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A Review of All Things Misérables

So I finally got to see the new Les Mis movie in mid-February, when it had been in theatres for a month and a half.

les_miserables_movie_poster
Just learned this awesome word: “oscarisé”. This director has been previously Oscarized. Way to go, Tom Hooper.

This is rather a travesty. I’m a musical geek. I could sing you most of the soundtracks for about a dozen different musicals.* I was also a French major; I studied much French lit, loved the Romantics, and I’ve even been to the Victor Hugo museum.

As you can imagine, this movie gave me a lot of feelings.

First, some back story. (Victor Hugo would want me to include this.)

Dilovely’s first exposure to Les Mis in any form was on a visit to family friends in Toronto. She was about 11. This family had the piano music for the Schönberg-Boublil-Kretzmer musical, and the dad was playing it while another friend, a girl around my age, swished her long skirt around and sang “Master of the House” and “On My Own”. She knew all the words. Mini-Di wished she were like this girl: confident, knowledgeable, able to sing in front of people. And the music… it was compelling. There was obviously great drama behind it.

It was the spring of 1990 when a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, with Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, came into Mini-Di’s household, via her aunt. It was a home recording, on cassette tape, of course.

She and her sister Emily became totally obsessed. ‘Twas in the days before lyrics.com (or anything .com), so Em transcribed the lyrics by hand in a little spiral-bound notebook, and Mini-Di read them and listened for the parts she couldn’t get. They knew every word – and every inflection, every quirk of accent, every nuance of instrumentation. They were of an age where they understood the concepts of poverty, prostitution, homeless people, revolution, and death – but only superficially. Suddenly this story, with its gorgeously sad music, was making tragedy real.

Soon, Dilovely would see the musical live at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – twice – and receive a Les Mis T-shirt for her birthday.

Fast-forward ten years. [That’s a Hugo tactic too.] In 2000, Dilovely was in France, having finished her French degree during which she was, inevitably, moved by Victor Hugo’s poetry. That year, the musical version of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris was a wild success in Paris, starring Canadian Pierre Garand (a.k.a. Garou) as Quasimodo.

Dilovely found a copy of Les Misérables in the original French at Dunkerque’s Virgin Records store: two hefty paperback volumes totalling 1,948 pages (not counting appendices). She decided to make it her Everest.

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“Cosette Sweeping” by Emile Bayard, 1862.

She spent over three months reading this chef-d’oeuvre (in between teaching and gallivanting), with her French-English dictionary close at hand. She adored it. She cried frequently over the story. When it was over, she mourned its finishing and missed the characters terribly. They had become family.

As you can imagine, she was rather stoked to find out that there would be a new movie of Les Mis, the first to incorporate the music from the musical, and the first movie-musical to use live (rather than pre-recorded and lip-synched) singing by the actors. She anticipated great things.

Then, poor Dilovely wasn’t sure she would even make it to see the movie in theatres.

It ended up being almost a covert op: get baby to sleep just in the nick of time, leave the house in a hurry to arrive less than two minutes before the opening scene, keep phone in bra for whole movie in case of emergency text from Auntie Em, return home as swiftly as possible once the movie is over, before baby remembers that she doesn’t know how to drink from the bottle. (She was chewing on the nipple happily enough when we came in, so it was better than nothing.)

So, here are my thoughts as a francophile/Les-Mis-devotee.

Firstly, A Note About The Book:

To be honest, after I’d read Les Misérables, I returned to the musical’s soundtrack and found it lacking. The book is incredibly rich, teeming with history both real and imagined.** Every character, major or minor, is endowed with a superbly crafted, heart-wrenching personal history. And Victor Hugo knew what he was doing; though I haven’t been able to find it for you, I remember reading a quotation from him in which he admitted that he strove to evoke powerful emotions in his readers – something on the order of “If y’all don’t cry reading this book, I’ll eat my hat,” but in erudite, Romantic French.

It was gratifying to see the movie and realize it recaptures some of the depth that was lost in the stage play.

