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The date that appears above will be the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here:

La Traviata (Opera); Hal's Kitchen (What's Burning?) (Theatre); Barney's Version (Movie); Rabbit Hole (Movie); True Grit (Movie); Panther Soup (History/Travel); Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Memoir)

La Traviata (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; starring Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani, Andrzej Dobber, Peter Volpe, Jennifer Holloway, Maria Zifchak; conducted by Gianandrea Noseda; production by Willy Decker, with the Metropolitan Opera and Chorus; CBC Radio Two’s "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera", Jan 15.

What a pity that the Met didn’t choose this for one of the season’s Live in HD Transmissions to movie theatres. The still photos of Willy Decker’s contemporary-looking production suggest that it’s amazing to watch: mostly bare stage, Violetta in a red party dress and high heels, her blonde hair loose and streaming, the men and women of the chorus in black suits, white shirts and ties. And why couldn’t the opera be contemporary? It doesn’t take much imagination to think of a modern woman with a past who’s forced to give up her lover because of his family’s snooty disapproval of her. The starkness of the setting would help to make of her a timeless symbol.

The production sounded even more intriguing when we got the explanation of the opening from Margaret Juntwait, radio host: Conductor Noseda arrived to no applause, the curtain was open on the stage, with Doctor Grenville sitting on a bench, looking ominous, being the symbol of death; then Violetta entered, her back to us, looking dishevelled and frail. Thus it was established that thrust of the entire production was the rush forward to her death. Presumably, she pulled herself together to put on a show for her friends when the first act party music started.

For lack of all that visual stimulation, we in the radio audience had to content ourselves with the sound. And we were amply rewarded. Maestro Noseda’s limpid, transparent version of the overture caught an exquisite balance between the plaintive, melancholy theme of impending death and the jaunty tunes trying to cover it up.

As Violetta, Marina Poplavskaya, the celebrated new Russian diva, sounded a bit throaty at first, but I didn’t notice that after a while. It disappointed me that she didn’t articulate her words very clearly in the heart-breaking moment "Dite alla Giovine" but she sang the phrase with great tenderness. While she delivered the role excellently well in terms of her singing (even though she apparently doesn’t have a genuine trill), you had the feeling that it was in her acting that she was most remarkable. (Hence, further regret at not seeing this performance on screen.) For instance, she sounded very thoughtful in the softer passages. In the last act’s "Addio del passato", she wasn’t afraid to abandon the beautiful sounds, something a less theatrical soprano might not be willing to do, and make herself sound breathy and frail.

Matthew Polenzani might not have the sweetest tenor voice in the opera world, but he too gave you the feeling that the excellent singing of his performance was enhanced by very convincing acting. For some reason, though, his rendition of Alfredo’s second act cry of ecstasy about his life with Violetta – "Io vivo quasi’in ciel" didn’t convey the thrill that performances of the aria by some other tenors do.

This was my first time hearing Baritone Andrzej Dobber (Germont). His voice struck me as – not coarse exactly – but tending towards the stertorous and insistent rather than golden and mellow. It was as if he was pushing a bit rather than letting it flow. However, when his voice opened up into its full bloom in "Di Provenza il mar" – which is the moment that matters most in this role – it showed itself to be powerfully impressive, if still a little on the strident side.

This time, I found myself listening the work in a sort of Zen spirit. What hit me was all that misunderstanding among Violetta, Alfredo, his dad and the rest of society. You could say the theme was all about point of view: you never know the real story about what’s going on with somebody. Not that orchestration wasn't doing its damnedst to clue us all in. Mind you, some of the connecting bits between the glorious tunes sound a bit melodramatic. But, what the heck, we’re not dealing with Chekhov here!

[Confession: This seems a bit like cheating but I sneaked a peak at some YouTube video clips of this Willy Decker production as originally staged at Salzburg (with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazn). First impression: one of the most exciting and meaningful opera stagings ever! In fact, it was astounding to see how the lush, Victorian music could serve a bleak, stripped-down production.]

