Dilettante's Diary

Summer Reading 2015

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Reviewed here:

  • Missing You (Mystery)
  • The Silkworm (Mystery)
  • The Trauma of Everyday Life (Psychology)
  • Mission to Paris (Mystery)
  • Too Far From Home (Space Travel)
  • Kennedy's Brain (Mystery)
  • Private Myths (Dream Science)
  • The Children Act (Novel)
  • The Burning Room (Mystery)
  • One Day (Novel)
  • Us (Novel)
  • Just One Look (Mystery)
  • Moab Is My Washpot (Memoir)
  • Personal (Thriller)

Missing You (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2014

Harlan Coben is a genius at creating stories that combine mystery, surprise, complicated connections among characters and insights into the strange business of being human.

Here we have Kat Donovan, a NYPD detective, unmarried and in her early forties. To her dismay, Kat finds out that her best friend, Stacy, has signed her up on a dating website. But, what the hell, Kat decides to log in anyway. What does she find but a posting for her ex-fianc, a guy whom she loved dearly but who left her with no explanation and whom she hasn’t seen for nearly twenty years! Should she reach out to him now?

Meanwhile, Kat finds out about the impending death, from cancer, of the hitman who confessed to killing her dad, also an NYPD detective. Kat’s never been satisfied with this guy’s taking the rap for the killing; there’s always been something fishy about it to her. Should she try to get the truth from him on his deathbed?

The other main element of the book first comes to us from the viewpoint of a guy who wakes up and finds that he’s locked in a box in the earth, his hands and feet bound. He’d been on his way to propose to the most wonderful woman in the world but something happened – he doesn’t know what – and here he is, imprisoned in utter darkness. As you might suspect, his plight eventually ties into Kat’s investigations.

In weaving together these stories, Mr. Coben elaborates them with intricate detail and intriguing questions. He also offers passages that are more thought-provoking than what you get in the typical mystery. Here, for instance, is Kat’s reaction to the parade of humanity on the dating website:

It was easy to be cynical and poke fun, but when she stepped back, Kat realized something that pierced her straight through the heart: Every profile was a life. Simple, yep, but behind every clich-ridden, please-like-me profile was a fellow human being with dreams and aspirations and desires. These people hadn’t signed up, paid their fee, or filled out this information idly. Think about it: Every one of these lonely people came to this website – signed in and clicked on profiles – hoping it would be different this time, hoping against hope that finally they would meet the one person who, in the end, would be the most important person in their lives.

And here’s a bit of wisdom from Kat’s friend, Stacy, who owns an investigative firm that specializes in catching cheating spouses:

You learn a lot about relationships when your job, in some ways, is to break them up. But the truth is, almost every relationship has breaking points. Every relationship has fissures and cracks. That doesn’t mean it’s meaningless or bad or even wrong. We know that everything in our lives is complex and gray. Yet we somehow expect our relationships to never be anything but simple and pure.

If the book has any defects, I would cite the fact that Mr. Coben seems to have a grudge against single guys hitting on women. Nearly every guy Kat encounters is a jerk. One of them, though, does eventually prove himself to be a decent human being. By way of other possible flaws in the book, one man on a dating website is described as a "widow." This made me wonder if the word that I always assumed to be correct in this situation – "widower" – was now considered old fashioned. Could it have something to do with gender equality in language, with levelling the playing field, in the way that you can’t speak of "actresses" any more, that all practitioners of the art, regardless of sex, are now called "actors?" On the other hand, maybe the use of "widow" in this instance was just an oversight or a typo, given that I did find "widower" appropriately used elsewhere in the text.

Of course, Missing You includes the violence that you find in any Harlan Coben book. He seems determined to keep reminding us that there are some really bad guys out there who will do things to other people that are hard to read about. So hard, in fact, that I skipped a few pages. But that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the rest of the book. Mr. Coben’s handling of dialogue reaches heights of artistry in a tricky scene where Kat has an encounter with a crime boss; the two of them tip-toe around each other, neither yielding anything, but each getting what they need, with a finesse that is believable and as intricate as choreographed ballet. Bringing the book to a bravura climax, Mr. Coben packs the last eighty pages with fear, suspense, romance, tenderness, sadness, joy, cleverness and amazement.

 

The Silkworm (Mystery) by Robert Galbraith, 2014

Sometimes a person can feel a bit remiss about never having read any of the works of one of the most successful and celebrated writers of our time. However, nothing I heard about the Harry Potter series gave me the feeling that those books sounded like my kind of thing. This mystery, written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, sounded more appealing to me. Especially given the rapturous response to it from the media. My name went on the library’s waiting list at somewhere around the 800 number. In the meantime, I was strongly tempted to buy a discounted copy of the book at the neighbourhood pharmacy. However, my sense of thrift prevailed and I hung on for the library copy. The wait didn’t turn out to be too long, as the library has about 50 copies.

I’m glad that I didn’t succumb to the temptation to fork out money for this book.

The story is about the disappearance of a British writer, Owen Quine His wife, Leonora, has asked Cormoran Strike, a private detective, to help find her hubby. We soon find out that Quine had written a scurrilous, satirical novel about people in the London literary scene. The book he wrote has mythological, symbolic overtones, leading to unimaginable grotesqueries. But it’s very clear who the real-life models for the characters in his book are. The book hasn’t been published yet but the manuscript has been circulating among the people depicted. Naturally, everyone who has been hugely insulted in the book is seen as a suspect in Quine’s disappearance.

Silkworm could be said to succeed – just barely – in terms of a mystery. There are enough clues and red herrings to keep you reading, and there’s a nice surprise in the discovery of the identity of the culprit. But much of the material covered in the process of getting to that point is of little interest. There are too many disparate characters, none of them interesting enough to care about. Perhaps, if you know the London literary scene, you can enjoy the satire; maybe that’s what has the critics cheering. For me, though, the flurry of sparks never ignites any lift-off.

Granted, the character of Strike is well done. He’s a rough-hewn, moody vet who lost part of a leg in the Afghan war. It feels like an encounter with a real person as we follow him through his life and find out how he is going to cope with what each new day throws at him. And Leonora, the wife of the disappeared writer, is a sympathetic character, if in a somewhat unusual way. She’s very straight forward and blunt, almost to the point of rudeness, but with no malevolent intentions. The fact that she has no airs about her and that she’s not showing the expected remorse about her hubby’s disappearance makes her the prime suspect in the eyes of the cops. Of course, Strike believes they’re wrong about that and the main point of his quest is to try to prove that Leonora isn’t the witch they take her for. Another character, Robin Ellacott, Strike’s assistant, isn’t a particularly remarkable person but at least there’s some ambiguity about her as she struggles to make Strike see her as a potential detective.

Unfortunately, ambiguity and three-dimensional believability are completely lacking in all the other characters. Most of them are ridiculously shallow and one-dimensional. About one editor, we’re constantly told that he reeks of alcohol. Strike has recently separated from a former fiance who is one of the worst termagants you can possibly imagine: deceitful, bad tempered, calculating, scheming, jealous, controlling and abusive. And yet we’re supposed to believe that Strike, a reasonably sane and intelligent man, is still mooning about her. Further in the unbelievable character department, Robin, Strike’s assistant, has a fianc who is jealous, over-bearing, unreasonable and controlling. We never hear from him except in a spiteful, disagreeable mode.

Is this broad characterization – the very obvious categorizing of characters as good or bad – an occupational hazzard for someone who writes novels for young people? Perhaps the same question could be asked about Ms. Rowling’s tendency to sound –again and again – the same note about a person or a setting. About Leonora, the wife of the disappeared writer, we never hear any mention of her without emphasis on the fact that her wardrobe is shabby, or her house is drab, her look is unkempt, etc. At one point, Strike visits two women who may be suspects. Much is made of the fact that their apartment is a shambles and, when they offer tea, wouldn’t you know they bring out "cheap" biscuits! It seems to me that this writing is showing the remnants of the class system that still sometimes haunts British writing. Either things are fine and excellent and to our liking – or they are beneath us and we look down our noses on them.

Still, Ms Rowling can offer up the occasional tasty morsels. Here, Robin's weighing the consequences of her expressing her concern about Strike's hurt knee:

An observant childhood spent in the company of three brothers had given Robin an unusual and accurate insight into the frequently contrary reaction of males to female concern....

Also:

Women, in his experience, often expected you to understand that it was a measure of how much they loved you that they tried their damnedest to change you.

