Vanity Fair in February 2006 just prior to the Oscars.

Ford seemed to have a particularly retro images of sexuality to present in that issue: a plethora of nude and semi-nude females and boring 1980s s&m iconography. He succeeded in being both boring and insulting to women at the same time.
Not to mention he managed to repulse the actress Rachel McAdams who fled the photo shoot rather than appear nude on its cover with Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson.

So it is with mild surprise that I report that A Single Man is a film sensitively conceived and delivered. Described as homoerotic, that seemed an odd designation for me. Because it is more about love and genuine passion than eroticism.

Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a 52 year old British college professor living in L.A. who struggles emotionally after the death of his longtime partner Jim (played with a convincing American accent by the British actor Matthew Goode) in the early 1960s. He appears lonely and unfulfilled with only his closest friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a fading, philandering beauty with whom he once had an brief affair, to comfort him.

The most affecting moments are George’s reactions to those things that remind him of Jim or of the beauty of life: a glimpse of a small dog which resembles one that they owned together and which disappeared with Jim’s death; George’s clandestine observation of the 50s perfect family next door which seems to be struggling with its own issues; George's clandestine observation of a beautiful student in one of his literature classes; the prettily made up eye of a modishly attired young woman at the university.

George lives in a sort of pristine, gorgeously appointed prison in his home which once provided a happy, romantic refuge but now houses only memories of his past happiness with Jim. But George has a plan. As methodical and careful as he has been in life he plans to be in death and he plots to end his life by the end of a certain day: the perfect outfit to be found in, detailed notes to be followed after his death,
rehearsing how he will be found in his bed upon completion of the dreaded task. He goes about it with a grim precision.

But George is sidetracked by an attractive and persistent student who appears to have fallen in love with him. Perhaps the message is not new here but it is still emotionally very effective. It reminded me of a Fellini character, the older man who is jaded and cynical, but becomes reinvigorated by youth and beauty (such as the character of Marcello and the pretty young waitress in the final scene of La Dolce Vita). Here, that ideal is represented by one of George’s students Kenny (Nicholas Hoult).

Frankly, I was tiring of Firth's bumbling British heartthrob routine which represented a complete reversal from the icily sexy Darcy of the Pride and Prejudice TV serial where Firth shot to fame in 1995.

Perhaps the pressure to maintain this sexy image was too much or too boring for Firth for we began to see him in semi-mediocre roles where he seemed half-heartedly engaged in the film and the process of acting: a less dashing stand-in for Darcy named Mark Darcy in
Bridget Jones' Diary (2001); an uptight, aristocratic father with political ambitions in What a Girl Wants (2003); the hapless, lonely writer in Love Actually (2003); a widowed father of many in Nanny McPhee (2005); a bumbling divorcee in Then She Found Me (2007); a closeted homosexual in Mamma Mia (2008). All very disappointingly un-Darcy like and perhaps that was the point.

But here George Falconer is dry, cerebral, cold, withholding and unhappy. It doesn't make for a pleasant human being but it makes for a more complex, emotionally engaging character on film. And it is unclear what happens to George in the end which is my favourite kind of ending.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

District Earth

District 9 (USA / New Zealand, 2009) directed by Neill Blomkamp, 1 hour, 52 minutes

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Achievement in Editing, Best Achievement in Visual Effects and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

I was completely thrown by this film expecting some goofy sci-fi flick. Instead I found an astute political thriller which utilizes the fear of aliens as a metaphor for race relations in Africa. The previews did no justice to the film which was superb. The feature film is based on a short film called Alive in Joburg (2005), also directed by Blomkamp, which you can view here.

I was trying to think how to describe it here … it’s like the book Black Like Me meets the blockbuster film The Transformers (like seriously).

As the film opens a large spacecraft hovers above Johannesburg, South Africa, stranded. When an exploratory team enters the ship they discover a group of over a million ailing extraterrestrial beings. They are an unnerving looking mix of anthropod and robot imbued with superhuman strength. They are brought to Earth and given shelter. Some prove to be destructive and behave in a criminal fashion. They are derogatorily labeled “prawns” (which they do resemble a bit) and the populace, both black and white citizens, start to turn against them. You get a nasty jolt listening to South Africans, of all races, complaining about the dirty, nasty criminal aliens who must be removed and/or destroyed.

