Monday 19 December 2016


This psychological thriller is all about relationships with others (or is it with the self?). The surprise ending will answer that question. Either way, Jake (the protagonist of the story, shall we say) is right:
Forfeiting solitude or independence is a much greater sacrifice than most of us realize… It’s not unlike religion and God. We believe in certain constructs that help us understand life…The idea that
we are better off with one person for the rest of our lives is not an innate truth of existence. It’s a belief we want to be true.
Without the Other, so much of life felt accidental, unnecessary, arbitrary. It’s been lacking a dimension. Then again, a real relationship -- when there is dependence, when something is at stake – may involve the loss of the self.
We get at the truest version of ourselves …when we are not diluted by the Other’s presence and judgments…Only when we are alone can we focus on ourselves, know ourselves.
What does Jake tell us about his Other? He called me a compressed Uma Thurman she says. He never called me sexy… He called me pretty and he said “beautiful” once or twice, the way guys do. Once he called me therapeutic.
The key to understanding Reid’s novel is the phrase: You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.
But you know what? I think all thoughts are fake. That’s what makes them thoughts rather than observations. They have no independent existence. They serve only as tools to interpret the world.

And even so, we can’t understand the world through rationality, not entirely. We depend on symbols for meaning…This integration reflects the way our minds work, the way we function and interact; our split between logic, reason, and something else, something close to feeling, or spirit. There’s a word that will probably make you bristle.

Friday 16 December 2016

#AMREADING David Gilmour’s The Perfect Order of Things

Autobiographies are often brag-sheets. This one is different. Gilmour revisits his failures.
One of life’s great pleasures lies in giving the bird to people and places where you were once a flop. Fuck you, May-Lou, and so on. But with the greying of my hair I have discovered that it’s a little more complicated than that. For one thing, your body remembers failures more easily than success – especially youthful failures:
She went up the Ferris wheel with me as my girlfriend and when she came back down, she was someone else’s. It was the first romantic betrayal of my life.
It’s doubly painful because having a beautiful girlfriend is a certain kind of delicious when you’re young.
Boarding school was another place of failure Gilmour had to live down. Suddenly he was one of those guys, along with the chronic masturbators and pimple squeezers and unloved children whose parents plied the civil service in Nairobi or Senegal or East Timor… those dandruffy, never-have-a-date, sad sack pooches you saw doing their homework on a Friday night!
Years later he meets someone at a reception who has climbed past him on the career ladder and remembers his mistakes: His face hardens with politeness…You don’t talk to guys like that, you banter.
Drinking is a great cure for what ails you, but what’s the cure for a hangover? For some people it’s great literature.  I lay on my side like a wounded animal, waiting to be rescued by sleep’s second act which didn’t’ come. I opened War and Peace and, facing the white stucco wall, sweat already dribbling across my chest, began to read.

Gilmour still has his old copy of War and Peace. I have a check mark beside the paragraph where, even in the roller-coaster grip of a white rum hangover, I began to pay acute attention.

Monday 5 December 2016


And George Walker’s new play The Damage Done isn’t one of them. Maybe that’s the explanation for the curmudgeonly review in the Globe & Mail. I guess no one wants to listen to a bitch abusing her useless but loveable ex. He is dreaming of what he could do instead of what he should do-- like being a father to his daughters. No, she gets no sympathy even if she is the one who is suicidal, while he nicely muddles through life, preferably on workman’s compensation.  Even if she’s been juggling single parenthood, career moves, and boyfriends, and can’t take the pressure anymore. No, we don’t want to hear about that, even if the acting is first-rate. Now if Walker had played it for laughs or – even better – turned it into a musical, busloads would have come to see his play. But an honest examination of Life Sucks, and this in the season of jingle bells? What were you thinking of, Walker?

But seriously: This is the best play I’ve seen in some time. Wish Toronto would offer more of the same. And bonus: Ken Gass is directing!

Saturday 3 December 2016


Happenings on a short ride home between University and Parliament:

Cheerful black woman gets on and shouts Seat! Someone dutifully gets up and offers her a seat. Next request: Mr Driver, I’m totally lost. You tell me when Jarvis comes up, Mr. Driver. He doesn’t but an electronic voice and several passengers do.

Angry woman gets on announcing I’m a Lesbian. There is no marriage. Leave my body alone!

TTC checker gets on and demands proof of fare from her. I’m a Lesbian, she tells him. There is no marriage, understand? There is no marriage!!

