The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (2004) Book
For a while now, I have been intending to learn some American history. For courtesy, if for no other reason. I mean, they're
our closest neighbours, after all. It's all very well to carry on in our completely self-sufficient and aloof way, wrapped
up in our cultural cocoon as though they're completely irrelevant, but I think it smacks of a kind of arrogance that a truly
nice Canadian wouldn't want to be accused of.
It seemed like this book would be a good place to start. One of Mr. Wood's previous books won
a Pulitzer Prize. His writing is eminently clear and accessible. This book isn't the liveliest biography I've read; there
isn't any attempt to "novel-ize" the material. On the other hand, it's not larded with academic pretentiousness like so many
biographies these days.
To be honest, I did know a bit about Benjamin Franklin. Wasn't there a picture in a school book
of some guy flying a kit in a lightning storm with a key attached to the string? Turns out he was indeed renowned as a scientist
for his work on electricity, among other things. And then there were his writings, some of the earliest entries in the "self
help" genre. I'd never known he was the author of the maxim, "Early to bed, early to rise...." Not to mention his huge
success as a businessman, having started out as a printer. By middle-age he'd made so much money that he felt he should devote
himself to public affairs. He believed that matters of state should be conducted by people who had so much money that they
wouldn't require any remuneration for their services.
By the time of the Revolution, he was the most famous American in the world. It amazed me to discover
that such a person could be so British in his outlook. Right up to nearly the eleventh hour, he felt that dear King George
would solve the misunderstandings between the mother country and the colonies. All his life, Franklin was a great believer
in the ability of a few good men (sic) of intelligence and good will to sit down and resolve any problem. What ultimately
converted him to the rebels' cause was the incompetence and corruption of the British nobles he encountered while living in
England and trying to negotiate a peace.
Franklin's greatest service to America was as ambassador to France. And here's another big surprise
to me: the way Mr. Wood tells it, the American Revolution would never have taken hold if the French king hadn't paid for most
of it. Mr. Wood says Franklin was as responsible for the success of the Revolution outside the county as George Washington
was within it.
But the Americans never truly appreciated him, says Mr. Wood. The French marked his death
(in 1790 at age 84) with several days of national mourning for this great philosopher, scientist, inventor, writer and statesman.
The Americans, miffed at his hob-nobbing with aristocrats, virtually wrote off his statesmanship. Ultimately, on the basis
of his folksy writings, they turned him into the proto-typical self-made American who pulled himself up by the bootstraps.
Societies will fashion their heroes according to their needs.
One mould that he could never be crammed into, I suspect, is that of a champion of the women's
movement. His attitude to his wife makes even me squirm a bit. Seems he married her only because he felt he was losing too
much money and endangering his health with "loose women". In many years abroad, he provided for her financially but hardly
bothered about her personally except to send glowing reports of his success. Her death wasn't sufficient cause for a trip
home and he never mentioned her again. Everybody seemed to know how things stood. Nobody sent condolences.
Villages by John Updike (2004) Book
Isn't it lucky that one of America's most distinguished writers also happens to dish out some of the sexiest stuff around?
Reading John Updike, you can congratulate yourself on your excellent literary taste while catering to your baser instincts.
Not that I would be at all inclined in that direction, but I feel it incumbent on me to know what's out there. In this book,
Mr. Updike makes it easy to find because alternate chapters are labelled, "Village Sex--I," "Village Sex--II," "Village Sex--III," and
This is -- yet again -- the story of an American male who matures in the 1950s. You wonder
how many more versions of his own life story Mr. Updike can give us. Reading about this man's first erotic adventures
with a girlfriend in a car, I began to remember having read the episode as a piece of short fiction in The New Yorker
a few months ago. Never mind, even though it made the room uncomfortably hot, I forced myself to read it again to see how
it fits into the novel as an artistic whole. Like so many of Mr. Updike's heroes, this man is not markedly gifted with a propensity
to sexual fidelity. By the end of the book, a reader has a little trouble keeping all the conquests sorted out in memory.
What's different about this book is that the man in question is a computer expert in the early
era of that industry. Reviewers sometimes speak of a book that "wears its research lightly". I found all the information about
the inner workings of computers about as light as a suit of armour. It probably has some symbolic resonance with the rest
of the story if you can follow the math. Does Mr. Updike really expect us to?
