Friday, November 25, 2005

What Was She Thinking: Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

Does anyone remember the strange case of MaryKay Letourneau, the 31-year old Washington State teacher who went to prison for seducing a 7th grader? When it happened it made huge waves in the media and sparked an idea for a story in author's Zeo Heller's mind.

"Notes on a Scandal" by Zoe Heller, but titled as "What Was She Thinking" in the US, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and I have to confess that it surprises me that it was. After all, this novel wasn't ground-breaking in a literary sense, but it was a very creative story exploring social taboos and heavy-duty feelings like obsession, loneliness, jealousy and so on.

On to the characters: Bathsheba Hart is a 41-year old pottery teacher in a High School in England. She's married with two kids: one surly teenage girl named Polly and a mentally disabled 10-year old boy called Ben. She is very cultured in the arts and married to an older academic named Richard. She has always hob-nobbed with people from academia so when she arrives at this new school in a working class neighborhood she is rather disappointed that none of the students seem to show an interest in the arts. Steven Connolly, a 15-year old boy, is the only exception and very soon she is meeting him after class to talk with him about Degas, Monet, Manet etc. We are told that soon these discussions progress to trysts behind the pottery kiln and secret rendezvous in Hampstead Heath.

I find it unusual that although the author chose to use a first person narrative in this novel, the narrator she chose wasn't the teacher (Sheba) or the boy (Steven), but rather a colleague and friend of the teacher, a 61-year old spinster and history teacher named Barbara Covett...

Barbara Covett is a hard person to like. In the book she comes across as lonely, possessive, insecure, facetious, judgmental, controlling and manipulating. But perhaps having a thoroughly dislikable narrator is what makes the story so unusual! Had the author chosen to write the story from either Sheba's or Steven's point of view we might have ended up with a mundane story with fairly predictable perspectives.

Barbara likes to say that because Sheba belonged to the upper strata of society , she was fascinated with people that belonged to the working class and that her interest in the boy Steven was purely anthropological to begin with. Steven Connolly, the boy in question, the teacher's pet, is like most adolescent boys---he needs no real reason for wanting to sleep with his teacher, Sheba, other than a bad case of hormones in overdrive. Infact,when the press got wind of the affair and they caught sight of Steven on his doorstep, they asked him why he did it, his response was: "Well, I fancied her, didn't I?"

After the press hauls Sheba over the coals over her indiscretion, Barbara befriends and mothers Sheba when no one else is on her side. "Notes on a Scandal" is Barbara's retelling of what happened, detailing scenes she couldn't have possibly witnessed but claims to have been retold so many times that she may as well have been there. As Barbara tells Sheba's story she inadvertently exposes her own life---her loneliness, her dashed dreams making us realize she is just one terribly bitter, lonely, old spinster.

The main thrust of the story, as you will tell from the title, is about a very inappropriate friendship/affair between a teacher and a student, but astonishingly, the friendship between Barbara and Sheba, especially how Barbara seems to feel about Sheba, sometimes comes across as the more disturbing of the two. The very fact that the author can make the reader feel that the narrator's relationship with Sheba is more 'interesting' than the scandal , is a testament to the power and creativity of her writing.

This book gives you a lot of meat to chew on. There is the most obvious discussion on why it is that when older men seduce younger girls, they are known as predators but when an older woman seduces a younger boy, she is merely laughed at? Is it because she is an aberration? Or is it because we see young boys as being less in danger of being emotionally abused by these experiences than our young girls? Also, is it even more perverse when the woman involved is a teacher? After all, we expect teachers to set a moral example, but to be fair to them, we all know that with raging hormones, high schools can be natural hotbeds for flirtations and secret passions. It might even be considered part of growing up to develop a crush on a teacher. What happens when a teacher is actively pursued by one of her charges and she succumbs?

There is also the topic of friendship. Was the friendship between Barbara and Sheba a good one or just creepy? When someone does you a huge favor, do you have to spend your entire lifetime being grateful and obligated to your benefactor ?

This book also touches on the famous or rather infamous, British class system. Does such a thing exist in North America? I think it does, but it hinges on wealth and power, whereas in Britain, it usually has to do with birth, education and family name.