Twenty years later, the government begins isolating the aliens in a camp called District 9. As I suspected while I was watching this it mirrors the not so distant events of 1966 when the South African government declared a certain region “whites only” and forcibly evacuated 60,000 black South Africans to an area labeled District Six (in Cape Flats). The viewer begins to realize with a sickening clarity that this is exactly how the white-led South African government saw the black South Africans – as aliens that had to be removed at any cost.

But we need not look so far away for historical metaphors – think of the herding of Indians into reservations in Canada and the U.S., the destruction of Africville in Nova Scotia or the internment of the Japanese-Canadians, including children born in Canada, during WWII. All these historical situations flash through your mind as you watch the aliens being beaten, arrested and dispersed. Brilliantly, Blomkamp visually evokes so many historical injustices that one immediately sides with the aliens.

The camp is heavily policed under the jurisdiction of the Multinational United (MNU) and soon turns into a slum. Another decision is made to relocate the almost two million aliens to District 10, 200km outside of Johannesburg. A private military outfit of whites and blacks is hired to do this. The realization that this “specieism” is universal amongst different races sinks in. We seem to need very little provocation to turn on “outsiders”.

Wikus van de Merwe (played effectively by Sharlto Copley), son-in-law of the head of the MNU, is appointed to lead the relocation with the serving of eviction notices to the aliens. At first, Wikus comes off as a mild-mannerd fool just following orders and not fully understanding the implications of what he is doing. He even resembles (intentionally?) a young Hitler with his silly haircut and goofy little black mustache.

The process is brutal and violent with threats made to take away children and jail those who refuse to evacuate. Aliens are beaten, killed, threatened, anything to make them move.

In the shack of one of the aliens, known as Christopher Johnson, who has a small child and is resisting evacuation, Wikus seizes a container of mysterious fluid, stored in a small canister, with which he accidentally sprays himself. Wikus quickly sickens and when his arm is injured during an altercation he begins to notice a series of frightening symptoms: his nose starts to ooze out a black substance, he starts to lose his fingernails, and his arm appears to be rotting and transforming into something inhuman.

When he is taken to a hospital, they find that his left forearm has mutated into an alien appendage simialr to the "prawns". He is immediately seized by MNU and experimented on. They determine that Wikus can now operate alien weaponry due to his “mutating DNA” and their intention is to vivisect Wikus before he fully transforms into an alien. Wilkus is shocked to see the experimentation on aliens (eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ medical experimentation with Jews during WWII).

Wikus escapes and the MNU spreads lies to the media claiming Wikus has had sexual contact with aliens, causing him to be infected and start to become an alien (thus disguising the true source of his contamination). His wife deserts him and he becomes a fugitive. The sorrow on Wikus' face when he realizes what he has become: a dreaded alien, despised by all, with no hope of aid or sympathy from other humans!

Rumors spread in the black community that consuming alien flesh will invest them with the superior physical properties of the aliens so dead aliens become a valuable commodity.

Seeking refuge Wikus returns to Christopher's shack and Christopher reveals that the fluid which contaminated Wilkus would have allowed Christopher to reactivate the now dormant mothership which still hovers above Johannesburg. Christopher has been secretly developing an aircraft that will deliver him to the mothership. He also says that he would then be able to transform Wikus back to his human form. They decide to try and steal back the canister together.

Wikus tries to buy weapons from a local Nigerian gang to aid their effort. Their warlord, a paralyzed and filthy tyrant named Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa), tries to seize Wikus and plans to severe his alien arm and eat it to enhance his own physical powers (and the ability to operate alien weaponry). Wikus narrowly escapes with a cache of weapons. (Note: Last September 2009, the Nigerian government banned District 9 for its "poor portrayal" of  Nigerians.)

Against all odds, they retrieve the canister (of course they do - this is an action film!) and head back to District 9. Sickened by the experimentation he has seen at MNU, Christopher tells Wikus that he wants to assist other aliens before curing Wilkus which would take three years. In a panic, Wikus knocks Christopher unconscious (so much for species solidarity) and starts up the command module that will take him to the mothership with the fluid. Hit by a MNU missile, it crashes.

MNU forces take Wikus and Christopher prisoners, but the warlord Obesandjo's gang ambushes the MNU forces and the gang seizes Wikus. From inside the downed command module, Johnson's son activates the mothership and an alien mechanized battle suit which Wikus takes control of and tries to flee, battling the MNU forces. Wikus, seeing Venter (played at top veliocity by David James like an evil, racist skinhead on rampage), the head of the police unit, trying to kill Christopher Wikus then rescues Christopher rather than escaping himself.

