Dilettante's Diary

Summer Reading 2010

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Fall Reading 2010
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Still lots more to come! -- See "Fall Reading 2010"
 
Reviewed here: Under the Holy Lake (Memoir); Chourmo (Mystery); The Line of Beauty (Novel); Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Philosophy); The Book of Getting Even (Novel); Trauma (Novel); The Price of Malice (Mystery); Be Near Me  (Novel); The Drunkard's Walk (Science); Love and Louis XIV  (Biography); The Uncommon Reader (Novel); The Red Mandarin Dress (Mystery)

Under the Holy Lake (Memoir) by Ken Haigh, 2008

If you like to think about escaping from the hectic lifestyle of Western culture and settling down for a good long soak in a world that’s really, really different, this memoir by Ken Haigh could go a long way to fleshing out your fantasies. In the late 1980s, Mr. Haigh, a Canadian grad student in English lit, volunteered to teach overseas. World University Service of Canada assigned him to a two-year stint in Khaling, an isolated village in the eastern section of Bhutan. (It’s a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas, with India to the south, Tibet to the North and Nepal to the west. You’re welcome.)

Nestled in extremely mountainous terrain, Khaling had only recently been connected to the road functioning as the country’s main transportation artery. There were no phones. Electricity didn’t arrive until Mr. Haigh's second year there. His first "apartment" consisted of two drafty, cold rooms just off the stage of the school’s gymnasium. The dampness at certain times of the year caused mold to grow on everything: his food, his furniture, his clothes. Walking in the fields at such times meant that you collected armies of leeches looking for openings in your clothing where they could get at your skin. Snakes were always lying in wait, some of them poisonous. Rats were a constant problem. Not to mention the packs of pariah dogs that could turn on you viciously.

The school had been founded by Jesuit missionaries from India and was still staffed largely by Indians, along with some nuns. A boarding school, it took in kids from all over the country and even from as far away as Nepal. All instruction was in English. Ken had no previous teaching experience, but, at his first interview for the position, back in Canada, he proudly proclaimed, when asked what his goal would be, that he wanted to teach the students to think for themselves. No way! his interlocutors informed him. His job was strictly to impart the skills the students would need to pass the graduation exams administered by India. The results would determine the students’ futures in terms of further education and employment.

At first, the teaching process looked every bit as discouraging as his advisors had predicted. When Ken first asked his students to write business letters, they churned out florid phrases memorized from previous classes. (He mentions that according to Bhutan’s relatively progressive educational policy, both girls and boys were educated at his school, but his stories mostly involve classes of teenage boys.) Because, in their landlocked environment the students had no idea what a sailboat was, it was hard for them to appreciate a text like Treasure Island, until Ken was able to show them a video of the old black and white movie that his father sent him, electricity having reached the village by then.

Before his tour of duty was out, though, Ken had managed to engage with the students in significant intellectual and emotional ways. Contrary to what one might expect, what pleased them most was the study of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Once they got past the difficult vocabulary, they dove into the play the way North American teens would devour the latest video game. By the time they were waiting for the results of exams, students would toss quotes at him like: "Cowards die many times before their deaths, Sir,but the valiant never taste of death but once."

What stands out through all this isn’t so much the students' eagerness for learning as their sweet natures, their unquestioning respect for the teacher and their concern for his well being. On the first day that he got up his courage to wear the somewhat complicated traditional Bhutanese robe, the boys stopped him in the middle of the road, undressed him and re-arranged the robe properly. His living alone worried them. It seemed to them that he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a girlfriend, "because Sir is a handsome devil and very rich." They even informed him that it would be quite easy to "rent" a girlfriend for a year if he so desired.

In spite of his obvious love for the place, Mr. Haigh takes care not to romanticize peasant life in Bhutan. He acknowledges that it’s mostly about dirt, grinding poverty, gruelling work, gambling and too much alcohol (mostly ara, a drink made from corn mash). Still, you can feel his struggle not to let his prose tip over into rapturous riffs. His descriptions of certain experiences come close – walking alone in the moonlight, for instance – but, for the most part, he hews to a steady, plodding (not to say ‘dogged’) pace. The writing never really flies off the page. It doesn’t have a lot of charm; flashes of humour are rare. But you come to value Mr. Haigh’s testimony as a sincere, reliable witness. Occasionally he digresses into discussion of issues – the effect of the transition from subsistence farming to cash crops, the government’s occasional outbursts of anti-foreign fury, the question of whether or not somebody like him can bridge cultural gaps – but he’s at his best in his simple reporting on the facts. An especially good passage is the one where he tells about finding a house for himself in a village of just seventeen dwellings, higher up the mountain on a site overlooking the school. His description of the first sounds of morning as the village comes to life – the bawling of the cows, then the crying of babies – makes an indelible impression.

However, just as Mr. Haig tries to keep his eyes open to the imperfections of life in Khaling, we can’t overlook some of the ones in his book. Tighter editing and a more honed approach to narrative style would have improved the book considerably. An excerpt from his daily journal would have been helped by the inclusion of dates. Several brief passages in Sharchopkha, the local language, aren’t translated. When Mr. Haigh sets out to tell us about his first difficult first months of adjustment, it would be more effective not to reveal at the outset what the lowest point was, but to lead us to it gradually. Then there are repetitions that should have been excised. On one page we get: "...we all reached deep into our packs" and two lines later: "...Lily and I both reached into our bags...." One scene includes the observation: "...I think that I actually felt sorry for the man," and further down the page: "I was surprised to find a feeling akin to compassion stirring in my soul. I felt a need to comfort the man." Similarly, regarding a volleyball game, we get: "....a wild volleyball game. It was a hilarious game."

Apart from these minor blemishes, the book’s main flaw is that it’s too long, in my opinion. One’s eyes tend to glaze over at the description of yet another beautiful vista. (The photos help, though.) Near the end of the book, a description of a trip to an even more remote village feels like an unnecessary addendum, especially when a lot of space is given to the re-telling of some folk tale. Of course, it’s always hard for a writer who has experienced something that meant so much to restrain himself or herself in the telling. It’s like when people used to ask you over to show you the slides of their trip; they never seemed to know how much was enough.

