Inside Llewyn Davis – I spent most of this movie wondering how it could be a product of the famed Coen
brothers (which it is). For the most part, it seems a fairly ordinary story about a hapless folk singer [played by Oscar Isaac]
in the early 1960s. There’s nothing remarkably clever or weird about the movie. It’s a fairly straight-forward
account of this guy’s staggering from one misfortune to another. Apart from various scrapes that he gets into, there’s
no plot, really, other than his attempt to get through one day after another. The guy isn’t even very likeable. Once
in a while he tries to take responsibility for things but he more typically walks away from the problems that crop up. He
does sometimes encounter instances of grace (kindness and forgiveness) but there’s no great breakthrough of hope or
good cheer. There isn’t even any resolution to his struggles, such as you’d expect in the typical showbiz bio.
And yet, we watch his dogged steps with unflagging attention. And THAT, I realized, points to an artistic accomplishment
worthy of the ingenuity of Coen Bros. There’s something positively radical in showing us that a gripping movie can be
made of the not-very-momentous life of a fairly ordinary guy. One thing that helps a lot is that the characters he encounters
are totally non-Hollywood, more like the kind of people in European films. And the re-creation of the early
1960s is noteworthy anthropological work. (But did everybody wear such awful glasses?) Then there’s the music. It makes
me remember how much I used to love folk singing. Oh, and yes, it turns out that there is a spin that links the opening and
the closing of the movie in a clever Coen-like way.
Dallas Buyers Club – To describe Ron Woodruff as a sleazy, homophobic, sexist scum bag would be like saying
Adolf Hitler was a bit anti-Semitic. In 1985, Ron, a scrawny straight man who hangs around with rodeo hosers, discovers that
he has advanced AIDS. (This is a true story.) He’s given 30 days to live. Mattthew McConaughey gives a harrowing portrayal
of this guy’s effort to maintain his bravado while his life is crumbling. The performance is so intense that you begin
to doubt your ability to endure a whole movie of it. So maybe it’s a good thing that the movie switches gears. Ron bribes
a hospital employee to provide him with AZT, which is still in the trial stages. His health improves and, before you know
it, he’s importing drugs and remedies that aren’t approved in the US, and peddling them to eager AIDS patients.
Ron, as given to us by Mr. McConaughey, is never less than fascinating; we discover that he can be presentable –
almost charming – when he wants to be. He’s by no means the dumb cluck that he first appeared to be. But the movie
becomes less about his struggle to survive than about his battles as a businessman with the FDA and the medical establishment.
I found the shift from the very intimate focus on Ron’s agony somewhat disconcerting. Still, we do get some intriguing
interpersonal stuff, particularly in his relationship to a transexual who becomes his business partner. Jared Leto, in the
role, gives an amazingly nuanced portrayal of a complex person.
Philomena – It’s sentimental and manipulative – and it’s very well done. Some of
the good plot twists are due, I presume, to the film’s basis in a true story. A journalist who’s hard up for work
persuades an elderly Irish woman to let him write about her attempt to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption
fifty years ago. What makes the movie work is the chemistry between the two main characters. The journalist (Steve Coogan)
is a somewhat cynical non-believer who can’t quite forgive himself for the fact that he’s using this lady for
his own ends. She (Judi Dench) is sweet, trusting, believing, naive and somewhat simple – although not as clueless as
you might think. The contrast between them leads to some interesting exchanges about such matters as faith and forgiveness.
It’s fun to see Dame Judi playing someone less sophisticated than the complicated women she usually plays – a
dear old soul who wears frumpy nightgowns and sports dorky-looking permanent curls.
12 Years A Slave – With Steve McQueen’s third movie, we now know what to expect from him:
human beings in extreme situations. First there was the desperate determination of Bobby Sands, in Hunger. Then
there was the man who drove himself to the brink of self-anihilation with his sexual addiction in Shame. Now we have
a black man [Chiwetel Ejoifor] who was free but who was sold into slavery for twelve horrible years (a true story). As in
Mr. McQueen’s previous movies, the photography is spectacular, the scenes are stately and carefully constructed. But
we know slavery was very bad. Do we have to have it beaten into our heads (almost literally)? The evil and violence are so
relentless that I began to wonder whether the point is just to make Americans feel really bad about their history. That might
be an acceptable agends if it weren’t for the fact that the phony tone of the opening of the movie raises doubts about
the director’s honesty. The sections before the free man is sold into slavery show him and his wife strolling around
in their velvet duds, looking and acting about as real as mannequins in a store window. One small pleasure of the movie: Brad
Pitt sneaks up on you in the cameo role of a self-deprecating, rough-hewn Canadian.
Prisoners – Two girls disappear from their joint family celebrations on Thanksgiving day. Canadian
director Denis Villeneuve offers something new and exciting in the way of making a thriller/mystery movie. The polish and
verve enhance the suspense rather than turning the movie into a lot of superficial glitz. Just one example of the cool
story-telling: when our detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) sets out to interview a number of potential perpetrators, we get just
glimpses of his meetings with them – no need to hear the actual dialogue. I did have a serious problem, though, with
the way one character (Hugh Jackman) takes the law into his own hands. He appears to be acting on the basis of red-necked,
impulsive assumptions. Near the end of the movie, it turns out that the man had better reasons for his actions than I
thought he did. But I’d spent most of the movie resisting him. Melissa Leo presents a particularly creepy kind of elderly
woman who, as far as my experience goes, is a new character on screen.
