Monday, April 27, 2009

Day Three in Montreal: Un poco di Yoko

We only really had half a day on Sunday as I was to read at 3.30 at the Blue Met. What to do in that short time? I really wanted to see the "Imagine" exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. We checked out and drove there. Yoko Ono has put together the exhibit. (Side note: Yoko's name always brings to mind a playful little phrase in Italian that everyone of my generation knows: Gioco poco ma gioco (I play a little but I play)).

The exhibit was amazing, I'm glad we didn't miss it ... it detailed the 1969 Bed-In for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. All in black and white, set in a number of starkly white rooms. There were wonderful b&w photographs, audio recordings, videos, music, posters, reproductions of Ono's art exhibits, anything and everything to do with the bed-in and their life before and after.

The best art exhibit was a white phone attached to the museum wall. Everyday, at a random time, Yoko Ono calls the museum and speaks to whomever answers the phone. We had missed her by eight minutes - how wild would that have been to speak to her? The only sour note was the overpriced merchandise at the end - $40 for a small T-shirt saying "peace"- never mind peace, give us a chance lady!

We drove to Rue St. Denis - but what a disappointment. I remember funky and interesting shops, eclectic and fun. What we found was tacky and uninteresting. Is it the downturn in the economy or have our tastes changed? I remember loving this strip not so long ago. I left my true loves on Rue St. Denis and made my way to the Delta Hotel with a fresh change of clothes and a nervous stomach for my session at the Blue Met. As I feared, the hotel was much less busy as this was the last day of the festival and one of the second to last events scheduled.

I found myself in the hospitality room with a noted Quebec broadcaster - something about him, his noblesse oblige manner with me or the flutter of females asking if he was comfortable? wanted tea? needed water? put me off and the condescending way in which he asked me what role I was to play at the festival. I immersed myself in my piece and tried to ignore him. The only other occupant of the room was a very quiet woman who sat like a statue and politely declined conversation or the offer of a drink. Later I realized this was the same woman who had sent me a prim letter of corrections of the Italian in the volume of the Descant issue on Venezia I co-edited in 2005 (I had never met this woman only corresponded by e-mail with her).

We made our way to the St. Laurent room where the panel was being held. I texted R when I got there: "No one here!" Let me put it this way ... if Nino's panel had about 200 eager attendees we had less than a tenth of that number by the session's end. At one point I glimpsed the publisher of a small magazine on Italian culture in Montreal whom I wanted to review my book slip out the door ... oy vey.

The session was moderated by Michael Mirolla and Maria Spina. We were an eclectic group in age, taste, style and interests ... there was a portion of a radio documentary on immigration into Italy, poetry in Italian, an excerpt from a fictional work in Italian and English, a excerpt from a fictional work in French, and my piece. I read an excerpt from a work in progress called "Vita's Prospects" - this particular section was about a homeless man named Billy and his travails.

Although we were few in number, I thought the questions were thoughtful and intelligent. The discussion was lively too.

The lone male on the panel managed to monopolize the dialogue as I clearly remember he did on the last panel. Back in 2006 at the Blue Met, he helpfully answered a question that was directed to me. This time, when the host Maria Spina tried to direct a question my way he just talked over her and kept on talking ...

I was a bit demoralized by the number of attendees but was heartened at the end by R and J excitedly telling me that only one of my books was left in the bookstore. Astounded, after the reading we trooped to the store to do the book signings (ah, optimistic and sweet creatures at the Blue Met, they had chairs and our individual books on little pedestals at the table - what a lovely set-up). I soon realized that one of my books had been separated from its pile on another table so it only looked to R and J like I had sold most of them - it was slightly comic and sad, but mostly sad ... :)

I looked longingly at the huge line-up for the Iranian photo-journalist Reza's book at the book signing table. He was part of the "Writers in Peril" series moderated by my friend the Quebec broadcaster whom I met in the hospitality room. One day kid, one day, I thought wistfully ...

We needed to leave, it was after five and the next day was a regular school day for the sprout. As it was we arrived home close to midnight. It was a wonderful trip, mishaps, minor disappointments et al. Bonsoir ...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Day Two in Montreal: Billy Bob and Nino too

Up at the crack of 8.30 or so! Wonderful continental breakfast to start the day in the lounge the hotel calls Suite 701.

We drag the unwilling offspring to the Montreal Science Centre, which is perhaps a ten or fifteen minute walk south along the port. We play some fun science oriented games before and after we see an amazing Imax 3D film called "Wild Ocean" about fish shoals off the coast of Africa (it was interesting - really!). Our companions are a group of eight year olds celebrating a birthday and they are adorable climbing the stairs of the theatre clutching their popcorn and drinks (even grumpy J smiles) to get to their seats.

We wander around Old Montreal but it is hot and J does not feel well. Words are exchanged, feelings are hurt - neither mother nor daughter do well in the heat. I get all Billy Bob on her and J decides to remain in our room while R and I explore the city nearby for an hour. R counsels me to chill out - her behavior is just typical 12 year old behavior and I should be mindful of that. Of course he is right.