He moves on to the next passenger, an old man wearing red Santa Claus gloves. He raises a jittery hand and points to heaven.

The checker moves on to the cheerful black woman. I’m totally lost, she tells him. 

I take pity on him and show him my transfer. He nods. I guess he’s used to this scene. One out of four passengers co-operating is probably the norm.

Which reminds me of an item in the local news. A woman of Asian origin was harassed at the bank by a fellow customer who railed at her and called her a chink. She complained that no one, including the staff at the bank, came to her help. I don’t think it was a matter of standing up to a bigot. It was a matter of standing up to a disturbed man. I myself wouldn’t confront him. Sorry. Not even the TTC checker has the guts to do that.

Friday 18 November 2016


You know the interior decorating rules for airports:
-       No colour. Stick to gray and black. White allowed where grubby fingers can’t reach it.
-       No soft surfaces. Stick to tile and metal.
-       Super-sized electronic advertisements for luxury goods, in the best of taste.

What can you say in favour of airport décor? It’s impeccable. This is minimalism at its grandest. Wait. Can you use “minimalism” and “grand” in the same sentence?

What possible objections could you have to airport decor?  It’s soulless. People seem sadly out of place, messing up the clean outlines. This is the home of robots.

How do you compensate for the cold esthetics?  With soulful sound effects.  You ride in the sleek, gray, silent shuttle between terminals and suddenly there it is, coming at you over the PA system: the clanging of cow bells, a contented moo, canned yodeling. No, I’m not making this up.

But come to think of it: Why not the sound of cuckoo clocks?

Tuesday 8 November 2016


First experience: The other day I bought placemats at Bed Bath & Beyond. The price on the tag was $ 2.99. When I checked my bill I discovered that I'd been charged $ 4.99. I brought this to the attention of the woman at the customer service desk. Without blinking an eye, she told me that the $ 2.99 were American Dollars.

Hello? I said. The last time I checked, Toronto was in Canada. I expect the price to be in Canadian Dollars. She conceded my point after some back and forth and refunded the difference.  

BTW, what exchange rate are these people using?

Second experience: The next day I bought an eyeliner at Shoppers Drug Mart. After getting over my sticker shock – the advertised price was $ 33 -- I found that the cashier had billed me $ 40. I pointed out the price difference. She didn’t give me any argument but very sternly declared: I will change the price for you this time. Meaning, she will overcharge me again next time?
Well, thanks for the favour!

Tuesday 1 November 2016

#AMREADING James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.

This novel, first published in 1956, has been reissued in 2013, establishing Baldwin’s place among the genuinely indispensable American writers (Saturday Post). Here are some memorable passages from the book:

A young American travels to Paris, trying to find himself, as we say in America. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people.

Or is he losing himself in Paris? Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it.

He falls in love with Giovanni.I did not dare to mention Hella. I could not even pretend to myself that I was sorry she was in Spain. I was glad. I was utterly, hopelessly, horribly glad. I knew I could do nothing whatever to stop the ferocious excitement which had burst in me like a storm. I could only drink, in the faint hope that the storm might thus spend itself without doing any more damage to my land.

He moves in with Giovanni. Our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear…anguish and fear became the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride.

But when Hella returns to Paris, he took her in his arms and something happened then. I held her very close in that high, dark train station, with a great confusion of people all about us, jut beside the breathing train. She smelled of the wind and the sea and of space and I felt in her marvelously living body the possibility of legitimate surrender.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

#AMTHINKING It’s fashionable to apologize.
Naomi Klein and Mirko Zardini at University of Toronto

Yesterday I attended a discussion about the environment between Naomi Klein and Mirko Zardini. The moderator began by apologizing that they had neglected to invite an indigenous speaker.  Well, why didn’t they? They could have invited an indigenous speaker if they had wanted to. So what’s with the apology? I guess it’s fashionable to apologize. And much easier than taking action.  Preferably you apologize for mistakes made by your forebears because they are dead and don’t have to worry about being re-elected or being kicked off the career ladder.