Behind the Candelabra (DVD) – The previews made me wary of this one about Liberace and a young lover.
It looked like it was going to be another of those showbiz bios with a lot of hysterical self-pity and scenery chewing. But
I wanted to see how these two straight men – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – would portray the gay characters.
Very well, as it turns out. The big surprise is that the movie made me feel a lot of empathy for Liberace. When he talks about
the loneliness at the top and his craving for the trust and love of this new young companion, it sounds like a plea from the
heart of a genuinely wounded person. I’m not sure that I ever did understand the outcome of their affair but maybe that’s
the trouble with true stories – they don’t always make perfect sense.
Mud (DVD) – It’s not exactly an original idea: a criminal who’s hiding out is discovered and
befriended by young kids. (I"m thinking particularly of 1961's winsome Whistle Down the Wind, starring Alan Bates and
Hayley Mills.) But Matthew McConaughey proves yet again, with an entirely new character for his resumé, that he’s one of the most gifted actors on screen these days. Sam Shepard is especially good as a wry,
hard-nosed mentor/father figure to the McConaughey character. The movie eventually gets a bit hokey and over-plotted.
Blue Jasmine – Yes, Cate Blanchett is every bit as good as everybody says she is in the role of the
high society woman who has fallen on hard times and seeks refuge with her sister who lives a much humbler life. Ms. Blanchett
is particularly striking in the scenes where she’s trying to maintain some dignity in the face of taunts from her sister’s
boorish friends. Among them, Bobby Cannavale makes an especially strong impression as a tough guy who’s heart is breaking.
As for the movie as a whole, however, I’m not thrilled with stories that amount to someone’s gradual dissolution
as a result of drugs and/or booze. That sad but predictable trajectory doesn’t make for a very engaging narrative arc.
Cloudburst (DVD) – Two elderly lesbian partners live in a homey cottage on the east coast of the US.
One of them has to enter a care facility and her family members, who own the cottage, are kicking out the partner. The solution?
The partners will drive to Nova Scotia and tie the knot under Canada’s more liberal same-sex marriage laws. Then the
family won’t be able to evict their relative’s lover. The movie is something of a ridiculous farce. This is what
Thom Fitzgerald often does: he takes a touching story and juices it up with a lot of nonsense. In this case, to take one example,
we get some falderol about a naked man mistakenly getting into bed with one of the lesbians, then chasing them around the
yard, still naked. The movie’s one huge, indisputable asset is Olympia Dukakis’ hilarious shtick as the ballsy,
foul-mouthed, self-professed dyke.
Falstaff – Met Live in HD Broadcast, Dec 14/13
The experts insist that this is the culminating masterpiece of Giuseppe Verdi’s work. I’m willing to take their
word on that. It’s not one of the works that grabs you with a lot of catchy melodies. Not much in the way of stand-alone
arias. (I believe there’s some discussion about whether Verdi might have been influenced at this late stage in his career
by the works of Richard Wagner.) To the extent that I was able to listen closely to the orchestra (conducted by James Levine),
it sounded like there were some very interesting things going on. The scene in the forest, where everybody tries to spook
Falstaff, amounted to some very lovely effects – visually, as well as aurally. And the singing was consistenly superb.
In the title role, Ambrogio Maestri sang with rolling, limitless baritone power. Apart from the musical aspects of the show
(directed by Robert Carsen), it was repellent to me. Shouldn’t somebody tell these Met artists that comedy needs to
be done seriously? You don’t get the audience on side by acting goofy. As Renée
Fleming, the host of the afternoon, was giving her introduction on the set stage, Mr. Maestri, who was getting into a bed
behind her, stuck out his tongue at the camera. That was about the level of the comic invention throughout the show. It left
you feeling depressed at the sight of great artists making fools of themselves.
The reviews are listed in reverse chronological order of publication of the books, starting with the most recent
-- except in cases of reviews of two books by the same author, which are posted one after the other. Reviews of several books
published in the same year are listed alphabetically, by the author’s name, within that year.
Harvard Square (Novel) 2013; and Out of Egypt (Memoir), 1996; both by André Aciman.
After the excellence of André Aciman’s previous novels – Call Me by
Your Name and Eight White Nights – Harvard Square comes as a great disappointment. The contemporary
framework of the novel is that a dad has brought his teenage son to Harvard to look around and see if he’d like to enrol.
This gives the dad an opportunity to re-live, in narrated memory, his own glorious days there in the 1970s. The key factor
in those days was the man’s relationship with a wild and crazy taxi driver. The two of them developed an intense and
embattled friendship. (The New York Times reviewer seems to think there's a possibility that the two men might
have been lovers; I could find no hint of any such note in the relationship.) The taxi driver is supposed to be a very charismatic
and fascinating guy; I found his megalomania and his grandiloquent monologues tiresome. There are frequent references to the
fact that these two guys and their cohorts back in the 70s laughed a lot. None of the exuberance comes through; you’re
left with an I-guess-you-had-to-be-there feeling. The only point to the book that I could see is that there might be some
intended sociological significance in the recording of the ways in which each of the men, both of them immigrants, tried to
make lives for themselves in an America that was new ground for them. Or maybe the appeal of the book (for the NYT
reviewer?) is that it vividly brings back the Harvard of the 1970s for anybody who was there.