To me, this book would have been more effective if it were pared down to the essentials of life in the school and the village. But that’s not to say the book’s not a success. We all know people who’ve had a similarly life-changing experience and who claim that they’re going to write a book about it. And how many ever do, let alone get it published? The fact that Mr. Haig did, and that it turned out to be such a good read is a major accomplishment.

 

Chourmo (Mystery) by Jean-Claude Izzo, 1996 (English translation by Howard Curtis, 2006)

It can take a while to get used to the simple, declarative statements of first-person narrator Fabio Montale. From the first page for instance:

We ate without talking. Gazing out over the surface of the sea. A beautiful autumn sea, dark blue, almost velvety. I never tired of it.

So simple as to seem monotonous. However, as the style grows on you, you begin to realize you’ve finally found one of those mysteries well worth reading. What alerted me to this one was a New Yorker review. (See my complaint about the difficulty of finding good mysteries in my review of The Price of Malice, below.) It’s not surprising, then, that author Jean-Claude Izzo, who died in 2000 at the age of fifty-five, had a huge success with his Marseilles Trilogy, of which this book is the second installment.

Mind you, it can be difficult to follow all the details in the solving of the mystery. It starts with the murder of a teenage boy after his first night of love with his sweetheart. His mother, worried about his failure to return home, comes to Fabio Montale, her cousin and a former cop, to ask for his help in finding her son. The search causes Montale to renew his contacts among the communities deep in the heart of some of the roughest districts of Marseilles. The title, taken from a word relating to galley slaves, refers to a collective spirit among people trying to pull themselves out of dire circumstances. Montale's dealings with such people lead to confrontations with racism (directed at both Arabs and Roma people), Islamist terrorism and Mafia machinations. The proliferation of minor characters, whose names may strike an unfamiliar note to the ears of English readers, can make it hard to keep track of what’s going down at all times.

Considering which, the book would almost be worth buying for the sake of a second reading. It would undoubtedly pay-off. Because two features make this book remarkable, over and above its merits as a whodunnit.

First, there’s the ambiance of Marseilles. Montale’s love for the place in all its sun-baked and sea-washed commotion surely expresses the feelings of the author, a native of the city. There are the breath-taking views from the terraces of little cafs, the turmoil of the slums, the luminosity of the buildings in the sun, the treacherous mountain roads surrounding the city. In one of my favourite passages of local colour, a whole page is spent describing how a man washes his car in rainwater collected from a gutter. The man has nothing to do with the story except that Montale sits at a nearby restaurant, fascinated with the man’s labour.

That sort of attention to detail exemplifies the other great quality of the book: the character of Montale and the quality of his company as narrator. He has a few friendships, such as the one with a local bartender and most especially the one with an old lady who lives next door and keeps a kindly eye on him. For the most part, though, he comes across as a disappointed and cynical man. He’s fond of tossing off observations to the effect that life is nothing but shit. Reading him feels noir-ish and existential, a bit like being with Camus’ stranger. And Montale’s dark thoughts are well worth reading:

I always came in at the end. When the killing started. And the dying. Always too late for life. For happiness....That must have been how I’d gotten old. By hesitating too much, not grabbing happiness when it was staring me in the face. I’d never been good at doing that. Or at making decisions. Or taking responsibility. Or doing anything that might commit me to a future. I was always too afraid of losing. And so I always lost.

Disgusted with most of what he sees, he says: "As time went on, I found fewer and fewer reasons to carry on living. So I preferred to keep to the simple things. Like eating and drinking. Going fishing."

And yet, this hard-boiled exterior doesn’t quite conceal a tremendous depth of feeling and a compassion for people. Facing the prospect of telling his cousin about her son’s death, he makes you shudder with thoughts that express his full appreciation of the devastation: "I knew that, the moment I told her, she’d be plunged into another world. A world of grief. A world where you grow old, for good."

Clearly, a guy who can feel somebody else’s suffering so keenly and who, in spite of his negativity, can be mesmerized by the play of light on the sea, hasn’t lost everything. As he says at one point near the end of the book: "....I was still alive, and it didn’t take much to make me happy. Death wouldn’t change anything.

When you meet somebody who can say that kind of thing, you have to be glad to find out that death didn’t intervene, at least not fictionally, and that the character did, in fact, live on to star in a third Marseilles novel by Jean-Claude Izzo. Which makes  it all the more tragic that the author died before he could write any more.

 

The Line of Beauty (Novel) by Alan Hollinghurst, 2004

In this winner of the Man Booker Prize, Alan Hollinghurst, one of Britain’s pre-eminent writers on gay subjects, gives us a few years in the life of Nick Guest, a young gay man living in London in the 1980s. We travel along with Nick from his shy sexual initiation and first love to his more seasoned status as what might be called a gay man-about-town. Through all this, Nick, who’s of relatively humble origins, lives in the posh home of an up-and-coming Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden and his wife Rachel. Their daughter, Catherine, has some heavy-duty emotional problems and it seems part of Nick’s role in the household to help keep an eye on her. The Feddens’ son, Toby, was a pal of Nick’s at Oxford. Mr. Hollinghurst’s handling of Nick’s sexual yearning for this unattainable male is one of the strongest and most touching themes in the book.