 

Hal’s Kitchen (What’s Burning?) (Theatre) by Brian Caws, Ken MacDougall and cast members; starring Laurence Prance, Ken MacDougall, Ian Keeling, Ian Ronningen, Barb Scheffler, Madeleine Donohue; Mysteriously Yours...Dinner Theatre 2026 Yonge Street 416-486-7822 www.mysteriouslyyours.com

I’ve been walking past this place for years and wondering what went on inside. A special reason for checking it out came up just recently (which reason will probably become apparent below). It’s a banquet hall, seating about 200 people at long tables. After patrons have dined on a three course dinner, actors perform a murder mystery. Some of the action takes place on a stage but most of it occurs among the tables. We can’t comment here on the cuisine, because we showed up, as some other patrons did, only for the theatrical portion of the evening.

It consists of a supposed cooking show in which two teams of "celebrity" chefs are battling for supremacy. But early on, it’s discovered that the host of the show, the eponymous "Hal", has been murdered in his office. Naturally, the six cooks are the prime suspects. A battle ensues in which they try to indict each other. They include: the frantic and bad-tempered Gordon Ramekin (Laurence Prance), who acts as chief detective; Wolfgang Pluck (Ken MacDougall) a German with a sly sense of superiority; Charles Fromage (Ian Keeling) who struggles valiantly to assert himself in spite of his fear of spiders; the ingratiating Rachel Bray (Barb Scheffler), a people-pleaser who keeps pitching recipes for her thirty-minute "quickies"; Jamie Oliveoyl (Ian Ronningen), a soft-hearted Brit who weeps at the thought of lousy school lunches; and Giada Alacarta (Madeleine Donohue), a ditzy blonde bombshell with a mission to rid the world of limp noodles.

In case the foregoing doesn’t make it clear to you, let it be said that the humour’s broad and corny in the extreme. Eg; "Your French accent is very bad." "That’s because I come from the worst part of France." "Where’s that?" "Quebec!" That’s one of the few exchanges that doesn’t dip into the cornucopia of risqu puns and double-entendres. Most of them I caught, but not so many of the references to cooking shows and other aspects of tv culture. The well-lubricated audience was loving it: time after time the place rocked with roars of laughter. Especially for the clever ad-libs. In a way, it reminded me of old time Vaudeville. It’s good to know that there’s still a place for that kind of showmanship. I was also reminded of Dame Edna’s shtick in the way that certain audience members were called upon to make fools of themselves – two men pitted against each other in a cake decorating contest, for instance – much to the delight of their table companions.

How long this particular show will run, I’m not sure. But, rest assurred, if and when it’s mothballed, the company will dust off another of their forty sure-fire hits. Fans of Ms. Donohue should know, however, that she will be leaving the company at this point to appear in a re-mount of last January’s very successful production of The Dining Room, at Campbell House in downtown Toronto.

 

Barney’s Version (Movie) screenplay by Michael Konyves; based on the novel by Mordecai Richler; directed by Richard J. Lewis; starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Rosamund Pike, Bruce Greenwood; with Macha Grenon, Mark Addy, Saul Rubinek, Rachelle Lefevre, Jake Hoffman, David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, Paul Gross.

A Canadian could be made to feel that it would be downright unpatriotic to miss this one. After all, here we have a major film adaptation of one of the outstanding works by one of our best loved writers. Granted, most of the big stars are foreign, but who's gonna complain about the many other roles for our own actors? Besides, we’re probably the only ones who would appreciate the in-joke of casting Paul Gross as a Mountie in a lousy tv show. And who but us would get such fun out of seeing our most celebrated directors – Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg – in cameo roles? And then there’s the hype – the huge billboard ads, for instance. Not to mention the financial backing from diverse Canadian sources.

Well, all that was enough to get me to the theatre. But not enough to make me stay. The only thing that kept me watching to the end was the fact that I had to kill time before a meeting and I had nowhere else to go. It was too cold to spend a couple of hours wandering the streets.

The problem with the movie, it seems to me, is the ill-advised attempt to take a satirical comic novel and present it on the screen. Seen in the flesh, the characters are ridiculous and repellent; the situations are ludicrous; you can’t feel any identification with anybody. In the novel, though, the writer’s voice can make you feel that these people just might be tolerable. The narrator can jolly you along. Thanks to the narrator’s subtle alchemy, you can form visions of these people that are entertaining, but they don’t have to correspond exactly to any recognizable people. When real flesh-and-blood actors represent these characters, you come smack up against the truth of how awful they are.