This book is soon to be made into a movie, where the talented Dame Judi Dench will star as Barbara Covett and the beautiful Cate Blanchett as Bathsheba Hart. I can't wait!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

WATER: A Deepa Mehta Film

Drama, Romance
Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Waheeda Rehman, Raghuvir Yadav, Vinay Pathak, Rishma Malik John Abraham

Directed by: Deepa Mehta
Written by: Deepa Mehta
Country: Canada/India

Went to see "Water" yesterday. Recently it's been on everybody's lips because it was the opening feature for the Toronto International Film Festival (2005) which, after Cannes, is the most influential film festival (think Oscars!)

Water is set in 1938 in Varnasi a city on the banks of the Holy river Ganges; this was the city most widows in colonial India went to after their husbands died. Many of them lived in "ashrams" (charitable homes) where they paid rent from the alms they received begging on the pathways that led to the numerous temples in and around Varnasi. According to the Hindu custom of the time, the widows must shave their heads and live in a cloister, where, for the rest of their days, they must atone for the sins that must surely have prompted their husbands' deaths. They wore only white, no make-up and had to subsist on very basic food since normal food was considered a luxury and thus a sin. People considered the widows to be bad luck and they had to be careful never to appear at weddings or other auspicious occasions. The only ceremonies they were called upon to attend were cremations, where they would their cries to that of the mourners for a small fee or a fistful of rice.

As always, when there are destitute women, there are men and even women, looking to prey upon them. Some of the rich men in Varnasi had no qualms about having sex with these widows and in many of the ashrams, the youngest widow was the one singled out to service them. She was given special treatment by the older widows because she was their golden goose.

As if this wasn't sad enough, since child marriage was prevalent in those days, there were many child widows, most of whom hadn't even seen their husbands because they did not go to their husband's house till they reached puberty. The husbands picked were usually atleast 10-15 years older than them.

This movie revolves around one such child-widow, Chuiya. She's only 8 years old when her husband dies,shortly after the wedding feast. She is brought to the widow house and is expected to spend the rest of her life there in monastic simplicity. Being a child she misses her mother and is totally irreverant to the domineering boss-woman, eliciting toothless grins from the other widows in the house. Chuiya constantly questions why she has to be there and in one really poignant scene she innocently asks where the men-widows are housed! Chuyia is taken under the firm wing of Shakantula (Seema Biswas), a severe and devout young widow who struggles to believe there is a divine purpose behind her exile. Chuiya (Sarala) gives a rivetting performance and as a member of the audience, you cry your eyes out when the heartless boss-woman sends her across the river to become a plaything for a rich, pot-bellied businessman who likes children.

The child's story is paralleled with that of another widow (Kalyani, played by Lisa Ray), who because she is the prettiest widow is prostituted to the rich Brahmins in the city. Brahmin men in those days had convinced themselves that they were doing the girls a favor by mixing Brahmin essence into their unworthy body and souls! Kalyani meets and falls in love with the high-caste idealist Narayan (John Abraham) and expresses her desire to remarry. Furiously irate at losing Kalyani, the boss-woman stomps into Kalyani’s hovel and hacks off her long tresses (she was the only widow permitted to keep her long hair so that clients would be attracted to her). With one vicious deed, she at once defiles Kalyani’s beauty, her intention being to lessen Kalyani's appeal with her suitor (Narayan).

The backdrop of the film is the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, who not only agitated for India’s independence from Britain but also sought to improve the lot of Hindu widows. Colonies like the one depicted in 'Water' aren’t nearly as prevalent in modern India, but according to Mehta, they do still exist. Through advocacy and activism, however, Hindu widows have become more independent.

The making of "Water" is the stuff of nightmares. During the initial shoot in Varanasi in 2000, Mehta and her crew were set upon by religious fundamentalists who alleged to have seen the script and deemed it anti-Hindu. Pieces of the set were thrown into the Ganges River; Mehta was torched in effigy and received death threats. The protest was a symbol of increased conservatism in Indian society; more immediately for Mehta and her crew, it represented a mortal danger. As a result, the production was shut down. Production started anew in 2004, this time in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. (Because Sri Lanka is primarily Buddhist, Mehta had to recreate a Hindu temple in the shooting locale.

This is what Deepa Mehta had to say about her film:

“...We are very good, as different nations and different cultures, to have a collective amnesia about our own problems. "Water" is about three women trying to break that cycle and trying to find dignity, and trying to get rid of the yoke of oppression, and if it inspires people to do something in their own culture, that’s what’s important...”

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

OK, here's a puzzle for you, what am I describing here?