We explore Old Montreal ... I love this city, especially the older section. The buildings, the food, the people, the ambiance, the elegance, the arts and culture, the look of the streets, it's wonderful. R swears that the women are better looking and better dressed. I think he has a point. We wander into the lower part of Rue St. Laurent which is a bit of a tourist trap with cheap souvenirs, knock off designer sunglasses, awful hand drawn prints, a Dairy Queen, we escape quickly.

I made a commitment to see the "Why I Write" panel at the Blue Met. J asks me where I am going. I tell her I'm going to a panel to listen to the writer Nino Ricci and some others talk about writing. The following conversation ensues:
J: Is Nino Ricci famous?
M: Yes, internationally famous ... he's been published all around the world.
J: Is he rich?
M: Um ... I ... have ... no idea.
J: Is he richer than us?
M: Uh - yes, yes, definitely.
J: Is he your friend?
M: Well ... more of a colleague ...
J: A colleague? (look of puzzlement)
R then offers helpfully: Well, a friendly colleague ...

That makes more sense to her and off I go. I decide to walk there even though the heat is a bit overwhelming. As I run up to Registration to get my name tag I smack right into Nino. I am covered in a slick of sweat from the walk. He is, as always, courteous and charming and dressed fetchingly in a dark suit and blue tie. The thing I like the most about him is that he is, no matter what his successes, unassuming and modest, which is very disarming.

I went to the bookstore to make sure they had my book Made Up of Arias and felt a small thrill to see a half dozen copies on the first table (more on that later). Off to the panel ...

The room was packed with some 200 or so book lovers. The panel included Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million - a great book), Donald Antrim (The Afterlife: A Memoir) and Catherine Mavrikakis (A Cannibal and Melancholic Mourning). Mavrikakis seemed a little uncomfortable and awkward - perhaps because English was not her first language?

They discussed various aspects of writing which all rang a bell - the compulsion to write, the nervousness to start and the fear that it's not good enough, the various ways one avoids writing, the idea that one could never imagine not writing, the fear of offending the people around you in your writing, and finally the need to keep writing because that is now your occupation and you have children to feed etc ....

I found Nino in the lobby and asked him to sign a book for friend which he graciously did. When I left him he was being swamped by eager females (such as myself) at the book signing table.

I zipped back to the hotel and everyone was in a mellow mood. My loved ones had gone out and bought small souvenirs for J's friends.

For dinner we travelled south again to Pasta a Piacere for some great pasta. Fazzoletti pasta (literally meaning "little handkerchiefs" for their shape) stuffed with goat cheese for J and I and eggplant parmigiana for R. Not bad for a French Canadian host and two South Asian cooks in the small kitchen.

We walked back towards the hotel. I wanted to show J the monument that R and I passed across from our hotel at Place D'Armes. The name of the square signifies "a long-used French term for a place where a city's defenders assemble. The statue in Montreal's Place d'Armes specifically commemorates Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve's defense of the young French settlement against the Iroquois, against whom sieur de Maisonneuve's allies the Hurons were fighting to regain land the Iroquois had conquered." The monument built in 1895 has four enormous statues on its four corners:
  • Paul Chomedy (1612 – 1676), cited above
  • Jeanne Mance (1606 – 1673), one of the founders of Montreal and of the first hospital in North America, the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. She built the hospital to help the aboriginals.
  • An unnamed Iroquois warrior (pictured above)
  • Lambert Closse (1618 - 1662) who was known for "his work in fighting the Iroquois"

There are plaques of iron on all four sides of the monument and, as R pointed out, if you look at two of them closely they show Iroquois being stabbed and shot in two of them by white colonists. A lovely commemoration of the founding of Montreal. I understand a little bit the utter rage that aboriginal people must feel at times.

We snapped some pics of Notre Dame which is bathed in a blue light at night - very beautiful. I wanted to go in but it was just closing. Back at the hotel I crash - too much heat and walking I think. J and R watch an SNL rerun and J is thrilled because she never gets to do that.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Day One in Montreal: Don't go back to Brockville

I am participating in a panel called Parole Pro Bono at the Blue Met in Montreal on Sunday. I jumped at the chance to go and bring R and J with me ... we had a wonderful trip three years ago when I read at the same festival with the publication of the anthology Sweet Lemons edited by my friends the writers Venera Fazio and Delia DeSantis.

The trip to Montreal was eventful (more than we wanted it to be) as we decided to drive there to save a bit of money and had a flat tire in Brockville. Luckily, we still had roadside service and the friendly tow truck driver changed the tire quickly, found a new tire for us in town and we had the problem sorted in about an hour and a half. Rob was singing "Don't go back to Brockville" to the the tune of REM's "(Don't go back to) Rockville" as we waited. I didn't realize how pretty the town was and the number of historic buildings there. The people were quite friendly.

On the road again ... we were not so lucky getting into the city during rush hour traffic as we missed our exit, ended up on the bridge out of Montreal. In the back of the car, J cheekily texted her friends saying, "I knew we were in trouble when we started to see signs for New Brunswick ..." Cheeky monkey.