Take Barney – our opening scene has him making a late-night phone call to the husband of one of his former wives and offering crude sexual remarks about her. In terms of winning me over, Barney pretty much never recovers from then on. And none of that’s the fault of actor Paul Giamatti. Being one of the best screen actors on the scene these days, he does about as well as anybody could in making the character seem human. He even manages the age differences in the time span – something like thirty years – quite convincingly (thanks, obviously, to some expert help from the makeup department). But Barney's a jerk. We’re meant to believe that he’s a successful producer of shlock tv shows, even though he drinks too much and constantly makes the wrong decisions, but I find no reason to care about what happens to him.

Most of which involves screwing up relationships. Interestingly, it’s the bad ones that seem most plausible. His first wife is nothing but a nut case; no question about Barnie's trouble with her. His second attempt at matrimony involves a beautiful, rich woman (Minnie Driver) who’s supposed to be a certain type of kvetching, self-centred Jewish woman. You can see why the marriage isn’t working – he makes that perfectly clear with the way he rolls his eyes when she asks if he washed "it" with soap before she performs oral sex on him. And yet, I actually began to like this supposed bitch, just a little. Now and then, there’s just a slight hint of something reasonable in her complaints about him. Almost inadvertently, it would seem, Ms. Driver shows something genuine in her awfulness – kind of the way it happens when you’re flipping through radio stations that are playing crappy pop music and you suddenly hear a line that grabs you.

But when it comes to Barney’s good relationships, they’re opaque and impenetrable, for the most part. The one exception would be his connection with his dad, warmly and capably personified by Dustin Hoffman. The guy’s a doofus and klutz, with a dirty mouth, and he constantly offends people, but we know he’s ok because of the rapport he has with Barney.

All Barney’s other supportive relationships, though, don’t ring true. Notably, his marvellous marriage with his third wife (Rosamund Pike) – I don’t see what they have going for them, apart from Barney’s infatuation. She’s supposed to be magical and irresistible. To me, she’s prim and cool. Their relationship’s about as hot as a refined kindergarten teacher’s with an over-eager toddler. Not that Ms. Pike’s to blame. What actress could be the talented, gorgeous, brilliant goddess who inexplicably falls for this squirrely creep? The marriage is a middle-aged male writer's fantasy that has nothing to do with reality.

Then there’s Barney’s pal Boogie (Scott Speedman) – a character who’s a complete failure in terms of any plausibility. Supposedly, Barney’s helping to fund Boogie’s writing of novels and screenplays but the guy’s a drunk and a druggie. The role makes no sense at all.

Except as a plot device. And here’s where you run into another problem with the film adaptation. The novel, as the title would suggest, is Barney’s attempt to clear the record of his life. Through all the kerfuffle about marriages and other fiascos, the thing hanging over his head is an accusation of murder many years ago. His telling of his story, then, is his attempt to show what really happened in the case of the alleged crime – even if, as it turns out, he doesn’t fully understand what went down. However, the movie makes so little reference to the incident that you lose track of the fact that the whole point of the exercise is Barney’s attempt at self-justification.

Another sort of point does finally emerge, though. There are some touching moments when you see what’s finally become of Barney – whereby, the film climbs up a notch, in my estimation, from one of our lowest possible ratings. I suppose you could say the message that comes through is: "A Man’s A Man For A’ That." Far be it for me to take on Robbie Burns when it comes to the profound existential truths of the human condition, but I wish we could have arrived at this one without so much drek along the way.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

Rabbit Hole (Movie) written by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his play); directed by John Cameron Mitchell; starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart; with Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito

The previews made me wary of this one: who would want to watch the suffering of young parents who lose their only kid? But there was enough buzz about the movie to make a person feel that maybe he should just suck it up. It’s a relief to report, then, that we don’t have to witness the actual occurrence of the tragedy. It happened eight months ago. What we’re getting is the extended grieving period.

Which isn’t going well (if such things ever do!). The couple can’t agree on what to do with the child’s clothes, his toys, his drawings and his room. The dad, Howie, (Aaron Eckhart) is getting antsy because the mom has declared the mourning period a no-sex zone. Beccca, the mom, (Nicole Kidman) is lashing out at people inappropriately. The fact that her unmarried and irresponsible sister (Tammy Blanchard) is blissfully pregnant doesn’t help. As you might expect, the young couple are eventually forced to deal with some of these issues, which gives us some searing drama, particularly in a scene where they tear into each other. Mr. Eckhart’s especially good here, as the nice guy who finally unleashes his rage.

