The cultural highlight of the year for me was the Met Opera’s HD Live Transmission of La Traviata.
(Reviewed on a page of its own, listed on the navigation bar between May 4th and April 21st.) The modern,
minimalist production by Willy Decker stripped the piece of all the 19th century frippery and luxuriance, making
it a rivetting story of a contemporary woman facing her premature death with courage and nobility. Thanks to the superb acting
and singing of Natalie Dessay in the role of Violetta, this was an emotionally devastating experience.
Nothing could compare with an artistic high like that, but I encountered lots of good stuff this year. It will be
listed below according to genre.
In terms of sheer entertainment, Ben Affleck’s Argo does it best. (Oct 23) The amazing thing is that,
even though you know the outcome, the suspense is almost unbearable. In a more thoughtful mood, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln
comes a close second, its only flaw being that it’s a little too literary and pretentious at times. (Dec 4)
Probably the best foreign film we’ve seen in a long time was A Separation (Feb 11). It looks into the
lives of Iranians who are facing some of the deepest and most complicated issues that can crop up in human communities.
The Deep Blue Sea (May 4) remains in my mind as a quietly pleasing "little movie" with a certain old-fashioned
British tone to it.
A couple of movies that you might have thought would be too crass and crude for us here at Dilettante’s Diary
proved to be very enjoyable for just that reason: 21 Jump Street (Apr 6) and Ted (Aug 26).
Catching up on DVD versions of some movies we missed in the theatres, Moneyball (Aug 26) turned out to be
very good inspite of the subject – baseball. A Romanian movie that I’d heard a lot about, Police Adjective
(Jan 7) is a marvel of realist, gritty story-telling in a way that’s so under-stated that it’s almost revolutionary.
One of the weirdest movies to come along in quite a while is the French Holy Motors (Dec 16). I’m still
trying to figure out what it means, if anything. The significant thing is that the artisty involved is of such a high calibre
as to make you want to puzzle it through. Maybe the point is that you’re supposed to make up your own meaning....???
At this point, I should probably speak to the fact that you don’t often see reviews of really bad works on Dilettante’s
Diary. That’s because nobody’s paying me to review things that don’t look promising. I only take
on books, plays, movies, etc that seem as though they would appeal to me. Still, some of them disappoint in notable
Such as these movies:
- Wes Anderson’s Moonshine Kingdom looked like one of those movies that are appreciated by people who
like the kind of movies that I like. I do admire the attempt here to do something imaginative and slightly off-key. Sad to
say, though, there’s something about the fey, whimsical quality of this one that I just can’t get. (June 28)
- Hugo (Mar 22) – I don’t understand how people see any charm in this contrived, fanciful
- The Artist (Jan 15) – This homage to black and white silent movies would have been ok at an hour or
less – like the originals – but it wore thin as it dragged on far too long.
- Great expectations for A Late Quartet (Dec 19) were dashed by a script that condemned fine actors to soap
For a fun read, nothing could surpass Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. A young woman has disappeared and,
in alternate chapters, we get her husband’s account of the search for her, and excerpts from a journal she left behind.
The book combines an excellent mystery with an intriguing study of characters, relationships and societal trends. (Oct 4)
Probably the most impressive book of the year for me in terms of its literary qualities was Michel Houellebecq’s
The Map and the Territory. (Fall Reading) It’s easy to see why it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt, with its
vast canvas that includes, not only acute insight into character, but also aspects of our contemporary world such as business,
manufacture, art and travel.
A book that also has a strong impact, although in a more narrowly-focussed way, is Zadie Smith’s NW
(Oct 23). The utterly original style and structure of the book can make for difficult reading but it gives you an unforgettable
view into the lives of two young women who have grown up in immigrant communities in a blighted part of London.
In spite of a central character who appears quite odious at first, Next by James Hynes gets better and better
as it goes along, leading to a conclusion that stuns you. (Fall Reading) Another novel that glows, despite a not-very-likeable
central character, is Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. (Jan 15) Even if you don’t approve of
the narrator’s choices, you can’t help being swept along by her compelling account of passionate love.
It’s not just because of the title that I’m praising Richard Ford’s Canada. It tells the
very engaging story of a young American who, because of a crime committed by his parents, is forced to flee to a small Saskatchewan
town where he lives with an eccentric relative. (July 14)
Penelope Lively is a British novelist whom we’ve admired for many years and her How It All Began –
all about how an elderly lady’s life changes when she fractures her hip in a fall – is a fine example of those
small, sensitive novels that women like Ms. Lively turn out so well. (May 20)
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary offers a startlingly unique and original take on the well-known
gospel story. (Fall Reading)
A novel that dazzles with its brilliance in many ways – even if the whole may not quite hang together – is
Jamie Popowich’s innovative and experimental Metraville. (Jan 7)
As for non-fiction, we can’t overlook Mortality, in which the famed contrarian, Christopher Hitchens,
serves up his final and emphatic observations on life, while facing the prospect of his rapidly approaching death from cancer.
