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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: A Bigger Splash (Movie); Youth (DVD), Clouds of Sils Maria (DVD), A Royal Night Out (DVD), The Tribe (DVD), Fool Me Once (Mystery), Family Planning (Novel), All the Living (Novel), The Galton Case (Mystery)

A Bigger Splash (Movie) written by David Kajganich and Alain Page; directed by Luca Guadagnino; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson.

If you read something about this movie before seeing it, you’ll fare better than I did. (I usually avoid movie write-ups beforehand for fear of finding out too much.) It took me about half an hour to figure out who these people were and what was going on. That’s partly because of the rapid-fire mumbling of the actors, partly because of the scatter-shot scriptwriting and maybe a bit – but only a little bit – because of my hearing issues.

Marianne (Tilda Swinton) a rock singer, is rusticating with her hunky boyfriend, Paul, (Matthias Schoenaerts) at a villa on a sun-baked Mediterranean island. Because she’s recovering from a throat operation, Marianne can’t speak, she can only whisper – which doesn’t make it any easier for a viewer to make sense of things. In a burst of vitality, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives, bringing with him an unexpected guest – his young adult daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry has learned about Penelope’s existence only recently. Eventually, we twig to the fact that Harry is a record producer, who has worked with Marianne; he’s a kind of mentor to her and, as might be expected, a former lover.

Obviously, deep and troubling feelings are going to be stirring in this sultry atmosphere. How do we know? Because we’ve seen this sort of thing so often: some Brits gathered at a Mediterranean hideaway, with emphasis on indulgent dining al fresco, skinny-dipping in the turquoise waters, strolling in the winding lanes of the quaint village and sexuality lurking like the geckos in every nook of the stony walls. All of it lushly photographed.

But do we feel, in this particular case, that we’re dealing with real people, that we can care about what’s happening with them? I don’t think so.

Tilda Swinton’s merits tend to be hidden from me, except in certain performances with a comic touch. In her more serious appearances, she strikes me as wan and dull. On top of which, she seems an unlikely casting choice for a rock singer. This observation has nothing to do with her age; rock stars, as we know, can be any age. The problem is that it’s almost impossible for me to imagine her cool, aloof manner as having any of the spark that you expect from a rock star.

As for Ralph Fiennes, it must be a relief for him to be playing somebody quite other than the sensitive, refined gentleman that he’s so well known for, but the role of the Energizer bunny doesn’t suit him. His hopping around like a windup toy looks forced and unnatural.

There is admittedly something intriguing about Matthias Schoenaerts, as Marianne’s boyfriend: some mystery about his recent past, possibly a suicide attempt; he appears to be a recovering alcoholic but none of this is any too clear, given the script’s stinginess with facts. It’s cool, though, to watch the way he rebuffs Penelope’s first attempts to flirt with him.

Apart from the fact that she’s clearly gunning for him, I’m not sure what to make of Penelope’s character. Stupid or sly? It strikes her as a great revelation to discover that record albums of old had only six songs on each side. Then this brilliant insight hits her: they probably put one good song on each side so that you’d have to keep flipping the record!

I don’t know whether that’s meant to make her look vapid or whether it’s offered as a genuine reflection of the mindset of an intelligent young woman. Too bad that’s one of the few things about this movie that get you wondering.

Until the last few scenes. Major crime occurs and that brings in the somewhat hapless efforts of the island's police force, leading to a rather droll conclusion -- not at all the typical ending of a crime story.

 

Youth (DVD) written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino; starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Ed Stoppard, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Diana Ghenea, Luna Zimic Mijovic, Dorji Wanchuck,

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, two geezers, are staying at a kind of spa/hotel, in what looks like a former monastery or convent in the mountains of Switzerland. Fred, the Caine character, is a composer and conductor of classical music who has given up both activities, adamantly refusing all invitations to resume them. Mick, the Keitel character, is a celebrated movie director. Holed up now with a team of four or five writers, he’s trying to concoct a final scene for his up-coming masterpiece. Fred and Mick are friends of long-standing, but a more recent connection is that Mick’s son married Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as Fred’s assistant and manager. But now Lena is distraught on finding that her hubby is leaving her.

That much, by way of fact and backstory, becomes evident early on in the movie. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of strange stuff going on. A Buddhist monk who’s sitting on the front lawn everyday expects to levitate at some point. People in bathrobes process in long, solemn lines into the soaking pools. We see people scurrying furtively down halls, for what reason we don’t know. In a silent scene, a man stands naked by the door of his room, looking desolate as a prostitute gets dressed and leaves. A screeching violin practice keeps echoing through the halls. A couple in the dining room never speak to each other. A fat man’s assistant follows him everywhere with an oxygen tank. A young man costumed as Hitler sits and eats while everybody stares at him.