This book contains some of his best and some of his worst writing. I'm getting really tired of
those very long sentences -- usually when a chararacter is remembering details from the past -- with one evocative phrase
tacked onto another for pages on end. But the penultimate chapter is great: crackling dialogue, palpable tension and a shocking
In the final chapter, when the elderly hero looks back on his life, Mr. Updike raises many points
that made me stop and ponder for a bit. (One that the hero keeps coming back to: why do women put up with the importunate
sexuality of men?) But, try as I might to hear those thoughts in the voice of the protagonist, I couldn't escape the impression
that I was hearing the final summing up of his own life by one of America's most celebrated and sexy writers.
Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi (2004)
Ms. Azzopardi's first book The Hiding Place won some big prize, was short-listed for the 2000 Booker and nominated
for several other awards. Two pages of fulsome quotes from reviews of it are included in the front stuff for this, her second
novel. Having not read the first one, I have to wonder whether the curse of the second novel is at work here.
This book tells the story of an elderly homeless woman. Presumably, we're somewhere in Britain,
although I don't know that the locale is ever clearly stated. Not very much is clear here. Throughout the book, which consists
largely of the woman's memories of her early years, it's difficult to tell what's going on much of the time. A person's internal
memory video may run like that but it doesn't make for very satisfying reading.
One excuse for the fuzziness could be that this woman isn't very bright. She seems barely to
grasp what's happening to her. Trying to convey such a person's inner world can provide an interesting challenge for a writer.
(Ruth Rendell has managed it rather well on occasion.) The trouble is that the diction here isn't consistent. The writer keeps
giving her first-person narrator words that such a person would not have at her command.
We do eventually gather that her life was marked by neglect and abuse worthy of Charles Dickens'
talents. But his verve and vitality are utterly lacking here. Everything drifts by in a dreamy haze. In the end, there is
poignancy. You can't help but be moved by what this woman has endured but you wish a writer with a bit of oomph had taken
on her story.
A book like this makes me want to rant and rave about a system that encourages writers to churn
out yet more sensitive, delicately-written books about the exquisite sufferings of victims. Do women's book
clubs need a steady supply of these things? On the other hand, maybe I should be generous and excuse this as an unfortunate
slip by a writer who will probably do better next time. It would be easier to extend a friendly hand if she would show a tiny
glimpse of humour once in a while.
All Souls' Day by Cees Nooteboom (1998, Eng trans by Susan Massotty, 2001)
This writer has been on my must-read list for ages. I keep hearing references to him as "one of Europe's greatest contemporary
writers" -- that sort of thing. So I plunged into this one with great good will. Only that and a fair bit of stubbornness
got me through to the end.
Mr. Nooteboom's protagonist is a Dutch film maker who hangs around Berlin because he finds it
one of the most interesting places in the world, of which he has seen just about every place. The book follows his wanderings
around the streets, his chance encounters, his visits with friends. It all amounts to a more or less unedited rendition of
his rambling thoughts.
My thoughts: what am I supposed to like about this man? what am I suppposed to find
interesting about him? The answer that kept cropping up went something like this: you're supposed to be impressed because
this is all so European, so cosmopolitan. This man and his verbose friends have so much history, art, philosophy, archaeology
and literature at their fingertips. Now, I'm not exactly ignorant of history. I know the dates of the First and Second World
Wars and, if pressed, could probably tell you who the good guys and the bad guys were -- in both cases. And it's not as if
I don't know a thing or two about those existential philosophers. (Mostly French and German, weren't they?) But I don't expect
to be subjected to disquisitions about them in a novel. Novels are supposed to be about important things like love, sex and
Occasionally, this book almost takes on the life of a novel. The man falls to reminiscing about
his wife and son who were killed in a plane crash and I begin to think we're finally going to get something to touch the heart
but no, he always skids off that topic and goes on to his more esoteric speculations. He strikes up a relationship -- sort
of -- with a mysterious and elusive young female. You'd think that would lead to something like novel. Well, it might if it
were at all believable. I could only conclude that it was nothing but a middle-aged male writer's self-flattering fantasy.
A few passages worked for me. A sculptor described how he came into his studio in the
morning and spent an hour staring at his work in progress. He couldn't explain whether he was working, thinking, meditating
or what, only that it was a necessary part of the process. I really got into that. And the film maker's reflections on a monastery
he had filmed were fascinating.