General Notes:

  • This movie thoroughly impressed me: the performances, the singing abilities, the method acting, the sensitivity of the adaptation, the sound mixing (bonjour, Oscar!), the makeup (Oscar again), the costumes, the set design, the overall vision.
  • This movie contains some of the most raw acting I’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean raw as in under-done – I mean naked, harrowing, bare-your-soul-to-the-camera acting.
  • The main actors are apparently all Les Mis geeks, for whom playing these roles is a dream come true.
  • Their dedication to their roles is remarkable. For example:
    • Hugh Jackman drank no water for 36 hours prior to filming his convict scenes, to achieve the “gaunt” look;

    Film Religion

    • Eddie Redmayne sang 21 takes of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” to be satisfied with his work, even though the director was happy with take #12;

    eddie redmayne empty chairs at empty tables

    • and Anne Hathaway had them actually cut off her real hair, on camera.

    anne-hathaway-haircut-les-miserables-fantine

  • Sean, without previous exposure to the music, was not as thrilled with the movie. There were many scenes where he felt it would have been better if they’d spoken the dialogue instead of singing. I think that’s an unsolvable issue with movie musicals: when you put them onscreen, it’s just kinda strange that they’re singing. The same is true of Rent: when it’s a movie, you expect them to speak their dialogue, not sing it.
  • To combat this, I recommend listening repeatedly to the soundtrack until it’s part of the fabric of your being. Then it doesn’t seem incongruous at all.
  • While watching, I had occasional glimpses of how the movie might seem to an outsider, how it could be perceived as maudlin. I mean, the pathos is so thick you can chew on it. But that’s part of why we love it. I believe Hugo would have approved.

Comparison to the Stage Musical (spoiler warning, if you don’t already know the story… but who doesn’t?):

  • I noticed every time the music differed from the soundtrack in my head – alternate lyrics, more delicate instrumentation, and lots of abridged songs. (“Dog Eats Dog” was all but eliminated.)
  • The grit and sordidness of the time and place really come through on film. From the dizzying nosebleed section of the Royal Alex, you can’t fully appreciate how filthy everyone is. (Teeth especially.) On a movie set, one can achieve truly repulsive squalor. “Look Down”, “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” are outstanding examples of this.
  • Similarly, the intimacy of film allows for plot subtleties that aren’t possible in stage format. Suddenly certain realities are clear:
    • Fantine’s dawning acceptance, as her hallucinations dissipate, of the fact that she is dying and must give up care of her daughter;
    • the poignant youth and naïveté of the students;
    • Valjean’s jealousy and panic when he realizes Cosette will not always be his;
    • the gendarme’s regret after shooting Gavroche;
    • the pathetic haphazardness of the barricade, and indeed the “revolution” as a whole.
  • I loved the new song, “Suddenly”, sung by Valjean when he takes little Cosette into his care. This was one of the book’s plot points missing entirely from the musical: rescuing Cosette completely changes Valjean’s outlook and priorities. His love for her is immediate, intense, beautiful, and drives basically all of his subsequent actions. He is fiercely protective and fearful at the same time, as parents are. I was very glad they reincorporated this element.

Specific Notes:

  • The opening scene blew me away. “Goosebumps” doesn’t remotely cover it.
  • Hugh Jackman made me cry, especially in the Soliloquy at the beginning. I loved almost every aspect of his performance.
  • My only quibble was that I wished “Bring Him Home” were more wistful/delicate. But it’s, like, one of the hardest solos in the world, and he sang admirably.
  • Anne Hathaway made me cry multiple times, even though her character lasts for less than half the movie. I’m glad she won the Oscar.
  • I’d been warned that Amanda Seyfried as Cosette sings like a Chipmunk. I understood the reference immediately – it’s true that her vibrato is very trembly and the part is written super-high – but her pitch is right on and I thought she did a good job overall.
  • I was also warned that Russell Crowe as Javert was the weak link. I can’t disagree; his singing – especially his consonants – were tentative where they should have been full of conviction (no pun intended). His performance was lacklustre. But again, his pitch was good, and his duet with Jackman was solid – especially the low note on “Monsieur le maire, you wear a different chain” – so I forgive him.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thénardiers were appropriately gaudy and repellent, although I didn’t love Sacha’s constantly mutating accent. But I guess accents are his thing.
  • Eddie Redmayne is totally endearing as Marius. Earnest and freckly and boyish. He completely won me over with his delivery of the line, “I’m doing everything all wrong.”
  • Colm Wilkinson! Was in it! As the Bishop of Digne. I didn’t even recognize him – or his voice – while I was watching… so I guess I’ll have to see it again.
  • I appreciated the parts that recreated certain stage moments, like Valjean’s burdened silhouette in the sewer, and the angle at which Enjolras dies. My inner geek-self was tickled. (If you’re thinking, Um, Dilovely, what other self do you have? then yeah. Touché.)
  • I also appreciated the bits that gave us information from the book that was not in the stage version; for example:
    • we get to see the elephant statue that, in the book, is home to Gavroche and a bunch of other urchins.
    • we also catch sight of young Cosette’s doll that looks like a bundle of rags tied together; readers know she has wrapped up a little lead knife to be her doll. (I KNOW – how heartbreaking is that??)
  • I was confused for a moment by the enormous barricade that appears in the finale, with the whole cast singing atop it. I guess it’s probably reminding us that less than 20 years after the end of the story, in 1848, the French people would rise up for real and force King Louis-Philippe to abdicate – using a MUCH bigger barricade.

