Friday, July 22, 2016

A Sequel and Equals

They had me at "dystopian;" I changed my movie plans immediately. Equals (dir. Drake Doremus, 2015) is a surprisingly successful (but not perfect) movie with the poutily pretty Nicholas Hoult and solid Kristen Stewart as futurish Romeo and Juliet types (or are they?...), in a world that tonally, although not visually, echoes the one in Children of Men. 
The story, shot largely in Japan, revolves around a post-apocalyptic world where life has been re-created, supposedly a post–common cold and –cancer utopia, but is threatened by SOS, a gene defect whose arc is like real-life's experience with HIV-AIDS. Social constraints swiftly eradicate those with "the bug," called "Switched On Syndrome." There is a far-flung place, The Peninsula, where degenerates live, embracing social bonds, but it is a no man's land that, if emotions were present, would give the people the heebie-jeebies, so adverse are they to the thought of social contact with any caring. And, no spoilers, it is good that this place is only suggested in the movie.
There's a lot of good stuff to chew on in this flick. The set and costumes are stark, neutral and utilitarian. It made me wonder why 99% of the unisex trousers are a bit short (not in a trendy way); Doremus' minimalistic world has been created to satisfy every human need for existence and occupation, except for emotions, of course. The soundtrack is evocative and highlight sex scenes that are really more about newness, anticipation and emotion than illegal coupling. The imagined jobs and workplaces feature very cool computer graphics (seemingly the result of several companies' input) and the living quarters' simplicity and functionality mirror the society without social bonds. There are good performances by Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver.
But there are problems with the film, too. Many of the characters' names are redolent of The Giver, The Matrix and/or the Bible: trying a little too hard. The main issue is that it is hard to act as a human being without emotions! The actors can't be robotic, but they also mustn't interact, walk, eat or play with any emotion, and not all of the cast is successful at convincing us they are "clean." An extension of that is: how can there be artists in that world if emotions have been genetically deleted? There's a good dinner-party conversation topic. Finally, while I appreciate that the forbidden lovers are meeting in secret, I couldn't hear half the bloody dialogue. Not just because they're whispering, but because the enunciation is not there or is lost to recording. Is that supposed to be intentional, suggestive? It's annoying and it detracts from the piece.
One last remark, about release and distribution marketing. In the movie posters I've seen, Kristen Stewart is wearing makeup, and the whole point of the movie is about the lack of embellishment and the sterility of the world. Could promotional people perhaps really learn about and support the crux of their clients' products? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised or disappointed, but come on, people! Makeupless Kristen still looks gorgeous and will sell tix.
A neat film, if you're into the f'ed up future like me.
I've reviewed two of Mark Alpert's adult and YA novels within the last year, and had an interesting conversation with him in NYC in April. I was looking forward to the sequel to The Six, and The Siege did not fail its precursor. 
There's so much I appreciate about Alpert's writing. First, the man can write page-turners! Whether it's well-written battle scenes or connecting to the readers' emotions, there is material in his books that will appeal to either sex. As for his YA books, he has a good grasp of teen-speak without sounding like he's trying to be hip. I know he has children that age, but it's still not easy to pull off, which is one reason that adult-written YA is not always successful. And I've discussed this before: Alpert expects his readers to be intelligent—they may have some knowledge of global affairs and some science literacy, but he promotes further investigation by presenting the material in an accessible manner and without talking down to his readers. I also like that his novels touch on social and spiritual issues. These are not books for airheads.
One warning if you read this book or give it to someone else to read: if you look at the last two pages, you are going to ruin it. Just don't.
Great fun! Hope to read more about the Pioneers....

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

It's lovely when nothing's said about photographs.         ~Josef Sudek

If You're Under 30, You Must See This. If You're 30+, You Should See This.

