Thursday, June 30, 2011

NYC: Stealing ashtrays from the Stage Deli

Our friends wanted to go to Long Beach on Long Island - it seemed a nice break from another steamy day in the city where temperatures are easily hitting 40 degrees. We took a train from Penn Station on 34th St. which passed through Jamaica, Rockaway, East Rockaway and a number of other towns with picturesque names. The trip took about an hour from the time we stepped on to the train to the time we reached Long Beach and walked down to the beach from the train station. The tickets were $21 each and included entry on to the beach which seemed a fair deal.

Before we left for the beach, I was imagining Gatsby's Long Island which I am reading while in New York. Palatial mansions by the ocean, Gatsby's hydroplane over a clear blue sky ... but it turns out that we were nowhere near the fictional setting of West Egg (based on the town of Great Neck) and East Egg (Sands Point) on Long Island Sound.

The beach was powdery white and astonishingly clean. It was filled with families and couples enjoying the good weather. I read The Great Gatsby on the beach and our offspring ran along the edge of the water and played with the younger kids. A and I brought back hot dogs and fries from Five Guys, a burger joint down on the main strip. It felt like we were hundred and hundreds of miles away from NYC but we were only a short train ride away.

In Times Square with friends ...
We left Long Beach around four and went back into the city. J wanted to see Times Square with her friends P & B. As did I. I knew that they had changed the configuration of the Square turning it into a pedestrian friendly space with no through traffic by vehicle. I can't say I like it. Three or four blocks at 42nd St. are now partitioned off for pedestrians with tables and chairs where people are eating and lounging. The energy level is different. The physical space is not particularly attractive and due to the volume of foot traffic there's also a lot of food-related garbage lying about. A depressing sight ... a bad idea I think. I loved taking a taxi north up the centre of the Square and passing that giant video display (pictured below).

Surprisingly, J was a bit overwhelmed by Times Square - the crowds, the lights, the heat, the flashing lights. I believe her first remark upon entering it was an astonished, "Too big, too bright!" I remember her reaction was much more muted the first time we were there together three years ago.

Times Square at dusk as taken by J
The kids wanted to go to the M&M's store, 1593 Broadway (between 48th & 49th). My exposure to the store is limited to two visits but I always approach it with trepidation - the chocolate porn excess is too much for me. Many pictures of various candy by J ensued ...

One of my goals on this trip was to return to the Stage Deli, 834 7th Avenue (between 53rd & 54th). We have been going to the Stage Deli since the 80s. On the first or second trip there I said to R in an offhand way during a particularly enjoyable breakfast that I liked the ashtrays they had (although neither of us smoked, I coveted one). They were red and white, fit in the palm of your hand and embossed with the name of the deli. Quietly, R slipped one in his coat pocket and showed me later what he had done (much to my delight).  
Stage Deli by night ...
The next time we went back to NYC, a year or two later, we recognized one of the same waiters, an older Jewish man, who had waited on us. He initiated a conversation and asked where we were from. He then very kindly came back to our table with an assortment of mementos including (you guessed it) a Stage Deli ashtray. 

"Did you tell him you had stolen an ashtray the last time?" my daughter asked. "Of course not!" I told her.

So we set off for the Deli that warm Wednesday night. Some things had changed. The restaurant was (physically) exactly as I remember it from the 80s but the waiting staff tended to be older then. Now the staff seems younger and more racially diverse.

The prices have certainly increased exponentially and the portions are still enormous, almost unmanageably so. But we eagerly dug into our BLTs and pastrami sandwiches. The three kids tackled an enormous piece of Oreo cheesecake with whipped cream at the end of the night (just barely finishing it).

And I liked the idea of passing on the Stage Deli story to J - should the kid come across the ashtrays
J enjoying her matzoh ball soup.
many years from now, she will know why we kept them.

A New York moment:
As we were waiting for our friends at Penn Station there was some confusion about which ticket counter we should be standing at, J and I went in one direction, R went in another searching for them. It was hot, we were getting tired. We passed an older Mediterranean-looking man, small in stature, mustached, wearing a small cap and carrying a cane, who was standing stock still in the middle of the station, doing nothing in particular. J and I glanced at him quickly as we passed him and he looked at us and said, "Meow!" Not a "sexy" meow, not a "You're being catty!" meow, just "Meow!" as in "I think I'm a cat" meow. I looked at J and involuntarily swore ... what the? What was that about? Then we both burst out laughing!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

NYC: Savage and Beautiful

Dress, Sarabande, exhibited at Met
Luckily we were able to plan our holiday in conjunction with our friends C & A whose sons are J's very good friends. We raced through breakfast to meet near Central Park ...

