Dilettante's Diary

Fall Reading 2015

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

Reviewed here:

  • Vanished Years (Memoir)
  • The Stranger (Mystery)
  • The Son (Mystery)
  • Blood On Snow (Mystery/Crime)
  • Cockroaches (Mystery)
  • Mr. Mercedes (Mystery/Crime)
  • The Sisters Brothers (Crime/Adventure)
  • Sapiens (History)
  • Me, Myself and Us (Psychology)

Vanished Years (Memoir) by Rupert Everett, 2012

Who knew that Rupert Everett was a writer?

If you’re the kind of fan who follows the lives of movie stars closely, this may not be news to you. I, however, am astonished to discover that Mr. Everett is a damn good writer. This memoir is filled with brilliant, witty prose. Apparently, it’s a follow-up to his very successful first memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.

No doubt, that book deals in detail with his early life and the beginnings of his acting career. Here, he only touches glancingly on his years as a student in a Catholic school, by way of introducing an escapade when he and some pals were skipping classes to attend a sexy foreign film, Performance. And the only reason for introducing that incident is that it links to his encountering the lead actress from that film, Anita Pallenberg, many years later in Jamaica. That’s the way the book proceeds: one memory sliding into another, without a lot of attempt to mark clear delineations in chronology and locations.

Time and again, Mr. Everett surprises me with flourishes of fine writing. Like the passage where, in a rush of words la Tom Wolfe, he describes the thrill of riding through Manhattan in a taxi on a hot summer night. And in this, about London in spring: "There was a palpable release of tension in the air, as if the earth was yawning and stretching, its grassy breath dusty and metallic perhaps, but elixir to us Londoners, weaned on exhaust fumes and rain." Or this, about seeing his parents in sleeping:

During the day the harsh reality of [their] old age was a constant challenge to my nerves, but at night I was transported outside time, when both my parents became beautiful and touching as they wrestled with oblivion on the pillow.

One of the most surprising things about the book to me – and maybe this isn’t such a surprise for people who know Mr. Everett better – is his utter candour. He’ll mention by name a certain actor or filmmaker that he despises. I don’t think I’ve ever read a showbiz memoir that’s so unsparing of the members of the profession. Mr. Everett makes it quite clear that he considers many of them vapid, vain, superficial and self-seeking. And you might not expect a successful movie star to go public with this tirade about the politics of the movie-making community:

This is millennium Hollywood. The real world is shifting and so is Tinseltown because now it looks as if we are going back to the Promised Land. George Bush wants to liberate Iraq and the import of this is not lost on our desert community of refugees’ grandchildren. The Middle East could soon become a second empire – Son of United States – with Tel Aviv as New York. The idea is mind-boggling and, of course, brilliant. Oil, peace and the Promised Land all rolled into one, and there is a pre-war blitz mentality bubbling up out here in the lubed desert. Quite suddenly Hollywood – so proud in the past of its liberal spurs, won in the last golden age of the seventies – reveals herself in a harsher and more brutal light.

Not that Mr. Everett is any kinder to himself than to his colleagues. He lets us know that he’s drunk a lot, and recreational drugs are often included among his indulgences. Regarding his quirks, his self-deprecating wit is irrepressible. About accompanying Madonna on a publicity jaunt, he says: "I am her ‘ami ncessaire’ and if I’m developing skin cancer from too much basking in her reflected glory, I don’t care." On telling us that he has assigned the nickname Frulein Maria" to his father’s nurse, a woman named, Marianne, Mr. Everett concedes: "You’ve probably noticed that sooner or later everything in my world is reduced to a Julie Andrews film....""

In a description of a visit to a Berlin gay club, he’s not afraid to show himself at his most ridiculous. On arriving, he discovered that it was a "nude night" but he decided to stay, doffing his clothes and putting them in a plastic bag as required by the management. When he wanted to leave, the management couldn’t find his clothes. Nothing for it but to start going through all the bags. By this time, some of the people in the club had recognized Mr. Everett but he was too flustered to care, being down on the floor, totally naked, scrambling to find his clothes:

Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, I suddenly feel my nudity and try to make myself as small as possible, which is not easy at six foot four. Only one thing is getting as small as possible and the myopic queen [the club attendant responsible for the bags] regards it disdainfully before pushing me to one side as he starts to give the others their bags.

How many Hollywood stars can you imagine giving an account of themselves in such humbling circumstances?

In a more serious vein, Mr. Everett can reveal devastating truths about himself. Here, he’s talking about the time when his eyes filled with tears on saying a final goodbye to a lover: "Was this real, or was I acting? Long ago I had stopped being able to tell the difference. That’s what a career in front of the camera does to you." Further on in this paragraph, he says: "....I had made my whole life into a film, a drama in which I took the leading role, and the line between fantasy and reality was at best a smudge."

When it comes to coruscating self-criticism, it would be hard to beat this description of his attitude while working on the pilot for Mr. Ambassador, a sitcom of his own devising:

You could say that I have been thoroughly taken by the flow of American show business. I think I’m swimming along in its embrace. Actually I am floundering. I am greedy and ruthless when I can remember to be – fatal. And the rest of the time I think I’m being rather marvellous and down to earth, but really what I think is that the sun shines out of my arsehole.

Going beyond himself and his circle of friends, Mr. Everett’s insights broaden to include astute sociological observations. Talking about a flamboyant gay man that he used to visit when he was seventeen, he says: "Unfortunately, this type of queer is largely extinct now, but in the seventies there were still quite a few left, and it was in their drawing rooms that one still heard the nuance and timbre of Wilde." This passage about his mother’s background succinctly says a lot about changes in British civilization:

Her generation buried its head in the sand, grasped desperately at the values of the past and nursed the hangover of rationing, debbing and standing up when grown-ups came in and calling everybody sir, as the two-hundred-year party wound down and a cold crisp dawn came up on the welfare state.

And here, he’s speaking of the way men age:

Best newcomer, executive of the year, employee of the month, fastest centre forward on the local team: all these absolutes are nothing more than stations, often too insignificant in the main-line scheme of things for our little puffing train even to stop at.

When a man first feels that hurtling sensation, his world has packed up like a travelling stage set and he is quite suddenly falling through thin air, a dot in immeasurable space, with neither ground beneath his feet, nor parachute on his back.