"...they should be small, narrow,straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of these requirements, length is most important. Seven centimeters - about the length of a thumb- is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect one should be shaped like the bud of a Lotus..."

Give up?

Well, this is how the feet of an upper-class Chinese woman in the early 19th-century were expected to be. Without Lily feet (as they were called) she could not expect to have a good marriage and would probably end up as someone's servant . Footbinding was an agonizingly painful process. Here is how Lisa See describes it in her book.

Caution: this is hard to read without wincing!

"...One day, as I made one of my trips across the room, I heard something crack. One of my toes had broken. I thought the sound was something internal to my own body, but it was so sharp that everyone in the women's chamber heard it. My mother's eyes zeroed in on me. ‘Move! Progress is finally being made!’ Walking, my whole body trembled. By nightfall the eight toes that needed to break had broken, but I was still made to walk. I felt my broken toes under the weight of every step I took, for they were loose in my shoes. The freshly created space where once there had been a joint was now a gelatinous infinity of torture. The freezing weather did not begin to numb the excruciating sensations that raged through my entire body. Still, Mama was not happy with my compliance. That night she told Elder Brother to bring back a reed cut from the riverbank. Over the next two days, she used this on the backs of my legs to keep me moving. On the day that my bindings were rewrapped, I soaked my feet as usual, but this time the massage to reshape the bones was beyond anything I had experienced so far. With her fingers Mama pulled my loose bones back and up against the soles of my feet. At no other time did I see Mama’s mother love so clearly...."

It's true, ironically, the only way for a for a Chinese mother to improve her daughter's lot in life was to transform , (some would call it maiming) her daughter's feet. The mother, by creating the perfect bound foot, could help marry her daugher into a "better" family. Footbinding was a status symbol too. Any man who could afford a lily-footed wife was telling his village that he was so wealthy he could maintain a wife who couldn't work. It has a sensuous component, too. For a man to hold a lily foot in his hand was the most erotic thing he could hope for; according to the author, a bound foot also had a peculiar odor which served as a very potent aphrodisiac for the man...

Lisa See's new book, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" explores the lives of Chinese women in the early 1800's through the lives of two main protagonists, Snow Flower and Lily.

Snow Flower and Lily met when they were 7 years old through the services of a matchmaker who, after comparing their horoscopes, declared that they were suitable to be "lautangs" or "old sames". The Chinese had a wonderful custom of a "sworn sisterhood" for the girls in their family. In a time when women were generally isolated, and were told over and over that they had no value (an oft-repeated Chinese phrase was, "it is better to have a dog than a daughter") these sworn sisters were to provide love, company, comfort and solace to each other, but it was dissolved at marriage.

A "lautang" was different. It involved only two girls and lasted their entire lives. It was essentially a kind of emotional marriage between women, a bond they signed with each other to remain true, faithful and loyal to each other no matter what. Although they were usually from different villages they would meet several times in the year and stay over at each other's homes for a week or so, doing chores, eating and sleeping together and even wearing the same clothes! During the day they would embroider and make their lily shoes or compose poetry in nu-shu and write secret notes. Not surprisingly, when the girls eventually married, they often enjoyed a stronger bond with their laotongs than they ever could with their husbands.

Nu-shu is a secret language exclusively employed by the women of the South-Western Hunan province of China. This script was invented as a code for women, by women. By writing it on paper or fans, embroidering it on handkerchiefs or weaving it into cloth, women could communicate with each other secretly. But since Nu-shu is a phonetic language it is very easy to misunderstand unless it is taken in context. You will see what I mean when you read the book!

This is a truly wonderful story about the beauty and necessity of female friendships and with Lisa See's powerful and gifted story-telling it has the potential to become a dearly-loved classic. This is a book you want to give all the women in your life - your best friend, your daughters, your mother, your sister, your favorite aunt, your most respected teacher...