Could the translation have had anything to do with my lack of appreciation? Often, it wasn't
possible to get the over-all sense of any given paragraph. (Re translations, see my note on Albert Camus on the "Re-readings"
page.) So maybe my impression of Mr. Nooteboom's work is skewed. As it stands now, he may be a great writer if what you want
is a book littered with abstruse ideas but he sure can't tell a story.
Look At It This Way by Justin Cartwright (1990)
Last fall, Justin Cartwright was a welcome discovery for me. His Half In Love, a novel about a love affair between
a British cabinet minister and a movie star, conveyed both worlds very well. Look At It This Way, an earlier novel,
trots out a motley cast of Londoners from the worlds of advertising, journalism, finance and theatre. They're all pretty despicable.
Martin Amis pulls off this kind of thing because he makes his characters funny as well as reprehensible. Mr. Cartwright's
are just plain unpleasant. (Someone's five-year-old daughter is introduced, presumably to add a note of tenderness.) What
bugged me most was that the journalist who is apparently the narrator of most of the book was supposedly contributing short,
witty pieces about London life to a New Yorker type magazine in the US. His pieces, several of them excerpted at
length here, utterly lack the charm and literary finesse of the notes from around the world that used to appear in the New
Yorker. Mr. Cartwright's writing on the whole strives too laboriously to create the feeling of London. Maybe it's engaging
if you're a Londoner and you love seeing how anyone portrays your city but it left me cold.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993)
Sometimes a rave review for a new book makes favourable reference to an earlier book by the same author. The earlier
books are more likely to be available in the library. That's how I find books like this one. According to the blurbs, Mr.
Morrison is a poet and this book won lots of prizes. It's a memoir of the author's father. Chapters about the father's dying
are interspersed with chapters about family events in the past. The dying man, a physician, is denying what's happening and
so is everybody else. The process of his rapid disintegration -- just one month from cancer diagnosis to demise -- is well
described in a graphic, factual way. Very entertaining, if you like that sort of thing.
Apart from that, I kept wondering why anyone would read this book. The dying man was not particularly
likeable. A respected village doctor in the north of England, he was, in his private life, a bully, a cheat and a liar; his
fidelity to his wife was iffy. His son was at odds with him most of the time. All this is told in a matter-of-fact style that
a psychiatrist would describe as a manisfestation of "flat affect". Yet, when the old man dies, the son goes into paroxysms
of grief. I guess it's some sort of testimonial to the mystery of human connectedness.
The Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty (2001)
The genre of novels about boys' schools in Ireland must be huge. Expand that to include boys' schools in England;
then add girls' schools to the mix. How about schools all over the world? No matter how wide the category gets, this
book has got to be one of the best ever.
It's mostly about three teenage boys in their final year in a Catholic school in Belfast a few decades
ago. There's all the usual vulgarity, the dishonesty and the defiance of authority. But these guys are intelligent. They often
quote Shakespeare and other classic writers. There's a sensitivity and decency about them. (Reminds me of my high school crowd.)
At first, not much seems to happen in their little group but eventually they get into some wrong-doing and then the book becomes
a real page-turner. Amazingly, Mr. MacLaverty never jeopardizes your liking for the guys inspite of their bad behaviour. Maybe
that's because Martin Brennan, the protagonist, remains somewhat ambivalent about what's going on.
Brennan's home life constitutes an almost entirely separate novel. Quiet and intimate
in scale, it nevertheless almost tops the other story. There's young Brennan's prickly, not to say hostile, relationship with
his widowed mother. Best of all, there are her supper evenings when she invites a few ladies from the parish to a light collation
along with the pastor. There's delicious comedy of manners served up here: Jane Austen meets Muriel Spark. Mr. MacLaverty
never ridicules these people, no matter how trivial their concerns. There's almost a wistful pining for a kind of Irish life
that probably is no more. These people can have a good laugh, they understand the fine art of conversation and they know how
to ward off the chill of the night with each other's company.
The final part of the book jumps forward to the years following high school, when the troubles in
Belfast are raging. This section lacks the momentum and urgency of the rest of the book, but it's good to catch up with the
characters and find out what happens to them.
At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill (2001)
Generally, I avoid books with showy, poetic writing. I don't want a writer to flaunt his or her technique; I want the
writer to get on with the story and keep the writing skill hidden. But this novel is an exception.