Still, these are not Edward Albee characters. Banality’s the order of the day. But that’s ok in a mood piece like this (lots of tinkly music on piano, guitar and harp to sensitize you) as long as you can identify with the characters as ordinary people like the ones you run into every day. That's where I have some problems.

First, there’s the house that Becca and Howie ramble around in – a vast, establishment with bay windows for practically every room. It’s apparently close to a major centre, yet overlooking a large body of water. In any North American market, the place would cost at least a million and a half. But there’s no indication of where the couple’s money comes from. Not that I’m so Bolshie that I can’t accept that a wealthy couple have a right to grieve over the loss of their child. What bothers me is when it looks like we’re supposed to take their cushy lifestyle as standard. But maybe that’s all about a flaw in my character.

So let’s turn our attention to the characters on screen. Some of them strike a realistic enough note. Sandra Oh, as a participant in the couple’s group therapy sessions, offers a believable portrait of a middle-aged woman whose soignee manner doesn’t quite mask a free spirit. Mr. Eckhart may be pretty buttoned-down (except for his one rant), but I can accept that that’s the way that kind of guy is. And Dianne Wiest, as Becca's mother, gives us a slightly fey but affectionate older women who evokes lots of empathy. Except it seems odd to me that, in constantly referring to the loss of her own son eleven years ago, she never once mentions – let alone shows – any grief about the loss of her grandson. Don’t you think the writer let this character down?

The bigger problem for me, however, is with Becca. Right off the top, a neighbour accidentallly steps on a scruffy little flower in Becca’s garden. Cue the close-up: Becca’s soulful reaction when she picks up the squashed flower. You can’t accuse Ms. Kidman of over-acting here. It’s just a small moment. Still, it’s too much. The flower was only one of many among some insignificant little bedding plants – something like salvia. The fact that any notice at all is taken of Becca’s reaction risks making her look like more of a ditz than a woman we can take seriously. And then there’s her lashing out at innocent people – is that the way anybody you know – even somebody grieving – would behave? And why should she refuse sex when such obvious comfort is so close at hand? My guess is that most people wouldn’t consider bedding Aaron Eckhart to be cruel and unusual punishment. 

Admittedly, these could all be deficiencies in the writing and direction. When it comes to Ms. Kidman’s acting, heaven forbid that I should be unfair to her just because she’s a movie star, but the fact is that she doesn’t do domesticity as well as some of her ilk do. Meryl Streep, for instance, or Juliette Binoche. Ms. Kidman’s gardening, her laundry, her baking of apple pies don’t convince. She looks as comfortable with a rolling pin and a lump of dough as Bruce Willis would be with a needlepoint kit. But when she dons a little black dress, heels and pearls, and traipses downtown to make a visit to the glitzy office where she used to work, she lights up the screen. You’re thinking: that’s what this woman is all about!

Nevertheless, Becca does find herself in a situation where we get to see a more interesting side of her. It occurs nearly an hour into the movie and it has to do with a teenage boy. (My revealing his purpose in the story would be to spoil the effect of your discovering it for yourself; and damned be any reviewer who robs you of that experience!)  In this role, Miles Teller is a new kind of presence on screen. When you first see him, you think: this guy is no movie actor, not with his pudgy face, his blemished skin, his peculiar scars and his diffident manner. But the scenes between him and Ms. Kidman turn out to be the whole point of the movie. When they’re on screen, you think: at last I’m getting some insight into an aspect of life that I’ve never seen before.

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

True Grit (Movie) written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis; directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon; with Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Jarlath Conroy, Candyce Hinkle, Elizabeth Marvel

If I did ever see the original True Grit, that viewing was too far back in the mists of history to remember any of it. But I gather that the story is roughly the same in this new version. We’re in the wild west and Mattie, an intrepid fourteen-year-old, hires a US marshal to hunt down the rat who ruthlessly killed her father. Word has it that the killer has headed into treacherous Indian territory. As the Marshal heads that way, Mattie, as the marshal’s employer, insists on accompanying him. Meanwhile, a Texas Ranger, who wants the same killer for other crimes, horns in on the hunt. As you may not be surprised to hear, the three of them run into heaps of trouble.

