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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they 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: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (Stories); The Sentimentalists (Novel); In A Better World (Movie); Leonard Gilbert Benefit Concert for Oxfam (Piano); CBC TV's Election Coverage (TV); The Big Show (TV)

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (Stories) by David Sedaris; illustrations by Ian Falconer; 2010

You could hardly suggest a book that would be less likely to appeal to me – a collection of stories about talking animals. (Sorry, George Orwell.) However, I happened to encounter an excerpt from this latest book by celebrated New Yorker humourist David Sedaris. Can’t remember, at this point, whether the excerpt was in print form or on radio, but it made me realize: oh, it’s not about animals at all – he’s satirizing human characteristics and foibles. Given that Mr. Mr. Sedaris is probably my favourite contemporary humourist, it looked like the book might have some appeal. (See reviews of his other books on Dilettante's Diary pages dated Feb 16/07, May 18/08 and July 21/08.)

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a slim volume (about 150 pages) of short pieces starring the kinds of creatures we all know and love (the eponymous squirrel and chipmunk, along with cows, crows, pigs, rabbits, hippos, etc.) in distinctly human situations. The excerpt I’d encountered featured a couple of warblers talking about their winters in Guatemala. Mr. Sedaris captures perfectly the whiney, zenophobic arrogance of US tourists regarding third world destinations.

Here’s the female warbler telling friends about the annual migration.

"My family’s been wintering in Guatemala for as long as I can remember," the warbler would explain. "Every year, like clockwork, here we come by the tens of thousands – but do you think any of those Spanish-speaking birds have bothered learning English? Not on your life!"

                     "It’s really horrible," her husband would say.

It’s the cadences of speech that make these pieces. Mr. Sedaris, perhaps more than any other popular writer today, has a knack for catching the contemporary idiom. It’s as if his ear is keener than any other writer’s. Take this male dog, talking about his mate’s reaction to a marauding raccoon:

"Can you believe the nerve of that dick?" she’ll say to me, her nose pressed flat against the dining room window. Then she’ll bark, "Hey, asshole, go trash somebody else’s fucking yard."

A crow muses on the feckless life of sheep:

"It takes a village," they liked to say, not that there was much to learn in the first place. You lower your head, and food goes in. Raise your tail, and it comes out. The eating part, they had down, but the rest, forget it. Crap smeared from one end of their bodies to the other. Where was the fucking village when it came to cleaning themselves?

One of the best examples of current lingo comes in a story where some animals are complaining about waiting in line (what they’re waiting for is never clear):

"This is my second time in this line, can you believe it?" groused the duck. "First they told me I wouldn’t need any ID, then, after I waited almost three hours, this ball-busting river rat goes, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but if you don’t have some form of identification, there’s nothing I can do.’

"I was like, ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me that earlier?’ And she was all, ‘If you can’t be civil, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’"

Not to say that that’s what it sounds like around here, but, to my ears, those passages catch the unmistakable note of today – the kind of thing you hear on the streets and the buses. While these brilliant conversational riffs make for the book’s best offerings, you also get some droll scenarios and interesting observations on human characteristics. Tenets of conventional wisdom – like the importance of a positive attitude for beating cancer – come in for a few pokes. So do the fads for meditation and spirituality. Alcoholics Anonymous too. When it comes to Mr. Sedaris’s fine sense of trends and mores, I particularly like a mouse’s reflection on the fact that she’s ‘exotic’ rather than ‘eccentric’:

To qualify for the latter, all you needed was a turban and an affinity for ridiculously large beads or the color purple. To be exotic, on the other hand, one had to think not just outside the box but outside the world of boxes.

 

As for notable personality quirks, there’s the conversationally-challenged chicken who takes whatever anybody says and repeats it as a question. Then the parrot who cocks her head half an inch to the right and pauses before repeating a question anybody has asked. A mother stork tells her greedy baby: "It really wouldn’t hurt you to take an interest in others." A dog who prides himself on his integrity bristles at the suggestion that he should stoop to the level of humans. You see a baboon hairdresser struggling to come up with platitudes that won’t rile her customer.

But fables i.e. stories featuring animals in human roles, as I understand them, are supposed to drive home some searing truth, some unforgettable lesson. That’s where this book comes up short. To find storks dishing out misinformation about where babies come from – that’s mildly amusing but hardly amazing. A young bear goes around telling everybody about the way her mother died. Is the tendency to reach out for sympathy in bereavement a human failing that really needs correcting? A story about a parrot and a pig dishes out the not-too-startling news that journalists can be superficial and fickle. You can’t help feeling that Mr. Sedaris’s main point in that one was to build up to the final line where the parrot, embarking on an affair with the pig, looks forward to her "days of swine and neuroses."