While Mr. Everett’s characteristic tone could be described as ironic and/or sarcastic, he takes a surprisingly reserved approach to Lourdes. His father, in failing health, had wanted to make a pilgrimage to the famous shrine and that led the younger Mr. Everett to recall an earlier trip he’d made there in the company of some gay pals. Mr. Everett doesn’t apply any of his wicked humour to his telling about the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous. The tone is respectful and matter-of-fact. Does that mean that Mr. Everett is a believer? Hard to tell. He does say that he was raised a Catholic but he certainly doesn’t seem to feel any Catholic guilt about the liberal exercise of his gay sexuality. (Maybe he dealt with that issue in the earlier book?)

Whatever his connection with Catholicism, it doesn’t stop him from providing some great comedy in these thoughts about a jolly gathering with some clerics at Lourdes:

Everyone was having a marvellous time. Maybe this was salvation after all, and heaven was nothing more than a giant flapping marquee in the sky. God ambling over, tipsy, slightly overweight, a bottle of red in one hand, white in the other, saying nothing complicated like, ‘I am who is,’ just ‘Aren’t we lucky with the weather? Chablis?’

But you won’t find much to smile about in Mr. Everett’s account of his travels as a goodwill ambassador to spots such as an orphanage in Cambodia and a ward for AIDS patients in the gloomy basement of a Russian hospital. His despair over the conditions he witnesses and his awareness of the futility of his efforts are heart-wrenching. Still, he manages to make a few sly digs at his vanity. Although he walks into a bar in Cambodia and sees himself in a movie on tv, he can’t help registering the diminishing effect of his status as a celebrity.

And that’s consistent with another attractive quality of the book: Mr. Everett doesn’t agonize over his wounds. You pick up hints that, like any human being, he has been deeply hurt on occasion but he passes lightly over most of those events. In this memoir, the only thing he gets really angry about is the way the Daily Mirror twisted his comments after a lengthy conversation with a reporter, following the death of Michael Jackson. The published article made it look as though Mr. Everett felt that Michael Jackson deserved to die, whereas Mr. Everett was, in fact, very sympathetic to him.

As for Mr. Everett’s more muted response to the slings and arrows of life, there’s the time when he had his one-and-only talk with his father about things like love and sex. The father notes that he’s heard that Rupert and Martin (someone we haven’t heard of) have split up. Rupert confirms that they have. The dad asks if there’s any way that it can be fixed. The son says no, there isn’t. And that’s the end of the matter. You can read a great deal of sadness into that brief exchange.

And then there was the time when Mr. Everett was acting in a six-month Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit, starring the fabled Angela Lansbury. One night in his dressing room, he asked the theatre manager why he wasn’t receiving the box office percentages owed to him. The manager came back to the dressing room the next night, having studied Mr. Everett’s contract, and reported that he wasn’t getting a percentage. Mr. Everett simply says, "Oh, how very discouraging." You can tell that his simple response was hiding what would have been a blow, not just to an actor’s finances, but more so to his ego.

Mr. Everett’s account of that production is the meatiest and most rewarding part of the book, for me. He appears to have got on well with the celebrated star but you don’t have to do much digging between the lines to get the message that there were serious conflicts among other cast members. On the other hand, we get touching vignettes of Mr. Everett and his dresser, a devoted theatrical veteran, who was always trying to stop Mr. Everett from drinking too much before going on stage. At times, they were snapping at each other but they were both in tears when it came time to say goodbye to each other at the end of the run. But the most striking aspect of Mr. Everett’s report on the Broadway experience was that he found it nearly impossible to get through the six-month commitment. If anybody ever thought that starring in a show on Broadway would be a glamorous way to make a living, Mr. Everett’s account of the gruelling ordeal might shed a different light on the matter.

 

The Stranger (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2015

Some people read far more mysteries than I do. It’s not that I’m a snob about the matter; my problem is that it’s so hard to find good ones. (So maybe I am a snob?) But a mystery writer whose status, for me, rises with every book is Harlan Coben. One of the things that makes his latest book especially good, in my view, is that it lacks the touch of sadistic violence you find in most of his other books. Often, there’s some character in those novels who loves hurting people in a way that can make for unpleasant reading. Not only is that sort of thing missing in The Stranger, one of the major ‘villains’ even gives a relatively reasonable explanation for his nefarious scheming.

Which amounts to finding out dire secrets about people and revealing those secrets in such a way that serious trouble ensues. We start in a Legion Hall where Adam Price, a friendly, well-meaning dad of two sons, is standing at the bar. A stranger approaches and engages in a hush-hush conversation with Adam, the gist of it being that Adam’s wife, Corinne, faked a third pregnancy to make him stay with her. Before Adam can register what has hit him, the stranger departs. We soon begin to witness just how the elusive stranger goes about wrecking havoc in other people’s lives. The way the stories of these people are inter-connected and the explanations for what’s going on turn out to be – in typical Harlan Coben fashion – very complicated. But the connections – and this is the important point – aren’t incomprehensible or unbelievable.

While the main pleasure of the book is the way the plot moves swiftly with its clean, crisp prose, several other aspects of the writing elicit admiration and appreciation. I like the way Mr. Coben shows how well he understands family life in our times. In that opening scene, in fact, Adam’s reason for being in the Legion Hall is that he’s attending a draft session where local parents are going to decide which boys get to play on the all-star lacrosse team. As the story moves along and Adam is trying to cope with the devastation from the bombshell that the stranger detonated, Mr. Harben makes several interesting observations about marriage and parenting. There’s the moment when Adam suddenly realizes that one of his sons has stopped kissing him on the cheek when he’s heading out. And here’s what Adam’s thinking, on having decided to leave paper plates for the boys’ dinner when he and their mother are out:

...it was pretty much a given that if he forced real plates on them, they’d be in the sink when he and Corinne came home. Corinne would then complain to Adam. Adam would then have to scream for the boys to come down and put their plates in the dishwasher. The boys would claim that they were just about to do it – yeah, right – but not to worry because they’d be down and do it when their show was over in five (read: fifteen) minutes....