In Out of Egypt, André Aciman evokes the quixotic world of Alexandria,
where he lived as a young boy, in the mid-twentieth century with his extended family members, after their emigration from
Turkey and Italy. There are marvellous re-creations of the smoky parlours where the clan gathered, as well as sunlit idylls
at the sea. There’s an underlying sadness and drama to the book in that the family is now being forced to walk away
from the lives they’ve made in Egypt and to lose all their posessions. The trouble with the reading, though, is that
Mr. Aciman assumes that you understand the polticial situation. The reader has to turn to some other source to find out why
these non-indigenous residents of Egypt were being kicked out.
The Virtues of Poetry (Literary study) by James Longenbach, 2013
Flannery O’Connor once commented to a scholar who was asking too many questions about one of her stories: "I sometimes
think you academics strain the soup a bit too thin." (Not an exact quote but something like it appears in her collected letters,
The Habit of Being.) That remark came to mind often in my reading of this little volume by James Longenbach, a professor
of English at Rochester University. He gives us short chapters on what he considers to be the markers of good poetry. Much
of the time, I felt like a student sitting at the back of a class, listening to a prof who seems to be spouting another language.
I kept thinking that he might be saying something worthwhile, but I was failing to find the key that would let me into his
mental world. The prose is not exactly convoluted but neither is it readily accessible and clear. There’s a turgid,
constipated sound to it:
Just as the representation of chaos in art is inevitably the result of a self-conscious ordering of the medium, just as
excess is a product of restraint, so is the rhetoric of shyness dependent upon decisive aesthetic decisions – on great
What’s particularly frustrating is the way Mr. Longenbach keeps making statements like: "On reading this line, we
immediately feel that....." or "This line, of course, suggests...." He’s talking about his own personal responses and
making it seem as if everybody should respond in the same way. Much of the time, the response he’s evoking is far from
anything that I’m feeling. Is this a professorial hazard, the assumption that one’s response is inevitable and
universal? When he indulges in minute analysis of rhythm his observations seem especially esoteric and quirky.
What kept me reading was the sense that this man loves poetry and knows it intimately. In some chapters, even if not every
sentence was intelligible to me, I could get something from the chapter’s overall theme. For instance, the chapter on
the idea that some of the most exciting poetry gives the impression that the poet’s thoughts are developing as the writing
progresses – as in the speeches of some of Shakespeare’s characters.
Waiting for Sunrise (Novel) by William Boyd, 2012
It’s 1913, and a young British actor has travelled to Vienna in the hope that a psychoanalyst will help him
with a sexual problem. (Not the psychoanalyst you’re thinking of – but he does make a cameo appearance.) While
in Vienna, the actor, whose mother is Austrian, gets involved in some escapades that require a daring escape back to England.
He joins the army, and, because he speaks German so well, he’s given a spying assignment.
The book reads well enough as story but it leaves me somewhat puzzled about the author’s great reputation (lots of
awards and a couple of Man-Booker nominations). In terms of literary quality, this novel is a bit thin. Mr. Boyd’s investigation
into the inner life of the hero doesn’t turn up anything particularly notable. For instance, his sexual problem is fixed
rather quickly and it’s not apparent that the cure had anything to do with the psychoanalyst’s intervention. As
an adventure story, the tale is diffuse and leisurely. It doesn’t have the crackle and tension that you expect from
this sort of thing. And yet, I found some of the more complicated plot developments difficult to follow. Either Mr. Boyd simply
hasn’t explained them well enough or I haven’t had enough practice reading this sort of thing.
Two Pints (Novel) by Roddy Doyle, 2012
A couple of pals meet in their Dublin pub for drinks on a regular basis. This very short book (about 60 pages) consists
of nothing but their rapid-fire dialogue, with no extraneous description, explanation or narrative. They’re wonderful
talkers and Roddy Doyle has brilliantly captured the flair of their exchanges – the bitterness, the humour, the ignorance,
the prejudice, the affection (well disguised). The book would be about one-quarter shorter if the F-word were eliminated,
but I suppose it has to be accepted as a vital ingredient of communication between the two guys. They talk about everything
from sports and politics to family and religion. We pick up a few poignant facts in the on-going stories of their families;
we even get insights into intimate secrets that most guys would keep well hidden. One possible quibble: although their personalities
are so vivid, neither of them emerges as a character distinct from the other. But does it matter?
Life After Death (Memoir) by Damien Echols, 2012
Damien Echols served 18 years in prison, much of it on Death Row, for murders he didn’t commit. Mr. Echols was one
of the three young men wrongly convicted of the murders of three boys in Arkansas in 1993. Subsequent investigations
showed that the trials were so botched that the three accused were freed from prison on the agreement that they would admit
to guilt. Presumably this enabled the authorities to escape being charged with wrongful conviction and imprisonment. It’s
a harrowing story. The mind finds it hard to understand how such a thing could happen to innocent people in our day. One of
the problems was that the accused were considered, more or less, white trash. In particular, there was one official who had
a hate-on for Mr. Echols, as a result of some minor trouble he’d gotten into earlier. Also, it appears that his family
were not on top of things; they were loving but rather feckless and unable to stave off the legal disaster that was heading
for him. In Mr. Echols’ recital of the nightmare of prison, it’s heartening to learn how much he appreciated the
visits of a priest and of an older woman who made it her business to visit prisoners as often as possible. It meant a great
deal to Mr. Echols to be treated as a worthwhile human being by these kind people. The book is riveting but it’s marred
slightly by the inclusion of some passages of self-indulgent "creative" writing by Mr. Echols.