This being the 1980s, everybody’s into LP’s, rather than CD’s. The latest communications craze is fax machines. That mysterious disease that will come to be known as AIDS is beginning to wreck havoc. A scourge of another kind looms large in the person of Margaret Thatcher. But it’s hard to tell exactly whether or not the author sees her that way. At times he seems almost in awe of her prowess and her persona. From today’s perspective, it's hard to remember that anybody ever felt that way about her. Then again, most of Mr. Hollinghurst’s characters are died-in-the-wool Tories

A favourite trope of Mr. Hollinghurst’s appears to be the lavish party in the grand house, with people nipping into the loo for sessions of sex and cocaine. It might all be one big yawn of a yarn about the dithering upper classes, except for the fact that seeing it from the perspective of Nick, a newcomer to the scene, gives it all a bit of an edge. In some ways, the tone of the book reminds me of the writing of many other Brit’s who excel in these chatty novels that amount essentially to studies of human manners: Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble Anthony Powell. I especially like a sort of after-the-fact narrative technique that Mr. Hollinghurst often employs: you’re leading up to some event, then you skip over it without finding out how it turned out; later, though, perhaps in some entirely different context, you’ll pick up the necessary information about what happened.

In a novel that flows so smoothly, the only thing that strikes me as somewhat awkward is the frequent reference to classical music. There seems to be some sort of friendly rivalry going on in the Fedden household as to the respective merits of various composers, such as Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky. We’re treated to disquisitions on the subject which, to me, don’t seem integral to the novel and which, therefore, raise questions about whether the author is simply taking the opportunity to air his knowledge of a subject close to his heart.

But perhaps we can forgive such self-indulgence on the part of a writer who can give us such luminous lines as: "He liked the noise of business and politics, it was an adult reassurance, like the chatter of parents on a night journey, meaningless, fragmentary, and consoling to the sleepy child on the back seat." And this transcendental moment:

Something happened when you looked in the mirror together. You asked it, as always, a question, and you asked each other something too; and the space, shadowy but glossy, the further room in which you found yourself, as if on a stage, vibrated with ironies and sentimental admissions.

The special quality of Mr. Hollinghurst’s writing, I’d say, would be his penchant for sensing the complex nuances in human reactions. He’ll often give an impression of someone’s attitude, then follow it up with a qualification that almost negates the prior observation. For instance: "And he laughed by himself at his own frankness, as though to soften its effect, but in fact acknowledging it and heightening it." And: "Sweet smiles of relief admitted also a dim sense of guilt, and a resultant hardening and defiance." Then: "‘You know I love you very much, don’t you,’ said Nick, not meaning it in the second before he said it, but moved by saying it into feeling it might still be true." And one kernel so succinct, like a hard little nut, that it takes some cracking: "He felt something like guilt showed in his pretence that he didn’t." You almost want to say, Come on, buddy, give us one thing or the other, not this constant ambiguity – but you have to admit that the author’s complicated take on things does reflect the ambivalence of human reality.

His novel isn’t particularly plotty. Lots of things happen but there’s a notable lack of dramatic tension or conflict. Crises that you think are imminent keep not happening. As suits the overall tone, Nick isn’t a very pro-active protagonist. He mostly just watches what happens. Sometimes it’s not too clear why he lives with the Feddens and what his role among them is. Near the end of the book, though, all hell breaks loose. In fact, it seems a little on the clumsy side, in plot terms, to have so many calamities on various fronts. However, the mayhem serves the useful purpose, artistically speaking, of showing quite different sides to people we thought we had known so well that we’d come to take their characters for granted. Best of all, that prickly question – What the hell is Nick doing in this house and what does he mean to these people? – comes into clear focus and becomes the crux of the whole novel.

[A note of special interest to a Canadian reader: In one passage, Nick’s remembering the municipal building in his hometown, and we’re told that "at the age of twelve it had ranked with the Taj Mahal and the Parliament Building in Ottawa in his private architectural heaven." Never occurred to me that the old pile of bricks at the juncture of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers could have been such an inspiration to a boy in faraway Britain.]

 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Philosophy) by Robert M. Pirsig, 1974

Back in the 1970s when this book was all the rage, I abandoned it in disgust about halfway through. What infuriated me was the author’s telling about his classroom experiment in which he led his students to the discovery that it was impossible to determine what constituted "Quality". This was not the sort of thing to gladden the heart of an ex-seminarian trained in the Aristotelian principles of the philosophy of art.

Being more receptive to things like Zen these days, I wondered if the book might be more palatable to me now. The big surprise is that there’s so little in it about Zen. Some key ideas of Zen are there in the background – the avoidance of subject/object duality for example, (hence the obliteration of Aristotelian distinctions) – but the book never makes any clear statement about what Zen is. At times, Mr Pirsig seems to be trying to work his way to an intellectual validation of some of the non-intellectual tenets of Zen. But that seems a very non-Zen thing to do. So the book can hardly be read as a Zen primer.

And yet, in the 1970s, it seemed to be opening up everybody’s minds (except those of certain ex-seminarians) to something weird and mystical and Eastern. Some sense that our Western way of looking at everything in the light of the Cartesian duality was all wrong and that we were screwing ourselves with a reliance on technology that seemed to be eliminating the spiritual from our consideration. Still, I find it hard to pin-point just what, if anything, the book was telling us to do differently. I can only conclude that its tremendous popularity had something to do with the sense that it seemed to express in an inchoate way something of the zeitgeist, the discovery of a groovy, far-out way of looking at things that mystified and alienated all the old fogeys of the establishment. Introducing elements of insanity in the story no doubt enhanced the counter-cultural appeal. After all, if you’re talking insanity, you’re not far from LSD, magic mushrooms and all.

So much for the book’s general appeal. But I find it hard to imagine that many of its fans read it carefully from beginning to end. It’s so fastidiously ponderous, academic and intellectual that I found it very hard going. Any assessment of the validity of the author’s conclusions proved far beyond me. Unless you’re a hell of a lot smarter than I am, you’d have to sit down with paper and pen to trace each move of Mr. Pirsig’s cerebral gymnastics as he cogitates his way through the works of so many philosophers and thinkers. Then, maybe, you could say whether or not you think that former seminarian had any justification for rejecting Mr. Pirsig’s thesis so vehemently.

On the other hand, maybe there’s no thesis to reject. When you get to the end of the book, you start to suspect that maybe Mr. Pirsig wasn’t intending to make the dramatic, all-encompassing statement about life that he appeared to be leading up to. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to pin down the book’s message. So maybe he was just tossing around some ideas for our titillation?

