Saturday, March 31, 2012

The March Cultural Roundup

My Dinner with Andre (U.S., 1981) directed by Louis Malle
Martha Marcy May Marlene (U.S., 2011) directed by Sean Durkin
Some Like it Hot (U.S., 1959) directed by Billy Wilder
Young Adult (U.S., 2011) directed by Jason Reitman

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

(Not So) Nice Italian Girls and Friends Reading at Annex Live, March 21, 2012

AICW's 2012 Biennial Conference - Back to the Future: Possibilities Since Pier 21 - Dalhousie University, Halifax, March 23 - 25, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Just call me for the AGM in the morning baby ...

Lobby of the Lord Nelson
I pack up to leave the Waverley Inn at 830am and head for the Lord Nelson Hotel for the AICW's breakfast and AGM. I'd like to tell you the results of the meeting but then I'd have to kill you ... But seriously, the concerns of the Association are not much different than any other writers' associations: where shall we have our next bi-annual conference? A domestic or international location? How do we increase our younger membership? An accounting of the financial results for the last two years. Who will serve on the next executive? Are there other groups that we can work with in our own communities?

Trying to figure out how to get to the airport after the meeting. I would rather not pay that extra $53 for the cab. At the last minute Jim Zucchero offers me an airport shuffle chit and off I go. I line up at the Halifax Public Gardens for the 12.55 shuttle and the bus is promptly there. When a young woman across from me purchases a two way ticket the bus driver is mildly surprised, saying, "Finally, somebody's coming back!" Gotta love that Halifax humour ... I wish I had more of a chance to explore the city while here. Must save it for another trip.

Flight to Montreal delayed 30 minutes ... hope this is not a sign of what's to come with Air Canada. I heard some rumblings before I left about pilots and baggage handlers being a bit obstreperous. Solidarity forevvverrr ... at least tonight fellas, at least tonight. Hate connecting flights. Seem to be the only one in the AICW group who has one (lucky me). What do I want for my airmiles any way? But I arrive well in time for the connecting flight at 6.30p in Montreal. So anxious to be home.

Same chicken wrap, almonds and chocolate for dinner. I know this is a small plane but ... really ... five passengers have to move to the back in order for the plane to take off? Boy, I long for the days when flying was glamorous, luxurious ... what must that have been like? Well, let's count our small blessings: I have a seat with no adjoining passenger beside me. My cough is finally tapering off. I am almost finished my book (Graham Greene's Brighton Rock).  Hey, things are looking pretty good. And ... it was a really nice trip.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

At the Beginning of My Mother's Journey

The artist Alberto Chiarandini
Another rocky night of sleep. Cannot get settled at night. I am unused to sleeping alone and a little uneasy in new locations. I am slow to rouse and quite sore. A freezing cold morning - not a good morning to walk to Pier 21 in this light spring coat! However, I must get some form of exercise as we sit all day in these sessions ...

Olga Pugliese presented a visual collage of the Italo-Canadian artist Alberto Chiarandini - someone I had not known of. An interesting man. That's a really rewarding aspect of these conferences, fellow members are always bringing to light forgotten artists and historical episodes in our history.

The second presentation is a fascinating profile of a group of Italian immigrants who settled in Dominion, Cape Breton, arriving in the 1920s and 1930s to work in the coal mines. Prof. Giulia De Gasperi theorizes that consuming food from one's past repairs a sense of fractured cultural identity. The Cape Bretoners have adapted Italian cuisine to the local diet for some interesting combinations - mostly involving potatoes! Giulia brought along a Cape Breton author named Sheldon Currie. He wrote The Glace Bay Miners' Museum, the book that the film Margaret's Museum was based on and he also studied Italian with Giulia.

Marisa de Franchesi presented a film on the Fogolar Furlan club in Windsor - its origins and its continuing success in the Italian community. I can't help but contrast this with the flagging fortunes of the Trinacria Club in Hamilton (a club co-founded by my father in 1956) that you can read about here. A moment in its history was captured in the documentary Saturnia by the filmmakers Ferdinando Dell'Omo and Lilia Topouzova that will be shown next month on OMNI-TV. The key to the success of the Windsor club, I realized with a sudden flash, was the concerted effort to include women and children in the activities of the club. The Trinacria Club failed to do so and has become literally, I feel, a dying institution.