1982 (Memoir) by Jian Ghomeshi, 2012
It’s a clever way to structure a memoir – pick a year that was a turning point in your life and group everything
around that. Jian Ghomeshi cites1982, the year he turned fifteen, as the time when he began to get a new sense of his place
in the world. He adroitly manages to squeeze in some pertinent memories about things that happened before and after that year.
As you might expect from this very popular CBC Radio host, the tone of voice is engaging and charming. There’s some
lovely social satire, as for instance, in the explanation of what suburban dads do in summer: stand and watch the water sprinkler
on the front lawn. I do think, though, that Mr. Ghomeshi, over-plays the gag about how, in the olden times of his youth, things
were so different: phones attached to walls, for example. He should leave that shtick to those of us who are really old. The
book is a bit repetitious at times; tighter editing would have helped. The big drawbook for me is that about one-third of
the material deals with bands. I know they’re very important to Mr. Ghomeshi but they mean nothing to me. He and his
pals, he says, were constantly trying to figure out who was New Wave and who wasn’t. New Wave???
The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker (Memoir) by Janet Groth, 2012
The New Yorker occupies such an important place in the history of American letters that I suppose we’ll
be gobbling up the memoirs of the head of the magazine’s cleaning staff one of these days. By that comment, however,
I don’t mean to belittle Ms. Groth’s position as receptionist at the magazine for twenty years. A lively, talented
and very beautiful young woman, she was working on her PhD while acting as baby-sitter, nursemaid, confidant and general factotum
for some of the nation’s most important writers. Her book offers some very interesting glimpses of them and of the magazine’s
workings. One of the best vignette’s is a job interview with E.B. White, who spoke to Ms. Groth barely above a whisper
and could hardly look at her. I found the chapter on the famously prickly Muriel Spark marvellously illuminating. One
thing that comes through clearly – and this as a result of Ms. Groth’s short stint as an assistant to the magazine’s
art director – is that the production of that elegant, high-minded magazine involved a lot of competition, envy
and heartache. Each week, the desperate cartoonists had to wait to see if their work would be accepted in the editorial meeting,
and then they all had to go out for lunch and pretend to be jolly with each other.
Unfortunately, Ms. Groth’s writing isn’t up to the New Yorker standard of limpid perfection. At times,
the prose is clotted with awkward, academic-sounding formulations. (Not surprising, perhaps, given that Ms. Groth eventually
became a much respected scholar.) The more serious problem with the book is its split identity. Ms. Groth doesn’t seem
to have quite enough to say about the famous people, so she devotes about one-third of the text to her personal struggles
(including one suicide attempt). The focus on her private anguish doesn’t mix well with the gossipy chat about
My Old Man (Showbusiness) by John Major, 2012
Who knew that the former Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party of Britain had roots in the music hall tradition?
In this labour of love, John Major has undertaken to give an overview of the history of the great showbiz genre that his father
starred in during its dying days. A lot of fascinating information emerges. I didn’t know that music halls emerged from
dining clubs. Some early versions of the music halls provided snacks like baked potatoes and beer. To those of us who have
an impression of the music hall as a venerable Victorian institution, it can come as something of a surprise to learn that
they could be so rowdy and unruly. After all, in the days before radio and tv, they provided one of the few opportunities
for public entertainment for the less high-brow and sophisticated members of the citizenry. Given the perpetual vigilance
of the Lord Chamberlain’s censors, the performers, of course, had to be careful not to be too risqué. Half the fun of their acts was to see how close they could come to the line without actually crossing
Allowing that his book is just a glimpse into the music hall world, Mr. Major says that he wishes someone would write a
complete history of it. But it’s hard to imagine a reader ploughing through a tome any more dense than this one. The
information piles up, page after page, star after star, show after show, venue after venue. Delightful as the details are,
one might wish that a writer who had greater facility with the language, more subtlety and verve, had taken on the job.
Elsewhere (Memoir) by Richard Russo, 2012
Richard Russo has won the Pulitzer Prize (2002) and some of his novels have been turned into films. Here, he relates the
true story of his fraught relationship with his mother, a very needy woman. (Mr. Russo’s father, a compulsive gambler,
more or less abandoned the family when the child was little.) The mom and child lived in an apartment in her parents’
home in a small town in upstate New York, until he decided to head off to Arizona for college. Mom decided to accompany him.
For the rest of her life, as he moved around the country to take up various teaching assignments, Mom followed him from place
to place with her ever increasing demands for better apartments and more of his attention. And yet, the woman prided herself
on being a vivacious, independent person.
The most amazing thing about the book is that Mr. Russo is able to turn this tale into a compulsive read. I think that
may be because he has been mulling over the sorry mess for a long time, with the result that it has finally come out in one
breathless stream. Towards the end of the book, the narrative does run out of steam, as the mother fades from the story and
Mr. Russo is left to analyze his feelings. You realize that it was the presence of this crazy woman in the book that gave
it its momentum.
Open Heart (Memoir) by Elie Wiesel, 2012 (translated by Marion Wiesel)
At the age of eighty-two, Elie Wiesel suddenly needed heart by-pass surgery. This book gives a gruelling account of
the ordeal and the arduous aftermath. (It’s not the kind of thing you want to read if you’re facing any such medical
prospect yourself.) The distinguished Nobel laureate does a thorough soul-searching about the whole episode. He reflects on
his love for his family and his sense of his place in the world. To some people his pondering may be very inspiring but there’s
a very sombre – almost lugubrious – tone to it that I found off-putting. The author’s intense religiosity,
his constant probing as to the divine purpose in all this, didn’t mean much to me.