Footnote (if you will excuse the pun): IMO the 19th century Chinese weren't the only race to be obsessed with feet. Of all the fashion accessories in a western woman's possession, aren't shoes the item we collect the most? And how often do we hear women complain about their big feet? As for surgical alterations, we may not shorten our feet but we do like breast implants, tummy tucks, rhinoplasty etc. Are we that different from the women that lived in the 18oo's on the opposite side of the world? I would say not and this why the story of Snow Flower and Lily resonates even today.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The World Unseen: Shamim Sharif

First-time novelist, Shamim Sharif, writes an interesting novel set in the 1950's apartheid-era of South Africa. The main protagonist is a Indian-Muslim girl, Miriam, whose marriage is arranged with a Muslim boy of Indian origin but who calls Pretoria home. Her family were very approving of the match because not only did they like the idea of a child of theirs living abroad, but also, the boy didn't have parents and they felt that Miriam would have an easy time establishing a home with Omar without the interference of in-laws. How wrong they were because although Omar didn't have parents, his older brother's wife, Farah, was more than willing to take on the role of the strict matriarch of the household and she did so with brutal efficiency making Miriam slave away in the house.

After a couple of years, Miriam, Omar and their kids moved to a farming community in Delhof where they opened a store. Life was slow and the days passed in an agonizingly boring haze of housework,keeping shop, waiting on Omar but Miriam didn't complain because she dreaded going back to Pretoria, to Farah's house. Omar grew increasingly distant with Miriam and started an affair with the fiesty Farah. Miriam's unhappiness knew no bounds. She had no family close by, no friends, no job; all she had was her children and an indifferent and sometimes cruel husband----she felt unloved, unworthy and didn't know where to turn until love came from a most unexpected source---another woman.

This book is unusual in that it records apartheid from an Indian family's perspective. The Indians were neither white (the priveliged class), nor kaffirs (the Africans), but rather like the middle child, somewhere inbetween. Because they were not a huge community not much is known about how they fared during the apartheid era, thus, the book, as its title suggests, truly takes us into a world unseen.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Edvard Munch : Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux

The biography of the artist who created the most haunting icon of the twentieth century (Yale University Press).

Whenever I look at a painting, I find myself wondering if that painting holds any clues to the painter's life. In other words, are paintings largely autobiographical? Did Gustav Klimt's paintings of all those nudes reveal a sexually promiscuous life? It could well be because his biographers tell us that he had a battalion of mistresses. Does Henri Toulouse Lautrec's paintings of the Moulin Rouge and the women that danced there show us a preoccupation with the shadowy night life of Paris? It could well be since we now know that he spent all his time there. So, what would Edvard Munch's paintings, especially his portraits, tell us about himself? Sue Prideaux set out to find out and the result is a wonderful, moving biography on Norway's most-celebrated artist,titled, "Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.

Sue Prideaux is a art historian who lives in London has studied the paintings and diaries of Edvard Munch(besides being a prolific painter, Munch was also a great chronicler of the daily events of his life). I can't think of a person more qualified to do this because apart from the fact that she lives and breathes art, she also is part Norwegian and speaks the language fluently and her great-uncle, Thomas Olsen, was one of Munch's most loyal patrons.

Munch's childhood was most unenviable perhaps. His mother died of the consumption when he was not quite five and his father, Christian Munch, who was deeply religious in an almost obsessive way was very strict with his sons, beating them mercilessly for even very minor infractions. He also drummed into the siblings' psyche that their dead mother watched everything that they did. "...I came frightened into this world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people,” Munch said. Munch and his sister Sophie developed a close bond but when he was 10, she too died of TB. Her death completely devastated Munch and appears to have affected him for the rest of his life. His painting, "The Sick Child" appears to be of her and he has always kept the chair in which she died. Today one can view it at the Munch museum. Illness was all around them in 19-century Norway and to make matters worse, there was mental illness in the family. Munch's maternal grandfather had spinal TB and was also insane, his other sister, Laura, was institutionalized with schizophrenia. Munch feared that he too would fall victim to a mental illness, infact that fear haunted him almost all his life. In his own words, "...Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle."

Paintings offered Munch a means of escape from his daily demons. His paintings were his babies, his allies, he couldn't bear to part with them. He was the master of self-portraiture and has done a whole collection of paintings of himself. Munch was very fond of the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and told a friend that no one in the arts had yet traveled as far as Dostoevsky "into the mystical realms of the soul." He aimed to be the first. There is a Munch painting titled, "Salome-Paraphrase, 1894-98," which explains this well. The work depicts a rather sober image of the artist's face . Above him with long flowing locks is the head of a woman. His face betrays nothing, yet the use of such so much red, which is the colour of passion, fire and aggression and the locks of hair entangling him, seem to convey his innermost longings, a peek into his sexual psyche perhaps?