Notes on Revisiting the Story After Many Years:

  • As my understanding of the world increases, this story seems more and more relevant – and sad. There are people all over the world who still face tragic circumstances like those in Les Misérables, even though as a species, we should know better.
  • Fantine’s story touches me more now that I’m a mom. The idea of being obliged to give my child to someone else to look after and just hoping for the best, yearning for her all the time… Furthermore, knowing I’m going to leave the mortal plane and never hold her again… Just awful.
  • Hugo’s own story also hits home a lot more. His firstborn son died in infancy, and his second child Léopoldine drowned at age 19, shortly after being married. He knew all about pain, and also about passion, and politics. And he observed poverty all around him – the conditions he describes in the Les Misérables were not imagined. No wonder it’s an amazing book.
  • I need to read it again someday, even though it would probably take me… an embarrassingly long time.
  • And if you enjoyed the musical or the movie or even just the plot, I highly recommend reading it yourself.

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  • BONUS Factoid/Recommendation:
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La Liberté guidant le peuple, by Eugène Delacroix.

This is one of my favourite Romantic paintings, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris. The little boy right beside Lady Liberty is said to have inspired Hugo’s Gavroche. I fell in love with this after seeing it discussed on video by Sister Wendy, and later had the privilege of seeing it at the Louvre. Sister Wendy is amazing and so is the painting.

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*West Side Story, Showboat, Cats, Evita, Les Mis, Joseph, Miss Saigon, Assassins, Falsettos, A New Brain, Once On This Island, Rent, Parade… Sisters, what am I forgetting?

**For example, there is a section entitled “Waterloo”, a gruesome 70-page depiction of battle and its remains, related to the story only as historical context – and a vehicle to introduce Thénardier in the last few pages. I wrote a paper on it, about Hugo’s manipulation of time, during my M.A. That’s how much I love Hugo.

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Narcissism on the Interwebs

My husband has a love-hate relationship with Facebook. He has created and deleted his account countless times. He knows that, for now, no other social media site does what Facebook does – that’s why he always ends up returning. The part he dislikes – apart from their sneaky privacy policies – is how it encourages narcissism.

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Likety-like?

I can see his point. There is something about publishing things on the internet that seems to lend them validity. You can go on Facebook and tell people: “Kids are at school, time for my morning coffee!” and chances are, there will be friends who Like your status, or who comment: “Me too! :)” or “OMG I <3 my Timmy’s!” Yep. Morning coffee: validated.

To Sean (and many others, I imagine), this is annoying. Who gives a poop about your morning coffee? Why should this be important to anyone?

And this is just a microcosm of the Greater Interweb, where anyone can be a published writer by starting a blog, anyone can initiate a comment war with a well-placed bitchy remark, and you never know if your stupid video of yourself accidentally face-planting in your kitchen might just go viral.

To me, the internet is simply a reflection of humanity. I’m not going to deny that, unfortunately, it has its evil side. The web validates child porn, white supremacy, and gun violence along with your morning coffee. That’s humanity for you.

At the same time, there are forums to condemn those things. And sources of sheer awesomeness to counteract them.

I see it as an equalizer. You can have your say and I can have mine. The floor is open.

I remember what it was like before the internet. I got my first email address in university, and it was a saving grace for a homesick freshwoman just a bit too introverted to love residence life. You mean, I can write to my family all at once? And they can write back that same day??

