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Ten Books or, Where are the ladies at?

"In your status line list 10 books that have stayed with you. Don't take more than a few minutes. Don't think too hard. They don't have to be great works or even your favorites. Just the ones that have touched you."

These sort of lists are always nervous-making, but they're kind of fun — and maybe even a little interesting, too. Meme yoinked from Samuel R. Delany's facebook page. To which he seems pretty liberal about responding to friend requests.

Note that I arbitrarily limited myself to fiction. Non-fiction might make for another meme, another day.

  1. Dhalgren (by Delany himself);

  2. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien;

  3. Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carrol;

  4. The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham;

  5. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller;

  6. Something Happened, by Joseph Heller;

  7. The World According to Garp, by John Irving;

  8. The Mars Trilogy (Red, Green, Blue), by Kim Stanley Robinson;

  9. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy; and

  10. Barney's Version, by Mordechai Richler

I said "kind of fun" above, but the results of my not taking "more than a few minutes" to come up with a list of books "that have touched" me is more than a little disconcerting. For a number of reasons.

First, I confess to being a little embarassed by how genre the damned thing is? Where's Goethe's Faust? Where's The Magic Mountain or Julius Caesar? What happened to The Waves or The Edible Woman?

In short, nevermind genre, where are all the women at?

While I was (briefly) thinking about it, names like Le Guin and Russ quickly came to mind, but I rejected the former because I've been more moved by her non-fiction than her fiction, and for the latter, although The Female Man impressed hell out of me as a youth, I can scarecely remember it now — and I've re-read it more than once in the intervening years.

Virginia Woolf always left me cold. In truth, if I were to wipe the slate clean, I might replace the Tolstoy or Irving with Pride and Prejudice, but when you get right down it, I don't think I've read all that many women writers. Certainly as a percentage, it's much lower than chance — even in a genre like SF (and F) — would allow. (And, y'know, much as I loved it back in the day, The Mists of Avalon hasn't aged well at all.)

Be that as it may. The books that are on that somewhat arbitrary exercise in memory and prejudice share another commonality: I read most of them quite a long time ago, at least for the first time. The Lord of the Rings and Dhalgren are pools into which I've dipped again and again (and again), and with the exception of War and Peace, I've revisited the others all more than once. As for Tolstoy, I doubt I'll go there again; it's on the list more for how much his lunatic's 100 page diatribe on the inevitability of history and the impotence of the individual to effect change is what I remember more than anything else from the book.

Still, it's a somewhat instructive exercise. What are your top 10 most memorable books?

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It was a small flight crew, all male: two pilots and a single flight attendant.

The Captain was a tall man, and beefy, the First Officer maybe a decade younger, not so tall and quite thin. The Flight Attendant was bald-headed and a blocky face, a bit like a super-hero. He too was at least 10 years younger than the big Captain.

Now, one thing that surprised me a bit about flight crews is that they don't work anything like, say, the crew of the starship Enterprise; they don't work together for extended periods of time. In fact, this crew of three gave me two separate pick-up times for tomorrow. One day together as a team, then Crew Sched. shuffled them around like so many cards in a deck.

So quite often, if a crew got along during the day and they aren't too tired, I will be privy to the people either getting re-acquainted after a long absence or getting to know each other for the first time.

Today, it was clearly the latter.

The first man to break the ice was the First Officer, who spoke with an accent I couldn't place. One second I thought he might be from somewhere in the Indian sub-continent, the next I wondered if he was originally from Australia. No matter. "You know I just read about an interesting study," he began. And continued, after getting some encouraging sounds from his colleagues, "It seems they've discovered a food that makes 99 percent of women completely lose interest in sex."

"What is it?"

"Wedding cake," he said, to appreciate chuckles and a brief spate of pretty standard "observations" on the differences between men and women. Eg, "Men want the woman they marry to never change, and are always disappointed; women want to change the men they marry — and are always disappointed!"

The jokes more or less came to a conclusion when the Captain allowed as how he has now been married for 23 years. "I missed my chance to murder her," he observed sardonically.

But that remark somehow led the conversation to go from hackneyed jokes to talk about marriage and relationships in general. It turned out that all three men were married and that all of them had kids. And the jokes gave way to talk about how hard it can be to maintain a relationship, that it takes work not to drift apart from the person you married.