The Love of My Youth (Novel) by Mary Gordon, 2011
I picked this one up because the title made me think it was a modern classic. (I may have been confusing it with Alice
Munro’s A Friend of My Youth.) A man and woman who were teen-age lovers meet in Rome. They haven’t seen
each other since their youthful affair but a mutual friend has thrown them together. They’re both happily married now
but they meet for long walks through Rome when not occupied with the business that brought them there. They talk and talk
and talk – about life and art and philosophy and culture. Through all this perambulation and cogitation, a reader (if
he’s anything like me) is wondering: will they or won’t they???? They do eventually address that question.
There are some surprises in store for each of them and there’s some poignancy in the way the story ends. But I don’t
understand how the author can think a reader would want to plough through all the wordy philosophizing that makes up most
of the book.
Wish You Were Here (Novel), 2011; and Making An Elephant (Essays), 2009; both by Graham Swift
It took a while to get into Wish You Were Here. It’s difficult to figure out what’s going on.
Something about a family living on a farm in Devon. Gradually, a few facts emerge: the mother died when the two sons were
young; now the father has died; the younger son has joined the army; the older son has married the girl next door, sold the
farm and is now running a trailer camp on the Isle of Wight. Not very much happens in the sense of an on-going plot. The author’s
thoughts swirl around key events in the family’s history. Suspense builds surreptitiously. Bit by bit, you pick up more
details, intriguing fragments, hints of what actually happened. You want to keep reading to find out more. For a book that
doesn’t seem to have much forward momentum, the ending is terrifically tense.
I had expected Making an Elelphant to be autobiography or memoir but it’s more like a series of essays,
most of them touching on some aspect of the author’s life. There are pieces about his father, about writer friends such
as Salman Rushdie and Ted Hughes. In interviews with other writers, Mr. Swift sometimes acts as interviewer, sometimes interviewee.
There’s a lot of interesting information about the writing life, particularly when it comes to having movies made of
a writer’s novels (Waterland and Last Orders, in Mr. Swift’s case). In contrast to the very absorbing
quality of the writing in his novels, however, the writing here is somewhat flat-footed; there’s a slightly prissy,
meticulous quality to the prose. The personality of the author does not come through. The best piece in the book is a transcription
of an interview that Mr. Swift gave. The journalist’s questions have been removed and Mr. Swift’s replies have
been sewn together to make one continuous monologue. Here, at last, he sounds like a personable fellow.
Tinkers (Novel) by Paul Harding, 2009
Regarding this winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, one reviewer said that, to find an authorial voice as original as Paul
Harding’s, you’d have to go back as far as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. That’s very high
praise. (A bit of Internet research quickly turns up the fact that Mr. Harding is a kind of protegé
of Ms. Robinson.) The voice here is, indeed, distinctive. It’s poetic and ruminative; there’s a lot of beautiful
writing. The author can zero in on a quiet scene very effectively: as, for example, when he describes a boy making a little
boat for a dead mouse, lighting it on fire and setting it adrift on a stream.
There are two narrative streams in the book. In the one that opens and closes the work, a retired school teacher is lying
on a hospital bed in his living room, dying of cancer, while the members of his extended family come and go. He’s thinking
over his past life and his avocation as a clock repairer. The other story is that of his father, an eccentric man who worked
as a tinker, leading his donkey-pulled cart through the countryside to sell household items to lonely homesteaders. Along
the way, the man had some intriguing encounters, such as his yearly meeting with a mysterious hermit.
In the end, though, I found the book more frustrating than rewarding. The writing is so precious, so studiedly unusual
that it verges into the surrealistic. At times, you can’t tell what’s going on. Also, there’s far too much
detail about clock making; I can’t understand why any reader would want to absorb all that technical stuff unless it
had some bearing on the main themes and I don’t see that it does. And the treatment of the older man’s epilepsy
is melodramatic. In descriptions of seizures, the author calls too often on the metaphor of electricity.
It strikes me that this might be one of those cases where the jurors for a major prize decided to champion a work that
was weird, in the hope that this choice would somehow speak to their own erudition and good taste. It’s hard for me
to imagine that there weren’t some more conventional books that weren’t just as good as, or better than, this
This Party’s Got to Stop (Memoir), 2010; and The Book of Revelation (Novel), 2000; both by
The central event of This Party’s Got to Stop is that author Rupert Thomson’s mother died suddenly
of an embolism when he was nine years old. Now his father has died and the three sons (Rupert and his younger brothers) have
come back to the family house for the funeral. For some strange reason – more or less coincidentally – the three
of them continue living in the house for about a year. This provides a context for the author’s thoughts about his family,
his upbringing and certain turning points in his own history. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the author’s tone of voice. If a memorist doesn’t get your
attention in an engaging, attractive way, you’re not going to enjoy the reading. I think what makes it work so well
in this case is that Mr. Thomson is matter-of-fact and under-stated in a way that earns your trust. He doesn’t go to
great lengths to entertain or charm you. He establishes a kind of authenticity that helps you to feel sure that it’s
going to be worth going where he wants to take you. His reliability on this score comes in for some testing. For the most
part, he seems like a reasonable, likeable person but then comes behaviour on the author's part that a reader like me would
consider objectionable – excessive smoking, drinking and some drug-taking. He doesn’t apologize for it.
He doesn’t pass judgement on it. Surprisingly, it didn’t ruin my time with him.