It took me longer to enjoy the wider internet. I remember my dad, who has been working with computers since they took up whole rooms, saying, “If you don’t know, you could look it up. On the internet.” I was dismissive; it seemed like too much bother. (HA.)

Now, I can barely imagine life without it. No more calling the Weather Office if you miss the long-term forecast. No more flipping futilely through Leonard Maltin if you can’t remember where you saw that actor before. No more recording grainy songs off the radio with DJs talking over the first ten seconds. No more researching with a mountainous pile of hulking tomes edited by a few academic strangers; Wikipedia weighs nothing, and it’s edited by everybody. Amazing!!

It’s a brave new world, easily accessible.

Aside from its handiness, though, it’s a great reminder that we are never alone. Whether your obsession be belly dancing, quantum physics, vintage cars, or high-quality writing implements with literary cachet {insert *Sean-cough*}, you know that online, you can find your peeps.

If you or someone you love has a miscarriage, postpartum depression, cancer, a broken heart, or anything else, there’s a community.

Also, if you need to laugh so hard you cry, or have your faith in humanity restored, it’s all there.

Some say that blogs are the ultimate example of narcissism. Any idiot can start a blog and start spewing their opinions and minutiae of their lives into cyberspace. True. The quality of blogs ranges from sublime to asinine.

But so what? As with all forms of media, all you need is a filter. If it sucks, DON’T WASTE TIME ON IT. If it smacks of narcissism, find something else.

I barely knew what a blog was when I started blogging; I just wanted to write. Little did I know that it would become the creative outlet I hadn’t realized I craved; that it would be an enveloping source of healing when my son died; that my message of encouragement to my colleagues would be read by thousands of disheartened teachers; that blogging would strengthen old friendships and open pathways to new ones.

It is wonderful, and humbling, to meet a reader for the first time and hear, “I feel like I know you – like we’re already friends!” And it’s not untrue: if you connected with me through my words, then we are connected. I wrote them for you.

I’ve felt similarly reading other blogs, learning so much about that writer and thinking, Wow, I love this person I’ve never met.

Mutual blog-reading and commenting is a unique form of friendship I’d never imagined. You can bond with people thousands of miles away, with whom you would never have crossed paths in life. That’s pretty special. The blogs I gravitate to are written by thoughtful, intelligent people, on all kinds of topics, and it’s genuinely comforting to read and relate to their words – especially after a national tragedy. In a community like Yeah Write, where mutual-readership is on fire, it’s like having a group discussion where we contemplate and compose our perspectives, then offer them to the company. I dig it.

And I don’t consider it narcissism to base your writing on your own experience. After all, that’s what we have to work with that’s most authentic and relatable.

As for Facebook… I like it. People complain about toxic comment threads and nasty gossip; I avoid those things as much as possible. It helps to have really nice friends.

It makes me smile to read about the kids or the garden, or see a photo of a delicious dinner or the dog looking silly. Those ordinary tidbits make me feel close to people I don’t see enough.

And when there’s serious news, whether personal or global, it’s heartening to see it through the lens of people I love.

By all means, tell me about your coffee. We can have one together.

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Photo by Lisa of Continental Breakfasts.

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Happiness and the Multi-multi-multi-tasking Brain

I think it’s safe to say that everyone wants to be happy. If there is such a thing as a universal goal in the context of humanity, happiness must be it, right?

Keeping that in mind, it seems a bit sad that so many people still feel themselves to be in pursuit of happiness. Folks are always trying to figure out, whether deliberately or not, “how to be happy”, as though they aren’t there yet.

I came across an image today on Facebook that really got me thinking.

12 things happy people do differently

I like this list. I like the way it doesn’t claim to be the answer to happiness; I like the way it uses words like develop, practice, cultivate, learn – words that address the process, the fact that you can’t just flip a switch to change yourself.

I also agree with most of the points. I consider myself a very happy person, overall, and I think a lot of that is due to things like consciously appreciating what I have, tending towards optimism, and so on.

The thing to remember is, there are certain other factors that allow me to do that – and most of those factors have to do with luck.

I am lucky that my body’s chemicals are balanced, rather than working to sabotage my happiness, as is the case for so many people, and that my health has always been good.

I am lucky that I wasn’t the victim of neglect or abuse when I was too little to defend myself, because in that case I would most likely have issues that would obstruct my well-being.