All of this seems intended to create an eery atmosphere. David Lang’s modern classical music, with it’s slightly odd sound enhances the mood. There isn’t much plot, or rather, a few little threads of plot are tugged on now and then. For instance, Fred is being courted by an emissary of Queen Elizabeth who implores him to come back to England to conduct a concert of his most famous songs for her. Then there’s the business of Mick’s attempt to finish the script for his movie. His writers keep making what seem futile and fatuous suggestions. There’s Lena’s need to find out why Mick’s son left her. In this respect, the movie reminded me of some of the greatest works of Robert Altman – ensemble pieces where the overall effect depends on lots of minuscule ingredients in the stew.

I was also reminded of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where people confined to a TB sanitorium in the mountains are obliged to look at life in a different way, to raise questions that might not occur to them in the ordinary run of their lives. That’s what happens here. Questions of parenting arise, for instance. Was Fred a good father or did he ignore Lena for the sake of his music? And then there’s the issue of aesthetic values. Is Mick’s oeuvre truly worthwhile or is it shlock?

I approached this movie with some wariness, having been, in comparison to many viewers, greatly put off by Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. For me, that was a lot of arty flim-flam. Eventually, though, Youth won me over. I felt I was seeing real people who were expressing real feelings in real situations. Every day Fred and Mick greet each other with the essential question: have you had a pee? One of them tries to reminisce about an old flame they both lusted after but their memories of the woman conflict and it’s not clear what the truth about her was. As Fred, Michael Caine comes across as the absolute personification of the older gentleman artist who is sick of it all, jaded, weary and yet with a slight perking up when it comes to the occasional new thing: like a kid trying to learn one of his, the composer’s, pieces. I didn’t find Harvey Keitel quite as convincing in his role of the cinematic auteur. Mabye that’s not fair to Mr. Keitel; maybe it’s simply a matter of my not being able to shake previous impressions of him as a rough-and-ready type, not an artiste. On the other hand, maybe there is supposed to be some ambiguity about the character he plays here: is he a great director or not?

Other actors make notable contributions to the feel of genuine humanity in the movie. A young masseuse ( Luna Zimic Mijovic), with braces on her teeth, hardly ever says anything and yet we get a strong impression of her as a lonely, interesting person. Paul Dano plays an actor who’s famous for his role as a robot in an action movie but he’s hoping to be recognized for something more worthy. Mr. Dano’s open, moon-shaped face conveys something touching: a kind of puzzlement and wonder and hurt about what’s happening to his life. Jane Fonda has a ball as an ageing diva who makes a special trip to the spa to have it out with Mick. I felt the bad language in this scene was overdone but the meeting does raise some crucial questions for Mick.

There’s got to be something ironic in the title of this movie, given that there’s very little that’s youthful about it. Maybe the point is that the yearning for their lost youth is eating away at Fred and Mick without their knowing it. In the end, I’m not sure that the movie doesn’t resort to sentimentality, a feel-good conclusion, a restoration of hope and vitality, but maybe that bit of sweetness is earned.

 

Clouds of Sils Maria (DVD) written and directed by Olivier Assayas; starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chlo Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler

For the remounting of a famous play, a celebrated forty-ish actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche), is asked to take the role of a business woman who falls in love with her twenty-ish female assisstant. This offer causes Maria considerable consternation, not least because she herself scored a huge success twenty years ago in the role of the younger woman. Should she accept this offer? How would she feel now about taking on the older role? Does she still feel that the play has something valuable to say? What is her attitude towards the outrageously popular actress who is slated to take the younger role?

Maria mulls over these questions in long conversations with her own assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), a woman much younger than she. Doesn’t sound like a gripping drama, does it? It isn’t.

The movie proceeds very slowly. It opens with a long – and completely unnecessary – sequence about the sudden death of the playwright whose play is being re-mounted. Then come long stretches of soul-searching talk. It seems to take forever to get to the nub of the problem. And it’s hard to say what that is exactly. Maybe it’s this: a woman’s concern about ageing, about her public image, about her colleagues, about their involvement in the unreal world of the arts and whether it has anything  to offer to the world of daily living.

