Tuesday, December 30, 2008

War and Peace in Pieces 2

War and Peace, Volume 2 by Leo Tolstoy (Published 1869 - republished by Penguin Books Ltd., 1957) translated by Rosemary Edmonds, 732 pages

On to volume 2 as the winter advances! I promised myself that I would finish the book by year's end and by god I did. Leo Tolstoy is pictured to the right here with his granddaughter at Yasnaya Polyana, his home, near Tula, Russia.

Is it true that women cannot write about the big issues I wondered as I finished the book and thought about what I had enjoyed? Germaine Greer said in a recent article in The Independent that women are "more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for."

I know that what interests me the most, as a writer, isn't the historical forces which caused the Napoleonic wars and which Tolstoy dwells on at length but how the Natashas, the Countess Rostovs and the Princess Marias deal with with the repercussions of the wars: the loss of loved ones, the grief, the destruction of family and fortune, the fortitude with which they forge through these difficulties.

Why is this less valid than examining the historical causes of this great rupture in Russian society? Isn't the loss of one's son or one's father, the grave illness of one's only daughter of more weight emotionally than all the wars combined? Are we as women obsessed with the "small issues" - who is to say they are small?

Napoleon, foolishly and famously, moves into Russia disregarding overtures of friendship and explicit agreements that he must not do so by Alexander I, the Russian czar. Tolstoy reiterates the historic causes of the rise and fall of Napoleon and then discounts them all: "Every action of [Russian emperor Alexander I and Napoleon] that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in the historical sense not free at all but bound up with the whole course of history and pre-ordained from all eternity."

Tolstoy disputes that the wars were caused by Napoleon, the conqueror of many. He likens this theory with the Russian peasants' belief that a "cold wind blows in late spring because the oaks are budding". Instead, Tolstoy sees a "coincidence of occurrences such as happens with all phenomenon of life".

I am more concerned with what is happening on the home front. Natasha, who narrowly avoided being kidnapped and tricked into a false marriage by Anatole Kuragin (Pierre's brother-in-law), becomes very ill. Her shame, disappointment and exposure to the speculation of high society creates a dangerous state of health for her. She is consoled by Pierre, Andrei's best friend, and although Pierre is married to the treacherous and beautiful Helene, he is in love with Natasha.

Having read Anna Karenina first (although it was written after War and Peace), Natasha's illness and disappointed hopes can't help but remind me of Kitty's situation with Vronsky in Anna Karenina. She, too, is manipulated and discarded by an older, more experienced would-be lover. And thinking even further on it ... aren't these two scenarios very reminiscent of Marianna's situation at the hands of John Willoughby in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility? Tricked and made vulnerable and then unceremoniously discarded when found out by those closest to the girl?

But on to the war ... Smolensk, a town near Bald Hills and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky's estate, is attacked (an historical fact). The French soon invade. Prince Andrei, still serving with the army, asks that his family evacuate to their home in Moscow but his father, the irascible Prince Nikolai, refuses. Then the elder Prince has a stroke and his daughter, Princess Maria, must commandeer the sizable household to move. More preoccupied with the spiritual world than the material, she attempts to rise to the occasion.

Maria watches her father die after a second stroke and becomes immobilized. Tolstoy depicts the demise of the tyrannical prince, realistically and beautifully. In the end, the women of the household "washed what had been the prince" after his death.

The serfs, starving and surrounded by the French, doubt Princess Maria's motives in giving them her grain reserves and urging them to join her at the Moscow estate. Cue the arrival of Nikolai Rostov, Natasha's brother, who was once to be her brother Andrei's brother-in-law. He has wandered on to the estate in the middle of this near rebellion. Appealed to for assistance, Rostov terrorizes the peasants in a rage when he learns that they have refused to allow the Princess and her entourage to leave the estate.

Despite the brutality of Nikolai's response (and it is unconscionable how he treats the serfs, brutally, as if they were dogs or chattel) it becomes a moment of intense romance for Nikolai and Maria. Maria sees Nikolai as her hero, her white knight; he is moved by her plight, forgetting her plainness, her devout nature, and he, too, falls in love. Her sizable fortune ain't bad either. Nikolai had been pressured by his mother to marry an heiress and forsake the orphan Sonja (to whom he has pledged his love) for the sake of the family fortunes which he had previously refused to do.

As the enemy advances on Moscow, the Russian people become more frivolous, Tolstoy notes. Do the Paris Hiltons (here perhaps represented by Pierre's wife Helene Kuragin) multiply during times of crisis? An intriguing thought.

Tolstoy caricatures the "great" Napoleon as vain, brilliant, arrogant, tyrannical, unmindful of the human losses he incurs during his quest for power. Men literally drown before him to prove their fidelity to the cause, unnoticed by the great conqueror. His imminent defeat at the hands of the Russians is likened to a gambler on a winning streak who suddenly faces disastrous losses. He cannot quite absorb the shock of it.

The Battle of Borodino on September 7th, 1812 is given significant description. Here several of our principal characters meet again ... We learn of Prince Andrei's fate, dispirited, embittered by Natasha's unfaithfulness, he finally meets with his nemesis Anatole Kuragin (who tried to lure Natasha away from him by tricking her into marriage) on the battlefield. Andrei at times seems to exist merely to await his own death. But Anatole get his dues too.

Pierre Bezuhov wanders into the path of the battle, merely as a spectator not as a warrior (oh noblesse oblige), nearly ending his own life because of his curiosity regarding the war. He returns to Moscow as the government debates the abandonment of Moscow to the French and Pierre's wife Helene plots to abandon him and marry another. His utter indifference hastens her conspiracy to divorce, unheard of in Russian society at that time.

The Rostovs scurry to leave Moscow. Count Rostov is unequal to the task leaving the preparations almost to the last moment that the French arrive in Moscow. The wounded are begging for assistance from the Muscovites, literally gathering before their houses begging for shelter. Dozens appear at the Rostovs, among them Prince Andrei, unbeknownst to the family. As the thirty(!) carts are loaded when they prepare to flee with their personal possessions, Natasha realizes with shame that they should be offering the carts to the wounded and convinces the family to do so.