The theme turns to a darker period during a panel discussion lead by Jim Zucchero (a new friend!) about the internment of Italians during WWII here in Canada. It is a little known chapter in our history but why does it matter seventy years later? The laws that made it possible to intern Italians during the war still exist on the books today. Some specific examples: the herding of aboriginal people into reservations in Canada and the U.S.; suspected Taliban members still detained today in Guantanamo; and, lastly and most recently, the rounding up of activists/protesters during the G20 protests.

At lunch I wander outside of the meeting room in which we meet where there is a long glass-walled vista of the waters of Halifax. You can imagine the ships coming in and what the new immigrants saw as they approached the harbour. It is strange to be here at the beginning of my mother's journey ... I can't imagine that girl, at seventeen, a little older than my daughter, making that trip with her two siblings to make her way in a strange country. That generation had guts, fortitude. I wish I had a tenth of what they had. It made my mother hard at times as a person, I think, but it was also her salvation. It helped her keep things together (family, business, sanity) when things fell apart after my father died.

The next session is a doc profiling three women from three different generations, all admirable and talented I must say; however, as soon as I hear one of the subjects start with the usual political jargon after the film: "dominant narrative", "patriarchy", "gender", "androgyny", blah blah blah ... I am turned off. She seems alienated (the filmmaker also seems to share her perspective and anger) and they offer a point of view not often heard in the community, fair enough; however, the language is so predictable and so programmed in leftist feminist ideology that it loses all its emotion for me and hence my sympathy somewhat.

We have a two hour break ... lord, I am tired and sore from the picnic table incident yesterday. I go back to rest at the hotel until 5. I need a pharmacy, some Nyquil and some Advil please! I pass through the Farmers Market at Pier 21 - tempting but I know there will be a reception this evening and treats through the sessions.

One more session and then a book launch organized by the AICW in collaboration with Guernica Editions. This last session is much lighter in tone and includes Joseph Pivato and Joseph Ranallo - the topic is musica leggera and its relation to immigrant nostalgia.

The boat he came on ...
During a coughing fit I leave and do a brief tour of Pier 21 again and realize that my father also must have passed through here when he disembarked from the Saturnia ship in 1956. I am reminded when I see that there is a picture of the Saturnia among the 100 or so ships that passed through the port. This would have been a perfect venue to preview the film - how foolish of me not to think of it and suggest it to the filmmakers.

I return to the meeting room in time to hear a sing along lead by Joseph Ranallo. Both Josephs had arrived in Canada and passed through Pier 21. Ranallo had an interesting point that although there were sharp divisions on the ships and the passengers could be quite strict in maintaining their distance from the "lower classes" on board, when they landed all Italians became equal, falling to the lowest rung of the social strata as immigrants.

At the book launch for Beyond Barbed Wire, there are some affecting readings about a little known topic: the internment of Italians during WWII - some 6,000 men and women were detained basically for the crime of being born in Italy regardless of their politics. Lovely wine and cheese reception afterwards. Some friends were going out after the launch but not for this bad girl. It's been a long yet enjoyable day and I am anxious to go "home" to my hotel room and get a good rest before the AGM in the morning. Buon notte caru! Missing my loved ones right now ...

Friday, March 23, 2012

An Upper Canadian in Lower Canada

Breakfast is served in the basement of the hotel. Very disappointing (and a mistake I think). Usually it is my favourite meal but I peck away at a lonely pancake and then escape to my room to read over my notes for the conference. The atmosphere in the basement is depressing in contrast to the prettiness of the rest of the hotel.

Day 2 of the conference begins at the University Club at Dalhousie University in the Great Hall. The cab ride was an entertainment in itself. I probably could have walked it in 30 minutes but did not sleep well - coughing (and annoying myself) all night along. I ended up watching Coronation Street until 1am and the news thereafter. It was comforting to see my favourite soap while here and I am missing R and J with whom I usually watch the show.