Westerns aren’t our speciality here at Dilettante’s Diary but we took a look at this one because everybody said there was something special about it. In any case, you expect something different from the Coens. They'll often tell you something you didn’t know; or they’ll give you a new slant on something familiar. This one shows their stamp at least in so far as it has an odd look to it. The sets for the town scenes have a phony, empty quality – not like the fake Hollywood sets of old, but more like the work of an artist along the lines of Andrew Wyeth. The scenes in the wilderness, on the other hand, have a vast, bleak openness that emphasizes a kind of beauty by way of negation.

One of the strangest things about the movie is the dialogue. People speak in a rather formal Old Testament way. A word like ‘braggadocio’ can be uttered by a fourteen-year-old as if it were as common as ‘Spandex’ would be for a youngster today. It’s not that the characters don’t (do not) ever use contractions, it is (it’s) just that they do not (don’t) use them where you’d (you would) expect them to. Do the Coen brothers want us to believe that this is the way people actually spoke back in the day? I’m willing to go along with that as a thought experiment, but one actor on whom this stilted speech doesn’t sit well is Hailee Steinfeld, as Mattie. It may seem unchivalrous to criticize such a young actor, but I can’t help wondering why, in an age when we have so many excellent child actors who can appear before a camera with astonishing naturalness, the Coen brothers would have chosen a young person who always sounds, not like a recognizable human being, but a juvenile actress spouting memorized lines. Is this the Coen’s way of reminding us what Westerns of the past used to sound like? A sly tactic, to be sure, but hardly fair to a young woman who’s probably hoping for a major movie career.

On the other hand, the Coens have been ostentatiously generous, you might say, to Jeff Bridges. They’ve given him free reign in the role of the marshal, Rooster Cogburn. Thus, we get a colourful old coot who has a laconic sense of humour. At least, I think he has: since he communicates mostly in a series of grunts and mumbles, and, since it sounds like his tongue got the worst of an encounter with an angry hornet, only about ten percent of what he says is intelligible. But you know he’s quite the character because our first encounter with him situates him in an outhouse from which come muttered imprecations to the effect that he’s planning to sit there a good long time, so we might as well bugger off. Our next view of him is in a smoky courtroom where he’s giving evidence in a murder trial. His laid-back posture and his flippant responses keep everybody off kilter. In due course, we’ll find that he goes in for drunken marksmanship contests and other shtick from the bag of tricks expected of any lovable Western hero.

Which makes for a nice tension between him and the Texas Ranger. In that role, Matt Damon looks like the Coens have kept a tight rein on him. He gets to show hardly any of that boyish charm that has won so many hearts in previous movies. This time, he’s on edge in nearly every scene, constantly trying to prove himself, as if he’s not quite sure of the manly qualities he’s trying to assert in the face of the marshal’s extravagant machismo. (Given the latter’s first name, the image is inevitable: the bantam cock trying to stand up to the old rooster.) It’s a nice change for Mr. Damon’s fans and probably for the actor too.

Lots of other actors get good roles from the Coens – everybody from a dour undertaker (Jarlath Conroy) to a smarmy landlady (Candyce Hinkle) to the seedy head honcho of a gang of desperadoes (Barry Pepper). As the hunted killer, Josh Brolin doesn’t have much time on screen but he manages to turn the role into an interesting study of a strangely conflicted person, not what you expect from your run-of-the-mill murderer.

But what, apart from offering some juicy roles and some excellent opportunities for art direction, are the Coen brothers doing here? To me, this piece boils down to a pretty standard Western: dead guys in trees and in abandoned mines, scary snakes, gunshots, lots of horse flesh, campfires, beans. The movie also brandishes one of the most characteristic traits of any Western, as I remember them: whenever two characters are clenched in a battle to the death, a third person always comes to the rescue just in the nick of time.

Fair enough, for Western fans. For other viewers, though, something must be going wrong in a period piece like this when you start thinking that those guys on horseback should reach for their phones to see if anybody’s texting them about the ambush waitng for them. Granted, a quick look at the preview online for the 1969 original – with John Wayne’s ludicrous attempt at acting – suggests that maybe the Coens’ primary goal was to show how much better they can do. Their True Grit looks less stagey, probably more like what life in the wild west was really like. No doubt the influence of things like the tv series Deadwood is being felt. Compared to the classic Western, the overall tone of this True Grit may be a bit more droll, the pace may be a bit less frenetic – the narrative line ambles along rather casually – but, true to form, the stirring music keeps raising our hearts to the thrill of it all.