We had both wanted to see "Savage Beauty", the multi-media Alexander McQueen exhibit, at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art at 1000 Fifth Avenue - a quick cab up to the park and we were there just before 11 am as we had been advised to go early. The excitement this exhibit seems to elicit boded well. It was as lovely, as exquisite, as my friends who had seen the exhibit had claimed. I had no sense of the beauty and romance of his fashion creations prior to this. Positioned together they are overwhelming in their beauty (such as the dress made of real and synthetic flowers pictured to the right here).

J at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art
At the museum, I had also hoped to see the original painting of the American painter John Singer Sargent's "Madame X" with which I am a tad obsessed, but the gallery in which it is exhibited was being renovated. Curses - this is the second time I have tried to see it while in NYC and failed!

We walked north and east to Square Meal, 30 East 92nd Street, for a lovely brunch with the three kids sitting at a separate table like young adults meeting for lunch. We then walked south along the east perimeter of Central Park to make our obligatory visit to F.A.O Schwartz and the Apple Store with the kids. As we walked along the edge of the Park, we heard the romantic strains of a trumpet playing "All of Me" from the Park. 
At Tataki restaurant in NYC...
Candy, paper airplanes and nail polish were purchased by the kid - gifts for her and others ... Many pictures of candy were taken. New gadgets were ooohed at and aaahed over at the Apple store.

Around the corner we went to see "Linda McCartney: Life in Photographs" an exhibit of photos by Linda McCartney at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery, 41 E. 57th St. Pictures of Paul, of course, the Beatles, the Stones, Jim Morrison, but also pics of Kate Moss and Johnny Depp, and many other luminaries.

On the way home we hailed a cab ... a few limos came by saying hop in. I was about to but R stopped me asking, "How much?" Forty-five dollars said one for a ride ... to Tribeca? Fuggedabout it! We aren't driving to the airport. Another limo driver tried the same tactic and he wanted $25. We did finally hail a cab but it was a fairly harrowing ride downtown the in rush hour traffic New York style.

M & J
R at Tataki
Dinner close to the hotel would be nice. Where to go? Luckily there was a little place across the street called Tataki, 3 Lispenard Street, that served a variety of Asian foods: Japanese, Korean and Thai. We had futomaki, pad Thai, edamame, gyoza. It was a lovely night - warm, the sky blue black and clear. R took a series of moody but beautiful photographs, a couple of which I have posted here.

To bed, to bed for tomorrow we go to Long Beach on Long island!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

NYC: The Mother of all Cities

View of Tribeca from the hotel window take by R ...
I love big cities and NYC is the mother of all cities. I am a city girl at heart and can't see myself living somewhere in a small town. Each time I come here I ask myself - could I live here? And usually I say yes (if I had a great deal of money). I like the intensity, the variety of people, the vibe, the culture, the sense that there are a million things waiting for you to do. Americans are generally much friendlier than Canadians, not nicer exactly, but warmer to strangers. I love the sense of all the different neighborhoods sitting cheek by jowl - from Central Park West to Tribeca to Greenwich Village to Brooklyn to Harlem ... I like the confidence of Americans, their energy, their general good-heartedness. I won't spoil the moment by indicating what I don't like about American culture (a great deal) but NYC contains much of what I do like.

Back in NYC with the kid for the second time in her young life. Our last trip was three years ago with R's brother T and his family. I was pleasantly surprised as to how undaunted she was by the intensity of the city (J was 11 then). We had gone in July - it was sweltering and at the height of tourist season, the streets clogged with new smells and throngs of people, but she soaked it all in as did her cousins M and A who are younger than J.

We flew Porter Airlines for the first time - loved the ten minute cab ride to the airport at the foot of the lake, the quick processing through the airline system, the Porter lounge with free drinks and snacks. The flight was uneventful and pretty much on time. Less fun was being one of the hundreds of International flyers being processed through Newark airport which took almost an hour and then trying to find our pick up point for the shuttle to the hotel at the Hilton Garden Inn in Tribeca which took another hour. But we were in our room and settled by 3pm.

Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers
Grace Church in NYC

A few things about the hotel: a very friendly staff, smallish but elegantly styled rooms, free Wifi, a cool view of Tribeca from our windows, and a simple but pleasant breakfast was part of the package. Down the street is a pretty little parkette with two pianos which the public is encouraged to use so most nights there will be playing and singing from the park (and sometimes dancing) - could you imagine that in Toronto? Love the location of the hotel.

