Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

I first read this book in my last year of high school and I strongly remember selecting a passage to read aloud to my writer’s craft class when our teacher prompted us to pick an example of good descriptive writing.
I loved Letts’ descriptive flounce and flourish. Even as a teenager who liked to write, I thought hers was a style to emulate. Her characterization, my favourite part of a novel, was also rather remarkable in its execution. I loved the way this mismatched community found a bit of a makeshift family and saw each other in themselves: a rag tag crew of heftily believable characters like something out of a witty John Irving novel.   I loved the love story: not just between Novalee and her eventual ( and highly engaging ) suitor; but with her new home, her new family, her new friends, her young daughter, her life as she picks up and starts anew and wields talent and grace she never knew she possessed. An undervalued woman finds great worth through a maze of others. An outcast finds solace in a community where each feels detached and through detachment and fervor melds a sort of innocent family with high regard and rippling trouble, with solace and strength and perseverance.

The story is very familiar ( largely because they turned it into a film ): 17 year old Novalee Nation is deserted at a Wal-Mart by her jackass boyfriend. She’s 7 months pregnant, she has nowhere to go.  She lives at the Wal-Mart and even has her baby there, innocently writing down in an account ledger all that she owes the large chain store: from stolen canned goods to medicine…. A hiding place of survival.

The residents of Sequoyah, Oklahoma are quick to welcome her and are colourfully coated with Dickensian aplomb: from the hearty Moses Whitecotton, who takes photographs of babies for laced and ribboned keepsake books and challenges Novalee to choose a name to mean something for her baby to Sister Husband: a delightfully batty Christian woman who attends AA meetings and fornicates with her gentleman caller Mr. Sprock ( don’t worry, she always asks for forgiveness after), to Lexie Coop: a rotund and delightful incarnation of the plight of women in the lower economic scale: feisty and colourful and attempting to raise a large brood on her own ( all children named after delicious candy)  to Forney Hull: the librarian who gave up a college education to nurse his alcoholic and now mentally diminished older sister.  Novalee learns about love and the meaning of home in a patchwork quilt of heart-warming circumstances and relationships forged between society’s obsolete and over-looked.

I started reading this book again because, well, it had been about a dozen years and because I was speaking to my friend about James Frain ( who plays Forney in the movie).  I  remembered what a lovely, lovely book character Forney is and how he is frustrated, baffled and then completely smitten with Novalee. His reverence for her as a diamond in the rough, his seeing her true kaleidoscope beauty when she has just been cast off, pregnant and alone, by her nomad boyfriend is the very heart of the novel.  It gives light to circumstance, it gives grace to bleak and gritty undermining of humanity, cruel acts, desertion and despair.

It’s my favourite kind of love story: one built entirely on a burgeoning friendship and one where the unrequited pulse beats supreme until resolution.  Forney PINES ( I used this word quite a bit when describing the character to my friend ) for Novalee and feels her worth all that is good and right and wonderful in the world.  While she doesn’t initially believe it and has trouble viewing her own worth or believing that she is good enough for the educated pseudo-librarian, we believe it from the moment we encounter her: all spirited and elastic and willing to make love out of hatred and something colourful and warm out of sandy nothingness.

There are so many incidents of despair and desertion and abuse.  There are so many tales of economic woes and substandard living.  There is so much that we look down on, perhaps unintentionally…. People we scorn and judge and spurn.  Not unlike Dickens, Billie Letts excavates these voices and paints them in vibrant, relatable colour.  It’s a story of love wrapped in the purest of humanity.

It’s all effervescence and joy and I loved my re-read.

Les Miserables trailer

that is all.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Theatre Review: West Side Story

{pictures used are from our touring cast}

A girl friend and I traipsed out to the Toronto Centre for the Arts the other night to see the new Broadway production of West Side Story: by all accounts one of the most memorable and difficult musical undertakings in the history of theatre.

We are all familiar with this story: many from the popular 1960s film and many from recognizing the many, many famous tunes ripped from Leonard Bernstein's score ( as lyricized by Stephen Sondheim).  In short, the story tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers: the young and beautiful Puerto Rican girl Maria and the dashing former-gang member Tony amidst the gang violence of warring West Side Jets and Sharks and the juvenile turbulence stemmed from racism, hormones, lust, delinquency and passion.

This is very much, like its source material, Romeo and Juliet  an exploration in teen angst.  We find it hard to believe that Maria and Tony could look at each other at a colourfully confetti-lit school dance and fall immediately in eternal love; but we do DO believe that they could fall into teenage lust and so, their tragedy, is acting on their hormones.