The painting also reflects his complicated relationships with women. According to Sue Pridaux, Edvard Munch had an enormous number of women who were sweet on him, but decided at an early age that he would never marry. To him, women were mystifying and tempting; they lured men from the path of greatness, spoiling and corrupting them. He would allow them to get within a certain distance, but then always find an excuse to retire, lest the price of intimacy be paid at the expense of his art. But one woman, Tulla Larsen, an heiress of considerable fortune, refused to let him go always emotionally blackmailing him to return to her. The last time they met, it ended with a fateful shooting. No one knows which of them originally took hold of the gun in the struggle that ensued, or whose finger pulled the trigger, releasing the bullet that shattered the middle finger on Munch's left hand. Munch recalls the scene in his painting "Death of Marat," depicting himself as a bloodied, sacrificed Christ lying on a bed while Tulla stands nude, facing the viewer, rigid as a statue. In the case of the shot finger, Prideaux believes that Tulla Larsen pulled the trigger, but Munch later wrote an account suggesting that he did it himself - in which case it would be a self-mutilation parallel to Van Gogh's ear-amputation.

Munch continued to travel and exhibit his paintings, but he was drinking heavily and had to be admitted to a nursing home in Copenhagen after he suffered a nervous breakdown. After his mental health improved he returned home to Norway in the spring of 1909 and enjoyed a brief spurt of fame, fortune and also the companionship of some pretty young models who adored him. All that was about the change with the advent of the Nazis, however, who with their policy of Entartete Kunst (Decadent Art), held the 80 or so Munchs in German collections and ridiculed them officially in a mock exhibition and then sold on the international market, including Norway, to raise hard currency for National Socialism.

Munch died in 1944 at age 80, just before the Nazis were booted from his homeland. He bequeathed his works to Norway, an enormous gift that included 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings, 15,391 prints and 378 lithographs. Among these were the paintings in his famous "Frieze of Life."

An afterword: Before reading this book I have to confess I didn't know too much about the artist Munch except that he had painted the well known "Scream", which has become synonymous with the anxieties of modern life. "...I went along the road with two friends – the sun set. Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness…Clouds over the fjord…dripped reeking blood. My friends went on, but I just stood trembling with an open wound in my breast…I heard an extraordinary scream pass through nature..." This is how Edvard Munch’s visionary experience came to him before he painted this iconic work of art. This book by Sue Perdeaux has now put aface and a story to this painting and for that I am grateful.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

पहेली Paheli: Bollywood's Official Oscar Entry 2006

I had no intention of reviewing Bollywood films on my blog, but "Paheli" पहेली ( riddle) deserves to be the exception because it is one of the best movies to come out of Bollywood in a long time.

This story is based on a novel by leading Rajasthani folk-tale writer Vijaydan Detha, set a couple of hundreds of years ago and framed through the eyes of two talking marionettes (voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak) as if told at a traveling puppet show.

A wedding party in Rajasthan (desert state of India) on its way home, stops to rest under a banyan tree on which lives a ghost (banyan trees in Indian mythology are well-known for being the abode of ghosts). The bride, Lachchi, played by Rani Mukherjee, lifts her veil for a second and the ghost falls in love with her. Soon after they arrive at the groom's father's house, which is where the bridal couple will make their home, the slightly dorky groom, Kishan, (played by Shahrukh Khan) is more interested in finishing the wedding accounts than consummating his marriage, and calmly tells Lachchi he's leaving the next day on a five-year business assignment ordered by his dad. On his way out of the village Kishan passes under the same banyan tree, and the ghost, surprised and curious that the groom would leave his beautiful wife so soon after the wedding, takes on the guise of a man and proceeds to chat up the groom for information. Once he's grasped the facts, he takes the form of the groom, and goes to the village home.

To explain his return to the business-minded father, the ghost (but now in Kishan's likeness), invents the story of a sage who has promised him five gold coins if he stays at home. But the ghost doesn't deceive the wife. He tells her plainly who he is and how he wants to make her happy, leaving it to her to accept or reject him. Therein lies the dilema. Now that Lachchi knows he is not really her husband, can she accept him? She has to decide between accepting the true love of a ghost versus the indifference of a flesh and blood person. The young woman accepts her ghostly lover and they live together for three years. After she gets pregnant, the news of her pregnancy spreads through the village and beyond, until her husband Kisna, gets to hear of it, too. He rushes home only to see...himself! The family and villagers are now confronted with two identical sons... you need to see the movie to find out how it turns out.