We ventured out in the late afternoon to explore Tribeca. My goal was to reach the Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway, where R and I usually stock up on books when we are in NYC. On the way, traveling north on Broadway, we passed a few of our favourite haunts and some new places to explore: Yellow Rat Bastard, Anthropologie, a new Japanese retail store called Superdry, Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers, the lovely Grace Church ...

The Strand Bookstore, possibly the best I've ever been to
At the Strand, I picked up How Fiction Works by James Wood and Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It seems more upscale now ... better organized, a bit cleaner, the staff more professional. Better, I think, but something has been lost too - a certain seedy comfort?

One time when we were there a woman got into a screaming fight with another woman in a wheelchair on the curb outside the door ... the older woman (more affluent, not in the wheelchair) was disturbed by something the other one had done and started shrieking, "You're an animal! You're an animal!" You can imagine how that went down with the other woman who was yelling back at her at the top of her lungs ... Is NYC a bit more polite, less hostile? It seems to be so. 

We tend to have late dinners while were are here. As our hotel is very close to Little Italy, R found a charming restaurant called da Mikele at 275 Church St. Not inexpensive, but our dinner of great pizza and pasta was topped with a delicious limoncello sorbet and grappa at the end of the meal. Our waiter was Sardinian and very attentive, very kind. If we had not been caught in the midst of a very loud private party in the restaurant it would have been perfect. 

Rolled back to the hotel, stuffed with food (we ended up taking most of the pizza back to our hotel - the portions were so huge) and I was remembering the first time R and I went to New York in the 80s and we saw, I think, Dinner at Eight, at the fabulous Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, and literally danced down the avenue towards our grungy little hotel after the film, we were so excited to be in NYC. Still am.
The Tribeca Arms across the street from da Mikele (taken by J)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hints of Gatsby's Despair...

May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Originally published by Smart Set. Co. Inc., 1920; republished by Melville House Publishing, 2009) 94 pages

Each year at this time I re-read The Great Gatsby. It has become my summer reading tradition. In this 1920 novella, I find that there are hints of Gatsby's despair in the tale of Gordon Sterrett, a solider just returned to NYC from the war. He is in debt, in some difficulties with a woman (the obvious ones), and he seeks out a fellow Yalie named Phil Dean to assist him, to no avail. He needs $300 from his affluent friend who doesn't want to ruin his affable mood by associating with the depressed and depressing Gordon.

When Phil refuses Gordon, each sees something repulsive in the other: "For an instant they quite suddenly and definitely hated each other." Phil despises Gordon's failure; Gordon hates Phil's indifference to his plight. Loss of social status and wealth literally equals death for Gordon.

There is the inevitable, Fitzgeraldian, unattainable beauty, Edith Braden, who hints at that other golden girl, Daisy Buchanan, who eludes Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Part of Gatsby's fascination with Daisy is the beauty derived from her wealth - lovely clothes, a radiance which comes from being physically pampered and loved, feminine allure, strong sexual appeal. Edith has the same aura, if that aura is somewhat subdued by a bigger conscience and a Socialist-leaning brother. However, like Daisy, when Edith sees how flawed her hero is it inspires revulsion and fear.

There is the obsession with wealth and status - this horror of poverty, of immigrants, fo the "ethnic", of the declasse. The smell, the ill fitting clothes, the poor manners ... the main characters withdraw from these elements as if stricken.

There is the "bad" girl who threatens the protagonist's existence - Myrtle, Tom Buchanan's mistress whose death literally leads to Gatsby's own demise - and Jewell, the "lower class" girl impregnated by Gordon, in this book. Yet despite this dichotomy, Ftitzgerald seems to understand the feminine psyche - like Flaubert, like Tolstoy - the sensuality of beauty and sexual attraction, the power of female beauty to attract and repel.

In May Day, Fitzgerald appears to take a more sympathetic approach to the poor and dispossessed particularly the two returning soldiers Key and Rose, whom we first meet scrounging around for booze at the beginning of the novel (after the war, establishments were prohibited from serving soldiers alcohol). They follow a parallel path to Gordon's downfall but at a lower social stratum.