And while we are on the topic, I’m thinking: Why doesn’t anybody apologize to me? I want an apology from the Catholic School Board because they didn’t give me maternity leave in the 60s. I want an apology from the government because they didn’t provide me with accent-removal courses when I came to Canada and from the public at large because they made me feel uncomfortable by referring to my accent. Do you know how hurtful it is to be asked “And where are you from?” without a trigger warning?  And most definitely I want an apology from my mother for giving birth to me during WWII, a shitty environment, let me tell you, and from the Austrian government for obliging me to emigrate because they didn’t provide a suitable economic environment in those post-war years. Finally I want an apology from my late husband for dying on me and leaving me to deal the authorities, requiring me to supply a hundred copies of his death certificate and his probated will and listening for hours to canned music while waiting for the next available representative. Where are those apologists when you need them?

Thursday 6 October 2016

#AMREADING Michel Houellebecq, Platform. 

This is a book about travelling and sex -- friendly tourism, as one of the protagonists calls it -- but in between the clinical descriptions of foursomes and other procedures that might challenge the less acrobatic among us, there are some keen observations about the professions.

  • The Police. He must have had to meet people from all walks of life in his profession, no area of society could be completely alien to him. Police work is a truly humanist calling.
  • The Travel Industry. I liked holiday brochures, their abstraction, their way of condensing the places of the world into a limited sequence of possible pleasures and fares.
  • Farming. They had dedicated the best years of their lives to a hopeless task. They lived in a country where, compared to speculative investment, investment in proution brought little return.
  • The Public Servant: I managed information, facilitated acces toit and disseminated it. In a word, I had worked in the service sector. It would be easy to get by without people like me.
  • The Reader (Not a profession, you say? Well, I spend enough hours on reading every week to call it a profession). Not having anything around to read is dangerous. You have to content yourself with life itself, and that can lead you to take risks.

Monday 26 September 2016

#AMREADING The Evening Telegram of 9 November 1939.

McLaughlin-Buick 1939
I’ve moved into an old house that has recently been renovated. Among the debris cleared by the renovators was a pile of yellowing Toronto newspapers from 1939. Page One was all about the “Huns” threatening to invade the Netherlands, and we know how that scenario unfolded. It’s history written large. The back pages of the paper contain the small stuff, the microhistory of Toronto. Can we draw any conclusions about the city from the Classifieds? For one thing I’d say the inhabitants were tired. There are a number of ads promising to perk them up:
Wake up singing! When you awaken with a “dragged-out” feeling, take Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, and according to the testimonials, you will feel as good as ever before.
But maybe you want to feel even better than before. Then we suggest you take
Scott’s emulsion, a valuable tonic for run-down condition. The illustration accompanying the ad features a man dragging a large fish. Go figure.
Perhaps you feel alright, and it’s your car that needs perking up. In that case you’ll be glad to hear of the new miracle of gasoline chemistry, New-Blue Sunoco, which will provide you with knockless power and sure-fire quick starting.   
But if the miracle of gasoline chemistry isn’t doing enough for your car, go out and buy a Buick. You’ll get a big, beautiful, brawny car styled to knock your eye out!

Knock my eye out?? Clearly, cars have become a lot tamer since 1939, and that’s fine with me. 

Monday 19 September 2016

#AMREADING Michel Houellebecq, Submission. Or What Men Think of Women.

Paris 2022. The Muslim Brotherhood has won the national elections by a landslide. Is this a futuristic novel? Not sure. Human relations seem as complex as ever. Plus ça change, I suppose. Here are some musings on sex by the novel’s protagonist , François, a middle-aged lecturer at the Sorbonne.

For men, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure, and no one had ever given me more pleasure than Myriam. She could contract her pussy at will (sometimes softly, with a slow, irresistible pressure, sometimes in sharp, rebellious little tugs).

François suffers the same frustrations as Huysmans (the subject of his thesis) a century earlier: He wanted a good little cook who could also turn herself into a whore, and he wanted this on a fixed schedule. It didn’t’ seem so hard, yet he sought this woman in vain.

In my twenties, when I got hard-ons all the time, sometimes for no good reason, as though in a vacuum, I have gone for [a cougar]. It would have been more satisfying, and paid better, than my tutorials. Back then I think I could have performed.

In middle age, François’  body started to let him down. Old age, he feared, would be a jumble of organs in slow decomposition…When you got right down to it, my dick was the one organ that hadn’t presented itself to my consciousness through pain, only through pleasure. Modest but robust, it had always served me faithfully. In the end my dick was all I had.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

# AMTHINKING: The happier I am the less I write. I remember a cartoon in an Argentine newspaper: A poet begging his girlfriend not to make him so happy. It gave him writer’s block. Without a tragic love life, he couldn’t write tango lyrics.

