Dilettante's Diary

Feb 28/16

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Revenant, The Big Short, The Lady in the Van and Hail, Caesar! (Movies); Cover Story (Article); My Curls Have Blown all the Way to China; Mother's Day and Bedtimes (Short Stories)

The Revenant (Movie) screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Irritu; based on the novel by Michael Panke; directed by Alejandro G. Irritu; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge

This is one of those cases where it’s impossible to say anything meaningful about a movie without revealing nearly the whole plot. Not because the plot is extremely complex but because it’s so simple. In trying to give the gist of this one, you’ve got to cover virtually the first hour of the movie.

Leonardo Di Caprio plays Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who acted as a scout for a team of fur traders back in the early nineteenth century. (The novel adapted for the movie was based to some extent on a true story.) The team, while bivouacked by a waterway, is attacked by "Indians" (as the First Nations people were called then) who want the team’s furs. After fleeing the attackers, the team members are trying to work their way back to safety, when the DiCaprio character is gravely mauled by a bear. It’s too dangerous for the team to try to forge ahead with him and, since it looks like he’s going to die anyway, two team members are left to comfort him in his final agony and to make sure that he gets a decent burial. But these two guys become impatient and take-off, leaving Mr. DiCaprio’s character half buried.

Given the title of the movie, you can guess what the next hour and a half is about. Through all his character’s struggles, there’s nothing wrong with Mr. DiCaprio’s acting. He shows pain convincingly, he grimaces well, he sets his jaw courageously. It’s a good bravura performance, if that’s what you want, but, given the fact that his character has so little interaction with other humans, there’s little of the subtlety and nuance that, in my opinion, make for a performance worthy of a major award.

The same might be said of the movie itself: long on spectacle, short on human communication. Unlike most of Alejandro G. Irritu’s movies, however, this one is relatively free of weirdness and quirky touches. The telling of the story is straightforward and efficient, with long quiet periods punctuated by intense drama. The mauling by the bear, for instance, is horrendous. We get beautiful photography of moody skies, stalwart forests and rugged, terrain (a lot of it in Alberta, as it happens). One moment of photographic cleverness comes when the wounded Mr. DiCaprio is lying on the ground gasping and clouds of his breath are fogging the camera lens. That struck me as a touch of "breaking the fourth wall," reminding us in a post-modern way that we were watching a movie. The filmmakers were saying: don’t forget that we’re here. Another of the movie’s merits is the fact that, for a change, I didn’t find the musical score obtrusive. The modern, eerie, slightly discordant sound, yet with a classical tone, seems just right.

Knowing however, that this movie has met with great popular acclaim, I found myself wondering what people want from a movie like this. To me, it’s just a long, arduous story about a guy who has to endure a lot of suffering and who drags himself through some difficult situations. I suppose there’s a kind of cathartic effect to living through all this with him. It’s like taking a virtual reality trip: oh, that’s what it’s like to be swept along by rapids, that’s what it’s like to try to catch fish with your bare hands, that’s what it’s like to crawl into the corpse of a dead horse to keep warm. You come home thinking that your own problems with traffic, and overbearing bosses and cranky kids aren’t so bad, after all.

But the movie offers little to engage your mind other than wondering how the DiCaprio character’s going to manage. Although one central issue – vengeance – does hang over the proceedings, it seemed to me that the setup for that was too stagey to be interesting. The two guys who were left to look after the supposedly dying Mr. DiCaprio were a young, ingenuous one (Will Poulter) and a cantankerous, spiteful one (Tom Hardy). It was hard for me to understand anything Mr. Hardy said – he seemed to think the best way to establish his surly character was to talk as if his mouth was full of marbles – but it was clear that he was the worst, deadliest no-good-nik you’d ever seen. Much screen time was spent in the first half hour of the movie establishing the fact that he had a huge grudge against Mr. DiCaprio. Was it really such a great decision, then, on the part of the team captain to leave an innocent, malleable youth and this varmint to comfort Mr. DiCaprio? If the captain hadn’t made such a stupid decision, none of this would ever have happened. That made it a little hard for me to buy into the story.

Not that there weren’t other touches of drama. The lurking presence of some French fur traders in the vicinity added a bit of threat and suspense. The presence on the team of Mr. DiCaprio’s son (Forrest Goodluck), by a native woman, added a further bit of intrigue. And there was some indication that the chief among the First Nations people was looking for his daughter, whom he thought might have been abducted by the traders. Since it was often hard to figure out just what was going on among these people, however, their contributions to the story didn’t provide enough mental grist to make up for sitting through Mr. DiCaprio’s tough slog.