Except when it doesn’t, as is often the case for me. Maybe you need to have really loved those old Westerns. Maybe you have to be able to get back in the spirit of those kids’ Saturday matinees when we threw our popcorn boxes at the screen. Maybe you have to feel again the old urge to cheer when the cavalry comes riding over the hill. Me, I preferred the Ma and Pa Kettle comedies for my Saturday afternoons.

Rating – For people who like this sort of thing: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing"); for people like me: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?", i.e. iffy)

 

Panther Soup (History/Travelogue) by John Gimlette, 2008

The premise is intriguing: a British author decides to team up with a veteran of the US army and the two of them re-trace the old soldier’s trek through Europe during the Second World War. Given that my knowledge of that famous cataclysm is somewhat limited – didn’t it have something to do with a bad guy named Hitler? – this book looked like a good way to fill up a gaping hole in my historical knowledge.

And it was, in many ways. While some general outlines of the conflict come clear, the book’s main focus is on what the war was like for the average soldier. Putnam Flint, who was eighty-six-years old when he accompanied author Gimlette on this project, had landed in Marseille in 1944 with his tank destroyer battalion, nicknamed the Panthers. They trudged northwards through France, then east into Germany and finished the European war in Austria. Some of the best parts of the book describe weeks dug into frozen fields in Alsace where the two sides lobbed shells at either other. It was a life of danger, treachery, physical hardship, mud and constant fear. Then would come a few weeks of relatively normal life, inter-acting with the residents of some village. Such a place might swung back and forth between control by the Germans, the Americans, the free French, then the Germans again. The villagers didn’t care much who was in control as long as they survived.

Mr. Flint makes some poignant contributions to the story in terms of his personal connections. He and author Gimlette visit a town in Germany where the church was destroyed by US bombardment in order to eliminate the inevitable sniper in the steeple. In a relatively cordial chat with the villagers about those days, no mention is made of the fact that it was Mr. Flint who gave the order to fire the rocket that demolished the church. When it comes to his impressions of Europeans he encountered during the war, his preference for the Germans over the French -- especially the women -- is notable. In some places, attempts are made to find local women who befriended the soldiers but no such person is ever found by the two men.

For much of the recent journey, though, Mr. Flint doesn’t have much to say. Many times, his only comment is that the scene has changed much since he last saw it. You get the feeling that, like many an old soldier, he wants to forget the worst of the war experience. (In fact, it wouldn’t have been possible to retrace his steps if Mr. Gimlette hadn’t had access to the battalion’s records.) Mr. Flint’s especially reluctant to talk about the people he killed.

He wouldn’t humiliate them with description and they wouldn’t torment him with his guilt. In this way, killing had become an intensely personal matter, known only to those who’d had no other choice. This could often make the fighting seem rather abstract, and, with Flint, it sometimes felt like an unearthly clash of machines.

Such reticence means that, in spite of the author’s ingenious concept for the book, Mr. Flint doesn’t offer a great deal. That’s why Mr. Gimlette returns later to many of the locations, to explore them on his own, to soak up the ambiance, to imagine what they might have been like during wartime and to call up references to these locales by authors throughout history. Until you figure out that this is what’s happening, it can be confusing, in that the distinction between Mr. Gimlette’s visits on his own and his earlier ones with Mr. Flint isn’t always clear. For the most part, Mr. Gimlette’s musings help to round out the picture, but he occasionally wanders onto sidetracks that don’t have much to do with the war. As for instance, his climbing a daunting mountain in the Austrian Tyrol. True, Mr. Flint had done the same, back in the day, but Mr. Gimlette makes much of this adventure as a test of his own courage and stamina. This personal quest, although admittedly important to the writer, seems to belong in some book other than this one.

Another aspect of Mr. Gimlette’s writing that brings the book down a notch or two in my estimation is his tendency to indulge in travelogue fatuities, if not downright clichs of the genre. He says the soil of Provence is the colour of blood. It’s not. The soil of Provence is a faded rusty colour. The tomatoes of Provence, he claims, are "ripened in cruelty." Huh??? In Dijon, we’re told, "the old cathedral gargoyles seemed to dangle over the street, wondering what delight was coming next." That’s the kind of flourish that scores high in a creative writing class but it doesn’t impress me as a sign of an author’s respect for fact. Nor does a disquisition on the effects of ghosts in the Haut Voges of Alsace.