To many viewers this might just be pure entertainment, after all, this enchanting story is laid out elaborately, in riotous colours and Rajasthani exotica, but "Paheli" is more than that. It brings up questions. For instance, in accepting the ghost as her lover, was the wife being unfaithful to her real husband? After all, a ghost, even if it takes a human form, is still a spirit. If she cheats with an 'other- worldly' being, is it still cheating? And, who was the ghost really? When asked for his identity, the ghost said that he was the love that pacified the longing that is in every unfulfilled woman's heart. So this is plainly a love story on several levels---physical, emotional, spiritual and other- wordly. "Paheli" is also about a woman's right to make choices for herself concerning her own happiness. In Indian society, all too often a woman's fate is tied to her husband. She does what is decided for her by him. In Paheli, Lacchi decides not to take her fate lying down, but to actively and consciously create it. I hope it fares well at the Oscars.

Johanna Papissa or the Cross-dressing Pope

So, who is Pope Joan? According to the OSV (Our Sunday Visitor's) Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Joan is the legendary female pontiff who reigned as Pope John VIII between the pontifates of LeoIV and Benedict III, roughly between 855 and 858. She is generally regarded by historians and the Catholic Church as a myth, possibly originating as an anti-papal satire which gained a degree of plausibility due to certain genuine elements related in the story.

Donna Woolfolk Cross makes Pope Joan the protagonist of her book of the same name. She tells her story beautifully with a researcher's gift for very detailed descriptions of how life and the church was in the dark ages, and yet, at the same time, the novelist's eye and ear is at work. She feels the flow of events in Joan's life with great sensitivity, after all, ninth-century Europe was a difficult time in which to live, especially for women. Women were not allowed to read or write. Any woman or girl-child shown expressing a curiosity in reading or in how things worked, was considered to be 'possessed'. If a girl ever questioned a decision made by the male member in the house, or showed signs of questioning age-old traditions or rituals, they were whipped until they submitted.

Cross portrays Joan as one of three children raised during this bloody time by Gudrun, a "heathen" woman and a survivor of the brutal Saxon massacre, and her husband, an overzealous Christian canon. So blind was he from ignorance and misplaced Christian fervor, that Joan, their only daughter, is cruelly mistreated by him for her attempts to utilize her intelligence. Despite the abuse to which she is subjected, she refuses to take on the role of the submissive daughter and sister.

After Vikings savagely attack the village, Joan, the lone survivor, adopts the identity of her younger brother, John, who had been killed in the attack. Joan eventually has to disguise herself as a man to escape punishment for aspiring beyond her station as a female. She becomes Brother John Anglicus. Along the way she takes shelter at a Benedictine monastery where she learns medical skills from an elderly monk.

When Joan, still known as Brother John Anglicus, decides to travel to Rome, she is asked to heal the reigning Pope Sergius. She succeeds, gains his trust and stays by his side until his death. Pope Leo succeeds Sergius and promotes Joan to Commander- in-Chief of the papal militia. For Joan this is a soul-searching moment, as Gerold (the man she fell in love with when she studied at the monastery) has come to Roma to ask her to give up all her duties in Rome and to return with him as his wife. Joan is torn, but as has been a pattern in her life, duty comes before everything and she elects to stay behind and work with Leo. Also, she could never forget her mother's advice to her to never give herself up to a man. A most unexpected turn of events then takes place. Pope Leo dies quite suddenly and much to Joan's amazement, she is voted to be the next Pope.

Unfortunately Joan's reign as Johanna Papissa is short-lived. Two years after she becomes Pope, there is an uprising of a rival contender to the Papacy and her lover Gerold is killed while defending her. The shock results in her going into premature labor giving birth to their to their stillborn child. It was only then that people found out that their Papa Populi or the people's pope had been a lady!
"Pope Joan" is over 400 pages long, but makes for a fast read. It provides a vivid record of what life was really like for women in Medieval Europe. The reader is kept in a constant state of suspense, wondering when and if Joan will be exposed as a woman. For me, the best parts of the book is when Joan argues with the bishops about the status of women--- for instance, on page 83, she tackles the story of Adam and Eve:

"...for, as it is well known"-Odo's voice assumed an authorative ring- "St. Paul himself has asserted that women are beneath men in conception, in place and in will."

"In conception, in place and in will?" Joan repeated.