The two desperate soldiers - "ugly, ill nourished", underemployed - become involved in a mob which storms the offices of Edith's brother. Some are killed, Edith's brother has his leg broken by the mob. Two "friends" from Gordon's set follow a sort of parallel path - Peter (Edith's date) and Phil (Gordon's former schoolmate). However, when the night ends, one of the two soldiers is killed and the two Yalies spend a drunken night and early morning terrorizing New Yorkers with their drinking and obnoxiousness. In May Day, the differences between classes are even more pronounced and deadly in consequence. The rich are callous, destructive, self-absorbed. They destroy or watch you be destroyed and move on ...

In Gatsby, the narrator's contempt for Daisy's husband Tom Buchanan, Myrtle and eventually Daisy is overt by the book's end. These are crass, selfish people who are willing to destroy the lives of others to maintain their selfish desires. Daisy and Tom survive while Gatsby, despite his flaws, perishes.

Gordon persists in believing that money is the answer but it is tainted for him, can provide no real relief to a fundamental flaw in Gordon - he is unable to flourish in the artifical society that he was raised in. When Gordon, in a fit of despair, marries Jewell, as he realizes he no longer has any options, his life literally ends.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Italian Girl in Hyde Park

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Originally published by Hogarth Press, 1925) 215 pages

I admit that I am too intimidated to write about Woolf's fiction. I dance around her image, allude to her in my writings, sing praises of her, but never touch my idol.

This book, one that I have read a number of times, touches on many themes through the inner lives of its main characters: the parameters of madness (Septimus); the erosion of one's passions as one ages (Clarissa, Peter, Sally), class and the rigidity of of the British class system (Peter), distrust of the medical system for the frail and unstable (Septimus, Lucrezia). What it is not about is an upper middle class woman planning a party.

But I think I have found a way to venture in by discussing the character of Lucrezia Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway. Lucrezia is the young Italian-born wife of Septimus Warren Smith, the WWI shell-shocked soldier who haunts the pages of the book. What is she doing there? What is her purpose? Why did Woolf make her Italian?

The beauty of this book, with its pioneering stream of consciousness flow, is the way that the characters pass through each others lives. While Clarissa Dalloway is buying her flowers and passing through Hyde Park on this June day some time after the WWI she passes Septimus and Lucrezia in Hyde Park as does Peter Walsh, one of Clarissa's former admirers, and Hugh Whitbread, a long time friend, who will appear in both Peter and Clarissa's reminiscences. Later, Septimus' doctor will arrive at Clarissa's party with disturbing news about Septimus.

And as we drift from the internal monologue of one character to another, like a bee alighting on a flower here, a flower there ... we start to learn of the emotional histories of all of these characters but in particular Lucrezia and Septimus.

Lucrezia met Septimus during the war in Milan where she was born. Septimus had been billeted with an Italian family, hers. She and her sisters made hats - pretty ones - in the courtyard of their home. They marry soon after the war and move back to England. He marries because the "panic" has beset him. He is afraid to be alone. She loves the "quietness" of the English and, I fear, Lucrezia is the type of girl who longs to make an unhappy man happy.

Lucrezia seems to represent the material world, sensuality, the love of beauty, the love of children and family, devotion to kin, connection to a world that Septimus is not longer tethered to because those are the things that Italy and Italian culture represent to the world.

Lucrezia (Rezia) is acutely aware of the beauty around her:
“Beautiful!” she would murmur, nudging Septimus, that he might see. But beauty was behind a pane of glass. Even taste (Rezia liked ices, chocolates, sweet things) had no relish to him. He put down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed, collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel.

When we meet them they have been married for five years and Septimus is wandering around Hyde Park, speaking to himself, for Septimus now resides in a world between the dead and the fantastic. He does not know that he speaks aloud or that he frightens onlookers. He observes the dead, specifically Evans his commanding officer. He receives secret messages from the dead. The birds speak to him.

Lucrezia represents feeling, emotion, love. In her moments of desperation, she longs to be sitting in her little courtyard in Italy making hats with her sisters - for the  familial warmth and security that she no longer has with Septimus.

At home, Rezia mentions that a neighbor's daughter is pregnant. Rezia is concerned with concrete things, material things.

At tea Rezia told him that Mrs. Filmer’s daughter was expecting a baby. She could not grow old and have no children! She was very lonely, she was very unhappy! She cried for the first time since they were married. Far away he heard her sobbing; he heard it accurately, he noticed it distinctly; he compared it to a piston thumping. But he felt nothing. His wife was crying, and he felt nothing; only each time she sobbed in this profound, this silent, this hopeless way, he descended another step into the pit.