We arrive in the evening at Hotel Place D'Armes (see pic above) at 55 Rue St. Jacques, steps from Notre Dame Cathedral. I love this hotel. My friend Alex, a seasoned traveller to Montreal for business, recommended it three years ago. It's elegant, situated in Old Montreal, modern, beautifully kept, not too prohibitive. It serves a lovely wine and cheese reception in the evenings in the Aix Cuisine du Terroir and offers a generous continental breakfast in the mornings in Suite 701.

We are too late for the wine and cheese but we clean up and head into Old Monteal in search of Boris Bistro at 465, rue McGill which R finds on the internet. It has a beautifully lit courtyard with trees but are told that they only serve adults. The host kindly points us in the direction of a more kid friendly restaurant down the street called Le Vallier. We had a good meal there; the venue isn't as spectacular as Boris Bistro but the food was quite good.

I glance out the window and see a horse drawn carriage. I suggest a ride and am met by a look of absolute horror on my daughter's face. It was amusing (and a little hurtful). It was like she'd rather cut off her arm than be seen in that carriage with her parents (which she readily admitted).

It was a short evening - we were all exhausted and hoping to save our resources for the next day (we would need them resources).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blue Metropolis Montreal Literary Festival

I will be participating in the PAROLE PRO BONO panel at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival on April 26, 2009.

This will include readings by Association of Italian-Canadian Writers whose works include socio-political messages of all kinds, and anything that foregrounds the Italian-Canadian community’s social and political concerns. The event will be hosted by Michael Mirolla and Maria R. Spina and will include:

Michelle Alfano
Rita Amabili-Rivet
Elettra Bedon
Nino Famà
Elvira Truglia

The Blue Met is the world’s first multi-lingual literary festival – and the best five-day literary party there is. In 2008, Blue Met gathered about 350 writers, literary translators, musicians, actors, journalists and publishers from Quebec and from all around the world for five days of literary events in English, French, Spanish and other languages.

For more information please go to:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Romania, 2007) directed by Cristian Mungiu, 113 minutes

Truly one of the most disturbing films about abortion that I've ever seen. The dialogue and imagery is very graphic and may disturb some viewers of the film and readers of this blog. I would say since having had my daughter and faced a number of infertility issues that my feelings about abortion have evolved since my teenage years when I seriously started thinking about it.

As disturbing as this choice is, the film reinforces my belief that women must have access to safe, legal abortions. The consequences of prohibiting women from doing so are too horrendous for women as this film demonstrates.

The film follows the lives of two Romanian girls, Gabriela 'Găbiţa' Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca), in 1987 during the Ceauşescu regime. At the time, in Communist Romania, abortion was illegal. Ceauşescu's desire was to increase the Romanian population. You may remember the horrendous consequences of this - the deluge of unwanted children (or children who could not be financially supported) in the 1980s that were abandoned in orphanages and the massive movement in the West to adopt these children. This is another frightening side of it that I had not considered - the increase in illegal abortions that must have occurred.

Găbiţa is pregnant and the two girls arrange to meet with an abortionist in a hotel room, the ironically named Mr. Bebe ("bebe" is the word "baby" in Romanian), played very menacingly by Vlad Ivanov.

Mr. Bebe determines that Găbiţa's claim to be in her third month of pregnancy is a lie (it is); it has been at least four months. He asks for more money since it is a much greater offense to abort a four month old fetus. Bebe is, by turns, falsely soothing and sympathetic, as if he is a concerned uncle only wishing what is best for Găbiţa, then turning violent and threatening when he thinks the girls are holding full payment out on him.

He expects something else in return. Otilia reluctantly agrees as Bebe threatens to walk out on the girls. I will not reveal how he is paid.

There is one subtle twist which adds another layer of ugliness to the plot. A nasty seed is planted in the viewers mind that, possibly, Găbiţa knew what might be asked of them in payment and that is why she asks Otilia to accompany her - Otilia is the insurance, the backup, in case the money is not enough. As Otilia figures it out, so do we, and the conclusion is an ugly reflection on Găbiţa and the circumstances in which she makes this decision.

After Bebe injects a probe into Găbiţa, he leaves the girls instructions as to how to dispose of the fetus - warning them not to flush it or bury it where it may be discovered by dogs. His advice is to go to a highrise and throw it into a dumpster from the 10th floor. He is truly is one of the most quietly frightening on-screen characters I have seen for some time.

Otilia leaves Gabriela to go to her boyfriend Adi's mother's birthday as promised earlier. Adi's family and friends irk Otilia - perhaps it's their conservative attitude: young girls shouldn't smoke, shouldn't drink, the "these young people have it easy" attitude ... Perhaps it is Adi's absolute passivity, offering no support or resistance that upsets her. Perhaps it is the idea of sitting there eating birthday cake while Găbiţa is in the hotel room alone. You realize how constricted and difficult the lives of these girls are just by the look on Vasilu's face during this scene.

Otilia reluctantly tells Adi about Găbiţa's abortion, and Otilia starts to fret about what would happen if it Otilia herself got pregnant and how Adi would react. She is not reassured by his response. Otilia decides to return to the hotel.