The movie did give me things to think about, though. When the action was taking place in remote, desolate areas, I kept wondering how far away the catering truck was parked. How far would the actors have to trek for a snack and a warm drink? And how many workers were required to spread all that snow around all those acres? At the end of the credits, a note on screen boasted that the movie had created 15,000 jobs. I can well believe that. But the question that involved me most of all was about the characters in the movie: how was it that these men were constantly falling into lakes and rivers in the dead of winter but the wetness and the cold didn’t seem to bother them? Hadn’t their mothers told them that they’d catch their death if they didn’t keep dry?


The Big Short (Movie) screenplay written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay; based on the book by Michael Lewis; directed by Adam McKay; starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Witrock, John Magaro, Casey Graves, Marisa Tomei

In some ways, The Big Short amounted to The Big Test for me.

First way: would I be able to understand the ins-and-outs of the finagling in this expos of the world-wide financial meltdown in 2008?

Answer: not quite. I grasped the general principles underlying the issue – the risk of subprime mortgages -- but once the wheeling-and-dealing became more complicated, with multiple layers of chicanery, I couldn’t follow all the twists and turns.

But maybe that didn’t matter. I certainly got the message that there was some bad stuff going down. Mainly, it was the characters that interested me, even if I couldn’t always be exactly sure what they were pulling off.

Christian Bale is fascinating as the geeky genius who first saw that the collapse was inevitable. His character is somewhat of a kook, working mostly alone and barefoot, although he’s in a swanky office surrounded by suits. It was he who insisted, against the wishes of his bosses, on betting against, i.e. "shorting," these risky mortgage bonds. When they failed, as he knew they would, his company would make millions. In that sense, he was something of a villain.

Strangely, though, you never got the sense that it was about personal gain for him. All he wanted was to prove that he was right and the rest of the banking world was wrong. It was like an intellectual challenge for him. When it looked like he might be wrong, though, when we saw him sweating it out all alone in his office, it struck me that this was one of the most resonant tropes in all of movie-dom: the little guy besieged by the enemies baying at his window. Just like the character based on John Scopes, suffering all alone in his jail cell in Inherit the Wind, the movie about the famous "monkey trials."

As a somewhat more conventional character, there’s Steve Carrell playing the guy who wants his bank to get in on this bonanza, once he gets word of it. But he too has a quirky side to him. He’s relentless in trying to find the truth of what’s going on. (In a flashback to his childhood, we see a rabbi complaining to the kid’s mother that he’s intently searching the scriptures for inconsistencies in the word of God. The mother’s response: "Is he finding any?") He and his team go to Florida to see if this housing bubble, based on all these iffy mortgages down there, is actually about to burst. He’s flabbergasted by brash young mortgage brokers who boast about their disregard for the rules. Mr. Carrell’s character is clearly troubled by the illegality and immorality of what’s going on.

On the other hand, Ryan Gosling plays a conniver who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have any scruples at all, who just wants to make as much money as possible. This is the one character, among the major players in the movie, that I never quite "got." It was hard to see what he was about. Could this have anything to do with the fact that the guy’s scheming, cut-throat tactics seemed so much at odds with what we take to be Ryan Gosling’s persona? There didn’t seem to be any quality of Ryan Gosling coming through. Maybe that was partly because Mr. Gosling was somewhat hindered by a weird hair-do or a wig: tight, kinky brown hair, so odd looking that it kept taking my attention away from his face.

Brad Pitt plays an older guy who has made his fortune and presumably retired from the fray. He’s shaggy, a bit unkempt, and something of a hermit – at least in comparison to the Wall Street gang. Some young honchos who want to get into the game in a big way turn to him for backing. (One of them was once a neighbour of his.) I’m not sure that there’s any reason to praise an actor for turning away from the glamorous, golden boy image that made his career. Maybe it’s not such a big deal for men. Female actors almost never get the chance to do it. But I can’t help admiring Mr. Pitt for doing it so well.

The two up-and-comers who seek his help are played by Finn Witrock (the handsome one) and John Magaro (the nerdy one). It’s interesting to watch their false starts, their stumbles, their agonies as they claw their way to success. Their most telling moment comes when Brad Pitt soberly chastises them for rejoicing over their good fortune that comes at the cost of so much suffering for other people.