I am lucky to live in a part of the world where my happiness is not being undermined by war, famine, or disease, and to have been born into a family where we have always had a stable home, lots of love, enough to eat, and good education.

I’d say the above list assumes that “happy people” have the basics covered. People who manage to be happy in spite of those things have, in my opinion, really accomplished something.

It occurs to me that happiness, like unhappiness, compounds itself. Being kind leads to better social relationships, which makes it easier to avoid over-thinking and social comparisons, which in turn facilitates commitment to one’s goals. Furthermore, in spite of the truism that riches and material goods don’t make people happy, IF you already have the fundamentals of happiness covered, I think it’s possible – and reasonable – to feel happy about excellence in more materialistic things (such as my smart phone, my smooth-edge can opener, and my super-comfy shoes). I think it’s valuable to relish stuff that’s good.

Perhaps the best thing about this compounding phenomenon is related to #6: if you’ve worked to hone your “happiness skills”, shall we say, it’s much more feasible to cope with adversity. I think that’s how Anne Frank was able to write beautiful words while hiding from the Nazis, and how the Gaza Doctor was inspired to a hopeful project by the deaths of his daughters. I know it’s how I was able to draw a certain kind of joy from my son’s memorial service.

I want to make sure I include a sort of inverse to that idea, something I’ve learned (with some difficulty): even when you’re a ridiculously fortunate person, with every reason to be happy, it’s okay to get down sometimes. When you’re having a crap time, for whatever reason, it does not help to say to yourself, “But look! You’re so lucky! No excuse to be sad!” Your reasons are your reasons. Even for happy people, feeling like shit occasionally is valid. I’ve been struggling with that for these last two months, but I’ve decided it’s my prerogative to get frustrated when my baby girl is crying instead of sleeping – even though she’s she’s my rainbow baby, and the most precious blessing I could ever have hoped for. It’s okay. I can be filled with gratitude AND want to tear my hair out once in a while. In fact, maybe I appreciate the ups more when there are downs for comparison.

There is one thing from the list of “things happy people do differently” that I immediately zeroed in on – the thing that I need to work on most: #8. These days, I do not put enough time or effort into having “flow experiences.” (I didn’t know that’s what they were called, but I’ll go with it.) Most of the things I do are concurrent in some way, and therefore not awesomely done: nursing A + catching up on email, racing dinky cars + making a to-do list, doing dishes + helping E make playdough shapes, etc. It makes me feel like everything I do is half-assed, which is, frankly, not a happy feeling.

Two things come to mind that can centre my focus completely: 1) studying the scrumptious contours of my children’s faces, and 2) blogging when those children are asleep. Maybe that’s why blogging is so therapeutic for me – letting my mind really chew on a single idea for a significant chunk of time is incredibly satisfying, probably because it’s a “flow experience.” Makes my brain happy.

And, of course, the times I’m able to let go and get completely absorbed in my children… well, there’s no question that those moments are well worth it.

This is happiness.

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Such yummy kids.

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Greyphobia: Why can’t I just love my wrinkles?

I’m thirty-four years old.

I have certain products I put on my face daily. One is an antioxidant serum I use around my eyes to prevent wrinkles.

I also have many grey hairs, which I first noticed when I was pregnant with E (age 30). Each pregnancy has accelerated the process. I’ve never dyed my grey, but that’s probably because it’s still mostly hidden under the top layer of brown hair. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of colouring someday. (Especially since I have a three-year-old who once said to me, “Mama, I hope I’m not getting old… like you.”)

Back in our twenties, when my Hubbibi was wooing me with written correspondence, I remember one of his letters – which always contained social/political commentary (yes, that was part of what wooed me) – talking about how crazy it was that companies could charge so much for something like anti-wrinkle cream and people would still feel the need to buy it. At the time, part of me agreed with him… and yet, I already knew that such vanity existed in me, although I had no eye wrinkles at the time.

Now, here I am. I do spend money on skin products, including ones to “keep me young”.

I know it’s kinda dumb. It’s not like I’m losing my eyesight or developing arthritis, both of which would actually hinder my ability to enjoy life. It’s not like I’m a famous personality who gets lots of public attention and scrutiny. I’m not hoping for some kind of big break based on my youthful face. But I can’t deny that when I see my wrinkles getting more pronounced, I sigh sadly. When I see an obvious grey hair, I pull it out.

