Dilettante's Diary

BOOKS

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
AUGUST 3, 2017
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

New Reviews: Villages (Updike) The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Wood) Remember Me (Azzopardi) All Souls' Day (Nooteboom), Look At It This Way (Cartwright), And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Morrison), The Anatomy School  (MacLaverty) and At Swim Two Boys (O'Neill)
 
Also: Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization (Lahr),The Sweetest Dream (Lessing), Darwin: A Sense of Place (Browne),  Dancer (McCann), Life of Pi (Martel), The Da Vinci Code (Brown),  Plays Well With Others (Gurganus), Yellow Dog (Amis), The Last American Man (Gilbert), Breakfast on Pluto (McCabe).

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 so on.

      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 surprise.

     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 the weather.
     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 predecessor.
     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 (1992)
 
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 life.
     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 Darwin everafter.
     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 ok.
    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 it might.
    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.
 

Many more books to come.

Stay tuned.