In The Book of Revelation, a thirty-ish male ballet dancer, abducted by three mystery women, is held captive
for many months as their sex slave. If you’re looking for salacious thrills, you’d better look elsewhere. There
is some graphic description of sex but there’s gloom and bitterness hanging over it all. For one thing, the victim never
gets to see his captors very clearly; this means that they don’t have much identity as characters who could, otherwise,
add some variety and interest to the novel. That leaves us with the man’s thoughts. He’s not very good company
but we try to make the best of it, given his situation. He’s eventually released (sorry to reveal that, but it
can’t be helped). For the rest of the book, he wanders through the world like a Camus character, the personification
of existential angst. When he tries to tell his girlfriend what happened, she won’t believe him. He gives up on trying
to explain his trauma to anybody. A reader gets impatient with the man’s aimless maundering. In the book’s final
pages, he does make a decisive move that may help to get his life back on track. It’s too late, though, to win back
the sympathy of this reader.
The Golden Mean (Novel) Annabel Lyon, 2009
Aristotle has been called to the court of Philip of Macedon, to tutor his two sons. One of them is developmentally delayed
as a result of an accident; the other is the boy who will become Alexander the Great. Ms. Lyon effectively conveys the nitty-gritty
of life on the ground, so to speak, in those times. We get vivid details about living conditions, nutrition, daily habits
and so on. But there are melodramatic elements. A tempestuous slave woman’s preternatural understanding of things is
somewhat implausible. Creating a first-person narrative, Ms. Lyon has given Aristotle a blunt, matter-of-fact way of speaking.
It’s convincing, in its way, but it never sounds like the measured, cautious voice of the Aristotle we studied so assiduously
in the seminary.
I Heard that Song Before (Mystery) by Mary Higgins Clark, 2007
Not long ago, the New York Times published a list of the mysteries by Mary Higgins Clark that had spent longer than
her other books on the best seller lists. (I gather that all of her many books have spent some time on the list.) As someone
who’s always looking for good mysteries, I felt it was probably time to check out this author. None of the books from
the NYT list was available, though. This one turns out to be a Harlequin romance version of a mystery. A female librarian,
the narrator of some parts of the book, has married a fabulously wealthy guy who is accused of murdering not only his previous
wife but also, several years earlier, a young female friend. Our heroine sets out to prove that he could not possibly be that
despicable brute, that he is, rather, the kind, considerate hunk that she knows him to be.
Ms. Higgins Clark knows how to make a story move along with a narrative clip; the chapters are short and each one offers
some new twist on the plot. But the characters are one-dimensional, the public opposition to the rich guy is ridiculously
blatant and the prosecutor lined up against him is rabidly oppositional. Worst of all, the solutions to the mysteries involve
far-fetched incidents of sleep walking, plus finicky details such as someone’s finally remembering that, twenty years
ago, another person had mentioned the name of somebody who was overheard whistling a certain song. Too many mysteries these
days depend on these complex webs of trivial circumstances. Do authors today fall back on this kind of thing because they’ve
run out of the good, solid plots that the great mystery writers used to dish up?
Old Filth (Novel) by Jane Gardam, 2004
Martin Levin, the former books editor of The Globe and Mail touted this book whenever he got a chance. It’s
an enjoyable read. Our protagonist is a retired judge, living in the countryside in England. Most of his legal career took
place in Hong Kong. (The peculiar nickname "Filth" is an acronym for a term referring to judges in his situation: "Failed
In London, Try Hong-Kong.") The book flows along with entertaining, humorous episodes as he visits relatives, worries
about his health and re-lives past glories. But I found it all just a little too endearing – rather like the writing
of Alexander McCall Smith.
Saint Augustine’s Conversion (Religion) by Garry Wills, 2004
This slim volume (just over 100 pages) looks like it was meant to be one installment in an intended series of Garry Wills’
translations and commentaries on sections of St. Augustine’s famous apologia. In this one, Mr. Wills focuses on the
episode in the garden when Augustine, obsessing about his life’s direction, heard a voice inviting him to open the scriptures
and make a decision on the basis of the text his eyes fell upon. Mr. Wills makes it clear that this was not a conversion in
the usual sense. Augustine was already committed to following the Christian way of life. Rather, the moment was the launching
of a decision to give up his female partner and commit himself to celibacy. Mr. Wills’ translation of the illustrious
saint’s text is smooth and readable and his commentary abounds with scintillating information. Who knew that Augustine
had a brother? Mr. Wills spends some time speculating on what was happening in the scenario – and how various commentators
have interpreted it – when Augustine speaks of that crucial moment when his father, on looking at young Augustine, suddenly
realized that he, the father, could now become a grandfather.
An Unfinished Life (Biography) by Robert Dallek, 2003
Some of the press about the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination made the point that this is the best
biography of him. The pages – all 700 of them – are packed with interesting information. The author tries to give
equal attention to the politics, the history and the personality. The fact that the last item doesn’t come through as
well as the others may not be the author’s fault. Most people admit that it’s virtually impossible to nail down
the enigma that was JFK. Although Mr. Dallek is to be thanked for bringing together and making sense of a massive amount of
material, it needs to be said that there’s no pleasure to be had in the quality of his prose. Sentences groan under
the weight they’re forced to carry.