All those things that represent security for Lucrezia are removed from her: husband, the possibility of children, family, and the small comforts which make life livable. She is trapped in a nightmare where she cannot communicate with her husband and the medical authorities seem unable to assist him or understand him. His demands are incomprehensible yet she longs to protect him:

She brought him his papers, the things he had written, things she had written for him. She tumbled them out on to the sofa. They looked at them together. Diagrams, designs, little men and women brandishing sticks for arms, with wings — were they?— on their backs; circles traced round shillings and sixpences — the suns and stars; zigzagging precipices with mountaineers ascending roped together, exactly like knives and forks; sea pieces with little faces laughing out of what might perhaps be waves: the map of the world. Burn them! he cried. Now for his writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans — his messages from the dead; do not cut down trees; tell the Prime Minister. Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! he cried.

But Rezia laid her hands on them. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up (for she had no envelope) with a piece of silk.

But Rezia, the symbol of femininity and maternal stability in the novel, cannot spare him or protect him: beauty, love, kindness, devotion ... none of these things can spare Septimus from his fate. He is a fragment of society that cannot be controlled - governed by madness and sorrow and bad luck.

Mrs. Dalloway as the inspiration for my novel-in-progress Vita's Prospects:
A few summers ago I read Mrs. Dalloway and, in a flash of inspiration, I began to plot a book in which a number of the characters intersected with a few others in an emotional web that only the reader can see the whole of:

Billy, a mentally ill, homeless man who (unbeknownst to himself) crosses the path of Vita, an ordinary, middle class woman haunted by the memories of a dead lover whom Billy resembles; Kingston (K), Billy's sometime john and protector who has a business relationship with Vita's place of work, a film centre, and is the financial backer of a documentary about a young prostitute named Opal, who is in love with the violent, misogynistic Billy ...

I wanted to replicate the stream of consciousness of all these characters that Woolf achieves on this single day in June. The novel is also set in a single day in June and relates a day in the life of Billy and Vita - two lost people on opposite ends of society's spectrum.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Let's Talk About Men ...

Valentino Assenza has been a published poet and spoken word artist for over the last decade. He has performed at many of the Toronto venues, and performed at many venues, and festivals across Canada. He has published four books of poetry, and is currently promoting his latest book published by Lyricalmyrical Press called Make Our Peace With Rattlesnakes.

Rocco de Giacomo is a widely published poet whose work has appeared in literary journals in Canada, Australia, England, Hong Kong and the US. His work has most recently been published in Existere and Contemporary Verse 2. Rocco’s poetry has also been featured on the CBC. He is the author of numerous chapbooks including, in 2008, Catching Dawn’s Breath. In 2009, his first full-length poetry collection, Ten Thousand Miles Between Us, was launched through Quattro Books. In 2010 Ten Thousand Miles was longlisted for the ReLit Poetry Award. In 2011, it was selected for Poetry NOW’s 3rd Annual Battle of the Bards. Rocco lives in Toronto where he writes and participates on the council for the Art Bar Poetry Series.

Luciano Iacobelli is the author of The Angel Notebook (Seraphim Editions, 2007), seven poetry chapbooks and two full length plays, The Porch and Byrdbrain. He is also the publisher, editor and designer of Lyricalmyrical Press.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method (stories), All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems), and the forthcoming Why We Fight ... > Quran Neck (transliterated World War II propaganda). His first novel, People Park, will be published in 2012.

Jason Paradiso is a technical writer by day and technically a writer by night. He is also an editor and a poet who considers himself some sort of an artist too. His name has been included in a number of mastheads and his work has appeared in multiple places including Carousel, Descant, Misunderstandings Magazine and the Lennox Contemporary Gallery.

Sam Pupo was born in Italy but came to Canada when he was three years old. He has been a high school English teacher for the TCDSB for over 20 years. He began writing poetry at nineteen and has been very interested in it ever since. He says it is a pleasure making his public literary debut at this reading.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Once the girl in the car ...

Milestones in my daughter J's life invariably reduce me to teary, melancholic moments. Very recently, J came to us and asked to have her long, beautiful hair (which she has kept in tightly wound braids since she was about seven years old) cut very short. Oy ... Here we go. Big changes up ahead I feared.

I have memories of J as a toddler, combing her (then) dark curly hair before school. I would park her in front of the TV with her breakfast - yeah, 'cause I'm a bad mother and it was a laborious process - to watch cartoons while I painstakingly combed out her long tangled hair and brushed it into two curly ponytails with little brightly coloured elastics that matched her outfit for the day. Later we started braiding it. Dad took over because he could do tighter braids and eventually J did it herself. So she's had this hairstyle for at least six or seven years. Time for a change.