Here, Adam is thinking about why he trusts his wife, even in the face of the stranger’s revelation:

Many things slipped away with time, broke down and dissolved or, more optimistically, altered and changed, but the one thing that seems to remain and grow more cohesive is the protective family bond – you are a team, you and your spouse. You are on the same side, in this together, you have each other’s backs. Your victories are hers. So are your failures.

How’s the following for keen observation of human nature?

Today he was being reminded yet again of the obvious: The world doesn’t give even the slightest damn about us or our petty problems. We never quite get that, do we? Our lives have been shattered – shouldn’t the rest of us take notice? But no. To the outside world, Adam looked the same, acted the same, felt the same. We get mad at someone for cutting us off in traffic or for taking too long to order at Starbucks or for not responding exactly as we see fit, and we have no idea that behind their facade, they may be dealing with some industrial-strength shit. Their lives may be in pieces. They may be in the midst of incalculable tragedy and turmoil, and they may be hanging on to their sanity by a threat.

But we don’t care. We don’t see. We just keep pushing.

You do notice a few writer-ish tricks on Mr. Coben’s part. Quite often, when someone is confronting someone else or when someone has some crucial information to reveal, there’s a lot of stalling and evasion until we finally get to the point. Although this is an obvious device for building suspense, it works well because Mr. Coben fills the intervening moments with life-like dialogue. I did wonder, though, about the believability of a few physical details. Would a guy survive relatively unharmed after being bashed over the head with a baseball bat? And would a woman’s body still look beautiful after being buried in the earth for a few days?

On the other hand, I was impressed with the way Mr. Coben created the character of a certain witness to an incident. Mr. Coben made the witness a mentally troubled man, a nearly homeless person who was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was entirely plausible, then, that he would remember the details that the plot required him to remember. Sound a bit contrived? Maybe. But Mr. Coben makes it work perfectly.

 

The Son (Mystery/Crime) by Jo Nesb, 2014; translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Having been very impressed with Jo Nesb’s Blood on Snow, but less pleased with his Cockroaches, I decided to read another of his books, by way of trying to get some sense of his writing overall. The verdict, having added The Son, to the evidence, would be moderately favourable to Mr. Nesb. The Son is nowhere near as good as Blood on Snow, but better than Cockroaches.

The Son is a strange book, quite unlike the typical murder mystery. It’s intriguing, to be sure, but a reader can find it frustrating trying to figure out how all the parts fit together. There are so many characters, so many bewildering situations, that it takes some patience to get the picture that Mr Nesb is building.

Gradually, we begin to see that the main character is a young man called Sonny, a heroin addict who has been in prison for a murder. The authorities keep him supplied with drugs in return for his confessing to other murders that the crime bosses don’t want to be associated with. Fake evidence is planted to connect Sonny to these crimes when necessary. Of course, this scheme requires a corrupt prison official. But Sonny himself is portrayed as something of a saint. There is a pacifist wisdom and gentleness about him that induces other prisoners to confess their crimes to him and to receive his blessing.

Weird, huh?

It will turn out that those confessions will have important ramifications. In the meantime, Sonny cleverly stages an escape from prison and swears to get off heroin. His difficult life outside the walls leads him to confrontations with a menagerie of vivid characters. Meanwhile, we learn that Sonny’s father was a highly-respected cop who, having been accused of being a mole for the crime bosses, killed himself. Now, unexplained murders start happening all over town. Is it possible that Sonny has something to do with them? That doesn’t seem like our saintly Sonny. Can we rely on Inspector Simon Kefas and his feisty new assistant to make sense of all this?

In the creation of such an elaborate scenario, Mr Nesb exhibits tremendous ingenuity. Almost too much, I would say. The story is constantly stopping for elaborate background info on characters. Every time we get a new scene in a new location, we encounter people who have to be introduced to us in great detail. In the case of a taxi cab driver, who has a very small role to play, we have to get a little bit of his past life in order to appreciate why he is going to make the decision that he makes in his one scene. Another aspect of the story causes us to enter intimately into the life of a boy who isn’t much more than a witness to some of the more important events. So many of these incidental characters are introduced that, when their names crop up many pages later, you can’t remember who they are.

Still, the writing offers many fine touches. As for instance, the situation of a social worker who is diagnosed with "compassion fatigue." And I found the inspector’s nostalgic visit to a Catholic church very evocative. He described the smell as "Foreign. Exotic. An atmosphere of spirituality. Magic and mysticism, fortune-teller and travelling circus." And the stained glass windows struck him as "endowed with a religious symbolism that bordered on the comical. And yet this simple symbolism possessed a gravitas, a subtext, a historical context and the faith of so many thinking people that it was impossible to dismiss."

Among the book’s flaws, though, there’s a tendency to fall into a narrative style that can be dull – they did this, then they did that . Also, there’s too much backstory. Within just five pages, we get emotional reactions from two different characters described as an "electric shock." Another thing that bugs me is that the book is divided, for no discernible reason, into five parts, each labelled with pretentious roman numerals. There’s an unnecessary touch of melodrama in that the inspector’s wife needs an expensive operation that he can’t afford, and that’s supposed to make us fear that he might go to the bad guys to get the money. And there’s absolutely no excuse for the book’s including a silly story with elements that include a home for unwed mothers, a father who may or may not have been a spy, a suicide, a murder, a ghost and a disappeared baby

In spite of the book’s merits, I can’t shake the impression that Mr Nesb is trying too hard to create a profound, searching novel about weighty things. Is Fyodor Dostoyevsky his model? I grant that The Son would make a good movie, in a moody, brooding style. But slogging through all this material in written form would have been too exasperating if Mr. Nesb hadn’t made me so keen to see how it ended.

 

 

Blood On Snow (Crime) by Jo Nesb, 2015; English translation by Neil Smith, 2015

It might seem strange to claim that a book about a hitman, narrated in the first person by that hitman, could be beautiful. But that’s the main impression this book makes on me.

Olav, our narrator, works mostly for a crime boss, "fixing" people who have become obstacles to the boss’s business. At the opening of the book, the boss has given Olav an assignment that seems problematic to him. He therefore alters his course, makes some moves based on his own assessment of the situation, and that leads to major consequences. Some of the space in this relatively short book – just over 200 small pages – is taken up with Olav’s reflections on past cases but these passages don’t seem like filler, given that we’re inside Olav’s mind; it’s to be expected that he would become preoccupied at times with thoughts about previous jobs.