Ditto when I’m leading a busy life. The more I move, the less I think. Friends, I never thought I'd say it, but I’m actually looking forward to a little boredom. #AMTHINKING: Boredom is good for the soul. Are there boredom classes? Should I start a new trend for all those people who are tired of yoga and meditation?

Thursday 4 August 2016

#AMREADING Maylis de Kerangal, Mend the Living.
Translated by Jessica Moore as Mend the Living
The subject is clinical, but the language is lyrical and asks the existential question: What does it mean to be alive or dead?

Simon is in a coma after a car accident. His heart (or rather the machine to which he is hooked up) keeps pumping blood, a life of ebbs and flows, of valves and flap gates, a life of pulsations. On the night when his heart slips from the grip of the machine, it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes.

Dr. Revol informs Simon’s parents of his death. One needs time, of course, to catch one’s breath after uttering such a thing, time to take a pause, stabilize the oscillations of the inner ear so as not to collapse in a heap on the ground. Gazes dissolve. Revol ignores the beep beep at his belt.

He gets ready to speak to the parents about organ donation. He prepares for the conversation the way he prepares himself to sing, relaxing his muscles, regulating his breathing, conscious that punctuation is the anatomy of language, the structure of meaning, and he visualizes the opening sentence, its musical line, and gauges the first syllable he will utter, the one that will cleave the silence.
The parents give him permission to transplant Simon’s heart.

Before leaving the hospital, Simon’s mother turns around one last time toward the bed and what freezes her in place then is the solitude that emanates from Simon, from now on as alone as an object, as though he had been unballasted of his human aspect. Simon is dead, she says these words to herself for the first time.

Thursday 28 July 2016


I just read about an app that scans your skin and suggests products that you may not even be aware of. There’s definitely an educational factor. There’s an entertainment factor. But at the end of the day, it’s really helping with the need for instant gratification, says Jennifer Tidy of ModiFace, the leading provider of Augmented Reality Tech. Ooh, that’s so cool. Now I too can look like a model or a film star. But wait: Will I get paid like a film star?

No, you little idiot. This isn't for real. It's augmented reality, and it's the tip of an ad trend: Spend like a professional even if you are paid like a peon.  

Monday 25 July 2016

Martha Nussbaum (

I just read an article about philosopher Martha Nussbaum in the NYer. This will do wonders, I hope, to rehabilitate the image of female academics, to prove that they are not all dowdy or, as the GOP says about another brainy woman: fat thighs, small breasts, left wing.

In case you wondered: Martha Nussbaum who combines good looks with top academic credentials admits to Botox and filler injections.  There are women like Germaine Greer who say that it’s a big relief, as you age, to not worry about men and forget how they look. I care about how men look at me, she says. I like men.

We already know that male academics like women. In fact some of them have been sued by their students for sexual harassment. Nussbaum is sixty-nine and in the photo accompanying the article in the NYer dares to strike a sexy pose, although there is something in her eyes that says “I’m nobody’s fool”, something that scared people when she was at Harvard. They couldn’t wrap their minds around this formidably good, extraordinarily articulate woman who was very tall and attractive, openly feminine and stylish, and walked very erect and wore miniskirts – all in one package. They were just frightened, a colleague explained.

Come on, men, have a little more courage!

Thursday 21 July 2016

#AMTHINKING: I’m tired of playful installations like Song Dong’s Communal Courtyard at AGO.

You know what? I’m tired of “playful” installations combined with advocacy – in this case, a plug for the traditional urban landscape of Beijing. The piece consists of a snaking line made up of the backs of ramshackle old wardrobes, the kind I have in my basement and would like to get rid of. I’m thinking of doing an installation of all the junk I have accumulated and call it The Purging of the Soul, or some such. All I need is a curator to come up with the right words like this thoughtful, playful, and materially rich collection invites audiences to reconsider how we might hold on to some elements of tradition while radically reimagining them for the present. I’m quoting from the AGO’s description of Song Dong’s installation.

But seriously: Installation artists are taking on too much. A conga line of old wardrobes doesn’t do justice to complex issues like urbanization and city planning. We need a conga line of words for that.

Thursday 14 July 2016

#AMTHINKING: Movie night in Toronto. Like a prayer.

Last Sunday afternoon I went to see LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP. No, this is not a review. It’s about my pre-movie experience in a large darkened space with five other people, an ancient couple, two women friends, a single, and me.