As with the Jerome Robbins' choreography ( famous for its ballet-infused fight sequences, incessant snapping and moments of sheer, lucid dream-like fanaticism), the play itself moves liquid and fluid through a timeless world of heart-palpitating action and stern moments of sheer, stolen bliss.  The score is, indeed, another character in the triad of Tony and Maria's renowned tragedy as it propels all action with minor chords, odd-incidentals, clashing score and melancholia.  It is, I believe, one of the most operatic score treatments in musical theatre and, as a vocalist who sings Maria's part along to CD recording for warm-ups often, is cringe-worthy in the sheer magnitude of its forced effort.   To do West Side Story justice, you need, need, NEED to have a flawlessly talented vocal cast. Fortunately, this is where the production excelled. 

There are some noted changes to this most recent adaptation which gained a lot of buzz during Tony's season a few years ago when this production was re-mounted: most popularly the fact that many of the Sharks songs and dialogue is performed in Spanish rather than English. I thought this was brilliantly effectual and allowed the audience to greater sense the divide and the misplaced diaspora plaguing the young Puerto Rican teenagers who idealized America clashed so greatly from the harsh reality they are daily confronted with.  This is not a land of dreams but of ignorance and misunderstanding.
This tension, and the conflicts erupting continuously between the feuding gangs was well-placed against the brash diagonals of the set design and the odd, melodious lighting which painted dream worlds and dirty street-corners.

The performers were pitch-perfect, the singing was as ethereal as the playful and complex score and the choreography harkened back to that we know from Robbins' original conception.   My one complaint was the odd way in which the song Somewhere was realized: here, with Tony and Maria sharing the stage with the young, androgynous Anybodys: the feisty tomboy who yearns to be a Jet rather than a girl.  While they muse on what could be the rival gangs are seen dancing liquidly against a backdrop which recalls a fantasy island.  I found it odd and disconcerting: especially for one of the landmark numbers in the show.

All-in-all a GREAT production and it is touring everywhere: so, for my Toronto readers, catch it here; for those elsewhere, look for it nearby

Film Review: Hysteria

Hysteria is a tongue-in-cheek, heftily innuendoed Victorian sex comedy loosely based on the events leading up to the invention of the vibrator.

It extols great efforts to place a succinct and believable world wherein women were treated with misunderstanding and true bafflement by posh British physicians who labelled anything from anxiety to loss of appetite as hysterical and, thus, a feminine problem mostly diagnosed in housewives that need to be cured by massage, oils and, in extreme cases, sanitariums and hysterectomies.  

Mortimer Granville (the dashing young Hugh Dancy) is a handsome and well-read young physician who is seen flitting from one job to another when his backward employers still find solace in primitive medical efforts including leeches and bleeding. Granville believes in the recent scientific theories surrounding germs and sanitation and is seen as heretic by many more prominent doctors with more experience.  He mopes to his long suffering friend Edmund St. John Smythe ( the equally dashing Rupert Everett) about his convictions to his Hippocratic oath and how he largely wants to do good in the world and live up to his passion and education.   He finally lands at the door of women's physician Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who spends his days providing comfort for his upper middle class house wife patients by "curing" them of their hysteria. Once a week he provides comforting massages barricaded from view by a sumptuous red curtain and the women are momentarily relaxed from his useless diagnosis and medical treatment.  Believing he will do good and impressed by the dutiful beauty of Dalrymple's gorgeous daughter Emily ( Felicity Jones ), Granville becomes a live-in resident.

His handsome stature and apparent skill with massage make him very popular and the practice is booming.  So much so that the young doctor develops carpal tunnel syndrome ( as of then undiagnosed).  His routine only slightly varied by the willful and excessively volatile nature of Dalrymple's oldest daughter, vocal suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall).  Perplexed by Charlotte's conviction to the unfortunate and her squandering her lady like duty of finding a husband in exchange for long hours working at a sort of community centre which houses meek and lowly women and provides health and education to young unfortunate children, Granville sees in this spirited fire-cracker the innate passion he knows he should have and a purely charitable core.

When Smythe unintentionally invents a vibrating feather duster that saves time and energy in curing women of their hysterical ails, unprecedented fame comes to Dr. Dalrymple and Granville and Granville finds his heart wandering from the perfect angel of hearth and domesticity, Emily, to her brasher and more interesting sister.

This film was mostly interesting for its inclusion of a baffling history wherein the medical practice seemed to completely misunderstand female health and, more devastatingly, did seeming nothing to ensure they were making advances.  Sanitariums and hysterectomies seemed an all-encompassing cure for the plagues of female illness and, according to the film and the limitation of women's rights and voices, a way to silence women who may only have been speaking out of dissatisfaction and or normal anxious states.