Tolstoy does not spare the Russians even as the French pillage Moscow. The aristocratic Rostovs (with the exception of Sonja, a poor relation who lives with them) are selfish and slow to react to the tragedy of the situation, unable to comprehend that life as they know it has ended. Pierre is befuddled and afraid, latching on to a mildly insane plot to kill Napoleon. Helene thinks only of divorcing Pierre regardless of the oncoming deluge, debating between two suitors.

But overnight, Natasha is transformed from a frivolous, impetuous girl to a determined, sensible, compassionate woman scurrying to remove their possessions and make room for the wounded men. She learns that her former fiance Andrei is among the men and, at last, Natasha and Andrei, find a kind of peace together. She nurses him perhaps to atone for her perceived infidelity; Andrei "forgives" the young girl as he has forgiven Anatole. Marie soon joins them and the once to be sister-in-laws are reconciled over Andrei's slow demise.

While Moscow is sacked and burning in 1812, Pierre wanders the streets disguised as a peasant bearing a pistol and a dagger with a wild plan to kill Napoleon and he tries to goad himself into action - fearful, ashamed of his own cowardice, his easy mingling with the French conquerors who have taken a liking to him because he saved one from attack and speaks French. He is saved from this violent act by the distraught pleas of a mother he finds on the streets of Moscow, begging that he return to her home which caught fire and search for her three year old daughter.

He finds the child and attempts to return her but then encounters a young Armenian girl being attacked by two Frenchmen in the street. In a rage, he himself attacks the men and is arrested by the French. Thus ends Part Three. Released emotionally by these acts of bravery, and imprisoned by the French and very nearly executed, he no longer feels compelled to act against Napoleon.

Much of the plot surrounding the Napoleonic Wars involves the tactical maneuvers of General Kutuzov on the Russian side and Napoleon on the French. Napoleon's "genius" is mocked and his role in history is diminished; Kutuzov is exalted as a an unsung hero who saved Russia. To what does history owe this discrepancy in perception? "For the 'great' man nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which the great man can be blamed." Hence, Napoleon passes into legend; Kutuzov is a footnote in Russian history sometimes criticized for his small vices and the infirmities of his old age. As a former soldier in the Crimean War himself, Tolstoy capitalizes on his speculation regarding the cynical motives behind each tactical move by the Russians and the French.

To this I cannot speak. I must admit the last 200 pages are challenging to get through with regards the war ... I can only comment on the humanity with which Tolstoy approaches both sides, the conquerors and the vanquished, the oppressed and the oppressors. If the French are cruel and vindictive, the Russian are foolhardy and obstinate, burning Moscow almost to the ground as if to punish the French for invading.

Pierre (and I feel Tolstoy) marvel at the frenzy which seizes both the French and the Russians as if some external force has taken possession of them which they can't relinquish. We see this is in the scene where the French "try" captured Russians in quick succession and then execute them with relish. Or we see it in the scene where Pierre sees a group of Russian peasants torturing a French solider. Or in Pierre's shirking of his fellow prisoner Karatayev whom he sees, he senses, is dying. It does not elicit compassion but horror, repulsion despite his great love for the man. In this new world, something terrible has become unleashed: violent passions, the desire to destroy, to vindicate, to humiliate ... When Pierre tries to save an Armenian girl being harassed by French soldiers he knows that his plot to kill Napoleon will be foiled if caught by the French but he cannot contain his rage.

When Pierre's wife Helene dies during the course of his his wanderings so does Pierre's old way of life (was it a botched abortion? - the language is cryptic, veiled) but there appears an almost knowing leer in the response of society to her sudden death. Pierre has been changed forever by what he has seen. He cannot return to the life he led with Helene. He literally feels liberated by her death and by what he has experienced.

Pierre is found, starving, weakened, and freed by a Russian regiment ... the young, over zealous Petya Rostov meets an early demise. As always, it is the women who must pick up the pieces. Andrei perishes and his sister Maria nurses Natasha back to health; Petya dies and Natasha must sustain her mother, the countess, who is lost in delirium and great suffering at the death of her youngest son.

Wounded, chastened by the ravages of the war, Pierre and Natasha meet once again ... he has matured and found a sort of emotional and spiritual equilibrium in his life. Natasha has aged and altered both physically and emotionally with her grief and is almost unrecognizable to Pierre at first as she has suffered such a great deal as well.

In the Epilogue, we have a coming together of these different life forces: Natasha Rostov who is loving, emotional, spontaneous, impetuous and Pierre Bezuhov, the sometimes cynical but a big-hearted, spiritual searcher who seeks to better the world. Marie Bolkonsky, devout, loving, Christian in the best sense of the word, marries Nikolai Rostov who represents the old order, good and bad. He is socially conservative, loyal, devoted to family, manly, authoritarian, paternalistic.

I know we are meant to favour Natasha and Pierre but my heart has been won over by the devout Marie. Her spirituality and devotion to those she loves touches me. That she (whom everyone describes as plain and implies that no one could ever love), triumphs in the end and gets all that she desires is tremendously satisfying: the man she loves, children, the care of her beloved nephew, all the joys and trials of family life.

At the end of the book, we are face to face with two opposing historical forces represented by Pierre and Nikolai, now brothers-in-laws and representing opposite ends of the political spectrum amongst the aristocracy. Pierre represents change, possibly even revolt against the old institutions and the government which he feels are destroying Russia. Nikolai represents the old order, conservatism ... some forty odd years after the writing of this book these forces will collide catastrophically in the Russian Revolution in 1905 and then 1917. The impulses are embodied in the young Nikolai, son of Prince Andrei, who under the influence of Pierre dreams of glory, perhaps even revolt, a place in history.

I don't know if it is fortunate or unfortunate that Tolstoy (1828 -1910) did not live to see what would become of his beloved Russia and see the final fruits of the revolution that many longed for.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Drama at Stoney Creek

I blame la sorellina ... she started the whole thing. It's all her fault.