The cab ride to Dalhousie was well worth the six dollars I paid. When the cabbie, named Murray, heard me coughing he asked where I was from. "Aah Toronto, that's why you're coughing ... you're not used to the fresh air are you?"

He asked if I was here for a conference. Yes, a writers' conference, I answer. "Not fiction I hope?" he murmured, "I don't read fiction myself ..." Alas, I said, yes, it's fiction as well as non-fiction.

He said that he knew Toronto and lived there in the 60s, that he knew Yorkville well. "Ahh," I thought "You were a bad boy." "I was a hippie," he replied. Later: "Imagine me with my red hair and freckles in Toronto, they thought I had jumped off a cornflakes box." I smile.

"They thought we were all welfare bums because we were from the east ..." Yes, Torontonians are terrible snobs but then again, sir, you called me an Upper Canadian during the ride and I don't think it was said affectionately. I remember this particular epithet when I was working in my first job in the drug industry and had many Atlantic Canadian customers who were hostile to Torontonians. They didn't like us either. Everyone loves to hate Toronto. It's a national past time. I must say that I find it amusing.

As he drops me off, I say, "Dalhousie's campus is beautiful ..." Yeah," he says, not missing a beat, nor looking at me. "It's old."

Yes, that was worth way more than the six bucks I paid.

I read my essay during session 2 with my friend Venera Fazio who reads a suite of lovely poems after me - one is particularly affecting about her mother's hands. The session is listed as a literary reading but it's more a personal essay on identity and what direction we should be going in as Italo-Canadians. I talk about how I dislike the title "Italo-Canadian writer" and how I think it places us in a ghetto, an amiable ghetto, but a ghetto nonetheless. I am hoping that my voice will hold out. No coughing fits, I don't shame myself during the reading.

An attentive reception of the piece ... I think I pushed a few buttons though. Some mixed responses but mostly receptive and an active dialogue ensues. The piece will be published by the conference committee some time this year. Perhaps I will publish a portion here on my blog.

Interesting presentation by the owners of Guernica Editions and a relevant point is made that the reason it exists is because Italo-Canadian writers were having trouble being published by mainstream publishers in the 1980s and how even Nino Ricci struggled to find a publisher for Lives of the Saints.

Lunch is hosted by the French Dept. of the university. Afterwards I wander outside and sit at a lunch table which is situated on a bit of a slope on the grounds of the university. As soon as I am comfortable the picnic table tips towards me and lands on top of me in such a way that my legs are trapped between the slats of woods and I am having trouble extricating myself on the grass. I saw three men in the distance to my right and vacillate between "Oh my god, are they going to save me?" and "Oh my god, did they see me tip over??" Finally, finally ... I escape from the picnic table and I see the three men surround me. I cannot look them in the face. I cannot look up. I see only their boots. I make a motion to move. They say, "Don't worry, we'll take care of the picnic table." "Okay, " I murmur shamefacedly, "I'm going to go hide in that building." I slither away quickly. How do you spell m-o-r-t-i-f-i-c-a-t-i-o-n ...?

I am asked to introduce the next session of six literary writers right after lunch - poetry and prose in English and Italian - including works from Paolo Matteucci, Delia DeSantis, Gianna Patriarca, David Bellusci, Tony Pignataro and Bruna Di Giuseppe-Bertoni. This will be tricky: introduce four writers then move to another room to introduce the next two as we need to leave the Great Hall by 3p. This is a lovely group of people; they are gracious and supportive. But it is worrisome that there are so few people under 30. Where are the writers of the next generation who will represent the Italian community in Canada? It is an issue I raise later.