Why do I do this? My “signs of aging” are the results of life being lived – the laughter and tears and sunshine and pregnancies and interrupted nights with my babies – and I wouldn’t trade these things for youth… not even the tears. I am glad to be healthy and alive, knowing lots of people have had their lives cut shorter than this. To age is a privilege.

It’s not that I think my life has already passed its peak and it’s all downhill from here. On the contrary, I look forward to the next thirty-four years – and beyond, if I’m lucky – as more opportunities to do and be and witness great things.

So why can’t I just own this aging thing? Be proud of my grey hairs? Love my wrinkles?

Frustratingly, this seems to be mostly a women’s problem. Men apparently don’t give a dirty diaper-full about going grey or getting wrinkles. Why do women get these neuroses?

Conveniently, I blame society. (Because society can be blamed for everything.) Especially advertising media.

It dawned on me when I saw the commercial for “Touch of Gray” (Just For Men).

For men, grey hair is an asset. It’s distinguished, handsome, mature. It says “experience”, for crap’s sake.

You’ll notice the woman doing the interview has NO “touch of gray” WHATSOEVER. No visible wrinkles either. Sheesh. Please excuse me while I gag on the double-standard.

Women get crow’s feet. Men get “crinkly eyes”.

Women are bombarded by anti-aging advertising, featuring models either airbrushed or well under forty (or both). These ads are designed to create anxiety about looking your actual age – aging skin can’t possibly be “great skin”. Have you EVER seen such an ad featuring a man?

Male actors – some of the biggest celebrities – can walk around with crinkles and grey on display, and still be considered hot… think George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, John Slattery, Alec Baldwin, Richard Gere. Female actors don’t get to show their grey unless the part actually calls for it; Helen Mirren, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, and Meryl Streep almost never let their true colours show. (And don’t get me started on plastic surgery.) How is that fair?

Pretty-Woman julia roberts richard gere
Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (age 41) in Pretty Woman

I asked my husband if he ever worries or even thinks about grey hair and wrinkles. He practically scoffed. “Are you kidding? I can’t wait! I’ve always wanted to be an old man!” Of course, Sean is not a good person to ask about this; he has a perpetually young-looking face, and also an odd penchant for deliberately choosing accessories that are, shall we say, “elderly” (sweater-vests, flat caps, even the occasional walking stick or pocket watch).

But how and why does he get to want to be an old man? I think we’re dealing not just with ads, but with a deeply ingrained societal idea.

Say the words “old man” to yourself. (Or Google it, if that’s easier.) What images come to mind? Maybe it’s just me, but I think of someone old and wise, gentlemanly, even venerable… like Winston Churchill, or Gandhi, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. After all, the iconic “Old Man and the Sea” was about an old Cuban fisherman with extraordinary strength, determination, and resourcefulness.

The words “old lady” just aren’t the same; inexplicably, I picture someone hunched, shuffling, blue-haired, going a little bit dotty. Even “old woman” doesn’t sound good – “old women” do things like invite hapless children into their gingerbread homes and roast them. They might live in a shoe, or swallow a fly for no good reason.

Why do I think this? It’s ridiculous! All the old women I know are amazing, intelligent, lovely people, not at all how I describe. Why does societal perception trump my actual life experience?

It would be easier to reveal the evidence of our journeys toward old-womanhood if women, as a group, were allowed to age properly, naturally, graciously. How will we get permission to be free of a myth in which we participate?

I guess I should start by wearing my wrinkles and grey hairs proudly, like the badges of my personal history that they are… and then show young girls it’s okay – by being super-awesome.

I’ll work on that.

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BANG Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

casual vacancy jk rowling cover art
NOT HARRY POTTER.

I admit, I’ve been remiss. I haven’t been keeping you all up-to-date with the GGG book club’s choices for… um… approximately a year. Whoops. I know you have all been tearing out your hair and wailing (internally): But Dilovely, the books! Forget the rest of this drivel… the BOOKS!

I promise I will rectify the situation. We have been reading some really good books, worth writing home about.

But since this is one of the few times I actually bought a book (a virtual one, anyway) so soon after its release, I feel the need to tell you something about it post-haste. I usually don’t feel urgency about books – so far, basically just Emily Giffin and Jo-Ro have inspired this in me.