Other anomalies in the writing further undermine one’s confidence in the author. When Mr. Gimlette talks about chatting with some elderly Germans, he says: "Although, between them, they were missing a thumb, two fingers and an eye, they made good company." That sentence is an example of a writer’s awkward attempt to combine two pieces of information. The unsuitable use of "although" puts the two facts in apposition. But why should there be any apposition? I never heard that anybody who was missing an eye, a finger or a thumb was a party pooper. Regarding one village, we’re told "The catastrophic screech and boom of shells had long since given way to the sleepy whirr of mowers." This is a place where the writer, as writer, intrudes too much for my liking. He’s reaching for an effect with "catastrophic." But how does he know the screech was catastrophic? He wasn’t there to hear it. So you begin to feel that the writer, rather than just reporting facts, is doing a number on you.

The generalities about nationalities also strike me as writerly intrusion. For example:

France is vociferously secular, America insidiously evangelical. France is divided up by class, America by race. The French have only contempt for politicians, the Americans only unreasonable expectations. For the French, culture is duty, for the Americans it’s pleasure.

Regarding Germans and Americans, we’re informed: "...they’re both Protestant, federal, republican, beer-drinking and highly carnivorous...In work too they share a similarly rigorous attitude, and can be censorious of leisure." Maybe some readers expect travelogues to contain sweeping statements about what the people of various nations are like; maybe that’s what those readers are paying for. But such statements tend to make me suspicious. I want to ask the writer: who are you? did you conduct a sociological survey of these peoples? why should I trust your impressions? But there’s no denying that Mr. Gimlette has his finger on some definite truths when he notes that Germans love rules and order, and that the French tend to mock themselves for their aversion to work, whereas Americans tend to feel ennobled by their work.

My mentioning the book’s various drawbacks in the literary department doesn’t mean, though, that it fails to provide lots of fascinating information – much of it of the kind that you don’t get in typical war stories. For instance, the reason that the soldiers often had to survive on the most basic rations: not so much because of any difficulty getting supplies to them, but because an estimated twenty percent of all supplies were stolen before they could reach the front lines. Black American soldiers, not considered fit for front line combat, were given the ignoble task of disposing of the dead. There’s also mention of another fact that isn’t often aired: some soldiers simply freaked out under the stress, walked away and disappeared. Because of these incidents (which, today, would probably be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder) General Eisenhower had to re-active the penalty of execution for desertion. Another interesting revelation is the fact that the battalion’s own newspaper Panther Tracks published helpful hints for the soldiers on how to find prostitutes while on leave in Paris, and what to expect to pay them. When the company was returning to the US, however, Panther Tracks reminded them that the women they’d see on the streets could be respectable secretaries, beauticians and such So the proper way to approach them would be: "Isn’t this a beautiful day?" or "Have you ever been to Scranton?" Only then could you follow up with "How much?"

 

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Memoir) by Robyn Scott, 2008

This, sorry to say, was one of the books that I had to abandon about half way through. Why "sorry"? Because it has a kind of ingenuous charm that makes you want to like it more.

The book conveys Robyn Scott’s memories of her childhood in a small settlement in Botswana in the 1980s. Her parents, white Britishers who had previously lived in New Zealand, seem to have been incurable optimists who were always ready for another challenge, no matter how formidable the prospects. Her dad, a doctor, administered conventional medicine to people in communities for many miles around but what he really wanted to practice was homeopathy. Robyn’s mother, a high-spirited, intelligent and beautiful woman, home schooled her three kids (including a boy and a girl, both younger than Robyn). Across the road lived Robyn’s paternal grandfather and his second wife. The old guy, a pilot, flew his son to most of his medical missions. Grandad was something of an irascible kook towards most of the world but he showered love and attention on the grandkids. Due to a minor spat of some kind, however, he and his son refused to speak to each other for a year or so, despite the proximity of their homes. That put a crimp on family festivities – until a friend sat the two men together at his wedding party and the father and son were forced to bury the hatchet.

For the Scott kids, their Botswana childhood was a wonderful time to explore nature. They were always making collections of exotic specimens of wildlife, while learning to evade the poisonous ones. The book’s title refers to Robyn’s project of raising chickens so that she could earn money to contribute to the purchase of a saddle for her pony. The smells, the heat, the dust, and the sweat come blasting at you right off the page.