And:

...the women fell silent with the instinctive courtesy women often show to incapacitated males

Here’s Strike reflecting on Leonora’s asking him for help in finding her husband:

It had been a simple wish born of wariness and of love, if not for the errant Quine then for the daughter who missed him. For the purity of her desire, Strike felt he owed her the best he could give.

And yet, Ms Rowling’s sentence structure can be awkward at times: "She knew she must have changed color from the book on the two men’s faces, and to her fear that she might pass out was added embarrassment that she was being a liability to Strike." Ms Rowling also can’t resist falling back on purple prose now and then:

  • Fancourt let out a strangled moan of horror....
  • The malignity of what had been done there had been almost orgiastic, a carefully calibrated display of sadistic showmanship.
  • Was Anstis capable of comprehending the mind that had nurtured a plan of murder in the fetid soil of Quine’s own imagination?

And then there are the clichs that, despite her great acclaim as a writer, Ms. Rowling doesn’t seem to see any reason for avoiding

  • ...grinned ruefully
  • His knuckles were whitening
  • Kathryn snarled through clenched teeth
  • Strike saw the editor’s eyes widen behind his horn-rimmed glasses
  • "Ropes and a burqa!" ejaculated Kathryn Kent.
  • His square jaw tightened.

In the author’s note at the end of the book. Ms. Rowling thanks the many people who helped to make the writing of this book so enjoyable. I’m reminded of Wallace Stegner’s observation that hard writing makes easy reading. The inevitable corollary would be that easy writing makes for hard reading. I can’t escape the conclusion that Ms. Rowling had too much fun here.

 

The Trauma of Everyday Life (Psychology) by Mark Epstein, 2013

Life sucks. Deal with it!

That’s pretty much the message of The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein. As you might expect, however, Dr. Epstein, a psychiatrist who practises in New York City, draws out the theme with considerable subtlety and nuance. What might be considered a summary of his thinking on the subject is found on page 57:

Trauma is unavoidable, despite our strong wishes to the contrary. Facing this truth, this disillusioning attack on our omnipotence, with an attitude of honesty and caring strips it of much of its threat. When we are constantly telling ourselves that things shouldn’t be this way, we reinforce the very dread we are trying to get away from. But feeling our way into the ruptures of our lives lets us become more real. We begin to appreciate the fragile web in which we are all enmeshed, and we may even reach out to offer a helping hand to those who are struggling more than we are.

Not surprisingly, psychotherapy has a lot to do with Dr. Epstein’s recommended approach to "facing this truth" and "feeling our way into the ruptures of our lives." In his case, though, it’s a psychotherapy that’s very much immersed in Buddhist teaching and practice. (Dr. Epstein is a Buddhist teacher who gives lectures on the subject and leads meditations.) The key point in Dr. Epstein’s Buddhist approach to trauma has much to do with the recognition of the primal trauma in the life of the Buddha himself: the death of his mother when he was only seven days old.

In focusing on this aspect of the Buddha’s life, Dr. Epstein's approach diverges from that of many Buddhist scholars and practitioners. Few of them pay any attention to this fundamental trauma in the Buddha’s life, he says; most of them feel that Buddhism is all about rising above such traumas or distancing themselves from the difficult emotions that such upheavals can cause. For Dr. Epstein, though, a true understanding of the Buddha’s teaching and his way of life depends on an appreciation of the way that his insights arose from his acknowledgment of this huge tragedy in the very beginning of his life.

The many ramifications of that, as explored by Dr. Epstein, are too diverse and multi-faceted to explore here. Suffice it to say that his book contains a lot of material for the reader who likes to reflect on these ways of coping with the complexities of our lives. Dr. Epstein offers many quotes from colleagues and other experts. He makes frequent references to his cases and his patients. He generously gives lots of feedback from his own experiences, such as his personal struggles with understanding Buddhism, as well as his breakthroughs.

One of Dr. Epstein’s oft-repeated observations is that the shocks of trauma break through the "absolutisms" of our lives. In other words, a big upheaval, forces us to look at our lives in a new way, to see that what we thought was all-important may not be so. And what is it that causes us to be so shocked and upset? It’s the intimation of the flimsy nature of our own existence. On this point, Dr. Epstein refers to a Dutch psychologist named Johan Barendregt, who wrote a paper on the origin of phobias: "Barendregt’s conclusion was that most obsessive anxieties and fears are reactions to the terrifying intimation of one’s own insubstantiality."

Fascinating as the many such insights are, this may not be the book you want if you’re looking for a casual, friendly read that will help you make it through the night. There are times when Dr. Epstein leans too much on what seem to me to be the esoterica of Buddhism. I have some knowledge of the subject from studying and practising Zen but Dr. Epstein takes his reader into rarefied realms of the teachings where a person can feel a lack of oxygen. For instance, there’s frequent reference to the explanation for the death of Buddha’s mother seven days after his birth: when she glimpsed the enormity of her son’s splendour, supposedly, her body could not bear the bliss, so she had to go to heaven. And then there’s the talk about the time when, in a moment of exhilaration and discovery, the Buddha joyfully threw his rice bowl into a river.

It floated upstream, signifying the change in direction the Buddha now embraced, and then sank to the bottom of the river, nestling on top of the bowls of the three previous Buddhas from different eras, all of whom had had similar awakenings at the same spot. The clinking of one bowl striking the others was said to awaken the naga, or serpent, king dwelling there, alerting him to the proximity of yet another Buddha.

Perhaps readers who are more familiar with the teachings, more comfortable with these symbolic or figurative details, would get more out of such references than I can. I often had the feeling, when reading this book, that Dr. Epstein is repeating the same things over and over in just slightly altered ways that are perfectly intelligible to the person who is deeply immersed in the culture but, perhaps, less accessible to those of us who aren’t. Sometimes Dr. Epstein makes big leaps of thought, jumps through a lot of hurdles to make connections, in ways that I can’t follow, that aren’t clear to me. For instance, he talks at length about how the Buddha’s awakening meant that he discovered the importance of kindness. Supposedly, this was a result of some dreams he had. How Dr. Epstein reaches this conclusion isn’t clear to me. Maybe people who are more familiar with the tradition see the connections that I’m missing. (Perhaps I could, on reading a book about Christian spirituality, draw valid inferences that wouldn’t be obvious to readers who were unfamiliar with the tradition.)

Another recurring problem with the book is that often Dr. Epstein refers to the work of D. W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and child psychologist. In some passages, great attention is given to Dr. Winnicott’s theories about what is happening, in psychological terms, when a baby is feeding at a mother’s breast. There are distinctions made between what this baby is feeling with this mother and what that baby is feeling with that mother. How does Dr. Winnicott know what the babies are feeling? Did he interview the babies after each feeding? I’m bothered by the fact that so much attention is given to the doctor’s spouting of what might be, after all, just a lot of hot air. Maybe this reaction of mine is just a kind of agnosticism or skepticism towards psychobabble, similar to my problem with some of the Buddhist teachings.

Since it’s our mandate here at Dilettante’s Diary to keep an eye on the state of writing in the English-speaking world, I have to point out some difficulties with Dr. Epstein’s prose.

  • This sentence struck me as representative of the awkwardness that occurs now and then in the book: "Some might say she was regressed, but there is an inherent prejudice in this word that connotes an almost universal fear of the emergence of such strong feelings of dread."
  • It took me several readings to get the sense of this one: "My mind was more concentrated, as the Buddha wished it to be, but my thoughts were still there, as I did not."
  • This one, I can still barely decipher: "In later years, in the Buddhist cultures that grew up in India and then in Tibet, the word that was used to describe the world we inhabit translated as ‘tolerable,’ in the sense of being barely tolerable."
  • Here we have the grammatical error known as the dangling participle (more than one actually): "Abandoning his wife and child, debasing himself in the forest striving to liberate himself from his mind and body, his spiritual journey can be read, from one perspective at least, as an expression of primitive agony."

The problem with the following sentence is that careless writing fails to convey the intended meaning accurately: "In losing his mother at such an early age, the Buddha affirmed the underlying and inescapable anguish at the heart of existence." I don’t think so. He didn’t affirm anything through the loss. How could he have? The loss wasn’t something he hadn’t any control over. I think what Dr. Epstein means to say is that Buddha affirmed "the underlying and inescapable anguish at the heart of existence" by his attitude to the loss. This isn’t just a case of nit-picking, on my part. When writers aren’t careful enough to express their meaning precisely, there’s the risk of their distorting the teaching that they’re trying to convey.