Most of you already know I’m a devoted Harry Potter fan, and am training my son to be a wizard (and my daughter too, eventually). That is why I was really excited to read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. Her first book written “for adults”. I knew it would not be in the same vein as HP, but I figured I’d be guaranteed to enjoy it.

It’s a story of a small (fictional) town in England, with a “small-world” feel, where everyone knows each other and is all up in each other’s business. The sudden death of one well-known man creates shock waves in the community, and the reader discovers how it affects the lives of the people he knew – and even some he didn’t.

(In case you are wondering, “The Casual Vacancy” refers to the deceased’s spot on the Parish Council that must be filled when he dies.)

Here are my thoughts and estimations – without spoilers.

You will likely be disappointed if:

  • You’re waiting for any mention whatsoever of Quidditch, Butterbeer, Animagi, or Hungarian Horntails. Sorry. There aren’t even any house-elves.
  • You want the action to revolve around one hero – here, the reader is privy to the thoughts of well over a dozen characters over the course of the book.
  • You expect any one of those characters to be as winsome as Harry (except in Order of the Phoenix when he’s kinda bitchy).
  • You prefer plots to follow predictable lines and/or contain lots of action and/or suspense.
  • You’d like to see the whole plot wrapped up in an epic, heart-thudding, satisfying finale where good triumphs over evil and true love poignantly prevails.

You will likely enjoy the book if:

  • You like lots of multidimensional characters with rough edges.
  • You want your novels to have a really gritty side, including sex, drugs, and… what was that last thing?
  • You have been hoping to discover that J.K.R. has a proper vocabulary of swear words.
  • You are engaged by realistic, non-formulaic stories.
  • You are comfortable with an unresolved ending and ambiguous messages.

This is not a magical showcase of Rowling’s impressive imagination. What it does highlight is her ability to draw characters with deft strokes, using their own thoughts, their actions, and the thoughts of other characters about them. The story practically studies the study of human nature.

Reading this book, I found I both liked and disliked almost every character presented. The majority of them I disliked at first impression, but grew to like as their strength and depth were revealed – and also their difficulties, which kindled my sympathy.

It’s like real life, for me at least: it’s not that I often actively dislike people, but I do tend to like people better once I get past initial impressions. Everyone is deeper, more prismatic, than they seem at first.

It’s also like real life in that how we are perceived not only differs with every person we know, it also does not match how we see ourselves. There will be people who like and admire us more than we realize, as well as people who really don’t like us, even if they don’t show it. Likewise, our actions – or lack thereof – sometimes affect people in ways we haven’t predicted or even considered. Sometimes we can think we are doing or saying one thing… and that thing is being regarded by someone else in an entirely different way.

(I have recently been reminded of this in my own life, in more ways than one. It is way easier than we realize to be and do things that become insincere or unkind by the time they reach someone else. That can be true even for people who prioritize niceness.)

We all keep secrets. We all do weird things sometimes without knowing quite why. We all have our vanities and insecurities. We all have motivations other people don’t guess at. We all occasionally have thoughts – about ourselves and others – that we’re glad no-one has to know about.

I think that’s what this book is about. (Not that it doesn’t have occasional heart-thudding moments, as well as poignant ones, and some very satisfying ones as well.)

So in my mind, the message isn’t actually ambiguous after all. It’s one of the oldest messages out there, told in a skilful and unexpected way: try not to judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. If you’re judging (or even if you’re not), you’re being judged… so take care. After all, you never know when you might die of an aneurysm.

I think Jo wrote this novel for herself. For a chance to do something completely different, relinquish the fantastical and write something outwardly mundane, but with insidious profundity.

And I’d like to think she would be tickled that I’ve figured all this out.

jk-rowling 2012
J.K. Rowling, 2012

So, to sum up:

In case you haven’t already deducted, I’m with List B – I enjoyed it, found it fascinating, read it avidly. It doesn’t live in the cockles of my heart, the way Harry does, but I did kinda love some of the characters. And I’ll remember them for a long time.

***


 

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Acts of Kindness

I’ve been thinking about Kindness lately. Being nice to people. An idea not as simple for us humans as it sounds.

I recently happened to read some interesting blog posts by one Miss Zoot, whose blog I found through Daily Buzz Moms, and really enjoyed reading this post about not being mean to other people. It struck a chord with me. Miss Zoot (a.k.a. Kim) is a person who tries her best to be nice (although we all mess up these kinds of goals occasionally). She also becomes uncomfortable when people profit from mocking others – she believes that making other people laugh (or read your blog or whatever) is not a good enough reason to be mean to someone.