I don’t know why author, Jo Nesb, has set this story in the 1970s, unless it’s that the crime scene in Oslo would have been a bit simpler then. About the only consequence of the decades old setting that I can see is that cell phones didn’t exist back then. Olav has to make all his contacts through a pay phone in his neighbourhood. He won’t take the risk of having his own phone because he’s careful not to let anybody know where he lives.

One thing that helps to make Olav’s story more palatable than you might expect is his conviction that he has never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it. In his eyes, he’s administering something like justice. What really makes the book for me, though, is the fact that Olav is a unique, fascinating character. A lot of his individuality comes through in his distinctive voice. He’s trenchant, taciturn but not a clich of a tough guy, not a thug. He has an honest, ordinary sound, one that exhibits a mordant humour, without trying to be funny. He states things simply and truthfully. No attempt to impress. It isn’t until the last few pages of the book that he says anything about his appearance:

It’s probably a bit late to mention it now, but in case I haven’t said, I’ve got long, slightly lank, blond hair and a beard, I’m average height and I’ve got blue eyes. That’s pretty much me.

Some of my favourite Olav moments:

  • After admitting to feeling "a bit guilty" about something, he says: "But obviously there’s a big difference between feeling a bit guilty and a lot guilty."
  • "The snow crunched under the soles of my boots, like the snapping spines of dusty old books, but I was thinking. I usually try to avoid doing that. It’s not an area where I see any hope of improvement with practice, and experience has taught me that it rarely leads to anything good."
  • After a major setback: "The reason I had started with Plan B was that there wasn’t a single thing I liked about Plan A."

Olav doesn’t come across as highly educated or sophisticated. But his mental horizons aren’t totally limited. For instance, he’s capable of referring to David Hume’s ideas in an off-hand, colloquial way. Here’s an example of Olav’s thinking on one of the big questions:

What is it that makes us realise we’re going to die? What is it that happens on the day when we acknowledge it isn’t just a possibility, but an unavoidable fucking fact that our life will come to an end? Obviously everyone will have different reasons, but for me it was watching my father die. Seeing how banal and physical it was, like a fly hitting a windscreen.

And this occurs to him while he’s standing with a woman at an apartment window:

And I thought that if anyone down in the street looked up at that moment, they might think they were looking at a plastic tube trying to imitate cosy home life, happy families, a sense of Christmas. And they might imagine that the people up there had everything I wished I had. Up there they lived the sort of lives people ought to live. I don’t know. I just know that that’s what I would have been thinking.

When it comes to crime fiction, this is not Richard Price’s world with its complex societies, their multiple strands woven together like threads in a tapestry. Mr. Lesbo’s prose is spare, very clean, with a minimum of detail. There’s a bleak, noir-ish quality to the work. Albert Camus comes to mind. The ending includes a touch of surrealism, something that usually irks me. But here it’s used to heart-breaking effect. Like I said: beautiful!

 

Cockroaches (Mystery) by Jo Nesb, 1998; English translation by Don Bartlett, 2013

Having admired Jo Nesb’s Blood On Snow so much, I decided to give this earlier one a try. It’s apparently one installment in a tremendously successful series about detective Harry Hole. In this book, he’s sent to Thailand to investigate a case in which the Norwegian Ambassador has been found dead in a brothel. Of course, there’s pressure from the bureaucrats that nothing about the unseemly circumstances of the death should become public knowledge.

By comparison with Blood On Snow, this novel turned out to be disappointing. It may be okay as the average mystery goes, but I found it deficient in terms of originality and inventiveness. Harry moves ploddingly from one witness to another. As he gathers information, more secrets about everybody are revealed in the fashion typical of so many mysteries these days. We get so much of the sounds and sights of Thailand that, at times, it feels like a travelogue. I got the feeling that author Nesb had visited there and thought to himself: hmm, what a good setting this would make for a mystery! He then proceeded to laboriously build one around the setting, including as much local colour and history as he could. We’re treated to lectures about the country’s royalty, boxing and traffic, to mention just a few subjects.

As all this was so prosaic, I couldn’t read much beyond the half way point of the nearly 400 page book. Mind you, I liked Harry. He seems to be kind of a loose cannon among the Oslo police. He has ruffled lots of feathers in the past and the higher-ups are wary of him. He’s also struggling – like so many fictional detectives these days – not to fall back into his alcoholism. Another endearing thing about Harry is that he’s worried about his sister back home. She has Down Syndrome and has recently suffered an unfortunate trauma. Harry keeps wondering if she’s ok and if there’s anything he should be doing to help her. I would have liked to follow him on his Thailand quest if only the author had made it a little more interesting.

 

Mr. Mercedes (Mystery/Crime) by Stephen King, 2014

For many years, I’d assumed that Stephen King’s books weren’t for me: mostly horror, blood and gore. But then I read an article he wrote, for The New Yorker, I believe, about the near fatal accident he’d had when a vehicle hit him while he was walking on a road near his home. The article was brimming with gratitude for the gift of life and appreciation of the kindness of many people – medical professionals and others – who had seen him through his ordeal. It made me like the guy.

So maybe I should try one of his books some day? Then came an interview with him on CBC Radio about his book on the JFK assassination. The book sounded like, not a re-telling of the killing, or a backgrounder, more of a "What-if?" book. What would subsequent world history have been like if JFK had not been assassinated? Quite a promising premise! Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t able to read very much of the book. It involved a time-travel gimmick. Too much sci-fi and fantasy for me. (My more detailed comments about the book, titled 11/22/63, are on DD page dated May 20/12)

I’m glad to say, then, that Mr. King has finally come up with a book I like. It’s not exactly a mystery. The detective doesn’t know who the bad buy is but we do. In fact, he’s taunting the detective all through the book. The question is whether the detective is going to identify the villain and nail him before he stages a huge mass killing.

The perp’s first big move in that direction, the crime that opens the book, was driving a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of unemployed people who had been standing in the rain all night, waiting for the opening of a job fair. Several were killed, many others injured. Subsequently, the perpetrator sends a typed letter to Bill Hodges, a cop who has recently retired, having spent several fruitless months on trying to solve the case of the Mercedes killing. The writer of the letter tells Hodges how much he enjoyed the thrill of killing those people. And the writer clearly knows a lot about Hodges, including the fact that the boredom and frustration of retirement are making him think of committing suicide. Hodges’ correspondent more or less invites him to do it. On the other hand, he offers Hodges the possibility of their communicating with each other on a super-secure and secret website.