Promising Wikus that he will return, Christopher activates the command module towards the mothership while Wikus fends off MNU forces. This being an action movie, he manages to kill them all off except for Venter but the other aliens, in a surge of brotherly alien cooperation, manage to finish Venter off too in a satsifying, if bloody, denouement.

The transformation from human to alien is almost complete and Wilkus disappears … Speculation flares about his whereabouts. Did he leave Earth? Is he plotting his revenge against the government? Did he die? MNU's illegal experiments are exposed and the aliens are successfully moved to District 10 without incident where they begin to flourish.

In the last few shots, Wikus's wife, a melancholic Tania, finds a metal flower on her doorstep, which she hopes is proof that Wikus is still alive. An alien is pictured seen creating a flower out of metal in a scrapyard. Fade to black …

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Education of sorts

An Education (U.K., 2009) directed by Lone Scherfig, 95 minutes

Nominated for Best Picture,  Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) and Carey Mulligan was nominated as an "Best Actress in a Leading Role"

I was wondering what I could do to acknowledge Oscar season, having seen a few of the nominated films. I dared myself to print a review a day until the Oscars on Sunday March 7th. I will cheat a bit and include some previous reviews I have written. I will not be doing Avatar or The Blind Side. Sorry I cannot go there ...

These are the films I want to tackle in alphabetical order: An Education, A Serious Man, A Single Man, Bright Star, District Nine, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Julie and Julia, Nine, Precious and Star Trek. Eleven films in eleven days. These reviews will be short and sweet I hope.

An Education is quiet and surprisingly affective little film based on the memoir by Lynn Barber. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is on the cusp of her 17th birthday and finds herself charmed and eventually seduced by the much older David (Peter Sarsgaard), a somewhat glamorous and mysterious figure who just pops into her life one day as she is walking home from school. Obviously he has had his beady little eyes on her for some time.

Jenny's goal (preordained by her parents) is getting into Oxford University. But she is sidetracked by the slightly seedy glamour of David's lifestyle: weekend trips to Paris, attractive if somewhat morally dubious friends, an appreciation of literature and art, his real estate dealings. Her normally conservative parents played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour are easily taken in by David who does his utmost to charm them.

She soon learns the insidious truth (wife and child just around the corner, real estate dealings involving moving in black families into a neighborhood to force out the racist old biddies then buying up their property, stealing art from posh houses on sale). But by then Jenny has sacrificed a year and the opportunity to go to Oxford.

She recovers, thankfully, but only just and no thanks to her bedazzled parents who willing lead their lamb to slaughter. Reading an article written by Lynn Barber, I was relieved to learn that in real life, she wasn't quite so taken in as the Jenny character. She seemed to understand better what she was getting into and seemed to be going along for the ride, that is until she found out about little wifey wherein she bailed. It makes her seem more morally culpable but also less stupid.

Carey Mulligan has an entrancing face - one that slips easily from schoolgirl innocent in a private school to sophisticated young lady with an Audrey Hepburn up do, a convincing French accent and a knowledge of Camus. She enchants. The intelligence and emotion radiates out of her.

Saarsgard, although not a particularly dashing figure appears to fit the bill. The real David was short, a little pudgy but immensely charming. And his British accent here ain't bad either. We see several leading British actors in roles we have not seen them in before: Alfred Molina as the blustery dad; Rosamund Pike as the beautiful but ditzy party girl Helen and Emma Thompson as the brittle head mistress of the school who blithely reprimands Jenny for pointing out that Jesus was Jewish after the headmistress objects to David's ethnicity. 

You may remember Lone Scherfig as the screen writer of the little 2000 Danish film Italian for Beginners. Surprisingly for me, the script here was written by Nick Hornsby and he registers a very light touch and captures the snotty/vulnerable tone of a teenager soon to be young adult in Jenny's voice.

But I actually enjoyed reading Lynn Barber's account of what really happened as she details it in a recent Guardian article more than the film because her real life experience is more complex and she is more culpable than it is played here in the film.

But then again, with the film, we get the feeling of claustrophobia of Jenny's life in her cloistered, prescribed little world where every step is planned and worked out in advance by her parents which, I think, explains this streak of rebellion and obtuseness towards David. And ... we get the great 50s clothes!

An Education won the Audience Choice award and the Cinematography award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Brilliantly Lit

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr (Harper Collins, 2009) 383 pages

This is Mary Karr's third memoir (the first and second being respectively The Liars' Club and Cherry) which might seem a great number for this 50-something woman unless you know her hardscrabble Texas upbringing. Her life has been difficult, eventful and she has demonstrated a tremendous capacity to grow.