This is something I can agree with. I’ve been trying to think back and figure out if I ever blog at other people’s expense. I’d like to think not, since I am also a person who tries to be nice, but I don’t know for sure. I once blogged about Ann Coulter and wasn’t very nice; I’ve written letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (one upon his majority election and one related to his omnibus bill) in which my ire got the better of my politeness.

In my defense, I don’t write these kinds of posts for their comedic value. I write them when I get angry at someone – usually someone who appears to lack kindness. I realize that my tendency is to write with compassion that is satirical, but contains a grain of sincerity that I hope my readers detect – because, after all, when people seem to suck… there’s usually a reason, and often a profound one.

On a lighter note, this morning I got out of the house for an hour-and-a-half’s jaunt about town (during the baby’s nap) in which I witnessed two acts of kindness I consider remarkable. Not random acts of kindness; kindness when a stranger needs it – but hasn’t asked for it.

On my way from the farmer’s market, there was a woman on the other side of the road who tripped on the sidewalk and fell, with all her market purchases. I was just looking to see if it was safe to jaywalk when I noticed another person crossing the street to come to this woman’s aid. She was apparently unhurt (physically), and the other woman helped her gather her things and get up again, respectfully, to avoid embarrassment. I was so glad to see that; sometimes people just ignore these situations and look the other way, but not today.

Then I was in a Tim Horton’s, in line behind two girls I would judge to be about twelve or thirteen years old. One was getting her toonie (two-dollar coin for the Yanks) out of her pocket and dropped it. She bent down to retrieve it and realized that it had fallen between the cracks of the slush grate and disappeared. She and her friend laughed a little, but you could tell she was upset; a toonie is worth considerably more when you’re twelve. And she just wanted a warm beverage. After a minute or two, realizing this girl had no more money, the guy in front of them in line simply gave her a toonie, saying, “That’s some harsh luck, there.” And for the record, he did not look like the kind of guy you expect to do such a nice thing. He wasn’t smiley or grandfatherly or anything; just kind.

After that, I thought to myself, Two lovely acts of kindness at just the right moments! I’m going to provide the next one.

Funnily enough, it’s not as easy as you’d think to find those great moments. Unless you count opening doors for people or letting them pull out in front of you in the parking lot. I’d like to say that when I bought Girl Guide Cookies from the poor, shivering young girls outside the market, it was an act of kindness… but they’re so delicious, I know it was really just hankering on my part.

I guess this will be a work-in-progress.

***

P.S. Here are some better pics of the dragon-fairy costume, taken while E was helping me make pancakes the day before Halloween.

three-year-old's dragon costume
Industrious dragon loves to cook.
dragon and pancakes
(So you know… those wings are sparkly.)


 

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Who would you have been when the Titanic sank?

Last night at about 2:30 a.m., the wreck of the Titanic turned 100 years old. There were four of us talking about it in our kitchen yesterday evening, and again this morning – about how there were boats travelling to that very spot in the Atlantic Ocean, to commemorate the centennial… and about what an overwhelming story it is, no matter how you look at it.

bow of the titanic wreckage

Just before Easter weekend, I went with Skye to see the movie Titanic in 3D. I remember I saw it twice in theatres when it first came out, and maybe once on video since then… but it had been at least a decade since I’d seen it. Certain scenes I still remembered perfectly, so deeply did they affect me at the time. (I know a lot of people call it a bad movie, but I’m sorry. They are just haters, and they are WRONG. The dialogue may be banal, but it is an incredible, monumental story, portrayed with obsessive attention to detail and accuracy. It’s an amazing cinematic accomplishment.)

Titanic_poster_kate_winslet_leonardo_dicaprio

I think I can honestly say that, although I’d seen many movies involving death before, this was the first film that made me really confront the idea. So many different ways to die with the Titanic, most of them inevitable. It is such a mind-blowing moment in the film when Mr. Andrews, the ship’s designer, tells the captain and others that it is a “mathematical certainty” that the magnificent, so-called unsinkable vessel will founder. Very, very soon. With lifeboats to accommodate only half the people on board. Human brains do not want to believe such things. Continue reading “Who would you have been when the Titanic sank?”

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