Olivier Assayas’ script does deliver some good thoughts about these cultural matters. And it’s interesting to see what a star’s life is like in terms of handling all the fuss with agents, directors, press and fans. But the more important aspect of the movie is the interaction between Maria and Valentine, as it begins to seem that they are, without fully realizing it, falling into something like the relationship between the two characters in the play. Kristen Stewart makes a good foil for Juliette Binoche. While the older woman is gracious and elegant, somewhat in the way we think of the ideal movie star of a time now past, Ms. Stewart has a candid, blunt atttitude that strikes a contrastingly contemporary note. You feel that you’re watching displays of two completely different ways of being a woman. A third, quite different take on womanhood comes in the persona of Chlo Grace Moretz, as the actress who’s going to take the younger role in the play. Her self-centred contentment as the adored star of social media and pop culture comes as something of a challenge to the kind of femininity conveyed by the other two women.

It bothered me that, when Maria starts working on the role of the older woman, Juliette Binoche looks about twenty years older than she did in the introductory section about the playwright’s death. At that time, she was in the full flower of her beauty. Just a few months later, she looks so different – more masculine and careworn – that, for a while, I had difficulty determining whether or not this was the same person. Why the big difference in her appearance between the two sections of the movie?

That little puzzle didn’t stop me from watching vast stretches of the movie with great interest. There’s lots of atmospheric scenery to enjoy in the Alpine meadows where Maria and Valentine stroll while Maria’s preparing her lines for the up-coming play. Given the long conversations between these two women, this film easily passes the Alison Bechdel test. (She coined the standard for deciding whether or not a movie’s woman-positive: it needs to have two female characters who are named and they have to talk about something other than men.) However, while I admire The Clouds of Sils Maria for being non-Hollywood-ish, for not fitting into any of the conventional genres, I can’t imagine that it would hold the attention of many viewers for very long.

 

A Royal Night Out (DVD) written by Trevor de Silva and Kevin Hood; directed by Julian Jarrold; starring Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson, Jack Reynor, Jack Laskey, Jack Gordon, Ruth Sheen

This movie is based on the slimmest of historical grounds. It’s generally acknowledged that, on the night of the 1945 VE celebrations in London, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were allowed to mingle anonymously with the joyful crowds in the streets. From that slender thread, the movie weaves an elaborate escapade.

The general outlines of which are:

The two princesses manage to evade the policemen assigned to guard them and Margaret, the more daring of the two young women, takes off on a string of risky adventures. Elizabeth, in frantic pursuit of her sister, encounters a helpful member of the Royal Air Force, recently returned from battle. Elizabeth, still anonymous, as far as he is concerned, enters into an enigmatic relationship with the serviceman and, in their perigrinations through the night, she runs up against some candid opinions among the populace about her family’s contribution to the war effort.

In spite of its certain charms, this movie might not appeal to anyone who doesn’t have at least a little fondness for the mystique of royalty, who doesn’t feel any need to satisfy some curiosity about what the royals’ lives might be like behind-the-scenes. Lots of delectable fodder on that score: interactions between the two sisters, conflicts with their parents, collusion with willing servants and so on. And yet, there’s a troubling ambiguity at the heart of the movie. We may want to know what the royals’ lives were like and yet we know that most of this – ninety-nine percent roughly – definitely did not happen. What satisfaction can we take from it then? Do we have to take it on the level of pure fantasy?

Even if we do, one remarkable feature of the movie is that it presents such a believable and likeable portrait of the young woman who, in about a decade, is going to become the Queen of England. Sarah Gadon is more beautiful than Queen Elizabeth ever was, but Ms. Gadon is much the same physical type: petite, glowing skin, bright eyes, bouncy, luxuriant hair. She does a perfect job of conveying what could very well have been the true character of the young princess: wide-eyed about some of the weird stuff going on in the world, eager to find out more, yet essentially reserved and disciplined, showing the sense of control and the knack for commanding others that would serve her well in the years ahead. When, towards the end of the movie, Ms. Gadon gives a wide, dazzling, smile you feel sure that you’re in the presence of the woman whose image we have come to know so well.

Not so much so in the case of Bel Powley’s portrayal of Margaret. While we all know that Margaret was more uninhibited than her sister, a little wilder, I don’t think there are grounds for presenting Margaret as ditzy. The woman given to us here seems unintelligent, a mere glutton for novelty. Scenes where she becomes tipsy to the point of looking addled are so unbelievable that they’re barely watchable. Of course, we do need Margaret’s risk-taking quality to propel the plot. But I don’t think Margaret’s stumbles need be quite so ridiculous. (Finding herself in a taxi with some prostitutes, for instance.)