Closet Monster (dir. Stephen Dunn, 2015) is completely original and completely wonderful.
I had heard Dunn and star Connor Jessup interviewed on the often-dreadful q CBC radio show and decided to see it once I heard Isabella Rossellini had done the voice-over for a hamster. (How ridiculously cool of her!) Also because it was Canadian, indie and fresh. I wasn't disappointed.
Caveat: you might have issues with this film. Like, if you're a homophobe. Or if you hate violence and horror, which I avoid watching, but the Cronenbergesqueness [what's the noun for this??] which covers these elements made it bearable (...okay, I had to turn away once). They are necessary to the film, which is simultaneously genre-busting and genre-melding. As Dunn said, it is not intentionally a queer film: LGBTQ identity is a catalyst for the plot and an essential theme, but its "aboutness" is much broader than that.
He also provides some much-needed light moments. Our beloved Maritimer Mary Walsh plays her role fairly straight but the writing makes her funny and relatable. Rossellini is an understated hamster, but an important foil in the life story of Oscar Madly. The music, which sounds like our local indie radio station cranked up loud, provides a tension that clashes surreally with the Newfoundland setting, and it's an important vehicle for the plot and character development. There is more of a balance between the soundtrack, mood and setting of Fogo in the dénouement. And the very last scene is bittersweet and leaves room for viewer interpretation.
Aside from having the support of a great cast, including TO-born Aaron Abrams and East Coast–native Joanne Kelly, the film captures youth culture (especially parties/drugs), emotional struggles and personal ambitions and disappointments comfortably, no doubt due to the director's youth. That is, he deals with them deftly: we definitely feel the angst. But the poignancy of Oscar's relationship with his pet, of his not-so-great art, and of his shifting impressions of and loyalties to his parents are what centre this film, which is ultimately about becoming an adult with a somewhat-intact human heart. 
I may be an old fart, but old farts exclusively made up the audience of the screening I was at and no one walked out, despite the more difficult parts Dunn challenges us with. This tells me that he's created a film that's robust and important. I'm proud that it's Canadian.

Monday, July 18, 2016

V.Wells 2016 Don't mess with this.

An Art Review of a Different Kind

©Vanessa Wells, 2014 All rights reserved.