And yes, the movie does make it clear that this financial free-for-all on the part of the top dogs was immoral and unconscionable, that it should never have happened and that nothing much has been done to prevent it’s happening again.

The other way in which this movie was The Big Test for me was the hand-held cameras. The wild swinging back and forth from character to character made me so nauseous that I had to keep my eyes closed most of the time, opening them briefly now and then just to make sure who was speaking and where a scene was taking place. My physical discomfort kept telling me that I should leave but my mind wanted to stay to find out how everything worked out for the different characters.

Which shows that it’s a very good movie. Brilliant, in fact, in spite of my difficulty watching it. In some movies, you feel that the hand-held camera is a blatant attempt to add pizzazz to a story that wouldn’t otherwise have it. Not here. The filming style is essential to the movie. To ask the filmmakers to stop the gyrating of the camera would be like asking Jackson Pollock to stop dribbling paint all over his canvases. The rapid, fast-cutting, flashy style of the photography is perfect for the mood of the piece.

It’s so hyper and kinetic, in fact, that it strikes me as a new kind of movie making. During one scene, we’ll get brief flashes of another scene. Sometimes, in the midst of a dialogue, we’ll get glimpses of things that are going on elsewhere in the world. The significance of those things may be apparent, maybe not. Characters will turn away from a scene to address us with "This is exactly what happened" or "It didn’t happen this way." On a few occasions, real-life celebrities are brought in to explain, in a cheeky way, some tricky aspect of the financial wheeling-and-dealing.

In this frenetic world, a few moments of welcome calm come from characters in smaller roles. Casey Graves, as a member of Steve Carrell’s team, doesn’t have a lot to say or do but he makes a strong impression as a gum-chewing, hard-nosed and thoughtful guy. We get a similar respite from all the craziness in Marisa Tomei’s performance as Steve Carrell’s wife. Although she only has a couple of scenes, she manages to offer much-needed dollops of genuine sympathy and compassion.

Only one question: the final credits offer the usual disclaimer to the effect that these are all fictional characters, not intended to have any resemblance to real people. Oh?


The Lady in the Van (Movie) written by Alan Bennett; directed by Nicholas Hynter; starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Claire Foy, David Calder, Cecilia Noble.

Allan Bennet and Maggie Smith have contributed a great deal to the culture of the English-speaking world. When the two of them team up on a project, then, you want to give it your respectful attention, even if you’re wary about a film adaptation of this piece of writing.

I’d read one of the print versions of this true story of Mr. Bennett’s about the seemingly derelict woman who lived in a van on the streets of London and who ended up parking it in his driveway, when hounded out of other locations. The story, published in a book of Mr. Bennett’s essays, struck me as poignant and unforgettable. Understandably, a lot of changes would have to be made to turn it into a movie. Lots more backstory, more plot elements (I didn’t remember anything in the original piece about the lady’s being on the lam from the law), the addition of neighbours as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the situation.

The most striking change, though, and one that bothered me more than the others, was the character of the lady in the van, known simply as "Miss Shepherd." As I remembered her from the book, she was truculent, confrontational, illogical and incapable of appreciating anyone’s point of view other than her own. But there was a quiet, self-contained quality about her. You had the feeling that, although she could be quite a nuisance at times, she would prefer to be left alone and not have to deal with other people.

In the movie, she comes across as more extroverted, more voluble and demonstrative. I was wondering if my memory of her was wrong or if this was an attempt to make her a livelier character for the screen. A nauseating stream of jaunty music kept trying to convince us that this was all whimsical fun. In keeping with that mood, it seemed to me that the comical side of her character was punched up considerably. True, there were amusing things about her in the book, but she didn’t seem to be such a clown, albeit an unintentional one, as this lady is. Could this be an inevitable outcome casting Maggie Smith in the role? Perhaps she is an actor who, at this point in her career, can’t play a role without giving it her trademark humorous twist.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Ms. Smith’s acting in her portrayal of Miss Shepherd. As a study of weirdness it’s fascinating – for ten minutes or so. After that, Miss Shepherd gets tiresome. This, I’m thinking, may be one of those examples of the problem with oddballs as major characters in movies. They make for some vibrant moments on screen but, after a while, there’s nowhere to go with them. Miss Shepherd keeps giving her off-the-wall responses to everything, her unpredictable wackiness. You can’t get into a real dialogue with her. This is an essential problem in terms of drama. For a piece to have genuine dramatic quality, you’ve got to have a conflict in which both sides have approximately equal stakes. That’s what engages us viewers. In this piece, poor Alan Bennett can’t get anywhere with Miss Shepherd. It’s constant frustration. We become as exasperated as he is.