It almost seems, in the end, that what the book really means to be is a novel about the narrator/author’s relationship with his son Chris, who accompanied him on the celebrated motorcycle journey. That’s what the author seems to want us to get from the final pages – the way the father and son came to a certain peace with each other. That would be a fine consummation for a novel. But the novelistic aspects of this book don’t work for me. The narrative about the trip always seems peripheral to the philosophical rumination; the dialogue is forced and phony. And I can’t stand the narrator’s supercilious attitude to the friends who accompanied him and his son on the first part of the trip. When you find a narrator so insufferably all-knowing, it’s hard to hang in with him for a trip that’s going to take over 400 pages.

 

The Book of Getting Even (Novel) by Benjamin Taylor, 2008

We start in New Orleans in the early 1970s. Gabriel Geismar, a gay teenager, can’t wait to leave for college in Philadelphia, mainly by way of escaping from his dad, an overbearing rabbi. At Swarthmore University, Gabe makes friends with people who open him up to a world of new experiences.

Sounds like your typical coming-of-age novel, doesn’t it? What makes this odd little book (only 166 pages) distinctive is that Gabe is something of a math genius, a guy who’s pre-occupied with the marvels of science. You don’t often get novels about sensitive young men with that orientation. Which may be why the book has a somewhat detached, disaffected feel. Gabe seems to look at human affairs from a certain distance, wondering what it’s all about and stumped by the complexity of it all. Even in his friendships and loves he never seems as much a passionate participant as a bemused and stoical bystander. (I’m reminded of Tiresias in T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land".) While insights into characters may not be his strong point – his involvement with people leads more to puzzlement than clarity – it’s with a keen ear for the ring of truth that he captures the voices of everybody he hears.

Inevitably, given his nature, Gabe’s observations on human affairs take us through discussions of math and science, but also of politics, history, the development of the atomic bomb, entymology, the Vietnam War, opera, the Roma people and marriage. On the latter, I particularly liked this comment:

Did a vile word ever pass between Ellie and Ned, those paragons? Must have. But the strongly idealizing bent of their marriage seemed to have woven the fury into the silk. You idealize me, I’ll idealize you, and we’ll become ideal.

Even allowing that the novel isn’t strong on plot, there are moments when you wonder where it’s going. As for instance, when Gabe’s best female friend gets fired up with long monologues about movies. What does this have to do with anything? Finally, though, you realize that even her ravings are contributing to a coherent picture of Gabe’s unique view of a world that’s mostly disappointing and melancholy but one in which the impersonal majesty of the cosmos provides the truest beauty and consolation.

 

Trauma (Novel) by Patrick McGrath, 2008

Charlie Weir, our first-person narrator, is a shrink in his forties and he has a shitload of problems on his hands. We’re not talking just about his patients. His own life serves up more than enough trouble for one person. His mom, who didn’t seem to like him much, has died and he’s afraid her main legacy to him may be her tendency to depression. Meanwhile, a strong undercurrent of unexplained hostility runs between Charlie and his brother. Their dad, a drunk who abandoned the family long ago, causes nothing but trouble when he shows up. Charlie’s carrying on an affair with a woman who is sexually irresistible but refusing to undergo therapy although she’s clearly bonkers. Charlie’s also having sex with his ex-wife who seems like she may or may not want to get back together with him. Charlie thinks he’d like to be a family again, the two of them with their little daughter, but he’s preoccupied with guilt about a professional error on his part, as he sees it, that wrecked their marriage. Plus, there seems to be some mystery about Charlie’s childhood that needs to be resolved.

As the crap pile gets higher and higher, you can't help asking: what is author McGrath’s point? To let us in on the big secret that a shrink’s life can be as much a can of worms as yours or mine? To his credit, though, Mr. McGrath manages to keep your attention. His narrative style, with its obsessive circling around certain memories and its flipping back and forth in time, reminds me of the intensity of Ian McEwan’s story-telling. But only up to a point.

After a while, I begin to lose faith in this narrator/srhink, a development that’s just as fatal to a novel as to therapy, I should think. Some early warning signs are clichs like a description of someone’s clenching his hands and kneading his trousers in a moment of crisis; someone’s face taking on a glazed look at a flashback to a certain memory; a cookie-cutter description of a washed-up man with an imperfect shave, frayed cuffs and a yellowish collar.

More crucially, though, it's the shrink’s character and the quality of his thinking (or lack thereof) that lose my goodwill. Without wanting to fall into the trap of judging a psychiatrist more stringently than any other human being, I’d have to say that Charlie comes across as pretty much of a shallow twit. He seems to be blown this way and that, rather than making mature decisions.

Maybe such failings in his personal affairs could be overlooked in a spirit of charity, but I can’t stand what appear to me to be his professional shortcomings. For instance, his falling back on simplistic explanations for mental and emotional distress. He claims at one point to know what is causing someone’s nightmares. He offers a pat explanation for the way a man's attempted suicide relieved his guilt for accidentally causing someone’s death. As if it were a brilliant insight, he dishes out the trite observation: "There was a void in the woman and she tried to fill it by having others take her in and care for her."

I don’t think real psychiatrists toss off these kinds of truisms. They strike me as bon-bons of psychiatry for credulous readers. Presumably, such readers will be more impressed than I was when Dr. Weir finally solves the mystery about the trauma that’s been hanging over him since childhood.

 

The Price of Malice (Mystery) by Archer Mayor, 2009

Although Archer Mayor has published some twenty books, he’s a new discovery for me. As is his detective, Joe Gunther. First impressions: I liked what I saw.

In this one, Joe, as head of his team in Vermont’s Bureau of Investigation, is dealing with the murder of Wayne Castine, a scuzzy character found butchered in an apartment. There are some intriguing questions about the situation: for instance, the tenant of the apartment knows nothing about the deceased. The investigation leads Joe and his team to lots of low-life types who may have been associated with Castine. This showcases what is apparently one of Archer Mayor’s specialties: interviews with truculent witnesses. Several of these encounters crackle with tension.