I guess a Sunday afternoon in July is not prime time for movie goers, but clearly those who do go are deliberate about their seating. The two women friends were anxious to secure their favourite seats – that’s what I heard them say in the dead silence of the cavernous room in which every paper crinkle was audible and  297 out of 300 seats were still available. 

I sat down in the middle of a row, at the centre of the room. The remaining three people in the audience shared my taste for symmetry and sat at the ends of that same row. Let me tell you, they sat there rooted when the movie ended, letting the credits roll to the bitter end and beyond, blocking my exit. 

But what I really want to talk about is the sacral silence of the darkened room before the movie started. It was like church. People didn’t dare to raise their voices. They whispered. The old couple mumbled what sounded like a prayer. Is this what religion has come to?

Monday 27 June 2016


In a resort town a stateless young man, who calls himself Count Chmara, meets Yvonne, an actress, and her protector, Dr. Meinthe, but who among them is the most enigmatic and the best at the role-playing game?

Meinthe.  At long intervals, the muscles in his left cheek tensed, as if he were trying to catch a slipping, invisible monocle, but his dark glasses hid much of this twitching. Occasionally he’d thrust out his chin as though provoking someone. And then his right arm was shaken from time to time by an electrical discharge that communicated itself to his hand, which would trace arabesques in the air. All these tics were coordinated most harmoniously, and they gave him an agitated elegance.

Yvonne’s dog, Oswald. He belonged to a very rare strain of Great Danes, all of them congenitally afflicted by sadness and the ennui of life. Some of them even committed suicide. I wanted to know why sh’d chosen a dog with such a gloomy nature. Because there are more elegant than the others, she replied sharply.

Yvonne. She’d put on a beach robe with big orange and green stripes and lie across the bed to smoke a cigarette. It was very important for her to spend the season in this resort town, she explained. The season was going to be very brilliant. “Resort,” “season,” “very brilliant,” “Count Chmara” – who was lying to whom in this foreign language?

Count Chmara and Yvonne. We spent lazy days. We’d get up fairly early. In the morning, there was often mist—or rather a blue vapor that freed us from the law of gravity. We were light, so light…When we went down Boulevard Carabacel, we hardly touched the sidewalk.

A hotel that is past its glory days. The dreary walls and furniture begin to exude the sadness of shady hotels. There is a sickly-sweet smell in the corridors, which I can’t identify but must be the very odor of anxiety, of instability, of exile, of phoniness. A smell that has always accompanied me. The lobbies are nothing more than waiting rooms. Waiting for what, exactly? The lingering scent of Nansen passports. 

Thursday 23 June 2016


Fiona’s private life collides with her professional duty as she presides over a case in family court: a teenager refusing medical treatment for religious reasons.

The court house. The air always reminded her of school, of the smell or feel of cold damp stone and a faint thrill of fear and excitement.

Her mind after her husband leaves her. At first, she was in an unreal state of acceptance, prepared to tell herself that she had, at worst, to endure the commiseration of family and friends and a degree of severe social inconvenience – those invitations she must refuse while hoping to conceal her embarrassment. Then she felt the first conventional ache of abandonment. In court, she sat and watched the parties below her settle. At her elbow was a slim pile of creamy white paper beside which she laid down her pen. It was only then, at the sight of these clean sheets, that the last traces, the stain of her own situation vanished completely. She no longer had a private life, she was ready to be absorbed.

Adam, the son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is persuaded to accept medical treatment. Is Fiona’s interest in him more than professional? After his recovery, he visits her. You must go, she said. Lightly, she took the lapel of his thin jacket between her fingers and drew him toward her. Her intention was to kiss him on the cheek, but as she reached up and he stooped a little and their faces came close, he turned his head and their lips met. She could have drawn back, she could have stepped right away from him. Instead, she lingered, defenseless before the moment.

Is she in love with Adam? That is the question her husband asks after they reconcile. She let out a terrible sound, a smothered howl. “Oh Jack, he was just a child! A boy. A lovely boy!” And she began to weep at last. 

Tuesday 14 June 2016


Lucy is in hospital recovering from an operation when her long-estranged mother shows up. The two women seem to reconnect, but there is tension below the surface of their reminiscences.

I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

When Lucy’s mother talks, it is with a slight rush of words, the compression of feeling that seemed to push up through her as she started, that morning, to suddenly speak of her childhood.

Lucy muses about her own childhood. Among her memories is the dreading-in-advance she felt, for example, when she had an appointment with the dentist. She realized she was wasting time by suffering twice, and wanted to suppress the advance-dreading, but there are things the mind cannot will itself to do, even if it wants to.