At this point in history, women were not known to derive any pleasure from sexual acts; nor were they supposed to so the paroxysms (or modern orgasms, as we know them ) when experienced were very incidental and by-the-way.  Contrast this methodology and medical discovery with the raging voice of women like Charlotte: a sort of proto-suffragette and emblem of skepticism and disbelief at the lack of control and choice she had over her body and you have an interesting paradox of good intentions versus severe male-dominated ignorance.

At one pivotal point in Granville and Charlotte's well-meted and perfectly executed relationship, Granville mentions that Charlotte is at time's complimentary and at others disagreeable and hostile and Charlotte laughs and proudly pronounces that she is a woman: inclined to remain an enigma to the male sphere.  Rather than shy from the winning puzzle, we see Granville slowly become attracted to an idea of an equal partnership and not the patriarchal role so carefully patented with a winsome, docile female and a standard private practice.

I encourage women to read more about the ways in which our medical rights were skewed by male research and experimentation for centuries--- and up to at least the 1950s (when the last medical diagnosis of hysteria was made) .   We have come a long way and we cannot be ignorant of the many women who suffered due to ignorance and misunderstanding.  Women are multi-faceted and beguiling and, it seems, as in several cases like this particular historical moment that rather than attempt to unravel the mystery and service the rights of women it was far more common and a lot easier to lump sum all of the dichotomous and multi-faceted moments, passions and emotions with a single word, a single case, a single (and misguided) cure.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Author Interview: Victoria Connelly

I am so thrilled that Victoria Connelly, author of Mr. Darcy Forever took the time to answer a few questions for me :)


First off, this is a statement rather than a question; but I LOVE this quote: “Why is life a constant disappointment?”
“Because we read fiction.” Mia said

- Glad you like it – it reflects how I feel sometimes!

Q.)I was really impressed with the narrative structure of the novel and how it seamlessly transitioned between three years back and forth: what inspired this creative direction and how did it influence your writing process?

- I think writers should always push themselves to try different things.  I’ve always wanted to write a dual narrative and this seemed like the book to try it with.  I knew that something had come between these two sisters and that they would meet in Bath at the Jane Austen festival and I wanted to ‘drip feed’ their back story using flashbacks.  I actually wrote it pretty much as it appears in the book and I found that the dual narrative really added pace to the story.  It was challenging but really enjoyable.

Q.)Mia loves jogging and the fresh outdoors: Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennett also enjoyed exercise: do you think that this says something about their disregard of social precaution and a certain deviance to societal norms of their era?

- I do.  These were women who knew what they liked and weren’t afraid to be themselves.  I really admire them for that.  They are strong and independent and didn’t have time for people who hid behind social conventions.

Q.)There is obviously a plethora of Jane Austen references in the novel and throughout the Festival our heroines attend in Bath. Which is your personal favourite of Austen’s work?

- It’s got to be Pride and Prejudice for its warmth, its wit and its love story.  Not only does it have the best hero and heroine ever but there’s a cast of fantastic ‘love to hate’ characters too.  Mr Collins and Lady Catherine have got to be two of literature’s greatest creations!

Q.)This is the second Jane Austen novel I have read this year dealing with mental disorder and Austen (the first being Compulsively Mr. Darcy). Sarah, who suffers from OCD, becomes somewhat of an Elinor counterpart: do you think Elinor showed some of these tendencies in Sense and Sensibility  thus informing your decision?

- I do.  Elinor Dashwood was very in control of herself, her family and her environment and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she was a list maker.  I kept wondering what a modern-day Elinor would be like and I thought she might well suffer from OCD.  I played around with the idea for a while and really thought it fitted her character.

Q.) Mia and Sarah and Shelley love watching Jane Austen adaptations. Which is your personal favourite?

- I think it has to be the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice because Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle give such wonderful performances as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth and there are some magical moments like Mr Darcy watching Elizabeth when she is at the piano; the moment he helps her into the carriage and their hands touch; and Elizabeth’s mortification when she bumps into him at Pemberley when she thought he was away from home.

Q.) Mia and Shelley both confess to liking the “bad boy” Willoughby despite the heartbreak he brings Marianne.  Why do you think women keep falling for these charming rascals…. Even in Jane Austen where gentlemanly conduct and honour reigns supreme?

- I think women will always be drawn to the bad boy – it’s that element of danger that’s so attractive.  I also think that women believe that they’ll be the ones to tame them.