When she returns, Găbiţa tells Otilia that the fetus was expelled and it is in the bathroom. It's really a frightening sight, certainly not for the squeamish, as the camera lingers on the scene for some minutes while Otilia scrambles to place its remains in something. Otilia wraps up the fetus with some towels and desperately puts it in her bag. Gabriela asks her to bury the fetus, not dump it in the waste. Otilia struggles to find an appropriate place and when she returns to the hotel she tells Gabriela that they will never discuss this matter again.

The title belies Găbiţa's alleged uncertainty - she knows exactly how far along she is and the possible repercussions for what she has done.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Making Olives and Other Family Secrets

Making Olives and Other Family Secrets by Darlene Madott (Longbridge Books, 2008) 149 pages

This collection was the winner of the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for short fiction last year. Coincidentally, this the prize that Nino Ricci won for Lives of the Saints. When I began to read this collection of eight short stories I easily recognized the streak of rage and despair that now seems so familiar to me, that I also see in my own work and the work of other Italo-Canadian women of my generation. For generations, women were powerless, voiceless, except, at times, in the sphere of the home; the written voice of the modern Italian woman is raw, painful, sometimes bitter.

But more importantly, now, it is often defiant and proud of its renegade independence and that's what draws me to Darlene Madott's voice.

There is a susceptibility for women to succumb to certain powerful elements in our culture (not just necessarily Italian culture) - whether that be the idols of family, sexual love, wifely duty or children. It is a siren call that is difficult to resist if you are raised to believe that those duties or ideals come before everything, before your own needs and desires and well being. One character notes in this collection: "For this was love, this wretched devotion ..." which was her undoing as it sometimes controls and destroys the women who embrace it.

But here, in virtually every story, the female characters waver but finally resist the temptation to be swallowed up by lover or family or duty. Here are a few stories that touched me ...

Wild, untamed Aunt Flo in the title story "Making Olives" is "schiaccatta" or crushed like an olive prepared for eating but refuses to be cowed by a bad marriage or an unfortunate fate. She outwits her jealous husband, dabbling in penny stock, amassing a small fortune. The image of the green and black olives (black being ripe, the other not) serves as a perfect metaphor for the fates of the two sisters Vittoria and Florence. There is a nobility to Flo's defiance even though it would be impossible to view her life without sorrow or pathos.

In "Bottled Roses", Jean, a beleaguered prospective bride struggles with the decision to marry Paul, a charismatic, handsome but troubled man on the very eve of her wedding, feeling trapped in her decision like the bottled roses she wanted to give out for her bonbonerie at her wedding.

Francesca heads west to Vancouver to wait out the summer with her father's friend's family after parting with her husband whom she married young in "Family Sacraments". There, the lonely girl gets a glimpse of the kind of romantic love she longs for when she encounters Greg, the widower of Leonora, who married young and died young.

In "Instructing the Young" Julie ponders the fate of her husband Frank's aunt Eva, giving birth to yet another child that she does not seem to want but seems to have little say in, when the young couple visits the family in Hamilton. There is lovely twist where Davide, one of Eva's boys, comes to be a bit enamored of Julie, confusing her with the character of Cinderella that Julie has been reading to him in the classic fairy tale. When Julie leaves him he calls out pathetically, "Don't go Cinderella ... don't leave me!" Is Julie Cinderella running away from her Prince? The entire episode suggests otherwise, a young girl ensnared in a marriage with a million warning signs along the road like the murky atmosphere of the city of Hamilton that they leave behind them.

"The Day I Kissed Pierre Trudeau" picks up on the bride Jean's story begun in "Bottled Roses". Here Jean deals with the aftermath of choosing not to marry Paul. This story is told from the perspective of Jean's sister Rose. Interestingly, Rose has a secret sympathy for her once to be future brother-in-law. The story dovetails nicely with the day the sisters meet Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the small cottage town where the family is "hiding out" after the wedding that never happened.

If I have any reservations with this collection it is with the editing of the book which was not as careful as it should be. The stories often involve many characters within a given family with names that are similar or the same. It is sometimes difficult to discern who is related to whom and what is happening.

As well, there are small typos in the text such as "beat" for the word "beet" and "e" (the Italian word meaning "and") used in the text instead of "è" (the Italian word meaning "is"). Darlene Madott deserves better than this ... she deserves a careful editing of this intense and engrossing collection of stories.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Our fate (and book) is still unwritten

Marjorie Morningstar (U.S., 1958) directed by Irving Rapper, 128 painful minutes

I have been intrigued by this film for some time and was further reminded of it by the publication of The Red Leather Diary which one reviewer said resembles, in part, the plot of this film, based on the book by Herman Wouk. I subjected R to this film the other night ... it was painfully melodramatic and somewhat reactionary but muted in its conservative message compared to the actual book apparently.

The other thing that struck me was finding a article saying that despite the conservative message, many women are quite taken with the book. Hmm, you had me at hello darling ...