As you might guess, Hodges chooses the latter of those alternatives (otherwise, no novel!). Mr. King spins a compelling account of the deadly cat-and-mouse game that goes on between Hodges and the killer. One thing that gives the chase a special flavour is that Hodges, being a retired cop, isn’t legally allowed to do a lot of the things he sets out to do. He knows he should have turned the perp’s letter over to his colleagues who are still on the job, but he can’t resist this chance to close the case on his own.

Another thing that makes the book distinctive is that Mr. King paints such a convincing and fully-rounded picture of the killer. Maybe this is the sort of thing that’s Mr. King’s specialty. There’s certainly a creepy aspect to this character, not least in terms of his sexuality vis a vis his mother. What’s especially remarkable is that he knows he’s mentally ill, abnormal. But, as he admits to himself in the privacy of his thoughts: "....abnormal men don’t like other people to know they’re abnormal."

And yet, he does show some normal reactions and feelings that help to make him seem more human, less monster. He thus becomes, not likeable, but understandable. Granted, he once helped to hasten the death of his severely handicapped brother, but he’s often hit by fond, sad feelings about the brother. On the other hand, he occasionally bursts into fits of laughter that, if they’re not exactly heart-warming, show him as a person who can get some pleasure from the ironies of life, just as anybody can.

One of the most impressive passages of writing in the book is what you might call this guy’s "Manifesto" or his Iago aria (as in the opera, Otello). He’s musing on the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center:

Those clowns actually thought they were going to paradise, where they’d live in a kind of eternal luxury hotel being serviced by gorgeous young virgins. Pretty funny, and the best part? The joke was on them.....not that they knew it. What they got was a momentary view of all those windows and a final flash of light. After that, they and their thousands of victims were just gone. Poof. Seeya later, alligator. Off you go, killers and killed alike, off you go into the universal null set that surrounds one lonely blue planet and all its mindlessly bustling denizens. Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.

By conducting us through myriad complex situations, Mr. King constructs a terrifically intense struggle between this madman and Hodges. The story builds to a nerve-wracking climax that reminds me of the high point of the old Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Close to the climax of Mr. Mercedes, Mr. King builds in more suspense – and some social satire – by introducing the infuriating function of a robotic phone answering system at a point when Hodges is trying to make an urgent call.

Apart from Mr. King’s mastery of plot, many fine features of his writing come to light.

  • When Hodges wakes up in the morning, having decided to take on a personal hunt for the killer, his depressed thoughts about suicide seem to have left him. He’s making breakfast and he’s surprised to hear someone singing: "It’s him."
  • At times, the dialogue can be a bit laboured but you do get some snappy bits, as in Hodges’ response to a colleague who proposes meeting for lunch the next day: "My schedule is jammed, Obama was coming by for my advice on the budget, but I suppose I could rearrange a few things. Seeing’s how it’s you."
  • When the two men do get together, Mr. King offers this astute observation on human nature: "Their wives, both of the ex variety, are touched upon (as if to prove to each other – and themselves – that they are not afraid to talk about them) and then banished from the conversation."
  • These two guys are hip enough that they aren’t afraid to indulge in a bit of faux-gay behaviour. After their lunch, the other guy plants a big kiss on Hodges’ forehead and says: "Great to see you, sweetheart." When the guys meet again, Hodges greets his colleague with a compliment on his appearance, delivered "in a not-too-bad Church Lady voice."
  • I took it as an amusing nod from Mr. King to another celebrated crime writer – but perhaps not a flattering nod? – when he has the killer browsing through a Lee Child novel while waiting to pull off a scam.

At one point, I was congratulating Mr. King on avoiding the inevitable banalities of a sex scene. An attractive woman is inviting Hodges up to her apartment where she’ll make some coffee and he’ll write up a report. Mr. King then tells us: "But there’s no report until much later, and no coffee at all." However, Mr. King then went ahead and gave us the sex. I’m not sure if the attempt to lighten it with jokes saved the writing from the usual pitfalls.

One potential pitfall that’s probably inescapable in a book by Mr. King is the gothic note. There’s a touch of that in some talk about ghosts but it’s such a minor element in the book that it didn’t seriously bother me. It was, however, difficult to read through that opening scene that’s going to end in the cruel deaths of so many people. Mr. King is unsparing in making us feel the full horror of it. But even in this context, he includes a touching example of gratuitous human kindness. A rain has started to fall on those unemployed people waiting in that line. A young man offers his sleeping bag as shelter to a young woman who is carrying her baby in her arms. When she asks him why he’s being so nice to her, he says with a shrug: "Because we’re here."

 

The Sisters Brothers (Novel) by Patrick deWitt, 2011

[Publicity about a more recent book by Patrick deWitt made me realize that I’d forgotten to post this review of his earlier book]

This book, written by a Canadian, was short-listed for so many awards – including the ultra-prestigious Man Booker Prize – that no Canadian reader could ignore it without feeling something like a chump. From what I was hearing, it sounded like a lot of people felt it was better than the books that did win some of those prizes. Reportedly, readers were loving the kooky tale about two brothers who, around 1850, are heading out from Oregon City, to gold rush country in California. The brothers, it turns out, are hired killers who make their living by polishing off other peoples’ enemies. In this case, their target is a gold-seeker who has swindled a big shot back in Oregon.

Early on, it becomes apparent that one of the best things about the book is its vivid portrayal of the wild and unruly times and territory. (Occasionally it brings to mind the movie Django Unchained.) The two brothers encounter everything in the way of brawls, gunfights, brothels, whores, accidents, tragedies, injuries, deaths, killings, duels, madness, amputations, buildings burning down, sickness, cheating and bravado. I can’t think of any other book – not that I read a lot of this kind – that conveys so tangibly the life on horseback: the bedding down by campfires, the scounging for food and shelter. Most of the men the brothers encounter, having not shaved or bathed for weeks, reek intensely. Some of the women aren’t much cleaner.