And why do so many of the pieces have such vicious endings? In one story, a woman (human) saves her dog from a burning house but lets her son go up in flames. Other examples amount to what would be, in the human context, cannibalism. Is the macabre note supposed to reflect the way Mr. Sedaris sees our species? The illustrations by Ian Falconer, although sometimes appealing in a goofy way, often drive home the sadistic point – in such a ghastly way that this is one book you’d want to keep away from your children. Is it just that Mr. Sedaris has always wanted to unleash a darker sense of humour than we’ve had from him to date? I’m not saying this is necessarily a case of the artist who has reached such a peak of popularity that he thinks he can toss off any jottings and the public will drool. But I do catch the sound of the author sitting back and chortling over his inventions with an excess of malicious glee.

On the other hand, nobody could deny that the final piece in the collection, about a hippo and an owl, brings scatological humour to an outrageous all-time low. (To say any more here would rob the story of its shock value.) And a certain self-deprecating candour about Mr. Sedaris makes you want to go along with him. Take these final lines from the rhyme on the book’s fly leaf (it’s not credited to anyone but my guess is that it comes from you-know-who). Various animals are discussing their impressions of the book:

As to the scribe, they’d quote the hen:

"Trust me, he’s no La Fontaine.

                                                                                                                                                                       Ok. So we’re not getting true fables. The question, then, is whether you think these something-or-others are worth $23.99 Cdn.  

 

The Sentimentalists (Novel) by Johanna Skibsrud, 2009

Yes, it’s a fine thing that we have major awards to draw attention to new Canadian books. Good on the winning authors who reap prestige and increased sales. Not to mention prize money – especially in the case of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. But here’s a thought that might seem a tad disloyal: is it possible that Canada doesn’t produce a book each year that merits all the fuss? Call me non-patriotic, but could it be that, with our relatively meagre population, we don’t have enough stellar writers pecking away at their keyboards to be sure that one of them, at least, will produce a knock-out book every year?

Those are the sorts of thought that come to mind when reading The Sentimentalists, the 2010 Scotiabank Giller winner by Johanna Skibsrud. You keep going: huh? All the commotion about the award clamours in your head as you work your way through the prose. You keep asking: Why? Why? Why? What were those jurors thinking???

But that’s no way to appreciate any book. It’s not fair to the author – or to yourself as a reader – if you keep assessing a book’s merits according to what you think the ideal standards for such a prize-winner should be. The better approach is to try to put the prize out of your mind. Just read the book as if you happened on it by chance, or as if a friend recommended it to you. Try taking it on its own terms without envisioning it in the context of all the competition.

What we have here, then, is a story told by a young woman. As far as I can tell, her first name is never given. Let’s call her "Honey", since that’s how her dad often addresses her. Honey is re-connecting with her dad, Napoleon. He’s an American who fought in the Vietnam War. Something of a deadbeat dad and an alcoholic, he had abandoned the family when Honey and her sister were young. Recently, he’s been living in a trailer park in North Dakota, but now he’s come to a small Ontario town to live. Honey and her sister drove him here. He’s living in the home of a man named Henry, who is the father of Owen, one of Napoleon’s buddies from the war. Owen seems to have met a tragic end at that time. Napoleon’s health isn’t good and he seems to be in his final days. Honey spends lots of time with him now. The dad’s memories of Vietnam – mostly repressed – hover over their time together.

None of this narrative emerges very clearly, though. (It’s summoned up – by me – with some difficulty. You’re welcome!) The narrator hops back and forth in time so much that you can’t keep track of when the dad was with the family and when he wasn’t. Maybe the scattered, diffuse quality of this story-telling is meant to reflect the muddled way children learn about things. Fair enough. But some of the sections where Honey is an adult are just an unintelligible. Where Henry and Napoleon live now is referred to as government house. Could that be because it was built for Henry by the government? I’m not sure about that, but it seems fairly clear that Henry once lived in another house that was flooded by the construction of a dam. The house can still be seen under the water of a lake.