Q.)This is not your first Jane Austen-inspired tale and you are obviously very comfortable in jubilantly painting women and men inspired by Austen in the contemporary world. Is there another author you are equally as passionate about?

HE Bates is my favourite author of all time.  I adore The Darling Buds of May quintet and happily quote him in my everyday life.  He creates characters that are so real and his style of writing is warm and funny.  I’ve just named three hens after his characters: Mariette, Primrose and Florence!

You can find Mr. Darcy Forever and other Austen-esque yarns by Victoria Connelly on amazon
Visit Victoria Connelly on the web to read her blog and learn about her other novels 

My thanks to Sourcebooks for the review copy and to Victoria Connelly for stopping by the blog 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I have nothing to say....

dear blog,

i have been busy with work and my personal life and have been travelling a lot for work and for pleasure and i have not devoted the time i should to you.

more still, i have read books; but been too lazy after a day of work to do anything but get my pilates on before slinking into my arm chair with a glass of pinot and blandly watching 'smash' before reading a chapter and falling asleep.

but, blog, i love you. you're pretty. so i am going to commit to you again.  my busy season is winding down ---and though my personal life and travel plans are not,  i want to devote more time to you.

i apologize for my silence blog, and to compensate, provide you with this awesome picture of Jude Law and Keira Knightley in the new adaptation of Anna Karenina

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Alpha who?: musing thoughts on selected gender roles of page and screen

 “'No woman really wants a man to carry her off; she only wants him to want to do it.' ---Elizabeth Peters

Women want to be strong and self-serving; but they also want stories of initiative, of passion, of strength, of the man who will sweep them away. They work all day to make equal salary, to prove that what their foresisters fought for has come to light; but they curl up in the evening with their Jane Austen dvds or the latest chicklit or, egads, a Harlequin on their e-reader.
In many of these cases, women retreat into stories where gender roles are clearly defined:  the man is the 'alpha' in presence, physicality, initiative (he takes the lead in pressing the romance forward) and the ultra-protector.  The woman is offered solace, financial and familial stability. She may "tame the rogue", yes; but the rogue will still provide. 

The Alpha male drives women to read and recollect and sink into fictionland again and again....


Do we need the alpha male for romance to be realized?

I read this article on Castle ( which I have watched intermittently; but confess to not having followed with any dedication) by Christian romance writer Jenny B. Jones who argues that every romance needs an alpha…. An alpha male at that and that her viewing of Castle was  conflicted by Kate Beckett, the heroine, and her having usurped the “male” role. I am not agreeing or disagreeing with Jones in this musing and this is certainly not a counter to her words ( as mentioned, I don’t follow Castle); but it turned my brain on and inspired me to share and muse and hopefully kick-start dialogue.

Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic bestseller borne of Twilight fan fiction, inevitably paints a heroine who is very much the submissive: in every crass sense of the word when paired with the ultra-masculine dominant Christian.  Part of the sexual contract explored in the book requires Anastasia ( ironically surnamed Steele; because she is any matter but)  to completely resign her independent life, her will and her routine to her new counterpart.  One would hardly argue this is romance ---- rather than erotic exploration---but still--- it climbs the charts.  My hypothesis is this: partly for the shock content; partly for the alpha male.

What used to be characterized mostly as brute strength ( watch Victor Mature in, say, anything ) has redefined itself to strength of heart, character, wit and grace.  As easy as it is for women to want, umm, Thor, so are they attracted to the softer, more adorkable geeky heroes that are prominent in our world.  We want Superman, yes; but we really want Clark Kent, too. Question this? Look at the show Grimm -- Monroe, the geeky watchmaker who plays the cello, likes fine wine and has difficulty mustering the courage to finalize his crush on the spice shop lady it the fan favourite and not the dashing police detective with the dimple in his chin: the snuggly, be-spectacled vegan with the quick intellect, plaid, penchant for Christmas decorations and inescapable curiousity.

books. he likes books. score for Monroe

We want, ostensibly, to know that Clark Kent can be Superman. An alpha male who can hide the alpha or in whom the alpha is so carefully embedded--- and most of all, who can forge equilibrium with us. 

If we’re in it together --- then who cares who has the upper hand?  And, in a world where gender roles have changed, what does alpha really mean? Who defines strength and who can turn the roles over like a salt shaker and go to town?

