Saturday, June 30, 2012

June Cultural Roundup

The Flat Iron Building in NYC as 
photographed by Berenice Abbott
Cindy Sherman exhibit at Museum of Modern Art, NYC
A Short History of Photography and Weegee: Murder is my Business, International Centre for Photography, NYC
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, AGO
Berenice Abbott: Photographs, AGO

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop by Rodman Flender (U.S., 2011)
Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg (Can., 2012)
Across the Universe by Julie Traymor (U.S./U.K., 2007)
50/50 directed by Jonathan Levine (U.S., 2011)

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn (please see review here)
Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn (please see review here)
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Exile Short Fiction Awards, June 9, 2012

Launch of the Summer Issue of Descant at the Magpie, 831 Dundas St. W., June 27, 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cutting For Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Random House, 2009) 667 pages

It was hard at first to pinpoint why Cutting for Stone left me so cold … the Indian diaspora in Africa, an illicit affair between a nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and a surgeon, Thomas Stone, resulting in the birth of twin brothers Marion (the narrator) and Shiva and a number of ensuing dramas both in Ethiopia and in New York. Maybe that’s it. There is a surfeit of drama. It sometimes reads like a tragic opera or a Bollywood melodrama.

Consider what transpires during the course of the novel … a father abandons his sons; a main female character endures genital mutilation to curb her sexual inclinations; a woman commits suicide; the brothers are divided over one’s devotion to a woman; a main character engages in terrorist activities; one brother requires a liver transplant which the other brother provides then promptly dies; the surgery is done by the surgeon father who had abandoned the boys at birth; and, this is only a small portion of what happens. 

Abraham Verghese, who holds prestigious positions as Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Senior Associate Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, is an accomplished writer with an assured style. He employs his medical knowledge extensively throughout the novel. This makes sense in that many of the characters are doctors – Marion and Shiva, like their father as well as their adopted parents, become physicians. But perhaps this is done too liberally… 

I found myself drowning in the technical details of the medical procedures and surgeries. The novelist’s job is to pull you in with the description not overwhelm you with proof that the writer is an expert in this area. This is tricky for writers … a very fine line to walk.

The book does offer us insight into the life of Ethiopians under Emperor Haile Selassie (Verghese lived in Ethiopia for a time), a perspective we don't often hear about. A fellow book club member raised an interesting issue during our meeting: is all fiction written by a "colonial", per force, about colonization? In this case the perspective is further muddied by the fact that the South Asians, depicted here, serving as surgeons and doctors, are in positions of power over the Africans they treat. The traditional colonial dynamic where Indian peoples are subjugated is reversed.

Marion, as he is the narrator and main character, is fully fleshed out, introspective and sensitive, but his twin Shiva is an enigma, a blank for the reader. The female characters suffer similar fates: Sister Mary Joseph Praise is presented as saintly and sweet but utterly hollow. We learn only of her devotion to God and then Stone – but what motivated this young girl to give up her celibacy to Stone? One reader suggested that we never learn if their union was consensual, an interesting conundrum that I had not considered. Hema, the boys' foster mother who is also a physician surgeon and saves the boys from death, suffers a similarly saintly representation.

On the other extreme we have Marion’s love interest, Gennette, who is an unpredictable, difficult “bad girl” and chooses a very tortuous path in life. We never fully understand her motivations.

It is inexplicable that a trained doctor like Marion would have unprotected sex with Gennette who has lead a dangerous and unsavory life. The only reason, in terms of the mechanics of this novel, is to create the crisis that serves as a denouement: the hero becomes dangerously ill with hepatitis; his brother Shiva offers a portion of his liver to save him; the father, Thomas Stone, who abandoned them performs the operation. One twin is saved, the other perishes.

In the end I had to agree with the Kirkus reviewer who thought the book operatic in the extreme and the medical info distracting from an appreciation of the plot.

You may read the first chapter here

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Trouble with Girls ... and Boys

Les girls - Jessa, Marnie, Hannah & Shoshanna
Girls, HBO Series, Sundays at 10:30pm (Writer/Director/Actor Lena Dunham)

This new series focuses on four 20-something women in New York city. Meet les girls: 

Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) is an aspiring writer working on her, ahem, memoir whose parents have suddenly withdrawn their financial support to force her to become more independent. Hannah has an on again, off again, sexual relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), who is mildly bullying in bed and not much better emotionally outside of it. Hannah's roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams) works in an art gallery and has a dissatisfying relationship with a nice, but ineffectual, boyfriend named Charlie. Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a newly arrived and sexually sophisticated Brit, moves in with her younger (and virginal) cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet).

Hilarity ensues. Not really, more like ... confusion, self-doubt and self-examination which, the longer I contemplate these four individuals, seems more and more believable to me.

Dunham, who writes, acts in and sometimes directs the series, is interesting: not conventionally pretty (even though Marnie and Jessa are very much so), even plain, and utterly fearless. The publicity shot above is deceptive. Dark eyeliner and prominent tats aside, she is a rather plain girl, at best, cute in a quirky way. I hesitate to even raise the issue of her looks because I think that all women are viewed through the prism of their attractiveness or unattractiveness (even by other women, especially by other women) but I think this is a deliberate move on Dunham's part.