Some of the best material in the book concerns their mother’s imaginative approaches to schooling. The woman was something of a genius as an educator: she firmly believed there was nothing the kids needed to know that couldn’t be learned through some sort of play or creative endeavour. For a while, the little class included Matthews, a fourteen-year-old black boy who worked around the place, helping with gardening and so on. Provided with paper and pencils, the only thing he wanted to write about or draw was cows. He was as obsessed with them as a typical North American boy would have been with Ninja warriors at that time.

We also get some fascinating information about the problems Robyn’s dad encountered in his medical practice. The locals, unable to shake their traditional notions, kept insisting that he "bleed" them by way of a cure. On principle, he steadfastly refused, until it came to the point that taking blood was the only way to convince a certain man that he was getting better. After that, the doctor took blood whenever people asked him to; they always went away happy. One time, when the doctor pulled the x-rays of a woman’s lungs out of their envelope, a dead spider happened to have become attached to the film. Just for fun, the doctor told her that’s what ailed her: a spider on the lungs. The woman seemed to get the joke but she wouldn’t go home satisfied until he staged a fake procedure to withdraw the spider from her lungs by way of her throat. On a somewhat more chilling note, we get this report on the attempt by doctors to force the government to do something about the rapid spread of AIDS in Botswana. At the end of their meeting with a government minister, the minister announced:

Gentleman, you are right....I agree with everything you say. But I cannot help you. Nothing will be done. You see...in Botswana we have an old saying: "When you are in the bush, you don’t talk about the lions."

 

With all that going for it, why didn’t the book sustain my interest to the end? Because, unfortunately, the quality of the writing isn’t high enough to lift some of the material above the level of fond family lore. Along the lines of: remember the birthday party where all those women who couldn’t swim jumped into the pool in mom’s borrowed clothes? Or: And then there was that time when dad fired the shotgun to scare the shit out of the boys who were sleeping out in their cabin! We get rather commonplace anecdotes such as the ones about Robyn’s failures to reap the glory she dreamed of in the pony exhibitions. The plodding narrative and lame dialogue employed in the re-creating of many of these adventures gives them a faintly Bobbsey Twins banality.

There’s also a deficiency in terms of what journalists call "reportage". In a boat race, Robyn and some girlfriends, under her mom’s coaching, managed to come second. The first place winners were some muscular men For me, the passage about this raises unanswered questions. For instance, we’re told that the girls’ boat consisted of the over-turned roof of a Volkswagen van but the imagination is left floundering in the attempt to figure out how that could possibly work. And the specifics of the occasion are somewhat murky. We’re left to surmise that it was a sort of free-for-all, but we don’t get any sense of the length of the race course. None of which matters when you’re entertaining friends with family stories, but a reader expects more from a published memoir.

Mainly, though, it’s an amateurish clang to the prose that puts me off. You get the feeling that the author struggles to come up with wordings that sound catchy. The results sound laboured and contrived. Take, for instance, this sentence about how her dad’s status got them through road blocks: "A year in Botswana, and the magical effect of the doctor had become as unremarkable as the numerous roadblocks and veterinary posts, where it was most frequently and dramatically displayed." Or this, regarding her grandfather’s outbursts: "Then, suddenly, as sympathy for his unlucky victim had been obliterated by concern over one’s own diminishing prospects of remaining in Botswana, Grandpa would exhaust his swear words, run out of new insults, and stop." And "Our adopted chameleon, however, unearthed a friendship-threatening difference of opinion."  This sentence attempts to capture the atmosphere of the schooling with mom and the kids: "Lulu would nevertheless listen as attentively as Damien and I, confused and wide-eyed, but no less transfixed by the otherworldliness of a room echoing with hundreds of pages’ worth of somewhere else."

And this passage about Robyn’s garnering a purple "also-ran" ribbon in the pony competition:

Anything but purple, the special prize: the stark public reminder that the two trajectories of my plan to transform Feste [her pony] into a prizewinning show jumper and the plan’s execution would never meet; the big signpost warning me that dream and reality were destined to be forever and irredeemably parallel.

For me that sort of writing sounds too much like the kind of thing you often find on the personal essay page of The Globe and Mail. People who aren’t used to writing and publishing think that, in order to sound literary, they have to assume a certain high tone. The attempt more likely comes off sounding arch and contorted. Maybe this convinces some readers they’re in the presence of a real writer; it makes me cringe. Which is why, with some 200 pages still to go, in a total of nearly 450, I took my leave of Ms. Scott.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com