The Captain said that he and his wife, acting on the example of a pair of her relatives, have made a point of making the time to spend an hour a day with each other, sole purpose: to talk. ("We'll usually have a drink — once in a while two — but the point is to pay attention to each other.") He went on observe that touch is important as well and said that they went out of their way to be tacticle with each other, to make a point of brushing their hands together patting one another on the back in passing, even if they are otherwise occupied in their own activities. This, from the guy who'd started by making jokes about murder.

The others agreed and offered their own strategies and examples. And from there, the talk turned to kids and grand-kids and before I knew, the cell-phones were out and pictures and videos of roundheads were being passed around for mutual admiration.

All this in a drive lasting barely more than 15 minutes. It was one of the cutest 15 minutes I've ever experienced as a driver. And from such an unlikely beginning!

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... a meme. That's right, a god damned meme.

If you have some interest in which women science fiction writers I've read, click the cut. If you're sensible, carry on to the next entry. (Filched from more than one of you.

Here be the cut, writer babes below! )
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Or maybe there are and "chick flicks" should lose its pejorative meaning. Yoinked from my website.

Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker made Oscar history,
but real women's film and television still struggles to find an audience

Now that Katherine Bigelow has made history as the first woman to an Oscar for best picture, you might conclude that women have finally taken their rightful place at Hollywood's creative centre stage.

Or maybe not. Bigelow is, apparently (full-disclosure: I've seen only one of her films — the execrable Blue Steel, a distaff action-movie with less to say about women or feminism than her ex-husband's Aliens), a director known for action and horror and war movies, not romances or romantic comedies, and certainly not for pointed examination of the state of women in American society. Nevertheless, it is of some import that she has broken that glass ceiling, even if she has done so by "making movies like a man".

Pragmatically, she is probably on the right track, even if The Hurt Locker was lowest-grossing best-picture winner of all time, taking in only $16 million dollars worldwide on initial release, a number that has already changed significantly I typed the first draft of this article. A best-picture Oscar never hurt anybody's bottom-line.

Meanwhile, I'd like to talk about a couple of productions that haven't won any Oscars, one a recent Hollywood movie that did even worse box-office than did The Hurt Locker despite being released with a major publicity campaign, the other a mini-series released in Britain a few years ago which dropped a million fewers over the course of its six-episode run.

'The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard' DVD cover.
The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard
Written by Sally Wainwright
Starring Jane Horrocks
Original broadcast 2006, BBC One
DVD released October 2007
'Whip It' poster.
Whip It
Written by Shauna Cross
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Ellen Page
Released September 13, 2009
DVD release date unknown

Loosely-speaking, both the American Whip It and the British The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard are fantasies, though fantasies with nary a vampire nor zombie, nor even a strapping Hero, in sight. Indeed, men are very much in the background of both productions and there, I think, lies the secret behind the relative commercial failures that both of them were.

(I wonder how many readers stopped reading at the end of the previous paragraph; I'd be curious to know how many of you still reading were tempted to stop.)

Whip It is a coming-of-age story with twists enough to pull it above its own clichés; and The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard is a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging political fantasy which manages to convince the viewer that, yes, an ordinary, middle-class English-woman really might have led the upstart and ad hoc, nearly all-woman Purple Alliance Party to power in Whitehall in 2006.

Whip It got a lot of promotion when it was released last. Director Drew Barrymore and star Ellen Page made the rounds of talk-shows and magazine shoots, but it still tanked at the box-office, selling something like three thousand percent fewer tickets than did the about giant, transforming robots also released last year.

Considering that the movie they were selling was actually pretty good; and considering that Drew Barrymore has been a star most of her; and considering that Ellen Page (arguably the best actress to come down the pike in a very long time) had an actual hit with Juno and was, you know, Kitty Pride in the X-Men franchise — considering all that, there's something siginificant in the fact it took in a mere $13 million at the box-office. (I don't know what kind of promotional push The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard got when it first appeared on the BBC, but as I said above, it lost about one million viewers between its premiere and its conclusion.)

Whip It is the less ambitious production, a coming-of-age-through-sports story with a female twist and a gently humane sensibility.

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page once again playing a mis-fit teenager, a role one senses she is getting tired of; a brilliant actress, this time around I sensed page was acting-by-numbers, at least a little. It's more than high time someone writes this capital-tee Talent a role she can play an actual grown-up! But I digress) is a 17 year-old student pushed by her mother into beauty-pageant after beauty pageant. Her family is striving, working-class (at least, her mother is) from a small Texas town, and Bliss wants out of both.