Another good thing about the book, one that grows on you more slowly, is way the brothers’ characters and their relationship are portrayed. The younger brother, Eli, is the narrator. There’s something soft-spoken and ingenuous about him. That may seem incongruous, given his profession, but author deWitt makes Eli’s character very credible. He’s a quiet, interior sort of guy. His observations are worth hearing. The older brother, Charlie, is more of an extrovert, impulsive and bossy. He seems to take it for granted that nature has intended him to be the leader of the pair. Something about their odd companionship made me think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I’m not sure whether it’s just a coincidence that, later in the book, a potential cohort named Sanchez does turn up.

In Eli’s narrative voice, Mr. deWitt has striven for a slightly antiquated, formal sound. For the most part, this helps to create the feel of the era – with some lapses, though. At one point, Charlie heads off into the woods, saying that he needs "to go to the toilet." Was the toilet invented by then? Even if it was, would one of these desperadoes use that term to speak of what he was doing? That quibble aside, Mr. deWitt’s creation of Eli’s narration makes for some lovely writing:

I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bathtub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, the dynamic between the brothers begins to change. Who could fail to be touched by this from Eli?

I found my lip was quivering; my feelings were so deeply injured that morning, looking at my brother on his fine, tall horse, and knowing he did not love me the way I had always loved and admired him and looked up to him....

It would require giving away too much plot to say much more, except that the book becomes more interesting – for me – when Eli starts to question what seemed to be the ordained order of his and Charlie’s lives.

My main reason for finishing the book, however, was that I was attempting (not entirely successfully) to figure out why people liked it so much. I couldn’t find any of the much-vaunted humour. Unless, perhaps, it was the contrast between Eli’s droll commentary and the horrendous violence going on around him and Charlie. A ghastly operation on a horse’s diseased eye is served up with a dash of slapstick that did nothing to lighten the proceedings for me. Admittedly, there was something piquant in Eli’s explanation of the fact that his mother – of all people! – told him to masturbate when he needed to calm his soul. It’s rather charming, as well, to note Eli’s enchantment with his discovery of the humble toothbrush and the way it’s intended to be used.

In my terms, though, the book’s very sentimental ending isn’t earned. Maybe the great popularity of the book can be attributed to the fact that it appeals to vast numbers of people who like wild tales. The book has the effect of somebody spinning yarns by the campfire: one damn thing after another. I prefer fiction that relies less on outrageous adventures and helps us to understand ourselves by showing how folk like us respond to more ordinary events.

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (History, Anthropology) by Yuval Noah Harari, 2014

That subtitle makes a pretty grandiose claim. But the book does live up to it. Yuval Noah Harari, a Professor of History in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, gives an overview of what’s been going down among us human types in the last couple of million years or so. Depending on how much you know about evolution and anthropology, he may give you a very different way of looking at us and our place in the world.

The subject of evolution interests me a lot and, although I’m by no means an expert on it, I’m fairly well acquainted with the general tenets of the subject. Where Professor Harari’s book entered new territory for me was his discussion of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution. Something happened in the human brain about 70,000 years ago. Until that point, our ancestors had been good at speaking, naming and identifying things, but suddenly these humans were capable of speaking of imagined things and things that didn’t exist in material form. The exchanging of information about relationships (less academically known as ‘gossip’) became a favourite human pastime. This led to social constructs. Thus systems or notional realities like religions, corporations and nations eventually became realities for us.

(I’ve since learned that many scientists don’t hold with this theory of something as startling and abrupt as the so-called Cognitive Revolution. Their belief, in so far as I understand it, is that the human capacities which supposedly emerged at this point, according to the theory of the Cognitive Revolution, were present in humans much earlier. Because of the increasing size of the human population at this time, more artefacts demonstrating imaginative powers are found from this period and this is what gives the impression of a revolution in our mental capacities.)

The next big change in our development, of course, was the agricultural revolution, around 10,000 BCE. Most of us have probably thought of that as a big step forward for humans. It gave people a steady supply of food, thus enabling them to live in settled communities, to lower infant mortality, to live longer. But Professor Harari sees this revolution as pretty much of a scam, a con job. Now life was much worse for most people. Instead of roaming freely, obtaining their food by hunting and gathering, they were tied down to agricultural responsibilities. Property ownership entered the picture. That meant most humans were working for somebody else, building up the boss’s wealth. Only the people at the top had much better lives as a result of the agricultural revolution.

Look at the effect of just one crop. "We did not domesticate wheat," Professor Harari says. "It domesticated us." Here’s his view of the devastating effect it had on our quality of life:

Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.

What’s so bad about all that? you may ask. Didn’t the Bible tell us that we had to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow? Here’s Professor Harari’s answer:

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias.

As Professor Harari moves on through the millenia of humankind’s march across this planet, he raises fascinating points on nearly every page. Since it would be impossible in a short review to do justice to many of them, here follow some of his observations that struck a special spark with me:

  • Human instincts for socializing were adapted only for small groups. That’s why sociologists have found that the ‘natural’ size of a bonded group or community is a maximum of about 150 people. (Could this be why some of us are overwhelmed by things like crowded subways where we’re forced into close contact with so many strangers?)
  • "Luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations." Look at how our many modern time-saving devices have led to more and more work. Nowadays, it’s so simple to dash off an email, that we’re inundated with them.
  • There is some evidence that, because life in the pre-agricultural era required so much awareness and canny skill, the average human brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. (This reminds me of one of the points made by Richard Rudgley in The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, reviewed on DD page "Winter Reading 2015")
  • Our desires are shaped mostly by myths about romance, nationalism, capitalism, consumerism and humanism. For example, the advice to "Follow your heart" stems from notions implanted in us by nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths.
  • Every culture embodies what Professor Harari calls cognitive dissonance. For instance, the modern world can’t quite reconcile things like complete freedom and communal responsibility. These contradictions, or inconsistencies, are, as Professor Harari sees them, engines that drive creativity and dynamism in our species.
  • The Scientific Revolution, beginning in the sixteenth century, wasn’t so much a revolution of knowledge as of ignorance. The most important discovery was that humans, who previously thought they knew everything about the world, now realized that they didn’t have the answers to many important questions.
  • With recourse to extensive historical information, Professor Harari vividly illustrates how capitalism, imperialism and science, i.e. the quest for knowledge, are inter-twined.