Mr. Mayor also has a good thing going with Willy Kunkle, something of a loose canon on Joe’s team. With his sardonic humour and his tendency to rile people, you could say that Kunkle has big attitude problems. Witness Kunkle’s outburst at Joe, the one mentor who’s keeping him from getting fired: "Why’re you always saving my butt? Why do you give a good goddamn? Am I the son you never had or some bullshit?"

After a while, though, this book stalls and crashes. Mainly because of a subplot involving Joe’s girlfriend, Lyn. Everybody accepts nowadays that you need some girlfriend (or boyfriend) action to leaven a mystery with some detail about the detective’s private life. In this case, though, it’s too obvious that the writer had run out of details to sustain the main plot, with the result that this subplot takes up roughly half of the book.

Which wouldn’t be so bad except that the subplot's so lame. Lyn’s worried about the fate of her father and brother, lobster fishermen who were supposed to have been shipwrecked and drowned in a storm some years ago. But now their boat has been found intact. So what actually happened? This concern of Lyn’s keeps drawing Joe away from his work in the Castine murder. His absence from that  investigation, and the consequent resentment of some team members, is supposed to be a source of tremendous tension. But it certainly doesn't give a reader who's just met Joe a favourable impression of his professionalism. His dallying is only plausible as an author’s attempt to stretch his material.

Worse still, Lyn’s character is barely distinguishable from that of Sammie Martens, a member of Joe’s team. (Could this be a writer who doesn’t do female characters well?) The only significant difference between the two women is that Lyn’s attempts to resolve her family mystery have a hokey and decidedly amateurish smell to them: the intrepid female venturing into situations she shouldn’t and finding herself cornered by really bad people. At the early stage of her sleuthing, one interview goes around in circles for eight pages while a guy keeps refusing to give Lyn info that you know he’s going to cough up in the end. (Admittedly, this isn’t Lyn’s fault so much as Mr. Mayor’s.) As she plunges further into dangerous territory, we’re told at one point that she "began to experience real fear settling in" and later that she was "suddenly struck by fear." You want to tell this would-be Nancy Drew to jump into her roadster, speed home and curl up by the fire with a fictional mystery, the only kind she’s capable of handling.

The final disappointment of the book is that there isn’t any surprise about the solution to the murder. It’s pretty obvious which way it’s heading all along. Sometimes, in the case of a book that’s so unsatisfying, I check my clipping file to see who recommended it. This one, I find, came with strong endorsement from The Globe and Mail’s expert on mysteries, Margaret Cannon. Which leads to some perplexing questions. Could it be that someone who reads mostly mysteries can lose track of the markers of really good literature? Does concentration on detective fiction make you forget how good books can be? Or is it just that I don’t like mysteries any more? There must still be some excellent ones out there. But who can you trust to lead you to them?

 

Be Near Me (Novel) by Andrew O’Hagan, 2006

A guy can begin to feel like a crank for complaining about so many unsatisfactory books. But then along comes one so gloriously perfect that it shows just how good they can be. So now you feel you had just cause for criticizing the other ones. In fact, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me makes it seem that most other writers have been struggling to write novels and, while some of them have managed not too badly, this guy has hit the target dead on. You want to say to him: yes, you are a writer, that rare and gifted being who has important things to say about being human, go into your room and keep writing and we will supply you with everything you need.

In Be Near Me, Mr. O’Hagan gives us the voice of first-person narrator Father David Anderton, a priest in his 50s, who has taken on the pastorship of the Roman Catholic church in a small Scottish seaside town, at some point early in the 21st century. Although born in Edinburgh, Father David was raised in England. That makes for a tricky start with the locals, who see him as an outsider. His popularity is not further enhanced by the fact that he’s more intellectual and cultured than the kind of pastor they’re used to.

Paradoxically, he strikes up a friendship with a couple of bad-ass high school kids, Mark and Lisa. They're rude, obnoxious, obscene, egotistical and callow. Father David calls them on their "language", their petty thieving and their ignorant prejudices, but their vitality and their high spirits are as irresistible to him as to the reader. One day, the two teens present themselves in the confessional, whereupon Mark babbles a long tale about having helped his mom to kill his overweight dad and eat him for dinner. "He refused to get out of his chair and we had to do it." Almost as an afterthought, Mark mentions a transgression that is surely unique in the annals (if there are any) of confessions: fornication with a bus. "Yes, Father, a single-decker. It was giving me the come-on for ages. Big red bus. Brazen it was. Well. Eventually I gave in to temptation and had it off with the bus in broad daylight. God forgive me."

One of the high points of the friendship among the three is a trip that Father David arranges to Ailsa Craig, an island bird sanctuary. Although it’s only about ten miles off the coast, the youngsters have never been there. In a quiet moment on the outing, Lisa asks Father David if he doesn’t feel that his life has been wasted. No, he says, expressing his belief in the importance of trying to help people reach God. "God is the supreme Spirit," he says, "who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections." Mark’s response: "Call the cops!....That is some scary shit."

A couple of other important relationships of Father David’s are those with his mother and his housekeeper, a Mrs. Poole. His mother, a widow, is a successful novelist. (David’s father was a doctor.) They have a joking, affectionate and supporting relationship that’s more like aunt/nephew than mother/son. There’s a lot of joking as well with Mrs. Poole, but this woman has a way of hitting Father David hard with homely truths in a way that startles a reader unaccustomed to such bracing candour. Something about the Scottish character, I suppose.