Her opportunity comes through a chance encounter with members of a roller-derby team during a shopping trip to the big city of Austin, Texas. Bliss takes a poster and soon finds herself attending a try-out with a roller-derby team — naturally, a lovable bunch of losers called The Hurl Scouts. As you can imagine, our Bliss is a preternatural talent and thanks to her, the Hurl Scouts repent of their losing ways and learn to play to win.

As for Bliss, she finds a skill and a passion, she makes a break for her independence and, of course, she also falls in love.

But Whip It is not a love story and Bliss' relationship — neither its soft-focus begining not its harsh termination — stays far in the background of the movie.

The emotional centre of Whip It lies with Bliss' relationships with her team-mates and her family, her mother in particular. The story isn't anti-male by any stretch of the proverbial imagination, but it isn't about men, which I suspect goes more than some ways towards explaining its commercial failure.

Whip It is well-crafted, humane mind-candy, a romantic comedy in the platonic sense. The viewer believes in Bliss and comes to care about her passion for roller-derby (the film also very briefly makes it clear how the bloody game is played, something I never had understood before!) and in her rookie's ability to lead it to victory. As with any good sports movie, we find ourselves become fans; we start to cheer for the Hurl Scouts and we by-damn want them to win that inevitable championship game! Solidly entertaining, it stands up to repeat viewings and deserves to find success on home-video that it couldn't find in theatres.

Even more deserving of a second chance is Sally Wainwright's The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, a far more ambitious, more sophisticated and much more complex story about women which addresses feminism head-on while not being "about" feminism — Wainwright is far too good a story-teller to fall into the trap of didacticism, even as her characters discuss the ins-and-outs of, for example, budgetary policies.

And yet, I don't think it was the very realistic backroom politics nor the emphasis policy questions, which caused The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard to bleed nearly a million viewers between its first episode and its sixth.

No, besides the lousy numbers, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard shares only one other significant element with Whip. Namely, that it too features men (and not too many of them) only in supporting roles.

The story opens in a way that, by all rights, ought to appeal to anyone who has watched Question Period or a press conference with a politician and thought or exclaimed, "I could do better than that!

Rozz Pritchard is a wife, a mother and the manager of a grocery store. She's a competent and canny boss who nevertheless is well-liked and well-respected by her employees, character facts Wainwright provides in a tightly-scripted introductory scene of only a couple of minutes duration.

So, when she confronts a pair of campaigning politicians who have come to blows outside her the store, the viewer believes her when she shouts them down and agrees with the clerk who tells her she ought to run for office.

Needless to say, she does and, by the end of the first episode, finds herself the Prime Minister-elect of Great Britain. (No more spoilers; I permitted myself that one because there really isn't a series without that early victory.)

The next five episodes explore an unrealistic conceit in a rigorously realistic fashion. Like a serious science fiction what-if story, Wainwright posits one major change to the reality we know, then explores that change's repercussions with a keen wit and (fortunately) equally keen sense of humour and of personal drama.

With the exception of then-unknown Cary Mulligan, Mrs. Pritchard is cast almost entirely of women middle-aged or older, few of woman are shaped like the women from Desperate Housewives and none of whom dress like them. To make matters worse (or "worse"), Mrs. Pritchard is also almost entirely devoid of significant male characters. Of the two in evidence, one is a callow youth involved with a much older (and much more powerful) woman, the other is Mr. Pritchard, somewhat unhappy in his unexpected role as the Prime Minister's husband, and harbouring a dangerous secret, to boot.

And, as I said above, that is the common trait the series shares with the movie: women's friendships and rivalries are the story, not how their lives interact with men. And for some reason, it seems as if even women aren't much interested in watching such stories. Which is strange (or ought to be strange), since no one seems to give a second thought to films that don't include a woman in any significant role at all — but the reverse seems to be problematic, a problem made worse by the apparent fact that women seem little more interest in stories about women than men are.

And that's a shame, because the more often such stories fail to find an audience, the harder it will be for another one to be made.

Sally Wainwright and Shauna Cross, with the collaborators, have both created entertainments that by all rights should have found broad (no pun intended) and enthusiastic audiences.

Though International Women's Day has come and gone for another year, women and men can still strike a small blow for a more inclusive world by voting for something different with their wallets. It would be a small gesture, but not an insignificant one, to hunt down and rent either the movie or the series — and a gesture you'll enjoy, too boot.


Oh yes, and while I'm pimping myself, I suppose I ought to mention the editorial I wrote for this weeks True North Perspective.