The same should be said for those hapless cops who were assigned to chaperone the princesses. If these goons had not been diverted from duty by their own penchant for celebrating, there’d have been no story. But the two of them come off looking like a couple of jerks who wouldn’t have passed the entrance exams for the Keystone Cops School. Such farcical elements prevent us from feeling that we’re getting anything like what might have been a genuine night of freedom for the two young princesses.

Still, there are touches of authenticity in the movie. The mood of the VE celebrations is conveyed vividly: the boisterous crowds, the jubilant bands. (Mind you, the uproar, combined with the many accents, does make comprehensibility problematic at times.) Emily Watson, as the Queen, is probably the actor who appears most to resemble the historical person portrayed – both in appearance and in character. And Rupert Everett, as the King, radiates that combination of reticence, timidity and inner strength that we associate with King George VI. The scenes that show the two parents in their opulant drawing room sharing their worries about their missing daughters are utterly convincing.

I also like the fact that the serviceman, Jack (Jack Reynor), whom Elizabeth teams up with turns out to have issues of his own when it comes to patriotism. He’s not quite the hero that she might have been imagining an RAF fighter to be. That leads to some serious second thoughts for her. In their rambles through the night, she accidentally runs up against many attitudes that conflict with the world as she has come to think of it. And yes, the irony is laid on a bit thick at times. But, even if you don’t buy into the royal magic, maybe there’s something to be gained from recognizing the possibility that, before duty took over a woman’s life completely, she might once have glimpsed the chance of something else. That homely truth could apply to lots of lives less illustrious than this one.

 

The Tribe (DVD) written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy; starring Hryhoryi Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy, Oleksandr Dsiadevych,

No need to worry about actors mumbling unintelligbly here. Or to check your hearing aid’s batteries. That’s because there’s no oral dialogue. There’s ambient noise on the soundtrack – traffic, wind, birds, etc – but no speech. In this drama set in a Ukranian high school for the deaf, most of the actors are deaf teenagers who are non-professional actors. Since the movie offers no subtitles or voice-overs, those of us who can’t decipher sign language have to rely on visual clues as to what’s happening – which amounts to a novel experiment in movie viewing.

The general outlines of the story aren’t hard to grasp. We start with a teenage boy on his first day at the school and we follow his attempts to integrate into the culture of the place. It’s not a pretty scene. The school is one of those drab places with peeling institutional-green paint on the walls. But the more depressing ugliness shows up in the interaction among the students. There’s bullying and taunting. Hazing. Gang pressure. Drugs (I think). Sex. Mugging innocent passersby in the streets. Pimping female students to truck drivers. One scam has the deaf students on trains, ostensibly to sell flowers, which is just their way of gaining access to various compartments in order to rob passengers.

While the import of scenes like these is unmistakable, many episodes leave you wondering what the hell’s going on. Often, you have no idea what the students are fighting about. Why is our young hero tearing cupboards apart? What is he looking for? What is a shop teacher telling students about their projects? A couple of the female students seem to be acquiring passports. Then they appear to be in a line of people travelling, possibly, to Italy. What’s that about?

If anything, the movie is – for me – a vivid demonstration of the human craving for language to explain things. It’s fashionable in philosophical circles these days to insist that words are not the same as reality; they’re mental constructs. Ok, fine. But a movie like this makes you realize how desperately we long for words to make at least some sense of what’s going on around us. Our minds need these crutches, if you want to call them that, to get through this world. When you see humans interacting, you want to apply narrative to what you’re seeing. It’s the old cry: what’s the story???

That question doesn’t always get answered here. At least, not for me. Judging by the director’s commentary provided with the DVD, it appears that I did miss some subtleties. Apparently, a tender love affair was leading to a proposal of marriage. All I could see, with regard to the two people involved, was mechanical sex. It would seem that a lot of critics grasped such plot details far better than I did. (The movie was much lauded at the Cannes festival.) Were they told beforehand what they were going to see? Were they provided with a synopsis? Or, could it be just that they’re smarter than I am?

If I’d been able to listen to the director’s commentary in its entirety– but I wasn’t, for reasons to be given below – it might have answered some questions. About the cinematography, for instance: mostly wide shots from the mid-distance. There are so few closeups that, by the end of the film, you can barely identify the main characters. Is there a reason for that? Was that, perhaps, a way of emphasizing the impersonal, automaton-like quality of the inmates of the school?

And, to what extent was the film’s writer/director, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, claiming that this was a true picture of life in a Ukranian school for the deaf? I listened to enough of the commentary to hear him say that the story was a composite of several situations he’d known, but was there any rationale for the predominantly malevolent tone? We have, of course, had many movies about the simmering violence in boarding schools. This one reminded me of Lindsay Anderson’s if [sic]. But that movie had an imaginative, fantastic quality to its depiction of school life, whereas the evils presented here seem gruesomely real. Could any school for the deaf be that bad?

