Sunday, March 31, 2013

March Cultural Roundup

Rebecca Hall in Parade's End ...
At Last by Edward St. Aubyn (please see review here)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Democracy: A Novel by Joan Didion 
A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion 
Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford (please see review here)

Stoker (U.S., 2013) directed by Park Chan-wook
Django Unchained (U.S., 2012) directed by Quentn Tarantino
Argo (U.S., 2012) directed by Ben Affleck (please see review here)
The Amazing Spiderman (U.S., 2012) directed by Marc Webb 
Parade's End (U.K., 2012), BBC/HBO five part TV serial directed by Susanna White 

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Chaperone

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (Riverhead Books, 2012) 371 pages

I am so easily seduced ... mention the opportunity to read a piece of fiction in which one of my personal heroes plays a role and this lady is definitely for turning. I am invariably disappointed by these fictional accounts; however, it appears to be one of my addictions.

Here the future silent film actress and style icon Louise Brooks is chaperoned on a trip to NYC to audition for the Denishawn dance company in the summer of 1922. Her chaperone is a starchy Wichita, Kansas matron named Cora Carlisle. But this is not told as Brook's story really; it's mostly Cora's story and I'm afraid it's fatally dull despite its many Dickensian twists and turns.

At the turn of the 20th c., Cora was abandoned as an orphan and sent to a home for "friendless girls" run by nuns in NYC. At a very young age, she was boarded on an "orphan train" (a real historical occurrence in the U.S.) and sent across the Midwest, hopefully to be adopted by a childless couple. Cora is one of the lucky ones - selected by the kindly Kaufmans who, after a quiet and uneventful life with Cora, unfortunately die relatively young in an accident on their farm.

As a teenager, Cora is befriended and protected by the young, up and coming lawyer Alan Carlisle who is hired to represent her financial interests when her parents pass away. Alan is handsome, successful, kindly and - even in Cora's own mind - too "good" for her to marry but marry they do. Sadly, Alan has his own agenda in selecting the orphaned Cora and despite the birth of two dearly loved sons, the union evolves into a sham marriage, a cover for Alan's secrets. Moriarty manages to make even this poignant backstory dull.

Her the character of Louise Brooks is but a cartoon, a pastiche of the petulant and sometimes charming mannerisms that she often displayed in most of her films: willful, rebellious, independent. The only glimmer we have of Louise's humanity and a possible explanation for her "waywardness" is her admission in the novel that she was sexually exploited at the age of nine and then in her early teens by persons close to her. In a later scene, when the unchastened, and worse for wear, Louise returns to Wichita to run a dance studio that fails after the career in Hollywood also tanks, there is another moving scene where Cora urges Louise to leave Wichita and her vicious mother Myra to try and find happiness elsewhere. Louise attempts to do so.

But largely, Louise's characterization is paper thin - a pretext for revealing Cora's history when she returns to NYC to seek out the truth about her origins at the home for friendless girls. As is Myra. Louise's mother is a caricature of selfishness and maternal disinterest who is channeling her creativity through her more successful daughter.

Cora is boring, puritanical, racist and moralistic. She is as flat and unwavering as a Kansas cornfield. She changes a great deal, of course, but the transformation never quite seems believable or logical. Sitting next to a "coloured" woman at an all black musical revue cures her of her fear of, and distaste for, black people. Flash forward (briefly) to Cora supporting civil rights workers in the 1960s. It's a cheap ploy. If she is a racist let us understand her fears and motivations don't intercede with some phony future episode which tells us, no, not really, she really wasn't a racist. 

Similarly, the kindness of the German handyman Joseph, who helped her access her birth records, eradicates her fear of immigrants with strange accents not to mention leading her to a bizarre marital arrangement where she invites Joseph to live with her in Wichita in the home she shares with Alan.

Alan, forced to accept this and participate in the elaborate lie that Cora has found her biological brother and his daughter in NYC (in the person of Joseph and daughter Greta), quickly acquiesces to the plan to protect his own secret. Oddly, this brings harmony to the home because now both husband and wife can be with the partners of their choice under a cloak of respectability. 

Several important historical phenomenon are alluded to but never followed up on in a
More Lulu please, less Cora ...
meaningful manner: Margaret Sanger's push for birth control, the prevalence of the views of the Klu Klux Klan, the effects of WWII on American society, the treatment of an "alien" population such as the German-Americans during WWI, the fate of those unwed mothers that Cora tries to assist at "Kindness House" towards the later part of her life. These are far more interesting issues than Cora's problem with her corset of which she complains endlessly. Perhaps this is a metaphor - the corset symbolizing Cora's constrictions in a life that she finally abandons.