Both Lucy and her mother are sensitive to the constant judgment in this world. How are we going to make sure we do not feel inferior to another?

Lucy does not lack insight, but it makes her sad to think that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.

Of the teacher in a creative writing class, she says: Every day she would start with a little sparkle, and within minutes fatigue set in. Her face became ravaged with fatigue. I don’t think I have seen before or since a face that showed its exhaustion so clearly.

I sympathize with the poor woman. Of course it’s exhausting to teach what can’t be taught.

Tuesday 31 May 2016


THEN. You drove up and down the streets in the neighbourhood of your choice and copied down the phone number of the agent when you saw a For Sale sign on a house that was within your budget.
NOW. You go onto the website, zoom in on the area you are interested in, and read the specs online. You look at the picture gallery, knowing that the rooms are smaller and dingier than they appear. You learn the language of real estate ads. Quaint means tiny and outdated. Friendly and family-oriented means kids screaming obscenities and leaving trash in the bushes.  No mention of parking? There is no parking!

THEN. If a property looked promising, you viewed it in the morning and came back the next day to see how it looked in the evening. You took a week to mull things over with your husband and the in-laws who helped with the down payment. Then you mulled it over some more. Finally you put in an offer 5% below the asking price because you have concluded that this the ideal house for you and you don’t want to offend the owner by offering 15% less, as you had planned originally. Of course you make the offer conditional for five days, pending financing.
NOW. You take a quick look around the house and scan the inspector’s report, which tells you that things are in order as far as they can see. Of course much of the wiring and the plumbing is concealed, perhaps on purpose. You only have time to exchange a knowing glance with your husband and hasten to put in an offer, hoping the house didn’t sell while you were studying the concealed plumbing. You put in a firm offer 15% above the asking price, but the agent tells you there are five offers on the table, and so you make that 20% above the asking price.

THEN. Your offer is accepted, although they make you pay a few thousand more just to flex their muscle, and they give you only three days to arrange for the financing. You can’t sleep and worry non-stop until the bank approves your mortgage five hours before the deadline.

NOW. Your offer is rejected because someone else offered 25% above the asking price. You can’t sleep and worry non-stop because there is nothing else in your preferred neighbourhood that’s affordable. So next day you go out, looking at houses that you can’t afford.

Wednesday 25 May 2016


Shostakovich is reflecting on three crucial points in his life, or is that Julian Barnes reflecting on Shostakovich’ reflections? In any case, there is a lot of musing about the role of the artist under a dictatorship.

The atmosphere is dense: He was on his fifth cigarette, and his mind was skittering.

Dictatorship is like destiny: a grand term for something you could do nothing about.

Character was another thing you could do nothing about: The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.

Life in Soviet Russia is harsh. There are idyllic moments, but an idyll, by definition, only becomes an idyll once it has ended.

And Russians, by definition, as pessimists. Scrub, scrub, scrub, let’s wash away all this old Russianness and paint a shiny new Sovietness on top. But it never worked – the paint began to flake off almost as soon as it was applied. To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic.

Irony is the only way to go. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism.

Wise words, but I’m not sure a string of salient thoughts makes a novel.

Friday 20 May 2016


A luckless screenwriter comes up with a new plot: The government is turning immigrants into zombies.

The story arc is taking shape. Joshua saw the narrative landscape neatly laid down before him: all the endless possibilities, all the overhead and wide shots, all the character trajectories blazing across the firmament. All he had to do now is write it down.

His fantasy life is great, but his real life is a drag. Maybe it’s his droopy eyes that, in a more flattering light, could appear contemplatively sorrowful or the slight overbite that often made him look unduly perplexed.

His dream life isn’t great either. It’s not that he had nightmares.  Nobody ever bothered to chase him in his dreams; he never plunged from a tall building. What tormented him was that his dreams were inconclusive, they did not so much abruptly end as they whimpered their lame way into his watchful state.

What does Joshua want out of life? It was fair to say that the minimum requirement for a truly enjoyable existence would be unbridled promiscuity.