My curiosity on some of these issues might have been satisified, had I been able to listen to the full commentary, consisting of a conversation between director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy and Devin Faraci, a film critic. One has to accept that a certain self-congratulatory tone inevitably sneaks into these director’s commentaries. However, there’s too much technical detail here about the shoot, interspersed with gossipy chat about the off-screen lives of the actors. I wanted more explanation of what was happening on screen. But the reason I couldn’t sit through the whole conversation was the fawning attitude of Mr. Faraci. His ooh-ing and aah-ing over everything is annoying. On top of which, his laugh keeps breaking out when it seems most inappropriate. While something horrifying is happening on screen, Mr. Faraci is yukking it up as if it’s all a joke.

 

Fool Me Once (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2016

As usual, Harlan Coben spins a good yarn.

We begin with Maya at the burial of her husband, Joe, a successful businessman from a distinguished family. Joe was shot and killed in an apparently random act of violence by a couple of thugs while he was walking with Maya one night. Of course, it will turn out that the killing wasn’t as haphazard as it seemed, especially when we learn that there may be a connection to the murder of Maya’s sister a few years earlier.

I like Mr. Coben’s writing on the whole. It’s smooth and clear. Chock full of interesting scenes where the dialogue moves dramatically. But this book, more than others of Mr. Coben’s, includes some loose, lazy writing. At times, there’s far too much backstory. Granted, Maya had a ton of living in the military, but there’s far more soldier lore here than we need. In some instances, the author’s telling us things, instead of creating moments that we can experience. A passage about Maya’s thoughts on cooking feels like filler; it has nothing to do with furthering the plot. Mr. Coben doesn’t seem to care enough not to let himself fall into clich, as in this follow-up to an incident from Maya’s past: "Nothing would ever be the same after that."

As in some of Mr. Coben’s other books, one of the main characters affected by a crime decides to take on the bulk of the sleuthing, at least in so far as we hear about it. In this case, it’s Maya. I liked her observation following an investigative visit to a strip joint where the dancers were hitting on her. As Maya saw it, that had "less to do with the dancers being gay than being anti-male." There are times, though, when it’s impossible to shake the impression of Maya as something of a Nancy Drew character as she skulks around, following cars, wielding a flashlight, trying to figure out how to get into places that are barred to her. One scene where she discovers a secret compartment in a trunk is far too predictable.

My reservations about the book not withstanding, it does offer some good surprises, characters do change and develop. Most significantly, the unexpected ending is both poignant and shocking. But therein lies the biggest problem with this book. The additional problem for a reviewer is that it’s hard to speak about the matter without giving away too much. It seems to me that Mr. Coben has broken one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing in that a major character, whose thoughts we have been following throughout the book – in close-third person narrative – has been concealing from us information that we should have had. At the end the book, you may or may not find yourself as disconcerted as I was by Mr. Coben’s sleight of hand. And your feeling about that may determine whether you vote "yay" or "nay" on this mystery.

 

All the Living (Novel) by C. E. Morgan, 2009

There has been a lot of fuss in the media about C.E. Morgan’s second novel, The Sport of Kings, published this year. Given that it’s set in the world of horse racing, I didn’t think it would appeal much to me. All the Living, Ms. Morgan’s first novel sounded more like my kind of thing.

It tells the story of Aloma and Orren, a couple living on a farm somewhere in the U.S. Aloma, an orphan, has been raised in a school where she learned to play the piano with some degree of excellence. Orren is a young man who has recently inherited his family’s property, after his mother and his brother were killed in a road accident, his father having died when Orren was a kid. He happens to visit Aloma’s school on the occasion of some public event, the two of them start talking, that leads to regular visits from him and, after a year or so, he persuades her to join him on the farm. Whether or not marriage is in the offing is anybody’s guess.

All the more emphatic for its brevity – just under 200 pages – it’s a quiet book, steeped in the ambiance of farm life. But it’s not what you’d call a bucolic picture. Farm life is hard. The tobacco crop is wilting in the relentless heat. Orren isn’t sure he can make a go of it. Tensions inevitably arise. Aloma knows nothing about farm life, not even the difference between a steer and a bull. She longs to play music but the piano at the farm has turned out to be a dud. She gets bitchy, she makes unreasonable demands on Orren. He’s truculent, not able to articulate his problems, to explain things to her.