In the next session, there is a discussion about the value of food in the community. Delia de Santis and Loretta Gatto-White spoke about compiling an anthology on this that will appear in 2012 or 2013 and I really liked what I heard today. It concluded with Giulia de Gasperi discussing Italo
The Sebastopol Monument – Old Burying Ground 
at St. Paul's Anglican Church
We break at four ... cab back to the hotel to relax and I will meet my pals at 7p at the Lord Nelson Hotel, where most of the group has rooms, to congregate for dinner. Before that I make my way west along Barrington St. and discover a few interesting historical spots: there is an Old Burying Ground at Spring Garden Rd. and Barrington established in 1749 which was used until 1844. Now it is padlocked but very beautiful to behold. Across the street is the St. Matthew United Church and further down Government House which was built in 1800. 

Government House on Barrington Street
I go back to my room to await my dinner date then cab it to the Lord Nelson. A group gathers in the lobby. Some want to go to Il Mercato Trattoria, an Italian restaurant at 5650 Spring Garden Road, but the majority of us go to Chives, 1537 Barrington St. at Sackville St., which is just a few blocks from my hotel. I might question their definition of a Greek salad (a piece of fried feta on some sliced tomato and olives with what appears to be French dressing) but decent food and great company!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Halifax Bound ...

I am a nervous flier. This is my first time traveling to Halifax as I am attending a writers' conference organized by the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW) - the theme is, roughly as I interpret it, Italian Canadian culture post immigration, post our arrival at Pier 21 which is located in Halifax. It is appropriate that it is in Halifax where almost all Italian born Canadians passed through by ship in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

I rarely travel without my husband R. I really had never traveled as a teenager and only began when I met R in university. I am frighteningly dependent on him to navigate airport terminals, technology and directions and I am totally aware of how pathetic that sounds for a woman of my age and experience.

And as much as I have been excited about this trip, I will miss my chickens R and J at home.

When R drops me off at Billy Bishop airport (which is minutes from our home) my heart sinks because he can't enter the airport with me. The parking is too chaotic and he wouldn't really be able to spend any time with me before the flight. But it is good for me to do these things on my own. The flights are Toronto to Montreal and then transfer to another plane, Montreal to Halifax, as there were no direct flights to Halifax available. I should be in Halifax by 4.30p.

Toronto-Montreal: Although the flight attendants are very kind and attentive there's no disguising the low budget aspect of this short flight - a small, rather dry chicken wrap encased in cellophane, a small bag of almonds and a bit of chocolate in a paper bag. This is the high life you jet-setters! To calm my nerves I try out my new Ipad (a Christmas present) and pretend that I am not on plane. This is my strategy when I fly: I imagine that I am in a magic box. And when I leave this magic box, I will be in Montreal ... magically. Hey, it works for me if I close the shades and pretend I can't see out the windows. Luckily it is over before you know it ...

Montreal-Halifax: A much more crowded flight, every seat appears filled. No treats on this flight kiddies! Flee to the washroom to engage in a long coughing fit so that I don't annoy and alarm everyone. You might think this excessive but the night before at a reading I mentioned I had a cold and a writing colleague fled my table and went to sit with someone else (and pointedly told me why).

Entrance to the Waverley
I didn't realize the Halifax airport was so far from the city: 33km and $53 far by cab. Pretty much what you would pay in Toronto. The Waverley Inn is lovely ... a gracious, old Victorian lady dressed in bright yellow in the downtown core on Barrington Street. It is like a country inn set in the middle of the city. The room is small but tasteful and pretty. The staff is very friendly. Some might find it busy or stuffy in design but I like it here so far.

It is a very pretty town from what I can see. Mentioning this trip to friends on facebook, I am greeted with great enthusiasm about the cit.

I have a few hours before I go to see a documentary at the Pier 21 Museum on Marginal Rd. Someone on the front desk tells me that it's a five minute walk from here and so it is. I flake out, take a bath and try and navigate the Ipad. I find it intimidating at times but must master this or I will have to relinquish it to the kid who will happily take it

As I get ready, I muse that it is exactly sixty years ago this year that my mother arrived from Sicily, by ship, through Pier 21. After watching the charming documentary on the belief in Mal'Occhio by Montreal filmmaker Agata De Santis we wander through the museum looking at exhibits of how the immigration centre was set up. One woman in our group, Bruna, remembers the day she arrived in the 1960s vividly and the exact door she walked through as she disembarked from the ship. There are vintage photos and a small replica of the exact layout of the original space as well as an actual train car that carried the immigrants out of Halifax to various destinations.