Which is more or less what the whole book feels like: you’re underwater, looking at dim shapes and trying to discern the reality of them. Far too many ingredients are tossed into the general murk and swirl of barely identifiable elements. On top of everything else, we’re asked to take an interest in Henry’s difficult childhood and the ghosts of his past that now flit about his home – none of which material takes on much specificity or vividness for the reader. (A thought: could it be that the original manuscript was much longer and that all this material was fleshed out more satisfactorily? Maybe the author was forced by a publisher’s financial constraints to cut back to the bare bones of her tale?)

Clarity of detail and information is rare. Napoleon seems elderly and fragile now, so shouldn’t Henry, the father of Napoleon’s buddy from the war, be much older than Napoleon? The two guys, on the contrary, seem like cronies. At one point, Henry comes into the house and opens his cupped hands. A bird flies out of them and it takes a lot of fuss to get the bird to fly out the door. But the author never bothers to tell us what kind of bird it was. Not that we need the precise determination of species. But we don’t even know whether it was a brown or a black bird, a little one or a big one. Honey tells of a time when she and her sister were young and Henry would lean forward in a chair, pressing his fists to the floor so that the two little girls could climb up his arms. How the hell did they accomplish that? I spotted no previous mention of their having had training as circus performers.

All of which is to say that Ms. Skibsrud does not excel at what journalists call "reportage". Maybe that’s not important, given that this book is less about events in the real world than about what’s going on in the narrator’s head. What the book has to offer, then, is the writer/narrator’s mulling over things, her analysis of feelings and moods. In that vein, we get some marvellous passages. Sadness is one of the subjects that draws on the best this writer has to offer. One example: "A sadness that would make you, when you saw it, want to pull the edges of your own life up around you, and stay there, carefully, inside."

Another eloquent passage on the subject:

No, it had to do, instead, I think – that sadness – with those certain smells or shapes or colours that call up a certain moment, or a feeling, just a whiff of one, that you can’t quite place. Just something that fills you with a weird longing, all of a sudden. Like you’re homesick. Only not for any place that you’ve been to. And the smell, it doesn’t remind you of anything that you’ve ever smelled before. And the colour or the shape is not one you can connect to a recallable landscape.

On another topic – let’s call it the unpredictability of life’s turnings:

And that, by reading backwards along the lives of objects, and the things that I had learned piecemeal from my parents, and from the rest of the world, I was only being thrown farther and farther off course, and was by now very far from the straight and deep waters for which I had always felt I was somehow bound. And that, each time I’d thought I was coming closer to that unknown region I desired, I was actually following altogether a different route; a small estuary quite sideways to that true course of things, ending up in distant and uncomfortable regions I had never dreamed of visiting before.

And on a similar theme – not to say that the meaning leaps out at you but the passage does invite pondering:

Now, though, I find it difficult to believe that anything is ever buried in the way that I had once supposed. I believe instead that everything remains. At the very limit; the exact surface of things. So that in the end it is not so much what has been subtracted from a life that really matters, but the distances, instead, between the things which remain.

But not all the best of the book comes in these meditations. It’s composed of short vignettes, some of which can be very effective. A scene in which Napoleon tells his daughter about a poem he’s written has a burnished glow to it. Some of the Vietnam sections have such immediacy to them – the guys swearing and griping at each other – that you begin to think you’ve never read anything that conveyed that scene so credibly. On the topic of the grubby state of the soldiers’ feet, the writing is astonishingly vivid. You find yourself wondering: how can this author know so well what it was like? A soldier's impression of a mortar attack when he's stoned is brilliantly conveyed. And you can't help loving that same stoned solider when he ponders the possibility of dishonourable discharge because of his incessant laughter. 

But then there are the passages where the narrator's maundering gets so ponderous that it’s almost impenetrable.

To accept, that is, that the actions of war, being part of that great and ancient chain of command, capable of establishing an event even at the moment of its occurrence as though it was already deeply in the past, were such that it would be impossible, and rather unsportsmanlike, to expound.

If this writing doesn’t make for smoothest reading, you might say that it’s virtue is that the author goes to great pains to avoid clich and predictable formulae. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Ms. Skibsrud’s previous book was a highly-regarded collection of poetry. And yet, sometimes her word choices seem distinctly off-target. For instance, she says that a table is too "fat" to allow two men to reach across it and shake hands. Isn’t ‘wide’ the word that’s wanted? When the dad walks into Henry’s house with a cigarette, contrary to Henry’s wishes, Honey says the dad was doing so "illegally". That adverb seems like over-kill to me. As far as we know, no statues or bylaws on the matter had been enacted. It also strikes me as sad that a recognized wordsmith such as a poet doesn’t seem to grasp the distinction between the nominative and objective forms of pronouns. For instance, we repeatedly get formulations like "That night my father beat Henry and I..." and "He’d opened his eyes again and began looking back and forth between Henry and I...." and "...but Henry ignored him, and declared only, in admonishment to both my father and I...."