Marjorie Morgenstern (Natalie Wood) is a student at Hunter College, as was Florence Wolfson, the young diarist of The Red Leather Diary (see previous blog). Her parents expect her to marry an affluent Jewish boy who is aggressively courting her.

But instead Marjorie breaks up with the boy and decides to work at a summer camp in the Catskills as a camp counselor for girls. Marjorie and her friend Marsha Zelenko (nice Jewish girl Carolyn Jones?) sneak across to the South Wind, an upscale Jewish resort for adults (a real resort but now defunct). Coincidentally, the South Wind was a famous resort begun by Florence Wolfson's future brother-in-law, her husband Nat Howit's brother, now presently owned by a Christian ministry (yikes).

At the resort where she gets a cleaning job, she enters into a relationship with Noel Airman (Gene Kelly), the resident prima donna and an aspiring writer of Broadway musicals who coordinates the production numbers for the resort. She also forms a friendship with aspiring playwright Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner). Airman, formerly the more Jewish sounding Ehrman, is the one who gives Marjorie Morgenstern her new name - Marjorie Morningstar.

Marjorie wants to be an actress. I think we are meant to think that she is awful (and she is) and has little hope of succeeding despite Noel's attentions and assistance. When Marjorie's Uncle Sampson, played by the comic actor Ed Wynn who is featured in long winded comic bits which don't help the film at all, dies of a heart attack at the camp (as he was sent there by her mother to keep an eye on her) Marjorie returns to NYC and breaks off the relationship. This is a bit inexplicable, what does the uncle's death have to do with her relationship with Noel? Noel has nothing whatsoever to do with his death.

Noel finds Marjorie and declares his love for her even though like a good Jewish girl she is now dating a doctor. Part of Noel's resistance and objection to committing to Marjorie is that he refuses to be part of her bourgeois little world (of course he doesn't use these words but they are equally scathing and unpleasant). He claims that she is a "Shirley", just a nice Jewish girl destined for marriage. Not so explicitly stated is that she is also holding out on him sexually. One book review mentioned that the book drags on for hundreds of pages regarding her hesitation.

Noel tries to conform to Marjorie's conventional family life by attending a Passover meal with her family but he storms out and later Noel says, "I was disturbed, deeply. I couldn’t help thinking of all the things I’ve missed in life. Family, your kind of family. Faith, tradition. All the things I’ve been ridiculing all the time. That’s why I couldn’t take it anymore. I love you very much, Marjorie Morgenstern."

Noel, succumbing to the pressures of being "respectable", gets a job at an advertising agency but this doesn't last long. He soon disappears from work and Marjorie finds him at his apartment with a strange woman, drunk. Depressed by the Broadway success of former underling Wally Wronkin, Noel is consumed with jealousy. One more reason, I think, to drop this preening loser Marjorie ... he treats you badly, can't seem to get his life together then castigates anyone who seems to lead a "normal", successful, happy life. And the attraction is what? Her insipid devotion to him boggles the mind even within this constricted, claustrophobic 50s atmosphere.

When Noel and Marjorie fight that day in his apartment, he implies that he is an emotional mess because she won't submit to his sexual demands. You can almost see the dim little light above her head light up ... fade to black and they are living together much to her parents' displeasure and she is encouraging him in his songwriting career.

As a favour to Noel, Wally Wronkin, now a Broadway success, convinces investors to meet with Noel to invest in his musical production "Princess Jones". Despite Noel's hissy fit and insulting behavior at the pitch the investors proceed and the play is produced and panned by the critics. Like a coward, he runs away to Europe, away from Marjorie and his failure. She tries to find him. Wally tips her off that Noel has gone back to South Wind; at least there he can be a big fish in a little pond.

Determined to win him back she goes to South Wind but seeing that he is now in his element and happy, she decides to leave him be. The film ends on a "happy" note, with Wally waiting for Marjorie (he has been in love with her the whole time) and the implication is that she has come to her senses and will now form a more healthy relationship with Wally.

Within a certain historical context, it is easy to comprehend why women yielded to this pressure to conform in the 50s, even actively wanted to return to a more domestic sphere and traditional roles. Men had returned from the war in the mid 40s, some shell-shocked, physically damaged and having seen unspeakable things. It is understandable that they were anxious to pursue a more conventional, traditional life style. They wanted "normalcy", peace, a family. That's fine ... except not everyone could fit into that comfortable little box of conformity and often were castigated and ostracized when they did not.

Wouk, in my reading of the reviews of the book and his life (I'm sorry I cannot bring myself to read this 565 page reactionary behemoth), seems to want to punish Marjorie for wanting more than domesticity. In one interview Wouk said he was just reflecting "real life" in this book and in other pieces I've read it suggested that he was writing about his sister's own unhappy experiences. The book's ending is much crueler than the film's.

This from the article cited above:

In the final nine pages, the formerly vibrant Marjorie gives up on her career, gets married ... and moves to Westchester. She is one of the lucky ones, Wouk seems to be arguing, a fallen woman fortunate enough to land a nice Jewish doctor who can forgive her straying from the virtuous path: "He took her as she was, with her deformity … that could no longer be helped; a permanent crippling, like a crooked arm."