Set in and around Dublin at the time of the First World War, it provides insights into the politics
of those times. It surprised me to find out that lots of the Irish staunchly supported Britian in The Great War. It was also
a revelation to me that some of the clergy could be so opposed to socialism that they'd have a young socialist beat up and
run out of town. The end of the book gives a very interesting perspective on the Easter uprising of 1916, showing what a confused
muddle it was for the participants as well as for the bystanders.
But the main thing is the beautiful writing. Mr. O'Neill weaves together fantasy, imagination,
dream, memory and reality in a marvelous way that keeps me on board for the whole trip. With most other writers who attempt
this, I'm off the bus at the first stop. The musical lilt of the dialogue helps to enthrall. Mind you, it's not always easy
to disentangle the complicated syntax. I did eventually catch on to certain Irish-isms, such as the use of "and" meaning "if":
eg. you will catch your death of cold and you go out without your sweater. At times the dialogue struck me as just a little
stagey but maybe the Irish did talk that way a hundred years ago. Mr. O'Neill, an Irishman, would know better than I.
The main story's about Jim Mack, a mild-mannered 16-year-old who finds himself falling in love
with Doyler Doyle, a tough from the wrong side of the tracks. Doyler, a rebel in training, is possessed of dark good looks,
he's kind to his Mom, good with his siblings and nice to babies; he also rents out his body now and then to the local toff
for grungy sex. It struck me that the love between shy Jim and pugnacious Doyler was a gay fantasy at best. As far as I know,
hoodlums don't fall in love with wusses like Jim. But then, lots of heterosexual romances are pretty unrealistic too, aren't
they? In any case, this is a good story. When it ends sadly, as it must, I couldn't help shedding a tear.
You have to wonder why Mr. O'Neill gave his book a title that so explicity recalls that
great classic of Irish comic writing At Swim Two Birds, published in 1939 by Briain O Nuallain under the pen name
of Flann O'Brien. (Watch my Re-readings page for an update on that one.) Mr. O'Neill's book, good as it is, comes
off somewhat the worse in comparison, mainly for being too long and over-written in contrast to Mr. O'Brien's ingeniously
compact masterpiece. I can think of only two reasons for Mr. O'Neill's underlining the connection between the two books
in this way.
First, Jim Mack's father is a direct descendant, artistically speaking, of the uncle in
the earlier book. They're both very much the same kind of Irishman: pious, a bit deluded, very loyal to the clergy, somewhat
foolish. The similarity between the two men strikes me as an affectionate nod on the part of O'Neill to his distinguished
Secondly, it could be that Mr. O'Neill wants to point out what was missing from the earlier
novel: sex. (Some readers should beware of the graphic goings-on in Mr. O'Neill's book.) Not that there was any homosexuality,
implied or explicit, in the earlier book. The point is that there was no sex at all. It reflects a time when, according to
the official line, a decent young Irishman was barely suppposed to think about sex, let alone mention it. By rubbing
our noses in it, Mr. O'Neill seems to be saying: you see, this is the kind of thing that was probably going on all along,
if only writers had been allowed to tell the truth. Perhaps he's making a point about the hypocrisy and deception of a society
that hobbled even great writers. Point taken.
Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries by John Lahr
Being a devoted admirer of Dame Edna, I pounced on this book as on an invitation to tea at the palace. It's chock
full of tidbits of her wit and wisdom, and fascinating glimpses of her life backstage. Would that she had chosen a writer
for this biography who was up to her measure in charm, elegance and style. I often wonder how much those New Yorker
writers owe to the skill of the celebrated editors of that magazine. Almost everything, it would appear, in the case of Mr.
Lahr. This book has no coherent structure. Much of the time it's hard to tell who's speaking and what they're speaking about.
It's as if Mr. Lahr let the tape recorder run and assumed that his job was done with the transcribing of it. His attempts
to analyze the great lady's magic are strained and fatuous for the most part. Except when he allows her to speak for herself,
he almost never captures her spirit. As for that Barry Humphries (the actor who plays Dame Edna), he's a nasty piece of work,
no mistake about it. The great lady does well to distance herself as far as possible from him in her public appearances.