We spent Christmas eve at my brother's home in Stoney Creek, a pretty little suburb east of Hamilton where he lives. The drive was slow as the roads were tricky and clogged with Christmas visitors but we made it in one piece. J fell asleep in the car and I was speaking about lu Papa, how hard he worked, how young he was ... R said gently, "You are very emotional lately". Yes, I had to concur. I was, I am.

The Italian tradition is to make seafood on Christmas eve. When we arrived, la sorellina F was busy making a delicious seafood risotto at the oven; my brother C and s-i-l B were scurrying around making other preparations. They laid out a lovely feast for all of us: nonna, the three sibs and their partners, and three granddaughters. The girls were being alternatively charming, naughty or occupied with the things that I, a 9 year old, and J and M, a couple of 12 year olds occupy themselves with: their cell phones, texting, their Nintendo DSs, the internet, music, the puppy Frankie, etc ... The house is beautifully decorated to the hilt.

For dinner we had grilled salmon, sole, seafood risotto, grilled vegetables, pizza, rapini, everyone contributed a dish. Homemade cookies, lemon streusel coffee cake, lemon tart, homemade brownies, chocolates for dessert. The table was gorgeously set and festive (thank you s-i-l!) and the perfect size for the ten of us.

La sorellina gave me a Christmas card with an old B&W photo in it: F, as a toddler of perhaps three, with lu Papa at the beach, kissing. It is a great photo which gives us tremendous pleasure to see, to remember. I don't care what you say sistah, you were a cute baby. Okay here go the waterworks ... I had been having a moody, nostalgic evening thus far and that tipped me over the edge. As you likely know, lu Papa has been much on my mind lately. Keep it together I thought. There are children present.

I think I am undergoing a sort of post-baby blues feeling since the publication of the book ... joy, sadness, nostalgia, morbid sensitivity, overwhelming love for one's family, oh, pretty much everything under the sun. It's intense and disconcerting. And I like intensity, I revel in intensity, and I have always had a close relationship with intensity, but inconsolable weeping at the drop of a hat? Okay here I draw the line. Intensity and I have to set up some boundaries here or we can't have a relationship.

So I'm trying to stay level and joyful and positive ... the three girls are anxious to open gifts and were badgering us all night long to open them. After dinner we agree to do so. We start, halfway through, I think when J is opening her aunt's gifts, J turns to me and says something to the effect that, "Oh no, I just realized that I will never be an aunt ..." in a mournful way and comes up to me, sorrowfully, tears in her eyes. We have had our infertility woes, our adoption woes, J's only child issues. J suffers too a great deal. I am trying to console her then I get started ... but all the family sees is me with tears streaming down my face.

"What's going on? What's going on?" people start to ask. The family is getting concerned. "Nothing, nothing." I try and reassure J. We sit down and compose ourselves and carry on. Mildly perturbed and puzzled, my sister tells me later that the family thinks I don't like my gifts. Oh my, am I considered to be that much of a shallow idiot that I would do that to my family - burst into tears in front of them over a thoughtless gift? But I don't find this out until after Christmas much to my embarrassment.

The night proceeds ... there is Christmas music, drinks, merrymaking, my s-i-l's relations drop in one by one. A vicious game of Mexican Train with dominos ensues where all four of us (me, brother, sister, mother) are yelling at each other. Well not so much the sister who seems cowed by how aggressively my mother and brother are playing: cajoling, bullying, advocating cheating, berating a weak play ... nice famiglia nice, competitive much? Husband R and the girls are enjoying themselves immensely watching us. We will all take turns playing.

A nice evening. Then near relation M shows up with his new baby - a beautiful pink doll with golden red hair and a sweet disposition, asleep. It is absolute bliss to hold her as she sleeps. You guessed it.

I think I need to have another talk with my old friend intensity.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


With the publication of Made Up of Arias, I am thinking of my father a great deal. He was exactly my age when he died. What a life of toil for him only to end in an early death ... two jobs, three kids, helping out two brothers and their families when they emigrated to Canada from Italy and England respectively, helping to financially support his mother who was widowed at 34 when my father was nine ...

Don't get me wrong, he wasn't a saint by any means. The man was a classic 50s stereotype with all the good and bad that implies: strong, self-assured, self-involved. I never heard him complain about his responsibilities or chores or work - it was just something that he had to do so he did it because he was a man, a husband and a father. He was definitely in charge. And sometimes not in a particularly good way. Muy muy macho as they say ... it was a man's world and he liked it that way. My mother couldn't wear the pants in that house even if she bought and paid for the damn things herself!

But she gave him a good run for his money - she was very tough with him and challenged him quite a bit. Fireworks would ensue. He was the type of husband that if my mother cut her hair without his "permission" there would be a ferocious fight (there was - that night when they went out she wore a wig to disguise her short hair). Despite their complex, prickly personalities, one thing I knew from an early age was that these two people felt very passionately about each other which sometimes exploded in arguments, bad behavior, moodiness, melancholy.

Oh the melancholy ... what is this thing that we Sicilians carry around? This sadness, mournfulness? I think we like the sadness, the longing for something else. I do love that about the culture, and the seriousness, the deep sense of loyalty to memories, the nostalgia, the sense of respect for what has passed. And I find that attractive in other people, that bit of sadness, thoughtfulness, melancholy.

I still have feelings for the people I loved and lost more than 30 years go. Not just my father ... lovers, friends, teachers, even enemies ... No one holds a grudge like a Sicilian. But this doesn't upset me. Rather it reassures me greatly. I very much want to keep that part of me alive. When that part of me dies (which I hope never happens) I will know that I am truly old and used up. When I stop falling in love with a beautiful face or an image I've seen, or thinking with longing of those who have gone, or wanting to have new experiences, or being moved by beauty and art and youth ... then I will know, sadly, that my number is up and it is all over.

This book, and my being the same age as Papa when he died, has made me feel a number of things ... anxious, fearful, a little fixated on time wondering exactly how much time is left, full of hope in an odd way for the future and for what needs to be done.