And from the book itself: "You couldn't write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. … The only remarkable thing about Mrs. Schwartz is that she ever hoped to be remarkable, that she ever dreamed of being Marjorie Morningstar."

Well, clearly Mr. Wouk you are wrong. Marjorie, and women like her, still fascinate us. Her fate was sealed in your book but ours is still unwritten.

Wolfson is nothing like Morningstar except in the most superficial way: two Jewish girls growing up in New York with overbearing mothers and aspirations for an artistic life. The real Wolfson was strong, independent, sexually adventurous. Marjorie, as pictured here in this film, is naive, easily manipulated, hopelessly devoted to a cad and a loser. No, I think that that earlier comparison that I referred to was silly. Despite Wolfson settling down to domesticity in Connecticut, I really admired her fire and intellectual curiosity as exemplified in her diary.

Marjorie Morningstar doesn't hold up beyond the 50s stereotype ... let it mercifully sink into obscurity.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Red Leather Diary

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel (HarperCollins, 2008) 321 pages

A fairy tale set in New York is my favourite kind of fairy tale.

Intrigued by my husband R's description of this book, I asked him to pick it up for me. A New York Times writer, Lily Koppel, was astonished to find a mountain of suitcases in a red dumpster outside her apartment building at 98 Riverside Drive in New York. The luggage had been stored until October 2003 in the basement where Koppel lived. Unclaimed baggage was being discarded.

Among these things she found a number of treasures: beautiful articles of clothing, flapper dresses, a coat from Bergdorf's, matchboxes from the El Morocco nightclub and other wonderful mementos from the 20s and 30s. She was further pleased to receive a crumbling red leather diary from the building's doorman Hector which he had rescued from the discarded suitcases.

After some investigative work, Lily finds the writer of the diary, Florence Wolfson, who had begun the journal at the age of fourteen in 1929, writing in it faithfully each day for five years until 1934. An exceptionally bright and articulate girl, interested in art, theatre and literature, she impresses Lily with her passion, knowledge and openness. Lily later said it felt as if the entries were like letters written to her personally.

As one reviewer said, Florence Wolfson was Marjorie Morningstar before the writer Herman Wouk (b. 1915) had ever conceived the character of Marjorie Morningstar. If you read the plot of novel and The Red Leather Diary, you might see how Florence's life mirrored the main character's life a little. Having read this book and seen the film now (review to come), I now think that the similarities are superficial but probably worth noting.

This is a remarkable story and, sadly at times, I find the story much more interesting than Koppel's writing. Koppel is young, in her late twenties now, and the book is riddled with cliches or silly metaphors ("slaving over a stove", "shaken [upset] like a martini", etc ...) which seems as if the book was written quickly and not carefully edited.

Oddly, too, she gives these cryptic descriptions which are never expanded: speaking of John Berryman's "overbearing" mother and somehow linking this to his emotional instability and eventual suicide - how so? Florence's former agent is to get "violent over writing" - what does that mean? Over Florence's writing, over writing in general? Violent how?

But what salvages the book for me is the remarkable journey of this real woman Florence Wolfson. The diary and Koppel's imagined explanation of what transpires between the lines of the diary held me.

When Lily finds Florence through a private investigator she is living in Florida and Connecticut and is in her 90s; she had married Nat Howitt, a childhood sweetheart whom she had met at the age of 13 and married at 23. But there were many beaus and many adventures before her marriage to Nat Howitt ...

Koppel made an interesting observation on her website (this woman could give a course on how to market yourself as a writer - it's really quite remarkable how carefully she has promoted herself and the book) about how we have conveniently forgotten, or never chose to consider, how some women in the past had very adventurous attitudes towards sex and love and that personal history now has been lost to us. In the public record, they are preserved in a kind of golden amber: sexless, conventional and perceived to be unlike ourselves. How untrue this appears to be of Florence, an upper middle class Jewish girl from New York with big dreams and an even bigger libido.

Florence, as a teenager, falls in love with the avant-garde Broadway theatre actress Eva La Gallienne, a formidable, openly lesbian thespian who has only Platonic feelings for the smitten girl. Florence was attracted to both boys and girls and unrepentantly slept with both which she chronicled in her diary.

She had tea at Schrafft’s and frequented the El Morocco night club; she window shopped at Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf’s, and rode horses in Central Park at the Clarington Riding Academy. At Hunter College she provocatively wore her riding breeches, openly flouting school rules, and served as the editor of the college's literary magazine Echo. Her classmates included Belle Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase; Pearl Siegelstein, a future playwright; and Joy Davidman, the future wife of C.S. Lewis. She held a literary salon at the age of nineteen which the poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman attended. Her school friend Gertrude Buckman eventually married Schwartz.

When Florence graduated, she went to Europe alone and traveled through England, France and Italy. She had an affair with Filippo, an Italian "count" (a fake it turns out but he was an aviator, poet, and painter) whose glamorous photos, as well as many others, adorn the book.