On the morning we were to have it cut J muttered reproachfully, "Mommy doesn't want me to do it ..." But that wasn't it exactly. I was feeling a bit blue. I admit there were tears involved (mine not hers) that morning and she gave me a reassuring hug when I tried to explain my reservations about the changes to come which I would never oppose. "You won't get it until you are a mother and you are in this situation," I mournfully replied. She can sympathize but she won't truly understand what I'm thinking.

Of course, her hair looked beautiful when it was cut - it's exactly like my sister's at that age - thick, dark, a bit wavy, luscious and now short. She was happy, we were happy - many compliments all around from family and friends.

What is happening here? I wondered in retrospect. Why the drama on my part? What is the underlying anxiety?

The thing is ... it's not about her, it's about me. She is becoming a young woman and that makes me increasingly nostalgic for the baby she once was and also ... significantly ... the young mother that I used to be.

The other day I was outside tending my lawn and garden. Years ago, such laborious, homebody work would have bored me to tears, a hobby I considered for the old and uninteresting. Today, I feel differently about it – finding it oddly peaceful and relaxing. It's also a good occupation for a writer. It allows ideas to germinate peacefully and slowly I find.

But as I was doing my puttering and watering I noticed a young neighbor who routinely gets picked up by a carload of friends to head off, presumably, to a party or club. Hmm, I wondered, when did I become the lady watering her garden instead of the girl getting into the car to hang out with friends and have a good time?

It was an odd moment - an alarming moment in a way. I realized that all of my "firsts" were slipping away from me ... first love, engagement, marriage, birth of my first and only child, J leaving grade school, J leaving middle school, J now in highschool and starting to think about careers and college/university. Those "firsts" will never return. There is no going back. No more cuddling the baby/toddler in my arms, her head along my arm and her little feet pressed on my thigh as she slept. Alas and alack ...

Of course, I am pleased J is turning into such a lovely young woman. She is more self-sufficient, more confident, is discovering her own style, choosing her own friends, determining her own destiny. All is as it should be. Long gone are the playdates and arranged birthday parties, the tearful hugs and skinned knees that needed kisses to make them better ... hello facebook friends, texting at all hours, formspring, moody silences in the morning and experimenting with life choices that I might not necessarily agree with.

Onward and upward Mama. The kid's growing up. You should be too. Note to self: file this under a la vecchaia!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand

And so external reality clashes with the internal realm as I walked up Yonge St. north towards College St. a few years ago…

I was wondering why I have developed into such a devoted Anglophile who admires and enjoys English writers and Anglo culture, particularly writers such as Virginia Woolf, when I have been raised so explicitly to dislike and avoid same (have I just answered my own question?). And as I am thinking this I look up and see Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand just a few feet before me on Yonge St. south of College. Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand? Okay, I will take this as a sign that I need to explore this further.

A few days after that Brianna Goldberg wrote a brief article on the hot dog stand for the National Post which reminded me that this blog had been simmering in my mind for some time …

It is odd, inexplicable even. I think it may be a “forbidden fruit” scenario (my obsessive interest in this) although forbidden by whom is still a question in my mind. Why revere Virgina Woolf, Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury group … Jane Austen’s heroines, William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp? What does it have to do with you? as my mother would have said (in Sicilian that is).

There is a framed photograph of Virginia Woolf above my writing desk. Young, beautiful, she appears almost unseeing and is half turned away from me in that famous portrait as if to say What? I’m busy thinking! Get on with your work! She is emblazoned on a special cup I bought many years ago. I have numerous bios on the Bloomsbury set (even the somewhat forgotten Leonard Woolf - come on that’s just weird even for me).

Even better, or odder, the various Anglophiles captivated by the British: the American Henry James and Jean Rhys (transplanted from the West Indies to live out her days in London). Do I even have to go back that far in literary history … what about my early infatuation with the African born Doris Lessing in the 1970s and my brief 1990s romantic interlude with Martin Amis which even pushed me into the arms, so to speak, of his father Kingsley Amis and some of his novels?

Okay enough of the bold type names … let’s figure this out. Where I grew up in a predominantly Anglo/Scottish/Irish working class neighborhood in the east end of Hamilton with a smattering of paesani and other Europeans, I remember that my parents had absolutely no sense of feeling inferior to the Inglese or anyone else. None whatsoever. Whatever we felt we excelled in as a culture: family, cuisine, art, opera, music, film, even the average cleanliness of the Italo-Canadian home … there was no way, seemed to be the going sentiment in my world, that we could be deemed inferior. Yes I saw all that, absorbed all that.