The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing (2002)
This is the best -- and most important book -- I've read in the past year. Given that Ms. Lessing was 83 when
it was published, you have to wonder if she is the oldest living artist still producing work that ranks with her best. Reading
Ms. Lessing is like listening to a wise old grandmother who has seen it all and who looks back on the follies of
the human race with sadness, even anger, but not without affection and a note of hope. In this book, for instance, she presents
Billy, a self-deluding communist who uses everybody for his own purposes while professing the loftiest ideals. Yet, Billy
never seems less than a complicated being, as worthy of empathy as any of us.
The first part of the book revolves around Billy's ex-wife and the motley collection of progeny,
friends and strays in her London household in the 1970s. It sounds a lot like Ms.Lessing's own London home as we know it from
her autobiographical writings. All the domestic kafuffle might make you feel you're in the territory of various other British
women authors (Margaret Drabble, Elizabeth Howard, Margaret Forster), except for the unique Lessing edge to it. A desperate
person is healed by tough love in a near-miracle that seems almost too good to be true, but Ms. Lessing makes it believable.
The second part of the book takes us to Africa today where one member of that crazy household
has become a doctor working with AIDS patients. The going inevitably slows here but I stayed with Ms. Lessing because she
speaks with such authority and passion. It feels as though she has witnessed the tragedy first hand. Two cameos particularly
struck me: a feisty, feminist nun who makes no secret of her contempt for the male clergy; and a tired old priest who does
his best for his faith but whose real love is food. You wouldn't think Ms. Lessing would run into many people like these.
But, as one who often does, I can tell you that she has nailed their characters dead-on.
One character really bothered me, though. A member of the London household becomes a hateful
journalist who seeks to destroy people -- with some success -- out of pure spite. Do such awful people exist? (The question
sometimes arises when I'm reading about John Updike's smart-ass East coast sophisticates.) I'm willing to grant that a grownup
like Ms. Lessing (Mr. Updike too, for that matter) knows more about the world than I do, but if she's right about people like
this woman, I can only hope that I never run afoul of them.
Darwin: A Sense of Place by Janet Browne (2002)
It's nice to find a book that proves you're right. We're talking here about my impression
of Charles Darwin. When reading his writings, I always feel that this very intelligent man is sitting with me by the
fire and quietly sharing his sense of wonder at the amazing things he has discovered. He strikes me as courteous and kindly,
enthusiastic, but rather shy and essentially humble. (A lot like you-know-who.) Well, along comes this biography with a quote
from one of his sons who says that is exactly what his father was like
Most biographies these days annoy me in one of two ways: (a) they cram the subject's life into some
thesis intended mainly to show off the biographer's brilliance; or (b) lacking any theoretical framework whatever, they overwhelm
you with a plethora of detail. James Knowlson's biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned To Fame bugged me on that score;
it annotated every fart and burp that Godot's creator ever emitted. Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart tends towards
the other fault. You want to tell him to stop harping on his hypothesis about the father/son conflict and just give us the
Ms. Browne's book occasionally veers towards one of these extremes, but never close enough to
bring on a real hissy fit. This is the second and final volume of her acclaimed biography of Darwin. The best thing about
it is the way she re-creates Darwin's times. She says his work would never have flourished the way it did if it wasn't for
the phenomenal expansion of the postal service under the beady eye of Queen Victoria. That enabled Darwin to martial those
legions of amateur naturalists from all around the world who were feeding him material through the post. Another fascinating
thing: in those days, publishing houses didn't have editors as we think of them today. That work was done by a vast army of
unpaid wives, sisters, cousins and aunts.
Good biographies often show you that the great moments in history didn't feel like it.
So with Thomas Huxley's famous put-down of Bishop Wilberforce in their notorious debate on evolution. In retrospect,
it could legitimately be called a watershed moment; it signalled that science was beginning to speak for itself without the
Church's say-so. Combing through the original sources, though, Ms. Browne finds that the incident passed barely noticed by
most of those present. Thanks to the rowdy Oxford audience, hardly anybody heard what Huxley said. Both Huxley and the
Bishop retired from the field thinking that they had won the day. The Bishop, in fact, retained friendly feelings towards
I find it very reassurring to learn that even after his friends had pushed a reluctant Darwin
into the spotlight with his thoughts on natural selection, and even when he was crowned with just about every honour the world
could come up with, he never really was the "Great Man". He was up and down constantly with the vicissitudes of daily life:
fretting about which book might sell and which wouldn't; suffering the irritations of his chronic stomach problems; fussing
over household accounts. So there's no use thinking a Nobel prize is going to iron out the wrinkles in this department.
