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Book Review: The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Just another note to say that I will be giving this wonderful book away to a lucky reader who either follows me (see button on right) or, for those who are already following me, leaves a comment. As in the previous giveaway, there will be draw and a winner will be announced on Fri May 7.

This review is cross-posted at Feminist Review.

The Spare Room
By Helen Garner
Picador

We learn very young that we cannot choose our family but that we can choose our friends, and we often believe that we would go to great lengths to protect them, as does Helen, the narrator in The Spare Room. This story is about a 15-year-old friendship between two women in their sixties, a period that is perhaps the busiest in a woman’s life with competing family, social and, in many cases still, professional demands.

Nicola, an artsy bohemian who turned her back on mainstream culture in the 1970s, goes to stay with Helen in her spare room in Melbourne so that she can undergo alternative vitamin-C treatments for her stage-four cancer. Selfless Helen, who initially does whatever is necessary to accommodate her friend, quickly butts heads with Nicola’s coping method of choice: denial. As Helen puts her life on hold caring for Nicola for a mere “fortnight,” which turns into three weeks, she quickly becomes overcome with fatigue. Her exhaustion stems not only from the constant care she feels her friend needs, but also from having to hold her tongue in the face of money-grubbing charlatans and her much-loved friend’s magical thinking.

It may be difficult to imagine this as light reading. However, Garner is a master of concision, and it is difficult to find even a single superfluous sentence in the 175 pages. In addition to shedding light on the limits of friendship, this book also celebrates key aspects of friendship between women: the validation of thoughts and feelings, the understanding and the laughter. In fact, it is Garner’s use of rich dark humour that knocks the stuffing out of death and illness in this book and keeps the narrative rolling.

Although many young women will feel that this scenario is still a long way off, Nicola’s harsh look back on what she made of her life will cause many to realize just how insidious and powerful mainstream culture is. Our strong and seemingly invincible bohemian mothers and aunts who chose their counter-culture lives in the 1970s are not always immune to the pervasiveness of the status quo and how it still manages to creep in and colour their basic personal views. This book gives us all a much needed reminder of the work that we as women still have ahead of us, not only in striving for equality in material terms, but also in acknowledging and validating our own personal struggles with mainstream culture, as we head down the road less traveled.

In short, I highly recommend this book not only for the quality of the writing, but also for the situation that everyone will be pushed one day to consider. This is a perfect book for an inter-generational book club.


Other reviews:
Aya: The Secrets Come Out
Film Review: Mary and Max
Doc Review: Finding Dawn by Christine Welsh
Book Review: Violent Partners by Linda G Mills
Review: Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
A Review of Montreal's Bixi Rental Bike
Read more »
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Digital StoryTelling: Mapping Memories

There's still one day left until the draw for the graphic novel, AYA: The Secrets Come Out. You still have a great chance of winning. Just follow my blog or leave a comment.

I've heard many people say, "It must be hard to immigrate to a new country." As most of us are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, we've heard the stories. I know for instance that my Finnish grandparents refused to speak Finnish when they arrived, as English was the language of the Canadian Prairies. They came to Canada for the promise of land and a more prosperous future.

But now try to imagine what it would be like if you had not come here out of choice, but instead had been forced to leave your country because of conflict or persecution. Immigrant and refugee are not synonymous terms. Refugees not only have to come to terms with past injustices, but they also have to face integration issues, which are often compounded by linguistic, religious and racial differences.

One way to ease integration is to provide Canadian newcomers with a platform to tell their stories. Storytelling not only helps the host country to better understand the refugee experience, but it also gives the host country an idea of where resources are best allocated to meet their needs.

The Life Stories Project, the YWCA and Mapping Memories are just finishing a 10-week training workshop so that seven newcomers, six women and one man, can do just that--tell their stories. Participants had to be open to learning new skills in video, photography, sound recording and mapping, be between the ages of 20 to 26, identify with the "refugee experience," and be willing to share their life stories with a wider audience.The stories produced in this workshop will become part of a book and DVD that will be used in schools and community centres to help raise awareness about the challenges newcomers face in adapting to a new country.