We were, I think, disdainful of the Anglos around us, even a bit fearful perhaps. As if we could be tainted by their ways, their unseemly habits and lax customs.

Perhaps then, as a young adult, settling in a new city like Toronto as a university student, away from family and friends and this sort of xenophobic sense of superiority I could finally venture out into a new world, primarily in books and film, and explore the lives of the Bennett sisters in the time of Napoleon or Mrs. Dalloway as she prepared for her party on the pages of Woolf’s book (one of my absolute favourites).

I could pursue unfettered interests that would have seemed odd at home and amongst my circle of girlfriends, all non-readers, mostly all Italo-Canadians, few destined for university.

Perhaps my isolation - I remember whole days returning from classes at university and never having even opened my mouth - forced me to inhabit new worlds, worlds I didn’t belong to, nor ever would.

A brief note on the origins of Mrs. Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand according to Ms. Goldberg’s article: “the proud moniker isn’t an accident and, no, the surname of its proprietor isn’t Dalloway. ‘The name reflects my dedication, love and respect for English literature,’ says Yahya, the cart’s owner. ‘I actually wanted to name it after T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland,‘ he says, adding that he reconsidered after realizing the associations people might make between the cart’s name and contents of the hot dogs. With a degree in English literature, another in linguistics, a diploma to teach English and plans for a PhD on the horizon, Yahya says he sees learning as a lifelong experience. That means surrounding himself with the literary - even at the hot dog stand. Yahya says he was encouraged by other literary shout-outs in Toronto like the James Joyce pub and the defunct Shakespeare’s Cafe, both in the Annex.”

Originally published in an altered format on 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Starter Wife

Hadley Hemingway
The Paris Wife by Paul McLain (Doubleday Canada, 2011) 314 pp.

Paula McLain strikes the perfect note assuming the modest fictional voice of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, the Starter Wife if you will. He had four in total and innumerable lovers in between: Hadley Richardson (1921-27), Wife #2* (1927-40), Martha Gellhorn (1940-45) and Mary Welsh (1946-61). Look at the time lines above, married at 22, Hemingway was never without a woman (or two) in his life.

The couple met in Chicago shortly after the First World War through mutual friends and married quickly as Hemingway was assigned to work overseas. Initially he thought they would end up in Rome but Paris was their ultimate destination. Hadley was eight years older than Hem, more stable, quieter, which seemed to be what Hem was seeking at the time.

So many small and lovely details seem to hit the mark about Hem's personality (or at least my perception of him): his persistent and intense loneliness - only someone who feared to be alone would marry so obsessively and frequently; his insecurity about his masculinity; his fear of the dark attributable to his WWI experience; his obsession with Spain and machismo manifested in his interest in bullfighting and boxing; the realistic description of Paris as being, for this young, impoverished American couple with no means, as not lovely and romantic initially but cheap, ugly and mean.

Hadley, son John "Bumby", Ernest
Hadley, too, is lovingly and realistically portrayed: her fear that she is not chic enough nor interesting enough among the bohemian literati in Paris; her being consigned to the "wives' corner" (joining Gertrude Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas and Ezra Pound's wife Dorothy Shakespeare) when Ernest is with his peers; her loneliness when Hem is on assignment in another country; her loneliness as a mother tending an ill child.

One Globe & Mail reviewer recently described Hadley as a bore ... I disagree. Another reviewer described her as an "unfashionable homebody". This seems unnecessarily harsh. She was a traditional wife, devoted to husband and child and is portrayed as utterly confident in Ernest's talents. She is not glamorous, she is not distinguished but faithful, stable, and that most Hemingway of adjectives - "true".

The book only infrequently veers into parody and usually it is when she describes Hem as he is often remembered or caricatured in print - cheerfully knocking down friend and/or foe in boxing matches, obsessed with bull fighting or talking about writing "one true sentence", the drinking binges, the bullying temperament. Perhaps we know too much about Hemingway, his vices and peccadilloes. It is inevitable that these elements are touched upon as they make up his larger than life legend but how many times must we see him knock down an opponent in a "friendly" bout or pretend to be a toreador?