I, for one, am starving as I had only one quick meal at about 1pm on the first plane so I am anxious to get some dinner soon. D, a fellow writer and friend, and I cab it up to The Five Fishermen, a popular local hot spot. It's a little flashier than I thought (think high end bordello meets steak house) but at this point I will just about eat anything. We order a seafood platter - lobster, oysters, mussels, smoked salmon. I don't want to seem unappreciative but I think this fish hasn't seen the sea for a bit and has been sitting on the plate for a while. Our waiter seems a bit huffy, perhaps he is a bit tired as the restaurant is about to close. We seem to be annoying him and he is not shy in letting us know. I'm finding the Halifax humour to be a bit sharp-edged (which I usually enjoy). But it was an enjoyable night nonetheless kvetching and gossiping about mutual literary friends.

Usually smaller cities make me twitchy due to the lack of diversity. The only non-white faces I see are in cabs here - South Asian, East Asian, obviously recent immigrants based on their accents. But I feel oddly comfortable here.

I'm looking forward to the sessions at Dalhousie University tomorrow!


Monday, March 19, 2012

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press, 2010) 325 pages

What are these two taciturn, odd brothers up to we wonder as we first turn the pages of this book? Eli, the narrator, and Charlie Sisters (the "Sisters Brothers" of the title) are on a largely unexplained mission of some sort. They are gun slingers who have killed and appear poised to kill again at the behest of The Commodore, their mysterious employer, as the novel opens in Oregon City in 1851. 

We don't learn much about the brothers initially. Charlie appears to have a drinking problem and is certainly the more violent and dominant of the two. He never met a bottle he didn't like. Eli is more sensitive, longing for a woman to spend time with, devoted to his injured horse Tub and (for that time period) unusually interested in dental hygiene. Oh, and he has a soft spot for "fallen" or unfortunate women to whom he often gives his ill-gotten gains.

The men travel to California and meet a boy - his fellow travelers have been killed or died during the course of the journey They taken him on temporarily and as summarily abandon the boy - without malice, without cruelty. It's just business. You anticipate that they might adopt the boy but no ...

The brothers  become aware of a rich ne'er do well who is seeking a valuable bear skin. They kill and skin the bear and deliver it to Mayfield, a sort of Western-style gangster with a large retinue of large but dumb gunslingers who protect them and a stable of prostitutes to keep everyone happy.

One of Mayfield's men decide to steal the bearskin and try and pin it on the brothers - this does not work out so well for him or anyone else. The bodyguards are killed, Mayfield robbed of all his savings. The men move on to San Francisco with their hoard. Eli is heartily sick of the whole venture. 

At about page 200, we learn what the true mission of the brothers is. By that time, I'm afraid, my interest is flagging a bit despite the realistic dialogue and interesting scenarios. The brothers have been ordered to kill Morris by the Commodore, a man who has allegedly discovered a formula for finding gold. First they must extract the formula from him, then kill him.

When they arrive, their intended victim has vanished with one Herman Kermit Warm but left behind a journal detailing his interactions with Warm. This particular exposition doesn't work for me as a literary device.

By this time, Eli is heartsick and world-weary. He wants to retire and open a little store much to the derision of his brother. Charlie is prepared to move on without him.

I won't reveal the rest but perhaps will mention that it ends in an unexpected but oddly pleasing way.

Certainly, deWitt's voice is unique and he comes up with scenes I have never come across in fiction before such as the removal of poor Tub's damaged eyeball with a spoon by a willing stable hand or Eli's skinning of the bear or the process by which the men find gold. This is an intriguing new voice and deWitt is certainly someone to keep an eye (or two) on.
Patrick deWitt

Monday, March 12, 2012


Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000) 738 pp.

Next year Marilyn will have been dead for fifty years. Fifty years. It boggles the mind. She would have turned 85 years old this year. I can't imagine that beautiful face withered, that plume of blonde hair thinned and her vitality diminished. She still has a grip on us. Her image is ubiquitous. Her memory lingers in films, books and many other, sometimes inappropriate, vessels.