"Yes." Odo spoke slowly as if addressing a half-wit. "In conception, because Adam was created first, and Eve afterward; in place, because Eve was created to serve Adam as companion and mate; in will, becase Eve could not resist the Devil's temptation and ate of the apple."

Odo smirked. Joan felt an intense dislike for this man. For a moment she stood silently tugging on her nose.

"Why," she said at last, "is woman inferior in conception? For althoug she was created second, she was made from Adam's side, while Adam was made from common clay. In place, woman should be preferred to man, because Eve was created inside Paradise, but Adam was created outside. As for will, woman should be considered "superior" to man for Eve ate of the apple for love of knowledge and learning, but Adam ate of it merely because she asked him"

In the afterword, Cross dicusses the legend of Pope Joan, explaining the historical and circumstantial evidence that led her to conclude that a Pope Joan probably really did exist.

I highly recommend "Pope Joan" to those readers who enjoy brilliantly-crafted stories about strong women who fight against the social restrictions and injustices heaped on them and go on to live extraordinary lives. The story of Pope Joan will be an inspiration to many women; read and be moved to do something extraordinary in your own life.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Kiss and a Hickey? :)

When I first started this blog I vowed that I wouldn't write about books that were just mediocre reads for me, and for the best part of 7 months I have kept this promise to myself, however, I have now decided to blog most everything I read, even if the books didn't impress me. "The Painted Kiss" by Elizabeth Hickey is one of those books. The narrator is Emilie Flöge, one of Vienna's best known dress designers in the 1920's , and she tells not only of her life but the life of Gustav Klimt, the multi-talented Viennese painter with whom she has a close friendship(the book suggests they were lovers). Most of the story is told via flashbacks from her WWII hideaway in the Austrian countryside in 1944 where she has transported Gustav's drawings.

Gustav and Emilie first met when Emilie was a young girl of twelve years. Her father decided that Gustav should give her drawing lessons. She was very intimidated by him at first,but as time went on she grew to trust him and very often she and her sister Helene would sneak out of the house to model for Gustav and his brother. Their lives become irrevocably bound together when Helene married Ernst. When Klimt's brother died, leaving Helene a young widow with a baby, Emilie and Gustav shared responsibilities for their niece.

As Emile grew into a young lady she realized she was falling in love with Gustav. Not only was he her art teacher, but to a large extent, by exposing her to his posse of artist friends, models, businessmen etc., he was teaching her about life. Emilie never had the courage to tell him what he meant to her because he was such an important man, so well-known and so popular with the ladies, she didn't think he'd ever return her love. As for Gustav, it is apparent from the book that he loved Emilie too, after all, it was her name he uttered on his death bed, but I never quite figured out why he never told her in his lifetime.

Dispite having such appealing subjects-Gustav, the overly sexual and passionate painter , Emilie his demure muse and Vienna of the early 19th century where saloons, elegant cafés and grand opera houses flourished and avant-garde painters, philosophers etc. flocked to it in abundance, this book doesn't really come alive at any time. Sure, Elizabeth Hickey had very few details to work with, after all, not much is known about Gustav Klint and many of his drawings were destroyed by the Nazis during World War 2. (The story goes that when Hitler was a rising politician, he summoned Klimt to his presence, demanding a private viewing of the artist's works — that is, until the Fuhrer realized how many of Klimt's subjects were Jewish. Suddenly, the paintings lost their value for him.) The author has valiantly tried to fill in the blank spaces of Gustav's life with imaginative detail but it still doesn't make for a rivetting read, atleast not for me.

However, I did enjoy how she wove a story around some of Klimt's best known pieces, like, "Reclining Nude,1888", "Sleeping Girl-1889", "Study for Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1903" and last but certainly not least, "The Kiss, 1907". Klimt's paintings were always very erotic and sensual, and at the same time, bright and overflowing with passion. The book jacket, which to my regret is the only painting of Gustav featured in the book, is a portrait of Emilie Flöge. She stands tall and lean with her hand on her hip in a dress designed by her.

For "The Kiss" (pictured left), Gustav was supposed to have painted himself along with Emilie, but as the painting progressed he found he just couldn't because it would be a declaration of what he felt for Emilie and he didn't want people to know. Why? I am not sure and the author doesn't tell us either.

This was an easy read but one that didn't do much for me. I felt that a character as colorful as Klimt's should have inspired a livelier book, but that's just me.

To enjoy Klimt's paintings, go here