One winces a bit when Hadley parrots what sounds like dialogue from Hemingway's books, describing her husband as “fine and strong and weak and cruel.” McLain is at her best when she avoids these cliches.
In a manner, this is a book of suspense ... because you know that the marriage will end and he will meet another woman and divorce Hadley - will it be Kitty Cannell whom Hem seems to loath initially; the aristocratic Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises; the fashion writer Pauline Pfeiffer or her lovely sister?

The marital scenes are best - tense or tender. She wants a child, he does not. She loses all of his written work one fatal day on a train when she had intended to bring it to him during a trip. He proposes a marital arrangement which would include the woman who would eventually become wife number 2. She even briefly and madly considers it. Why not he asks - Ezra Pound is doing it, his good friend Harold Loeb has a similar arrangement. Ford Maddox Ford has moved in the writer Jean Rhys right into his home. Then Hadley wisely demurs and seeks a divorce.

Paris, Spain, Toronto - home to the Hemingways at various times - are all vividly evoked. Paris is dirty and colouful, peopled by prostitutes, down and out writers and bohemians, dance hall music and seedy cafes. Okay Toronto not so much ... Toronto is just ... cold. And windy and wintery.

Wife #2 - guess who?
Where McLain falters is in the pencil thin characterizations of the other literary greats - F. Scott Fitzgerald is a irresponsible drunk and his wife Zelda is, it is implied, crazy and mean-spirited as well as a lousy mother; Ezra Pound is brilliant but likely insane; James Joyce is odd but brilliant; the very affluent couple Sara and Gerald Murphy are basically good but shallow people with too much money and time on their hands. These are thin caricatures and it would have been more useful to have more nuanced characterizations of such important personages.

Still, the narrative voice is lovely, rich in detail and utterly convincing. We understand why Hadley still loves Hem at the end and her sorrow at his death some forty years later.

She lingers in his mind too and is very much a part of the narrative in A Moveable Feast which he wrote about the Paris years thirty years after he left her. But she was his wife then you protest - of course he would write about her. Not necessarily so ... Hadley was present during very many of the scenes described in The Sun Also Rises when the couple and friends went to see the bullfights in Pamplona and the book featured several real people who made that trip with Hemingway. There is nary a mention of Hadley in it - or any allusion to a wife. He does, however, make the main male protagonist Jake impotent - how'd you like them apples, Paris wife?

* Pauline Pfeiffer

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My problem with Scott and Zelda

Aren’t we usually perceived through the lens of our tragedies? Put another way, when someone looks at me do they not define me by the sadnesses of my life and/or how I overcame them? It is hard to escape such evaluations. Perhaps it is something that women are more prone to do. Or writers. Or both. I see my much admired writers in the same vein.

I know too much about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was weak, a drunkard, he embarrassed his friends. He was insufferable and obnoxious, always broke or near broke, despite his many successes. It conflicts with my romantic image of him: pure, beautiful, with Gatsbyesque vitality and passion. And Zelda! Don’t even get me started on her ...

Gustave Flaubert wrote with such tenderness about his heroine Emma Bovary. Emma is weak, sinful, and ultimately destroys her husband and child with her self-destructive ways. But he was so tender with Emma; he helped me to understand the source of her unhappiness, the reasons why she behaved so wantonly. And yet he ruthlessly exploited his real life lover Flora Tristan and then discarded her … leaving only Emma’s infamous carriage ride to remember her by in Madame Bovary.

Jane Austen died without having found what seemed to be the source of a good deal of happiness for her heroines and for us, her readers. Lizzie Bennett found love. Emma Woodhouse found love. Even the sensible Eleanor and the passionate Marianne, after innumerable dramas, found their soul mates. Where is Jane's Darcy?

Sylvia Plath … I prefer to remember her as a revolutionary poet oppressed by a conformist age, by the need to be a good girl, to brilliantly succeed in 50s America, abandoned with two infants by her husband in the dead of winter. Why must the unhappy truth surface that she sometimes behaved like a controlling, manipulative bitch?

Tolstoy, died at 82 trying to “escape” his wife Tatyana Tolstaya, running away, boarding a train, falling ill then dying, far from home. Had he forgotten how he transcribed his thoughts of love using only the first letters of certain words on a tablecloth with his finger? Only to have Sonya read his inner most thoughts? When did she stop being the Kitty to his Levin?

Tolstoy wrote, “I clearly realized that my biography, if it suppressed all the nastiness and criminality of my life - as they customarily write biographies - would be a lie, and that if one is going to write my biography, one must write the whole truth.”

Originally published in an altered form at