Right now I am fixated on a new NBC TV series called Smash which is about a group of songwriters trying to mount a musical about Marilyn's life. As artful as the lead actresses are (and the show is great), no one really resembles Marilyn although many have tried.

The Cannes Film Festival announced that it would pay homage to Marilyn Monroe in 2012 by featuring her on its official poster. To celebrate its 65th anniversary, the poster features a b&w photo of Monroe blowing out a candle on a birthday cake.

It wasn't just beauty. There are many beautiful women. It wasn't just that she died at such a young age (36). Many beautiful women have died from natural and unnatural causes. Why does the memory of her linger so? The usual Marilyn stereotypes come to mind: orphan, pin up girl for the war, aspiring starlet, movie star, addict, sex goddess, icon.

Lately, I have read a great deal about Marilyn assuming the mask of Marilyn - how it was a facade she built and used as required. Likely this was so. She was astute enough that she was able to gauge what the public desired - even if it chafed at times, constricted her and possibly even destroyed her.

I am an admirer of Oates but this book could have been edited by a third or more. Marilyn's (then Norma Jeane's) history with her mother is inchoate, troubled and long-winded here. Her mother, Gladys Mortensen, was mentally ill, delusional, and likely a liar who intimated who Norma Jeane's father was but never told her definitively. I cannot imagine this dialogue coming out of a mother's mouth, even one reputedly as obsessed with film and Hollywood as Gladys was: "Remember, Norma Jean ... die at the right time.'' I can't even imagine that on a fictional level. No mother could have foreseen the astronomical ascent of her daughter's career. Marilyn's career ins unduplicatable.

A scene from Smash with two 
young ladies vying for title role
Norma Jeane's fantasy runs wild as to her father's identity. As in a classic orphan's tale, the mysterious father of the orphaned girl is always presumed to be a Prince (or a Prince of Industry) and never the simple stagehand who seduces the hapless female. I am unsure if this is based on fact but Marilyn as a character in this novel, receives on-going cryptic notes form someone claiming to be her father. These both delight and unnerve her as they are not necessarily esteem-building missives but rather harsh critiques of her life and career choices. The stranger always promises to reveal himself but never does.

The book does not come to life for me until almost 300 pages in when Marilyn lands her first role as Angela in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle. Everyone in Marilyn's life appears so reprehensible - her mother, her mother's friends, her foster parents. They are odious, prurient and self-interested. Perhaps they all were but it certainly feeds into the stereotype of the hapless waif, used and abused by all. Her beginnings were horrendous but I think she eventually evolved into a canny manipulator of the desires of others, particularly men.

Oates cites some pretty interesting scenarios (of which I personally have no idea if there is any truth): the threesome between Marilyn, Cass Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's son who was also rumored to be her one time lover, and Edward G. Robinson Jr. - two failed, struggling sons of Hollywood royalty with substance abuse issues. Oates also combines Monroe's many reputed abortions into one - why so? Would we like Marilyn less if we think of her having had many abortions? Would it be too monotonous to list them or is she less sympathetic to us if we are exposed to them?

One very effective scene is of the Geminis (a name the threesome - Marilyn, Cass & Eddie - have given to themselves) touring a house that they are considering purchasing when they find that Marilyn is pregnant. Rumour has it that a fading silent film star, who had adopted many children, had mistreated and possibly even murdered a child in the house. Oates creates an eerie, mysterious atmosphere that spooks Marilyn. She imagines that she hears the voices of the abused children. The voice of the child that she will never have? The voices of the children from the orphanage, including her own?

The prolific Joyce Carol Oates
The insecurity of a child placed in an orphanage goes a long way in explaining the attraction to strong males such as Joe DiMaggio (named only as the Ex-Athlete here for obvious reasons). The depiction of DiMaggio, perhaps accurate, perhaps not, summons up the image of the possessive, macho, jealous, violent Italian-American male who, though madly attracted to Marilyn, little understands her or her desire for success. The Italian relations smell of garlic, the mother is a nasty-tongued, old crone ... could you sink to a more condescending stereotype?