(Fall Reading) Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden, tells the harrowing story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man
who was born to slavery in a North Korean prison camp but who became one of the few people to escape. (Summer Reading) One
of the best of many memoirs I’ve read recently is Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When
Skateboards Will Be Free. (May 20) With remarkable restraint and a plangent tone, it recalls his growing up, the son
of two committed Communists, in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh in the 1970s, with his hard-working mother after they’d been
virtually abandoned by his attractive but unreliable father.
[Note: I’ve read some really good books in the genres of Science and Ideas this past year but haven’t
yet had time to post reviews of them. Watch for reports soon on the likes of Susan Cain’s Quiet, Daniel
Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, and Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.]
This year, I’ve started a section for "Books I Couldn’t Finish". It first appears on the Fall Reading page.
In most cases, the books there are ones that sounded good when recommended but turned out to be not for me. However,
a few, including some that I did finish, were disappointing in particularly surprising ways.
- Canadian author Louise Penny appears to have legions of devoted fans. Good for her. But I couldn’t see much to like
in her latest mystery, A Trick of the Light. There wasn’t much excitement or intrigue to
the mystery and Ms. Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache strikes me as a female fantasy of the ideal male. Maybe you have
to be a regular reader of the series to appreciate the interaction among the characters who appear to be very familiar to
each other. (Mar 22)
- A much more renowned author, Stephen King, is someone whose work never looked as though it would interest me, apart from
some writing he once published in The New Yorker about the consequences of the near fatal accident he suffered some
years ago. But I heard him talking on the radio about his latest book and I thought it would be interesting to see how he
imagined the world might have turned out if President John Kennedy had not been assassinated. Alas, 11/22/63
turned out to depend a lot on hokey time-travel shtick. I couldn’t bear to read beyond 230 pages of the more than 800
in total. (May 20)
Of many excellent ones read in the past year, the one that remains most vivid in memory is The Cheater’s Guide
to Love by Junot Díaz. The irrepressible, in-your-face voice of his narrator makes
you hang in with his tale and you find yourself beginning to feel some sympathy for a guy you might despise if you
met him socially. (Aug 8)
Ian Parker’s The Story of a Suicide examines the terrible tragedy in which Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman,
killed himself after his roommate posted on the web video of Tyler making out with another man. The most remarkable thing
about the article – at least from my perspective – is that it shows how terribly complex the whole case is, and
that it’s not as easy as some people think it should be to determine causes and assign blame. (Feb 11)
Transfiguration, a New Yorker article by Raffi Khatchadourian, describes the ordeal of Dallas Wiens, a man
who received a complete face transplant after being electrocuted. The title of the article hints that it wasn’t just
his appearance that changed. His character went from that of a somewhat truculent trouble-maker to a near saint. (Apr 6)
You might not have thought anything further could be written about the assassination of JFK but Robert A. Caro’s
article Transition offers a fascinating look at the way Lyndon Johnson, in a matter of mere hours, metamorphosed
from a more or less lame duck Vice-President to an imposing Commander in Chief. (Apr 6)
Paul Rudnick is my favourite writer of short humour pieces in The New Yorker (David Sedaris would be my fave
when it comes to longer pieces) so it’s with great pleasure that I report that he’s at the top of his form in
My Man, a hilariously sacrilegious riff on a news item about the finding of an ancient manuscript which suggested
that Jesus might have been married. (Oct 24) Ian Frazier’s Cranial Fracking, narrated by a guy who has
discovered inexhaustible deposits of natural gas in his brain, is a splendid example of how a subject gets funnier and
funnier as the gruesome details are laid on in a totally deadpan style that manages to sneak in some sly touches of social
satire. (Sept 28)
On the other hand, it’s sad to report that, on the evidence of Not A Creature Was Stirring, such a
great humourist as Woody Allen, a man who has contributed so much to our society’s treasury of wit, can offer up a complete
dud. (Sept 28)
We didn’t see a lot of theatre this year, but the best production was unquestionably All In The Timing.
(Feb 11) Admittedly, we have a family connection with a cast member, but that’s no reason for eliminating it from this
listing. It was a delightfully crazy and inventive script performed with great panache and skill.
I saw so much good art this year that it would be impossible to comb through my reviews of all the shows in order to pick
out the many artists who deserve special mention. But one who comes immediately to mind, as a new discovery for me, is Teodora
Pica (Nov 17). This artist has a distinctive voice that demands attention.
Other than the production of La Traviata mentioned in my opening remarks, the musical high point of my year was
my attendance at the first two rounds of the Montreal International Music Competition which, this year, featured singers.
I disagreed with some of the jurors choices but nobody could begrudge the Canadian bass baritone, Philippe Sly, his
first prize. It’s wonderful to see such a gifted young man – handsome and charismatic, with a great voice and
tremendous stage presence – receive such recognition at the early age of twenty-three. I was disappointed that tenor
Yuri Gorodetski, from Belarus, didn’t receive one of the top prizes. His passionate and seemingly effortless
singing should have catapulted him to the first rank of the competitors; however, one can hope that the exposure in this competition
gave his career a significant boost. An even greater disappointment – in fact an incomprehensible development –
was that the marvellous Canadian soprano Jennifer Taverner didn’t make it to the finals. Not just her singing,
but her whole performance and presentation were perfect in every one of her selections. (The MIMC is on a page of its own,
listed in the navigation bar between June 28 and May 27.)