It has compelled me to start thinking about some of the things I want to do ... finish this new novel that has been languishing for the last two years, rekindle old relationships, start new ones, seize new opportunities, use my modest powers for good rather than evil. Live. Because, like my father, like all of us, I have no idea what lies before me and when my number will be up.

One thing that I have always wanted to do is start a small, beautiful literary magazine with a specific focus (to be disclosed a a later late as they say).

Excuse me folks, I have work to do.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Last night, she said ...

Made Up of Arias Book Launch
Tuesday December 9, 2008
Globe Bistro
ALC with the poet Giovanna Riccio
who also served as the emcee.
She did a wonderful job stepping in at the last minute too.

Maria Scala, poet, editor and super mom of the
beautiful bambina L. reading during the first set.

Friends Tracy and the poet Sandra Di Zio.
Sandra was the first reader at the launch.

Friends Paul and Val, looking wedding picture perfect here!

My dashing b-i-l Terry with Marjorie, my s-i-l's mom.
She and husband Colin brought beautiful flowers.

Friends Ben, Marie and Anna with the looking very pretty Penny Winspur, Editor, Blaurock Press, and Stan Johannesen, Senior Editor, Blaruock Press, looking formidable (as usual).

The "Party Girls" from the 'hood:
Lynda, Gillian, Shannon & Jessica.

Giovanna Riccio introducing ALC

R and J, my two beloveds.
R designed all the promotional materials (using Amber Albrecht's beautiful illustration)
for the launch despite being ill. J helped choose the music.

J and one of her best friends.

Friends, family, friends (almost said work friends).

Mia famiglia: sistah-in-law Tami,
Marjorie & Colin (Julie's parents),
brother-in-law Todd and sister-in-law Julie.

Sorellina Franca with J and friend. The character of the youngest child Clara
Pentangeli in the book is based, in part, on Franca.

My home girls Daphne and Susan,
Susan was the super organizer of this event. She did an amazing job.

From left to right, friends Jan, Barbara, Sean,
Bel, Eva and Anthony.

The Barnes family: Paula, Clark, Samantha & Yvette (missing is my bud Nigel).
Yvette and Nigel are friends from high school in Hamilton and officially my oldest friends. Yvette asked me to stop saying that.

ALC, humbled and extremely pleased at the turn out. Eighty five people attended.

Friends Alex and her son Pablo confer ...

The launch for Made Up of Arias was fantastic … so good! Beyond my expectations. There were perhaps 85 people there, many I wasn't expecting. The room was packed. My friend Susan, superstar event planner, helped me with selecting the venue, the wine and canapé selection, the creation of a "special" martini, etc ...

We had music - R made up a playlist of forty songs for me on my ipod which J helped me select. We had these lovely canapés provided by the Globe Bistro and a cash bar in a very beautiful venue above the Globe. R said why not opera? But I wanted to dance ... alot.

R, the dutiful husband and gifted graphic designer, created tent cards for the tables ... some had the price of the book, others the contents of the special "Aria" martini created for the event. He made up CDs of the song we played as gifts for the readers, emcee, the event organizer and others. The crowd milled around from about 7.15pm to 8.00pm and then my friend the talented poet Giovanna Riccio, who served as emcee and with whom I have recently reconnected since having met her in the 90s at various literary events, got the proceedings going. I signed books frantically trying to speak with everyone before the readings started. My sister and I sold about 65 books between us.

At 8pm, the poets Sandra Di Zio and Maria Scala, my friends, read very well and were well received. I gave them CDs of the music played that night. Beautiful, talented, blessed in many ways, these gals have it all.

A ten minute intermission - I run and hide in the bathroom to calm my nerves. I was to read after the poets. People were very receptive. I was a wreck of course inside but I was told I seemed calm. As I read, I could see the lovely, smiling face of my friend E over the edge of my book and that calmed me quite a bit. I could feel all the positive energy in the room, all the love and good wishes flowing towards me. It was so empowering and moving. People were listening, really listening to the reading .... it was awesome and humbling, almost spiritual in a way.

I think my friends were stunned at the quality of the book. They thought it was beautiful. The comments were so kind, so complimentary. I was over the moon.

People brought flowers (Colin & Marjorie, Anita), chocolates (Maria & her bambina L), prosecco (Chris & Alex), a Xmas gift (Antonia). I was completely overwhelmed, shocked, happy ...

After the readings the group cleared out fairly quickly as it was a Tuesday night and many had babysitters to attend to or a ways to go home. As we were leaving my friend J came bounding up the stairs, we almost missed her but invited her across the street for a drink at Allens. Six adults and two tweenies thrilled to be up at 10.30 for a quick drink ...

My only regret is that Christian Snyder, our Blaurock Press publisher, was unable to attend due to an emergency at home and that another friend Barbara traveled across the city (she had three competing commitments that night!) only to find that we had gone. Ugh! I felt so badly for her as it was a very busy night for her and she was nowhere near her home at the end of the night. I must make amends.

That night, I was so wound up I could not sleep. My heart and head were into overdrive ... I got e-mails from a half dozen friends requesting more copies the next day.

Viva la vida!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some blog saved. some blog saved. some blog saved my life tonight

The car alarm belonging to the "genius" down the street (I will refrain from expletives here), who will remain unnamed and who likely keeps solid blocks of gold in his car, went off again at 3ish this morning. This is a frequent occurrence on our street laden with children and toddlers. This coupled with my mind being in overdrive from the book launch the other night (more deets to follow) has driven me out of bed and on to the computer. I wish I could be like my spouse, blissfully asleep and oblivious to all. He murmurs sweetly and then falls asleep again after these incidents. Not I ...

I go to the third floor of our Victorian where the computer is and Lolli, the older of the two cats, pads upstairs quietly with me. Oh don't get me wrong, she doesn't do it because she likes me (she is completely enamored of the husband R, who isn't?) but she is a nosy little thing and must sniff about. She sits and stares at me with her beautiful green eyes as I type in the darkness. "Why can't you be R?" her look seems to say.