In A Sunburned Country (Travelogue), 2000; and I’m A Stranger Here Myself (Humour) 1999 both
by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is usually good for a laugh. Both these books provide lots of them. In A Sunburned Country is
better, though. Its affectionate, unruly romp through Australia serves up lots of hilarious moments. I’m A Stranger
Here Myself is a collection of columns Mr. Bryson wrote for a British newspaper, on returning to the US with his family
after an absence of many years. It’s an intriguing idea: how the country looks now to a long lost son. And there are
some genuinely funny moments. One of my faves is Mr. Bryson’s description of the kinds of motels his dad used to frequent.
But the humour wears a bit thin over the length of this collection. Sad to say, in the day of humourists like David Sedaris
and David Rakoff, the persona of the bumbling dad who’s an embarrassment to his kids seems dated.
Maskerade (Novel) by Terry Pratchett, 1995
As I understand it, Terry Pratchett’s writing career is winding down because of Alzheimer’s. This was my first
encounter with the astoundingly prolific author’s work (over 40 books written, 85 million sold worldwide). It’s
essentially a murder mystery set in an opera house, the only divergence from the typical specimen of the genre being that
some of the characters here are witches and a shape-shifting cat. Mr. Pratchett well deserves his reputation as a witty writer.
His satricial jabs are incisive and his wordplay is positively acrobatic. His characters are colourful and distinctive. The
parody of the opera world is – if far-fetched – amusing. Although the plot does resemble lots of other
"Phantom-type" dramas set in theatres, there are some clever twists in the resolution of the mystery. However, I eventually
wasn’t able to buy into the fantastical aspects of the thing – too twee for me.
Her First American (Novel), 1985; and Other People’s Houses (Novel), 1963; both by Lore Segal
Eleanor Wachtel, on CBC radio’s "Writers and Company" introduced us to this author a few months ago. Lore Segal,
now in her eighties, had her first great success with a novel called Other People’s Houses. Based on her own
story, it tells of a Jewish girl’s escape from Austria to England when she was about ten years old. Her First American
tells about the later life of such a person, particularly her love affair with a man she meets on coming to the US in her
early twenties. There’s a lot of good social satire in the book and several very comic scenes, one of the most notable
of them being when the young woman’s mother, with her fractured English, tries to play the charming hostess to her daughter’s
But the book is very episodic. Stuff just happens. A long interlude with some friends at a country home in the summer doesn’t
contribute anything significant to our understanding of the young woman’s affair with the American. In fact, we never
care very much about the lovers because we’re told very little about the young woman’s feelings for the man. She
comes when he calls her and that’s about it. And I never could get a very clear understanding of the man. He appears
to be a well-respected intellectual who’s welcomed in elite circles of academia and society but he lives more or less
in squalor in a hotel room and he’s drunk most of the time. The book has the feeling of something that may once have
happened to the author. She’s getting great pleasure out of recording these fragments of her past life. But the reader
needs more context, more explanation, to get in on the fun.
Other People’s Houses, Ms. Segal’s earlier boook, is full of the charm that I found missing from the
later one. Here, Ms Segal tells the story – largely autobiographical – of the Jewish girl who was shipped out
of Vienna in 1938, on a train with other refugee children. In England, she lived first in a converted summer camp with other
displaced kids; then she was placed in foster homes. After a year or so, her parents arrived in England but she wasn’t
able to live with them. The parents, having been well-established members of Vienna’s middle class, had to work as cook
and gardener for the wealthy family who sponsored their immigration. No place could be found in their home for the child,
except on holiday visits.
You could hardly imagine a more dramatic story of a difficult childhood but Ms. Segal tells it all in a wry, bemused tone
that’s all the more striking because of the background horror. Although she acknowledges moments of heartbreak and panic,
the mood that predominates is one of intelligent curiosity. The child is fascinated with what’s happening. The adults
she encounters are continually discombobulated by this child’s stubborness and her precocious insight into human foibles.
Perhaps inevitably, due to the waning of childhood wonder, the story becomes somewhat less engaging as the narrator
grows into womanhood, attending college in London, then living with her extended family in the Dominican Republic and in post-war
New York. But there’s still a lot of interest in following the exploits of this feisty young woman who never manages
to conform to her own – or anybody else’s – idea of what she should be. The fact that Ms. Segal, as a young
woman, develops a narrative persona that’s cool,detached and ironic may help to explain why the love affair in Her
First American fails to catch fire for the reader.
Stoner (Novel) by John Williams, 1965
Some books do it for you and some don’t.With the ones that do, it can sometimes be hard to say why. There are a lot
of reasons why Stoner, by John Williams, shouldn’t work. There’s nothing stylish about the writing.
It’s the unremarkable life story of William Stoner, a farm boy born in 1892, who, somewhat to his surprise, becomes
a college prof. The author adopts a steady – not to say plodding – third-person narrative voice. There’s
a lot of "telling" as opposed to "showing." Very little dialogue. So little suspense that the author sometimes tells you what’s
going to happen before it happens. The events aren’t especially dramatic or outstanding. In fact, the author warns you
at the outset of the novel that William Stoner wasn’t a very remarkable guy, that most people who knew him probably
wouldn’t remember him for long after his death. And yet, this is one of those rare books that leaves you sitting and
thinking quietly after you’ve finished it.
When I first heard about this book – in a Globe and Mail column by Sarah Hampson.– it sounded like one
of those best-kept literary secrets that was suddenly becoming a sensation, years after its publication. The secret to the
book’s impact, I think, is that, while William Stoner may be a rather dull guy, the author takes you so deeply
into this man’s experience that you get new insight into what life can be like for the pathetic creature known as a
human being. To cite just one example: I can’t think of another book that has conveyed so well the experience of someone’s
discovery of his love of learning and the meaning that scholarship can have to his life. As for love for another person, the
passages where two lovers share their feelings remind me of similar declarations in no less a classic than Wuthering Heights.