But none of this is to deny that the book, as a whole, was well worth reading. One of my favourite passages is the one where Dr. Epstein is talking about a visit to a Buddhist master, Ajahn Chah, in his monastery on the Lao border of Thailand. Dr. Epstein asked what he had learned from his years of contemplation and study. Ajahn Chah pointed to a crystal water glass, saying how much he loved it: it held water perfectly, it reflected light beautifully, it made a nice ring when he tapped it. The master followed up with this:

"Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious."

For me that little lesson would almost have justified the cost of the book (if I hadn’t borrowed it from the library).

 

Mission to Paris (Spy/Thriller) by Alan Furst, 2012

A New York Times review of Alan Furst’s more recent novel said that it didn’t quite measure up to his "dazzling" Mission to Paris. That sent me scurrying to the local library, where I found not just this much-touted book, but another by the same author.

In Mission to Paris, Mr. Furst tells the story of Fredric Stahl, a Hollywood star of Austrian origins, who has been sent by his studio to Paris to make a movie in the late summer of 1938. Stahl soon falls into the clutches of Nazi propagandists who are swarming Paris. They want him to come to Germany to judge a film festival so that they can show that this famous American actor is friendly to their regime. Stahl, not being by any means stupid, is wary of these pressures, but his bosses back in Hollywood think it’s a good idea for him to go ahead with the p.r. The officials at the American embassy in Paris think so too. After all, Stahl could be a helpful source of info about what’s going on in Germany.

One thing that the novel does well is that it shows you how it was possible in those times, if you didn’t know anything about what Hitler was doing to the Jews and other minorities – or if you shut your mind to any hints of it – to actually look favourably on his plans. Stahl encounters several people in Paris who, although undeniably right-wing and Fascist in their outlooks, make a good case for the kind of order and discipline that they think Hitler will bring to society.

The book also gives you a good idea – in case you didn’t have one – of what it’s like to be involved in the making of a movie. When we see finished movies on the screen, we tend to think they’re all about glamour and glory. We don’t often think of all the hassles behind the scenes, the complications which lead to the fact that many movies never get finished. In the case of the one Stahl’s starring in, things are always going wrong with the financing, the locations, the actors’ health, and various arrangements.

However, I found this book as a whole vastly disappointing, especially given the glowing mention in the NYT. I first began to feel that things were going south on reading the following, on page12:

Prideaux collapsed very slowly; the hauteur in his expression drained away, his shoulders slumped, and finally his head lowered so that he stared at the floor.

Among other problems with the writing, there’s too much physical description of characters, including their clothes. Their back story is sometimes given when it’s not germane. Historical research is worked into dialogue in an obtrusive way. Sometimes we get tourist-guide history about certain locations. We also get characters telling each other things that they both know – as in the case of Stahl’s chat with a costume designer about movie making. It’s implausible that these characters would have any reason to impart the info to each other. The only reason it’s there is so that the author can impress us with his knowledge of the biz. And when it comes to Mr. Furst’s presentation of a scene from the movie that’s being shot, the dialogue is as leaden and lifeless as anything you’ll ever see on the printed page.

What bothers me even more is that sometimes Mr. Furst steps outside the conventions of the third-person narrator in ways that are jarring. For instance, he’ll say that Stahl encountered a certain official who was wearing a corset under his uniform. Given that the scene is being presented from Stahl’s point of view, we have to wonder how in the world he’d know about the other man’s corset. A new character who meets Stahl is, we are told, wearing a suit by a London tailor. How would Stahl know that? Was the label on the outside of the jacket? We get Mr. Furst’s sly comment that "the hotel clerks of Paris were pleased when a guest enjoyed the delights of their city." This observation doesn’t have anything to do with Stahl’s state of mind; it’s only meant to show us what a worldly, knowing guy the author is. In a description of Stahl’s trip with some colleagues to the scene of an attempted abduction, we get this: "Nobody said much – a compulsion to chatter when facing action was considered to be bad form." Who says? How would Stahl know that? He’s a movie actor, not a secret agent. These strike me as instances of an author’s lazily throwing in information that he wants to pass on without taking care to fit such observations into the point of view that prevails in the scene.

As for excitement and intrigue, the one scene that could have been quite gripping – an attempted abduction – is one that our hero doesn’t even witness. Somebody tells him about it; he has been kept in the background because the situation was considered too dangerous for him. That’s consistent with the rather leisurely unspooling of the whole story. The setting and the era often made me think of Francine Matthews' novel about John F. Kennedy’s derring-do in Europe: Jack 1939. (Reviewed on DD page dated June 16/14.) Far-fetched as that novel was, it at least provided lots of very entertaining adventure. Mission to Paris, by contrast, is a thriller for readers who might not have their heart pills close at hand.

The other novel by Mr. Furst that I picked up is Dark Voyage (2004). After my reading about 20 pages of turgid exposition, it went back to the library.

 

Too Far From Home (Space travel) by Chris Jones, 2007

The Globe and Mail’s glowing review of this book popped up in my clipping file when I was looking for something vaguely scientific. I’ve always wondered what life was like for astronauts up there in outer space: you know, the nitty-gritty, like going to the bathroom, washing, eating and all that. (I didn’t happen to catch any of the Chris Hatfield stuff.) This looked like the book that would satisfy my curiosity on the subject.

Writer Chris Jones tells the story of Expedition Six, the three-man trip to the International Space Station. The team members, consisting of Americans Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit, along with Nikolai Budarin, from Russia, left earth on their journey to the space station in November 2002. Their arrival went smoothly but, in February of 2003, the Columbia, which was supposed to provide their ride home, exploded on return to earth. How would the three astronauts stranded on the space station get back?

Mr. Jones plays up the drama and the danger of the Expedition Six’s situation for all it’s worth. And he does provide details on the mundane subjects that I was wondering about. One passage that I found particularly interesting was the explanation of eating routines: not just the menus, but the methods of handling the foods and pieces of equipment, keeping them from flying around and making a mess in a setting without gravity.

Promising as this story might be, however, I was only able to read ninety-five pages of the book.. In page after page, sentences and word choices that struck me as inappropriate, if not risible, kept interfering with my attempt to continue reading.

Sometimes, the problem was a lack of clarity. As in this sentence: "He carried a sense of detachment with him almost always: a pilot’s life, if he wants to see the end of it, doesn’t hold a lot of room for romance...." What could be the meaning of that clause "...if he wants to see the end of it..."? Doesn’t everybody see the end of his or her life, more or less? And if anything – visual impairment or a coma – does cause you to miss the end of your life, how would an astronaut’s rejection of romance, his bottling up of his feelings, prevent that?

Mr. Jones tells us that the phonebook of China Lake, a California town near the venue where future astronauts did test flights, lists some eighty-nine churches or houses of worship. "That’s because for test pilots, touching the face of God is a full-time gig." On the next page, though, Mr. Jones is talking about the exhilaration that Bowersox, one of the pilots, feels when he’s flying high enough to get a glimpse of the curvature of the earth: "For Bowersox, moments like those were holier than he could have ever found in any one of those eighty-nine churches...." So what was it? Did the churches help the astronauts to touch the face of God or didn’t they???

Mr. Jones says that when some other astronauts had opened their pouches of food packed for their journeys into space, they sometimes found "something inside that tasted like puke." Has anybody ever tasted puke? Granted, most of us have had it in our mouths at some time. But I suspect that most of us eject it too quickly to taste it.

As for this sentence, in which Mr. Jones is telling about how one of Pettit’s teachers challenged him – "He stretched him, too, and groomed him for big dreaming – engineers had picked up from God in building the world" – one can only charitably assume that a typo or an inadvertent omission has caused the incomprehensibility.

Mr. Jones is also inclined to make fatuous statements. Take this comment on the fact that most astronauts come from lonely, empty-seeming places: "City kids don’t have the room nor any need to dream. The lights and chaos burn away their imaginations." Go tell that to Tennessee Williams, Robert LePage, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Emily Carr, Julie Taymor and lots of other people whose citified origins didn’t stifle their imaginations.

Here, Mr. Jones is talking about how the astronauts, while in space, valued the memory of the everyday actions back home. "And they had come to understand the true order of things, because they had learned how the universe works." Only astronauts were privy to such information? Do non-astronauts know nothing about how the universe works?

In another passage, Mr. Jones is saying that the astronauts on the space station would have to learn how to brush their teeth and wash clothes in space, with a view to much longer trips to Mars. "And if they managed to do each of those boring things well enough, simply enough, Bowersox, Budarin and Pettit would have found an astronaut’s nirvana. They would have learned how to push through to the other side of the envelope." Nirvana? Really?? What envelope???