I recently sat down with Rania Arabi of the Immigrant Women's Project and Leadership Services at Montreal's YWCA to talk to her about this fascinating project. She has been working together with the main project facilitator, Elizabeth Miller. A native of Palestine, Rania told me that as a former newcomer to Canada, she is well-acquainted with the integration process. She is now married to a Quebecer and the mother of a two-and-a-half year old son. Her own experience helps to facilitate conversation and reassures the participants of what their lives could one day be.

I was interested in finding out some general information about the participants, so I asked about their countries of origin.
"We have people from the Congo, Rwanda, Palestine, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia," said Rania (See photo of participants above).

We spoke at length about the difficulties often faced by the second generation of refugees, particularly by young women, when the religious and cultural background of the parents are at odds with the mainstream culture of the host country.

"This is why participants have to identify with the refugee experience. That means that the participants are either refugees themselves or one of their family members has left their country of origin as a result of conflict or persecution," said Rania.

As for any specific details about the participants, I was just going to have to wait to hear it from the participants themselves in the weeks ahead. I can't wait...

For further information about this project, please contact
Elizabeth Miller  at Concordia University or
Rania Arabi at the YWCA
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AYA: The Secrets Come Out, Volume 3

Dearest Reader:

Many of you will be scratching your head right now. Yes, I did review this graphic novel last November. However, those fine people at Feminist Review sent me this lovely book in February to review. I moved away from the quality of the translation this time and focused on the storyline and graphic aspects.

As a result, I have two copies of AYA: The Secret Comes Out and will be giving one copy away. To enter to win, just start following my blog (See FOLLOW button in the right-hand column), and if you are already an e-mail subscriber or following my blog, just leave a comment on any of one of my 172 entries to enter the contest. My 7-year-old daughter will be drawing the name of the winner on Friday, April 23.

The following has been cross-posted at Feminist Review:


AYA: The Secrets Come Out, Volume 3
By Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Drawn and Quarterly

Last summer, in dire need of some pure escapism, I stumbled upon the four-volume Aya comic book series. Inspired from author Marguerite Abouet’s childhood, this series takes us back to the late 1970s on the Ivory Coast to a suburb of Abidjan, Yopougon, known affectionately as Yop City by its residents. What initially piqued my interest was finding a series taken from the point of view of Aya, a 19-year-old African woman—indeed a rare occurrence. Although the bright and studious Aya is the main character, the storyline revolves around the lives of three Yop City families: Aya’s and those of her two friends, Bintou and Adjoua.

Aya is different from her friends. She is serious and plans to become a doctor, while her friends prefer the nightlife of the maquis, a type of outdoor restaurant and dance bar. Aya is a friend to many in her community. She empowers the powerless, but also puts her friends in their place when they need it. Aya is not perfect, and her family has its share of problems.

In The Secrets Come Out, the mistress of Aya’s father stirs the pot when she arrives unannounced on his doorstep with two additional little surprises. Aya is deeply ashamed of her father’s behaviour and begs her mother to teach the wayward Ignace a lesson. However, this event is quickly overshadowed by the announcement of the skinny and bespectacled Koffi, Bintou's father, who tells his family that he is going to take a second wife, who is the same age as his daughter. His news creates an uproariously funny fallout in the community. Of the four volumes, The Secrets Come Out is by far the most humorous.

Instead of concentrating on the various scourges that plague Africa, the Aya series presents the quickly changing fortunes of people living on the Ivory Coast. We see an Africa replete with intrigue, beauty and humour. The Yop City of the late 1970s ironically mirrors many of the same social issues that we were dealing with ourselves here in North America: homosexuality, infidelity and the changing roles of women. As for polygamy, although it is illegal, we can’t forget that it is still practised here in North America.