At times, the book threatens to be one of those dreary melodramas with the woman nagging and the man protesting. And yet, there’s something about the connection between Aloma and Orren that keeps you rooting for them. You intuit a sense of deep belonging between them, in spite of the acrimony. You have to keep reminding yourself that they’re virtually kids in the woods. They have no adult role models for a successful partnership. They have little education or sophistication. They haven’t learned to talk through their problems. Couples therapy isn’t close at hand. And yet, they must have something going for them: they keep having great sex, no matter how contentious the confrontations leading up to it.

Another thing that makes us hang in there with Orren and Aloma is the quality of Ms. Morgan’s writing. The prose has a deeply-felt, carefully thought-out character. It invites respect for Orren and Aloma, no matter how trite their quarrels may seem. In one beautiful passage, a whole page is given over to a description of Aloma’s coming down one morning and finding all the tobacco plants in white flower.

And here’s Ms. Morgan’s take on thunder:

At its worst, it sounded like God ripping old-growth trees out of the earth by their roots and then whipping the earth with their length so that the crack of their breaking limbs reported across the land over and over, the reverberations shuddered from one horizon to the other.

And this is another evocative passage:

She studied the morning light as it forced itself through the pocked and splintered wood boards of the batten walls so that it shot through in silty bands of white like roughspun silk. It caught and lit the barn sediment as morning sun lights the mist and bugs that hover over the skin of a still river.

At times, the prose has an incantatory quality to it. It almost begs to be read aloud. This bit reminds me of the Song of Solomon:

She breathed sharp over them, over those absented bones, and smelled the hot green August on the verge of turning. But the season was not done, the smell of the hillside was redolent with honeysuckle and grass and some of the heavy tartness of ripe pears.

In addition to her appreciation of nature, Ms. Morgan offers original insights into human relationships: "She grasped the weak power of waiting for him to come to her." Sometimes, Ms. Morgan surprises you with her treatment of certain people. For instance, the young pastor of a little country church. You expect his sermon – lasting two or three pages – to be the usual drivel, but it turns out to be candid and thought-provoking.

The characters’ colloquial way with words is caught vividly: "You don’t got to act tough" and "I ain’t got a thing to have." Several times, we hear the redundant "might could" as in: "I figured I might could give you a key to the building." About herself, Alora thinks: "It wasn’t her fault she’d been born into a doublewide of nothing and then spent the better part of her childhood in a school at the sink end of a holler."

Throughout, the writing is imbued with a slightly odd tone. Words are used in ways we don’t expect. About Orren’s singing Ms. Morgan says: "The graveled pitches fought to escape his throat..." When Orren asks Aloma to get out of bed, we’re told that there’s "no choicing in his words." And there are several unfamiliar (to me) words: skeining, candent, withes, lethless, juned, tenoned. Is this how these people would express themselves if they were to write about their lives? Or is it more of a mannerism on the part of the author?

A more troubling question: is it inevitable in such a moody piece that the writer might occasionally fall into prose that’s a bit too brooding to pass as reporting on anything real? At one point Ms. Morgan tells us of Aloma: "She watched the afternoon sun creep across the floor, slow as glass it moved before her eyes." We get the feeling, but can anybody actually see the sun moving across the floor? And there are times when it seems that Ms. Morgan’s steeped so deeply in murky thoughts that she can’t stand back and see that her comments amount almost to bathos, as in "Aloma was restless and unable to account for it." What else has Aloma been but restless throughout this entire book up to this point? And yet, we’re told again, in another place: "After a week and a half of this, she was restless."

A few clichs sneak in. Somebody sounds as if he were speaking "through a mouth full of cotton wool." Walls in a certain building are described as "paper-thin." When Orren is talking about having to work hard although tired, he says: "But it is what it is." That strikes an unfortunate note, but perhaps that platitude wasn’t as over-used when the book was published (2009) as it is now.

In some ways, the situation of Aloma and Orren is a bit extreme. Aloma gets a job in the nearby community and nobody knows anything about her, nobody asks a single thing about her living arrangements. Orren and Aloma almost seem to be stranded in limbo in terms of their relationship to the wider community. Is Ms. Morgan striving to create a sense of a timeless world set apart from our hectic modern one? The time setting of the novel, in fact, isn’t specified very clearly, as far as I can tell. It appears to be the not too distant past. No cell phones or Internet. There’s no reference to a tv until far into the second half of the book. Mention is made of an old car with fins on it in a parking lot. Such a car would be from the 1950s and 60s, I suppose. If it’s old now, would that mean we’re in the 70s or 80s?