Be it a poet’s quest or not, the effort to craft original ways of saying things sometimes produces sentences so convoluted and strangled that they look like the work of somebody not at all skilled in the handling of words. Take this one: "In reminder to myself that although it felt like it might there was no way that a two-day trip could last forever, I imagined the different ways I might recount its events even as they occurred."

Or this passage:

It is only from a distance that abstractions are, after all, desirable, or even possible. And none was desirable enough to me then to warrant an actual course of action, replete with telephone calls made to real human beings, and the inevitable initial chill of a new and as yet unlived-in life.

See if you can make better sense of this one than I can: "She, who must have in those late evening hours been, in the extreme of her comfort to us, also been attempting some comfort for herself." Even if you’d allow that the second "been" is a typo, that "extreme of her comfort to us" remains a brain choker. And speaking of typos: "When I questioned Parada about the incongruencies between my father’s stories and the documents to which I was later able to compare them to, he had little to offer by way of explanation." You try (charitably) to believe that the repetition of "to" is a mere slip but, by this time, you’re seriously beginning to wonder about the author’s facility with the English language.

Some such passages nearly forced me to give up. But the rewards of other passages made me want to forge ahead. Even so, I kept wondering what we were supposed to make of it all. What was the book trying to tell us? One of its main points, certainly, is the rapprochement between Napoleon and Honey. On that score, the book succeeds. We get a good feel for how they relate to one another now.

But the author has introduced other narrative elements, even if they’re not the main point of the book, that demand resolution. Most notably, the mystery about what happened to Owen. You get the feeling that that’s the clam that the author is eventually going to pry open. However, when Napoleon talks about what happened, it’s not at all clear what went down. Owen was involved in something momentous and dramatic, but trying to re-capture it now is like looking at a piece of broken and out-of-focus film. Near the end of the book, we get a transcript of a court martial regarding the incident but, even then, conflicting evidence from various sources fails to make much clear. All you can say is that whatever happened meant a lot to Napoleon but not much to you as a reader. And Owen? The writer/narrator offers three versions of his possible fate. Choose your own. Makes you see why publishers don’t offer any satisfaction-or-money-returned guarantees to readers.

So....back to the question of the Scotiabank Giller prize. Fact is, very few people would be reading this book today – and I wouldn’t likely be spending so much time reviewing it – if it weren’t for the book’s being so acclaimed. And , given the prominence of the prize, you have to ask what the book’s being so recognized says about the state of Canadian writing and publishing. That question isn’t so crucial in the case of a book that doesn’t get so much attention. What about this book’s worthiness for such notice, then? Would The Sentimentalists have fared better if it had been recognized as a worthy artistic experiment and left to fend for itself without all the hoop-la? Has the hype drawn too much attention to the book’s deficiencies? Was the Giller Prize something that might better not have happened to this book?

Here’s a possible explanation for how it might have. From what I know of jurying processes, sometimes jurors’ choices of prize-winners are arrived at by compromise. There may have been other books (art works, poems, films, etc) that some jurors were arguing for vehemently while other jurors couldn’t stand those works. So it became impossible to chose any of them unanimously. But maybe there’s another work that none of the jurors actually hates. It’s on everybody’s "maybe" list. So it becomes the winner. If that's not what happened in the case of The Sentimentalists, the only justification for the jurors’ picking it, as far as I can see, is that they might have wanted to send a signal to the world that Canada can produce writing that is unusual and arty. But not if they wanted the winning book to provide an enjoyable read for lots of people.

 

In A Better World (Movie) screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen; directed by Susanne Bier; starring Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dryholm, Markus Rygaard, William Jhnk Nielsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Satu Helena Mikkelinen

You can put this down to the movie’s credit: it takes you a long time to figure out what’s going (if, like me, you don’t read the advance blurbs) and yet the movie keeps you intrigued while you’re doing the figuring.