It was disappointing, though, to find out that Darwin refused a plea for help from a man who
had been imprisoned for disseminating information on birth control. Darwin opined that, if such information became widespread,
it would ruin the virtue of the women of England. Here's the man whom we take as the personification of reason over superstition,
the man who taught us to read the record of natural history without the blinders of myth, and it turns out that he himself
is something of an old fossil.
Dancer by Colum McCann (2003)
From what people were saying -- comments like "The best book of the year" -- I was expecting great
things from this novel. Knowing that it's based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, I was probably also hoping for some scandalous,
salacious debauchery. Well, I got it and I was duly shocked and appalled, but first I had to wade through vast barren stretches
of life in Russia. In fact, Mr. McCann is at his best in setting the historical and geographical context of the story. It's
an eye-opener to find out what those Tartars in the back-of-beyond of the USSR had to endure day after day. But, dear me,
it does make for dreary reading.
Mr. McCann has made the odd choice of telling the story from the viewpoints of many different
people, some of them rather unexpected: for instance, the daughter of the dancer's first ballet teacher, or, later on, the
dancer's cook. This makes for an interesting literary project. You keep admiring the author's skill in articulating all these
different voices. Still, you feel that you're skirting around the edges of the subject.
Just one section is told in Mr. Nureyev's own voice and that is a purported diary kept at the
height of his fame. It reads just as such a diary probably would read: fragmentary, disjointed and elliptical. Again, you
applaud Mr. McCann's artistry, but you can't help feeling cheated. Much of the time you're struggling to figure out who the
diarist is talking about. No problem with Margot Fonteyn and Eric Bruhn. But who are some of the other shadowy figures? Often,
there are tantalizing glimpses, but satisfying details are lacking: eg. a reference to a hand-written, officially sealed,
personal letter from "Her Majesty"???
What you end up with is an enlightening picture of the times and the context of one of the world's
greatest dancers but his soul is missing. There's a sad emptiness at the heart of it all. Maybe that's the point.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
Funny, you can be put off a book for all the wrong reasons. From what people were telling me about this
one, it sounded like Magic Realism: a boy crossing the ocean with a tiger in a lifeboat. I wouldn't touch that with a
ten-foot oar. Besides, I read very little Canadian fiction. Not that I think it's inferior to other fiction. I wouldn't know,
because I don't read it. Why? Jealousy, I guess.
But Jane asked me to pick this one up at the library as a possible addition to a course at school. One day,
while the kettle was boiling, I picked it up for a quick look to see what impression it would make on me.
I was immediately hooked -- mainly by the narrative voice.That's one of the most important aspects
of any piece of writing for me. Mr. Martel makes his narrator seem like a congenial, intelligent and self-deprecating fellow
whom you'd like to spend more time with. Who would ever think they could get my attention with an opening essay on the three-toed
sloth? But Mr. Martel did. I admire people who know lots about animals. Such people seem so rooted to the earth, so well-endowed
with common sense. It's an atavistic thing, I guess. Millions of years ago, it felt good to be with the guy who knew all
about animals. So I feel comfortable around these people now, if not around the animals.
Mr. Martel is not on such firm ground when he turns from zoology to theology, I find. The recurring
theme of the narrator's interest in various religions doesn't add much to the story. One scene involving a priest, an iman
and a pandit is ludicrous to the point that it seems to belong in some 19th century operetta.
But the main thing is the adventure story: one human being pitted against fearful odds. I really got into
the boy's battles with the elements at sea, his going native, his toughing it out. One evening when I was heading out for
my walk and a sprinkle of rain began, I didn't even go back for my umbrella! Best of all, Mr. Martel makes the extraordinariness
of it very plausible. In the end, there is a touch of Magic Realism. At least, I think so. Not sure. Hard to tell. So that's
At the end of the book, Mr. Martel plays some writer-ish tricks which interfere with a reader's taking
the story at face value. There is also some game-playing in an author's note at the beginning of the book. That would have
marred my enjoyment if I had read the introduction at the outset, but I never read that kind of thing until later --
a principle for good living which I recommend up there with opening doors for old ladies and never appearing on stage with
dogs or children.
One thing riled the school marm in me: on page 17 Mr. Martel uses "flaunted" when he means "flouted".