Marilyn's third husband, Arthur Miller, gets a similar treatment - referred to only as The Playwright - he is depicted as neurotic, shameful of his immigrant origins, cerebral, high strung, jealous. I can't say if these representations are true, I can say they fall into familiar, cliched tropes of ethnic American identities. Yet this particular relationship seems the most real - the Miller depicted here seems to feel a mixture of repugnance and attraction, fidelity and a desire to flee from an unhappy, possibly unbalanced woman.

The tone that Oates adopts - Monroe's self-denigration and the way others seemed to perceive her grates at times - it's vulgar, disrespectful, lewd, and extremely

Marilyn as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot
However, I do think that Oates captures a few things accurately - the fear and loathing that men have for potent female sexuality that she especially epitomizes in the onscreen characters of Rose Loomis (Niagara); Lorelei Lee (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes); the nameless Girl (Seven Year Itch); Cherie (Bus Stop); Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Some Like it Hot); and, finally, Roslyn Taber (The Misfits).

Oates creates two mythic personae that come to symbolize Marilyn's and female sexual desire: the Dark Prince and the Fair Princess. The Dark Prince is sometimes dangerous, potent, desirable - representing many of the men in her life. But he is not always threatening. At one stage he is also represented by the characters of Marlon Brando and Clark Gable - beautiful, strong, protective but also vulnerable, willing to shield Marilyn if they can from malevolent forces. Brando is depicted as friend, not necessarily a lover, although they might have been.

Less effective to my mind is another character referred to as "The Sharpshooter". He appears to be, and this is never quite clear, a CIA operative who is spying on Marilyn when she becomes involved with left-leaning Hollywood people and then the President. Is he real or a figment of her fevered, tortured mind? Does he provide the final denouement of her life? 

By the end of the novel, all the sad pieces all fall into place: the miscarriage of Marilyn and Miller's child at six months; the rocky production of her last completed film The Misfits; the end of her marriage to Miller, the disappointment of her last film Something's got to give; a last enigmatic letter from Cass Chaplin after his death, at 36, with him claiming that it was he who sent those mysterious letters pretending to be her father ...

There is also a sordid last episode as the President's mistress and doesn't he fare well in this depiction? The clandestine meetings that echo (here in Oates' imagination) the Clinton/Lewinsky business. The infamous "Happy Birthday Mr. President" episode at Madison Square Gardens. There are certain fantasy sequences (one assumes) where Marilyn imagines herself dragged from her little house by the President's men and forced to abort the child she is carrying to keep her quiet and then the inevitable conspiracy inspired sequence where she is actually murdered by one of the President's secret agents with a lethal injection.

How would she have fared in the 1960s had she lived? Not well I imagine ... her voluptuous beauty and platinum blonde hair would have seemed old-fashioned. She would have seemed an amusing relic  - a pretty blow up doll from a bygone era.

Her imagery is still so powerful, her sexuality so potent, it excites all sorts of sordid speculation in writers and fans. Passages here sometimes read like some sort of pornographic re-imagining of her life. I can't say it was always effective for me as a reader although I do believe that Oates is infinitely brave in the places that she goes as a fiction writer, as a woman, imagining the ugly, the sordid, the sad.

I try and remember MM in a particular way. I love the early photos of her with her curly hair and apple cheeks pre-stardom. So joyful, so lovely ... I hope you found peace at last my beautiful girl.

Marilyn during the war years, pre-stardom

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Full Moon on a Cold Night

On this late February night, this is only my second time as a Shift Supervisor in the Dining Room at OOTC in the basement of the local church (note I am not a member of the congregation). Usually I do the kitchen supervisor's job when I am on shift as a supervisor. G, an exceptionally hard working volunteer who recruited me last year, is in the kitchen which makes me feel good about the coming night. The dining room is a bit more challenging as you are managing 35 volunteers (usually high-spirited high school students) and serving almost 100 guests. I was lucky that I had a great group of students from a local Catholic high school volunteering that night.

