Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Cultural Roundup

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The Delware Literary Salon featuring Koom Kankesan, Cathy Petch, Bocelli (aka Paul Salvatori) and Andre Prefontaine, November 3, 2013

Launch of Italian-Canadians at the Table: A Narrative Feast in Five Courses (Guernica Editions) edited by Loretta Gatto-White & Delia De Santis at Columbus Centre, November 10, 2013

UofT Book Club with Linda Spalding and Who Named the Knife?, November 22, 2013

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder (please see review here)
Life Class by Pat Barker (please see review here)
T.S. Eliot by Northrop Frye

The Dallas Buyers Club (U.S., 2013)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gone to flowers, every one

And where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, every one!
When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

Where Have All the Flowers Gone ~ Peter, Paul and Mary

The Juliet Stories
by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012) 324 pages

This is a sometimes disturbing look into a familial situation where the political and personal goals of the adults trump the personal desires and happiness of the entire family, particularly the children. This may not have been the author's intent but this is what we take away from it as readers.

It begins with the young Juliet Friesen's family landing in Nicaragua in the early 1980s during the reign of the Sandinistas, whom the Friesens support against the Contras. Three children ranging in age from a toddler (Emmanuel) to a pre-pubescent boy (Keith) to a near teenager (Juliet) accompany their parents, Bram and Gloria Friesen, social activists involved in a group known as the Roots of Justice.

Rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s fomented the Nicaraguan Revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which attempted to oust the dictatorship in 1978-79. The FSLN then governed Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990. The Contra War was waged between the FSLN and the Contras (supported by the American government) from the early 1980s to 1990. The Friesens arrive in the midst of this chaos. 

Would it shock you to learn that the Friesens live in impoverished, difficult circumstances where the children face a sometimes hostile environment, squalor, and a sense of alienation from the general (and much poorer) Nicaraguan populace?

Through Juliet's eyes - bright, inquisitive, sensitive Juliet - she bears witness to all. Snyder doesn't shy away from presenting the Nicaraguans as flawed human beings rather than as a victimized, near saintly group striving towards noble revolutionary goals against the Contras. The maid steals, Juliet's playmates torment or ignore her, her parents' Latin American colleagues are sometimes disdainful, hostile even.

We also see that the imminently human Bram and Gloria have had their trysts, their dalliances, with like-minded activists. Bram, a respected leader in their district, attracts every young thing with a political motivation and a lonely heart; Gloria too becomes smitten with a Dutch Red Cross worker who pays her courteous, almost courtly, attention but who returns dutifully to his wife after the families nearly drown during a boat ride in a sudden storm.

Life is random, suddenly frightening or exhilarating:
Life is nothing like Choose Your Own Adventure [a children's book Juliet is reading]. Except for when it is, in its randomness: a cancer cell splitting and and spreading ruthlessly within the bloodstream; a storm rising on a deadly lake. Except for when it is, in the way the ending changes - in memory, in meaning, rather than substance.
A rally that the family attends serves as an apt metaphor. As Gloria surges forward with the crowd trying to touch the sleeve of Daniel Ortega, then President of Nicaragua, as if he is a Messiah, a god, Juliet is swallowed up by the crowd and almost trampled and Keith is lost amongst the rallyers. It is some time before Gloria realizes what has happened and then she dissolves in hysterics.

The parents lurch from one disastrous situation to another - some might call them brave but I find them to be fools who jeopardize the health and happiness of their children. 

Eventually, due to a medical crisis in the family, the Friesens, temporarily sans father Bram, return to Canada with Gloria dissolving into a nervous breakdown before the plane even lands. But the narrative tension shifts with the move to Canada perhaps in a manner that does not aid the novel. 

Juliet's issues seem more mundane, less exotic in Canada: fitting into a new school, dealing with her brother's serious illness, discovering her sexuality and coping with how to present oneself as a female (makeup, clothes, attracting male attention), watching her parents' marriage dissolve and her mother remarrying, dealing with an increased attraction to her new stepbrother. 

Unsupervised, or nearly unsupervised, Juliet drifts into the usual predictable sort of trouble  a teenage girl drifts into. Juliet is brave, sometimes foolish, anxious for experience of all kinds, and Snyder paints a sensitive and poignant picture of the young adult Juliet: 
She thinks of what she is willing to sacrifice in order to burn, to feel her light burning. It is dangerous close to the fire, and she does not feel afraid.
But I feel the second half of the novel set in Canada does not hold together as well as the first half set in Nicaragua. It feels fragmented, snippets of Juliet's new life pieced together to form not quite a whole. Why include the grandmother's admission that she had a brief tryst with a married man during the war? Why include a longish chapter about Juliet's attraction to her stepbrother? There is a randomness that undermines the cohesiveness of the novel.

In her acknowledgments, Snyder notes with gratitude her own personal history and relation to the novel with her parents taking her to Nicaragua as a child and no doubt, in retrospect, it may have seemed an exciting adventure but as it is presented here, and I realize that it may be largely fictional, the adventures appear an exercise in chaos and poor choices in pursuit of a fantastic political ideal, if any, that few could realize.