Well, I have to find some excuse to gripe about his getting all the glory, don't I?
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
When a book has been on the bestseller lists for any length of time that's usually not a good sign.
A friend offered to loan me this one and I graciously declined. But it appeared on my doorstep next day. Being the courteous,
obliging fellow that I am, what could I do but read it? I knew it had caused quite a flap in religious circles, so maybe I
should find out what all the fuss was about.
The first sentence made me cringe with its two unnecessary adjectives. However, once I adjusted to
the fact that there was going to be no pleasure in this reading in terms of character or dialogue, I began to enjoy it. It
clips right along in reliable suspense-thriller fashion. Mr. Brown has found himself a winning formula with his mix of
ritual sex, conspiracies, ancient secrets, revisionist history, a strong feminist message and a hypothesis that appears to
threaten the foundations of the world's most powerful institution. May he enjoy his millions in royalties. Would that we could
all have such luck.
So what about the controversy? The gist of the book (this is one case in which I feel it's permissable
to mention the set-up, because you can't discuss the controversy without knowing the premise) is that Leonardo Da Vinci painted
codes into his work, which, when deciphered, lead to the location of the Holy Grail, which, if ever made public, would undermine
the Catholic Church's teaching about Jesus. Mr. Brown has it that the official gospels are a ruthless attempt on Emperor Constantine's
part to establish a woman-hating regime at the expense of other candidates for official recognition as gospels which
were more sympathetic to women. Whether Mr. Brown intends you to take this theory as fiction or fact is highly ambiguous.
Let's say he wants us to take it as possibly true. That offers more shock value; hence the astronomical sales figures.
Far be it for me to say whether or not he's right. Could the true history of Christ have been suppressed
and a sanitized version put in its place? Maybe. I'm far from being a biblical scholar, but my impression was that the recognition
of the canonical gospels wasn't so much a unilateral decision by an emperor; rather, it was a gradual discernment among believers
as to which gospels seemed most valuable. Frankly, I'm glad they chose the relatively sane ones, rather than some of the wonkier
candidates, like the one about Jesus playing in the mud with his pals and the clay birds he made flew away. But what do I
know? Maybe I'm just a product of the culture old Constantine imposed.
My problem with Mr. Brown's work is his preoccupation with history. Most thinking people these days
(my friends, at any rate) don't look to the gospels for anything like history or biography as we know them today. To say,
then, that the gospels telling the real "history" have been suppressed and that ones perpetrating a false "history" have been
substituted, is to miss the point.
Granted, there's a lot at stake -- literally. Many women were burned at the stake because
of the anti-woman bias of the Christian religion. But we know about that bias now. We're learning more about it from the study
of genuine history. The process of restoring a proper balance will be better served by common sense,justice and the gradual
progress of civilization than by a bunch of wacky so-called gospels.
Plays Well With Others by Allan Gurganus (1997)
Don't you love the title!
This one beckoned to me from the "We Recommend" shelf of the local library. A quick scan of a
few paragraphs seemed to indicate that it was a smart, sexy take on contemporary life in New York. Turns out, it's an account
of the gay scene in Manhattan before, during and after the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. The story revolves around three
friends. The narrator is a gay male writer. The other two are a female artist and an Adonis-like male composer. The writer
and the painter are competing to see which of them will bed Adonis first.
This is the pallet knife style of writing: words laid on thickly, sentences smeared across the page and
dripping down the edges. You have to keep standing back and scrutinizing them from all angles to make sense of them. I nearly
gave up several times. But I was reading this book in tandem with The Da Vinci Code and I began to appreciate leaving
that meretricious claptrap behind and turning to a work that showed me real people in real situations, with feelings somewhat
deeper than those of cardboard cutouts. What first began to appeal to me was the picture of sleazy, amoral young artists on
the make in the city. That brought back fond memories.
Ultimately, the greatest impact of the book was the description of young people caring for their dying
friends in those terrible times. The author, in what seems to be an autobiographical point of view, could hardly be accused
of self-aggrandizing in his account of the exhausted busy-ness of trying to ensure a gentle exit from this world for his loved
ones. What emerges is a picture of secular saintliness.
Yellow Dog by Martin Amis (2003)
The ageing bad boy of Brit Lit can still dish it out. What verve, narrative drive, insouciance, irreverence,
comedy and obscenity! Not to mention some dazzling displays of sheer literary virtuosity.