As for the rest of the locals, Mr. O’Hagan conveys almost too excruciatingly well the narrow-mindedness, the bigotry and the bitterness about the changing times whereby globalization has brought endemic unemployment to a once-thriving town. That devastatingly precise picture of the town is just one of the many marvels of such a well-written novel. Beautifully evocative flashbacks, occurring like spontaneous memory blurbs, are deftly positioned for exquisite effect. Nearly every page offers at least one striking insight – a way of looking at life that you never considered before. (It’s not for nothing that David and his pals at Oxford were famous as Marcel Proust fans.) For instance, this one regarding the Benedictine school he attended as a boy:

My school’s mysterious sense of unity may have been a romantic conceit but it worked to make us want to know an existence larger than ourselves, to see a manner of living and thinking and speaking to which we might all subscribe. We would have denied those values, but they live in the heart.

And this, about the great love of his life:

Victims of forgotten hope, we would have lived too closely, perhaps, and learned to hate the smallness of each other’s habits, the unlovable, tense hostility of needs and doubts and supposed obligations.

And about the loss of love in general:

None of us was meant to face the day and the night alone, though that is what we do and memory is now a place of fading togetherness.

An elegiac quality about the writing reminds me of the sublime work of William Trevor, but the larger-than-life charisma of Mark brings to mind a fictional character like Gatsby. As in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, though, a quiet sense of impending doom prevails. Sensational elements do intrude, but what prevents them from seeming far-fetched is Father David’s even-handed reaction to everything. He can imagine himself facing his opponents and saying to them: "My journey towards you started a long time ago, and so did yours to me – a long time ago – and we must simply play our parts and move on." The man is completely honest about himself. He asks only to be judged on the basis of truth, not exaggeration. Whether the locals end up deciding that he is a good priest or not matters far less than the fact that he shows himself to be a very good person.

 

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Science) by Leonard Mlodinow, 2008

In the mid 1960s, a psychology prof was lecturing to some Israeli flight instructors. Like any reputable psychologist, he was trying to convince them of the benefits of positive reinforcement: praise your students and they’ll do well. But the instructors told him he had it backwards. One of them said that, if he praises a student for a good landing, the student will do a lousy one next day; if the instructor bawls out a student for a bad landing, next day brings a better one.

The psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, a future Nobel Prize winner, was looking at the phenomenon known as the regression to the norm. The variations in the students’ performances on any given day likely had little or nothing to do with the praise or censure the previous day. It was simply a case of things tending to revert to the norm. That means that, assuming the flying students all possessed a modicum of ability, if anyone of them performed one day either better or worse than unusual, the following day would see a return to the more typical performance.

That’s one of the illustrations that caught my attention in the first chapter of The Drunkard’s Walk. Being a firm believer in the beneficent effects of positive reinforcement, I was disconcerted to realize it may not work as simply as assumed. The book shook up my complacency in many other ways. Author Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist at Caltech and co-author with Stephen Hawking of A Briefer History of Time, sets out with great erudition and expertise to show that many of our beliefs about what’s going on in our lives are completely wrong. A lot of that has to do with our mistaken meanings assigned to randomness. Hence, the title, which refers to the mathematical term (known less colourfully by some as "the random walk") describing motion such as the irregular path molecules take when moving through space or liquid. In the explication of many related concepts, the book takes us through much of the history of natural science, mathematics, statistics and some branches of logic.

Another intriguing revelation is the one that states (if I'm paraphrasing it correctly): the probability that A and B will occur together cannot be greater than the probability of A or B occurring alone. (At least, that's the gist of it, if I'm not reporting it incorrectly.) A study involving a group of internists showed that even doctors can fail to appreciate this one. Say there’s a relatively rare symptom of a certain disease and a very common symptom of the same disease. If you report both symptoms to the doctor, the disease is more likely to be diagnosed than if you report just the rare symptom. Yet, the occurrence of the two symptoms together needs must be more rare than the occurrence of the rare symptom alone. So the internists in the study should have been more ready to make the diagnosis on the occurrence of the rare symptom alone rather than in the case of both symptoms occurring.

Somewhat in the same line, there’s the principle that if X leads to the conclusion Y, Y doesn’t necessarily lead to X. Remember that famous movie about the husband who was sneaking out of the house to take dancing lessons? Remember his wife’s perturbation? The problem was that the wife was making a simple error in logic of the kind that we all make nearly every day. If a guy is having an affair, he’s likely to be sneaking around. But it doesn’t follow that if a guy is sneaking around, he’s having an affair.

One of the book’s most telling points, for me, is that we humans are disposed to see patterns where there are none. Randomness, I gather, produces what can look to us like intelligible patterns. In fact, such patterns are so inevitable that investigators can determine whether numbers submitted – on an expense account, say – truly are random or faked for the purpose of appearing random. The patterns produced by randomness also explain why governments continually have to spend fortunes to examine clusters of cancer occurrences for explanations that cannot, because of randomness, be found.

I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to come upon a discussion of Pascal’s wager in a book about many aspects of logic. You recall how the proposition went: if God exists and you follow His/Her laws, your pay-off is great; if God doesn’t exist, but you have still followed those laws, then your loss is relatively minor – the sacrifices involved in leading a devout life. So it makes sense to go for the big prize, at risk of suffering the minor loss. Fair enough. But I was amazed to see that, as Mr. Mlodinow explains it, the proposition is strictly based on a mathematical analysis of the odds. I wonder if the Almighty would be impressed on finding out that math was your reason for remaining faithful to Him or Her your whole life long?

Mr. Mlodinow delivers his ideas and findings in crystal clear prose that’s very convincing. A nice touch of humour shows through every now and then. When he’s telling about the duke who asked Galileo to find out why the number ten comes up more often than nine in a roll of three dice, Mr. Mlodinow notes that the difference in frequency of the two numbers is so slight as not to be noticed except through very many trials – which means, says Mr. Mlodinow, that the duke "probably needed a good twelve-step program more than he needed Galileo."

Such genial asides help to make the progress through the science smoother than it otherwise might be for the non-expert. Do all the concepts, then, become perfectly clear to someone like me? Not quite. A few conundrums remain. But I can report that some passages which baffled me on first encounter coughed up their meanings on a little more study and reflection.