I spent the day deliberating about posting a personal commentary here, which I rarely do. And maybe that's part of my problem.
I've been feeling depleted lately (physically, spiritually, emotionally) and this has been complicated by feelings of grief for which I still haven't attained "closure." The best info I have seen on this topic is that it's not linear, it's very individual in its course, and it doesn't make any damn sense. I have come to accept that. But there are moments—and they tend to hit me in the early morning—when I am hit by grief like a Mack truck. This is both unexpected and really annoying. I tend to be a morning person (that is, I don't want to actually talk to anyone in the morning; I just have all my energy and optimistic outlook for the day then), and then wham, I'm crying.
Backtrack: I'm a child without a real sibling [skip that story]. My dad died ten years ago. He was a private pilot in his retirement, and every time I see a small plane above (which is frequently, fortunately), I say a thank you and turn into a puddle. It's dumb, but it makes me feel he is there. 
After he died of brain cancer, life decided that would be a great time for my mum to develop Alzheimer's. She moved back to Toronto and I spent the next four plus years dealing daily and in person with her not-self. I'm sorry to say I was not always patient (anger=fear), but I did all that one daughter could do and kept her reasonably happy, despite the cra-cra of that miserable disease. She threw out and lost expensive things (including an engagement ring) and she was difficult with me and everyone trying to help her navigate what she would not admit was happening to her. Long to short, she swore up and down she would "just go" {snapping of fingers} when she wanted to and would not linger on [this, from a woman who did not have an answer about what to do if the fire alarm in her building went off; 9-1-1 was unknowable to her by that point]. Social workers and I tried to explain that the drop-dead-on-demand-scenario was really unlikely, but didn't she do just that on a Thursday morning in October of 2013: a massive stroke cut her down and she was dead within a day. Fran:1 Vanessa:0
Anyway, as I said, I get hit with whammies about my ten-year-gone dad and almost-three-year-gone mum a lot. A LOT. It sucks. I burst into tears at certain pieces of music, yet I can't bring myself to turn off the recordings or broadcasts. It's like I have to will myself through the grief a-bloody-gain. 
So I'd been feeling like crap and decided to do my best cure-all: a re-organization and purge. This from someone whose total belongings fit in one room. I'd recently purged 20 years of teaching resources (except the Latin) but my 20 years of photography were crowding me in and I needed to dump stuff. I was going to chuck some art stuff I had deemed unworthy but retrieved them. Some good, some purely emotional creations, but I decided to keep them to honour myself. Maybe my kids, in their own future mid-life crises, would be interested? 
That was yesterday. This morning, when I felt like crap, I felt drawn to review a more difficult portfolio. So I was flipping aimlessly through the pages, when I noticed some hand-written notes by visitors to an art show I'd exhibited photographs at a decade ago.
I remembered a few, mostly complimentary. I even remembered one that said "A little cold. I didn't feel the tenderness." Which was then and is still funny because I've never been about portraying tenderness and almost always include some aspect of "coldness" or at least a definite starkness. So I'd never been offended, only bemused, by that comment. Another praised my photo cropping on my best image—the one that was good because I hadn't needed to crop it. I kept flipping through. Saw a note from my then-15-year-old daughter (her signature initial and heart hasn't really changed) and then my heart stopped. There was one that said, "I'm so very proud of you. M." (M. was my mother's signature for "Mum" on notes.) I'd forgotten that she had been there during a visit from her home in B.C., let alone left me a note. Of course she would have written that, even though she never did understand my photos (and God knows she said that often enough!). I was on a huge purge and hadn't checked every single one of the hundreds of papers. But I had almost thrown those notes out. I had been looking for continued connection with my mum for almost three years and here was an unexpected gift.
Last year, I had read through all of her remaining, redacted diaries (the ones she would have known to us: she was ridiculously private). So I could know about her partying too much and boys and hitchhiking in Europe in 1952, but she had cut out other stuff that was important to me. It had been a good way of getting to know her again and about stuff she had alluded to but hadn't further spilled on. 
I have letters and cards from her and my dad, of course, and lots of family records and memorabilia from the past 100 years. But I was not expecting that note. I thought I had reviewed everything tangible several times over during the last three years.
But it was exactly what I needed. I'd been reading—I swear—five minutes before about spiritual development, and then that jumped out at me. 
Even though she didn't get "modern art," my mum was validating me. And that's what parents do. They may not "get" their kids, but they never stop loving and supporting them. No matter what. 
So I felt less lame about reinstating my art stuff in my room {look at my self-critiquing editorializing!} and again I felt reinforced to go on without her and my dad.
I'm not sure what this may have to offer you. But I wanted to share my small story of grace. Because grace is an undeserved and unexpected gift. And if this isn't a time when we all need gifts, I don't know when is.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Poetry Find

The Lady’s Dressing Room in the Tapestry Suite of Lancaster Tower in Windsor Castle circa 1870. 
Retrieved from
WELL! Clearly I don't know my Jonathan Swift as well as I had thought... Reproduced without sharing literary criticism or my comments.