That’s why a brief scene showing an argument between Alan and a sanctimonious social worker (Cecilia Noble) leaps out at you, thanks to its electric energy. The lack of similar dynamics in any of the interactions with Miss Shepherd could be why Mr. Bennett, as the scriptwriter for the movie, introduced two versions of himself. One is the Alan Bennet who is living his life, trying to deal with this annoying woman, and the other is the Alan Bennet who is trying to decide whether or not to write about all this. Before long, the two A.B.’s are arguing with each other about how the material should be handled. It’s a clever theatrical device; it offers an opportunity for some genuine tug-of-war between two people that’s missing in the Bennett-Shepherd encounters. However, discussions about writing seldom make good movies, in my opinion. (Capote being one of the few and notable exceptions.) The challenges writers face in the exercise of their craft are more intriguing to writers themselves than to audiences.

Because of all these issues, it wasn’t until well into the movie that I felt anything like an emotional connection to what was going on. Lured by the chance of a free coffee and a bun, Miss Shepherd had stumbled into a church hall where a piano performance by a young woman was about to take place. As the pianist began to play, Miss Shepherd settled into a chair at the back and listened. Clearly, the music took her back to the glory days of her own promising career at the keyboard. As she chomped slowly on a bun, the look on Ms. Smith’s reptilian face (the work of the makeup department, I hope) was haunting.

After that, I felt more empathy with her and there were moments towards the end of the movie when you had to admit that it was showing a very real predicament in human affairs: one person, able and successful, is confronted with the plight of someone who’s losing the battle of life and there seems to be no way to help that person You find yourself wondering what any decent person would do in such a situation and you’re grateful to the movie for presenting it to you in such a touching way.


Hail, Caesar! (Movie) written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker

This is a love letter to the so-called Golden Years of Hollywood: the drama, the intrigue, the gossip, the scandals, the love affairs. But it won’t appeal to everybody. Some people don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, some people don’t like fuss over royalty, some people don’t buy into the hype about football. Similarly, some people don’t give a hoot about the shtick involved in movie-making.

If you do, though, this is a work of art.

One of the reasons that it won’t appeal to some movie-goers, apart from the subject matter, is that there’s not much forward momentum, not much narrative pull. Which is not to say that there’s no plot. There are plenty of plots, comprising something of a pastiche of movie tropes. They all revolve around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood executive, who’s having to keep a lot of balls in the air. There’s the high-brow director (Ralph Fiennes) who’s complaining about the cute cowboy singer (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s been cast in a drawing room drama even though he can’t act. The star of a biblical epic (George Clooney) has been abducted and time’s running out for the filming of the movie’s final scene. A swimming starlet (Scarlett Johansson) – one of those performers like Esther Williams – has become pregnant, so it’s necessary for Eddie to find a husband for her as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Eddie has to keep fending off a couple of columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) who are trying to dig the latest dirt on the studio’s stars. Plus, he’s being courted by the Lockheed Company who are trying to lure him away from this crazy movie business – as everybody knows, movies won’t survive now that tv is becoming so prevalent – and persuade him to apply his talents to the business of the future: air travel.

But none of these plots matters much. Threads of them are picked up at random and dropped suddenly without much consequence. Some incidents don’t even seem to have much point. Eddie, for instance, makes a quick visit to an editing studio to see a bit of film. The editor’s scarf gets caught in an editing machine and nearly strangles her, but this ghastly business doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to show us what an editing studio was like back in the day.

Sometimes the dialogue is stilted, especially in the case of the two gossip columnists. And a portentously corny voice over from Michael Gambon intrudes now and then. I’d consider these annoying flaws in almost any contemporary movie, but here they’re aspects of the loving tribute to a certain type of movie making. Many of the characters are caricatures, especially the swimming star and the cute cowboy. And yet, some of his lines make him an amusing clich. About his clumsiness in the drawing room drama, he humbly admits that he did find it rather difficult to learn to talk with the camera looking at him and other actors actually listening.