Maybe it doesn’t matter much that the era is ambiguous. Same with the geography. I don’t find that it’s clearly stated where this is happening other than somewhere in the U.S., probably towards the south. Maybe the uncertainty about both time and setting give the story a kind of universal application. There’s no doubt that readers can take Aloma and Orren to their hearts no matter how far from us their actual circumstances might seem. And I think most readers, like me, can be satisfied with a somewhat mitigated contentment that ends the novel. In the book’s last few pages, Ms. Morgan has this to say about Aloma’s review of her lot so far: "She couldn’t trust the world to make her happy for more than a minute at a time, and generally less than that, but her life had to be borne."

 

Family Planning (Novel) by Karan Mahajan, 2008

Karan Mahajan came to my attention via James Wood’s’ New Yorker review of Mr. Mahajan’s second novel The Association of Small Bombs, a serious study of a bomb-planting terrorist. In Family Planning, his debut novel, Mr. Mahajan is anything but serious.

It’s a comical account of the tumultuous life of a family in New Delhi, India. The father, Rakesh Ahuja, a minister in the federal government, happens to have thirteen kids for the simple reason that he finds his wife to be at her most erotically arousing when she’s pregnant. (Some delicious irony, then, in the book’s title.) Nothing in this novel works according to any of the reasonable expectations that humans might have of life. Rakesh is the minister in charge of getting flyovers (overpasses) built. They’re sprouting all over the city but they never get finished and they never lead anywhere.

That’s the way with his life – he can’t get on top of things and control them. And he often doesn’t understand what’s going on around him. He’s bewildered when the country is practically brought to a standstill by the death of somebody he’s never heard of. Eventually he learns that it’s not a real death, it’s the scripted demise of a character played by a popular actor in a soap opera. A thread running through the book is Rakesh’s intention to explain to his oldest child, Arjun, that he’s actually the child of Rakesh’s first wife, who died in a car accident. But every time father and son get into a heart-to-heart, things go awry. Rakesh goes through most of the book without being able to get to the subject.

As for Arjun, a male teen, he juggles his duties as the responsible senior sibling with his attempts to form a rock band in order to impress a girl he flirts with on the school bus. This lad and the friends he recruits to form the band are singularly lacking in anything approaching musical talent, even though Arjun imagines critics hailing him as the "enraged embodiment of Indian teenage life at the outset of the millenium." Because he happened to be born in America, Arjun is circumcised, a condition that he later uses as fake proof that he is Muslim, thinking that will impress his hoped-for girlfriend. On the one outing with this girl that looks like it might lead to some romantic development, the boy is practically paralyzed by the inability to find anywhere to relieve his urgent need to pee.

One example of the screwball logic behind this topsy-turvy world is given voice by a policeman offered a bribe:

"Whether or not I want money or not is irrelevant. In the long run yes, of course, I would like money. Who doesn’t like money? But, at present moment, both of my daughters are married. I do not plan to have more children except by accident. Hence I am not presently needing money. I am looking for glory. Making arrests is glory. Now, if you resist, I will be even more glorious. So, please, just come quietly. You are in the wrong. I have the law on my side."

In an essay at the back of the book, Mr. Mahajan explains that one of his intentions in the writing of the novel was to convey the nitty-gritty of ordinary Indian life, things like familial chaos and sexual dysfunction. He wanted to offer something other than the kind of high-minded Indian fiction that’s caught up in the grand themes. He certainly has achieved that. What I like best about the book is the feeling it gives you of what life might be like for people coping with the tumult of life in a city like New Delhi. Granted, the calamities are exaggerated, but you feel there’s a truth conveyed, especially in the portrayal of Arjun and his mates who argue about rock stars. It’s an eye-opener to discover that their interests, their ambitions, are pretty much the same as those of teens in North America.

If Mr. Mahajan needs to show us that he can turn out fine writing as well as comedy, he does it in this passage, where Arjun has just been invited to accompany his dad to a political function:

Looks of pure thrill are rare: Arjun’s face became a singularity, a thing invented solely to fulfill the promise of the moment, all of the self and its self-consciousness and history obliterated by the delicate dance of muscles that signify wonder.

Amusing as the book is, it has some deep moments. At a particularly low point, Rakesh has this thought about himself and his wife: "One day they would both explode into nothingness, and Mr. Ahuja pictured himself an old man, bathed in fog, surrounded only by his children."