The narrative tone is casual, and sometimes profane, in a way that her first memoir is not even in describing the most horrific situations. This saves Karr because some of the devastating details require no embroidery or emotion to affect the reader. Snippets of poetry, classic and modern, grace the beginning of each chapter. Sometimes the folksy voice grates but usually it hits the mark emotionally and potently.

In this memoir which details Karr's difficulties with alcohol, we first meet her as a young seventeen year old hippie living with some surfer dudes, hanging out, getting high near L.A. A frightening episode with a religiously fanatical (and extremely high) driver during hitchhiking frightens her so badly that she decides to apply to college to escape an uncertain future.

She is accepted to a school in Minnesota (Macalester College in Saint Paul but here unnamed) where she tries to evade her hardscrabble childhood. There she studies and works hard even as a she stands out as a bright, if odd fish, out of water. Her way of fitting in is out drinking all the boys she comes across at any meeting place where alcohol is consumed. "I stand at the bar, its tiered bottles like a shiny choir about to burst into song."

Based on Karr's wit and charm, shown in abundance here in the memoir, and her beauty, still evident, I am sure she was able to deflect any negative attention she received about her drinking in the freewheeling 60s and early 70s.

Reciting poetry as a child for her troubled, artistic mother and her nonplussed schoolmates, Karr secretly desires to become a poet, to live among poets, to live the life of an artist. When she meets a handsome, patrician poet who appears to be of humble means but comes from a very prominent New York family (Michael Milburn here under the pseudonym Warren Whitbread) she appears to be getting all she desires.

Their first meetings are magical - filled with spoken poetry and dreams of future books written together and they are soon inseparable. It is not until Mary meets the in-laws that there is a sense of impending disaster in the mind of the reader regarding the upcoming marriage. The Whitbreads are rich, very rich - reserved, cold and not impolite but never wholly welcoming and their son has inherited their frugal tendencies.They are so uptight that when Warren's father rings their now married household he identifies himself as ... "Warren Whitbread's father".When Mary and Warren's soon to be born son Dev upends a sugar bowl during afternoon tea, Warren's mother hisses, "no other child in that house had ever interfered with a tea."

Karr tries very hard to paint Warren as some saintly, patient husband caught in a difficult situation. Too hard. In almost all instances she accepts the blame for the situation she is in. However he comes off as cold, judgmental and completely blind to the chaos that is swirling around him.

Mary longs for a baby, stops drinking and they try to conceive. She convinces Warren to ask for financial help from his family which he does with some resentment. It becomes another thing that separates them. Once her son Dev is born the drinking resumes.

Inexplicably to the reader, Mary's tenuous emotional life implodes. After Dev's birth, her mother Charlie stopped drinking after decades of abuse (I will save mother Charlie's excesses for another review after I read The Liars' Club). Her father has passed away. Her book of poetry is published and Warren's career is excelling. She is now an academic.

Of her much loved father she says:
Before he died, the wordlessness he floated inside during my teen years had become permanent. If he roused at all, his head craned around bewildered, and he handled his dead hand like a parcel he'd been asked to hold for a stranger.
She drinks stealthily and calculatedly and only seeks help after a near car crash almost kills her. Bored and skeptical she approaches a self help group and is encouraged to pray and share her life with the group.She persists in trying to recognize a higher power which she doubts exists. This book is just as much about her religious conversion as it her struggle with alcohol addiction or her disintegrating marriage.

Eventually she ends up in an asylum, a famously well run asylum (both the poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton did stints there) but an asylum nonetheless. Mary's plans to commit suicide are enough to land her there. Her time there is brief and manageable and vividly retold with skinny Betty, blowsy Pam and a host of other eccentrics and mentally ill patients.

Mary divorces Warren and her uncomfortable contact with the Whitbreads abruptly ends. When she moves to Syracuse, NY to teach, with her son in tow, she ends up in a relationship with the writer David Foster Wallace (here mentioned without his surname). Mockingly, she says of herself that she must have "bat[ted] my eyes at him or fluff[ed] my hair like some cartoon seductress (What a ma-yan!) ..."

Wallace is volatile and impetuous (tattooing her name on his arm even before they kiss for the first time) and they seem to bring out the worst in each other. Not so long ago Wallace killed himself and we see traces of that mental disturbance here in this memoir. The relationship does not last but her sobriety and her conversion to Catholicism does. Sometimes, the religious aspects of this journey irk a bit - as a non-believer it's hard to get with the program at times. But it appears an important part of her recovery.