One of the exceptions to the run of stock characters is Eddie himself. We see him agonizing about the career choice facing him. The scene at home, where he’s tossing over the possibilities with his wife, has the feel of genuine domestic life. Strangely, though, the movie opens with Eddie in a confessional, admitting that he has lied to his wife, in that he’s supposed to be giving up cigarettes but he has actually sneaked a few. At first, it seemed to me that this confession motif was awkwardly squeezed into the Hollywood context, a too obvious attempt to make Eddie a genuine individual. And yet, a later confession scene, wherein Eddie puts his career dilemma to the priest, turns out to be the truest look into Eddie’s character and it’s also the occasion of Mr. Brolin’s best acting in the movie.

Another actor who succeeds in making his character stand out as unique is none other than George Clooney. It’s hugely entertaining to watch how his character handles the situation when he discovers that he’s been abducted by a group of scriptwriters who happen to be Communists demanding a fair share of the studios’ profits. These guys are weirdly intellectual and nerdy even if they are holding the big star captive. George Clooney does some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from him as he lolls in a deck chair, still dressed in his Roman centurion’s skirt and armor, sipping martinis, and exuding a kind of loopy charm as he tries to establish some rapport with his captors. Mr. Clooney gives himself to the role with such abandon that he allows the movie to subvert his own status as a manly megastar in a scene where an angry Eddie slaps him around, reducing him to a quivering minion.

There are touches of Monty Python in some of the religious material. Eddie has called in a panel of clerics, including a priest, a minister, a rabbi and an orthodox patriarch, to make sure that the studio’s biblical epic doesn’t offend anyone. This leads to the Christians tying themselves in theological knots as they try to explain what is meant by Jesus’ Divinity. The drollest aspect of the sketch is the rabbi who, having stated that the movie must not try to show the face of God, blows off the discussion that the others are involved in: who gives a damn what they show, since Jesus isn’t God anyway? (Jokes within jokes here, i.e. a reminder of the ones that go "A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar....") In a break during the filming of the crucifixion scene in the biblical epic, we see a crew member addressing one of the crucified, of whose body we see only its bare legs: "Do you get a hot breakfast or a boxed one?"

To fully appreciate the movie, you have to be able to see how it’s echoing and fondly making fun of so many other movies. There are the magnificent, over-the-top sequences of synchronized swimming. In a few moments from the cowboy’s latest opus, we get a taste of him on the porch of a cabin singing "Lazy Ole’ Moon" to a girl with blonde braids. While the situation is a total clich, the fun comes in the fact that this pretty boy sings so well. Later, it’s astounding to see that this young actor can perform rope tricks expertly (unless the movie’s employing some technological gimmick that’s beyond me).

But the parody that knocked me over was the bar scene where some sailors were expressing their lament over the fact that they were shipping out to sea where there weren’t gonna be any dames. All that dancing and gyrating and physical emoting by the boys was thought to be so decent and wholesome at one time, whereas we now look at it as a not-very-well-disguised gay romp. And the biggest joke of the whole thing is that the lead dancer and singer of the group happens to be Channing Tatum. It’s hilarious to see this studly, macho star of our own day throwing himself heart, soul and body into one of those Gene Kelly roles of yesteryear. Especially when this character’s singing and dancing, including some fine tap, appear to be performed by Mr. Tatum himself.

There must be many more joking allusions to movie lore that passed me by. I did get the reference to exaggerated women’s wear in the outrageously colourful and bizarre outfits worn by Tilda Swinton’s two characters. (One of the few occasions when I’m inclined to give a shout out to the wardrobe people on a movie!) We get one of the classic movie-making scenarios: the hammy actor starts delivering an awe-inspiring speech that has all the crew members enthralled (except that this actor’s flight of oratory crashes in the ditch.) And there’s the stirring nighttime scene when a Russian submarine rises majestically out of the sea for a clandestine encounter – while the swelling harmonies of the Red Army Chorus throb through the theatre.

The finest musical moment – one of the most ingenious and delightful touches in the movie – comes towards the end of the final credits. An acapella choir is singing ravishingly beautiful liturgical music of a contemporary flavour – to an empty theatre.

There’s irony for you!