Reactions are quickly coming from friends who have read Made Up of Arias, which is quite short, and the comments, inevitably stick in my mind, mostly kind, sometimes cryptic ... one particularly literate friend K, an accomplished poet and publisher, called it a "commemoration and an expiation". Yes, the commemoration part is obvious, a sort of homage to a style of life that is no longer my own, perhaps never was my own, but my mother's, my extended family's in Hamilton. With my mother's generation (she is now 73 with two older siblings gone) that life has become more and more tenuous.

The other day, in response to my innocent query: "So, without the kids tonight?", one exasperated first cousin (a mother) explained why none of her children had shown up at a family function that day. She started to rhyme off the reasons as to why they were busy, uninterested, occupied, etc ... broke off in mid stream and suddenly burst out angrily and said, "Okay! So now I have no children!"

I had to suppress my surprise and laughter because as distressful as it was to her, this was exactly the sentiment I was trying to capture in the book on the part of Seraphina, the passionate and volatile mother of three, who has these from zero to ten bursts of passion ... and good Lord, I know I have them with my own child. My vehement, and sometimes passionate volatility about J's behavior and well being, usually having to do with issues of her safety, are legendary in this house. This is often puzzling to the usually level headed spouse who looks at me in an alarmed fashion most days.

But an expiation? An atonement of sorts? Hmm, an atonement for abandoning that life? For, in effect, abandoning my mother to that life when I was eighteen and moved away to Toronto to the shock and horror of those in our tightly knit Sicilian community? This was considered a really unconscionable thing to do especially as my mother had been widowed two years before and depended on me to assist her in the family business. I did not abandon her but I'm sure she felt I did, as did many others.

I doubt this was what my friend meant but, okay, let's haul out that emotional baggage ALC, that huge piece of old Samsonite luggage that is my Italian girl guilt. I did construe it to be that way when K mentioned it.

I have come to repeat to whomever will listen that I could not have written this book at any other time in my life except for back in the day...

Firstly, I had the time to write, working only part-time or sporadically at that point, fully immersed in trying to find my voice, starting with family fictions and weaving an intricate web from there. Secondly, I was trying to piece together in my own head how my mother's mind worked at that time, and found, for myself, the perfect metaphor in Seraphina's obsession with opera, with the histrionic gesture, with family honour, and familial love. Thirdly, I was pregnant in the earlier and latter parts of the writing process not once but twice, once miscarrying and then giving birth to J the next year which infused the process somewhat with hope, with intense love, with despair at times.

I was wondering: what did it mean to love your child so intensely that you expose them to these terrible rages of passion and fury over seeming trifles as does Seraphina? As I do and my cousins seem to now? What is at the root of that passion? Would I be that sort of mother one day I wondered then?

An expiation indeed.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Made Up of Arias Toronto Launch

"Michelle Alfano's Made Up of Arias beautifully evokes an immigrant childhood lived against the backdrop of opera, which stands in for all that her characters have lost or will never attain even while it speaks to the most common and everyday of their tragedies and joys. Alfano writes with the humour and compassion of someone who not only understands her characters, but forgives them." Nino Ricci, Governor General Award winning author of
The Origin of the Species
and Lives of the Saints

Tonight is the Toronto launch! Everything is in place ...

Place: Globe Bistro
124 Danforth Ave. at Broadview Ave., Toronto
In the upper lounge

Time: 7.30pm

With readings by: Michelle Alfano, and the poets Sandra Di Zio and Maria Scala

Books will be for sale: Made Up Of Arias by Michelle Alfano $20
Between O and V
by Maria Scala $5

There will be music, readings, canapes, consumption of alcoholic beverages and general merrymaking. Please join me!

Please order Made Up of Arias here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Made Up of Arias Waterloo Launch

Publisher/wunderkind Christian Snyder

ALC reading from Made Up of Arias

La Mamma with ALC. Rumor has it she tried to
autograph a few books when my back was turned
under her pen name Seraphina Pentangeli.

Cousin Cal and ALC. Cal is my eldest cousin
from my mom's side and drove from Mississauga
to be at the launch. A very busy guy (father of five!)
and a real rock in the Morreale family (Mamma's side).
He exclaimed exuberantly after the reading,
"Hey, I didn't know you could write!"
Thanks kiddo, I don't think they heard you in the cheap seats.

The gorgeous uberhusband R at the launch.
Unfortunately R was very ill with bronchitis
but braved the long drive to lend moral support.

Lovely Penny Winspur, Blaurock Press Editor and my personal "best gal ever",
with Stan Johannesen, Blaurock Press Senior Editor,
at another recent event. Alas, I did not get a photo of her at my launch, much to my regret.

Stan and ALC,
who, despite appearances, is truly awake.

Friends Mel and Helen with ALC. A great couple!
They bought me a pen set to congratulate me at the launch. I put the pen to good use.

Charlie, my brother, being coy (and adorable as is his wont), and Tony, a good friend,
with ALC unable to keep her eyes open during photos.

La sorellina Franca, looking fetching as usual, and the author.

What a wonderful night! Despite the awful weather and tricky roads we managed to arrive on time in Waterloo. Family and friends came from quite a distance. Husband R and camera shy daughter J, Mamma, my sorella Franca and her friend Tony, my brother Charlie, my cousin Peter from Hamilton. Friends Mel and Helen and Cal, a first cousin, from Mississauga ... quite a troop! Missing from the photos is Peter - sorry I didn't get a photo of you Pete.

There were six readers (I was the sixth) - three readers from Coach House, three from Blaurock Press. This is a bit nerve wracking (being last) but there is no way around these sorts of things. It is what it is ...

In the strange way that these things happen, I realized belatedly that one of the readers, Margaret Christakos, a writer and poet, had been the one who had selected the original story "Opera" (on which the novella Made Up of Arias is based) and featured it in the quarterly Fireweed. Fireweed submitted the story to the Journey Prize competition and it became one of the ten finalists and was included in the anthology that year.

The following year I expanded the story into this novella which sat in a drawer for many years until Stan accepted it at Blaurock Press. How odd, how strange and wonderful, that we shared a stage last night.