In just a few places, the faint voice of a dissenter sounds somewhere in the back of my head. For instance, the part about Zeno's paradox. You remember how it goes: if somebody has to cover an increasingly small but endless number of spaces to get across the room, how can he or she ever get to the other side? I appreciate the technical answer based on calculus, as explained here, but I'm inclined to side with Diogenes, who answered the problem by just getting up and crossing the room. It seems to me that Zeno's plight may be one of those instances were intellectuals tie themselves into a knot by confusing reality with the mental systems they have constructed by way of explaining reality.

For a book that deals with science in a way that’s, for the most part, detached and impersonal – not to say aloof – it’s somewhat surprising – although welcome – to find that the ending sounds a relatively upbeat note. Having seen how much impact randomness has in our lives, Mr. Mlodinow says: "Most of all it has taught me to appreciate the absence of bad luck, the absence of the disease, war, famine, and accident that have not – or have not yet – befallen us."

He also wants us to know that we can’t judge talent or ability on the basis of results. Much luck – i.e. randomness – is involved in every life marked by what we recognize as success or failure. In his discussion of that theme, Mr. Mlodinow refers more than once to the American cult classic A Confederacy of Dunces. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide when, if not necessarily because, he couldn’t get any positive response to his manuscript from publishers. It was the persistence of Mr. Toole’s mother, and her belief in her son’s talent, that led to the book’s publication in 1980, a decade after the author’s death, and the posthumous awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to him the following year.

Mr. Mlodinow's attention  to that thirty-year-old book had what seemed to me a remarkable resonance in my own affairs. Some other reference to the novel in the past few months had prompted me to order it, with the result that it, too, had arrived in my summer reading from the library. (Watch for the Dilettante's Diary review soon.) Is that pure randomness? I suspect Mr. Mlodinow would say so. But it’s also an instance of the kind of thing some of us used to refer to as serendipity.

 

Love and Louis XIV (Biography/History) by Antonia Fraser, 2006

The arrival of this item in my pile of summer orders from the library puzzled me a little. What can have prompted this request? I don’t strike me as the kind of guy who would crave details about the sex life of the Sun King. It must have been that, when I clipped and filed the review for this book, I’d just discovered that, back in the day, there was this thing called history and that it was something that could be fun to learn about so long as nobody forced you to memorize the dates of battles. My making that pleasant discovery probably had much to do with Antonia Fraser’s brilliant  Marie Antoinette: The Journey (See review, Dilettante's Diary, Jan 24/07)  So her authorship was, no doubt, part of the reason for my ordering this one.

However, it didn’t please me as much. There’s a slightly mannered, awkward style. Sometimes you have to stare at a sentence for some time before the words assemble themselves into coherent groups. Maybe this is just a factor of the difference between the thought patterns of a Canuck boor and those of a high-brow Brit, but it’s something I don’t remember having any problem with in the previous bio by Ms. Fraser.

Still, she managed to keep my interest in this account of the amours of Louis. She starts with his mother, Anne of Austria, who doted on him. Because of her vigilance, he was said to be much closer to his maman than most royal sons were to their mothers. All through the regency (he became king around age four), she watched carefully over his interests and schooled him in the royal ethos that made him, relatively at least, a benevolent and wise sovereign.

Could it be his mother’s influence that turned him into a man who easily showed tender feelings? In any case, he was famous for weeping readily and frequently. He was always very chivalrous towards women, although he could be severe when it came to forcing royal duty on a young princess who was resisting marriage to the politically appropriate dynasty. His kindness and charity to the deposed Charles II of England and his Queen were notable.

The king’s best qualities showed most notably, perhaps, in his gracious treatment of his mistresses. (A cuckolded husband could be persuaded to cool his jets with a holiday in the Bastille.) Apart from some three or four obvious mistresses while he was married to Queen Marie Thrse, nobody knows how many brief dalliances there may have been. When a particular mistress fell out of favour, for whatever reason, she was usually made a Duchess and given a generous pension for services loyally rendered to the crown.

Rather like St. Augustine, the king kept promising to stop sinning but repeatedly postponed the day of reckoning. Not until he was a widower in his 40s did he finally settle on one woman – a mature, prudent widow whom he’d earlier chosen to raise some of his illegitimate kids. To all appearances, they lived monogamously from then on as husband and wife, although no official marriage was ever recorded by the state. It was assumed that a morganatic marriage approved by the church must have taken place.

Why that assumption? Because the church stopped bugging him about his immoral ways. Apparently, the church never hesitated to call the royals to task for their sins whether committed in the bedroom or at the gaming board. One reason the sexual situation loomed so large was the question of the Easter Duty. Like any good Catholic, the king was expected to receive Holy Communion in the Easter season but it was forbidden for anybody to receive communion when in a state of mortal sin, in which state the king obviously was when in the throes of his extra-marital affairs. When it came to the morals of the king's  brother, however, it wasn't the prince's flagrant homosexuality that bothered anybody, not even the man’s wife, so much as the fact that his boyfriends were such bitches.

Not being an expert on the times, I can only assume that Ms. Fraser conveys the facts accurately, but one glaring error (as I see it) should be flagged. Regarding the attempts by one of the king’s mistresses to quiet her conscience, Ms. Fraser says: "Good deeds could atone for other deeds which were not quite so good; in short the motto of the Jesuits might be discreetly applied, that the end justified the means."As far as I know, no Jesuit ever proclaimed any such principle. It may be an example of the kind of twisted reasoning that has cynically come to be known as "Jesuitical" but any such attribution is unjustified.

Apart from that slip, I find the depiction of the era authoritative. At first, I was inclined to think that the Sun King was lucky to live in a time before cell phones and paparazzi, but the gossip of the courtiers, which naturally overflowed to the populace, probably was just as difficult to contend with as the modern media’s intrusions on monarchy. We tend to think of those French kings and their hangers-on as living in the ultimate luxury – never mind the grandeur of Versailles, I’m thinking of the constant supply of superb French pastry – but their lives were brutal in many ways. Especially in terms of mortality. People were always dying suddenly, and often very young, of an abscess or an infection that could be summarily dispatched today.