Here, Mr. Jones is contemplating the huge crater left by a meteor near Flagstaff, Arizona:

Every time something like that happens, a string is tied between us and the stars. When something the magnitude of the meteor that tore a hole into Arizona comes down, that string is more like a corridor, as if a portal has been opened, or a beam of light has been left to track across the night sky the way the glow from Las Vegas banks against clouds, luring gamblers from hundreds of miles around. Whatever it is, it’s a magnet, helping the desert draw out not just the peculiars but the downright alien.

String? Portal? Magnet? Alien? Isn’t somebody getting a little carried away?

Writing like this gets so irritating that a reader – this one, at any rate – becomes hypersensitive, to the extent that the slightest quirk or flaw becomes exasperating. As in this passage describing a section of the space station that contains a lot of important equipment: "But like the insides of a watch, most of its complex mechanics were hidden away behind a more attractive face...." Why the comparison to a watch? Everybody knows what it’s like to have equipment hidden behind closed doors. The reference to the watch only shows that the writer is trying too hard to make the writing seem colourful and vivid.

As in this bit about the desert venue for test flights: "...we’ve always made this place our proving grounds, blowing the almighty crap out of sound barriers and land-speed records and chunks of New Mexico." And this, about an outing that ends "....at the barn of a store with the neon sign that cuts to the chase like 90 proof: LIQUOR is all that it reads, red lights on green."

It sounds as if the writer is trying to create the impression of testosterone-fuelled prose. He seems to feel that any real man – presumably his ideal reader – wouldn’t be bothered with a book that presented the facts in a simple, non-demonstrative way. Mr. Jones’s reader can only be drawn in by writing that’s muscular, powerful and high-octane. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that Mr. Jones was formerly a sportswriter. He is a contributing editor to Esquire and he won a national magazine award for the article that became the basis for this book. Clearly, he has his admirers. I’m guessing it wouldn’t bother him much to hear that I’m not one of them.

 

Kennedy’s Brain (Mystery) by Henning Mankell, 2005; translation by Laurie Thompson, 2007

This book happened to catch my attention while I was looking for some easy, escape reading. From what I could remember of Mr. Mankell’s books, his writing didn’t thrill me as much as it did a lot of people. It seemed to me that his approach to a mystery was too complicated. Still, he’s regarded by many as one of the greatest mystery writers of our times. So why not give this one a try?

It opens on Louise Cantor, a middle-aged archaeologist who has been working on site in Greece. She’s looking forward to returning to Sweden but she’s worried that she can’t get an answer when she keeps trying to phone her son Henrik’s flat in Stockholm. On arrival home, she encounters disaster: Henrik, a healthy twenty-something, is dead in his bed. An autopsy eventually concludes that it’s a case of suicide by barbiturates. That seems impossible to Louise and to anybody who knew Henrik. Besides, why was his body clad in pyjamas when Henrik never wore them? Louise’s attempts to find answers launch her on something of a globe-trotting quest, necessitating an extended leave of absence from her academic work.

For the first half of this book, I enjoyed it very much, not least because of the quality of the prose: spare, clean, thoughtful and utterly averse to clich and claptrap. Louise’s interactions with the police are engaging, as are her thoughts about Henrik’s father, a former lover of hers, who has long since disappeared from her life. The only significant man for her, now that her son is dead, is her father, Artur, a woodsy, solitary man who provides a strong shoulder to cry on.

After a certain point, though, the book began to get tiresome. That’s partly because it’s strictly linear: Louise’s search keeps pushing her from one location to another, from one possible informant to the next one. To me, that’s never as effective as when a mystery circles around and around a few key characters. The peripatetic approach here sometimes leads to a flat-footed narrative style of she-did-this-and-then-she-did-that. This book also suffers from the fact that there’s no "Watson" character. Louise has no one with whom she can mull over possible explanations and solutions to the mystery – other than her father, Artur, who isn’t sufficiently present to fulfill that role adequately. Also, Mr. Henning has a tendency to include too many notes of foreshadowing that are meant to be ominous but, by repetition, start to look corny.

What really kills the book for me, though, is the fact that Louise’s attempt to trace her son’s footsteps over the past few years propels her into a hellish world of ghastly, Machiavellian scheming on an international scale. Mr. Mankell apparently wants to make some provocative statements about the dire state of the world as he sees it but it’s all too nightmarish and grisly for me. And yet, the explanation of the puzzle about Henrik’s pyjamas turns out to be a complete yawn.

 

Private Myths (Psychology) by Anthony Stevens, 1995

You could say that I’m something of an agnostic when it comes to the meaning of dreams. Do they reveal anything significant? Are they just random firings of the brain? Do they serve some biological or evolutionary purpose? Do they warn us of potential dangers we might otherwise not be aware of? I dunno. So I figured it might be a good idea to see what an expert had to say on the subject. Anthony Stevens, as described on the fly leaf of this book, is a "distinguished analyst, psychiatrist and author of many books."

As a former seminarian trained in the scholastic method, I was pleased to see Dr. Stevens putting in a good word for Aristotle. After showing that Hippocrates believed that some dreams were divinely inspired, Dr. Stevens writes:

Aristotle, on the other hand, denied both astrological and divine origins to dreams, because the observation of sleeping animals showed that they dreamed as well. This is a crucial observation, for it makes nonsense of many dream theories, including Freud’s idea that dreams result from censored sexual wishes. The theories which Aristotle outlined in three books, On Dreams, On Sleep and Waking, and On Prophecy in Sleep, come closer to modern views than any writers before him and than most who have come since.

Going on to show that Aristotle believed that dream images are carried over into the waking state and act as starting points for our conscious thought, Dr. Stevens says "People made the mistake of believing such dreams to be prophetic of subsequent events when in fact they were directly responsible for bringing them about."

Dr. Stevens notes that Plato’s "strikingly modern" ideas on dreams anticipate Freud's. Plato said that, since we no longer exercise rational control over our passions when asleep, "we find ourselves doing things in dreams that we would be ashamed to do in reality." St. Augustine found himself caught on that hook, says Dr. Stevens: "This worried him, for he feared that God might hold him responsible for the contents of his dreams, and he knew these to be beyond his control."

Artemidorus was, as far as written history can tell, the world’s first dream researcher. In the second century AD, he spent years visiting libraries and centres of healing throughout Italy, Greece and the Near East, interviewing people who interpreted dreams, and buying any writing he could find on the subject. He drew up an approach to dream interpretation, based on essential pieces of info: whether the events in the dream were natural, lawful, and customary for the dreamer, what was happening at the time of the dream, and the dreamer’s occupation and name.

Gregory of Nissa (4th century AD), another ancient whose views were very close to modern ones, held that dreams were natural phenomena susceptible to a purely psychological explanation. He allowed that God could and might inspire dreams but that such occurrences were not dreams in the usual sense. In On the Making of Man (380 AD), he said that the reason dreams are absurd is that the senses and the intellect are at rest. The content of dreams, he said, is determined by memories of one’s daily activities and one’s physical state at the time of the dream.

Dr. Stevens makes many loyal references to Jung, nearly always finding connections to the master’s thinking in contemporary theories that are considered worthwhile. Sigmund Freud fares not so well in Dr. Stevens’s estimation. He includes one tidbit that goes some distance towards demonstrating Freud’s megalomania: When Freud’s patients had dreams that blatantly contradicted his theory that dreams are wish fulfillments, he wasn’t perturbed; he blandly allowed that people "will be quite ready to have one of their wishes frustrated in a dream if only their wish that I may be wrong can be fulfilled."

After his review of the ancients, Dr. Stevens spends twelve pages reviewing the conflicting views of dreams among such recent theorists as: Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Stekel, Samuel Lowy, Thomas French, Erica Fromm, Montague Ullman, Fritz Perls, Medard Boss, Charles Rycroft, and James Hillman. In commenting on the diversity of opinion among them all, Dr. Stevens manages a nice joke at Freud’s expense:

The trouble is that researchers become so attached to their own orientation, and so hostile to those who adopt another, that they forget that they are all partially sighted observers examining different aspects of the same elephant in the dark, each believing that the particular bit of trunk, foot, or tail they are grasping represents the whole beast. Freud was evidently grasping its private parts.

Given all these contradictory theories, I began to have sneaking doubts about this material. If all these people disagree about what dreams are and what they mean, or don’t mean, then why should I pay any special attention to what Dr. Stevens has to say on the subject? Can any of these people actually prove that their theories are right? However, I decided to stick with Dr. Stevens for a while, to see if I could get some benefit from his ideas on the subject of dreams. But I soon started to run into trouble.