Although the story of Aya will draw you in, it is the panels of Clément Oubrerie that gives this series its pure escapism. Not only are his drawings good, but his choice of colours are exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the range of blues and violets that he used for the night scenes. There are also a few bonus features at the back to get you better acquainted with some of the customs, recipes and lingo used on the Ivory Coast.This is an excellent translation from the original French series.



Other Reviews:
Film Review: Mary and Max
Doc Review: Finding Dawn by Christine Welsh
Book Review: Violent Partners by Linda G Mills
Review: Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
A Review of Montreal's Bixi Rental Bike
Read more »
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Cara Carmina's Magical Dolls

A Mexico City native and the creative force behind Cara Carmina, Norma Andreu is showing her magical dolls at Artistri, 5319 Park Avenue, Montreal. As soon as I walked into the shop, I found myself wide-eyed in front of the display. When I think of dolls, for some reason antiques always come to mind, but these are modern and funky, and definitely worth a trip to Artistri to see.

The Dream Whisperers (left) are inspired from the Guatemalan quitapenas dolls. Before you go to sleep at night, you tell the quitapenas your troubles, then put the tiny doll under your pillow, and your troubles will magically disappear. The dream whisperer is the more ambitious version. You whisper your dream to the doll before you go to sleep, and in the morning your dream should come true.

My favourite collection was the Frida Kahlo (right) and Remedios Varo-inspired dolls (left). I learned from Norma that Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo was a friend of Kahlo.The Frida dolls all have a quote from the artist embroidered on the stomach

Click on the pictures to enlarge.


The third collection is entitled No One's Children. These dolls have no parents and are waiting to be adopted.

Norma Andreu's dolls and other découpage work can be purchased at Artistrithe Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, la Librairie de Verdun, Perfide, or directly from her shop on her blog. Check out the prices. I found they were reasonable for the amount of work she has done.

You can join Norma Andreu on her Facebook page. 

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Films for Girls: Bechdel-Inspired Girl Positive Test

Last month after Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar victory, I cited a 2008 statistic from Melissa Silverstein's Women and Hollywood blog, indicating that only 6 of that year's 50 highest grossing films were focused on women. I had a few people ask me what I meant by "focus." Yes, the majority of box office hits probably feature women, but who do these films revolve around? A few weeks later, I came across a great test via GABblog to determine whether there is a focus on women in a film.

The Bechdel test, developed by artist and scholar Allison Bechdel (although she credits Liz Wallace for the test), involves three simple questions.

The Bechdel Test
1. Are there at least two women with names in the film?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

If you answered yes to the those three questions then you have a film with a focus on women. And you might be surprised to learn that the following films, which are favourites among young girls, failed the test: Shrek, Wall-E, Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3, the Princess Bride, Up, Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings 1, 2 and 3--all films that I have watched with my 7-year-old daughter. No wonder she thinks it would be cool to be a boy. For a more complete list of blockbusters that flunk the Bechdel test, watch this 2-minute video by Feminist Frequency.

Another blogsite, Angry Black Woman, posted this test for people of colour (POC) in media. This test and subsequent analysis caused a stir, generating 159 comments.


1. There has to be two POCs with names.
2. They have to talk to each other.
3. They have to talk about someone other than the white person.

If you still need some more compelling evidence of just how underrepresented women in film are, I suggest that you read this article by Jennifer Kesler, a former screenwriter in Hollywood. Kessler states that although she moved to California from a state that still held Klu Klux Klan rallies, she found a more insidious form of bigotry there in the film industry.

I have to admit that I was taken aback when I saw the list of films that didn't feature at least two women talking about someone other than a white guy. But I am more concerned about the impact this will have on my daughter. I decided we needed a test for young girls and came up with this:


The Girl-Positive test

1) There has to be two girls with names.
2) Two girls discuss their hopes and dreams.
3) These hopes and dreams do not ultimately lead to the attention of a boy.

I think that it's time to start compiling a list of movies for young girls and adolescents that reflect the rich lives of girls and women.

Here's the start of my list:
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Princess Monoke
Kiki's Delivery
Coraline

Parents, please help me build my list. Can you think of any other films that pass the Girl Positive test?