A lucky encounter with a friend's agent impressed with her verbal storytelling at a literary event prompts her to write her first memoir, The Liars' Club, and the rest is history.

Satisfyingly, we learn that she maintains her sobriety today. Karr's story is that of slowly blooming but spectacular flower. With her success as a poet and memoirist as well as a series of best selling books, I can't wait to see what the rest of her life holds.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

You love the cat more than me! And Other Tales of Motherhood

One day I will write a book about motherhood and I will call it (yes, that's right): You love the cat more than me! And Other Tales of Motherhood. More than three years ago when we got Sugar, who is part Siamese, part Tabby, I would enrage my daughter J if I showed him the slightest gesture of affection (even a scintilla!) after I had just reprimanded her about something.

I can't help it, at least Sugar never yells back. The poor little guy has the tiniest meow I ever heard, just a scratchy little voice that he rarely uses (his nickname is also Scratchy).

When we went to our local vet to choose a cat they had three breeds of kittens for sale. Sugar was the runt of the litter and had been separated from his sibs because, as the smallest, he was not getting enough milk from his mother and was smaller than the rest. He had blue eyes and white fur which is now striped with coffee brown and black stripes (that's how we learned of Sugar's probable paternity - we assumed from his colouring as a six week old kitten that he was a pure blooded Siamese, somebody made a bundle on that error).

When the cage door opened he leapt into my arms and I never looked back. There were two other cats (less expensive and, perhaps not so oddly, much less cute). I joke that R wanted to get the other calico cat because it was cheaper but it would never have been as loving as Sugar. He usually agrees with me.

Sugar is an eccentric little fellow. He walks around with a stuffed mouse as a companion whom we call "Mrs. Mouse" and I playfully refer to as Sugar's wife as in "Oh no, Mrs. Mouse is under the dining room table, I think Sugar was having his way with her ..." Teenage daughter's response: "Ewww, mommy!" Mysteriously, we have never seen him carry Mrs. Mouse. But we do find Mrs. Mouse in the oddest places. Unless ... Mrs. Mouse assumes magical powers while we sleep and transports herself around the house.

One day I asked R to take a photo of Sugar with Mrs. Mouse in his little blue bed. He refused. He said that I was this close to slapping some clothes on Sugar and he wasn't going to participate in that ... He seemed to feel that my request was definitely in cat lady territory and he wasn't having any part of that. I see his point.

When Sugar wakes up he straggles into the kitchen for breakfast like a lazy teen ... half an hour after everyone else.

After breakfast Sugar follows me upstairs and sits on the bed near the bedroom window which faces the street as I get ready. As I put on my mascara and lipstick, he stares out the window. We call it his TV and J says he is "watching his stories" which inevitably involve plots with squirrels, birds, passing cars, snowflakes and changing weather patterns.

At dinner time, he sits by my chair patiently and stares into my eyes ... willing me to give him a little slice of meat or fish. Go over to R's side and stare at him, I say. R never buckles. I always do if the food is appropriate. And Sugar never moves until dinner is over. 

At night, he crawls in beside and R and me and tries to squeeze in between us. If there is no space he sits on my back or tummy with the patience of Job until I move ... he gets as close as he can get to R and then lies down and begins to suck on his paw. I always imagine that he was separated from his mother too early and that this comforts him. But I am a sucker for babies (baby anything is cute to me) and this is probably a total fiction.

This brings me to the last thing about Sugar and why R really discouraged me from writing about him. He is completely infatuated with R and all things silver (R has silver hair). He is also an unrepentant thief (Sugar that is). When he steals stuffies from J's bed, he always steals something that looks a bit like him: grey or white in colour and small. A paternal impulse? You tell me ...

Seven things Sugar likes:
  • attempting to use my Lady Schick razor or at least dragging it under the dining room table where we can cut our bare feet..
  • eating through foil to get to the chocolate bunnies on Easter..
  • biting the exterior skin of bananas and kiwis which are lying on the kitchen island ripening and leaving them on the kitchen floor.
  • lazily lying on people's clothes left on the bed.
  • sitting beside my computer and staring at the screen blankly like me (perhaps he has writing ambitions?)
  • stealing silver coloured stuffies from J's bed and closet (lambie - white; Mrs. Mouse - grey; Sugar stuffie - small silver & white cat).
  • tall Asian men with silvery hair - he has exquisite taste apparently.