I fluctuate between the desire to know what is autobiographical and what is not but then I realize it doesn't matter, Snyder has written a truth so beautifully and powerfully about this young girl that it overrides any reality. 

*Originally published on on November 14, 2013

Carrie Snyder 

Monday, November 18, 2013

What he left behind

I was angry with Lenny*. Very angry. He had left us with two months unpaid rent. Bouncing cheques. Delayed payments sometimes in cash if at all. Frequent protestations that he could still pay the rent after months of evidence that he could not. And a filthy apartment strewn with his left behind junk.

I was less sympathetic than R about Lenny staying in the unit. Yeah, Ms. I-volunteer-with-the-homeless. I was really irritated with and anxious about the overdue rent. It's a little different when it's your pocketbook and time that's affected I found. I didn't have a personal connection with Lenny. I barely knew him. But even I didn't have the heart to try and remove him when it was clear that things were heading south for him. The girlfriend left, leaving him alone to pay the rent. He seemed to have lost his job and whether he lost it, or was laid off, was unclear. He seemed to be having some mental health issues.

You may not think it, but it is difficult to remove a tenant, both physically and psychologically. And we didn't have the heart to proceed. 

R was the one who would talk to him when issues arose - he was sleeping during the day, unkempt and apathetic, with no apparent employment (he said he was working nights now - was he?), the house a mess, and no promise of future rent in sight.

What he left behind wasn't pretty either. An apartment full of garbage ... discarded clothes and shoes in the closet and in garbage bags lying around ... uneaten food in the fridge and the cupboards ... filthy, rusted, corroded appliances that had not been cleaned in years ... a closet full of used cat litter ... cupboards full of food that was rotting away ...

It was difficult to show the apartment in such a state. The little apartment had so many advantages. Nice street in a lovely Victorian-era house. Beautiful if unkempt garden. A newly renovated bathroom. Good neighbours. But not in this state ... nary a serious nibble from the many people who came to view the apartment. Nada.

It needed a extreme cleaning makeover. I didn't think even a cleaning service could tackle this without charging some exorbitant fee. R and I decided to roll up our sleeves and tackle it ourselves. The kitchen was the worst ... okay, starting with the kitchen it was.

We went through the cupboards first ... we emptied them of bags of old brown rice, numerous pouches and boxes of assorted herbal teas, mineral supplements, healthy pastas, likely purchased ages ago by the ex-girlfriend before his troubles seem to start. She had worked in a health food store and apparently brought home all this nutritious food for them - now largely unused it appeared.

About a year and a half ago, R had received a phone call from the girlfriend: she said if Lenny tried to cash a cheque and it had her name on it, that account was now defunct and we shouldn't cash it. Sure enough he did try and give us one. We asked for another. That went through but others sometimes did not. Then he started paying in cash. Sometimes not until mid month. Then not at all. Finally he said he would leave of his own volition and was moving in with a near relation to care for them and receive a government subsidy for doing so. We had no idea if this was true but I admit I was relieved.

Last Christmas he asked us to change the locks on the apartment. Why? He was afraid that the girlfriend would come back and try and get in. To do what? He wouldn't say. He didn't push very hard and we weren't about to change the locks unless he had a good reason. He then suddenly dropped his request and said it was fine, that there was no need to do so.

He left behind a dozen pairs of shoes - some of them hers. Really ... what female leaves without her shoes? Was she forced out? Stormed out? Too anxious to leave and forgot them?

We continued looking through the cupboards. R found some packet samples of anti-depressants, some unused, deep in the cupboards. It looked to me like samples a sympathetic doctor might have given a patient who could not afford them or didn't have an insurance plan. But why unused? Did he give up on them? Did they not allay his symptoms? Did they not work?

Ugh, wizen-hearted landlady ... you feel horrid now don't you? Yes, I do.

Even though the car is on the fritz and I'm paying for an emergency root canal (luckily for me partially covered by insurance) and the house needs some work ... I am trying to forget Lenny's debt. My (our) troubles seem small, minuscule. As I scrubbed and wiped and poured cleanser over every possible surface, my anger ebbed away and I flushed it wholesale down the sink with the dirty water and all the uncharitable thoughts I'd been having. And that felt really good.

*Not his real name

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Delaware Literary Salon

My good friends hosted a literary salon today and asked me to select a few of my writing/poet colleagues ... I was happy to oblige and invited four artists to participate.

Koom Kankesan, author of The Rajapaksa Stories
reads from his new work 
The poet Cathy Petch
Cathy with her musical saw
Sinjay artist Paul Salvatori (aka Bocelli)
Slam Poet Andre Prefontaine
Our gracious hosts Fadi and Antonio
Guest Christine Hagan and emcee Michelle Alfano
Our photographer Rob Fujimoto
Our appreciative audience members