I didn't cry. I feared I would. I cried every day for a week after the book was published just from the excess of emotion I felt. I didn't mess up - I didn't shame myself or the family, I think. What a relief and a joy it was. Thank you everyone!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Blaurock / Coach House Press Launch

The Waterloo launch approaches!

Blaurock Press authors Michelle Alfano (Made Up of Arias), Michael Linhares (Autumn Hollow) and Sylvia Markle-Craine (Swimming to Fatima) share the stage with Coach House poets Kyle Buckley (The Laundromat Essay), Margaret Christakos (What Stirs) and Jeramy Dodds (Crabwise to the Hounds) in Waterloo on December 1. Take shelter from the cold of late autumn at Starlight for Waterloo's greatest Monday night literary review ever.

December 1, 2008
Starlight Social Club
47 King Street North

Waterloo, ON
Doors open 7.00pm

Purchase Made up of Arias on-line here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (First Vintage International, first published 1950) 111 pages

This novella is less captivating and more crude than the film ... although it's really not fair to compare the two. Capote was not responsible for both. They are two separate artistic media but it is difficult not to think of both or compare them.

The iconic Holly Golightly strikes me not as a lovable irresponsible if glamorous flake, but a manipulative, slightly sour operator somewhat bent on self-destruction. Not a free spirit but a bit of a parasite bent on getting what she can from those around her: Paul the writer, her husband Doc Golightly, her would be Brazilian husband Jose, Rusty Trawler (one part troll/millionaire, one part Capote it seems) ...

The language is larded with 50s colloquialisms that do not stand the test of time in my estimation.

When asked who Holly was based on Capote would coyly say "Me". So many of the women surrounding him when he achieved fame claimed that they had inspired the creation of that waif. It seemed an absurd assertion on Capote's part on the surface of it. But having read a biography of Capote, I now see how Holly (nee Lulamae) truly does resemble Truman.

Both have roots in the rural South, the desire to re-invent him/herself, the obsession with glamour, the slightly louche persona, the unorthodox views on sexuality (from a 1940s/50s POV) ...

I expect I am meant to captivated by Holly and her antics but actually I'd like to wring her neck sometimes for being so selfish. I was disappointed with the book. Still the image of Holly standing before a window at Tiffany's has a certain charm that has not diminished.

My first encounter with Capote was the immeasurably superior In Cold Blood which is of a totally different genre. I wish the book club had chosen that book!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Between an Antonia and a Hard Place

My daughter J's middle name is Antonia. She is named for her grandmother (my mother) who really dislikes her name so much so that she said "Oh no, please don't call her that!" when J was born and I told her J's middle name. But I love that name - and it's a very ancient Roman name with an imperial pedigree.

Antonia Augusta (pictured left) - daughter of Mark Antony, grand-daughter of Julia Antonia, mother of Claudius, grandmother of Caligula and great-grandmother of Nero - described by some as the most powerful matron in Imperial Rome. Okay, so the last two were complete nutters ... think of her lineage!

My mother is a very passionate, strong-willed individual having weathered the death of her first child when she was 23, the loss of her husband at 40, and raising three children on her own, managing a small business. She is very smart but has had limited educational opportunities in her life.

The women are very tough in my family. I feel like I operate at about 40% of their capacity for strength and resolve and toughness. Or do I?

The day of J's b'day party J was reading a brief review of a book she was writing for school. She read it aloud to R and I and said something to the effect that she liked the main character because she was "bossy and very demanding like my mother". Ouch! Me? I'm the marshmallow here ... I'm the one that can't take J's tears or scenes or drama. I'm the one that talks her dad out of the punishments meted out for bad behavior ... I have to admit that that hurt! But R kept saying she likes the character - you're not listening, listen to what she said!

Me, bossy? Me, demanding? Okay, but I come by it honestly ...

Yesterday at my cousin's wedding reception (yes another wedding - ai yi, this family never stops!) I showed my mother one of the first copies of the new book. It is dedicated to her and my father, but, firstly, to her. She didn't say too much. This lady is not effusive or complimentary. She's old school Italian: lots of love but kick them in the pants and smarten them up sort of attitude. Don't smother them with accolades which will make them soft.

I saw her looking at the last chapter which is all about the father Salvatore (Turi) - he does not resemble my father in personality at all, but some of the things that happen to my father happen to Turi so I saw her sneaking a peek. It's quite emotional. Each time I reviewed that section during the editing process I would break down, every time. I saw her face crumpling and her eyes tearing up. I thought, oh god, what have I done to her, she stills loves this man so passionately and he has been dead for more than thirty years. I'm just torturing her by recording my memory of what happened. It's not that there is anything negative it's just the reliving of all that history that would be painful.

I kept whispering to her across the table - Ma, don't read that part yet ... I had been waiting to tell her that there were some emotional scenes in it but lacked the courage (yeah I'm afraid of la mama, wanna make something out of it?). Now here she was skipping to the last chapter and silently reading it in front of the family. But she just shot me these razor sharp looks and wouldn't relinquish the book until she was finished.

I moved away, started talking to L, one of my cousins (her dad is my mom's brother) who is intrigued with the premise of the book and has been an enthusiastic supporter of its publication. Suddenly we feel an arm draped around the two of us on either side and she shouts out happily, "Did you know I had such a smart daughter?" to everyone at the table much to our amusement.

Lady, who are you? I wanted to say. What alien life form has stolen my mother and left behind this sunny, positive creature in her place? She never compliments me, ne-ver.

I said, "Ma, you never say that!" And she said, "Not to you I don't!"

So I was so pleased that she was not angered by what I had written, she seemed happy, proud ... and I was happy too because my two Antonias totally blew me away this weekend.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Child (and a Book) are Born

Twelve years ago today, a lovely little girl was born with curly hair and olive skin. She weighed just 3 pounds and 13 ounces as she was 5 weeks premature. She should have been a Xmas baby but here she was.

We have spent many hours analyzing whom she resembles and how.