In spite of all the novel’s merits, there are some disappointments in the writing. A few of the scenes don’t come off as well as others. Mr. Mahajan’s attempt to convey the bickering among Arjun’s many siblings can sometimes sound contrived. There are instances too, when I can’t understand what Mr. Mahajan is trying to say. Either his thought is too deep for me or he hasn’t expressed it clearly enough. For example: "So Rakesh had no choice but to keep everything at arm’s length to protect his son, to take the world by its axis and stab it into his own heart." The only way I can make sense of that is that it’s a frustrated man’s attempt to articulate his jumbled feelings. Another letdown is the book’s epilogue. It feels like the author’s way of wrapping up the story by means of some direct narrative telling when he can’t be bothered creating scenes any longer. It’s as if he’s lost patience with this crazy world.

Which is what can, perhaps, happen to the reader. The main drawback of the book is that the comic tone prevents you from caring very much about what happens to these people. It’s not that you can’t feel for the characters. You do; they’re recognizable and sympathetic; they have moments of genuine anguish that touch your heart. It’s just that, since almost everything that happens to them is so ridiculous, you come to the point that you can’t really commit to their affairs. That could be why I had to push myself to finish the book, much as I admired the writing.

 

The Galton Case (Mystery) by Ross Macdonald, 1959

Last year, a Globe and Mail article marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ross Macdonald mentioned this mystery as one of the high points of his writing career. Having not read any of his books, as far as I can remember – and having difficulty finding good mysteries these days – I decided to give this one a try.

A very rich elderly woman has hired Lew Archer to try to find her son before she dies. She’d written the son off when he married a woman that she considered unsuitable, a "floozy" you might say. Now that the mom’s death looks to be approaching, she’d like to make amends. And, of course, enable her son finally to have full advantage of her vast fortune.

Although I don’t have much personal expertise in the history of American mystery writing before this example, I can well imagine how Mr. Macdonald’s’s work caught on. The Galton Case is fresh and snappy; it moves very quickly. Lew Archer, our first person narrator, is a likeable character with a quick wit. When he asks a woman if she was in love with a man who has disappeared, she balks: "Surely you don’t expect me to answer that." Lew’s response: "You just did." He’s keenly observant; he takes in the details of a scene quickly. And he has a catchy way of summing up people’s appearances: "His face was patchily furred leather, stretched on gaunt bones, held in place by black nailhead eyes." Lew also has a laconic private eye’s way of putting things. Here, he’s telling about his attempt to establish some sincerity in his connection with a witness: "I scraped together a nickel’s worth of something, faith or gullibility, and invested it."

As we expect with any good private eye, there’s a poetic side, a gift for description, to counter-balance the tough guy shtick: "The lake lay below the town like a blue haze in which white sails hung upright by their tips." Later in the same scene comes this:

A faint breeze had begun to stir, and the sailboats were leaning shoreward. Mild little land-locked waves lapped at the pilings. A motorboat went by like a bird shaking out wings of white water.

Occasionally, though, Lew doesn’t keep a tight enough hold on his gift for metaphor: "The tires shuddered and screeched like lost souls under punishment." And he’s not always careful to stop himself from skating dangerously close to clich: "The tragic words had an unreal quality. She spoke them like a life-size puppet activated by strings and used by a voice that didn’t belong to her."

Among other incidental pleasures in the book, a reader will note some signifiers of the era when it was first published: 1959. Scanning the headlines of a newspaper, Lew takes in the information that there was "hardware in the sky". That would be Sputnik, of course. And, compared to today’s crime fiction, there’s a remarkable dearth of technology for identifying corpses. For Canadian readers, it’s fun to see Mr. Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) drawing on his Canadian upbringing. Some important clues involve a person’s pronouncing of "about" and spelling of "labour." One of the key scenes of the novel takes place at Kingsville, near Windsor, Ontario.

However, the book does hop back and forth all over the U.S. and Canada. And, in a linear way, it keeps moving from one witness, one suspect, to another. I guess you have to accept that this is the way with American hard-boiled crime writing, as opposed to the classic British tradition that draws on a more limited cast of characters and settings. It can’t always be Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Still, I was surprised that the solution to the mysteries in this novel – and many of them crop up throughout – require explanations that are as convoluted and intricate as those in many of the mysteries published today. The final pages of The Galton Case include a helluva lot of backstory. Perhaps I shouldn’t be pining for the good old mysteries that were resolved in relatively straight-forward ways without the need for readers to trace a skein through connections between multiple characters and situations. Maybe the one-trick plots where a mystery is solved by a single stroke of genius have all been done. Maybe the only way for authors to come up with new mysteries is to pile on the complications....?

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