Take this passage: "Non-REM sleep evolved about 180 million years ago, when warm-blooded animals evolved from their cold-blooded reptilian ancestors, whereas REM sleep evolved about 50 million years later." The author goes on to say that REM sleep "appeared on the evolutionary scene when mammals began to reproduce vipariously (their offspring were born directly from the womb, not hatched out of eggs)." How does he know? Has he interviewed some of those cold-blooded ancestors – or their descendants, like ghekkos – to ask whether or not they have dreamed? Maybe Dr. Stevens is assuming some scientific background that I don’t have. Maybe some basic facts unknown to me would answer my questions.

But mostly it was the quality of Dr. Stevens’s prose that tripped me up. As he moved from the accessible writing style in his examination of the ancients, his writing became academically contorted when it came to expounding on his own ideas:

First there were instances of weird diction such as the following:

This is a good example of the superior wisdom that dreams can access to the dreamer as well as the therapeutic influence they can exert by correcting potentially self-destructive attitudes of ego-consciousness.

Has anyone ever used the word ‘access’ in this way?

Then gob-stoppers like this:

That the mid-brain should be so intimately implicated in all the basic behavioural patterns which serve survival and adaptation points to this region as being the locus of those neuronal complexes most critically involved in archetypal functioning.

This is one of the passages that finished me:

The findings that EEG theta rhythm, originating from a specific part of the paleomammalian brain, namely the hippocampus, is associated with the performance of crucial survival behaviours and with memory storage as well as REM sleep, lends weight to the additional hypothesis that in dreaming sleep an animal, including the human animal, is updating strategies for survival in the light of its own experience and in the light of all the potential for experience specific to the species.

Clearly, Dr. Stevens is an intelligent man who has lots of fascinating information at his finger tips. However, after 115 pages, from the book’s total of 353, the inescapable conclusion for me was that this was not my dream book.

 

The Children Act (Novel) by Ian McEwan, 2014

Lodged somewhere in the back of my mind there’s a scrap of memory having to do with a strongly negative review of this novel. Can’t remember now what the complaint was. Something to do with the main character, I think. Possibly from a feminist point of view. But Ian McEwan is such a good writer; hardly anybody tells a story better than he does. Why not give this one a try?

Our central character is Fiona Maye, a British judge. (Not being very familiar with the British legal system, I’m not qualified to identify the exact level of her position but it sounds like she’s fairly high up.) We’re following two main stories in her life. First, there’s the fact that her husband, now sixty years old, announces that, after some thirty years of faithful married life, he’d like to have an affair with a younger woman, while remaining married to Fiona.

The other plot line concerns a difficult case that Fiona has to decide. A boy of seventeen, almost eighteen, has leukemia and he needs a blood transfusion. He and his parents, being committed Jehovah’s Witnesses, are refusing that treatment. The presiding medical authorities have sought the permission of the court to proceed with the transfusion. It is acknowledged by everyone that the boy will soon be eighteen and thus will be viewed in the eyes of the law as being competent to make his own decision about whether or not to accept or reject treatment. But the transfusion must take place within 24 hours if there’s to be any hope of saving the young man. Since he is not at the moment considered an adult by the law, he is subject to the decisions of his parents or the court, should it overrule them. In what is apparently an unprecedented move for a judge, Fiona goes to the hospital that very afternoon to visit with the boy and to see what she thinks about his state of mind.

Through my reading of the book, I kept trying to spot what it was that annoyed that critic. But I couldn’t find it. Maybe that’s because I was enjoying the reading so much. One of the first things that struck me was Mr. McEwan’s subtlety with dialogue, his keen ear for nuance and for the things that are not being said. Take the episode that opens the book, where Fiona is remembering the conversation, just a few minutes earlier, when her husband, Jack, dropped the bomb about wanting to have an affair. If you simply heard what was said in that exchange, as if you were overhearing it through a closed door, or even if you were watching the scene enacted on stage, it might seem commonplace, even trite: a lot of huffing and puffing, posturing, spluttering – nothing much said of any significance. What gives the scene great impact is the way Mr. McEwan fills in the spaces between the speeches to show the emotional skirmishing that’s going on.

The writing is so good that I sped through the book in virtually one sitting (about four hours). At times, I thought that perhaps there was too much reminiscing about court cases. Did the author need this material to fill out a book that, at just 221 short pages, is barely more than a novella? But then I decided that this legal stuff is Fiona’s world and, since the novel’s told almost exclusively from her point of view, it makes sense for us to know what’s going on in her mind; after all, these are cases that have been important to her for various reasons. There was only one instance in which I felt the legal musings were, perhaps, not relevant to the main story. A barrister was venting to Fiona (in a private encounter not in court!) about his frustration with the unfairness of the legal system and his intention, therefore, to leave his legal practice. It seemed that here Mr. McEwan was trying to introduce a new theme: the question of whether or not the law is able to deliver anything like justice. You could say that some such idea may be running through the whole book in a subterranean way, but its blatant emergence here seems obtrusive.

As for the case that’s central to the book, Mr. McEwan’s rendering of the legal battle is right up there with the best of courtroom dramas. All sides get a fair say; the opposing arguments are presented convincingly. The quandary facing Fiona becomes excruciatingly real. A genuine sense of suspense is created. Another example of the quality of Mr. McEwan’s writing is that, although the book is told from Fiona’s point of view, he does introduce a bit of variety by having Fiona imagine how what is happening might look to someone else. A further instance of Mr. McEwan’s fine perception of human response comes at a moment when Fiona has suddenly been confronted by a young man who has followed her through the rain:

In those first moments it was easier to conceal a confusion of feeling behind a motherly tone. ‘You look frozen. We’d better have them bring that heater in here.’

In another line, Mr. McEwan’s analysis captures the narcissism that might escape most of us:

Even when he was trying to be apologetic, he appeared too vivid, too hungry for the minutiae of his own explanation.

And the text frequently delivers thought-provoking nuggets, such as this reflection of Fiona’s:

Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge? [sic]

Given its overall excellence, does it need to be said that there isn’t anything revolutionary or radical about this book? What you’re getting is a classic British novel, written with great finesse, centered mainly on some upper class types – somewhat the Iris Murdoch sort of thing where you get drinks by the fire while the rain patters endlessly on the windows behind the heavy drapes. So yes, the class system that enters into nearly all British novels is palpable here. But it doesn’t have the detrimental effect that it often does in other novels. I think that’s because Mr. McEwan acknowledges it for what it is. When Fiona goes to a hospital on the south side of London to visit the sick teen, she admits that she is entering what is foreign territory for her, that she has no experience of the less comfortable, less privileged life that prevails here. You could say that Mr. McEwan even strikes a blow against the class system in that the sick boy’s father, when he appears on the stand to defend his religious opposition to the blood transfusion, is intelligent and well-spoken. A man of the working class, he gives a creditable defense of a position that, one supposes, would not likely be congenial to Fiona, to Mr. McEwan or to his readers.

Other reviewers will probably tell you more about what happens in the novel but here at Dilettante’s Diary we like to leave such things for the reader to discover. That’s because we feel that one of the main pleasures of reading is finding out how a writer can hook your attention with his or her narrative skill. I will say this about the rest of the book, though: I’m not sure that the denouement isn’t sentimental, possibly even tending towards the melodramatic. I find myself thinking that yes, what happens here, could happen in real life, even if it does seem a bit improbable. But that slight element of doubt barely matters when the reading is so good.

 

The Burning Room (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2014

As is often the case in Michael Connelly’s books, Harry Bosch, his detective, is working on solving two crimes. Sometimes that sort of multi-tasking seems like a device for filling up a book when a writer doesn’t have enough grist in one story; in this case, though, the two stories fit together well and they seem like integral components of Harry Bosch’s life at a given time.

The story that kicks off the book is one of those cold cases that has suddenly got warm. Years ago in a Los Angeles plaza, a mariachi musician had been crippled in what appeared to be a stray bullet from a gangland shooting. But now the musician has died and an autopsy has retrieved the bullet that struck his spine. Given certain specifics (don’t ask me to explain the ballistics!), the shooting now appears to have been an attempt at a targeted killing. But why would anybody have wanted to kill this pleasant, likeable musician? The other story is about a fire, long ago, that killed several small children in a daycare in the basement of an apartment building. Bosch discovers that the young, inexperienced female detective assigned to be his partner in the investigation of the other case, the one about the shooting, has personal reasons for wanting to find out exactly who or what caused the fire that killed the kids.