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This story both delighted and irritated me.

In a nutshell, a Muslim girl was thrown out of a soccer tournament for wearing a hijab - apparently the headscarf is banned by the Quebec Soccer Association on grounds of safety, "...to protect children from being accidentally strangled."

I'll leave the question of the risk of being strangled by a hijab during a soccer game to the experts. But I want to talk about is the story itself - or rather, about how it was written.

Most of it was told as a human-interest piece - how the girl felt, how the coach felt, how the girl's team-mates felt. The girl's team withdrew from the tournament in protest, apparently with the full backing of the team itself.

To me, the real story here was alluded to in the second paragraph and then never mentioned again.

Calling the rule banning the headscarf worn by Muslim women racist, four other teams followed Asmahan Mansour's team, the Nepean Selects from Ottawa, after she was thrown out for running afoul of a Quebec Soccer Association rule.

That sports leagues have rules about proper attire is not news. That a team withdraws from a tournament because one of its players was ejected is minor news. That four other teams in the tournament also withdrew to support another team's player is interesting news.

Why no interviews with players from other teams?

The CBC's headline was, "Muslim girl ejected from tournament for wearing hijab". Shouldn't it have been, "Four other teams support Muslim girl's right to wear hijab"?

That's the story! Jesus, somebody get re-write on the phone ...
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Don't worry, folks, I'm not about to test your patience with another 3,000 worder.

As a mildly ironic counterpoint to the unexpected phone-call from Laura on Wednesday, I had a date scheduled for Thursday. A lunch date, but still ...

One of the more striking smokers in the building at which I work, is a petite and very pretty Muslim woman, who usually spends her smoke-breaks on her cell, obviously talking business while gesturing animatedly with her free hand. I knew - or rather, I presumed with a high degree of confidence - she is a Muslim because she wears a hijab, though otherwise usually dresses in a casual Western style, including, sometimes, blue-jeans.

A couple of weeks back, during the depths of that viscious cold-snap, we got to talking (starting with the weather and how stupid we were proving ourselves to be by being out in it, sucking poison into our lungs - but I digress) and, very quickly, found ourselves sharing quickl and easy laughter.

She is Canadian-born, daughter of immigrants from India. She speaks the way she moves, confidently and with purpose, and I found myself quickly becoming taken by her wit and incisive intelligence. (Though not particularly witty in itself, her description of being witness to Janet Jackson's presumably inadvertent nipple exposure at the Superbowl a few years back was priceless.)

We ran into each other again, and yet again. The third time, on our way back to our mutual offices, I stopped and said, "I never do this, but, er, would you like to have lunch together one of these days?"

And so it was that she dropped by my office on Thursday at around 1:30, from whence we departed for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant just up Spadina (but the name of which escapes me - Sidra? Maybe you know it? It's on the east side, between Queen and Richmond?).

I don't know many people for whom religious faith is of much - if any - importance, let alone Muslims, so the opportunity for some cross-cultural study was almost as exciting as the fact that I had mustered the courage to ask her out in the first place. Too, it was strange for me to socialize without benefit of alcohol as a lubricant.

As it turned out, Saara seemed to find the fact of my atheism - and especially that both sides of my family were the same, going back at least 2 and 3 generations - just as curious as I found her decision to wear a hijab despite not apparently fulfilling any other Muslim stereotypes.

Long story short, it was a very good meeting, one that well over our allotted our.

We exchanged the usual family and personal histories, but politics and religion - sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted - were the dominant themes.

Saara told me she started wearing the hijab as a direct result of 9/11. She saw - and sees - making herself visibly Muslim as a political act, as a principled refusal to give in to fear of Islam that crime brought to the forefront of our society. In other words, she is a Muslim and she is not kind to pretend to be something else, simply to make non-Muslims around her more comfortable.

(Including, she noted, a lot of feminists. She said she has "often" been lectured by (invariably white) feminists about how the hijab "proves" she is oppressed and clearly not a feminist. And indeed, she said she considers feminism a strictly white, bourgeois phenomenom which does not speak to ethnic women at all. I disagree, but certainly find her position interesting - and depressing.)

And that decision certainly hasn't made her life any easier, particularly when crossing into the United States. Once, when she was refused admission (she made the mistake of telling the truth: she was going to New York to take a course in "activism"), she said the customs officers were litterally screaming at her, "Are you a terrorist? Are you a terrorist?"

"No, I work with troubled youth," apparently was not a good enough answer.