The Lady’s Dressing Room

Related Poem Content Details

Five hours, (and who can do it less in?) 
By haughty Celia spent in dressing; 
The goddess from her chamber issues, 
Arrayed in lace, brocades and tissues. 
         Strephon, who found the room was void, 
And Betty otherwise employed, 
Stole in, and took a strict survey, 
Of all the litter as it lay; 
Whereof, to make the matter clear, 
An inventory follows here. 
         And first a dirty smock appeared, 
Beneath the armpits well besmeared. 
Strephon, the rogue, displayed it wide, 
And turned it round on every side. 
On such a point few words are best, 
And Strephon bids us guess the rest, 
But swears how damnably the men lie, 
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly. 
Now listen while he next produces 
The various combs for various uses, 
Filled up with dirt so closely fixt, 
No brush could force a way betwixt. 
A paste of composition rare, 
Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair; 
A forehead cloth with oil upon’t 
To smooth the wrinkles on her front; 
Here alum flower to stop the steams, 
Exhaled from sour unsavory streams, 
There night-gloves made of Tripsy’s hide, 
Bequeathed by Tripsy when she died, 
With puppy water, beauty’s help 
Distilled from Tripsy’s darling whelp; 
Here gallypots and vials placed, 
Some filled with washes, some with paste, 
Some with pomatum, paints and slops, 
And ointments good for scabby chops. 
Hard by a filthy basin stands, 
Fouled with the scouring of her hands; 
The basin takes whatever comes 
The scrapings of her teeth and gums, 
A nasty compound of all hues, 
For here she spits, and here she spews. 
But oh! it turned poor Strephon’s bowels, 
When he beheld and smelled the towels, 
Begummed, bemattered, and beslimed 
With dirt, and sweat, and earwax grimed. 
No object Strephon’s eye escapes, 
Here petticoats in frowzy heaps; 
Nor be the handkerchiefs forgot 
All varnished o’er with snuff and snot. 
The stockings why should I expose, 
Stained with the marks of stinking toes; 
Or greasy coifs and pinners reeking, 
Which Celia slept at least a week in? 
A pair of tweezers next he found 
To pluck her brows in arches round, 
Or hairs that sink the forehead low, 
Or on her chin like bristles grow. 
         The virtues we must not let pass, 
Of Celia’s magnifying glass. 
When frightened Strephon cast his eye on’t 
It showed visage of a giant. 
A glass that can to sight disclose, 
The smallest worm in Celia’s nose, 
And faithfully direct her nail 
To squeeze it out from head to tail; 
For catch it nicely by the head, 
It must come out alive or dead. 
         Why Strephon will you tell the rest? 
And must you needs describe the chest? 
That careless wench! no creature warn her 
To move it out from yonder corner; 
But leave it standing full in sight 
For you to exercise your spite. 
In vain the workman showed his wit 
With rings and hinges counterfeit 
To make it seem in this disguise 
A cabinet to vulgar eyes; 
For Strephon ventured to look in, 
Resolved to go through thick and thin; 
He lifts the lid, there needs no more, 
He smelled it all the time before. 
As from within Pandora’s box, 
When Epimetheus op’d the locks, 
A sudden universal crew 
Of human evils upwards flew; 
He still was comforted to find 
That Hope at last remained behind; 
So Strephon lifting up the lid, 
To view what in the chest was hid. 
The vapors flew from out the vent, 
But Strephon cautious never meant 
The bottom of the pan to grope, 
And foul his hands in search of Hope. 
O never may such vile machine 
Be once in Celia’s chamber seen! 
O may she better learn to keep 
Those “secrets of the hoary deep!” 
         As mutton cutlets, prime of meat, 
Which though with art you salt and beat 
As laws of cookery require, 
And toast them at the clearest fire; 
If from adown the hopeful chops 
The fat upon a cinder drops, 
To stinking smoke it turns the flame 
Pois’ning the flesh from whence it came, 
And up exhales a greasy stench, 
For which you curse the careless wench; 
So things, which must not be expressed, 
When plumped into the reeking chest, 
Send up an excremental smell 
To taint the parts from whence they fell. 
The petticoats and gown perfume, 
Which waft a stink round every room. 
Thus finishing his grand survey, 
Disgusted Strephon stole away 
Repeating in his amorous fits, 
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits! 
         But Vengeance, goddess never sleeping 
Soon punished Strephon for his peeping; 
His foul imagination links 
Each Dame he sees with all her stinks: 
And, if unsavory odors fly, 
Conceives a lady standing by: 
All women his description fits, 
And both ideas jump like wits: 
But vicious fancy coupled fast, 
And still appearing in contrast. 
I pity wretched Strephon blind 
To all the charms of female kind; 
Should I the queen of love refuse, 
Because she rose from stinking ooze? 
To him that looks behind the scene, 
Satira’s but some pocky queen. 
When Celia in her glory shows, 
If Strephon would but stop his nose 
(Who now so impiously blasphemes 
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams, 
Her washes, slops, and every clout, 
With which he makes so foul a rout) 
He soon would learn to think like me, 
And bless his ravished sight to see 
Such order from confusion sprung, 
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Interview with Larry D. Sweazy, author of the Marjorie Trumaine murder mystery series

I met with Larry on the eve of the ASI/ISC 2016 Indexing Conference in Chicago, just before the conference’s official reception. Just like in his novels, my walk to our meeting place was blustery and foreboding, but the welcome I received from him and his lovely wife, Rose (whom I recognized instantly from one of her accessories as a fellow cat-lover), could not have been more reassuring. After warning him that I was not attempting to stalk him (since I was also writing a review of his second book for EAC’s Toronto Branch blog, BoldFace, and summarizing his keynote speech the next day for the ISC’s upcoming edition of The Bulletin newsletter), we sat down to talk business: that of writing and indexing and how the two connect.