One of Professor Harari’s most striking themes, in the eyes of your reviewer (who is not a professional historian), has to do with history. A historian’s job, says Professor Harari, isn’t to explain "why" things happen, but "how" they did. So much of what has happened in the human story was accountable to mere chance. Who could have predicted, in 1913, that a small, radical Bolshevik faction in Russia would take over the country within four years? History, then, shouldn’t be viewed in a deterministic way. The purpose of studying history is not to make predictions, Professor Harari says, "...but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine."

Another of the most important subjects in the book is the connection between agriculture and industry. The industrialization of agriculture led to the Industrial Revolution. Formerly in most countries, peasants i.e. farmers, formed 90% of the population. Now, only 2% of the population of the United States is required to grow the food for everybody. That leaves lots of people to work in other industries. "Without the industrialisation of agriculture the urban Industrial Revolution could never have taken place – there would not have been enough hands and brains to staff factories and offices." The result of this sweeping change through society is that ever-increasing production requires more and more consumption to keep the socio-economic system working. Hence, consumerism has become the de-facto religion of our times.

If you’re going to appreciate Professor Harari’s book for what it is, you have to accept that much of it isn’t hard science or irrefutable fact, but opinion and interpretation. The pages are replete with expressions like: "It’s reasonable to assume," and "It’s hard to imagine...." or "It’s hard to believe" and "There are certainly good reasons to believe." [not all exact quotes] Ok, if you want to argue with Professor Harari go ahead. If you don’t feel that there are good reasons to believe what he’s proposing, speak up. But you’re going to be up against a guy who’s extremely knowledgeable and whose grasp of these subjects is probably much more secure than yours or mine.

Fascinating and wide-ranging as Professor Harari’s erudition is, towards the end of his book, it begins to sound a bit like after-dinner speechifying. There’s a certain rhetorical clang to his text as he talks about today’s world with all its promise and its perils. In the onslaught of dire and/or sanguine observations, I began to lose the thread of the book. Where was it going? Gradually, though, I began to see that this is exactly what Professor Harari is asking about us: where is humanity heading?

Summing up humanity’s track record so far, Professor Harari isn’t very impressed with what he sees: "Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of." I’m thinking: not Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo? Professor Harari’s gloom, however, isn’t so much about what we’ve done but what we’ve not done: our failure to decrease the amount of suffering in the world. Our huge advances in technology and such have often made life worse for many humans, not to mention the misery we have inflicted on other animals. But Professor Harari does strike an optimistic note on the subject of war. Major international war is less likely to happen now, he says, because the threat of nuclear holocaust fosters pacifism. That leads to flourishing trade and more inter-connection among nations in terms of economics and foreign policies. This, in turn, causes nations to be less independent of each other, which means that each one would be less likely to launch full-scale war on its own.

But are we, even with the relatively peaceful state of the world today, any happier than ever? Professor Harari looks at many contemporary studies on happiness and asks: if we are not happier as a result of all our progress, then what’s the point of it? The closest he comes to offering any key to happiness, any kind of philosophy that he finds helpful, is his treatment of Buddhism. Professor Harari seems to feel that the best hope for a contented life is the Buddhist awareness that our cravings for what we hope will make us happy are temporary, if not illusory. The most likely way to be happy is to see them as such, not to be attached to them.

Professor Harari ends with a rather chilly view of the future of humankind. Given the astounding and fast-paced developments in things like genetic engineering and bionics, he feels certain that humanity will be very much changed in the not too distant future. It’s quite possible that those who can afford the necessary interventions could become a-mortal. That is to say, they might not be susceptible to death from disease or organic malfunction. Of course, they could still be killed by accident – and that would make them more anxious than ever.

We cannot know exactly how these futuristic scenarios will play out, but the prospects can be scary. Vigilance is necessary.

The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps the real question facing us is not "What do we want to become?", but "What do we want to want?" Those who are not spooked by this question have probably not given it enough thought.

About Professor Harari’s nervous view of our future, a note of caution is in order. He seems not to take account of the religious faith in many people. He clearly lives in a world without God. Fine. I can understand that that’s how he sees things. Early on in his book, he noted that the Cognitive Revolution enabled our minds to imagine non-existent things – gods for instance. I guess he thinks that acknowledgment of this circumstance should lead to the demise of religion, at least as far as reasonable, insightful people are concerned. But I don’t think it has. Not that I’m espousing any cheery reliance on the Almighty. Just that I think that many people, thanks to their faith, view the future in a far less gloomy way than Professor Harari does. They’re still part of the human story. Is it possible that their faith – or optimism, if you want to call it that – will have some way of helping us to avoid the looming chaos? Or will it propel us further in that direction?

 

Me, Myself, And Us (Psychology) by Brian Little, 2014

If you’ve heard of Brian Little, it’s probably because of Susan Cain’s phenomenally popular Quiet, a book extolling the virtues of being an introvert. In that book, Ms. Cain talked about Brian Little, a Harvard psychology prof, whose lectures were so dynamic and entertaining that students lined up in the halls to try to get into his classes. And yet, the point of Ms. Cain’s mentioning Professor Little is that he is, as he himself confesses, a certifiable, card-carrying introvert. Ms. Cain cited him as a shining example of a person who can act against his or her most basic personality type, if there’s a good purpose for doing so – the purpose, in Professor Little’s case being to make learning exciting and satisfying for his students.

This book appears to be an overview of some of the main themes that Professor Little has propounded in his classes. (Still a popular lecturer, he divides his time between Ottawa and Cambridge, England.) As the title would suggest, he seems to believe that we’re all a compendium of inherent characteristics and tendencies as well as influences picked up from our nurturing, our surroundings and our culture. I’m not sure, though, that Professor Little ever states any such thesis explicitly in the book. Maybe he feels that the relevance of the title is obvious without its needing to be spelled out.

When it comes to trying to sum up personalities in quick n’ easy formulae, Professor Little isn’t a great fan of the hugely popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – mainly because it isn’t scientifically reliable. Your scores, hence your profile, can vary widely every time you take the test. A system that gauges personality more accurately, Professor Little feels, is one developed by Paul Costa and Robert R. McCrae. It measures traits or dimensions of personality. The words for the traits can be represented by the acronym OCEAN: O for openness to new experiences; C for conscientiousness; E for extroversion; A for agreeableness; and N for neuroticism. Not surprisingly, people who score high on Conscientiousness tend to be successful – with one notable exception: jazz musicians. To succeed in that field, it seems, it’s not so important to be reliable, to be a rule-follower; what’s more important is that you’re ready to wing it, to go with the flow.