Still ... I have to admit that Cora bored me to tears. Her subtle racism, her prissiness, her fixation on propriety as to whether one should have one's hair down in public or speak to strangers in NYC, her adverse reaction to foreigners, her prickliness about Louise's sexual magnetism ... wear the reader down. It's only in the last fifty pages that she begins to resemble a fleshed out woman and not a caricature of small town bigotry.

I am pleased that Cora reaches a feminist epiphany about women, immigrants, blacks and homosexuals but did the novel have to take such a tedious path to do so?

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Defiant One

All this to do about Lena Dunham taking her clothes off too often! The media attention it has generated not to mention the snide commentary. Why does she do it? More importantly for some, why won't she stop doing it?

For those living in a monastery with no TV or Internet, Lena Dunham is the creator, writer and sometime director of the hit HBO series Girls. It has just concluded its second season and has elicited a great deal of praise, derision and media scrutiny. 

Dunham, as the character Hannah, has been accused of liking to take off her clothes on camera a little too much. Generally, I find, men like when women take off their clothes. Not so much with Lena it seems. 

Let me hazard a guess. Could it be because Lena is not thin, not conventionally attractive nor fit? Could it be, as one TV critic noted that a body type like Dunham's would be a more suitable fit on a show like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (oh, the howls of disbelief when Hannah bedded the dishy Patrick Wilson in one episode) than on a show about a quartet of girls looking for love and sex in the big city?

I think it could be that. So why why why does Dunham keep doing this? I think I know Dunham's secret ... I think she does it because it annoys you. Because it makes you uncomfortable, seeing a not so thin girl bear it all, unselfconsciously, without apology. Because let's face it ... it's not pretty by today's beauty standards. Not ... at ... all. 

Few and far between are the sensitively written critiques by men that admit their discomfort such as Dustin Rowles' article that you may read here.

And I get it. I understand her defiance - I perceive it as defiance - because in many instances Dunham controls the script and the direction of the episodes. She makes virtually no attempt to shoot herself from flattering angles or look pretty in all the episodes. 

I'm sure, as all young women do, she cares what people think of her to a certain extent but not enough to cloak her reality. She is not particularly pretty, not skinny, often awkward, badly dressed, slovenly, annoyingly neurotic and ... she doesn't care what you think. What she is: funny and brave and intelligent.

I wrote this post before I read the quote below but it all made sense to me ... Dunham was asked why she was nude so often in the series. “Not ‘Fuck you,’ but a way of saying, with these bodies, you know: Don’t silence them. I say I’m not a political person, but it’s a political statement in a way. I know it’s going to gross some people out. There’s people who don’t want to see bodies like mine or bodies like their own bodies.” Amen girl amen.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Toby's Room

Toby's Room by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) 264 pages 

What a bleak picture this book paints of pre-WWI England - the book begins in 1912. The Brooke family fulfills many of the cliches of English middle class life: a repressed, unaffectionate family; an independent, strong minded and creative girl who chafes under the watchful eye of her parents; a spirited, patriotic son of the empire. 

In the first twenty pages of this book, we learn two disturbing things about the Brooke family. Elinor and Toby Brooke, older brother and younger  sister, are close - both somewhat alienated from their emotionally repressed parents. Elinor attends the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London and is a talented, aspiring artist. Toby is a high-spirited, vaguely self-absorbed, highly indulged boy who volunteers in the Great War as a doctor. 

I loved Toby Brooke's name as it, I think very consciously, reminds the reader of the names of both Thoby Stephens (Virgina Woolf's brother) and Rupert Brooke, a handsome and hugely popular young poet killed during WWI. Pat Barker echoes, in part, Woolf's Jacob's Room, a fictional work, which details the life and early death of her brother Thoby. Rupert Brooke makes somewhat of an appearance (in a manner) later ... More of this anon.

When Toby kisses and gropes Elinor during one of their daily rambles to the mill near their home, a childhood haunt, she, and her world, fall apart. Secondly, disturbingly, Elinor soon after learns from their mother that Toby was a twin; the other twin, a female, died in their mother's womb before Toby was born. This twin is known as a "papyrus twin" or a "vanishing twin":
... one, or more, of the feti in a multiple pregnancy dies and the fluid component of their body is absorbed, resulting in the mummification, but due to the bones being reasonably well developed by this gestation the fetus continues to maintain a recognizable shape, it is then compressed by the growing twin leading to the flattening.
In an odd manner, this troubled history reassures her ... Toby's devotion to his younger sister Elinor makes more sense (aside from that last very disturbing incident). He is missing his twin, his double, and Elinor has taken the vanished twin's place. But for the reader, another image comes to mind, Toby's female twin being crushed and destroyed by the male twin.