Thursday 12 May 2016

SELLING YOUR HOUSE THEN AND NOW. PART 2. Photographers and inspectors

THEN. Once you listed with a realtor, he sent out a photographer to take a picture of your house. Or he said he did. I never saw anyone taking a photo, and the grainy black and white picture which appeared in the left-hand corner of the specs could have been any house on the block. If you squinted hard, you could make out a pitched roof against a grey sky. I suspect it was a stock photo of a suburban bungalow.
 NOW. The photographer is an artiste. He puts in hours taking shots of the ex- and interior from breath-taking angles. The resulting photos are laid out in a glossy brochure and can be viewed on-line. When I first saw them, I thought the realtor had used the same old trick: stock photos. Of a palatial home.  As it turned out, the artiste-photographer had me fooled.  It WAS actually my home. After studying the images closely, I did recognize my couch and coffee table.
THEN.  Potential buyers looked around the house and turned on the faucets and the lights. Some even ventured into the dimly lit basement and groped around, skirting piles of old and broken things to peer at the electrical board or kick the boiler, or whatever it was they did down there.
NOW. The realtor sends in an inspector whose principal qualification is a high degree of rhetorical skill. In his report he highlights what works in your house and in the most delicate terms hints at what might need improvement or replacement. He calls this report a “summary”. If you really want to know what’s going on, you need to pay him more. But in this overheated market, no one dares to put in an offer conditional on inspection or conditional on anything.
THEN. The For Sale sign stayed up for weeks and months. You despaired of keeping the house clean for potential viewing and wished you could keep the kids and the dog penned in the backyard.

NOW. Hordes of sales people, curious neighbours, and potential buyers trample through your house for two days, and that’s it. You sell to the highest bidder and wonder if you will have the stamina to go into a bidding war for another place. Maybe you should just rent?

Sunday 1 May 2016


I.              The Stager
The last time we sold our house and moved on was forty years ago. Things have certainly changed since then.  To motivate potential buyers you must stage your house. This is how I did it 

THEN. Before a showing 
  • I ran the vacuum cleaner over visibly dirty spots and my palm over visibly dusty surfaces. 
  • I rinsed the dirty dishes and didn’t just leave them on the rack. I put them back into the cabinet! 
  • I yelled at the kids for tracking mud into the hallway. 
  • I yelled at my husband for napping on the couch with the pages of the newspaper spread over his chest. 
  • I yelled at everyone: “Pick your clothes up from the floor." 
  • I prayed for many showings, not only to get the house sold, but because this was the only time it looked decent.

NOW.  A professional stager walks through your house.
  • She requests you to remove (a) all doilies (b) half of the knickknacks (c) any paintings with nudes or religious figures which might offend people of another persuasion. 
  • She will also ask you to remove area rugs and show as much floor space as possible or at least reposition them so that they will guide the visitor’s eye toward a desirable object. 
  • She will randomly remove at least one piece of furniture from each room, either to improve the layout or to assert her authority.
  • She will counsel you to place an urn with hot pink flowers at the front door (Why do urns remind me of funeral homes?)

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED FROM THIS EXPERIENCE? Never mind the price and location of your house. People will make you an offer because of the way you have arranged your furniture or because they can’t resist hot pink.

Stay tuned for the next instalment as the For Sale sign goes up.

Friday 29 April 2016


Some of narrator Marlow’s remarks that hit the mark:

When I saw a spot that looked particularly inviting on a map, I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. Really?

Passing the coast on his ship: There it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out.

Keeping up with the demoralizing times. I respected the fellow. Yes, I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was that of a hairdresser’s dummy, but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance.

Retelling your dreams. No account of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, the commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of  dreams.

Reacting to an inarticulate howl. It was ugly enough, but there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it.

Feigned grief.  He considered it necessary to sigh, but neglected to be consistently sorrowful.

(image from

Saturday 23 April 2016


Martin Fallon, architect, emerges from a coma and finds his brain an unreliable narrator of his life.

He is told to keep a “recovery journal”. Christ, a phrase that practically carried its own air quotes along with all the other carefully balanced baggage carts of self –congratulation and self-pity.

He has to relearn movements. The gesture of nodding arrived naturally in his head. It was an act slower than simply nodding, a movement that Martin felt could be sustained indefinitely, even incorporated into his everyday routine. Useful even for swallowing pills.

He ends up walking down into a road ditch without quite understanding the purpose of his movements. His voice rose, seeming to his brother to have the same tonal quality, the same visceral timbre, of an animal in distress. It was a sound that touched him almost more than the fact that it came from his brother. The sound demanded action.