One of the most interesting sections of Professor Little’s book, I find, is the one where he talks about self monitoring. Low self monitors are people who always seem to be themselves; their personalities don’t vary much from one situation to another. High self monitors, on the other hand, are people who tend to adapt themselves to whatever response they feel is required or expected in any situation. Professor Little provides an 18-point questionnaire to help you discover whether you’re a high or a low self monitor. The high self monitors tend to be more successful. But there are positive and negative ways of looking at either type of person. The high self monitors could be seen as hypocritical and scheming, whereas the low self monitors could be seen as more honest, more candid. Or, the high self monitors could be seen as more considerate, more willing to adapt in order not to disconcert others, and the low self monitors could be seen as stubborn and unwilling to compromise.

Among the many other fascinating subjects Professor Little explores, there’s the question of whether or not a person can be considered creative. His major source for this discussion is a study carried out by the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley. The study looked at several architects who were judged by their peers to be not only extremely successful but also quite original and innovative. The discussion is interesting, but it left me wondering whether delving into the creativity of such high-flying people means that Professor Little is equating creativity with mega success in one’s field. Does a study like this tell us anything much about those of us who may be creative in more humble, earth-bound ways?

And then there’s the study of whether or not you feel that you have control over your own life, or whether you feel that your life is largely controlled by external forces. Obviously, the person who feels pretty much in control of his or her own life, i.e. a person whose control appears to be largely internal, is going to be more content. It surprised me a little, then, to find that my score on the test on this subject didn’t land securely in the internal camp; my answers to some of the questions verged into the external territory. It gave me some comfort, however, to note that Professor Little’s standard for what is normal or optimal is based on studies with college students. Doesn’t it stand to reason that, as a young person, you’re going to feel much more in control than you will as an older person? Surely, life inevitably teaches most of us, the longer we live, that there’s more and more that we can’t control.

Probably one of the most entertaining parts of the book for many readers would be the discussion about the personalities of places as reflected by their inhabitants. In terms of the emotional or personal qualities of various cities and states, here are just a few of the results of a massive survey that sampled more than three-quarters of a million people.

  • Most Neurotic – New York City
  • Mellowest - California
  • Nicest - Minnesota
  • Most Conscientious - Florida

Findings like this are admittedly fun to look at, but Professor Little suggests that further studies on this subject will eventually have people looking to move to places that correspond best to their personalities. Does he seriously believe anybody would chose a place to live based on his or her personal traits? Surely, we all have to make compromises based on various factors when deciding where to settle down.

All of Professor Little’s observations on these subjects are, of course, well documented by scientific studies. That’s the major difference between this and the typical self help book. Professor Little barely ever makes a claim without citing a study, often several of them, to back it up; when he does give just a personal opinion, he’s careful to flag it as such. Some readers, however, might have doubts about all these studies. Can so much detail about the complicated workings of our psyches be demonstrated and proven by experiments in psychology labs? Can fundamental truths about ourselves be boiled down to statistics? In a footnote, Professor Little shows that he’s aware of the question. Noting that one architect balked at the University of California's creativity study, he says: "Some people have an intense skepticism about certain types of psychological tests, and highly creative people are likely to be among them." I guess we can’t fault Professor Little, though, for believing that the work he’s spent his life on is reliable and helpful to people. If you can’t grant him that, there’s not much point taking up his book.

Intriguing as I found the various topics in the book to be, it doesn’t strike me as completely successful as a whole. You might say that it’s less than the sum of its parts. That could be because Professor Little doesn’t seem to have any one important message that he wants to get across. Although he offers lots of ways you might try to improve your life, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the book to exist. His skipping from topic to topic could have the result that the book won’t have the same impact as, say, Susan Cain’s Quiet.

In fact, Professor Little’s book comes with a quote from her emblazoned on the front cover: "A monumentally important book." The back cover has laudatory quotes from other authors who write about psychology. You have the feeling that all these authors of successful books have turned to the much beloved prof and said: "Come on, Brian, it’s time such a distinguished prof as yourself got something out there in the popular market." (He has published extensively in academic literature.)

Another problem with the character of the book is that it’s a bit divided in tone. For the most part, Professor Little is clearly making an attempt to be reader-friendly. Little jokes and amusing asides are sprinkled throughout. But now and then the text can get a bit too technical. Take this statement: "Hostility, from a personal construct perspective, is the attempt to extort validation for a personal construct you already suspect has been disconfirmed." Even though Professor Little has already explained what he means by "personal construct," a statement like that could trip up a casual reader. Perhaps that slightly starch tone is inevitable in places, given that Professor Little feels obliged to take the high road of the serious scientist. Sometimes he goes into such minute parsing of studies and experiments that you feel the book might be aimed more at therapists than general readers. Anybody who’s looking for a breezy self-help book might be scared off.

And some awkward sentences can make even a more dedicated reader stumble:

  • If the interaction of our inner personality and the outer reality of the situations we find ourselves in, brought together by the projects in which we engage, shape our behavior and lives, two important questions arise....
  • Throughout the course students would then apply readings and lectures to the further elaboration and understanding of their own sketches or those of other students, and these were submitted to me twice a term as a course "journal."

Even more disconcerting, in a way, are the statements that have an academic ring to them but, when you examine them closely, look pretty much like truisms:

  • We have consistently found that well-being is strongly associated with the absence of stress and negative emotions experienced in project pursuit.
  • Happiness is greatest in those for whom there is a convergence between their traits – the kind of personal projects they are pursuing and the themes they invoke when providing life stories. For example, we have found that individuals who have sociable traits are most happy if they are engaged in interpersonal projects and if their self-characterizations include themes of connection with others.
  • There is a very strong reason to believe that the internally generated project will fare better than an externally generated one.

Given aspects of the book like these, I would have to say that, although Professor Little appears to be a man endowed with great wisdom and learning, it could be that this book doesn’t do full justice to what he may have to offer.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com