Rupert Brooke, poet, WWI soldier
Elinor responds strongly to Toby's unwanted advances; she cuts her long hair into a ragged, unattractive mop with a blunt pair of scissors. She focuses on her studies - in particular her anatomy classes - where she is required to dissect a corpse, picking it clean to examine all aspects of the human body. She approaches the task with admirable courage but balks at dissecting the head and face of this unknown man, likely indigent and without a name. In light of the fate of many of the men of Toby's generation in the Great War, which is only two years away, this is a terrible harbinger of things to come. 

Initially, she distances herself from Toby in disgust but when he falls ill, possibly with pneumonia, she remains by his side to nurse him through a terrible night of suffering. 

Spring forward to the height of the war five years later in 1917 ...  

Elinor has seriously returned to her painting, living on her own for the most part at the family's farmhouse. Her paintings all feature enigmatic images of a shadowy figure, inevitably representing Toby. Intriguingly, Elinor meets Virginia Woolf at the Charleston Farmhouse owned by Vanessa Bell (unnamed in the novel, merely referred to as V.B.). Woolf solidifies Elinor's own stance on the war: "Women are outside the political process and therefore the war's got nothing to do with them". But this is not really true for Elinor, as much as she wants to remain apart from it. This is a classic battle that artists face regarding their relationship to war as she explains later in the novel:
It's like the pacifists. You know, some of them, the majority, take on the work of 'national importance' ... and they go and work on a farm or in a hospital. But the others - the absolutists - won't do that. They'd rather go to prison than contribute anything, anything at all, to the war. And I just think that's a stronger position, it's more logical, because the others are just pouring their bits of oil on the combine harvester and telling themselves there's no blood on their hands because they are not actually driving the wretched thing. And I know none of this applies to women but actually I think some of it does. So anyway that's why I don't contribute and ... and I don't paint anything to do with it. Because the war sucks that in too ... 
We learn that Toby and two of Elinor's friends, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant - the latter a former lover - have all gone to war. Kit and Paul return, Toby does not. His body is never found - he is believed to be dead. Silently grieving, uneasy about the lack of information surrounding his death, Elinor finds a mysterious note secreted in one of Toby's jackets, which is returned to the family after his reported death on the front line. The note suggests that he had a premonition he would not return and explicitly states that Kit knew why ...

Thoby, VW's brother
After not receiving word from Kit about this or anything else regarding Toby, Elinor summons her former lover Paul, a Northern working class lad and a bit of an outsider at Slade, to her farmhouse to enlist his assistance. Barker moves smoothly from the female's emotional perspective to the male's ... intensely probing Elinor's conflicted love for her brother and segueing to Paul's lustful feelings for Elinor. Paul agrees to try and help her by speaking to friends of Toby's and Kit's. 

The war has done strange and terrible things to the English: normally docile women throw bricks through the windows of small shops with foreign names even if they are not German; people are killing Dachshunds (presumably because of their German origin); the King has changed the royal family's name to the more British sounding "Windsor' to minimize his Teutonic heritage. 

Paul learns that Kit has returned from the war and is very poorly, being lodged at Queen's Hospital which specializes in facial injuries. Elinor is eager to question him about Toby and persuades Paul to approach him. Kit is evasive but adamant that he has no knowledge of Toby's death and refuses to discuss it further. While there, Elinor encounters a former art school teacher who persuades her to use her artistic skills to aid the soldiers who have suffered horrific facial injuries by sketching them for the hospital - those damaged and frightening figures that she has encountered while waiting for Paul to question Kit.

She agrees. There is a real archive of photos and drawings that existed created by a surgeon named Gillies and a Slade Professor called Alan Tonks (who features in the novel) to help surgeons reconstruct the faces of the soldiers - you may view them on-line now but they are not for the faint of heart.

The most effective prose comes with the recovering Kit's nightmarish recollections of the events leading to Toby's disappearance. Barker effectively shifts between Kit's ill health and recovery at Queen's Hospital peppered with hallucinations and memories of his experiences on the front line as a stretcher-bearer during the war - vividly communicating the fear, disgust and terror that a soldier might experience in the trenches. 