Another writer that comes to mind is Thomas Hardy, because of a kind of relentless, fatalistic drum beat to the proceedings.
That quality in Stoner also reminds me of the Canadian classic As for Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross. Alexandre
Chenevert by French Canada’s great Gabrielle Roy would be another example of a compassionate treatment of the life
of a person who doesn’t amount to much. Which is not to say that Stoner is pessimistic and dreary. While
sadness may be the pervading mood, it’s shot through with moments that show why any of us want to keep living. In the
way he faces the commonplace disappointments and defeats that life deals him, William Stoner shows a kind of courage and integrity
that we might all aspire to.
The Naked and the Dead (Novel) by Norman Mailer, 1948
A lot of press about a new bio of Norman Mailer made me want to take a look at the book that made his name. My first reaction:
how did this book get published? It certainly can’t be because of the quality of the writing. It’s hard to believe
that any editor had looked at this prose carefully. I can only assume that the American public, so soon after the war, were
ready to be shocked by a book that showed their troops to be cynical, deluded and depraved in contrast to the heroic rhetoric
that had been the accepted line up to that point. One aspect of the soldiers’ cynicism – realistic or not –
particularly bugs me. Every one of them is obsessed with the thought of his wife back home cheating on him. They all feel
that you can’t trust women. Belatedly, we meet one decent guy who seems to have a good marriage but darned if he doesn’t
discover that his sister has quit her marriage and turned into a slut. I’m thinking: what’s with this misogyny?
But then I remember: we’re dealing here with Norman Mailer.
Mr. Mailer does, in fact, do a good job of showing what the war must have been like for the poor stooges in the front lines.
In this case, we’re following the US soldiers in a platoon that is part of a batallion struggling with the Japanese
for control of a South Pacific island.
But the book is so over-written! After about ten pages of one horrible slog through the jungle, you feel overwhelmed by
the author’s repeated attempts to describe, in as many different ways as possible, how awful it was. In an author’s
foreword, published with the 50th anniversary addition of the book, Mr. Mailer graciously acknowledges that it’s
an amateur work. He concedes that he used far too many adjectives. But he likes to think his book reflects the influence of
Tolstoy in its compassion for the characters. After ploughing through the book’s 700-plus pages, I could not give a
damn about the poor s.o.b.’s. My trek through the book’s thick prose obliterated any sympathy I might have felt
for their travails.
How Green Was My Valley (Novel) by Richard Llewellyn, 1939
This title jumped out at me from a library cart because it was recommended to me as a kid but I’d never got around
to reading it. Although it’s billed as a novel, there isn’t one story that’s sustained through the book.
It’s more like a series of episodes about the life of a family, sort of like a long-playing tv series. If there is one
over-arching theme, it would be a melancholy reflection on how life in a small coal mining community is changing with the
onset of the twentieth century. (The narrator’s looking back on his family home that was going to be buried, eventually,
under slag from the mines.) The best feature of the book is the wonderfully warm depiction of family life in simpler times.
The portrayal of the narrator’s relationship, as a boy, with his father is particularly touching; I can’t think
of any other book that shows such wise and strong but gentle fathering. However, I was struggling all through the book to
resist giving in to the tidal wave of emotion washing over the pages. Eventually, the sentiment proved to be too much for
me. I found the book contrived and manipulative. It didn’t surprise me, then, to discover that the author was a Hollywood
writer who’d had only very limited experience, in the company of his grandfather, of the kind of life he describes in
this, his fabulously successful novel.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (Novel) by Willa Cather, 1927
This novel proved to be – for me – a very strange introduction to a writer who is acclaimed as one of America’s
greatest. In the first place, it isn’t really a novel, not in the sense of a story with a core drama and a progression
towards a resolution or a new outlook on life. Instead, it’s simply the story of a nice French priest who was sent to
New Mexico by the Vatican, in the latter half of the 19th century, to be the bishop of the area. The story tells
of his difficulties (many). The prose is fine and the depiction of the way of life in those rough, pioneer times is vivid.
You can imagine Ms. Cather’s having religiously traced the journeys and visited the sites that she’s describing.
But there’s no great crisis that’s central to the man’s story. Contrary to what the title might suggest,
he doesn’t even come to any particularly notable end; he dies, quite simply, in his bed, of old age. The book reads
more like hagiography than fiction. But is it fiction? What really confuses me is that the text includes some footnotes that
seem to have to do with matters of historical accuracy. Did Ms. Cather include these notes? Or, were they introduced by an
editor? If so, there should be some indication to that effect.
Barchester Towers (Novel) by Anthony Trollope, 1857
A new author to me, although not to generations of readers. If you haven’t read the previous installment in this
series, it can take a while to get your bearings in this one; the author assumes you’re well aware of how the last book
ended; the affairs in this one carry on from there. Once the story of this novel gets rolling, though, it’s good reading.
Something like a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. As in Austen, the prose is modulated and tasteful, the setting
genteel, but the characters are more broadly drawn, more in the Dickens mode. The good people are too good and the bad people
are too bad, although one despicable character does eventually make a decent move. One of the most interesting aspects of
the book today is the sociological/historical context; for instance, the relationship of Church and State. Did you know that
a newly appointed Anglican Bishop had to kiss the Queen's hand?