Mexican doll artist Norma Andreu created Frida Kahlo- and Remedios Varo-inspired dolls currently on display at Artistri, 5319 Park Avenue, Montreal. My next post will be on this artist and two of her other collections.


Related posts:
In a Hypothetical Society
An "A" For Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign
Glass Ceiling: Smashed or Cracked?
Image de femmes 2010
Read more »
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Mile End Summer Flavour--Hibiscus

For several months, I have been walking past an African grocery store on Fairmount that advertises the sale of hibiscus in bulk. I was curious and wondered about the target market for this product. After all, who could drink that much tea.

Through the window of Al-Boutik, the name of the store, I could see a large wooden table at the centre, a map of Africa next to the door, some shelves filled with bags of bulk foods and large swaths of colourful fabric draped across the ceiling. But unfortunately, the store was never open for business.

On Friday night, on my way to the grocery store, I saw that the light was on and walked in. I met Atigh Ould, the charismatic owner of both la Khaima, the restaurant next door, and Al-Boutik. Wearing a teal-coloured turbin and black rectangular glasses, Atigh welcomed me in and showed me around his store. He is from Mauritania, a country with a mixture of North African and West African cultures, and his favourite drink as a child was hibiscus flower tea, which can be served either hot or cold. The owner told me that this drink was in fact brewed and bottled on the premises and could be found in some 100 stores in the greater Montreal area. He invited me back the next day with my children to try the hibiscus freeze pops (see picture below) and invited us to his store's grand opening on Sunday, April 17.

I dropped by with my children a few days later, and the hibiscus freeze pops were a big hit, even with my 2-year-old. I learned from the store attendant that the African store was also going to be a lunch counter, and the big table at the centre of the room was so that people would sit together and talk to one another. I was intrigued by this unconventional approach and wondered if it would be successful. The store attendant also told me that Atigh's inspiration for building his store's business around an artisanal product made on the premises was his neighbour from down the street, Fairmount Bagel.

My husband also dropped by to meet Atigh, whom he found just as charismatic. Unable to pinpoint the source of his charm, I asked my husband what was it that made the store owner so intriguing. It was a no-brainer for my husband.
"The man is happy," he said, "and happiness attracts people."
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An "A" For Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign

As many of you know, April is sexual assault awareness month. This year the Quebec government has released a very poignant  TV and Web advertising campaign. In this series, the victim speaks directly to the camera and addresses her attacker, referring to the exact moment of her assault. In the TV ad on the left, the victim states,

"It's been 32 years, 6 months and 1 week, since you assaulted me....I will never forget your face."

On the Sexual Assault website and in the web ads, the time is given in years, months, weeks, days, minutes and even seconds, making it abundantly clear that this traumatic event is never forgotten (See photo bottom right.).

What I found particularly innovative about this campaign is that the government also features men as victims of sexual assault, and although male victims recounting their ordeals have yet to be televised, their stories are nevertheless on the website. In addition, the government has featured individuals of different ages, but unfortunately, we see just one woman of colour. At the top centre of the website, you will also find a quick exit button and instructions on how to erase your Internet history from your browser for individuals who fear retribution. This is a very comprehensive bilingual site that provides a definition and the different forms of sexual assault (worth reading), the signs that a sexual assault victim might exhibit, advice for victims, recent statistics and further assistance resources.

As I went through the statistics, I was struck by how little I knew about sexual assault and how much television, specifically CSI and Law and Order, had coloured my view. The following are the statistics that I found the most telling:

Sexual assault is the least reported crime
34% of sexual offences registered in 2008 were reported to police the same day they were committed, while 20% were reported over a year after being committed.

83% of the victims were women: 53% were girls under the age of 18; 30% were adult women; 15% were young boys under the age of 18; and 2% were adult men.

68% of victims were under the age of 18.

69% were assaulted in private homes: 39% lived in the same residence as the perpetrator.

81% of victims knew their perpetrators: 27% were mere acquaintances.