It starts with a humanitarian doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) working somewhere in Africa. He has a very sympathetic face, with beautiful blue eyes. Looks like he’s stationed at a refugee camp in an area where warlords are wrecking havoc. Suddenly, we cut to a funeral somewhere else in the world and a fresh-faced boy of about twelve is reciting a poem over his mother’s coffin. Then scenes of the reception after the funeral. Then the grandmother’s house in Denmark where the boy’s father (Ulrich Thomsen) is taking him to live. Is this a flashback to the doctor’s childhood in order to tell us how he ended up being such a humanitarian?

No, we’re dealing with a whole new scenario. Eventually, this boy, Christian (William Jhnk Nielsen), whose mom has just died, will become friends with the doctor’s son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), in their school in Denmark. Together, they’ll become victims of bullying and they’ll decide to take the law into their own hands. By this time, about half an hour into the two-hour movie, the theme becomes clear: how should kids and dads respond to violence and evil, both of the school yard kind and the kind that has more insidious implications? To flesh out the thesis, the doctor, on one of his visits back in Denmark, gets involved in some adult-level bullying. And then there’s a crisis in Africa, when he has to make a difficult moral choice regarding the local bad man. Throughout it all, the doctor tries patiently to steer his way through ethical quagmires and to show Elias and Christian how civilized, reasonable men deal with these problems.

Lots of material to ponder here. And yet, something didn’t quite ring true for me. Give me a moment’s leeway here, and try to believe my claim that I usually don’t read much about movies before seeing them and, more often than not, forget anything I have read. In this case, I couldn’t remember anything about the provenance of the movie. But I began to think: this feels to me like a woman’s take on the subject of bullying. Why? Because it’s so deadly serious and bleak. Not to say that we men, if you will forgive my audacity in daring to speak for my sex as a whole, think bullying isn’t a serious problem. It is. Could be, though, that men tend to treat the problem with a bit of humour and resignation. You do what you can to stop the worst of it but a certain amount of it has to be endured. Sort of like black flies in spring. You can’t entirely escape them in cottage country until the first hot spell kills them off. Same with schoolyard bullying: some of it’s inevitable until kids mature.

No such fatalistic humour in this movie. It’s grim, all the way through. Ms. Bier’s so determined to force her protagonist to deal with aggression in a rigorously high-minded manner that she pushes him into an impossible situation, one that I’m guessing very few guys would let themselves get into. At this point, Mikael Persbrandt's fine blue eyes are about all he has to hang on to in terms of his personal dignity.

Meanwhile, the portentous music begins to register. You know the kind of thing: the ominous metronomic tick in moments when danger is pending; the wailing choir in the background, like Henryk Grecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, when something really bad’s going down in the desert-like African setting. And thus it dawns on you that you’re in the presence of a masterpiece, or, at least, a movie that’s striving mightily to be one. It’s all so carefully composed by way of making its argument. I’m not saying that the incident where the doctor gets involved with the adult bully back in Denmark is contrived. Such things do happen. But this episode fits far too neatly into director Susanne Bier’s thesis. I thought her movie Brothers posed a challenging moral quandary. You could imagine high school ethics classes discussing it decades hence. Same with this movie – except that it’s not as cohesive a work of art. There’s something unwieldy and monumentous about it. Take the cutting back and forth between Africa and Denmark. Yes, we get neat parallels in the problems that crop up in both locales. But when the doctor changes locations, it’s as if he’s just nipped down the street and around the corner. You don’t get any sense of time and distance. Without claiming any particular geographical expertise, I’m willing to bet that moves between Africa and Northern Europe involve rather more dislocation than a trip to the corner store.

And I find something manipulative and unfair to viewers about the treatment of Elias and Christian as they get pulled deeper and deeper into their revenge scheme. It’s so relentlessly inevitable when you see kids rushing head-first into this kind of thing. You know there’s no way they can stop. It’s the evil in human nature run amok. Thoughts of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies kept coming to mind. That piece works, however, because you have a microcosm of society, with all the countervailing influences. In a Better World doesn’t offer enough conflict to hold the kids back, so the proceedings become almost too dreadful to watch.

In spite of the almost unbearable tension that she builds up in this way, Ms. Bier lets everybody off the hook too easily. Ultimately, problems are solved in the ways that humans have always known are the best ways (or the ways that we’re accustomed to being told are the best by movies, plays and novels). Somebody implausibly survives a horrible catastrophe with barely a scratch. In what amounts to a fluke, the biggest problem is solved when somebody gets a hunch on seeing a piece of Leggo. At the climax of the movie, we get a soulful, profound conversation between a boy and a man in a most unlikely and precarious situation. It’s as if Ms. Bier has set us up to expect dire realism, then switched to wishful-thinking.