It begins well as all the job slots are filled by flexible and pleasant volunteers: two scrapers (cleaning the dishes before they are washed), one runner (bringing dishes to the kitchen), two on pre-wash, one dishwasher loader and un-loader, two dish driers, two juice/coffee servers and two servers for each of the twelve tables set (24 servers).

I explain the drill as many of the faces are new emphasizing safety and sanitary rules for handling the food, no cell phone usage during the shift, being polite to the guests, asking for assistance if needed, telling a supervisor if you think there is trouble brewing ... hmmm, did I jinx myself that night?

I go to meet the guests who are in the gym waiting. They seem a bit anxious. Is it the cold? Is it because we are so close to the end of the month and the money has run out? I sense something. I announce the menu: salmon chowder, Salisbury steak with gravy, roast potatoes, mixed vegetable and pineapple upside down cake (made by my colleague G in the kitchen) with vanilla ice cream. As is customary, I ask someone to offer up a prayer before we start. Not my thing but an OOTC tradition here at the church.

Then it starts to heat up, people are pouring into the dining room ... every seat is filled. I have to squeeze in a person or two on to the already-filled tables that seat eight and the guests aren't happy about that. In fact a couple of people are rather rude about it to me. Hey, guess what, news flash: some homeless people are really mean.

Full moon tonight? I wonder aloud in the kitchen ... no, I am told. Are you sure, I wonder? It is the end of the month, cheques are gone, people are waiting for their March cheques and the mood is jittery.

C, the terrific nurse we have on hand who has a station in the back of the dining room, comes to the front and says she is uneasy with the vibe in the room and asks if she can station herself in the front. She says this is very unusual for her. Of course, I say, stay somewhere safe. Soon I see what she is talking about. A scuffle between two obviously drunken men begins in a corner of the room to our left while a young woman, also appearing a bit intoxicated, tries to separate the men. This is explicitly forbidden. Security is not supposed to admit anyone who is visibly intoxicated.

Where is security? G rushes from the kitchen and marches into the dining room in full superhero mode and goes to separate the men. Luckily, the men are so intoxicated that their grappling looks more like a slow-mo version of a WWE event and they are not really hurting themselves more just alarming the rest of us and disrupting the meal. G, using her best teacher voice, commands them to stop. Commands them. They do. And the young girl drags along her boyfriend and the other man out of the room. To me she murmurs as an aside, "I'm just the girl here .." But we are bit rattled because it is unusual to see that sort of thing in the dining room.

The overflow of guests spills into the hallway where tables are set up. They are not a happy group. One disdains a meal because it has gravy on it. Another man barks at me glaring that he has been waiting an hour for his meal (untrue). Well, the food is here now ... I tell him and he backs off slightly. Only slightly. When I bring a latecomer a bowl of soup he says he doesn't want it (rudely) and when I ask him to move to the hallway where latecomers eat he just leaves without telling me leaving me plate in hand. Another man tries to guess my Chinese zodiac sign ... a dragon he guesses? I'm hoping that's a compliment, I am unsure. I am getting a little chippy because people are snapping at me and I am trying to go as quickly as I can.

Don't get my Sicilian up, I mutter as I reenter the kitchen.

This group of kids is quite good; when the meal ends we clear the tables together, wash and bleach the tables and chairs, put them away and haul out the mats for sleeping. Full house ... we can only legally house 45 bodies overnight. Every mat is filled. 

I gather the volunteers and thank them. They have a card for me and want to take a picture. This is unusual and a bit embarrassing for me as I am one of the newest supervisors. There are women and men who have been doing this for many years. I feel odd being in the photo but the kids are lovely. 

I speak to another senior volunteer about what happened tonight. The tension in the air. The lack of supervision. She is uncomfortable with the lack of security tonight too. She hears some ominous grumbling and marches into the sleeping area asking security to take care of it immediately. He does so. Promptly.

I leave just past nine o'clock and it is pleasantly cold as I walk to the subway on my own. No full moon, only a sliver, just feels like full moon tonight.