After all the twists and turns of the roller-coaster ride that constitutes a Harlan Coben thriller (see my review of Just One Look on this page), it comes as something of a relief to read this straight-forward, diligent mystery from Michael Connelly. I do find a few flaws in the writing, though. . For instance, this clich : the pressure – almost inevitable in cop fiction now – from the higher ups, for political reasons, to find quick solutions to mysteries. And, at times, Mr. Connelly gives in to an oddly prosaic habit: he lathers on words and sentences that aren’t necessary. Here’s a passage where Bosch is meeting up with his partner:

She got in the car but Bosch did not pull out. They needed to set a plan for the rest of the day and he also wanted to know what she had told Crowder with regard to both of their current cases.

"Okay, so where are we at?" he asked.

The second sentence isn’t necessary, given that what comes after tells us what we need to know. The passage would be crisper, then, the reading would be brisker as:

She got in the car but Bosch did not pull out. "Okay, so where are we at?" he asked.

Although the suspicion of padding for bulk didn’t come up with regard to the use of two stories in the book, the fact that it didn’t get tighter editing raises the issue after all.

Still, there’s lots to enjoy here. Such as Bosch’s thoughts about detectives:

The good ones all had that hollow space inside. The empty place where the fire always burns. For something. Call it justice. Call it the need to know. Call it the need to believe that those who are evil will not remain hidden in the darkness forever.

Among other virtues of the book, the lengthy video analysis of the shooting of the mariachi musician, as caught on security cameras, is detailed and fascinating. Bosch’s relationship with his teenage daughter is realistic and life-like. As is his mentoring of his young partner: showing her the ropes and pointing out her mistakes where necessary. The ultimate explanation about the fire is surprising but not far-fetched or outlandish. And, fittingly for a book about a detective who claims to find detective fiction too neat and tidy, this one ends with what might be called a partial or a mitigated victory for its detective.

Satisfying as this book is, I have to pick a quarrel with Mr. Connelly on one point. Late in the investigation, he has Bosch visit a convent of nuns in a California town near the border with Mexico. He depicts the nuns as women for whom, apart from the fact that they use their original family names, the Second Vatican Council might never have happened. They’re in full habits in the traditional style and they fall back on pious mannerisms (e.g. making the Sign of the Cross spontaneously). I’m willing to grant that there might be groups of nuns like that somewhere in America but you’d think a writer with a name like Connelly would know that they’d be rare. Since there’s no reason in terms of plot for picturing the women this way, you get the impression that he did it just for the sake of adding piquant detail to his story. That, to some slight degree, shakes my trust in him as a reliable truth-teller.

 

One Day (Novel) by David Nicholls, 2009

The publicity for David Nicholls’ more recent novel, Us (reviewed below) makes a big deal about the success of this earlier one: "Now a Major Motion Picture" and all that palaver. Since I liked Us so much, it seemed that this one might be worth looking into.

It opens in 1988 with Dexter and Emma in bed together, the morning after their graduation from Edinburgh University. They’d spotted each other on campus previously but this is the first time they’ve had any intimate contact. It looks, however, like nothing much is going to come of it. Their university experience finished, each is heading back home to a different life: his in Oxfordshire, hers in Yorkshire. In the next chapter, however, we catch up with them exactly one year later and we find that a strong friendship has developed between them.

And so it goes, for 19 years. The book checks in on them on exactly the same day each year: July 15th (St. Swithin’s Day, as it happens). Each chapter deals with that one day of each year. Some years they happen to meet on that day; some years not. This clever structuring isn’t exactly unprecedented. (I’m thinking of Neil Simon’s Same Time Next Year, in which a man and a woman meet in the same hotel room on the same date over a number of years.) However, it does make for certain striking effects. A lot happens offstage. In one chapter, you’ll have someone mention that she has some news; she may not get a chance to tell the news in that chapter, i.e. on that day, but you’ll find out the following year what the news was. Also, given the time span of the book, there are notable observations about cultural changes: the introduction of cell phones, the switch from VHS to DVD technology, trends in weddings, parenting fads, the upsurge in the popularity of texting.

In one respect, this book is the opposite of Mr. Nicholls’ more recent one. In Us, the admirable, likeable character of the man holds the book together; the irritable, moody woman is a constant aggravation. In One Day, however, the relative merits of the man and the woman are reversed. Emma is intelligent, conscientious and considerate, beautiful enough to be seen that way by others but not beautiful enough to be convinced of it herself. It’s Dexter who is annoying: shallow, something of a playboy, very good looking, flashy, more keen on fun than on responsibility. The only redeeming quality of Dexter, in my eyes, would be that he seems to admire and appreciate Emma so much. He often remarks that she is the person that he wants most to talk to in any crisis, the only person with whom he feels he can share anything of importance. Later in life, though, the inevitable setbacks in his starry existence bring him hard up against some truths about himself and he does express genuine anguish about his failings.

As the vicissitudes of their lives keep pushing the two people apart and pulling them together, you wonder if this is one of those Jane Austen romances where the man and woman are taking forever to see what’s obvious to everybody else, including us readers: that they were meant for each other. You may be assured that we, at Dilettante’s Diary, will not tell you how it’s going to work out – or not – for these two, but the possibility of an eventual merger is what keeps us reading. And that does take a certain commitment. The book is too long (435 pages) and, while none of it is dull exactly, it’s a bit of a slog to get through all that living, year by year. When Emma and Dexter get together their comments don’t always rise above the banal. We get silliness, carping, teasing, bickering. Some of the witticisms – usually from Emma – are entertaining, but there’s not much of what might be called profound insight. A scene wherein Dexter tries to take care of a young baby is probably intended as hilarious slapstick but I find it tiresome; there’s nothing particularly imaginative or original about the fiasco. Because of elements like this, the book seems to me to be notably inferior to Mr. Nicholls’s subsequent Us. It’s almost as if, by comparing the two books, you can see that the writer is becoming more mature and wiser. It’s nice to be able to see that in a writer, rather than a slide in the other direction.

And there is a fault in this earlier book that, to my mind, often mars British writing of a certain type. The author seems to be looking down his or her nose at so much of the world. For instance, the Mexican restaurant where Emma has to work when she’s down on her luck is necessarily sleazy and greasy; the staff there are low class dummies. When Emma acquires a boyfriend from among them, he has to be a pathetic would-be comedian. The apartment that Emma buys with this goof of a boyfriend has to be crummy. Same for a car that Emma eventually buys. The staff room of a school were she teaches is grubby. When she’s treated to a meal at a swanky restaurant, the food, of course, is awful.

I’m not saying that unpleasant situations and people don’t exist and that writers shouldn’t write about them. My point is that a writer who has a breadth of vision and a big heart can show conditions and people that make the main characters uncomfortable without giving the impression that such matters are intolerable for any decent human being. After all, these settings are real life for a lot of people; their lives shouldn’t be written off as contemptible. I can’t help thinking that this is yet another example of a British writer’s abhorring anything that isn’t "our sort of thing," i.e. anything that’s infra dig. And yet, even in this book, there’s some hint that Mr. Nicholls might be moving towards a more generous kind of writing. Near the end of the book, Emma’s erstwhile boyfriend, the would-be comedian, turns up again and we find now that he’s a decent, compassionate human being.

But there’s no denying that Mr. Nicholls is more comfortable with people like Dexter and Emma. How is it, though, that they’re so comfortable with each other? That question was never fully resolved for me. If Emma’s so intelligent and sensitive, why is she so taken with this frivolous Dexter? And if he’s so shallow, why is it that he so admires a sterling person like Emma? In one of his clever structural moves, Mr. Nicholls takes us back, at the end of the book, to that first meeting between Emma and Dexter. He fills out his description of the encounter with detail that helps to convey a little more of the excitement at the beginning of their relationship. Still, I never could fully believe in whatever it was that bound them together for so long. But I did want to believe that there was something. Maybe that’s enough.

 

US (Novel) by David Nicholls, 2014

This novel got me on the first page.

A guy’s wife wakes him up in the middle of the night. He figures it’s the usual thing – she’s going to tell him that she thinks she hears burglars. He’s prepared to swing into his familiar routine: that what she’s hearing must be the radiators, or the joists expanding or foxes in the garden. But no. What she wants to tell him is that she thinks their marriage is over; she wants to leave him. "Well, at least it’s not burglars," he says.