Mr. Amis juggles three stories: an actor recovers from a beating but he doesn't know who beat
him up or why; a journalist drools over erotic emails; a (fictional) King of England frets about the threatened publication
of pornographic pictures of his daughter. Oh yes, I almost forgot, a jetliner is in the process of crashing.
Sometimes I get the connections between these stories, sometimes not. There's a lot of
fuss about finding a man named Joseph Andrews but I never could figure out why. I ploughed on to the end, though. There are
very entertaining passages but I never made much sense of the book as a whole. What Mr. Amis seems to be saying, if anything,
is that the world is pretty screwed up, especially when it comes to relations between the sexes.
My difficulty reading this book reminded me of James Joyce's Ulysses. That was definitely
worth the effort because we all know it's literature, don't we? Maybe Yellow Dog will be declared to be literature
50 years from now and I'll have another go at it then.
The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert (2002)
What an amazing book. I raced through it. Ms. Gilbert tells the true life story of Eustace Conway, a man
born in South Carolina in 1961, who grew up to become a latter day Daniel Boone, living in the wilds, catching his own food
and making his clothes from animal hides.
The title turns out to be a touch ironic, but there's some claim to a kind of symbolic truth
to it. Ms. Gilbert says the idea of manhood for Americans is based on a man's conquering the frontier in the pioneer
spirit. That sounds a bit like saying the true Canadian is the one who grew up playing hockey on frozen ponds under the Northern
Lights. However, I'll grant her point for the sake of argument. Since there's no frontier left to conquer, she says, American
men, except for the rare exception like Eustace Conway, are doomed to wallow in a somewhat less than full state of manhood.
Whether Mr. Conway is the final embodiment of that ideal or not, he's one hell of a fascinating character.
He makes some other enigmatic public figures, say Lyndon Johnson, look about as complex as Dagwood. Mr. Conway is amazingly
skilled, incredibly intelligent and well-read, fiercely independent, charismatic, sexy, attractive, relentlessly energetic,
thoughtful and far-seeing. He is also egotistical (surprise?), ambitious, competitive, inconsiderate and insensitive, ruthless,
hard-headed, self-pitying and conniving. What makes the book so engaging is that Ms. Gilbert conveys the full ambivalence
of her feelings towards her subject. With self-deprecating humour she openly admits her susceptibility to his charm and her
fascination with but she also fully explores his exasperating character flaws and his bewildering failures as a human being.
What other biography, except perhaps for Boswell's life of Dr. Johnson, gives a portrait that is so friendly and intimate,
yet balanced, fair, objective and, when necessary, disapproving?
With messianic zeal, Mr. Conway preaches that we have to get back to nature, to re-learn the primitive
ways of doing things, to wean ourselves off our reliance on technology which is robbing us of our souls. (At least I think
that's more or less what he preaches.) Trouble is, he's running around the globe making speeches to raise money to support
his 1,000 acre Turtle Island, a preserve he has set up in North Carolina. He hardly has any time to live the way he' says
we're supposed to be living. Seems to suggest a slight flaw in his philosophy, doesn't it? So maybe there are other ways
for American men (and, by extension, us Canadian ones too) to actualize their manhood. But it was great fun reading about
this guy's way of doing it.
Breakfast On Pluto by Patrick McCabe (1998)
It's official. No bias about it whatever: the Irish rule when it comes to flinging around the words of the
English language, especially in dialogue. The most recent exhibit in support of my argument is this short novel. It's
narrated by -- get this -- a transvestite, homosexual prostitute who happens to be the bastard son of the pastor in a
small Irish village. How much more "in your face" can it get? Lest you think Mr. McCabe merely wants to shock with outrageousness,
let me assure you that this narrator is one of the freshest,most original and entertaining voices in a tradition that goes
all the way back (at least) to Chaucer's Wife of Bath. By way of a more recent comparison, the iconoclastic feistiness
here reminded me of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.
In one aspect of the plot, Patrick Braden, our irrepressible hero/heroine unwittingly gets tangled
up in the violence inflicted on Londoners by the IRA in the 1970s. You must admit his/her perspective is a unique take on
those terrible times. I was slightly disappointed that this feature of the book didn't add up to as much as it looked like
But that Patrick Braden is one character I'll never forget and my door is open to anybody else that
Mr. McCabe wants to introduce me to.