New Yorker Notables


My Curls Have Blown all the Way to China (Short Fiction) by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Maggie Goldberg Bar-Tura; The New Yorker, Sept 21, 2015

Our first-person narator, Bracha, a fifty-year-old Jewish woman, is pondering the fact that her husband has just told her he is leaving her for another woman. While Bracha’s going through her day, completing her errands, making lists of groceries to buy, repairs to see to, her mind keeps circling back to certain questions. Why is her husband leaving her? What is this other woman like? Will there be advantages to being single again? What will she tell their two sons, their wives?

Maybe this isn’t an unusual scenario for fiction but what makes this story stunning is that the writer so clearly conveys the woman’s personality in her voice. She’s plain-spoken, matter-of-fact, a bit grouchy and disgruntled (especially when she thinks about sex), but she’s trying to be stoical, to shrug off this abandonment, to make the best of it. She never refers to her feelings but our hearts ache for her when her mind tends to wander into fantasies about things like what kind of underwear the women passing in the street might be wearing.


Cover Story (Article) by Elif Batuman, The New Yorker, February 8 & 15, 2016

The author of this article, Elif Batuman, a young journalist, was raised in the US by parents who had emigrated from the secular Turkey established by Mustafa Kemal Atatrk and who retained little, if any, of their Muslim heritage. In 2010, Ms. Batuman moved to Istanbul to teach and write in a Turkey much changed from the one her parents knew. She found herself getting into genial arguments with people like taxi drivers who insisted that the wearing of the headscarf was, in fact, a feminist value. Wearing it, they argued, would ensure that a woman received respect from men. Without that headscarf....well, some men were no better than animals, and who knew what could happen.

On returning from visiting a sacred site in 2011, Ms. Batuman forgot to remove the headscarf that she had donned, as required for visitors to the spot. Moving through the streets with the scarf on, she discovered that people were treating her much better now. Young women were smiling at her. Men were polite and courteous to her, whereas they had previously been cool and distant. That started Ms. Batuman fantasizing at some length about what advantages a woman might enjoy in such a society – the only price being the giving up of her freedom and the opportunities for further education. While there never seems to be any serious doubt about which side of the dispute Ms. Batuman will end up on, she does convey, quite candidly, some genuine ambivalence about the subject.

The New Yorker is to be congratulated for having the nerve to publish an article that would suggest even the slightest possibility of doubt about some of the values that our Western culture takes as absolute.


Mother’s Day (Short Fiction) by George Saunders, The New Yorker, February 8 & 15, 2016

In the first part of the story, we’re in the thoughts of a woman who’s walking home from a Mother’s Day lunch with her daughter. The woman is uncomfortable, plodding along in her fancy clothes. She’s grumbling to herself about the forced show of affection from her daughter. She resents the way both her grown children carp at her for her smoking. We get several hints that she and her deceased husband were careless and slipshod – if not abusive – in their parenting. The one good thing that she remembers about it all is the great sex life she and her husband had.

Then we switch to the thoughts of another woman, who sees the first one coming up the street. These neighbours are not the best of friends, to put it mildly. It would be telling too much for me to reveal what the main bone of contention is between them. Let’s just say that the second woman has led a fun-loving and carefree life. Essentially, she’s a je-ne-regrette-rien type of gal. Here, she’s imagining arriving at the Pearly Gates and "having St. Whoever look her up in his book and go, Whoa, hey, I was just sitting here tabulating the number of guys you had in your life, and, yikes, can you wait here a second while I go check with God on what the limit is?"

These women are not exactly "White Trash" but neither would it be accurate to dignify them with the label of "Working Poor." They’re bristling with uneducated, uninformed prejudices, enmities and character flaws. George Saunders, the author of the piece, conveys the unique voices of these women and the feel of their lives so vividly and convincingly that he makes you feel that nearly everything else you’ve read about human beings is fake, nothing but literary artificiality.


Bedtimes (Short Fiction) by Tim Parks, The New Yorker, December 21 & 28, 2015

We’re watching a married couple, Mary and Thomas, on each evening of a week Somehow, they never manage to go to bed together. One of them has to give the dog a last minute walk. Or one of them will have some email to attend to. Or a movie to finish watching. Sometimes, their two teenage kids enter the picture. The day-to-day details of these lives are given in succinct statements. It's almost like watching a documentary: very little explanation and analysis. What’s astounding about the story is that Mr. Parks can hint at so much – can create such an impact – by saying so little.

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