As I continued reading, soon reaching the 50-page mark, it seemed as though this book was providing proof of an unlikely premise: that you could actually pick up a book at random, by an author you’d never heard of, and that the book would turn out to be very good. Well, not completely at random in this case. The book had been displayed on the library’s "Best Bets" shelf. Still, it was a complete unknown for me.

The narrator is Douglas, a fifty-ish biochemist living in the countryside not far from London, England. He and his wife, Connie, have a teenage son, Albie. In spite of Connie’s dramatic announcement on the first page, the family goes ahead with a summer trip to Europe. It’s supposed to be one last family fling before Albie heads off to college in the fall, somewhat in the spirit of the Grand Tour that marked a turning point for young men of a certain class in centuries past. Given that such excursions, usually involving prodigious debauchery, were not customarily undertaken in the company of one’s parents, Albie’s aware of a certain weirdness about this jaunt with his parents. And therein lies a source of considerable conflict throughout the novel.

The main issue, though, is the question about what’s going to happen to the parents’ marriage. Douglas loves Connie devotedly, as he always has. He could never quite believe that he, a boring scientist, had won over such a witty, stylish and very beautiful woman. Connie, although grateful to Douglas for his devotion and for all the good times in their marriage, is now feeling that she’d like to break away and find a new life for herself, perhaps to pursue the existence of an artist that had once been her dream.

As the trek through Europe proceeded from one touristic highlight to another, I was beginning to be afraid that this was going to turn into a "road movie" – a genre that I don’t particularly like, whether in the book or the film version. It’s true, we do get a few pages of pure travelogue, but, for the most part, the story focusses on the problems in the relationships among the three main characters. Fascinating as those dynamics are, I did find myself wondering why these people had so much trouble getting along with each other. Why is the teenage son so prickly, so difficult to approach, particularly when it comes to his relationship with his father? The kid does eventually have it out with his dad in a confrontation, lasting a few pages, that helps to explain why things are the way they are and why the son acts the way he does towards his dad.

But I could never really get a fix on Connie’s attitude to Douglas. She’s constantly wrong-footing him. Her opinions are always the right ones; her choices are always the decisive ones. He claims to find her very intelligent but there are times when you wonder if she’s incapable of following a train of thought or whether she’s being wilfully obtuse. Take the time when he was talking about how evolution has conditioned all parents to love their own kids more than any other kids. Does Connie respond with an appreciative acknowledgment of her husband’s insight? Not at all! She objects. His comment, she says, seems to suggest that he doesn’t truly love their son, that it’s only an evolutionary thing.

Doug continually puts up with her obfuscations and flare-ups, presumably because he loves her so much. I know there are relationships where one person, the one who seems to love less, has total control over the other, the one who loves more. From the outside, it’s a horrible situation to view; you wonder why people put up with it. But you have to accept that it happens in real life, inexplicable as it is. However, I expect a novelist to make a relationship somewhat more comprehensible. Isn’t that, after all, the purpose of literature – to give us a better understanding of human life? Near the very end of the book, Connie does get a few pages where she presents a more reasonable interpretation of herself. But I couldn’t buy this version of her for the simple reason that it’s so at odds with the way she’s been behaving throughout the book.

The reason the book makes for such good reading, in spite of such a major flaw, is Doug. He’s very good company as he guides us through the events of his daily life. One of his ways of creating a sense of intimacy with us is to address us directly now and then: "I love my son, I hope that is abundantly clear, but.....;" and "I don’t wish to sound defensive about the fact, but...." He’ll even admit to some of the difficulties he’s having with the writing: "Here, I wish I could transcribe some speech I made to bring her out of this awful state...."

Mind you, Doug’s not so cozy with us that he regales us with sexual details. Here’s all he has to say about his "first time" with Connie: "Sexual nostalgia is a vice best indulged in private, but suffice to say that our first weekend together was quite an eye-opener." You don’t often find such reticence about sex in novels these days but it seems just right for Doug.

He’s very candid, though, about the qualities that probably made him attractive to Connie. He talks about how he’s practical, as good at handywork as he is at managing the family’s finances and planning their holidays. "While there was breath in my body," he says, "she would never lack sufficient AA batteries. Perhaps these achievements sound drab and pedestrian, but they were in stark contrast to the flaky, self-absorbed aesthetes she had known before. There was a sort of mild masculinity to it all that, for Connie, was both new and comforting."

On the other hand, Doug shows a knack for sociology that you might not expect in a man of the hard sciences. Here, Doug’s talking about the cultural context within which his own dad operated:

My father was exactly as I expected dads to be: a professional man, able and confident and somewhat withdrawn, but serious about his obligations to provide materially for his family. Dads had favourite armchairs in which they sat like starship captains, issuing orders and receiving cups of tea and shouting at the news without fear of contradiction. Dads controlled the television, the telephone and thermostat, they decided mealtimes, bedtimes, holidays.

And here’s Doug’s take on young parents today:

Oh, the smugness and complacency of the new parent! See how good we are. Let us show you how it should be done! I’m sure my parents had wanted to teach their own parents similar lessons, and so on back into history and forward, too; I’m sure that some day Albie will be keen to settle some scores and give me some pointers as to where we – I – went wrong. But perhaps it’s a delusion for each generation to think that they know better than their parents. If this were true, then parental wisdom would increase with time, like the processing power of computer chips, refining over generations, and we’d now be living in some utopia of openness and understanding.

Yes, it’s true that Doug is not living in any utopia of openness and understanding, certainly not from his son’s and his wife’s points of view. In fact, he’s downright stodgy in his refusal to accompany them on a visit to a marihuana caf in Amsterdam. It seemed to me, as a guy who likes to think of himself as being free-spirited, that I should side with the boy and his mom. And yet I found myself quite respectful of Doug’s response to their proposal:

Because it was all very jolly, wasn’t it, all very cool, sitting around and getting stoned all afternoon with your mum? What a lark, what memories to share! But I wanted my son to have ambition, I wanted him to have drive and energy and a fine, fierce mind. I wanted him to look out into the world with curiosity and intelligence, not with the awful solipsism and silliness of the stoned. Irrespective of the medical risks, the memory loss and apathy and psychosis, the possibility of addiction or exposure to hard drugs, what was this idiotic obsession with chilling out? I wasn’t aware of having been relaxed at any time in my entire life; that was just the way things were, and was it really so bad? To be taut as a wire, on the ball, conscious of the dangers around you – wasn’t that to be admired?

If Doug is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, flashes of humour help to redeem him in my eyes. Here, he’s describing his meeting with his son after a long separation:

....it took me a moment to sense a presence, look up and see my son standing right in front of me, saying those words that every father longs to hear.

‘Jesus Christ, Dad, why can’t you just leave me alone?’

And this is Doug’s reaction to an attack by a jellyfish: "Absurdly, I punched it because nothing hurts a jellyfish more, nothing affronts their sense of dignity [more], than an underwater punch in the face."

At times, slapstick mars the finesse of Mr. Nicholl’s writing, as in an episode in which Doug comes to grief over some very spicy Thai food. Since the incident doesn’t have any repercussions, you get the impression Mr. Nicholls included it just to provide a bit of levity. Not that I’m against comic relief, but I think the best novels don’t include any events that don’t have consequences in terms of plot.

Which is not to say that the level of writing isn’t very high here. One very clever thing that Mr. Nicholls does is to fill one page with a list of the likes and dislikes – in food, entertainment and so on – that Connie and Doug don’t share. This summary tells you a lot more about their life together – and in a more effective way – than pages of prolix verbiage would. Prior to one very important meeting near the end of the book, Mr. Nicholls has Doug give us a prolonged description of a tour through an art gallery; at first, that struck me as too obvious a stalling tactic, but it did help to build suspense very effectively Close to the end of the book, Doug takes a turn that I’ve never seen from a first-person narrator in a novel: he gives a short summary of his story, the one he has just told, as it might look to the other main characters in it. It strikes me as very magnanimous on Doug’s part to allow us a glimpse into how Connie and Albie may have seen their relationships to him and his role in their own stories.

 

Just One Look (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2004

Harlan Coben being a recent – and very welcome – discovery for me, I’m always pleased to find another of his books that I haven’t read.

One of the main characters in this one is Grace, a youngish mother of two kids, living somewhere near New York. One day, she picks up some photos of her kids from the developer and discovers something completely anomalous in the package: an older photo that seems to show her husband, Jack, as a young man, some fifteen years ago, in a group of four or five young people. Before Grace has a chance to ask Jack about it, he spots the photo on the kitchen counter. That, apparently, causes him suddenly to leave the house with no explanation. Grace’s life turns to a nightmare as the days go by and she hears nothing from him. The cops claim they can’t do anything much to help her, since there’s no evidence of a crime having been committed. But, it turns out, Grace has quite a knack for investigating on her own. As she finds out the identities of other people in the mysterious photo and tries to track them down, it seems that they have virtually dropped off the face of the earth.