On a visit to Kit's home, Paul eventually inveigles Kit to reveal how Toby died. It's thoroughly disturbing - and not to be revealed here lest I ruin the book for you. 

Some small anachronisms: would a student of modest means have his own private telephone in 1912 (as does Toby's friend at the height of his illness)? Was the Bloomsbury group called the "Bloomsbury group" in 1917 ... was not the term Bloomsberries (referring to its members) more common at the time?

But don't let these very minor points dissuade you - it's a wonderful book.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Welcome to the new paradigm ... F-you Feminism

Just in time for International Women's Day. Welcome to the new paradigm ... F-you feminism. 

How did we get to this juncture dear friends? How did we, as feminists, come to represent the whiny, self-obsessed end of the politically progressive spectrum? Shall we blame it on the legacy of the Me Decade ... on our unending sense of entitlement whether we are male or female ... on our obsessive focus on first world problems?

I would like to begin on a serious note: parsing a recent article written by Stacey May Fowles in the National Post on the sexual assaults in the Bloor and Christie area of Toronto last summer. She was writing about these events through the prism of a personal assault she had experienced in her own past and her difficulty in discussing it in public. It was very well written - passionate, personal and highly charged. I know Stacey a little through the literary community and was quite moved and disturbed to read of this.

She had me until she mentioned, in that same article, an incident that occurred when a friend of hers was escorting her home during the summer of those precarious days last year:
While we were walking past Bloor and Grace, where one of the assaults reportedly occurred, two extremely drunk boys, estimated to be in their teens, staggered towards us and slurred their directions. We obliged them, and watched as they stumbled on their way, towards the subway. In that moment, I realized they were enjoying a freedom I had never had and could never have. Blind drunk and exposed in the middle of the night, they wandered gleefully, happily and safely, conversing with strangers and inviting attention. The very things the written words that week had told me I wasn’t allowed to do.The idea of it — their liberty vs. my need to be gratefully, soberly escorted by virtue of my sex — enraged me. In fact, we should all be enraged, every moment of every day, in a way that words can never express.
She fumed: why did these boys have the right to be publicly drunk and she did not because she might be in jeopardy as a female? This knocked me back a bit. Since when do we, as women, have the inalienable right to be drunk in public without fear of repercussion? Let me clarify this for you: we do not. No one does.

I said as much on facebook when I posted the link to Fowles' article. The blow back was interesting and, I feel, definitely broke down along generational lines. One or two of my younger female friends were quite annoyed with me. The right to getting drunk in public is not the point I was told very explicitly. I'm afraid that I have missed the point then. You want the right to engage in unsafe behavior in public, because men to do so regularly without repercussion (which I don't believe by the way)? Have I understood you?

To be quite honest, I recall a similar reaction, on my own part, when the sporadically intriguing/annoying Camille Paglia made similar remarks in a Playboy interview that were perceived to be quite inflammatory, almost twenty years ago, about women not getting so drunk that they couldn't physically resist or say no to a man who wanted to engage with her sexually on a date. It was said in her usual caustic, grating manner but there was a logic to it that eluded many feminists, including myself, at the time. She wanted us to be accountable for our own actions and to not be so debilitated physically that we couldn't control what was happening to us. This particular point struck a nerve.

Flash forward to a few months ago ... a male friend of mine, a bit of a provocateur, asked on facebook whether we, his facebook friends, agreed with the views of a well known advice columnist writing under the nom de plume Dear Prudence passing judgment on a complex situation involving a possible date rape. The scenario was, in short:

Boy meets girl and they get very drunk - they wake up together and the girl is horrified because she doesn't know if she consented to sex and wants to report it to the police. A second girl, who knows both the boy and the girl, is alarmed that she would do so, having witnessed both being drunk and appearing to get along very well the night before. She doesn't want her friend to contact the police. The advice columnist agrees with the letter writer and says that the alleged victim shouldn't proceed, she has no proof, don't ruin this guy's life.

Cue the righteous outrage here, here and here accusing Dear Prudence of  "slut-shaming" and a host of other outrages. Oh yeah and here.

So, honestly, not privy to any of this on-line reaction yet, I wade in on facebook to respond to my friend's query. I say that, possibly, what the alleged injured party said is true; however, there is no proof that she was raped or had intercourse against her will. She can't even recall having intercourse; therefore, it would be wrong to go the police claiming such. And ... that women have an obligation to be careful because it is a very dangerous environment out there when you mix potential sex and alcohol.