Our daughter J has her aunt's hair in colour and texture now - no longer curly it is thick with a bit of a wave. Her mother's full lips and smallish hands and toes. Her father's dark eyes, chin and little nose. Olive skin from the Sicilian side, lovely almond shaped eyes from the Japanese side. Almost as tall as her mother now but much smaller than her father.

What joy she has brought us ... to be sure it's a lot of work and yelling and hectoring and worrying sometimes but what reward to be her mother. I sometimes just stare at her (other parents will know what I mean) and wonder how such a beautiful creature came from me.

I knew something magical was happening when my publisher Christian Snyder at Blaurock Press said that Made Up Of Arias, the new book, would be ready on November 15th. It's seemed predestined, symbolic, kismet.

This weekend I am attending the AICW conference at UofT on Friday and Sunday and ran into an old friend, the writer Caterina Edwards from Edmonton, whom I adore as a person and as a writer. I was telling her about actually holding the book in my hands (it arrived one day early much to my daughter's consternation - she was so thrilled to think it would arrive on Saturday).

I told Caterina that I felt as if I had given birth again - the feeling was so exhilarating. She said yes, it was exactly like that. She completely understood.

When I was being consoled by my family doctor at one point about the infertility issue and the delay in the adoption process and despairing whether we would ever have another child, he said, wisely it turns out, "Well, think of it this way: maybe your book will be your baby". Thank you Dr. F for your prescience!

So today I celebrate the two best things I ever did (besides marrying R) ... my wonderful child and my new book.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Plain Girl's Lament

Telling Some Tales by Anna Massey (Hutchinson London, 2006) 259 pages

Anna Massey is a respected British theatre and film actress with a long career stretching back to the 1940s. But my interest in her comes from her Canadian roots. Finding this book was like the proverbial light bulb going off for me as I have been doing a bit of research on the Massey family here in Canada and this has encouraged me to resume my research.

The Masseys are fascinating to me as they likely are to many other Canadians. Someone famously quipped that there were only two classes in Canada in the late 19th c.: "The Masseys and the masses".

Hart A. Massey (1823 – 1896), Anna Massey's great grandfather, was an enormously wealthy industrialist who was the founder of the farm equipment company that became Massey-Harris (now Varity). He built a formidable empire 150 years ago which has pretty much slipped away from the Massey family today.

Later in life, faced with the early deaths of two sons he became a major philanthropist in Toronto. His substantial legacy for the city was financing the building of Massey Hall, a concert hall; the Fred Victor Mission (named for his youngest son), an institution for the homeless; and, the Hart House building for students at the University of Toronto.

Raymond Massey (1896 – 1983), Anna's father, was the Canadian actor whose claim to fame was his roles as Abraham Lincoln in American film and, perhaps more famously, his role in TV's Dr. Kildare series. Adrianne Allen (1907 - 1993), her British born mother and Raymond's second wife, was a respected theatre actress and socialite who consorted with all the great show biz and literary names of her time.

Vincent Massey
(1887 – 1967), Anna's uncle, was Canada's first Canadian-born Governor General.

So Ms. Anna, now 71, has a theatre pedigree oozing out of her pores. Now she has written a book, detailing her film and theatre work and the parade of famous people that she has met during the course of a very full and eventful life. But perhaps because Massey met so many of these people in her youth, the anecdotes sometimes appear insubstantial. Somehow I expected more but perhaps this is an unfair expectation.

She talks a great about her craft which is fascinating and the numerous roles she has played, all varied, substantial and interesting to be sure.

Photographed by Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon, she seems dwarfed by these personalities. Directed by Hitchcock and working with, or rubbing shoulders with, cinematic or literary giants such as Stanley Kubrick, T.S. Eliot, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and, through her mother and father, consorting with Noel Coward, Moss Hart, Taylor and Burton, Judy Garland, Dorothy Parker and Gregory Peck, the reader is a little overwhelmed by the range and magnitude of these personalities.

I wish she had provided more detail, more background, but perhaps these encounters were as fleeting as they are presented in this memoir.

But it is crammed full of other mildly titillating and self-disparaging anecdotes: her cold, withholding father Raymond, from whom she was estranged most of her life, sent Anna $25 for her birthday every age regardless of her age or financial status.

Uncle Vincent, wishing to impress his house guest Prince Philip in Canada, requests that his now famous niece travel from England to entertain him but balks at paying her airfare.

Husband Jeremy Brett was a closeted homosexual for years, subjecting both himself and Anna to years of unhappiness.

Roger Corman asked her to appear topless in a scene (how unlikely!).

One recurring theme annoyed me: Massey's persistent passive aggressive criticism of women who are more glamorous than she is. And they are legion ... her mother (often the recipient of sly, deprecating remarks) with her garish clothes and flamboyant decorating style, "pounds" of make-up on Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn's blotchy skin, etc ... those sorts of remarks inserted after gracious compliments about a woman's talent or beauty. Little Miss Anna of course favours the natural look.

With mummy gone, all the old angers and bitterness that were repressed surface here. She was not maternal, she was not physically affectionate, she sometimes embarrassed her daughter with her flamboyance. This rankles me as a mother obviously. A little respect for the old gal please

Try and be more like my 12 year old, I would advise writers of memoirs, who tells the old lady (as in me) exactly when she is embarrassing her that way I won't be turning in my grave when J writes her memoirs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Jitters and Jests

This morning I woke at five, uneasy and uncomfortable. I could not get back to sleep. Perhaps sensing my nervousness Sugar, our kitten, hopped out of the bed and ran away. He has taken to squeezing in between R and I and falling asleep, sucking on his paw like a baby sucking his thumb. If there is no room between us he stands on one of us patiently, silently, until we move and make room for him. "Can't even sleep beside my own wife!" R grumbles good-naturedly some nights.

I am planning my book launch in Toronto for my novella Made Up of Arias with S, a friend, who has been unbelievably efficient and resourceful. Saturday morning over breakfast we will sort out the canapé and wine list (fancy, yes - my pal is very shrewd at making a great impression with this launch). The canapés are on me folks ...