For me, the realism works better. A phone conversation between an estranged husband and wife has an inchoate pain to it that reminds me of some of Ingmar Bergman’s studies of the breakdown of marriages. We get a searing confrontation between Christian and his father, in which an attempt is made to show why the boy’s bitterness drives him to such extremes. While I’m not sure the kid’s suspicions about his father are satisfactorily resolved, it’s a harrowing encounter. The movie presents a true picture of the way adults more or less force kids to lie, and the way kids’ loyalties form. The acting throughout, from both adults and kids, is thoroughly convincing. School staff are presented as very believable adults, struggling in a typically half-assed way to do the best they can in the face of the problems kids present. Christian’s grandmother is one of those amazing characters, in barely more than a cameo role, that you never see except in a certain kind of European movie. Far from your typical Hollywood granny, she’s gaunt, with a tremendous sense of style, as if she could have been a ballet dancer. You come away wanting to know more about somebody like her.

Unfortunately, such matters of human interest are subordinated to the movie’s melodramatic quest for grandeur. Witness Ms. Bier’s unnecessarily rubbing our noses in horrible wounds the doctor treats in Africa. We get the point. We don’t need the gory close-ups unless a director is trying to hit us over the head with her message about the awful side of life. On the other hand, you get a sense of the kind of uplifting work Ms. Bier thinks she has created in artistic shots of flocks of geese and other wonders of nature. The closing credits feature insects scurrying and a glistening spider web. That shot, if you think about it, would seem to suggest that nature’s all about selfish aggression – kill or be killed – and yet, I somehow don’t think that’s the message Ms. Bier intended.

[As stated recently, we’re dropping the calibrated ratings for movies. Such a system seems to imply that there’s some sort of equivalence among movies that receive the same "score." But works of art can’t be given any such comparative rating. Instead, we’re now providing a Capsule Comment (CC) at the end of every review.]

CC: Fine and intriguing in some ways, but melodramatic and too self-consciously grand.

 

Leonard Gilbert (Piano Concert) Toronto Heliconian Club, May 5th.

Friends of mine have been watching the rise of this young Toronto pianist for years. (He’s just twenty now.) I first heard him play a private recital in a friend’s living room about five years ago. You can see reviews of some of his prize-winning performances in music festivals on Dilettante’s Diary pages dated Feb 13/08 and Feb 26/08. From those local triumphs, he has gone on to win first prize in the Third Canadian Chopin Competition and to qualify for Stage II of the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. Other achievements include: third prize winner and the Paderewski special prize at the International American Paderewski Competition; prize winner for the best performance of a romantic work at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Competition, and second prize winner at the World Piano competition in Cincinatti, Ohio. Currently, he studies with the distinguished pianist, Professor Menahem Pressler at Jacob School of Music, Indiana University.

For this concert, a benefit for Oxfam, Mr. Gilbert’s audience was unfortunately small, even by the standards of the cozy Heliconian Club. Nevertheless, he soldiered on in a professional manner, opening with two Domenico Scarlatti sonatas: K. 1 in D minor, and L. 449 in B minor. Mr. Gilbert excelled at bringing out the inner voices in these sprightly pieces but they made me wish for a better piano than the one available at the Heliconian Club. A somewhat finer instrument would have shown the pieces to better advantage. (After all, they were written for the harpsichord.) Then came Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 31 no. 3 in E flat major. In the first two movements, we got much interplay between the composer’s playful flights of fancy and his more bombastic moods. The somewhat disjointed effect so typical of Beethoven reminded you that the audiences in Vienna back in the day must have wondered what was hitting them. Only in the third movement did we get a touch of the tender, singing tone that Herr Beethoven can dish out when he wants to. The final movement was all thunder and lightning, at which point the quality of the piano’s sound didn’t matter so much as the fact that it was sturdy enough not to collapse under the onslaught. Mr. Gilbert clearly was having a ball. In Fryderyk Chopin’s Ballad in F minor, Op. 52, we again got some sensitive singing but, pretty soon, it was more bravado and bravura. You began to get the impression that maybe Mr. Gilbert is at his best in that mode.