But as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Florence eventually succumbs both to her passion for Nat and her parents' wishes to lead a more conventional life. She elopes with Nat and Nat becomes an oral surgeon; they settle in Connecticut. They raise two daughters and spawn many grandchildren and great-grand children. Her life while interesting (writing magazine articles for national publications, buying a hotel with her husband, successfully playing the stock market) never fulfills her deepest artistic longings.

A trip to Italy in her forties, alone, unleashes intense feelings of "love, sadness, nostalgia, yearning and beauty" which prove unsettling. When she returns to New York a psychoanalyst sternly advises her that her goal in life is to be a wife and mother - an admonition that she takes to heart for the majority of her long life. Florence has now outlived all those mentioned in her diary as Koppel carefully notes at the end.

But there is a price for independence ... when Florence re-encounters childhood friend Gertrude Buckman (the former wife of the poet Delmore Schwartz) in their old age she notes with horror how poorly Gertrude is doing, alone, penniless and living in impoverished circumstances. The comparison irks even more when she compares the affluence of her own life which followed a safe and financially secure path.

Then Lily finds Florence in 2006 and she becomes the focus of a great deal of media attention and interest in her early nineties. I watched a clip of Wolfson and Koppel on the Today Show and Kathie Lee Gifford (in her usual loud hyperbolic style) said, "Before Angelina Jolie there was Florence". Well, not quite, not even close, but she was an unusually strong-willed, extraordinary girl in an extraordinary time in New York. And her journey was well worth reading about.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A(lways) B(e) C(urrent)

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet at soulpepper, April 2 - May 9, 2009

Last Christmas I bought R an eight play subscription to soulpepper. If you follow this blog you may remember R's uneasiness with attending performances at Stratford, not because of the quality of the productions or the types of plays produced but because the advanced age of the average theatre goer reminded him of, and I'm quoting ... "death".

Soooo ... I was very encouraged by his enthusiasm for soulpepper productions; hence, splurging on the subscription. This is the second play in the 2009 series. Tom Stoppard's Travesties which we saw in February was wonderful. I remain in awe of Stoppard and his talent.

David Mamet is a personal favourite of mine but this production of Glengarry left me a bit cold and I couldn't really put my finger on why until R and I were driving back home and he expressed his thoughts on it. I had never seen the play but remember the film well. Perhaps the play lacked the acerbic vitality of the Blake character (Alec Baldwin) who famously delivers his riveting Always Be Closing speech. Mamet wrote this role into the film just for Baldwin and he is phenomenal.

The play is billed as a "scorching examination of Reagan-era America" involving four real estate salesman clawing, scrambling, lying and cheating to make sales in order to win a Cadillac in 1983. Likely soulpepper thought it would be timely in this climate of economic chaos and excoriation of financial greed.

Mamet's realistic and profane dialogue got our attention and respect in the 70s and 80s - it was honest, raw and fascinating to watch and hear. But are we inured to profanity in the theatre now? The rapid fire patter and expletives felt dated and canned. It no longer felt current or shocking to me. Albert Schultz as the shark-like alpha male Ricky Roma, Eric Peterson as the hapless Shelley Levene lured into robbing the office for leads by the manipulative Dave Moss (Michael Simpson) after he attempts to con the weak-willed George Aaronow (William Webster) - even these bombastic roles left me cold. The fates of the four salesmen is oddly unmoving even though the performances were fairly solid.

The play felt so flat. Is it the economic climate that has soured us on salesmen of this type? Not just a distaste but an aversion even for the so-called "losers" who are exploited by the system too? Roma, Moss, Levene, Aaronow - they are all familiar types to us now.

Schultz, as the Founding Artistic Director, general wunderkind and a key fundraiser for the theatre, often lands plum roles such as Ricky Roma or Mac the Knife in 2007 but I fear he lacks the machismo to pull these roles off. Shouting and gesticulating and throwing your weight around won't suffice. I felt he was more effective as the melancholic Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya last year.

Likewise with Eric Peterson's manic antics as the underperforming, past-it Shelley Levene, no longer "The Machine" he once was as a salesman. Michael Simpson, too, grates as the conniving Moss. I'm not saying that these abrasive, over the top types don't exist but it takes more than bravado and posturing to portray them with sensitivity and believability.

More effective and moving, I think, is William Webster as Aaronow, the last man on the sales totem pole, with his quiet nervous tics and sad sack demeanour.

The set is carefully and artfully constructed by Set Designer Ken MacDonald. Divided into two acts, one set in a Chinese restaurant in stark red and black and the other in the ransacked real estate sales office, the effect is striking.

soulpepper is always worth exploring ... I am always intrigued by its productions and I am looking forward to the rest of the year. Next up: Loot by Joe Orton in June.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Origin of Species

The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci (Doubleday Canada, 2008) 472 pp.

All Italo-Canadian writers worship, secretly or not so secretly, at the altar of Nino Ricci which must be both somewhat gratifying and intensely annoying for him. He is our gold standard. Full disclosure: Nino Ricci is a cherished colleague who has been wonderfully supportive of my work in the past and today. It is a pleasure to read, think and write about his work.