I can feel a certain element out there already gnashing their teeth ... so let me clarify. I believe it is wrong to assault women, especially if they are drunk. The women are not asking for it if they are drunk and it happens. It's evil and wrong to harm women, to take advantage of them when they are intoxicated; however, in view of the fact that it happens does it not behoove us to be careful as women?

Only one brave soul came forward to challenge my viewpoint in a torrent of angry accusations on facebook. (I imagine everyone else thinking -I ain't touching that one!) She said I made "little sense" and "you sound like you are being passive". I also sounded "unfeminist" blah blah bah. I won't bore you with the rest because for every post I wrote she wrote four or five giving me a Feminism 101 lesson on rape and sexual assault about all the myths associated with rape because, apparently, I am in need of being educated on sexual assault - having never been sexually harassed or threatened with violence by a male partner. Here I will quote Noel Coward on the concept of "assumption": When you assume, you make a ...

I should be thicker skinned and to paraphrase my teenage daughter who counseled me: "What do you care what this 20 something nobody thinks?" However, it does rankle when, at this tender middle age, I must prove my progressive political credentials before I dare speak on any issue.

When I challenged my new on-line friend on her views she replied "I did not say you were not a 'feminist' overall, just as I can light incense, and stare at a buddha picture, and call myself a Buddhist." 

Indeed, just as some hapless female might squawk and screech and claim they are being a feminist, that doesn't make you one either if you are being insensible to reason. Assuming that men are always in the wrong, nay always the criminal and violent participant in every encounter between male and female, without proof of any kind, is not feminist, it's, well, let's call a spade a spade ... idiotic.

Think of it this way in reference to the issues that Fowles raises in the first article I mentioned ... would I counsel a good friend (or anyone) belonging to a visible minority to avoid going to particular sections of this city, or any other city, alone? I would. Am I being racist or demeaning towards that person? No, I don't think so. Do they have a right to go anywhere they like regardless of skin colour? Of course they do! But it's a matter of being sensible, of being careful. Would I send an affluent friend dressed in expensive clothes through an impoverished area - without warning, without a guide? Am I trying to deprive her of some right in doing so?

Or this scenario: I go to a friend's house. The next day, I open my wallet and think to myself I thought I had fifty dollars, I know I had fifty dollars, someone in that house robbed me. Did they? Could you then go to the police and say, "I think I was robbed. I think my friend robbed me."

Why this belligerence, this resistance to common sense? I want to do [fill in the blank] ... how dare you imply it's the wrong thing to do? The unsafe thing to do? How dare you challenge my assumptions? You are not a"true" feminist if you challenge me on this, F you!

With the tide of Third Wave feminism in the 60s and 70s, think of the brave women who came before us ... were they as obsessed with these personal "freedoms" and imagined slights on our freedoms? Did they not have a more universal perspective in advocating for access to abortion and birth control, eradicating racism and class differences, daycare for working women, pressing for the rights of oppressed women in other countries, marching against domestic violence and for equity in the workplace?

The American writer Tom Wolfe coined the term "Me Decade" in a magazine article in 1976. It describes a general attitude towards "atomized individualism" versus the communitarianism of the 1960s. What are we advocating for now? A whole litany of rights and freedoms that easily slip into the category of first world problems ...

Whether it's Naomi Wolf whining in her prolifically produced books about trying to finding a diaper changing station (Misconceptions) or the fact that we put too much emphasis on beauty (The Beauty Myth) or the importance of her hoo-ha through history (Vagina: A New Biography) ... or Jezebel telling her on-line readers that women are forced to wear make up and she really resents it ... or Phoebe Baker Hyde explaining what prompted her to swear off make up for a year in The Beauty Experiment (I have to take care of this baby and be pretty too? aahhh, that's not fair!).

Really? Really. 

You know, sometimes, more often than not, I agree with some of these positions but I just can't bear the petulance with which these opinions are put forward, the rage it elicits when you don't agree completely with their theories. Listen to Wolf for five minutes in an interview and you are ready to tear you hair out at her arrogant, petulant responses.

In these instances, I think of Republican Governor Bobby Jindal's recent pleading with the GOP to "stop being the stupid party" in the wake of the defeat of the Republican candidate in the 2012 Presidential elections. Think about the issues ... advocate, argue, debate. Do not just blindly attack anyone that opposes your point of view.

Do you want to be a feminist or do you just want to be a damn fool who says she's a feminist?