After the intermission, however, he offered a complete change of pace – three short pieces by Paul-Ben Haim, an Israeli composer whose work is new to me. Delicate, refreshing pieces with a minimalist sound to them, they worked as a kind of amuse bouche or palate cleanser. The first two, played with exquisite finesse by Mr. Gilbert, made me think of two birds duelling in a tree. When the action heated up, hints of something like Ravel’s Jeux d’eau could be heard. The final piece on the program, Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 in B flat, sounded like it was liable to collapse into chaos at any point but Mr. Gilbert managed to keep a meaningful line running through the mayhem. The middle movement featured a surprisingly romantic and lush melody which, after a stormy intrusion, came back in a subdued and heart-breaking way. The percussive effects in the flashy final movement made me think of Bla Bartk at times, and at other times, of jazz artists like George Gershwin. But this kind of jazz made Gershwin’s compositions sound like (pun intended) child’s play.

Those people who missed the concert must have felt they had a good reason for staying home. In my opinion, though, they made a serious mistake. The hockey game can’t have been anywhere near as good.

 

Election Night (CBC TV) May 2, 2011

Two television events to report on within one week: that’s more than in a typical year!

We don’t often watch CBC TV’s The Journal because of (a) the hour; and (b) the advertisements. Still, we’ve long known about host Peter Mansbridge’s prowess. He first made a strong impression on us many years ago (1986) when the Challenger space shuttle expired in deadly plumes. If I remember correctly, at that time Mr. Mansbridge was merely an up-and-coming CBC staffer. That day, though, he was on air for many hours, all the while exuding a calm, serious, concerned demeanour that never faltered. His handling of the story made you think: this guy is amazing. It might not be too much to say that day made his career. Since then, I understand, he’s become famous for chairing disaster coverage. They tell of times when he’s been heading home from the studio, hears a report on the car radio about some catastrophe, turns back to the studio and takes the anchor’s chair for the duration.

But we really had no idea what a superb performer he has become. It was astounding to watch him on election night, strolling around the complicated set from one desk to another, chatting with the various reporters and panelists as if he was completely at ease, joking and laughing naturally at times. Contrast his unflappability with the consternation of some of the other participants who got flustered by technological glitches. When any such slip-ups occurred during Mr. Mansbridge’s explications, he simply paused and puzzled over them, as anybody would do when coming on some iffy item while reading the newspaper in their own living room. As far as I could tell, he didn’t even have any earphones to tell him what was coming up next, where to turn, what questions to ask. So how the hell did he pull it off with such aplomb? Maybe teleprompters were involved, but it’s hard to see how they could have been much help, given that the cameras were circling Mr. Mansbridge from all points of the compass.

In all the hoop-la about the massive and unprecedented shift in the Canadian political landscape, various leaders were touted as the heroes of the hour. But the undisputed star of the evening, by my reckoning, was Peter Mansbridge.

 

The Royal Wedding (TV) April 29, 2011

Since we watch so little tv here at Dilettante’s Diary, a report on our latest sampling of the medium might be in order. In any case, the Royal Family is probably anxious to hear what we thought of their Big Show.

Frankly, I thought it a trifle inconsiderate of them to hold the event at such an inconvenient hour for me. After all, I’ve always tried to help out the members of the Royal Family. If ever any of them have needed a hand up, I’ve always been there for them. So you’d think they’d have taken into consideration the fact that it would have suited me perfectly if they’d had the wedding around 6 pm their time, which would have made it noon here in Canada. But that might not have left enough time for the youngsters in the royal crowd to party. Apparently, this event was all about youth and the future, so the young people’s needs had to take priority.

Which left somebody like me having to get up at 4:30 in the morning. Actually, 5 am would have been good enough, as there wasn’t much worth watching until then. The show didn’t actually begin, as far as I’m concerned, until Princes William and Harry set out for the abbey. Early on, I decided to stick with the CBC coverage. The only concomitant irritant was the stream of viewers’ comments scrolling across the bottom of the screen. A folded sheet of newsprint judiciously arranged took care of that problem.

My reason for choosing the CBC was primarily that, even though its prestige has been whittled down and devastated almost to the point of disappearing, there still lingers a faint sense that that institution is somehow connected to the noble traditions of our country and, thence, to the monarchy. And let’s get this out of the way right now – Yes, the monarchy is a silly and meaningless institution. An ideal world should be totally egalitarian. But our world isn’t. People who don’t have monarchs have presidents, prime ministers, dictators or whatever, over whom they make a fuss. Canada – up to this point – has the monarchy. So it’s meaningful to us is in the meaningless way these things are.