This attempt to solve some riddle about the past reminds me very much of the kind of book that Ruth Rendell used to write under the pen name "Barbara Vine." As in those books, there’s some very good writing on offer. In the following passage, Grace is thinking about the aftermath of a riot at a rock concert when she was a young woman. She had been badly injured in the melee and, during her recovery in hospital, she was visited by some parents of kids who had been killed in the stampede ensuing from the riot.

They wanted to be around her. That was all. They found comfort in it. Their child had died in Grace’s presence and it was as if maybe a small part of their souls, their forever-lost son or daughter, somehow still lived inside of her. It made no sense and yet Grace thought that maybe she understood.

And here’s Grace at the door of her little daughter’s classroom, fighting back tears as she watches the child poring over her work, chewing on a pencil:

Why, Grace wondered, do we find such poignancy in watching our children when they don’t know we’re there? What exactly are we trying to see?

Not that Mr. Coben’s novels are all about sensitivity and poignancy. He seems to feel that he needs to include a certain amount of ugly, gratuitous violence in all of them. If you can get past that, the story is always rewarding. This one becomes so complicated, with so many characters to keep track of, that I imagined author Coben poring over a schematic outline of the plot that looked something like a map of London’s underground transportation system. Eventually, it was sheer curiosity that was pushing me to the end of the book. The interest in the characters as real people had waned; what mattered now was the craving to find out just how all these individuals and these fragments of plot were connected. In the end, I think I grasped pretty nearly all the details of the convoluted solution.

Clever and ingenious as the writing is, I do find one aspect of the story somewhat implausible: the idea that someone’s past could be completely hidden from that person’s spouse. Maybe there are situations in real life where this happens. In a work of fiction, though, it looks like too obvious a narrative device, a sort of crutch, without which the story wouldn’t work. And there are a few minor blemishes in the writing. On page 41, Mr. Coben says that a guy "dropped to the ground like a puppet with his strings cut"; then, on page 129, we’re told that another character "dropped like a marionette with its strings cut." You’d think a vigilant editor would have steered a writer away from that kind of repetition. And any decent editor would also have caught a confusion in the name of a character. In a passage that’s clearly talking about a character named Charlaine, Mr. Coben inadvertently refers to her as Grace, the main character, who is nowhere in sight at the time. On the next page, he makes a partial recovery, referring to Charlaine as Charlotte, a name that appears nowhere else in the book.

Do I mention these peccadilloes in a spirit of persnickety one-upmanship? To show how clever I am? To chip away at the stature of a successful writer? Far be it for me to claim to be free of any such motives. However, it’s possible that these observations help to assure readers of Dilettante’s Diary that their reviewer does read books closely.

 

Moab Is My Washpot (Memoir) by Stephen Fry, 1997

From various sources, I’d been picking up the buzz to the effect that this memoir by Stephen Fry, the well known British actor and writer, was one of the best ever. As we all know, it can often be impossible for any book – or any work of art – to live up to that sort of hype.

This book, I’m happy to say, is one of the exceptions.

It may not be the most profound example of the genre, or the most literary, or artistic – although it does have claims to those qualities. The main thing about it is that it’s so enjoyable. On the recent Victoria Day holiday, it gave me a full day of pure reading pleasure. Think of it as spending several hours in the company of a fabulous talker, a wonderful spinner of words, someone who has delicious tales to tell and who tells them with great elan.

Not that the outlines of Mr. Fry’s story are unusual. Here we have a sensitive boy from a well-educated, upper middle class family who is finding his way through the turbulence of boarding school, meanwhile coming to grips with his gay identity. What is unique about the narrative is this boy’s cheeky nature, his penchant for flouting authority, for invoking the wrath of the gods – a tendency that leads to some dramatic consequences at the end of the book. Along the way, you encounter some high comedy. While there’s no denying a decidedly mean streak underlying Mr. Fry’s tendency to pull pranks on unsuspecting victims, there’s also no resisting the laughter that many of the incidents bring on. Nor could this reader fight back tears at some of the poignant moments of the story.

One of the most touching episodes is Mr. Fry’s account of his falling hopelessly in love, at the age of fourteen, with a beautiful, blonde thirteen-year-old boy. By dint of great persistence, young Stephen managed to establish a close friendship with his idol. After telling us about the other boy’s extraordinary merits as an athlete and a scholar, Mr. Fry goes on to say:

Verbally however, he was ordinary. He had no rhetoric, no style, no wit nor any easy companionship with words. Since I seemed to him to have all these things, he looked on me as extraordinary and would roll and roll about with laughter whenever I wanted him to, which was often, a kitten on the end of my verbal balls of wool.

Beautiful as such writing is, Mr. Fry’s prose can take getting used to. Sometimes, you have to pick your way carefully through the thicket of his verbiage. Also, many British references – names of celebrities, famous places and so on – could prove stumbling blocks for the reader not totally immersed in that culture. But the benefit of Mr. Fry’s chatty style is that it allows him freedom for hopping around chronologically and for making lengthy digressions on subjects such as homophobia.

Perhaps the most important criterion for rating a memoir on a scale of greatness is not so much the entertainment it provides but the wisdom inherent in it, the sense of what life is about and how each of us might negotiate our way through it. You come away from Mr. Fry’s book with some hints about all that: something to do with the shame and regret about the ways you have hurt people and about the things you’ve done wrong, combined with a tremendous sense of gratitude for your many gifts and advantages, not least of them being your good luck, and an enthusiasm for making the best of the opportunities remaining to you.

 

Personal (Mystery/Thriller) by Lee Child, 2014

In this outing, Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s hero to millions of fans, is persuaded to investigate a plot that is apparently aimed at assassinating some world leaders at an upcoming G8 meeting in London. It seems that a recent sniper attack on the President of France was a sort of rehearsal or audition for the big show. (The President was saved by protective glass around his podium.) Given the extraordinary skill demonstrated in that shot, Reacher and his military consultants have narrowed the likely perpetrators down to a short list of the world’s best snipers. One of them is an American soldier, just released from prison for murder. And guess what? It was Reacher who nailed him for that one.

I prefer the Reacher books in which he arrives in some seemingly tranquil locale, subsequently finding himself immersed in the nefarious goings-on there, rather than the books that involve him in international conspiracies like this, with lots of globe hopping. There’s a bit of James Bond flavour in this book, but without the glamour. However, the Reacher character is strong and engaging, the writing is snappy and brisk, as always. In the end, Mr. Child, true to form, provides an ingenious explanation of what the assassination plot’s really all about.

Reacher has never been lacking in quick wit and laconic humour but here he shows a knack for creative comedy that I’ve never noticed before. As in this description of a truck that one of his associates is offering for their mutual use:

....the engine started, eventually, after a bunch of popping and churning and then it idled, wet and lumpy. The transmission was slower than the postal service. She [his colleague] rattled the selector into reverse, and all the mechanical parts inside called the roll and counted a quorum and set about deciding what to do. Which required a lengthy debate, apparently, because it was whole seconds before the truck lurched backward. She turned the wheel, which looked like hard work, and then she jammed the selector into a forward gear, and first of all the reversing committee wound up its business and approved its minutes and exited the room, and then the forward crew signed on and got comfortable, and a motion was tabled and seconded and discussed. More whole seconds passed, and then the truck slouched forward, slow and stuttering at first, before picking up its pace and rolling implacably toward the exit gate.

One of Reacher’s most notable characteristics is in full evidence: his phenomenal ability to make instant and almost intuitive calculations of things like distance, speed and timing. This, after all, is what explains, to a large extent, Reacher’s mastery over many situations in which the rest of us would remain with our mouths hanging open in stupefaction. But another of Reacher’s trademark skills is overdone here: his physical prowess. A reader is always ready to grant a hero resources of strength and courage that go a little beyond the probable. In the case of Reacher, Mr. Child helps us along by emphasizing the guy’s brawn and his height (six-foot-five-inches). But here we’re being asked to put too much faith in the extraordinary powers of Reacher’s body, especially when it comes to a crucial encounter with a seven-foot behemoth of a villain. And yet, the fact that there isn’t any sex in the book could lead to the inference that Reacher’s getting too old for that sort of thing. If so, how come he can still whale on bad guys with undiminished fury?

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