But the worst thing about the times – from my point of view – was the constant warfare, especially where Louis XIV was concerned. He had an insatiable need to keep marching out and killing bunches of people by way of claiming more land. And all for what? Pour la gloire! It was about nothing other than polishing his image as a glorious ruler. Before consigning him to one of the hottest gigs in hell, however, you have to remember that he was raised to think that God had appointed him to this job and that this kind of megalomania was what God wanted from him. Makes your glad – doesn’t it? – to be living in an age when civilization has progressed to the point that no leader would ever claim to have divine authorization for waging war and dominating other peoples for no reason other than self-glorification.

 

The Uncommon Reader (Novel) by Alan Bennett, 2007

In this light entertainment, Alan Bennett imagines what would happen if Queen Elizabeth II of England happened to become an avid reader of books. First question that comes to mind: is it unfair of Mr. Bennett, well known for his literary achievement in many genres, to assume that Her Majesty is not at present keen on books? Perhaps not. He makes a plausible case for the supposition that a person like Her Majesty, with her practical bent and her dedication to duty, wouldn’t have much time for an introverted pastime like reading. In fact, he captures very well what appear to be some very real aspects of her personality seen up close. In a spirit of bemused affection, we get his take on the Queen’s brisk, no-nonsense approach, not ruling out the flashes of sly humour, along with her generally pleasant and forthright attitude to people, but with a limited patience for shirkers and malingerers.

In Mr. Bennett’s hands, however, this well-honed persona starts to change as a result of Her Majesty's exposure to literature. It all begins with her encountering a bright young palace employee in a travelling library that has made a call to Buckingham – a somewhat unlikely scenario, it seems to me, but Mr. Bennett makes the Queen’s response to the situation quite believable. The young man becomes the Queen’s guide as she embarks on her literary journey. A touching friendship develops between them. As her reading progresses, the Queen begins to think back on all the famous writers she has met, and she wishes now that she hadn’t wasted their time together on polite small talk when she could have been discussing their work with them. 

This new interest of the Queen causes considerable consternation among her family members and extended household. The palace staff  struggle to find their footing in a world where their boss’s priorities seem to be shifting precariously. Mr. Bennett has great fun with the behind-the-scenes palace politicking. He also brings out the silly side  of royal routines like the famous walkabouts. The Duke of Edinburgh pops up now and then with sardonic quips that sound very true to what we know of the man. One of Mr. Bennett’s most telling insights about them all is that even when the royals appear to be acting as quite ordinary people – kicking off their shoes during a break on a tiring tour of duty, for instance – it’s all part of a scripted performance meant to project an impression of normalcy.

All of this is delivered in clean, spare prose of which Mr. Bennett is a master. (Think of some of the polished comic gems of Muriel Spark.) But it’s hard to imagine this slight comedy (just 124 pages) appealing much to anybody who doesn’t already find a certain fascination in royal goings-on. Some might question, then, whether the tale offers any satisfactions of a more substantial kind.

I, for one, find that Mr. Bennett does raise some points worth considering. The fact, for instance, that reading is a democratic business. A book doesn’t care who’s reading it: prince or pauper. Let each reader make of it what he or she will. This can mean, of course, that some books won’t have the same effect on a person like the Queen that they would on another reader. For instance, someone who is so very far above everybody else, socially speaking, might have difficulty appreciating the importance of the fine class distinctions in the comedy of Jane Austen.

One of the most striking points Mr. Bennett makes – and this would apply to the effect of literature generally – is that reading good books opens you up to the mystery of human beings in a new way. If you’re a Queen, this could get in the way of your routine fulfilling of your duties. When you’re knighting some bald gent kneeling at your feet, you might begin to wonder about his life, about what has brought him to where he is now. And goodness knows what chaos might ensue if a monarch started taking such a personal interest in people.

 

The Red Mandarin Dress (Mystery) by Qiu Xiaolong, 2002

It must have been the Shanghai setting that got my attention. To some extent, the book delivers  on that promise. A reader gets some insight into how matters involving media, government, corruption, crime and housing development are handled in a context quite unlike that of the usual mystery. It soon begins to feel, though, that this is a budget tour of an exotic locale. The author throws in too many details that have nothing to do with the story but appear to be included just to give a postcard impression. References to Mao and Confucius litter the ground like fallen lotus petals. Long discussions of menus, cuisine and traditional customs lard the text.

All of which would be tolerable if the story provided the requisite satisfactions of a mystery. It doesn’t. This book, which I abandoned half way through, strikes me as the work of a writer who perhaps had some previous success with books involving the same characters and settings but who, having run out of good ideas, is struggling to come up with something along the same lines. Not that there isn’t a good narrative hook: the murdered bodies of beautiful young women keep turning up in public places, dressed provocatively in red Mandarin dresses. A reader does want to know what that’s about. But the slap-dash, amateurish approach to the solving of the mystery – both on the part of the cops and of the author – soon becomes tiresome.

As in most cop stories now, there’s a boss screaming for results from his underlings but these people are not at all credible as having anything to do with the police force of a contemporary metropolis. One of the main detectives flounders around as if he has little idea what to do. An inspector, apparently the hero of other novels by this author, is preoccupied with some literary project involving the study of classic romantic texts. This leads to pedantic digressions that contribute nothing germane, as far as I can tell, to the solving of the mystery. A detective’s wife potters about doing her own sleuthing as if she thinks she’s the Chinese Miss Marple. A couple of the detectives, when not spouting cornball Freudianism, sit around telling each other what is sexually taboo in China, as though they didn’t already know. They might as well stand up and acknowledge their audience – i.e. us – with a bow. Then, they set up a decoy operation that even the Hardy boys wouldn’t have been naive enough to propose.

Meanwhile, the writer treats us to lines like "Something terrible must have happened." Methinks even the pseudonymous author of the Hardy Boys would have eschewed such a clanger.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com