What, then, is the specific purpose of a wedding featuring the monarchy? It's to show us how things can be done to perfection. If you’re going to put on a wedding and you want everything to be just right – you want it timed to the minute, you want the outfits to be splendid, the music, the flowers, all of it exceptionally fine – then you turn to the royals to show you how it should be done. That is what monarchs (presidents, dictators, etc) are for: to give us a glimpse of a world where things can be excellent, superior, supreme. It’s unreal, of course; human beings never can achieve any such sublimity, but it’s fun to pretend that there are certain select beings who can.

In that context, then, I think the broadcasters (my understanding is that most of this was being fed to us by the BBC) made the mistake of cutting short the Queen’s arrival at the abbey. All we got was Her Majesty – a full-blown yellow rose – stepping out of her Rolls, a few handshakes at the door of the abbey, a filial peck on the cheek from Prince Charles, a trumpet fanfare as the Queen was about to enter the abbey, then back to shots of Ms. Middleton riding along and smiling like a Cheshire cat behind the glass of a car window. Why couldn’t we have had the Queen’s procession up the aisle of the abbey? We’re going to have lots of time in future to watch Ms. Middleton, or rather, the Duchess of Cambridge, as she is now known. After all, the Queen’s the reason for all the fuss. The others achieve importance only by association with her.

As for some of those others – why just the brief glimpses of the Queen’s kids and grandkids? Barely a second or two of Ann, Andy, Eddie, et al. We needed more. It’s important for us to get a good look at them. To assess how they’re bearing up under the royal regimen. How much hair lost (or, in the case of Ann, dyed)? How much weight gained? We who have grown up with those people need to see how they’ve been faring with the vicissitudes of life, compared to ourselves.

No question that the young couple at the centre of the event bore up well. Through all the praying, it seemed that Prince William’s military training stood him in good stead. The look on his face said: this is something a man just has to endure, so endure it I will. His bride smiled through it all with her characteristic aplomb and poise. But what a lot of praying! You’d think The Almighty would have got the message much quicker. Hadn’t these people ever encountered that passage in scripture where Jesus tells his followers not to pile up prayers? And yet, they seemed to be making a point of boasting about the Jesus connection. In fact, the emphasis on the Christian order struck me as more insistent than necessary. Given that so many people were watching in all parts of the planet, wouldn’t it have been nice to have at least some brief recognition that there are other ways of viewing the world?

However, the prayer composed by the bridal couple (supposedly) was admirable for its relatively under-stated, down-to-earth, practical spirituality. In pragmatic terms, in fact, the strongest message that came through the entire ceremony was the emphasis on progeny. You got the impression that the couple were expected to get back to their private digs and get to work on that program as soon as possible.

At which point, presumably, THE DRESS would become a museum item. And the answer to the question that’s been in your mind all this time is: yes, we did approve of the gown. I very much liked the classic look, the way the skirt fell into naturally sculpted folds. But I must admit to a quibble about the lace over the shoulders and arms. Call it a question of artistic unity. The effect seemed slightly confused: two different kinds of dress in one. But maybe you had to be there to experience it tangibly, so to speak. When the cameras gave us close-ups of the detail on the skirt, it seemed consistent with the lace above. The veil struck me as limp and boring, but when your groom’s grandma loans you her tiara, I guess you have to make the best of it, even if it cramps your style.

No such problem with the bride’s sister, although some would say that her walk was, indeed, "cramped" by her tight-fitting dress. All the controversy about it didn’t bother me. Firstly, nobody ever warned me that you shouldn't wear white if you're not the bride. And secondly, I didn’t think Pippa was stealing the attention from her sister by means of a dress that was too sexy. To me, Pippa just looked nice. ("To the pure, all things are pure"?) The other women in attendance out-did themselves when it came to style, as they were rightly expected to do. What other occasion provides such a rich opportunity for excess. (You don’t get to wear headgear at the Oscars ceremony.) The prize for the most outrageous effort goes hands-down to Princess Beatrice for her forehead-mounted pretzel.

But what about those two nuns who were sitting in the area of the high altar, frequently seen in the background of the shots of the royal couple during the nuptials? (Turns out, the nuns had some official capacity in the abbey.) Couldn’t they have added some festive touch to their habits? The clergymen all managed to dig up a bit of coloured paraphernalia. The drab look of those two women made them look like spectres at the feast. Those abbreviated veils just didn’t do it as fascinators.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com