We first meet the character Alex Fratarcangeli in Montreal in 1986; he is the quintessential child of Italian immigrants: smart, over-educated, under-confident, and unsure of himself in the world. He is also a dispirited teacher of English to newly arrived immigrants in Montreal and upper class Quebecois wishing to be more fluent in English. He seems comfortable in neither world. He refers to himself as "Italian but not Italian" and it rings true ... The book moves back and forth in time recounting many of Alex's personal relationships from the early to the late 80s.

This protagonist is oddly appealing and different it seems to me, a new direction in Ricci's narrative voice. Vittorio Innocente, the hero of the first three Ricci books in the Lives of the Saints trilogy, seemed somehow removed from the circumstances, sometimes horrific, which he experienced. The language was beautiful and the scenes rendered poignantly but there seemed to be a god-like distance between the narrator and the characters and between the narrator and the actions depicted. Here, Ricci is in your face with the sometimes angry, sometimes volatile Alex.

Immersed in almost daily therapy sessions with a Freudian psychoanalyst, struggling with his dissertation based on linking "Darwin’s theory of evolution with the history of human narrative" which one reviewer described as "quixotic", he is a troubled, lonely figure. Battling depression and conducting imaginary conversations with broadcaster Peter Gzowski in a wished for world of future success and fame (and I also love Alex's imaginary jousting with a "sibylline" Margaret Atwood who derides his opinions on CanLit), he lives very modestly, counting every penny, vaguely ashamed of his background and roots, sometimes hilariously inept with women. He slowly becomes unwillingly captivated by Esther, a young woman with Multiple Sclerosis who lives in Alex's building.

At first I was puzzled by the linking of Esther's life (based on a real friend Ricci had in Montreal during his Concordia days according to a recent Toronto Star article) and the Darwinism angle. Ricci described it this way: "Multiple sclerosis, like any other auto-immune disease, is about a body turned against itself. I saw a metaphor there for a world turned against itself."

As a younger man in 1980, Alex retraced the steps of Charles Darwin's 1831 trip to the Galapagos Islands from which he formed the basis of his theory of evolution. It is the centre piece of the book and clearly serves as a symbol for what transpires in Alex's chaotic life. The tone is decidedly different: Alex's experiences with Desmond a professor and researcher whose scientific aims are murky and dubious coupled with the maneuverings of the volatile Santos who has been hired to drive his boat to various islands creates a tense atmosphere which teeters on the edge of violence and ugliness. Alex evolves from a melancholic, aimless young man into a selfish, unpleasant and unwilling participant in Desmond's experiments. And yes it all ends badly.
The times are tumultuous for Alex and for Montreal when he returns. The reviewer Frank Moher of the National Post described it, in his not so flattering book review, as how "social Darwinism plays out in an urban intellectual setting".

Alex is profane, obsessed with women he both desires and seems to fear, leery of commitment, yet lonely and fearful of being alone ... Alex appears, to my mind, so vastly different from Ricci's other fictional characters: his passive unhappiness and gentle demeanor seems to hide an angry, ugly side which manifests itself primarily in his messy sexual relationships and fixations with women:

Esther, his neighbor whom he pities more than he desires ("Her life was like a quicksand he fell into ..."); a son in Sweden resulting from a brief romantic entanglement with Ingrid, a slightly older, divorced woman met during his European travels as a twenty year old. A bitterly ended and sometimes sexually volatile past relationship with Liz, a visual artist, who reluctantly had an abortion and blames Alex for it. Maria, a sexy El Salvadoran student in his ESL course, who haunts his fantasy life.

Liz, probably the most important relationship in his life, was cast aside in high school "in the Darwinian logic of adolescence" for a slightly "better" girl even though they later pair up and share a home. The pattern continues for Alex throughout his adult life, he is constantly "trading up" sexually ... taking what he can, when he can, then timidly moving on when something better comes along.

Maria deigns to allow Alex to tag along to her various political activities: environmentalism, Amnesty International, social activities in the Salvadoran community, Alex shadows her hoping for some sexual crumb from Maria's seductive table. He receives neither sexual intimacy nor encouragement.

His life only becomes more messy and complicated. Alex wages a largely singular battle against the new owners of his apartment building who are trying to raise the rent. His thesis supervisor Jiri Novak asks to move in wreaking havoc in Alex's life and apartment until he is unceremoniously thrown out by Alex. He dallies with old lovers like Amanda whom he faintly desires but seems to fear and detest more. Amanda, too, slips away.

In the background of Alex's life is the degeneration of Esther's body due to the ravages of MS. She loses mobility, then her independence and finally her confidence and will to survive. The impertinent quirkiness Alex found in her in their first encounter rapidly diminishes with the progression of her illness. Guiltily, he visits her in the hospital when she finally succumbs to her illness and Alex reluctantly assumes the false mantle of white knight, driven in equal parts by platonic affection and guilt. I loved it in all its complexity and ugliness and cerebral philosophizing.

And I look forward to the new bio on Trudeau Nino has written as well which was published last month.