She doesn't seem to care if she comes off sloppy looking or dowdy or unattractive. It's like her character says in one of the episodes: "You can't say anything mean about me that I haven't already thought about myself ..." (aah, the preemptive I think I'm plain so I beat you to it before you say it ploy). Her clothes are often the most graceless in the cast, deliberately so, I believe. Marnie and Jessa always look pretty and well groomed, Hannah not so much. We should remember that she also directs many of the episodes and can exert that kind of control over her own image. She has thoughtful things to say about the creation of the concept of the show that you may read here.

Hannah, smart and articulate, is sometimes full of the misplaced confidence of a bright young thing in the throes of an exciting adventure as in the scene where she kids a prospective employer that he was the date rapist who plagued their mutual alma mater years ago. Guess what ... she doesn't get the job.

Marnie is more driven, a type A beauty who is constantly chastising her friends and trying to make them tow the line. But like many controlling personalities she is rarely satisfied, rarely happy. 

Jessa is so hip, so nonchalant, that she skips a planned medical appointment to get an abortion to make out with a stranger. Shoshanna is a little flakier, obsessed with Sex in the City, probably 'cause she ain't getting any of same in the city.

The show is ostensibly about these young females working in the big city (or, as it happens, not working), hooking up, forging relationships with each other but a pattern emerges here where the series appears to actually be about what "girls" think about "boys". They, the girls, often appear disappointed, dispirited, about the male species. They seem confused about what they want from them, sexually and emotionally, and the boys seem confused about how to deliver these things to the girls.

Why the girls can't seem to get it up ... 

Boys are not sufficiently macho ... 
Marnie (Allison Williams) has a sweet natured boyfriend named Charlie (Christopher Abbott) who, unfortunately, bores her to tears. She prefers it doggie style (which she hates*) to actually looking at him during sex. Hannah opines that Marnie has, perhaps, wearied of "eating his vagina". Ouch. Charlie reads this in Hannah's diary, stolen by his best friend, and writes a song about it that he sings in front of all the girls in a club. He breaks up with Marnie then he relents and accepts her back (being the nice guy that he is). She breaks up with him again ... immediately ... post coitus, like really post coitus. The nicer Charlie is, the less desirable he is to Marnie.

Boys are more attractive when they are the aggressors ... 
When Marnie meets a more sexually and verbally aggressive man at the art gallery where she works, who is attracted to her and who explicitly tells her what he will do to her, she is at first stunned then intensely aroused. Bravely, on Dunham's part, we see this fairly explicitly on screen. This is the conundrum of modern feminism: we say we want men to be gentle, respectful and sensitive but for some women it's a turn off sexually. It goes against our progressive sensibilities but there it is ...

Hannah's love interest Adam is initially selfish, sometimes self-absorbed and a bit of a bully in bed (personally I find him to be an unattractive creep and in most of the episodes I don't think there is one scene where he wears a shirt). Yet Hannah is still attached to him. They don't date; they have sex. That's it. That is the extent of their "relationship" for most of the season. She willing succumbs to his desires in bed, passively, almost disinterestedly, even when she is uneasy or nervous. This is what seems to hold her, not the sex, the domination of her will. 

Boys are deceitful ...
Adam ignores Hannah's texts, ignores her and her needs. He "accidentally" sexts her then apologizes and blithely explains that it was meant for someone else.

One of Hannah's exes, Elijah, turns out to be gay and likely knew it while they were having a sexual relationship for two years before he came out. He gives her an STD, then denies it. The whole conversation is a disaster with Hannah getting the distinct impression from him that she "made him turn gay".

Jessa flirts with the married father of the two kids that she babysits who is eager to begin a relationship with her under the nose of his wife. She turns him down stating she liked him better when he was "the nice guy". Isn't that always the way, he mutters afterwards.

Boys can be jerks, surprisingly, girls can be jerkier ...
Jessa (Jemima Kirke) re-seduces an old flame, just for the fun of it, even though he already has another girlfriend whom he says he's committed to. Marnie initiates make up sex with Charlie after he leaves her then promptly breaks up with him again.

In the final episode, after Adam has told her that he loves her and wants to live with her, Hannah agrees to take on Elijah (her old boyfriend) as a roommate. Adam is justifiably incensed, accusing her of pursuing him ("like I was a Beatle or something") and then immediately backing off when he responds emotionally. He's right.he has put himself out there and she has shot him down. 

Girls has a bit of a Sex in the City for 20 somethings vibe but there is also a tiny sense of a Whit Stillman film here. I was not particularly surprised to see Chris Eigeman, who played Nick Smith in Metropolitan (1990) and a number of other roles in Stillman's films, as Hannah's boss, in the first episode. It does feel a bit like a story about privileged, intellectually precocious kids set adrift in New York. However, these gals don't have trust funds and paying the rent is a real, ongoing worry. But they are similarly verbose and intellectual, preoccupied with the other sex and clarifying the rules of engagement with same. 

There has been criticism that these are a bunch of whiny, first-world-problem girls, that there is no ethnic diversity, and, that a retrograde image of femininity is being projected. Maybe, maybe so ... but I think it's a fairly accurate portrait of a certain kind of brainy, middle class female living in a large urban center in the 21st c. Dunham says that she is going to address the lack of racial diversity next season. I, for one, look forward to it and seeing more of her.

*This reminds me of joke from a recent film where two women were talking about doing it "doggie style". One woman says that some women like it. The other responds acidly, "Come on, not even the dogs like it ..."
Adam (Driver), shirtless as usual, and Hannah (Dunham)