The venue is a beautiful restaurant called the Globe Bistro in Riverdale with an upper lounge for events such as these. I'd like to have music, a bit of food, and two poet friends to read with me. Everything seems to be falling in place. Yet, the jitters have set in.

Will enough people show up? Will the big name author that I asked to blurb my book be finished on time? There was a mix up and he didn't get my message when I sent it initially. Are we spending too much for the launch? Did I annoy my publicist and editor with my pickiness and nervousness today? Will the book be ready for the conference that I will be attending soon? Am I making everyone crazy yet?

The Warterloo launch is set for December 1st. R is helping me to design the e-vite for the Toronto launch and I have to say it looks beautiful thanks to the Blaurock designer and the husband. It makes it all the more real. The editor of the newsletter at the university where I work has requested a short "profile" on the budding author ... oy. Is this really happening?

Thinking a lot about my mom and dad to whom the book is dedicated. In a way it is a love letter to them and to the family, to growing up in Hamilton in this pazza Italian family. Thinking of Ma as a young woman quite a bit. I have this vivid memory of her getting ready to go out with Dad when I was quite young. She worked in a factory until I was nine but when she went out, she looked amazing! She had these beautiful cocktail dresses (my sister and I share them now) and she would have her hair done up, red lipstick, heels, small beaded handbags. Very pretty. Very chic.

My mother's response to news of the publication was so muted that I didn't know what to think. I told the family the night of my cousin's wedding when we were all together, sibs, grandkids, Nonna. It was sort of like: "Oh, that's nice." End of story.The old gal is not exactly effusive.

I started thinking that she thought the mother Seraphina Pentangeli in the book was a negative portrayal of her (it's not negative, more wacky, more dramatic, than anything else and again, it's not really her - okay, maybe the mercurial temper, that yes) but I didn't know if she would feel uneasy about it. Also there is the father in the novel, Turi, and what happens to him in the course of the book. I think I need to prepare her a bit.

So I called her and asked if she was uncomfortable with the idea that people would assume that she was the mother in the book? No, she said pertly. I know that that everything written in books is not true. Well, that's me told. Like I was simple for asking.

And I was touched that she will make the trip to Waterloo for the first launch on December 1st. Hope I don't shame her.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween P.S.

This is the first year that J has gone out sans parent to trick or treat - she went with two close friends this year whom she has known since she was three. The girls had an instant rapport and have remained friends ever since then.

This new development was making the husband a little sad. He usually walks around with J; I hand out the candy because I love to see the little kids' costumes. But those days are over!

J was a hockey referee (again - none of that princess stuff for J) with her hockey helmet, a white and black striped shirt and a whistle. Her other friends were an "Ipod" and a "grand lady" in ball gown complete with a black wig of curls. Such a cute and odd configuration of costumes ...

I saw the little girl, S, a neighbour (she is four) too with her band of siblings and the four kids that live across the street. A few days ago she knocked on my door and asked my daughter to give me something. It was an elaborate card made of red construction paper with fantastic multi-coloured squiggles on it, and my name.

I was pleased but a little surprised. I could not surmise to what I owed this honour. She is one of my favourites in the neighborhood that is filled with at least a dozen children under ten. She said to J, I know it's not your mom's birthday but ... She is absolutely lovely, a little spitfire and quite beautiful with her enormous blue eyes and porcelain skin.

The next day I went to her house to thank her and ask her why she had given me the card. She was embarrassed, but pleased, I think. She could not seem to articulate the reason for the gift. Her mom said that she just felt like doing it. Oh lord, here come the waterworks I thought. I was very touched by this lovely gift.

I asked her what her costume would be for Halloween. She said that she wanted to surprise everyone but was having a hard time containing herself. But I will give you a clue ... It starts with a "K". Or a "C", her mom said smiling as she gently corrected her.

Hmm, okay, I agreed that I wanted to be surprised.

The next night, I saw a small "black cat" in a black leotard and black face mask, two black protruding cat ears and tail, prancing across our lawn with her confreres. These included: Indiana Jones, a pirate, a Jedi Knight, a witch, a small bear and a very tiny lion who was just learning to walk. Absolutely enchanting!

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Fairy Tale with Extras

A year ago ten or twelve little girls gathered at our house for a Halloween party ... it was their last year in my daughter's grade school (grade six) and many of them would head out to different schools: public, private or alternative. The next year they would be in middle school. The little band would soon be broken up.

It was a very emotional year especially for our daughter J's very emotional mother who was already feeling nostalgic.

The house was decorated with cobwebs and realistic looking, small, plastic black rats on the table and fireplace mantle. The Halloween lights, pumpkins and skeletons, were set up glowing orange and white. Candles were lit throughout the house and an ivory coloured skull was lit up with a tea candle within. The lights were dimmed.

The girls, delighted to be going to a Halloween party at night, decided amongst themselves that many of them would go as fairies. Each would have their own colour theme - blue, yellow, pink, black, green, etc ...

They swooped in in their tutus and tiaras that night gripping glittering wands and shod in ballet slippers, some wearing lip gloss and other sparkly makeup. Not everyone was a fairy, one was a gypsy, one was a vampire. But most were fairies.

Our offspring, ever the maverick, came as ... a "dead punk rocker". Oy. Does she have to be dead? I asked the husband. Apparently so. She did.

They gobbled up the chips, candy and the popcorn and gathered around the monitor in the living room to sing karaoke sounding like pint size versions of drunken sailors as they stumbled through the songs and slurred through the lyrics with much giggling and screeching. But they had such fun. Our neighbor, who could hear their hoots of laughter, said that she had never heard girls have such a good time.

Initially J shrank back, uneasy about singing, not joining in. Unsure of herself. I urged her to join in ... she demurred. Okay, I said, if you don't start singing in five minutes, I AM going to do the karaoke. You never saw a kid jump up so fast in her short life. She sang alright ... The kid sang like there was no tomorrow.

And at the end of the night, the brightly coloured fairies and the gypsy, and the vampire, all went home, drunk on candy and soda pop and bad karaoke music ... I blew out the candles and turned off the lights knowing it would all be different next year. And it was.