98% of perpetrators were men: the highest percentage were in the 12 to 17 age group (21%) and the 35 to 44 age group (21%). Don't be fooled by Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Rape by women is evidently very rare or rarely reported.

The website also points out that sexual assault perpetrators are generally people of sound mind. Also, men who sexually assault young boys are not necessarily homosexual.

If the government had featured more people of colour in its ads and had made it more Web 2.0 friendly, ie, included a share button and posted these ads on YouTube, I would have given the GoQ an "A+" Nevertheless, I encourage you to visit the site. The actors' performances are very moving.

Source:
Government of Quebec Sexual Assault website
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Claymation: Plasticine Figurines in Action

Today, my seven-year-old daughter and I took part in a claymation workshop offered by the National Film Board of Canada. Claymation involves using plasticine to create play figures and then using them in a short 8-second segment. In groups of four, we created our cast and a very simple short skit. We then took our play figures and put them to work on the NFB's ready made sets. In our group, the parents acted as the stage and camera directors, while the kids handled the computer capture and character movement. The trick is to have a clear idea of what you want your characters to do first and then break the movement down into very small steps. Sounds easy...the kids had no problem with it.

It took about 20 minutes to decide on our characters and story....if you could call it that. It was difficult to come to a consensus, and when we did, someone invariably offered another suggestion...Okay, we were rudderless. But we were parents who wanted our kids to decide the course of events.

Before starting, we were given two important tips: play figures should be stocky and have over-sized feet for added stability. We were also to use toothpicks to stop the legs from separating from the bodies. Although 8 seconds sounds relatively short, it took another 20 minutes to film our segment. This should give you an idea of how much work goes into a full-length animation feature. There were also some restrictions put on the action: there was to be no flying or diving, and if a character dove into the water, s/he could not come back out. Otherwise, it would be too time-consuming to cut the character up and then put him/her back together again.

Below you will find the fruit of our labours from this two-and-a-half hour workshop. I think that the first, fourth and fifth groups made the best use of this medium. I particularly liked the fisherman, and the man whose nose grew after eating the carrot. 

video

If you are interested in seeing a full-length claymation feature for adults I suggest you view the trailer for Mary and Max at the link below.

Related posts:
Film Review: Mary and Max Directed and Written by Adam Elliot
NFB: Learn the ABCs of Animation
Read more »
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Multitasker Foils Gentrification

Last month, I wrote about the Mile End's longest plant and flower stand. Along with Georges Riddell's fishing and tackle shop, these two businesses have successfully foiled the Bernard Street gentrification process. As I've previously stated, the longest and most beautiful plant and flower stand is no more, and our florist has in fact closed the block-long store and is now running a mere three stores simultaneously: one on the north side of Bernard and two on the south side, which, by the way, are not even side by side.

My most reliable Mile End source tells me that like fellow hold-out Georges Riddell, this woman is not your run-of-the mill florist. In our conversation, I learned some juicy tidbits so incredible that I couldn't possibly commit them to paper until I substantiated them for myself.

I spoke to the owner recently and learned that rising rent costs had forced her to cut back to three stores. Although her children help out in some areas, this is still basically a one-woman operation. This multitasker extraordinaire can be seen running across Bernard Street several times a day.

A few years ago, her daily routine involved setting up and taking down the entire block of flower displays and running back and forth to serve customers. Now she only has to set up three stores and run in a triangle across Bernard Street. On top of this, she is a divorced mother of 14 children. Yes, 14! Take that Octomom. Her oldest is 38 years old, and her youngest is a pre-teen.

In my previous post, you may recall that I referred to her as a thin young woman. I thought that she was in her early 40s, or about the same age as her oldest son. Hell no! This former Miss Hong Kong is 62 years old. I dropped by today to buy some flowers for an Easter brunch and she let me take her picture. What about you reader? Has this made you call into question your own multitasking skills?
 
Foiling-the-gentrification-process-related posts:
Mile End's Longest Flower Stand
The Lure of Fishing on Bernard
Hard Times and Used Books
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