Martin remembers:
The women at the party, a cluster of lakeside doyennes and their monumental spouses, the clique of legacy lakesiders. This group was offset by another category of female guest that struck him as oscillating with the energy of striving for some urgent yet mysterious goal. Their silent, sullen husbands followed a step behind like cut-rate bodyguards.
April in Moscow.Wet snow was not uncommon this late in April, the tail end of a winter snapping one last time on the city. It was a threat acknowledged on the face of every Muscovite. A grim refusal to be caught out in one’s hope.

The suicide attempt. It was no longer a mere incident clouded in amnesia, but an event he could construct, richer and sadder and more cinematic than any simple recollection of events.

Sunday 17 April 2016


This story of an innocent going through a series of doomed relationships offers some brilliant definitions:
  • Celebrity: Someone who is known by people he doesn’t know
  • Poetry: A branch of astrology which takes itself seriously
  • Animals: Reptiles – lifeless fossils, hippo –a snout in the steaming water, wolves – in perpetual motion animated by ancestral hunger
  • Absence: The imagined presence of the other, so delicious, so soon short-circuited by reality
  • Potential: He always gave the impression that he was rising toward an aphorism. But as usual, the aphorism failed to materialize.
  • Helplessness: A pond with sides too steep or slippery to climb out. You scramble at them, but you never lift yourself much above the water.

Friday 8 April 2016




Saturday 2 April 2016


A country doctor is trying to reach a town where people are dying of an epidemic, but a blizzard prevents him from continuing his journey. He is stranded in a village until Crouper, the bread man, volunteers to drive him through the night.

Snowdrifts had blown up against the old, sunken log house. In the mudroom he could make out two large barrels, a wheel barrow, and a pile of junk. He made his way to the burlap-insulated door, ducking to miss the lintel overhead. Logs burned in a large Russian ceramic stove, a wood salt cellar stood by itself on the table, a round loaf of bread lay under a towel, a lone icon occupied a dark corner, and a pendulum clock hung on the wall like an orphan. The only pieces of furniture were a chest and an iron bed frame.
We are in Chekov’s Russia, right? But then again…
Your sledmobile – what power is it? The doctor asked.
Fifty horses.
The stable was divided in half. There was a workbench with little hammers, tiny pincers, a gimlet, a ceramic cup filled with tiny kopeck-sized horseshoes. Then came a partition, and behind it, the horse stalls. Smiling, Crouper leaned over the partition, and the whinnies of fifty small horses filled the air. They playfully nipped his hand with their tiny teeth and pressed their warm nostrils against his fingers. Each horse was no bigger than a partridge.
Oh, we are in a 19th century fairytale!
The road is buried in snow. The horses are exhausted. The two men stop at a miller’s house, where we seem to enter the 20th century, since they are watching “radio”.
The miller’s wife pressed the red button on the remote. The radio clicked and a round hologram with a thick number 1 in the right corner appeared above them.
Something is a little out of whack here, but the ensuing bedroom scene is entirely normal, or let’s say, timeless. The miller’s wife visits the doctor in the guest bedroom. He readily accepts her invitation.
He threw back the blanket in one movement, stood up, and embraced her warm soft, large frame. He didn’t want to let her go. He pressed against her body and his lips found her neck. The woman smelled of sweat, vodka and lavender oil. In one movement he tore off her nightgown and grabbed her by the butt. Her bottom was big and plushy and cool.
The next morning the two men journey on into some future century, enjoying the hospitality of drug dealers, the Vitaminders, who give the doctor pleasant dreams and grow a stable for the little horses. They spray the ground with “Living Water”. A gray paste stirred, and felt fabric began to grow for it fiber by fiber. Despite the snow, three felt walls grew until they surrounded the sled and its owner..
But the next morning it’s back to the 19th century. The blizzard is still raging, as they continue their journey. Soon they are yanked to a halt and into another fairyland situation. A drunken giant has collapsed in the road. The runner of their sleigh is caught in his nostril.
Crouper had trouble chopping through the nose cartilage. The runner that had caught in the nostril was visible now. They rocked the sled, but the runner wouldn’t come loose. It has pierced the maxillary sinus and got stuck there, said the doctor, examining the situation.
They cannot free the sledge and are forced to spend the night in the snow. In another nod to the futuristic genre, the doctor is rescued by the Chinese, but Crouper is dead.
The doctor mourns his comrade. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He clutched his pince-nez and kept shaking it, shaking and shaking, as though conducting some unseen orchestra of grief, crying and swaying in strong Chinese arms.