Saara has an admirable sense of humour about her trials and tribulations. She told me of when trip, with two of her sisters (who don't wear a hijab), on a trip to her brother's for a baby-shower.

At the border their car was - as it always is, she said - was selected for a "random" search.

"'Random'?" she asked the guard, while outlining her head-scarf with a dramatic swirl of her hand. "'Random', eh?"

At the interview, when ask, "If you're going to a baby-shower, where are the presents?"

"We sent them ahead," she said simply. "I knew we'd be stopped at the border. I knew we might not be allowed through at all."

Surprisingly, that time, she was.

* * *

Anyway, it was a more than enjoyable lunch and I hope we both make the effort to see each other again (although, it turns out she has a partner - story of my life, lately).

Nevertheless, between reading Dawkins' book and meeting a very attractive Muslim woman, I have been pondering religion quite a bit lately.

One thing I have come to realize is that I don't think I could get seriously involved with a woman of faith - any faith (and yes, I know how much that drains my pool of potential partners. Thank god (as it were) I live in Canada and not the States; and a pity I don't live in Europe).

A decade or so ago, I was involved with a woman - Harriet - who was a Christian, United Church style. On Christmas Eve I attented midnight mass with her, an event of great and medieval-feeling pomp and circumstance; censers on chains spewed perfumed smoke into the air, the priests decked out in their white robes. For me it was at once fascinating and tedious, and I was glad indeed when it was finally over and Harriet and I could return to her apartment to crack open a beer and then tumble into bed for some fantastic sex.

"Well," she said after we'd settled down around her kitchen table, "What did you think?"

I was silent for a moment or two, then finally replied, "Harriet, you don't really want me to answer that."

For the truth was, I thought the whole ceremony profoundly silly. Leaving aside the value of community celebrations; leaving aside the unquestionable virtue of cultural historical continuity, I could not escape the fact I held the basic concept behind that ceremony in intellectual contempt. To me, the idea of worshipping a non-existent god is simply, well, silly. It truly baffles me that intelligent people can take it seriously.

What I've realized, is that my contempt for religious beliefs would be a pretty serious handicap to having a serious romantic relationship with a woman of faith. I suppose I could just "agree to disagree" with a partner, but what if children enter the picture? What if she wants to indoctrinate them into her faith?

Major conflict, people!

"I love you and I accept that you don't believe, but I want our children baptised, and raised Catholic."

"And I love you and accept that you do believe, but there's no fucking way my kids are going to be taught to believe a fantasy!"

Shit. Is even 10 percent of the population of this country atheist? Welcome to the wading pool, Young Geoffrey.
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The world is full of visual Beauty. A silver lake midst ice-worn cliffs in northern Ontario; the night sky above that lake; and - yes - women.

Thursday evening saw me graced by the prescence of Beauty in human form. While we sat across from one another, talking and laughing, I was in thrall to the small movements of her mouth and eyes, the shifting tilt of her head, the way her hair framed her face, her round cheeks, perfectly imperfect teeth and pouting lips.

Though I was not - thank god - rendered speechless, I was almost literally unable to look away from her. Like a subtle painting, it seemed I could gaze at it for an eternity, with always more to discover. I felt joyful, to exist in such a world, where such beauty walks; and blessed, to be allowed such close proximity.

She is also, of course, a person - a very smart, very funny person, who will (I hope!) forgive me this objectification.

This strong a reaction to a woman's looks is a rare one for me. In high school it happened twice. First was an ongoing, unrequited infatuation. The second - also in high school, came during an acid trip, when my friend Michelle Albert - wearing a vaguelly naval style cap, an army jacket and tapered jeans, holding a branch she had found to use as a walking stick, for a while seemed to me an elf out of Middle Earth, Galadriel in mortal garb. The third, was with Elizabeth DiFrancesco, a woman I met in Peterborough, and with whom I had a brief, not very happy affair.

I have met many women, of course, whom I thought beautiful, or sexy, or both. I have even been fortunate (or, sometimes, unfortunate) enough to be romantically involved with some of them. But neither "beautiful" and "sexy" represent what I "saw" in Thursday's company (though she is also both those things). What I saw felt like an almost spiritual response to physical aesthetics.

I know from personal experience that a spiritual experience is often a short-lived thing; and I wonder if (if she does forgive me this embarassing dithyramb), the next time we meet, I will see her in the same, luminous, spectra - or if she will once again, as she was the first time we met, be "only" an attractive woman I am happy to think is becoming a friend.

September 2017

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