The Hunger Games poses an interesting reflection of this.  Unlike Twilight where two brute alpha males are paired with ostensibly the weakest heroine in the history of the world, Collins gives us Peeta the ultimate literal breadwinner, Gale the Hunter and Gatherer and a woman who is just as strong and sufficient as either of her male counterparts.  While Peeta is not outwardly as “strong” ( I delineated quotations for emphasis) as Gale, he harbours an amazing sense of cunning reserve.  I recently re-watched the film and was, as at first viewing, immediately beguiled when lovely, quiet and stern Peeta plays to the crowd by turning and waving to the audience to win admirers lining the streets of the Capitol.  If, as I believe Collins means us to, we survey every one of Peeta’s steps as a plot in which to secure Katniss’ safety and his actions : whether meted out blatantly or seen in somewhat minimalized retrospect, to ensure that she is the winner of the Hunger Games, then strength, Peeta-fied, comes from creative intelligence, ingenious intuition;rather than the ability to snare a deer in the forest.  Strength deepened further by his long time affection for the girl who didn’t notice him.

I'll eat the berries if you do
When you pair a heroine who is as equally as “strong” to watch as the two prospective suitors rounding the triangle at what point do you establish the need for alpha in romance?  Is equilibrium enough?

My favourite romance of all time is the Blue Castle. Herein, Barney and Valancy meet as friends, they have an easy companionship, are kindred spirits, can laugh and can see that their camaraderie is laying a solid foundation for a life-long romance.

There is no love at first sight. Valancy notices Barney physically; but it is his elusively winsome manner that attracts her more and more…. She has to like HIM as a person ---with his freedom and nonchalant aura before she notices more definitive aspects of his physiognomy: that his eyebrows are mis-matched, the colour of his eyes, the thin dimples in his cheeks… his lackadaisical grace.  She falls in love with the person before he has a chance to exhibit the alpha.  She is more inclined to desire his freedom on an island and what that could serve her as a repressed woman than she is the prospect of him rescuing her.  While she dreams of princes who will ride from the walls of the Blue Castle and secure her favour, she acts in real life--- deciding to throw her affection on a man she views as a preternatural equal.

Barney, the automatic alpha, doesn’t necessarily need to save Valancy who, at the point in the novel when their relationship is developing has already made galloping strides toward self-sustenance; but CAN and shows he will…. Not in the fairytale way; but in Montgomery’s meta-fairytale way--- spiriting her away from unwanted suitors at the dance at Chidley Corner’s, rescuing her from Roaring Abel’s drunken debauchery when he sets off with her in their tin lizzie to Port Lawrence to see a film.

Sure, Valancy is alpha when she proposes --- but Barney immediately turns and gains upper alpha hand when he kisses her. That’s right.  Physical initiative is on his end, not hers.  She may have initiated the “let’s be friends for all time and live on your island… and by all time I mean the year I have left to live “ ; but Barney sealed it.

Both Barney and Valancy have alpha moments. Both are strong and willed and wise and winsome and funny and lovely and THAT is why they work: two halves to a whole.  Their passion develops and foremost in words and kinship before in physical consommation…..

When I speak of romance I speak of it as a genre: a genre which calls to mind knights in armour and ladies willing to be rescued. But I also call to mind the connection that most of us want to find in life with a significant other --- If we are what we read, watch, see, listen to--- then we must recognize that we are informed by the stories that shape us.  We become invested in the pairings that most closely match what we would like in our real life. Love triangles work so well because you can Choose Your Own Adventure:  Katniss and Peeta, Katniss and Gale, Bella and Edward (god help you) and match your personal preference to the movie playing in your mind. 

If, like me, you want equilibrium of smarts and chats and laughter where you allow that gender roles can be rooted in natural biological make-up; but there is room for personal growth and the colouring of personality and individuality, then you recognize that many guys have the desire to be the alpha : whether the alpha means smashing down things with a hammer or strongly staring resolvedly at a woman they have quietly loved for years. In the same way that females want to be seen as equal; but still get jelly in the knees when thinking that some man would protect, provide…

We don’t have to be one or the other and our romance does not have to define one or the other.  We should look at romance as a reflection of the best parts of human companionship: as a rainbow-flavoured, sunshine-y ideal, as the mecca, the i-ching, the best of ourselves.  Your self can ride a white horse or fall for a guy who has one; or be the guy who waits in the wings while another presses his suit.

It’s not clear cut, it’s not black and white because we are not cookie-cutter humans and we are melded with different shapes, attractions, desires….

Formulaic romance would like us to subscribe to one thing; personal preference re-imagines those scenarios: the best laid example of what we hope our lives to be in a fictional light.

I’ll take Barney, you take Thor….

There are many different kinds of love in the world --- and many different kinds of strength.