In the first book of the series, See Also Murder[1], there had been mention of a magpie, so I started by asking him if that had been a total coincidence: indeed, it was only by fluke that he had used a species that is the mascot of the Indexing Society of Canada, since he lives in Indiana and didn’t know our connection to the aviary collector.

I also was interested in his attention to detail about the prairies. My mum was a Saskatchewan emigrant, and many of his references seemed straight out of her life: hating the wind, a Mountie hat (my grandfather was in the RCMP), and people who keep their problems to themselves (I’m definitely stiff upper lip as a result of her influence). He did live in North Dakota (the series setting) for a time, so the environs had permeated him. A strong sense of place is pervasive in his writing and features in his other historical, western and thriller novels and short stories.

One of the most interesting aspects of Larry’s writing is his ability to create a credible female protagonist voice. I mentioned having heard a radio interview of Clive Greave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) in which he was praised for his successful treatment of the same choice. It is remarkable to do this so convincingly and in an ongoing way (i.e. a series, not just a one-off book). The details Larry captures were striking: for example, in See Also Deception, he mentions the wind coming up and the women all grabbing at their skirts automatically. So real! The purse contents, menthol cigarettes, McCall’s-pattern dresses—it all works. While Larry did have strong women in his life as a youngster, he also credits good communication with his wife as another source of empathy for things he couldn’t initially know as much about, and he says it has made him a better person for that development: but, he adds, you have to have empathy for humans, not just women, and then you have to carry that empathy out into the world via the writing. Well, he’s got that down.

Another thing he has down is humour. As I said in my BoldFace review, I have no experience with the murder mystery genre, so I was surprised to trip across some laughs in a dark storyline. But what appealed to me was the subtlety as opposed to being hit over the head with guffaws. Larry was pleased that this was evident and said he felt it was important to respect the reader’s intelligence. Sometimes these were comments that just sounded like a conversation with your friend, others were funny because I heard myself in them. Apparently a laugh’s okay—perhaps necessary—when you’re talking murder, and while I don’t particularly enjoy reading humorous books per se, it was another thing that made my introduction to this genre easier.

I and others at the conclusion of his keynote talk asked about the writing and indexing process, their connection and how they affected Larry’s stories. There are clearly commonalities: you can’t very well expect to get repeat contracts if you procrastinate on getting (good) writing or indexing done. Both require discipline, which is helped by an organized approach. I could relate to his separating tasks into parts of the day, suitable to his psychic energy and his abilities, and to his being very literal in dividing up the time available by the pages required to achieve personal and work deadlines. A curious mind is facilitated by an orderly approach to life, and the ability to break things down into discrete elements and re-group them by their connections works for both key entries and key clues. He acknowledged the unravelling of the mystery with the process of indexing for Marjorie, too. Upon reflection, I’m sure my experience in private investigation was good training for my inquisitive mind and honed the skills I need for effective and systematic editing and indexing. We may love order and classification, but as indexers we need to be detail-oriented and able to see the big picture simultaneously.

Speaking of parts of the whole, I asked Larry what he envisioned the scope of this series to be—a trilogy? More? He couldn’t say for sure, but there’s at least one more coming: See Also Deadline, available May 2017. That’s good news. But the problem with discovering and glomming on to a new-to-me author is finding the time to go back and read the other stories they’ve produced. Social media and the advantages of the Information Age expose us to new pleasures more quickly and easily. The fallout means less time for other stuff; in my case, that usually leads to letting cooking go. Based on my Wine and Cheese award system (see blog sidebar), Marjorie Trumaine has caused a fair bit of order-in. Although not for too many days, since her stories are hard to put down.

[1] For those readers who are not familiar with indexing, “See also” is a conventional indicator to cross-references in back-of-the-book indexes; it tells readers that other closely related and additional information is available under another key word. “See” plus a key word indicates that the reader should look up a synonymous term that is actually used in the text, in case they have not chosen the indexed word to start their search with. Larry’s titles are little homages to the indexer’s work.